Part III  And So He Coaches

2006, June


When the school year came to an end, Marty, Shane, and Reese had everything in place. In the process they over-taxed Abe’s curiosity.

After it had finally warmed up, Marty came once with a forest ranger. Walking, pointing, talking, taking notes. Next the ranger was back with Marty and those two kids, whose names she would learn one way or another. The four of them seemed to repeat what Marty and the Ranger had done. Walking, pointing, talking, taking notes. Using Abe’s description, little LaurenLee, who still came for tea twice a week, identified the students.

Marty and the two kids came back often doing many curious things, such as looking into the water through a wooden box, which Abe could see had a piece of glass on the bottom. When Shane and Reese started collecting water samples, she knew it had to be a science project. Most puzzling was the Saturday when Marty and Adele met on the boardwalk. Adele sat on the first bench, not her private bench. Marty came to her. They shook hands politely, like two people introducing themselves. Marty guided Adele along the boardwalk, pointing out places where the kids did their science work. Then they left. For the next two weeks Marty did not come to the boardwalk. Shane and Reese came four times to gather water samples, look through the box, and take notes. Adele appeared on the boardwalk only twice to read on her bench. Abe was suspicious about it all, a married woman and a single man. Why did Marty quit coming? She was even a bit ashamed of her answer. Right then Abe got sad news, well, sad for her. Little LaurenLee was hired in a school district out by the Dakotas. She was moving in June.

Abe, you see, was missing a key piece of information, which LaurenLee did not know either. Adele was the aunt to whom Shane had referred. Adele had agreed to serve as chaperon and was pleased to have a purpose to fulfill.

School ended the first Wednesday in June. Thursday was teacher workday. Friday Marty led them off into the woods, eight miles east, one mile north, three miles east, and a half-mile south. Shane followed in the Caravan with Reese and Adele. The last three roads were gravel, which grew rougher and dustier at each turn. Marty parked between a collapsing house and a tilting barn. Three sheds in various states of decay were scattered around.

Marty walked the other three to a wetland forty yards from the house. “What do you see?” he asked Reese and Shane. They studied it for a few minutes before answering. The pause pleased Marty.

Shane spoke. “It’s a swamp or a marsh. I see a creek flowing under a culvert under the road. It looks like it must flow in from that space in the trees to the east.” He pointed.

Reese said, “It looks like a smaller version of the swamp by town, except no boardwalk. We are supposed to compare them. They look about the same. Is this why we bought rubber boots?”

One of the reasons. I will show you the other in a few minutes.”

Adele spoke. “The forest service gave you permission for Shane and Reese to study the boardwalk swamp. Did they give you permission for them to study this one?”

No. Follow me, please.” He led them through the woods on a narrow path, which if they had looked closely, they would have noticed Marty had recently trimmed back a several inches on each side. A few hundred yards down the path he brought them to another wetland and waited for them to speak.

This is a bog, for sure, sitting down in this bowl in the ground,” Shane said.

Marty answered, but not before thinking. “It is not impossible for it to be fed by an underground stream. You can easily prove if it is or not. What do you call this depression in which it sits?”

Shane answered, “Like in eighth-grade science! It’s a glacial pothole!”

My forest ranger friend Brian and I found two old maps that give the swamp near town a name, Reeds Marsh. One map has it as a plural. The other map has it as a possessive. He did some more searching at that county courthouse and found no record of anyone named Reed living anywhere close to it. He is petitioning to have it named the simple Reed Marsh. That will take awhile to happen, but you can refer to it by that name in your project.”

Adele asked, “Did we drive into another county?”

We crossed the county line a mile west of here.”

Seeming to fear any implications for herself, she asked, “You said back there that the forest service has not given you permission for them to study here. Are you going to ask them for permission?”

He thought before answering, as if she had asked a difficult question. “No. I do not need to ask. This is my land. But Brian has been out here and will come out again to tell Shane and Reese about the surrounding forest, which will matter in their project.”

What are your swamp and bog called?” Reese asked.

