by Michael Ryerson
You know, sometimes in mid-life, a man turns a corner and looks up the road and realizes there’s nothing else within reach, that everything of significance has already happened in his life.
The Therkilsens came into Yankton County in 1880 and the Fulenwiders, being mostly shopkeepers, were there to greet them. The families sparked, courted, intermarried and homesteaded mostly in Hutchinson and Douglas counties, staying mostly east of the river except for one of the Therkilsen girls, Dorothy, who married a Sweeney and moved into Tripp County when that country opened up in ‘09. The Sweeneys were Unitarians and mostly Socialists.
Karl Therkilsen and Ray Fulenwider had known each other since grade school. Best as anybody can remember, they had only the one fight, in the seventh grade, which resulted in skinned knees, a bloody nose and some tears. Some said it was over the oldest Stimpert girl, Dulcie, but Ray’s father, Justice, said it was more likely caused by rising sap and the Stimpert girl just happened to get in the way, said she was probably just an innocent bystander. Well, innocent or not, Dulcie kept her sense of humor, married a fella named Parker from up in Hand County, raised five boys and put on weight. And Ray and Karl grew up best friends.
Dulcie’s older brother, Jack, married a girl from Florida and moved down there and got into the long-haul trucking business. The younger boy, Lucas, was a wiry little guy, tough as a nut and he wanted to farm. He came through school after Karl and Ray and his older sister, but he knew the Therkilsens and the Fulenwiders and worked for them some summers. Ray Fulenwider liked him and Karl kind of tolerated him.
Anyways, as a kid Lucas worked his dad’s place and also hired out, was a good hand with stock and a fair mechanic, didn’t drink nor smoke although he was known to use strong language from time to time. The girls liked him and most of the boys thought he was a good guy. After high school, his dad helped him buy the old Christiansen place across the line in Beadle County, a quarter section with a little house and a well. Those first years Luke made do with a pair of mules, some worn out equipment and little sleep. The Fulenwider place was close by so they’d come over pretty regular and pitch in and later Karl would show up with his dad’s tractor, second one in the county, to bring in the hay and such. It was like most folks, just getting along with one another.
Helene Seidel was a Presbyterian girl from a Milwaukee family of railroadmen and union activists. She was the not-so-political daughter of a political family. She found debate disagreeable and exhausting and she harbored the notion that a farming community would be pastoral if not genteel. She imagined the daily routine of farm life would be liberating. She had her dreams but she came with her eyes open.
Luke and Helene had been seeing each other for a time and they got married in 1938. For the wedding, her family crossed over from Wisconsin in two waves, first, the mother with the dark eyes and busy hands and the three sisters, two quiet and one noisy, by train to Yankton and then by hired motorcar. Lucy Seidel was an imposing woman, barely five foot three, she seemed much larger. She commanded attention when she spoke which wasn’t often. The two quiet sisters, Grace and Beatrice, were older and favored their mother’s side of the family. They were adept at listening closely and had been taught to voice their opinions when they had an opinion and to be respectfully quiet when they didn’t. The younger sister, Vivian, was not a gifted listener. Emil Seidel arrived the day before the wedding wearing a duster and goggles, with his son and a driver in a dark blue Dodge Phaeton. He had prepared some remarks especially for the occasion touching on fidelity and social justice. He loved a crowd. Dulcie Stimpert read a poem and Beryl Fulenwider sang a song. Lucas and Helene exchanged their vows under a bower of crabapple and cottonwood out on the cut grass between the pole barn and the fruit trees, the Reverend Joseph Mason Prell presiding. Half the county stood up with em, most of the other half brought food by later. Being Methodists, there was dancing.
In those first years, things were getting just a little bit better. Prices were holding up some, foreclosures had mostly stopped, banks were loaning seed money again, Mr. Roosevelt had his health, the country was on the backside of the depression and the trouble in Europe and China seemed very far away. The kids came along directly, first, the little boy in, I think, 1940 and the little girl the year after that. The little boy was jovial from the start, the little girl was fussy and colicky.
The war broke the rhythm of the family, like it did all across the county. Luke’s father watched the place and Luke went away to do his duty along with most of the young men east of the river. He was gone three and a half years.
They came back mostly alone. Oh, sometimes they’d meet up with somebody on the train and then they’d come in together, at least as far as Yankton or Rapid City but mostly they came home alone. Sometimes a phone message’d get passed around and a family would pack up and go down to meet the train and they’d be there waitin’ when he got off but that didn’t happen all too often. Usually they’d come in and head right out to the blacktop with a duffel over their shoulder and just hitch with whoever’d pick ‘em up. Most days there was two or three boys at a time out on State 50, tryin to catch a ride west out of Yankton. But with the uniforms and all, it wasn’t too long before somebody’d happen along and ask em how far or what county and they’d take em on as far as they could and then try to hand them off to someone who could take em a bit farther. That’s how it was when Lucas came back. He showed up dusty and tired on the county road about four in the afternoon. Justice Fulenwider saw him walking along and even from the back he knew it was Luke.
Well, they lost the little boy, Robert his name was, when he was about twelve. He was one of those three boys who drowned on the Fourth of July, down at the river just above Chamberlain, you remember, took two weeks to find their bodies, one of ‘em washed all the way down to Gregory County. The little girl, Ruthie, grew up kind of wild, never really got along with the mother and ended up marrying some guy and moving to California. Things were just never right after the little boy drowned. The little girl was kind of willful and had some trouble in school, I think. Anyway, when she got married and moved away, that left Helene and Lucas up there in that house alone. The summer they had that big fire in Reliance, she started seeing some guy over in Huron. I think it probably started off innocently enough. He worked in a hardware store or something and he probably made some remark, in passing, about her hair or some such and she liked it and when she went back over there, of course, she was kind of looking for him. And the compliments got better and she felt her cheeks get hot and was maybe a little surprised.
