A Winter's Tale
December 1, 2001
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Winter holidays bring on stories of the old days, back when it was colder and we were poorer but we worked harder and we didn't know any better.
In the early 1950s we burned coal at home, up there in North Dakota. Rudy Lessard owned the lumber yard in town, as well as a potato warehouse and a pickle-making operation. He was known as a good guy and at the lumber yard he gave away note pads and wooden pencils to kids on the way to school, knowing that some didn't have either one. The Lessard Lumber logo sat on desks in front of the town's kids for over 20 years.
There were 6 coal bins along the sidetrack that served the lumber yard, different brands and grades of coal in the bins. The coal was identified by little markers of hard pressed paperboard, like cardboard only stiffer and denser, shiny on both sides, that was mixed in and would burn with the coal. Black Dog coal had black tags shaped like scotty dogs, slightly larger than a book of matches, with "Black Dog Coal" on them. You could clean them off on the cuff of your pant leg and they'd shine like enamel.
The Titanic brand had the now-familiar angular shape with the dramatic four stacks, done in a tasteful grey, but the favorite was Red Heart: the name Red Heart Coal on a sweet little bright red marker in the shape of a heart. They'd be most in demand around the middle of February when they'd be shined up and glued to cards and made into Valentines. They are lost to everyone now, an object so cheap and commonplace that no one ever saved them; they don't even show up in antique stores.
We liked those coal bins along the tracks. We'd stand in the winter cold after school and watch men unload low-sided flat gondola cars into the bins, shoveling mechanically with worn short-handled shovels, not saying much, their breath rising in the early darkness like steam from the locomotive itself. It was part-time work for them, usually construction or railroad guys laid off for the winter. Big Olaf Skyme, six foot four, loomed like a giant shoveling machine up there; his shovel was louder and more emphatic than the others. The bins were made of 2x10 plank spiked inside vertical 4x6s, the pilings set deep into the ground every eighteen inches to hold the weight in: solid as bridges, those bins.
At 4:30 the next morning myself and quite a few other kids like me, or our fathers, would be in cold basements shoveling Rudy's coal into stokers with similar flat square shovels, rekindling the glowing embers in the furnace, the hot air ducts stretched out over our heads like low branches of a great tree, gaunt and angular in the greasy light of the bare bulb. We'd make sure the fire was going good and then run back upstairs and dive under the covers for a couple more hours, glad to only have a little to shovel and not whole carloads like those guys at the yards.
Olaf Skyme was also the section foreman for the railroad; they had a small two-room building along the track next to the lumber yard for him to live in. There was a train wreck by Thief River Falls that winter and the Northern Pacific needed the various section crews around to come help repair the torn up track. The call came when Olaf had just started a load of clothes in the 1926 electric Maytag washing machine the railroad furnished him. He got the crew together and in the hurry to get over to Thief River forgot about his laundry and left the machine running. When they got back six days later the wash was still chugging away. The local paper ran the story on the front page, captioned: "Railroader's Dungarees Clean as a Whistle."
But about Rudy; he was a good guy who had brought upon himself the bad fortune of marrying Donna Gilman, who came from a family whose name was synonymous with flinty greed. It was well understood that the Gilmans were crooked and mean and any deal you entered into with them would see you ending up on the short end. They'd argue with the paper boy when he came to collect, try to beat him out of a couple of issues they said they hadn't received, and the boy would generally give in just to end it and move on to the next house even though he knew they were trying to screw him out of a few coins. Donna's mother would argue with the butcher about cuts of meat; her father would scratch something in the general store and then want a discount for it being damaged. There were a lot of stories.
Rudy acquired a few properties over the years, some through trades and some from people who needed to sell quickly, and maybe even a couple in poker games in the back room at the Legion Club in the small hours of the morning. Who knows. Rumors get around. Anyway, he owned a smallish two-bedroom farm house by the river just a mile out of town, easy walking distance. He rented it to a woman whose husband had been paralyzed in a car accident; they had two kids and times were tough. Rudy charged them 15 dollars a month rent and kept it that way for 18 years, never raised it. Mildred Abrahamson was the lady's name, worked at the city hall. Usually walked in but in the later years she'd get a ride from a friend at work, and then her son grew up and got a job and bought a car and he'd come out and get her. The place was old and crudely built, with rough pine floors, small windows and gaps in the wood siding, but she kept it immaculate, rough as it was. The counter was always clean, the floors and walls spotless, the old cupboards gleaming. Some thought Rudy kept the rent down because he liked the way she took care of that house.
It was known around town that his wife was peeved about him renting the house so cheap; she'd make comments about it now and then, which of course were further proof of how stingy and heartless that damn Gilman bunch were. "She's a nice person, I'd never say anything bad about her, nicest person you'd ever want to talk to, but that family of hers, and she's just like the rest, all they care about is money. Makes a person sick..."
Rudy died one cold February night and the next morning Donna went down to the funeral home to make arrangements, and then to the pastor's house for more necessary details. That same afternoon she was seen walking on the snow-drifted road out to Abrahamson's place.
She was not there long. Word went quickly that she had walked out there in the freezing cold while Rudy's body was still warm and told Minnie that she was raising the rent to $45 a month. Mildred told her, "Well that's fine. My sister has a place outside of El Paso Texas and for years she's asked us to move down there and live with her. So now we will."
The house sat empty. Donna advertised it in the paper. "FOR RENT: Two bedroom house, clean, large lot, good well, 1 mile from town. $45/mo. Call ----." Forty-five bucks a month wasn't high rent, even back then, but no one would deal with her. They'd all heard the stories.
Weeds grew tall around it. Trees took root next to the front stoop and the paint peeled. The ad showed up in the paper now and then for five years and then was given up. Holes appeared in a front window, and soon there was no unbroken glass anywhere in the house. The back door banged in the wind until a hinge cracked and gave way, and the door hung akimbo and finally fell off. Storms tore the roof loose in places and water streaked the once well-scrubbed walls. Transients would spend a few nights there on the way through town, building fires on the kitchen floor.
Donna died in 1968, 12 years after Rudy did, having lost $2160 in rent she could have collected over that time; enough to buy a new car. People wondered if she thought about that at the end. Wondered if it taught her a lesson. Doubted it.
Ran into Mildred's son about that time, at the bar in the VFW there; he said his father had passed on but his mother really liked it down there in El Paso.
. . . .