Marty, of course, thought before answering. “The forest service has no old maps of here. No modern maps give them a name. It is up to you two to name them for your project.”

Catching the honor he was granting them, Reese interrupted, “Hauptmann Marsh and Martin Bog.”

He thought again. “My birth certificate first name, if that is to what you refer, is Marty. However, using my name might imply something in your reports. Also, I want you to give them names by which I will call them for as long as I own this land. Reese and Shane would have meaning to me, but that you cannot do in your reports. Don’t answer just yet. I suggest a natural name, such as for a plant, animal, insect, or something along that order.”

Reese asked, “Did you buy this land for the two wetlands?” After a few hours spent in closer relationship with Mr. Hauptmann, their curiosity was aroused about him. Not once in their time together had he relaxed his professional mode. Not once.

After due thought, Marty answered, “Three wetlands. One lies south of here. It is a bog which is becoming a peat bog; nothing there for you two. I bought this land for several reasons. The wetlands and the mixed boreal forest were among the reasons.”

Shane asked, “Are you planning to build here?”

For this he had an immediate answer. “No. Today you will need to get started by mapping the two wetlands. My tape is long enough to reach across both. You do not have to be more accurate than within a foot or so. We will go back to my truck where I have the tape measure and some graph paper. I want you to do it on your own, as I want you to do all of your work, or most of it. I will be here to answer questions. Let’s go back.”

He gave them the supplies from the cab of the GMC. They ran back to the bog. After they left, Marty lifted a wooden bench from the back of the truck and spoke to Adele. “This is for you to read. My landlord says we may borrow it for the summer. I have sanded it down and repainted it. But it gets buggy here, of course.”

He carried the bench to a clear space on a hump of land overlooking the swamp. On the ground lay a new screen tent pegged into the earth with its supports lying inside. As he started to raise it, Adele jumped in to help. When it was up in place, he explained, “Your time here will be a bit dull. The kids will be working. I’m not a great conversationalist. Shane and Reese will work in here, too. I will bring out an old card table and some chairs.”

She stood and looked at him. He was an enigma. “Thank you for . . . your consideration. How much land do you own?”

Sixty-five acres.”

Why did you buy it, if that’s not too personal a question?”

She waited for him to decide how to answer, or maybe if to answer. “I wander back roads. You would be surprised by how many roads there are. I walk old logging roads. Trees are more my interest right how. Species, distribution, ecology, age of the forest. Six years ago I stumbled on this homestead. How foolish it was to do agriculture out here.”

She interrupted, “Do you know a lot about agriculture?”

Pause. “Yes, I do.” Pause. “I pulled in just to look at what lived in the old buildings. There was a dirty For Sale sign leaning against the back of the house. I called the company. They checked with the estate of the last owner and came back with a cheap price. I countered lower. This is not the sort of land in high demand anymore, so they took my offer, which meant I was stuck with it.” He gave his crooked smile. “I camp out here some. Oh, and there is a new clean pit toilet right at the end of the barn.”

Would you let me see the house?”

Oh, but you can do whatever you wish when you are here, except you must stay nearby, of course.” He went silent. She was learning to be patient while he thought. “I am a little ashamed of the reason we need you here, the way things are today, but thank you for being willing. I suppose that I am who you must stay near.” Pause. “Let me show you the house.”

One end of the house was built of logs, the other end of thick boards. The arcs on the boards showed they had passed through the spinning blade of a sawmill. As he explained what they were, Marty stroked the arced blade marks as if in affection. All the windows frames were broken out. One door was jammed shut by the collapse of half the roof. The door into the kitchen had been kicked in before he purchased the land. Bullet holes riddled the building. “This end of the house is safe. I don’t go into the other end anymore. Not much there. A central room and two small bedrooms with rotted, rusted, moldy furniture. A fine habitat for rodents and insects.”

The first thing to catch her eye was a color photograph of the smiling Dalai Lama. She studied the face and was moved by the sense of peace and joy in his smile. “Did you put that there?” she asked.

