Jim…

I should wait until his birthday on the 9th. But his favorite holiday was always the 4th of July. Jim enjoyed sitting in his front yard, watching and waving as folks drove by. Someone might stop and visit for awhile. He was very fond of cold beer, something grilled, and Mag’s famous potato salad. As it got dark, he’d watch the grandkids (mildly amused) run around like nut-cases with sparklers. Or mucking up his sidewalk with snakes and snaps. The holiday highlight though was watching the fireworks from the nearby ball diamond.

 

Jim in the front yard in Rock Valley, about 1980…

Jim was born on July 9, 1907, the oldest of 8 children. The first time I saw a baby picture of him, I was speechless. He was the most beautiful baby I’d ever seen. Honest. And I’m pretty partial to my own 3 kids and 4 grandkids. But Jim as an infant and toddler was almost too pretty to be a boy. That particular photo is packed away, so you’ll have to settle for my second favorite picture of him. Jim with his only sister Alice. Looks like he might be 2-1/2 or 3. Though the picture is sepia tone, it’s plain to see how dark his eyes and hair were. He was an exquisite, stunning little boy.

 

Jim and baby sis Alice about 1910…

 

Although Jim didn’t attend school very long, he was extremely smart, especially in math. And musical. To me, he just didn’t seem like the musical type. Self taught, playing the harmonica and banjo simultaneously at barn dances in the mid-1920’s. That’s where he met Mag. Who was engaged to someone else. Well, the sparks flew between them (ahem, some other stuff too). When Mag’s father found out she was pregnant with Jim’s baby and getting married, Ralph smacked her good and kicked her out of the house. Jim and Mag got married on his 22nd birthday in 1929. Mag was 19.

 

Wedding of Jim and Mag, 7-9-1929…

 

Jim had various jobs when he and Mag first started out. I probably don’t know half of them. He was a driver for a physician. Carting the doc all over Sioux county making house calls. They moved to Minnesota for about 3 years, tried their hand at farming. This was during the depression. John said his dad used his Model T to fill his silo! Took off one of the back tires and raised the rear end. (Wouldn’t I like to do the same?) Replaced the tire with a belt to get the grain up the elevator, into the silo. If he ran out of gas, any spare vodka, whiskey, moonshine or kerosene worked just fine to finish the job. They used their barn for everything. Storing hay, corn, equipment, cows and pigs. The barn caught fire one night. This devastating event was one of several suspicious fires in the area. The same bank held the mortgage on all those particular farms. Without animals, grain, equipment, there was nothing Jim could sell or use as collateral to get them through the next year. The bank foreclosed on all the farms who had suffered fires. Jim knew in his heart the bank was responsible. He was very bitter about their unscrupulous tactics, but could prove nothing.

 

A very young and pregnant Mag and Jim, 1930’s…

 

So they moved back to Iowa. A rental house they lived in for awhile was so poorly built and insulated, the whole family (think they might have had only Elly and Jimmy yet) huddled in one bed during the most brutal winter nights. No wonder a couple of their kids were spaced so far apart! You could see daylight through the cracks in the walls. In the morning there might be a light dusting of snow on the bed covers. And the blankets were sometimes froze to the outside wall. Nothing ever came easy for them. They had it so much tougher than we did. Our life has been a cakewalk in comparison.

 

Jim’s family, he’s on the left, middle row…

 

He worked for about 15 years as a janitor at Rock Valley Community Schools, working some Saturday’s. When John was very young, he’d wander in the school building, virtually empty, but for his dad. Somewhere. So John would yell for him a couple times. Jim would whistle back, letting him know where he was. Soon Jim would unlock a door underneath the bleachers in the gym. Grab an apple for Johnny to eat while his dad worked. This was when they were living on 15th street, across from the backside of the school.

