So, I’ve started work on Harold and Rose, an historical novel about the adventures and struggles of a young newlywed couple who, in 1930 Great Depression America, move thirty times in the first year of marriage, following roadbuilding, sawmill, and grainmill work throughout the idosyncratic German and Swedish-American towns of northeast Iowa.
I won’t be posting every in-process draft, but today, I thought I would, to see if this works as a Chapter One. I want to lay some background down for Rose’s family, and another for Harold’s, before bringing the two together for the rest of the novel. I suspect that some of the characters from these backgrounds will lift themselves off the pages later in the novel to influence the direction of the main characters’ thoughts and actions. We shall see. I’m going to have to keep notes on things raised in earlier chapters that need to be resolved in later ones. Should be fun.
But, for today, here’s Chapter One:
One of the worst accidents in this part of the country took the life of Frank Gerlach, one of the best men in the country last Wednesday afternoon. They were threshing at E. W. Priem’s place, and about four o’clock Mr. Gerlach went to climb up on the load of grain with fork in hand. No one saw just what happened but they saw him start to get on the load and just afterwards they found him lying by the side of the load on the ground with the end of the fork handle thru his left eye into his brain. Drs. Westenberger and Culbertson were called and arrived at the Priem farm as soon as possible. It was decided to take the injured man to the Mercy Hospital at Mason City and, tho everything possible was done, he passed away at 12:30 o’clock in the night.
Just how the accident occurred no one knows, as no one happened to be looking in that direction, but it is supposed that a tine of the fork was caught in the big drive belt and thrown in such a way that the end of the fork handle struck Mr. Gerlach in the left eye. The eye ball was crushed and from all evidence the fork handle entered his head to the depth of five or six inches.
Frank was one of the best known and best liked men in this section of the country, one of the men we can not afford to lose. —St. Ansgar Enterprise, Aug. 9, 1927
After the funeral, Earl Gerlach drove his mother and two of his sisters to Carpenter, and parked his father’s old Maxwell 25 at the corner by Sefert’s store. Frank Gerlach had bought it in 1919, for $655, when the enterprising salesman inMason Citypersuaded him with the company’s new slogan, “Once a Luxury–Now a Utility and Economy.” Inside Sefert’s, an electric fan whirred. Frank Gerlach had been persuasive in arguing that Carpenter should “be progressive and bring the future to the town, for us and for our children’s children.” Gilbert Severson had been the quick to see the potential for his store, and convinced the board to sign on with the St. Ansgar Power Company, if they would bring electricity to the schoolhouse without a construction charge. He also recognized its potential in another enterprise.
In March of 1908, with Emma’s due date still about a month away, Frank Gerlach, had a bit of an itch. His good friend, Herman Canada, had bought his own family a shiny new Victor, two Christmases ago, at Severt’s store in Carpenter, and it had been attracting nothing but compliments ever since.
Though they had been best friends, and friendly rivals back in high school, the frequent refrain of “Why don’t we meet out at theCanadaplace?” had been burning just about long enough for Frank’s ears. So, when George Severt motioned Frank over in the store, to show him an advertisement in Harper’s magazine for a floor model Victrola, with internal horn and space for 130 records, all in one elegant mahoghany cabinet, Frank was of a mind to do something to even the score.
“Whoa, that’s something,” said Frank.
“’Refined entertainment in an elegant setting’”, George read out loud.
“Yeah, two hundred dollars elegant,”said Frank, daintily fluttering his fingers in a high society salute. He figured he could buy a quarter of an automobile, or a good wagon for two hundred dollars, and have change left over for a box of Hershey bars.
“I could get you one for one-seventy-five,” offered George, “but keep it quiet.”
Frank was squirming. Herman’s Victor was a table top model, with an external horn, which had fallen off a couple of times, judging from the dings Frank had noticed last time. This model was called a Victrola.
George slowly brushed imaginary crumbs from his apron, and leaned in on the counter. “Canadawas in here, yesterday,” he mentioned, resting on his elbows. “Ordered some more records for his machine.”
