A dairy farm of the type Otto grew up on
(Chapters 10, 11 & 12)
Mata Kerchner, now 91 and living with her son and daughter-in-law in a house built by the Peterson Builders, her first husband’s family company, reflects back over her life, her family and the tumultuous times through which they all lived.
I interviewed her for this book during the month of November, 2014, sitting on a sunny porch with a southern exposure with some of the most beautiful farms I have ever seen across the fields spread before us. She offered me tea, apologizing that they really didn’t know how to make sweet tea in Wisconsin, but telling me, “We won that right when we kicked your butt in the Civil War.” And she winked.
She didn’t live long after that, but here is her story as she told it. I’m glad I was able to put it all down before she joined Pete and Tom and the rest of the family, mounting up with the “wings of morning.” I hope you will write down your loved ones’ stories before they too journey beyond the blue horizon. Mata speaks:
I am an old woman now, and do not expect to have much more time on this beautiful earth, so I thought I would tell you about my life. Every October I remember the first time my brother Otto and I went trick or treating. That was Halloween of 1930. I was eight and Otto was ten. He was a typical big brother with a younger sister: teasing, impatient, but also protective and caring. And if you’ve been around him for more than five minutes, you know that he is crazy about airplanes and aviation and that Charles Lindbergh was his biggest hero. But our first Halloween night when we were out trick or treating we found out he could not protect me from everything.
Mama told us, as she did about everything else, how it used to be in the “old country” in the Hartz Mountain area where she grew up. When she found out our plans to go trick or treating, she sat us down at the kitchen table and spoke to us in her warm, firm way. “Mein kinder, in the old country we did not go door to door begging candy from people we did not know. But we had other times we dressed up and received sweets.” She leaned back in her kitchen chair and smiled. “Halloween for us was a religious observance, the evening before Allerheiligen, or All Saints Day, when we remembered all the saints.”
“You remembered the saints?” Otto asked. “I thought we were Lutheran.”
Mama smiled again, somewhat wistfully. “I was Catholic until I married your pater?. I almost became a nun before I met him. If I had, I would not have had you two wonderful kinder.” Otto dropped his head, embarrassed but pleased to be so complimented. I reached over and took Mama’s hand and held it.
“And we are so lucky to have such a wonderful Mutter,” I told her with a slight catch in her voice. Mama patted her hand. “I am so pleased when you use words from your first language.” She caressed my hair, which was long and red hair and then put both hands in her lap, studying the ceiling for a moment to recall her story and then continued on.
“If we had had Halloween then, we wouldn’t have said—what is it? How do you ask for candy when you go out?”
I smiled faintly. Her dear Mutter could be so cute at times. At other times she could be not so cute, in fact, strict if she needed to do so, which she didn’t very often–with her. Otto, however, was another story.
“Children here say, ‘Trick or treat,’ Mama.”
“Ah, well then. We would have said, ‘Süßes oder Saures!’ Do you know what that means?”
She looked at them expectantly, but they only shook their heads. “It means—trick or treat!” She laughed heartily and slapped her knee while we looked at each other, bemused. Our mother didn’t make many jokes, but when she did, they were like this one—unexpected and droll. “Ah, but later on, just a few days later, came Fasching and St. Martinstag.”
I wrinkled my brow. “What do those words mean?”
Mama looked perfectly at peace. “We started celebrating on der eleventh of November at 11:11 AM.”
“That was the time the Armistice was signed ending the Great War,” Otto murmured.
Mama nodded. “Jawhol, and that is why that date and time was chosen to end that horrible war.
“Fasching is a wonderful occasion of parties, parades, parties, bonfires, celebrations, gifts, marvelous food and sweets, costumes and dress balls. Everyone wears a costume during this time. Also several guilds are elected to form a pretend government, and they make fun of the actual government, but it’s all in good fun. The people also choose a carnival prince and princess who plan the carnival festivities.
“Now, this is also a religious festival, marking the season before Lent when people enjoy themselves as much as possible before they deny themselves starting on Ash Wednesday.”
“Like Mardi Gras in New Orleans and other places,” I mused.
Papa came in from milking and sat at the table. “Why are you talking to Otto when I need him to help me?”
I sat up. “Mama was telling us about Halloween in the old country.”
Papa snorted. “Humph! No doubt she was telling you about those heathen practices by the papists. You tried to entice us into your false religion by giving us sweets on Reformation Day.”
Mama brought him a cup of coffee and set it down. “Papa, you know that was all a long time ago.”
Papa took a sip. “Yes, and who knows what would have happened to you if I had not come along and rescued you.”
Mama looked down demurely. “I would have become a nun. Then we would not have had für diese wundervollen Kindern, these wonderful children.”
I had never seen my father look chagrined before, but he did at this. He looked away for a moment. “Das heißt wahr,” he murmured. That is true, I translated in my head. And it was.
Mama bustled around the kitchen for a moment, and then made the same motions that she used to shoo the chickens into their little house. “Go! Go! Get on your costumes! We will drive you to town!”
“Und was werden Sie tragen warden?” Papa asked. “And what will you be wearing?”