Pause for thought. “I did last week.”

Are you a Buddhist?”

Pause. “No. I am bound to the Catholic church by an umbilical cord.”

She wondered what that meant. “I am Catholic, too. Why the picture?”

Pause. Marty started to speak. A second pause. “It’s his face. I like his smile. It is . . . serene. He lives in turmoil. People ask too much of him. He comes out of a country of oppression. He lives as an alien in India. But his face is so . . . happy. No, that’s not the right word . . . he is so accepting of his circumstances . . . I don’t know how to say it.”

Adele turned to look at Marty’s face, which was a contrast to the Dalai Lama’s. His face agreed with his words. His forehead and eyebrow were knit in confusion, or maybe frustration. She felt pressure in her own eyes. Before tears came, she stepped to the faded blue hand-made cabinets. She asked, “Are the cupboards empty?”

No. I have left everything in place.” Pause. “Including the inhabitants.”

What creatures would that be?”

Rodents, birds, insects. Let me check for wasps, then you may look through them.” He found no active wasps nests, only a dried-paper empty nest fallen from the top of the cupboard.

Adele studied rusty old utensils, disintegrated food boxes spilling their contests in lumps, canned foods ruptured by winter, and thick gray dishes with crackled surfaces. She murmured to Marty, “My grandmother had many of these kitchen items. She was sort of stuck in the late 1940’s. Could we surmise the house was abandoned at that time?”

Pause. “That is interesting to know. Thank you.” Pause. “I am documenting the decay of the barn and the house with a journal and photographs.”

Adele answered with warm interest. “Why? Could I see it?”

Pause. “I have the bad habit of analysis.” Pause. “Most of my journal focuses on the wildlife. Nature, as you see before you, wins in the end.” Pause. “I suppose at the end of everything the non-human part of life will win back it all.” Pause. “I am planning to add to my journal next week. You may see it then, if you like. It may be quite boring. Let me open the drawers for you.”

One drawer was tight in its frame. The other two were wobbly loose. The top two drawers contained more rusting utensils, a black sharpening stone with a deep valley worn into it, a limited set of heavy unadorned flatware, towels and rags mildewed into a rotting mass, a home-made flat wooden box rotting at the corners, a sulfurous green lump which was all that remained of a box of matches. The deep drawer contained rusting pots and pans.

Adele picked up a serving spoon, the only decorative item in the drawers. It had enough tarnished silver on it to prevent much rust from developing. “Oh, Astrid,” she murmured. Tears flowed from her eyes.

Marty waited for her to explain.

My grandmother Astrid had a set of silverware like this, which my cousin has now. It was given to Astrid by her dying mother. That it was a gift from her mother had a profound meaning to Grandmama. She never explained. I suppose only because her mother gave it to her. It was before my father was born.” Pause. “Did a woman live here? To think this may have been the only pretty thing in her kitchen.”

Please take it.”

She wiped her eyes, “Won’t that violate the integrity of your scientific observations?”

After only a second of hesitation, Marty laughed before answering, “I do not consider it science, only idle curiosity, my compulsion to analyze. My sister mocks me for that habit. Please, if you want it.”

You have a nice laugh.” She wiped her eyes again. “Yes, I will take it. Now, will I try to polish it or leave it in this state? Hmm . . . I do not know.”

Marty pulled out the wooden box, opened it, and studied the contents for a few seconds. “You have made a decision for me. I am going to take away the contents of this box. I will leave the box itself in situ.”

What are those?”

He pulled one out and handed it to her. She felt its along its edges and over its uneven surfaces. “It’s an arrowhead! Did you find them?”

No.” Pause. “The abstract says the only previous owner of this land was Gust Detlefson. He acquired it by homesteading. The abstract does not list a wife but that tells us nothing. He collected the arrowheads, I assume. I assume from this land or nearby.” Pause. “The arrowheads take us back to an earlier time. I will bring a plastic box out with me in which to take away the arrowheads.” He replaced the arrowhead in the box, closed the box, put the box in the drawer, and closed all the cabinets and drawers.

