Curtis Dahlgren
2016 "Back 40" Tales; the year Olde School became cool again?
By Curtis Dahlgren
January 10, 2016

YEAR IN REVIEW AND PREVIEW: The Al Gore countdown clock is ticking at the Limbaugh site (his "10-years-to-the Deluge" prediction). Advice from the Judeo-Christian holy book: If a prophet's prediction – whether for disaster or Utopia – fails, just don't listen to 'em anymore! Think Erlich's "Famine 1975" and Newsweek's "Coming Ice Age." Anyway, last week I started to write my autobiography before it's too late, just in case. In case we don't get "peace, peace" in our Time!

On college campi, 2015 was the Year of the Safehouse, a time of Prohibition – prohibition of certain words and values in the midst of a culture of Abandon. New Prohibition has solved the problem of bullying, and bullying includes Evangelism. A simple "God bless you" after a sneeze is a micro-assault on our dear snowflake-students, and a Billy Graham crusade in the football stadium would be a macro-aggression, a bullying of the worst kind. Even offering a job to a panhandler might get you arrested and sent to counseling for your "insensitivity"!

Which reminds me of some of the things in my Back 40 story. My first farm job was making available to each of our 24 cows a handful of salt – a 4-year-old's handful – once a day without fail. There's also a photo of me doing my first "tree job" – removing a bucket of sap from a tap I could barely reach. Maple syrup and firewood were the year's first harvest on our farm in 1947. Our first great Thanksgiving feast of the year was the grain harvest of 1946. You knew you were going to eat well when the whole neighborhood gathered at your dinner table in the big "summer kitchen" on threshing day.

My brother, being 10 years older, had done most of the shocking of oats by hand, while I got the easy job of driving the team as my dad and bro pitched the bundles on the wagon. By 1950 we had progressed to combines, so the community's threshing machine was permanently parked in our shed, but we kept the horses until 1965 (two farms bordering the Duck Creek place still have work horses, and we're not even Amish). Ah for the Old School – P.S. # 1 that is – where they taught the true story of the American Revolution. The old one-room school was so politically incorrect that Manifest Destiny was almost taught as a proof of God's existence (at least by implication) without apology or guilt!

Your President recently said that we have guns in our DNA because we were, in effect, paranoid about a "far off" authority. Well, England may have been months "afar" by ship, but the Redcoats were already here – and in some cases lodging in private American homes! Anyway, we learned how to read in kindergarten – six weeks of kindergarten – and I overheard American history from all 8 grades for 8 years (and it wasn't called social studies either). We didn't walk to school; we ran to school (or rode bikes). I never saw any "childhood obesity" in that neighborhood, nor in the teachers (their salaries were so meager).

Speaking of reading, the first book I've read in 2016 is about something called Iditarod. I knew OF it, but knew virtually nothing about it, especially the first one, until I read "The First Great Race; Alaska's 1973 Iditarod" by Dan Seavey (2013, the 40th anniversary). Talk about "back forty tales"! If you get tired of the nightly mainstream news, go back and relive the Gold Rush days through the eyes of 1970s mushers. All I can say is WOW:

One thousand miles. Three weeks. Forty below zero and more. No GPS, lost, and out of food for half a day (even worse, out of dog food). Competitors sharing provisions as well as the trail. Camping out. Same clothes for the duration. Perspiration is an occupational hazard for mushers – dangerous. I'm sweating just thinking about it. Gung-ho dogs (to punish a dog is to make it stay home). To run 1,000 miles? It doesn't get any better than that for huskies. Very little obesity in the 49th state. Three generations of Seavey winners. Many generations of dogs.

This fits in with my column last week about Buffalo Bill, the Dust Bowl, and growing up in the 1950s. The only "snowflakes" in those days came with the Blizzard of 48, and so on (real winters). I can't imagine camping on the Iditarod Trail, but I have climbed trees at ten below zero, and climbed trees coated with ice to cut them out of power wires. Some mushers might even take a raincheck on that one, eh?

P.S. I actually owned a sled dog once, and didn't know it until one day in the U.P. I was dragging a toboggan full of wood toward my cabin. My puppy, who looked like a black lab, grabbed the rope and tried to help me pull it by walking backwards. I grabbed a camera and shot a picture of him still tugging on that rope with his teeth. His mother was a husky. The dad was my lab, but the pup had no desire to fetch. It reminds me of another pup long ago who dropped a corn cob at my feet and stared at me: "Aren't you going to throw it for me?" Why were WE born? Have you found your purpose yet? Even the puppy with the corn cob knew why he was born. Do YOU? My yooper 'sled dog' was born with a defect and only lived four months. But at least he got the thrill of pulling a sled. ONCE.

When contemplating an autobiography years ago, I never would have thought that the term "sled dog" would appear in it. But, unlike some people, I moved north to retire. During my first winter in Michigan, I happened by chance to see the live start of a dog sled race from Marquette after the 10 o'clock news. I was a long way from Lake Superior, and channel 6 didn't always come in, but I was sure glad it did that night (and that I was still awake at ten P.M.). I've also had opportunities to see dog-training trails in the U.P., and go 4-wheeling on one of them, certainly a "fur piece" from the farmlands where I spent most of my life. The area code for Alaska is 907; the U.P.'s is 906, which says more about cultural similarities than proximity. Happy Days. The Fifties all over again. Old School!

PPS: "No roots, no branches; look back as well as forward." January is a good time for that. I sent a revised version of last week's column to UP magazine, with the following addition: Looking ahead, one thing a new writer understands is that anything that can be misunderstood will be misunderstood. OR – discounted based on one's resume, number of degrees, and so on, so I told an old Sven and Ole joke.

They wanted to start a firewood business, so Sven asked the local bank for some money. The banker asked him what he did for a living and Sven said, "I'm a pilot." The banker smiled and said the loan probably wouldn't be a problem. Then Ole went to the bank and asked for some money, and when asked, he said "I'm a woodcutter." The banker said sorry, but that's a problem. So Ole says:

"Vell, if I can't cut it, how can Sven pile it?"

Then they applied for a job as janitors, but were turned down because they didn't know how to read and write. Finally, they started the firewood business on a shoe-string and became millionaires. The local Chamber of Commerce gave them a Men-of-the-Year award, which the chamber found out they couldn't read. The chamber secretary said, "Just think what you could have become if you had gone to school." And Ole says:

"Yah, we could haff become janitors, eh?"

I read a true story of the opposite kind about an Upper Peninsula farmer. He immigrated from Russia and worked as a Great Lakes sailor until he had enough money to buy a logged-over piece of land. After many years of hard work, he had a nice herd of dairy cows, and a cattle dealer came by and bought two cows. He handed the farmer the paper work and told him to just put your X at the bottom. And the farmer says:

I can read and write in four languages. Can you?

There must be a lesson in there somewhere. I'm not that literate, but I've been partial to woodcutters ever since that one saved Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother. But (sigh) I suppose even that story has been banned, or changed to protect the "innocent" feelings of future college snowflakes! It's not time to panic, but it's time to pray really really hard. For 2016.

Personally I hope there are no more wardrobe malfunctions and that the Kardashians can find another line of work.

© Curtis Dahlgren


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Curtis Dahlgren

Curtis Dahlgren is semi-retired in southern Wisconsin, and is the author of "Massey-Harris 101." His career has had some rough similarities to one of his favorite writers, Ferrar Fenton... (more)


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