“I’m going as ein junges Mädchen gergman,” I answered. “A young German girl in traditional dress.”
I smiled. “You might be surprised to know that Otto is going as Charles Lindbergh.”
Papa threw his hands in the air. “Well, of course, I should have guessed! That boy is going to turn into an airplane!”
Mama laughed. It’s the coming thing, Papa. Our Otto will be rich and famous one day.”
Papa sat down heavily. “He will if I don’t kill him first.”
Mama went over and kissed him on the top of his head. “Don’t worry, mein Schatz. I’ll make sure you don’t hurt each other.”
“And I couldn’t ask for a better Ehefrau.”
My father wasn’t tender with my mother very often, so this is the memory I treasure most of our time growing up. They are gone now, but I think of them often and I remember them well.
Otto and I jumped out of the back of Papa’s Model T truck. He could have afforded a fancier, newer model, but he said it was good enough for farm work and that he didn’t want the trouble and expense of keeping draft horses, although many farms in the area still did. He was frugal and opinionated, my papa, and I miss him still today. I hope I’ll see him soon.
We were dressed in our costumes as I have told you, and Otto did look so much like a young Charles Lindbergh. That’s not surprising because he was ten years old, ha, ha, clad in a little leather flight jacket Mama bought him with her egg money at Petersen’s Department Store, which is still there on Main Street in town. And I, I looked the part of a young German girl. Forgive me for chuckling at myself. I do find it amusing so many years later, and I trust you caught my joke.
Other kids at school had told us to go trick or treating in the richest part of town, out toward the lake off East Sawyer Street, where the doctors and lawyers and bankers lived. We planned to meet up with Betty Ross, Otto’s little girlfriend, although he threw things at me if I called her that. “I don’t have a girl friend,” he huffed. “Betty is my friend!”
I would smile and say, “Sure she is, Otto,” and wink at him, which made him even madder.
“Be careful, meine Kinder!” Mama called, while Papa looked ahead impatiently. He planned to take Mama over to Main Street, where they would see their neighbors who had also brought their children in for an evening of trick or treating. They wouldn’t go to a movie or a restaurant or do frivolous shopping. Mama and Papa were typically German: frugal and serious almost to a fault. They could have fun, Mama more so than Papa, but even that usually involved something practical. Mama said she enjoyed snapping beans, but just between us, I didn’t. I forced myself to do so, thinking I would be a good wife for my husband some day and practice all the womanly household arts. Of course, none of us could have foreseen the radical changes that were soon to be thrust upon us in the next decades.
We waved and ran off toward the lake. Otto always commented on the electric lights. I had to agree that their golden glow made that area of town look like a magical fairy land. We did not get power at the farm until 1935, although it was available. Papa said oil lanterns and manual tools were good enough for his father, so they were good enough for us. The tribes who lived out by the railroad tracks didn’t get power until after we did. In retrospect, I can see that there was an incredible racial prejudice in place that denied them what we had much earlier. This was acceptable in those days, but we learned the error of our ways after harming and even killing so many people with our horrible policies. My, don’t I sound like one of those radicals I see on television? An old lady is entitled to her opinions, I suppose, and I have a lot of them. Thank you for listening to me talk on and on.
We saw Betty coming toward us dressed as a princess in a blue gown with a beautiful translucent cape made from sheer white cotton. The light from the lamps overhead made her glow, and I heard Otto suck in his breath. “Your girl friend looks so beautiful tonight,” I whispered so she couldn’t hear.
He kicked me. “Don’t say that to her,” he hissed, “or I’ll put spiders in your room.”
I decided to be quiet. I was so afraid of spiders in those days. But Otto was equally terrified of snakes, so I glared back at him. “And I’ll load your room with huge poisonous snakes!”
He sneered. “I’d like to know where you’d get them. We don’t have poisonous snakes around here!”
“I’d get them from the zoo in Minneapolis.”
“How would you do that?”
I sniffed. “I’d take the train.”
“And where would you get the money?”
“I have some Mama gave me for helping with the chickens.”
“Awwww—I’m going to tell Papa!”
That made me furious. “You do that, Otto Kerchner, and I’ll put a double load of snakes in your room!”
“They won’t let you take them on the train.”
“Shush. Here’s Betty.”
She glided up to us like a real princess. I have told you before that her parents were some of the richest people in town, and it looked to me as if her costume had been hand-sewn by one of their maids. Their help doubled and tripled their jobs–maids not only greeted visitors at the door: they also sewed and mended, served at parties, organized the household, chauffeured, gardened, and all the rest of the things that must be done to keep up a grand house. And their house was grand, as I have told you. Forgive me if I repeat myself. I am doing that more and more of late.
She put out her hand and for a moment I thought Otto was going to kiss it. “Umm, hi, Betty. G-g-g-gosh, you look swell!”
She smiled that perfect smile of hers. I felt dumpy and ordinary in my homemade dress, blouse and jacket, but Mama always told us to be proud of who we were and where we came from, so when she turned to me and smiled, I took her hand. “You do look just like a fairy princess.”