Holding her spoon to her chest, Adele looked at the Dalai Lama. “Why did you put it up? Doesn’t it contradict your plan to watch this all molder into the ground?”

He shrugged in thought. “I suppose it does.” Pause. “Every May I tack up a picture in that spot and take it down in November. The other photographs have been of scenery from different places around the world.” Pause. “I guess the pictures are a contrast in some ways to what is happening to this building.” Pause. “Maybe the Dalai Lama’s smile is about something permanent. Not him. About whatever it is that his smile says.”

You are not the person I thought you were. You remind me of my Grandmama Astrid.”

He laughed. “Not your grandfather?”

My grandfather died in an accident in World War II before my father was born. He never even made it overseas to fight. I do not know my father’s family. So I had only one grandmother and no grandfathers. It was Astrid to Arnold to Adele. I once had selected a boy’s A name and a girl’s A name.”

Shane and Reese stepped into the doorway. Reese spoke for both of them. “Wow! Way cool!”

Speaking as he turned to them, Marty asked, “May I see how you are progressing?” As the three of them talked, Adele went to read in the screen tent. An hour later all three were eating their lunches with Adele.

When the students went to map the swamp, Marty followed to watch them for a few minutes. Pleased with how they were doing, he took a brush machete from his pickup and started expanding a narrow winding trail through the woods to the northeast. Two hours later they all lowered the screen tent to protect it from wind damage. Before they drove back to town, Marty explained he would be camping here for a few days next week. On Monday they would need their boots.

Part IV

And So He Once Had Roots


Ten-year-old Marty was discovering his analysis skills, to the annoyance of his eleven-year-old sister Karen. He analyzed her reading habits, what her friends had in common, when she wrote in print and when in cursive, what emotional buttons put her in a good mood and which in a bad mood. They were close siblings, but they were still siblings. His habit of analyzing her was a bad mood button he liked to push. He also, without saying he was, analyzed mood buttons of his parents.

Twelve-year-old Marty expanded from analyzing his family to analyzing plants. He could identify most of the weeds on their farm, where they grew and why, and how they propagated. Through trial and paternal temper flairs, he learned to share this information only with his mother, a dedicated gardener. It annoyed Karen. It made his father angry that he spent his free time on something so pointless. Marty coaxed samples of herbicides from the dealer to test them on the weeds. His father was not interested in the results.

Thirteen-year-old Marty analyzed his classmates, such as the relationship between their school behavior and what he knew of their home life. In a tight-knit farming community, home lives are well known, with a few terrible exceptions. Gossip is as common in junior high as among adults. Marty and his mother also analyzed composting methods. He analyzed his own spending habits and began saving money for college.

Fourteen-year-old Marty began analyzing the farm itself, which meant he encroached on his father’s turf without his father’s welcome. Marty biked to nearby test plots to identify the best seeds for their fields, which at first pleased his father but then angered him when Marty’s choices did not agree with his own. Marty tracked milk production animal-by-animal and showed his father on paper what the man tracked in his head. A pointless task, the father said since he already knew what the paper demonstrated. Marty discovered science fiction that year and analyzed his own preferences for authors and content.

Fifteen-year-old Marty added animal behavior to his farm analyses. He experimented with baits for mouse and rat traps. He analyzed the calls of coyotes, the nesting materials of bird species, and the preferred nesting sites of pheasants. He found deer trails and identified where they preferred to be in the day and in the night. In the process he analyzed his own feelings and decided he would never hunt, which he did not tell his father, who was a casual deer hunter and a dedicated pheasant hunter.

Sixteen-year-old Marty analyzed his few but bonded friendships, his sister’s limited preference in boys, how his mother’s use of endearments and names indicated her momentary attitude towards her husband, and how his father’s choice of swear worlds indicated his degree of anger.