Frank looked around the room.
“One-seventy,” he countered.
“Said something about bringing it out to your place to help celebrate your new arrival,” George added.
Frank said nothing. George stroked the stubble on his cheek, turned his gaze down toward the magazine page, and waited. But, Frank didn’t budge.
“One seventy-three,” said George.
“One-seventy,” said Frank, again, firmly.
Their sideward glances met, and lingered while the two men assessed.
“One-seventy-two, and I throw in a full box of Hershey bars.”
Laughing, Frank slammed a hand on the counter, and said, “Ah, sold, you fox.”
“Be about three weeks,” said George.
“Just about right,” said Frank, calculating. “Baby’s not due ‘til the middle of the month. Be just about right. Don’t you say nothing, now. This’ll be quite the surprise, I expect.”
“Yes, I expect it will,” nodded George, with the practiced calm of a successful merchant. “Anything else for you today, Frank?”
“Yeah, I’ll need a couple of Hershey bars this afternoon.”
“That’ll be four cents.”
Across the street, in front of the Andersonbuilding, stood the lone remaining gas light in the town, where a small crowd of mourners gathered beneath the lamp that lit the curfew bell that Frank Gerlach had mounted for the town when the council deemed it necessary to provide juvenile order to a sleepy town of 200 souls. Tonight, it would be rung by Emma, in one final tribute to her husband.
Frank Gerlach was greatly respected about Carpenter. He had a playfulness about him that made people smile . It was well know that he worked his farm hard and kept it in well groomed order, but if it was raining, he would sometimes instruct the older children to finish the chores, while he himself went fishing at Deer Creek. There, he would catch a pail of soft shell crabs from his secret bank. Back home, he would stuff several of them into his hat, and then put the hat back on his head. Walking into the kitchen, he would proudly doff his hat, revealing a Medusa head of crabs nestled into his thick dark hair.
“Hey, Emma, look what I brought home for dinner tonight!”
Around the county, his good humor, bright smile and thick hair were what people would remember.
“Frank, your beard feels like velvet., but still cuts like wire,” the barber often remarked,
“There you go, boys,” was his winking response, “chug a few raw eggs for breakfast, and you too can impress the ladies.”
For Newburg township, Frank Gerlach had become the one they trusted as their voice, if they had any business with the county. He was useful for other business, as well.
“I ain’t no politician,” he had told them, “but I guess I can be a pretty gabby messenger.”
Affable enough to earn the trust of most of his neighbors, the sight of him smoking his pipe and driving up for a visit was call for a break.
“Offer the man a drink,” the husband would say. It was a watch phrase, and for the men of Newburg township, it signaled there would be a private drink, and a transaction, usually inside the barn. When wives returned, they would say, “Now, you tell them trustees my road is washing away down that hill to where I can’t keep a wagon on it.”
“Oh, yes, I understand.”
Now, the lane belongs to me, I know that. But the road is county. You tell ‘em I need it fixed, and to stop trying to bring in electricity everywhere.”
“Oh, yes, sir, I will do that. I certainly will, and thank you, ma’am for the lemonade.”
The paper had said he would be “greatly missed from all good enterprises of the community”.
Rose knew about the distribution of Templeton Rye. Iowahad been dry since 1916, and the corn whiskey traffic fromTempleton,Iowa, had a well-established underground by the time national prohibition began four years later. Dry was not popular with German American men. Frank and Emma would battle over his involvement with Templeton. Frank loved his liquor, and Emma found the WCTU’s arguments about saving husbands from themselves very persuasive.
Rose cried deeply and sobbingly at her father’s funeral. His death had been a double tragedy, an unfortunate accident with a preventable beginning. Though the paper would not mention it, she knew the rumors were true. Someone had iced a barrel of beer at her uncle’s farm the day of the accident, and had gotten it out early because of the heat. She knew her father. She had been with him the day he first encountered the Templeton traders. She had been six years old,Iowawas still wet, and her father didn’t think she understood what was going on. She did, but what could she do? Always, what could she do? Now, she was filled with regret. It really would be children running the farm.