 

Arlyn, Jim, Les, John in back. Mag, Jim and Elly, maybe 1979…

 

I met my future father-in-law in the mid-60’s. I think he was working for the Hull Creamery on the night shift then. He was just a little guy. Not much taller than me, maybe weighed 160 pounds. Wore a size 7 or 8 shoe. But don’t let his small demeanor fool you. I never did. I was kind of intimidated by him. He was quiet, but gruff. He never let John use the family car when we were dating. Never. Not even to bring me home if I’d been at their house. Jim might drive me home if the weather was horrendous, but John never got his dad’s car. Even for big events like Homecoming or Prom. It was usually one of John’s older brothers who’d loan us their car for those occasions. The rest of the time, we walked. We knew every nook, cranny and make-out hiding place in that little town. Our favorite. The northwest side of the Catholic Church. A little indented spot that just held the 2 of us. But kept us out of sight from the Gerritson police. Yes, Mom sent Dad out every so often on patrol to find their wayward, rebellious daughter. I got in trouble many times. But they never discovered our secret hiding (ok make out) spot a half a block from my house. Sorry, I digress. This is about Jim.

 

Mag w/ Matt, Kelli, Jim with Shannon, 1971…

 

Jim limped most of his life. He had a honeycomb knee cap which kept him out of the army. Never had health insurance until he turned 65. He finally got the knee replaced. Danced with Mag after that and often remarked he should have had it done years before.

 

Jim opening some Christmas presents…

 

He loved cards and was a good player. He and Mag didn’t play as partners though during penuchle games. They had a tendency to snipe at each other. Mag knew exactly which sensitive Jim button needed to be lovingly smacked to get him going. Actually, it didn’t take much for him to get a little testy, so pushing his buttons wasn’t always necessary. Jim and Mag truly loved each other, but they did get on each other’s nerves. Hardly ever about big, important issues though. At least not that I ever heard about. Just the piddly, inconsequential, you are driving me nuts woman stuff.

 
Penuchle game, but not with each other as partners, 1970’s…

 

Jim was one of the hardest workers I’ve ever known. For not being very big guy, he did an unbelievable amount of physical labor. Employed by Rock Valley Cement Block and Tile for years. Jim made cement blocks. He also got the cement powder off the railroad cars. During this task, the echoes of his sledge hammer pounding the bottom of those cars could be heard all through my little town. He had to get every speck of that cement powder to the plant. One day he was working on a big cement project. Laying rebar when suddenly something hit Jim’s hand, almost severing part of a finger. A coworker drove Jim to Doc Hegg’s office. Doc (my hero) never had a receptionist. Just a waiting room with bench seating on 3 sides. You sat down near the front door. Sliding over a couple feet every time another person got called in. Working your way north, then east, finally the home stretch, south. Ever closer to the door where Doc would peak through and say, “who’s next?” There sat Jim, towel wrapped around his pinky finger, dripping blood all over the floor. The next time Doc opened the door, someone said, “Doc, you gotta take Jim ahead of the rest of us.” Jim was ushered in. Doc simply cut the nearly severed half off and stitched it up. Years later, when our kids were little, Jim told them grandma Mag bit off the end of his finger. Yikes.

 

Jim and John in the kitchen, 1975…

 

Jim and Mag never traveled much or very far. Vacations were not affordable, or necessary. Housing, heat and food on the table were their priorities. They had 5 children to feed and raise. Their idea of a vacation was renting a cabin at Spirit Lake, about 70 miles away. Still, this was extra money going out and more than they could afford. Jim’s job didn’t come with paid vacation. So they went in cahoots with 2 other families. Renting a cabin for a week. Get this. None of the dads went along. If renting the cabin was stretching the family budget, Jim sure couldn’t take a week off. So the vacationers consisted of 3 moms and about a dozen kids. Holy moly. Sounded more like a torture chamber. For an entire week. In one cabin. Maybe 3 small bedrooms. With 12-15 people, mostly kids. Smashed together like a can of sardines. It was towards the end of one of these vacation weeks when John was about 9. He was floating on a raft, not too far from shore. Everyone was testy. For him, there were just too many kids. It was stifling. Nerves were frayed, everybody’s tempers were on a short fuse, or already lit. The week had simply been too long. John was sick of every other kid. But even more sick of one of the other moms. So pissing and moaning, John’s ragging about this other mom while he’s on the raft. Suddenly she calls out from shore. “Johnny Wayne, sound travels across the water. I can hear every word you’re saying!”