Seventeen-year-old Marty should have analyzed, but did not, how his behavior, like most seventeen-year-old boys, was meant to irritate his father. Working with his mother, who was the farm’s bookkeeper, he showed his father that their farm, like so many small family farms in the 1980’s, was slowly bleeding to death. What most upset his father was Marty’s assertion that his father had over-invested in over-sized and over-powered equipment. Marty argued that his father did not need and could not afford the new tractor he wanted to buy. As angry as he was, the father did not buy the tractor.

Eighteen-year-old Marty accepted a modest scholarship to the University of Minnesota to study biochemistry. Only then did his father realize Marty did not want to inherit the farm that had been owned by a Hauptmann for four generations. He pressured Marty to stay and provide the free labor that Marty’s analysis had proven the father needed. The father knew, but would not admit, that he needed Marty’s analytical mind. The farm had passed the point of no return, Marty told his father. A half section of land had become too small a farm. When the two men parted outside Marty’s dorm, they parted in anger, although Marty’s was hidden.

That fall with soybeans earning at a good price, the father used the payment, plus the trade-in on his 1984 pickup, to buy the largest model of 1990 four-wheel-drive extended-cab diesel GMC pickup. When Marty saw it at Thanksgiving, he knew his father was thumbing his nose at him.

In the winter of his freshman year Marty developed a serious relationship with Serena, a woman one year ahead of him, a business major with suburb-induced hunger for success as measured by wealth. They planned to marry after her graduation and share a life in the Twin Cities. Karen was also at the U, which is how Marty met Serena. Karen was working on a degree in nursing.

Marty’s major and the college experience gave him rich new ground for analysis. The farm was forgotten until the summer, when he helped his father with the physical labor and his mother with the books. In Serena’s two brief visits to the farm, she told Marty that next summer her father would find him a good job in the Cities. Marty told his parents he would not return to the farm next summer. Again father and son parted in anger, the father white hot with rage, the son looking placid.

Three weeks before the end of his successful sophomore year, Marty’s father did not come in from the fields for supper. Marty’s mother found him lying dead in the infant blades of corn. The tractor was idling nearby. At the funeral in the rural Catholic church near the farm, several neighbors told Marty his father had “worked himself to death, just wore himself out.” Some of them meant it as an indictment of Marty. A few neighbors and his mother worked the farm until Marty, giving up on the promised summer job in the Cities, came home from college.

By the Fourth of July, under the force of guilt and his mother’s pleas, Marty promised to work the farm for one or two years to get it back in the black, which Marty knew was a faint hope. Karen, who each summer worked in a nearby nursing home, blew up at Marty. Marty told her, failing to make it sound like a joke, that she had their father’s temper. Telling Marty and the mother she would not be trapped, Karen moved to the Cites. The night before she left, Marty listened to Karen explain her career aspirations in an obvious attempt to motivate Marty to leave the farm. In response, after a longer pause than usual, Marty told Karen that her aspirations reached beyond being an R.N. She too paused long in thought before telling Marty his analysis was correct, for which she thanked him.

Marty had a second deduction about Karen, which he told neither Karen nor the mother. Karen, he could see, was a lesbian, as perhaps she herself had not yet been willing to face. Marty did not share this insight with Serena or his friends. Serena had evaporated from his life without a word. His few friendships were plowed under the soil.

Marty and his mother sold off the dairy herd and milking equipment for low prices. The market was flooded by the many farm bankruptcies. Marty wanted to trade in or sell his father’s over-sized equipment. That market was even more engorged.

Marty and his mother convinced the bank to loan them money to buy feeder stock. Marty and the banker, a long-time family confidant, knew it was the last desperate hope for the Hauptmann Family Farm, as the proud sign announced at the end of their driveway.

One year of hard work and careful management did not turn the corner. Nor did two. Nor three. Marty spent the fourth year preparing himself, his mother, and the farm for foreclosure. Marty and Karen saw each other only the two strained days she came home for Christmas. They spoke to each other like strangers who wanted to remain strangers. The mother, under encouragement from both of her children, made frequent trips to the Cities.

