Column: Dad sure knew how to weave a story

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From the Eclectic Mind of Roger VanHaren

Roger VanHaren

If you had known my dad, you’d know that he was a good storyteller. He loved to talk about things that happened when he was younger, and he had a real flair for language despite his not having gone to school beyond the eighth grade. He had a nice feel for narration and a good sense of humor.

So in early 2000, I asked Dad to sit down and write some of his stories so that our kids would have some of the oral tradition of our family to look at. I thought it was important to preserve them. So, for a while, he was pretty diligent about sending me some handwritten stories, even though he said he “didn’t know how to write,” insisting that he didn’t know about “spelling and punctuation and all that.”

I have carefully saved, in their original forms, the 15 or so manuscripts he sent me and also typed and stored them in my iMac’s memory. The handwritten items are really cool to have because my kids haven’t seen any of my dad’s writing – he’s not a big letter-writer. In the play, “Safe at Home,” there’s a line which Emma, the mom, says about a recipe from her mother: “It’s in her words, and I want to hang onto them.” That’s how I feel about Dad’s stories.

Well, anyway, after about those first 15 or so entries, Dad professed to have a sort of writer’s block and stopped sending them. I can relate to that. I know how it is to sit down to write and there’s no idea there. But with me, it usually takes only a glance into my ubiquitous pocket notebook (where I keep germs of ideas), and then off I go. Sometimes, all it takes is a little time away and then I can get back to it. So I was hoping that Dad would consent to start writing again, but it never happened. Whenever I’ve written in this column about the “olden days,” I’ve always gotten a lot of response. (Maybe that says something about the age of my readers!) So today I’ve decided to share one of Dad’s stories with you, OK? Here it is:

“The life of a farmer was not an easy one. Cows had to be milked and fed. Fields had to be tilled. Rocks and weeds had to be removed. Crops had to be planted, cultivated and harvested, and all the daily chores always had to be done. But one of the great things about those days was the way people always helped each other. For threshing and silo-filling especially, I helped 15 neighbors and they helped us. Whenever we needed a hand, no matter what, someone was always there to help out. It was hard, dusty and dirty work, sometimes hot and sometimes cold, but the camaraderie and the friendships that developed in those days would be hard to match nowadays. Neighbors weren’t just people who lived next door; they were true ‘fellow men,’ willing to help out in any way they could.

“I remember one time, on a cold, frosty morning, several of us were doing some butchering at our place. (In those days, we butchered our own animals for meat and, as always, we’d help each other out — trading labor and cuts of meat.) Bob Renel, a naturally funny friend who lived up the road a little ways, came speeding down the road lickety-split, way too fast for conditions, on his way to help out. And just as he got to Greg Konitzer’s driveway across the road from our place, he let up on the gas very quickly and his radiator blew up, covering his windshield with water, which promptly froze up, and he couldn’t see where he was going. Later, he said, ‘Chet, when I saw your mailbox go by me on the wrong side, I decided I’d better turn in!’

“Bob was a funny guy. He was always doing something crazy. He was a real daredevil; he drove too fast, he took too many chances, but he was fun to have around and would go out his way to help anybody. One time, he was on his way to help my brother-in-law George with something because a horse had stepped on George’s ankle and he couldn’t get around. And, as usual, Bob was driving too fast. In the back seat of his car, he had my 16-pound maul, which he had borrowed for driving fence posts. He slammed on the brakes to turn in to George’s driveway, but missed it and went slamming into the ditch. The car stood straight up on the front end, and that maul came flying forward and hit Bob in the back of the head.

“I was in George’s barn helping with his chores and saw it happen and ran out there. By the time I got there, Bob was staggering around like he was drunk.

“‘Are you OK?’ I asked him.

“He answered, ‘Yeah, but you better check your maul!’

“I did, and I said, ‘It’s all right.’

“After I pulled him out of the ditch, he went on. The next day, I saw him and asked, ‘How are you?’

“‘I’m fine,’ he said, ‘But I don’t know which lump to put my hat on!’”

Thanks, Dad. You’re now a published author!

Can you see why I wanted Dad to write more stories? I grew up in the days of people helping people, and I remember those days of going from farm to farm to help with harvesting crops, and all the good times we had. I have very vivid memories of long, tall, skinny Bob Renel with his boots and cowboy hat and all the crazy stuff he’d do. Unfortunately, Dad never got around to writing more stories, but I surely treasure the ones I have.

Contact Roger VanHaren at