Anyway, Lucas hated running all the way over to Huron for little things so he’d send her and she would go willingly and sometime around May, she arranged to visit her sister and stay over at her house for the night. She met this guy for dinner and maybe that was the first time they slept together. He had a little house out west of town and his neighbors had all known him since he was a kid delivering newspapers from his bicycle. He’d bought that little place when Mrs. Elliott passed on. Anyway, maybe that was the first time.
After that, whenever she had to go to town, she’d manage to come over around lunchtime and they’d meet up at his place and take an hour together. She started fussing with her nails again and worrying about her weight.
Lucas never saw it coming. When she moved out, he kept the shades drawn at the house for a long time. Karl stopped by a couple of times and knocked on the door. He could hear Luke moving around inside but he wouldn’t answer the door. Mostly folks just decided he needed some time alone.
About the third or fourth day, Tommy Fulenwider noticed the stock hadn’t been watered so he pulled his truck up into the yard and spent the better part of an hour doing chore work. As he was leaving, he noticed Luke sitting out on the back stairs watching him so he waved but Luke never moved.
Tommy and his dad took to stopping by twice a day, morning and evening, just sort of keeping up with the obvious stuff, until one morning they found Luke’s truck had been moved and the stock watered and they stopped coming by every day. Tommy saw him out in the yard a couple of times and raised his hand out the window of his truck and Luke nodded back.
Tommy’s dad, Ray, was a real quiet fella, hardly ever said a word. But he decided somebody needed to go over and talk with Luke. He talked to Karl about it but Karl was so bull-headed that having knocked on the door and having Luke refuse to open up meant Karl wasn’t going back over there for a while. So Ray waited til he caught Luke out by the barn one evening and he pulled into the yard and spent an hour or so with him sitting up on the back stoop. Never would really say what they talked about except to say things had changed but, even so, maybe Luke was going to be okay.
That summer, Luke started selling stuff. At first, he took a few things into the thrift store in Alpena, left them there on consignment, just some clothes and some china. The next week, he took in a fancy bookcase with glass doors and a big antique mirror. He saw Charlie Hays in the parking lot at Hadley’s and offered to sell him the forty head of cattle he was running on leased land down at the river, south of Chamberlain. Gave him a real good price, so low that Charlie couldn’t pass it up. Luke said he’d take a check now for most of it and then settle up in the fall when they went down to round them up. Charlie wrote him a check right there on the hood of his truck.
In these days, Luke was kind of like a ghost, coming and going at odd times, it was hard to catch a glimpse of him. Did all his shopping down at Hadley’s late at night, when the place was near deserted. After ten, Grace, the cashier, was pretty much all alone. She said he hardly ever said a word, usually seemed to slip in when she had her head turned, gathered up the things he wanted, paid his bill and was gone. Of course, she always asked him how he was doing, like she did with everybody, and he always said he was doing fine but he’d hardly ever look right at her, just keep staring at the cash register and fingering his billfold. But Grace remembered the days when he’d come in and chat about most everything, so now he made her feel sad and a little uneasy, like maybe there was something she should be doing. Now he seemed like he was distracted, in a hurry even, although, at that hour, the town was quiet and most folks were home in bed, didn’t seem to be a reason to be in a hurry but he seemed like it. After a while, she just stopped trying to make small talk and rang his groceries and made change for him. He came in less often. She figured he must be shopping somewhere’s else and, finally, he just stopped coming in altogether.
It was a dry year and the yields were down. When it was time to start combining, like most years, the Fulenwiders finished first, them having so many older kids. Luke ran his equipment late into the night, sometimes going til 2 or 3 am. Sometimes he’d just curl up in the cab of his truck and sleep a couple of hours and then start in again when it was light. Anyways about three weeks in the Fulenwiders drove two combines over to Luke’s place and started in on those fields north of the road. What with the two Fulenwider boys and the rain coming late and all, he got his alfalfa in.
He told Tommy Fulenwider to tell his dad, he was going to sell off some of his equipment and he wanted them to have first chance at it. He reached up and with his finger drew a number in the dust on the window of his combine, a big International Harvester, barely three years old and the number was low. Tommy blinked and asked if he was sure and Luke nodded, so Tommy said he’d talk with his dad that night.
In the next three weeks, he sold that big IH and an old Massey-Ferguson he had parked out behind the barn. He sold two of his horse trailers and some of his welding equipment and two shotguns. And he sold that little 1935 Case tractor he’d restored, the one he used to drive every year in the Fourth of July parade.
Around the first of October, he and Charlie Hays trailered a half dozen saddle horses over to the Bennett’s place which sits above the river valley, above the government land Luke had leased for so long and with two of the Bennett boys took that string of ponies down into the river valley for three or four days and in the end, Charlie had bought forty-four head of mixed breed, white-face Herefords and Red Polls. All told, he owed Luke some money and, being uneasy about the good deal he’d already gotten, tried to pay Luke what he thought was closer to the real value of the extra beef. But Luke stood by his original offer and insisted on the number they’d agreed to back in the parking lot at Hadley’s, only allowing for an increase for the four extra head. Charlie wrote him another check on the hood of his truck.
As so often happens in a dry year, winter came on wet and hard and by the first of November, two feet of snow was drifting into the ditch out on the county road. The county plows started in but they never came up the road as far as Luke’s. He had a blade on the front of the old four-wheel drive Dodge and, anyway, a couple of times a week, Tommy would run his plow up past Luke’s to the Stuart place. Lucas disappeared for the winter.