Roy and Earl had farms of their own by now, just across theMinnesotaborder. Irma had married and moved toSt. Louisin March. Art, twenty-six, and Bill, fifteen, would stay on for a lifetime, never marry, and raise championshipHolsteins, and Yorkshires. Gene, the youngest, would become a writer for the Des Moines Register.
It fell to Rose and Lucille to help their mother. Lucille was not as much help. She was to be a senior at Carpenter High in the fall. Everyone insisted those plans not change. Rose, class of ’27, was ready for the world. Her world was getting smaller.
Their mother, Emma, retreated into depression as the harvest season moved on into full swing. Art was working non-stop. Bill stayed home to work in the fields with Art that fall. Lucille, and Gene went off to school. There was no time for fishing.
It was left to Rose to nurse Emma through the dark days. Confining herself to her bed for days on end, she found no comfort in the well wishes of friends and neighbors. Lucille was trying to bravely move on, but seeing her mother’s defeat weakened her own resolve.
“Mama, you’ve got to get out of bed,” she would plead before school. “If you don’t get out of bed, I…I just don’t know what I’ll do.”
The conflict between living a “normal” life, and the nausea of broken-heartedness began taking its toll on Lucille.
Rose could not live that way. She had seen her father’s darker side, but she had also inherited his zest for seeing things brightly. She went about opening curtains, singing little songs, making quips throughout the day, and chuckling at her own comments, trying to cheer her mother. But Emma found no comfort in such cheeriness.
“Such a sunny day today.”
“Mmm, clothes smell so fresh from the line.”
“Papa would have loved this sunset, hmm, hmm.”
Winding up the Victrola, on a particularly bright morning, she selected a recent Jolson recording, put the needle down, and began to sing along.
When the red, red robin comes bob, bob bobbin’ along, along,
There’ll be no more sobbing when he starts throbbing
His own sweet song.
Wake up, wake up, you sleepy head,
Get up, get up, get out of bed,
Cheer up, cheer up the sun is red,
Live, love, laugh and be happy.
When the red, red robin comes bob, bob bobbin’ along.
“That’s enough, Ruth,” came a voice barely loud enough to be heard over the music.
“Mama?” said Rose. She quickly lifted the needle from the Victrola, and came over to her mother’s bedside. She said again, “Mama?”
“That’s enough, Ruth. I don’t like that song,” Emma softly sighed.
Frank and Emma’s firstborn had been a baby girl that lived only eighteen months. Her name had been Ruth Rose. Emma had reversed the order to Rose Ruth, in naming Rose, so she would never forget her littlest angel.
“I’m Rose, Mama. Rose. Not Ruth. Ruth is dead. Ruth is gone, and…and Papa would have loved this song.”
“Papa,” whispered Emma.
Rose sat down by the bed.
“Mama, look at me. Look at me. This is not Papa’s world anymore. Ruth is gone. Papa is gone. That’s the way it is. Now, we have to go on, Mama. We have to go on.” When Emma still said nothing, she added, “Lucille is hurting, don’t you know?”
Emma looked up.
Rose continued. “She’s thinking about quitting school. She is so torn up, because you’re torn up, that she can’t concentrate. She’s not doing well in school, I’m afraid. She misses her mama.” She let this sink in.
“Papa was a drinker, yes. We all know that. Everybody knows that. And we also know things might have been different if… But they’re not. Still, Papa was a great man. In my eyes, he was a great man. I will always think so. Please come back, Mama. As hard as it is to believe, this was no surprise to God. Please believe that.”
Emma turned to the wall. Rose hung her head and sighed.
“Temperance,” said Emma, softly. Rose raised her head. The word hung in the air. She turned and looked Rose in the eye, and said more firmly, “Temperance.”