In his many hours working alone or driving machinery in ever-tightening circles in the fields, Marty analyzed his own aspirations, which he found had changed. In part because of an excellent high school chemistry and physics teachers, he decide to teach. He realized the prairie was exhausting him with its long empty views and too-large skies. On a three-day trip to the North Shore with his mother, the only vacation he took in the four years, Marty had fallen in love with the boreal forest. He had found a whole new nature to analyze.

On the day of the farm auction the mother went to the Cites. Marty stayed to watch. Weary from all the lost farms, the banker protected the GMC pickup from sale. Enough money was left to to finance the mother for three or four years, if she augmented it with a low-paying job, the only kind for which she was qualified. She and Marty shared an apartment in Marshall for him to attend Southwest State. She worked as a receptionist at an auto dealership. Marty worked thirty hours a week at a hog operation. With summer classes and a heavy class load Marty completed his degree in two years. He had excellent credentials, except that niggling little problem of refusing to coach.

When Marty was hired up north, he assumed his mother would move with him. She thought for two days. No, the forest made her claustrophobic. Marty felt at home in the woods; she felt at home on the prairie, where she had lived all of her life. It gave her good memories, except for those last years. Marty had been analyzing her behavior for the last few months. Visits to the library told him it was probably the beginnings of dementia. He grieved for her. She was only fifty-five. Had the loss of the farm done it? He knew irresistible economic forces had caused the collapse, which had forced them to sell the Hauptmann half-section to a neighbor who was a farmer and a businessman. But still, if only he had . . . had what? He did not know.

Marty drove the GMC diesel pickup to Rochester for a secret visit with Karen, who had become a nurse practitioner. She had a partner, Dr. Holly Wiseman, an internist, with whom Karen owned a four-bedroom condo. At his unexpected visit, Karen was flustered. Marty told her he had deduced six years ago she was lesbian. When Karen laughed, their reconciliation began. Karen stumbled as she told him she had taken Holly’s last name. Marty thought before answering, a habit of his that irritated her as much as his analytical mind. He told her, “I understand why, but will Mother?”

That will be tricky.”

After Marty explained why he had come, Karen and Holly agreed that the mother could live with them. The mother was pleased with a move across the prairie instead of north. How they explained the reality into which she had moved and how she reacted Marty never heard. For the next few years Karen and Mary exchanged weekly letters, then emails, and then cell phones calls. Marty spent holidays with the three of them analyzing several things about Holly, which he did not share. One weekend, and one time only, the three of them came for a visit. It was too stressful on the mother. She thought Marty was still on the farm.

When their mother began to need constant care and did not know where she was, Karen and Holly agreed with Marty’s suggestion to move her to a nursing home near him. He had investigated and found a good one. It was, he said, his turn to take care of her. After all, he was alone. Karen said she would prefer not to see her mother slide into oblivion. Karen never did come to visit again. Despite her resentments, Karen was a girl of the prairie. She asked many questions of Marty. How had he survived it all? Was he happy? Did he feel at home? Had he found no one to love?

It was, he said, his faith that carried him along. He felt at home in the Catholic Church. He had spent many of his hours praying while working alone on the farm. He found faith more logical than only a void or a series of accidents, no matter how many years those accidents covered.

Before the mother died, Karen said their Lutheran mother had requested cremation and distribution of her ashes over their land, with a Lutheran pastor doing a brief service. Except “their land” was not their land. It belonged to the neighbor with whom their father had had a contentious relationship. Marty suggested the nearest thing to “their land” was “his land.” Karen agreed. On a windless Saturday in May, the Lutheran pastor did a brief service with only Marty and the Catholic priest in attendance, his presence an idea suggested by the Lutheran pastor. Then the two men watched Marty in his rubber boots scatter the ashes across the second bog on his land.

Marty hunted for peace across his sixty-five acres, doing much self-analysis, which helped but had one large flaw. He had been alone too long and did not notice his lack of companionship and romance. Eventually he would come to peace with his mother’s peat bog. For the moment he avoided the bog himself and told his three guests there was nothing there applicable to the science project.

©Clyde L. Birkholz 2017