In the light I couldn’t tell if she blushed, but I think she did. “Thank you Mata.” Her voice reminded me of water trickling over rocks in the stream behind the barn back on the farm. “And you look so charming. Is your outfit from Germany?”
It was my turn to blush. “Yes. This was my mother’s when she was my age.”
She smiled again and I thought Otto was going to explode. He pulled off his helmet and fanned himself. I thought his eyes were going to come out on stalks like the cartoon characters we saw when Mama let us go to the movies while she and Papa shopped along with everyone else in town on Saturdays. “And you look just like your hero, Otto.”
Then he blushed. “T-t-t-thank you, Betty. I made this up from pictures in the newspapers.”
“Well, shall we get started?” Betty sounded excited and happy.
“Let’s!” I exclaimed. And we linked arms and set off.
At first, we had a grand time that night visiting all the beautiful houses and having so much fun. Everybody knew everybody in those days, so people welcomed us with a bounty not only of candy. They had other treats and had decorated their houses so well that our eyes bugged out with the creativity and wonder of it all, and every other family wanted us to come in and have hot cider or bob for apples or play Pin the Hat on the Witch. Otto and I had bought burlap seed bags that held about a quart, while Betty had a special Halloween sack decorated with crescent moons and ghosts and skeletons which the maid had sewn for her. Otto and I soon filled up our bags, but while we took the largest candies we could carry (Otto began his life-long love of Hershey bars then. He said the best thing about serving in the air corps was the free chocolate), Betty took one piece at each stop. She had eaten that way since she was a baby, according to her mother, which is why she continued to be so slim through the years, even up to the end.
We saved the doctor’s house for last. Dr. and Mrs. Carter didn’t live in the largest or grandest house in town, but it was a pleasant white two-story house with large rooms on the ground floor and four bedrooms on the second story. The Carters had one son, John (whom they called ‘Jack) who was killed during the waning days of the Great War. Jack flew for about a year with Rickenbacker and the other members of the Lafayette Escadrille. On a November morning in 1917, one year to the day before the Armistice was signed, he was jumped by four Fokker triplanes after his Sopwith Camel developed engine trouble and fell behind the rest of his flight. The other aircraft were low on fuel and had to land. Troops in their trenches observed Jack trying everything he knew to get away from the swarming Germans, but he was overpowered by superior numbers and took a bullet through the heart. As sometimes happened in these instances, he either lived long enough to glide the Sopwith to a smooth landing, or the aircraft landed itself, much like Richthofen the next April. We will never know.
The Carters were never the same afterward. I had heard Mrs. Carter had come to terms with her loss as well as she could, but Dr. Carter blamed the military for glamorizing such a dangerous undertaking. He was our doctor, and a good one, but he and my father often exchanged harsh words about the war. My father fought for the Germans after being drafted before he married my mother. They came to the States in 1920 where Otto was born. I arrived two years later.
Dr. Carter and my father never resolved their differences, although he took good care of us until his death many years later. Even today you can visit the War Memorial in the center of town and see Jack’s name at the bottom of the list of those who died in the Great War. I suppose I should call it World War I, but old habits die hard with this old lady. I have walked by the memorial countless times and watched name after name added to those who made the great sacrifice through war after war after war. They are so numerous I cannot tell you how many there are.
It is a quiet and beautiful place, but it is so very sad.
In truth, we were growing tired at that point, and perhaps secretly glad that our first night trick or treating was drawing to a close, so we walked slowly up the long flagstone walk and knocked on the front door. Dr. Carter himself opened the door, smiled at Betty and me, and then his eyes settled on Otto.
I have seen a lot of shocked looks from people before, but none like the one that crossed Dr. Carter’s face. He quickly recovered himself, and I wondered what he had seen. I turned to look at Otto and he was frozen, whether in fear or what I do not know. Dr. Carter shook his head, drew himself up to his full height, and called to his wife, “Rose, come here, please.”
We heard a quiet bustle as she came to the door. “Would you give these children some candy? I have a sudden headache and must lie down.”
Mrs. Carter nodded and reached behind the door for some candy. She leaned over as she offered it to us, whispering, “You’ll have to excuse the doctor. He hasn’t been feeling well all evening.”
I recognized her excuse as one of those lies adults tell children so they won’t be upset. I saw in an instant that Otto’s costume had set something off in Dr. Carter, something about his son and what he never became. We were innocent, of course. Maybe our parents could have done something, but they in their own way were equally innocent. And it is always the innocent who seem to suffer the most.
We picked our way back to Betty’s house where we waited on the porch for our parents to come pick us up. We didn’t say much, and not even the prospect of gorging himself on chocolate seemed to lighten Otto’s mood.
The model T came into sight, and we said our good-byes and climbed in.
“So, did you have a good time?” Mama asked.
“It was all right,” Otto mumbled.
“Only all right? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I want to go home and go to sleep. I’m tired.”
Otto fell asleep on my shoulder before we got home, and as we drove straight toward a setting moon, I wondered what lay ahead for him, and for me. All around us, the darkness grew deeper, and the moon had no answers.