 

One of Jim’s yearly picture when he worked at school, mid-1940’s…

 

 

You know the 3 husbands/fathers might have thought they died and went to heaven that week of non-family-vacation for them. True, no nightly suppers were cooked, and they probably had to make their own lunch pails. But they could stop for a beer and not expect any angry phone calls from the “little woman” demanding the bartender send them home pronto. The house was so nice and quiet. For a whole week. No fights between kids to nip in the bud. It sure sounds a lot tougher for the moms “on vacation” with a dozen kids, than for the 3 dads. Just saying. It wasn’t all bad for the guys. The men drove up on the following weekend. Then hauled everyone back to Rock Valley. With carloads of truly grateful moms and kids for the homes they didn’t have to share with each other. Until next summer.

 

No one sat in Jim’s chair but Jim, mid-1970’s…

 

We took a vacation with Jim and Mag when we were first married. Must have been in ’72 or 73. Shannon was a toddler. I know Jimmy and Eleanor were there, and maybe Les and Mary Jane. John, Shannon and I were in the same cabin with Jim and Mag. We went to Lake Ottertail, Minnesota. John, his dad and someone else went fishing. The weather was bad, windy and the water very choppy. Jim was in the front seat of the little fishing boat. Practically flying off the bench seat every time they hit a wave. Showing no fear and loving it. Later in the week, we drove to nearby Battle Lake to shop and have ice cream at the Dairy Queen. John and Jim spotted a 1929 Model A pick-up. That ran like a top. For sale for $500. Both of them wanted it so bad they could taste it. We might have been in the running if it had been 50 bucks instead of $500. But we had no business even looking. Jim said he was coming back to buy it. Sigh. Never happened. John and I both still covet that little pick-up. Too bad. And sad neither of them could buy it.

Jim and Mag came to stay with us when we lived in Davenport. John called them before they left Rock Valley. “We’re taking you out to a fancy restaurant, bring some good clothes,” he suggested. The place was called Jumer’s Castle Lodge. We all got spiffied up. Jim was wearing a sport jacket and tie, Mag a nice dress. As our food was coming to the table, Jim sticks his humongous red cloth napkin into the neck of his shirt. Mag just about lost it. She yanked that napkin out, and in no nonsense fashion instructed him to put and keep the napkin in his lap. And no where else. He just stared at her. With those black eyes. Grabbed the napkin and stuck it back in the top of his shirt. What I wouldn’t give to have a picture of that. Mag was mortified. But she did not win that red napkin battle.

 

Eastern Iowa picnic with Jim and Mag, 1983…

 

Everytime they visited us in Eastern Iowa, John had to take his dad to the Mississippi. Jim loved that river and was fascinated by the locks and dams. He’d sit for hours while the barges slowly maneuvered through the locks. I was bored to tears. He’d carry on conversations with the guys going past, working on the barges. Most of them were from the south and Jim loved listening to their southern drawl.

Surprisingly Jim really disliked the farm we lived on near Cascade. (blog post, The Farm, October, 2014). I thought he would have loved it there. Too isolated. He hated the constant clanking of the hog feeder lids plunking up and down 24/7. By then, we didn’t even hear it anymore. He was kind enough to drive back to the farm to help us when we were moving out. We were heading to Spencer Iowa, which was only 60 miles from them and my parents. As we were leaving the farm, Jim stopped the car at the end of that miserable, rock filled, quarter mile long driveway. Opened the car door, spat, slammed the door shut and said, “bah, I’m so glad we’re done with that place.”

 

Jim, Mag, me and John on the farm in Cascade, Iowa, 1976…

 

A few months after we moved to Michigan in 1987, Jim passed away at age 80. We’d gone home a couple months before to see him. John was taking him to Hegg Memorial Hospital for his leukemia treatment. He had been getting regular blood transfusions which had helped for quite awhile. But the time in between the transfusions was getting shorter and shorter. Plus Jim never felt good anymore. He told John, “I’m done. This is my last treatment, and the last time I’ll gonna see you Johnny.” I hope he enjoys my timing with his favorite holiday. Happy 4th of July, Jim…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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