From the upcoming book about Southeast & South Central North Dakota

Uncle Julius; In the Kitchen; A Good Deed

Submitted by Don K. Johnson of Fargo, North Dakota

Born 1929


    As a mostly lifelong resident of North Dakota, a state widely known for its inhospitable climate, I have many recollections of winter, some good, and some bad. One of my most recurring childhood memories involved my Uncle Julius, my dad's brother. Julius and his family lived about a half mile from our farm. One bitterly cold day during the latter days of the Great Depression, Julius hooked up a team of horses to his bobsled and headed out over the snow-covered road to Medina, nine miles distant from his farm home, to purchase food, coal, and other badly needed supplies. Because of the heavy snow, the road was impassable by motor vehicle.

With about four or five miles left on his return home, a severe winter storm struck with little or no warning. Traveling directly into the biting, cold northwest wind, Julius soon became blinded and disoriented by the pelting snow. He had the presence of mind to unhitch the horses from the bobsled, grab the tail of one, and slap it on the rump. The horses took off at a gallop, dragging my uncle along behind, literally in a life and death struggle. Unerringly, the horses made their way home through the raging storm with Julius hanging on for dear life.

Perhaps the most endearing part of this story was where the horses delivered Julius that day. The barn, where the horses were generally quartered, was located some five hundred yards from my uncle's farmhouse. For whatever reason, on this one occasion they came to the house instead. One family member spotted the horses through the iced-over window and brought Julius' nearly lifeless body inside. The family maintained that had the horses gone to the barn, as was their custom, he would almost certainly have frozen to death before being discovered.

It is possible that the horses sensed or "knew" that gravity of the situation? We will never know.

My early childhood home, nine miles north of Medina, North Dakota, was an old, small, and poorly built frame house with little or no insulation. It was so vulnerable to the bitterly cold North Dakota winter winds that in later years we laughingly recalled that "you could throw a cat through the wall!" This was only a slight exaggeration. There was of course no indoor plumbing, electricity, or telephone. The two-hole outdoor biffy was located about forty yards due east of the kitchen door. An expedition to that facility provided the severest test of one's mettle, particularly when the wind chill (not measured in those days of course) might his 30-35 degrees below zero during winter. That trip would clear anyone's sinuses.

The only source of heating the upstairs was a round-bellied stove in the downstairs living room. Dad would pack it with coal each evening and set the damper (called banking) so that it would not burn itself out overnight. The stove gave no measurable heat during the late night hours. My brother, Ken, and I slept upstairs under several heavy quilts. Temperatures during the dead of winter were often well below freezing. Moisture emitted during normal breathing was clearly visible in the cold air.

The family's favorite room was the kitchen. The kitchen range was usually the centerpiece of our home because it was here that our mother cooked our meals and did her baking. In a very real sense, the kitchen was the focal point of our family's social life.

My wife and I had a hilarious experience many years ago while en route from Bismarck, North Dakota to Valley City, North Dakota to attend my high school reunion banquet. About thirty miles from our destination, we came upon an Old Plymouth parked on the side of the highway with a flat, right rear tire. The Plymouth had Tennessee license plates. Standing behind his car was a very tall, over-weight man (perhaps six feet, six inches tall and weighing 350-375 pounds), frantically waving his arms. I pulled up behind his car and rolled down the window. The large man came up, quite out of breath and said, as nearly as I can recall, "Oh thank you sir for stopping. God bless you, sir. Will you please help me change my tire?" I assured him that I would. "Oh, thank you, sir. Thank you. Thank you, sir."

The gentleman's wife was seated on the passenger side of the Plymouth. They appeared to be in their mid-sixties. It was apparent from the man's girth that he was unable the bend over sufficiently to change a tire. In any event, I soon had his car jacked up and his spare tire retrieved from his trunk, but I noticed that his spare was as bald as a billiard ball. I told him that the spare tire was not very safe and probably would not take him very far. I mentioned that a service station happened to be located only a couple of miles down the road, and he might want to stop there and replace it with a new one.

"Oh, yes sir, yes sir. I will do that sir," he assured me. It was at this point that I noticed that the other three tires on the Plymouth were in no better condition than the spare. I did not bother mentioning it to the man, thinking that might be pointed out to him at the service station.

After a few more "thank you sirs" and "God bless," we bid each other farewell. My wife and I pulled out around the Plymouth and resumed our trip to Valley City. About three or four miles down the road, there was the sound of a horn behind us. The couple from Tennessee passed us at an estimated speed of at least 80-85 miles per hour, well past the service station where the man assured me he would stop. Grinning from ear to ear, they both waved impishly as they whizzed by.

My wife and I have had many hearty laughs over this incident and often wondered if those horribly bad tires ever delivered this delightful couple home safely to Tennessee.

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