Ozzie's Stories and Essays

   
   

 
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Old Man Oz editing a manuscript in Sacramento

My Biggest Writing Project

On May 31, 2013 I published a historical novel set in northern Minnesota during the last year of WWII, 1944-1945.  It was quite an experience dredging up memories of growing up on a poor farm and attending a one-room country school from grades 1-8.  My book is titled Mr. Teacher, and it deals with a young farm boy who is given a medical discharge out of basic training for a nervous condition the Army called "adjustment disorder, with depressed moods."  Ernie Juvland takes a one-year teacher training program and receives his certificate to teach in a one-room country school.  He loves teaching and connects well with his young farm students, but many complications arise, and his first year turns out to be a hellish experience. 

You can order my book through www.amazon.com. Search <Mr. Teacher> for either paperback or Kindle editions.

I have previously written about World War II and its effects on our family for Echoes Magazine, which is now out of print.  In writing Mr. Teacher, I was able to draw on some of the experiences I wrote about in Five Stars in the Window and Picture of a Soldier, which are included below.  These stories will give you a sense of the time and setting of my book. 

Five Stars in the Window
by Ozzie Tollefson
I was five years old when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. In that year, our nation declared war on three countries, Japan, Germany and Italy.

As news of the bombing and President Roosevelt's declaration of war on Japan came to our farmhouse in Northern Minnesota, my older brothers gathered around the huge radio. I had seven brothers, and they were talking about enlisting or waiting for the draft. Two joined the navy and three became soldiers. Five brothers went off to fight the war. My mother hung a small blue flag in our kitchen window. On the flag, set in a circle, were five white stars. Most of my childhood memories were connected to war. The dramatic voices of news broadcasters came through our big battery radio that sat squat and portentous in the corner of the living room. I could hear bombs exploding, and the static of the shortwave transmissions sounded like the roar of the oceans those airwaves crossed.

Even at home, our lives were affected. We were told to grow Victory Gardens because food was rationed. Gasoline was rationed too, and it was almost impossible to buy a set of tires. We had "black-out" drills where we put blankets over the windows so the enemy couldn't see our house if they tried to bomb at night.
On Saturday nights the farmers went to town. The mothers sat on benches in the grocery store or in the cafe and talked about war; the men played cards in the tavern and talked about war. The kids all went to the picture show. I liked Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, but I was also fascinated with the newsreels, "The March of Times." I saw grim-faced soldiers staring out of muddy trenches, young sailors firing sixteen-inch guns off battleships, mothers holding babies at train stations waving good-bye to soldiers riding off on a troop train. "Time marches on."

My mother wrote letters to my brothers on special light- weight stationary, like tissue paper. She walked up the dirt road to the mailbox and returned with the St. Paul Pioneer Press. She spread the newspaper across the kitchen table and called me to her side. I saw maps of places I had never heard of and listened to my mother as she pointed to ugly black arrows showing the advancing allied forces moving toward the Rhine, matching on Berlin. The Pacific maps showed more arrows, many little islands and drawings of tiny ships moving across the waters. She took a pencil and wrote in the names of my brothers on the maps, pinpointing their location as close as she could determine from their letters.

One day she showed me a copy of Life Magazine. She pointed to a picture of six mean-looking men, standing erect in their black overcoats. In the middle was a strange face with a small black mustache. She tapped on his face with her finger and said, "That's the man your brothers are fighting against. He is very bad, and if God is not on our side, he might win the war." His name was Adolph Hitler.

My youngest brother, Arthur, was the last to be called into the army, drafted out of high school at the age of 18. Before they sent him to Europe, he came home for a Christmas furlough. I was eight years old, December 1944. There were five of us living on our farm then: me, my mom, two sisters, 12 and 17 and my brother Leonard, who got a medical discharge and worked the farm. Arthur arrived in the middle of the night; one of his high school buddies had met him at the train depot and drove him to our farm. I woke up in the darkness and smelled shoe polish, chewing gum and moth balls. He crawled in bed beside me and was soon asleep.
At breakfast he sat in his uniform and answered all our questions. I was fascinated with a shiny brass whistle which hung from his jacket. He told me I could borrow it while he was home, but I couldn't blow it in the house. I put on my coat and overshoes, ran out into the cold morning air and blew the whistle.

Then my brother Leonard called from down by the barn. He was getting ready to butcher pigs and needed my help. We took down my swing from the big oak tree branch and hung a heavy block and tackle in its place.

Arthur had put on work clothes and carried a .22 rifle down to the pigpen. I watched him approach a pig with the gun cradled in his right arm. In his left hand he held a corncob. The pig bit hard into the cob. Arthur held it firmly, placed the end of the barrel against the pig's forehead and fired. Leonard stuck a butcher knife into the pig's throat and I held the dishpan to catch the warm blood. My mother would use the blood to make blod klub, a Norwegian blood cake. In the kitchen my mother and sisters were boiling water on the old Home Comfort stove. I carried in firewood and hauled milk cans of hot water on my toboggan down to the oak tree to fill the scalding barrel. Leonard and Arthur pulled on the rope and hoisted the pig by its hind legs into the tree, then dunked it into the barrel of boiling water. They leaned the barrel against the end of a flatbed bob-sled. My brothers pulled the pig from the water and slid it onto the flatbed. They scraped the hair from the pig's steaming skin with sharp knives.

After dark, I went to the barn to feed skim milk to the calves. I held my lantern to the pig hanging white and gutted in the oak tree. I saw the red meat inside and touched the smooth, frozen skin.

The next day, Arthur and I took the Swede saw and my toboggan to the tamarack swamp and cut a Christmas tree. My sisters and I put tinsel and garlands on the tree and carefully clamped on tiny candle holders, making sure the flame would not reach the needles. On Christmas Eve we lit the tree and watched the flickering light for only an hour. My mother said a prayer for the boys at war. Then Arthur blew out the candles, one by one.
On Christmas it snowed all day. By evening, the road to the mailbox was drifted over. We watched at the window and saw the headlights of Arthur's buddy coming on the main road to take him to town. They were going to have a party before he got on the train that would take him to his company somewhere in Missouri. I lit the kerosene lantern, and Arthur loaded his duffel bag on my toboggan for the trip up the road to the mailbox. I led the way with the lantern, and Arthur pulled the toboggan. The snow was so deep my lantern made a little trail in the snow. We said good-bye in the howling wind, and I returned the brass whistle.

 I was the last person in my family to see Arthur alive. He was killed three months later, March 26th, 1945, crossing the Rhine River near Worms, Germany. Forty-five days later the war in Europe was over. The depot agent brought the telegram. I remember that yellow envelope lying on the kitchen table for days after. My mother cried when Arthur died. She cried harder a week later when the news came that President Roosevelt had died. He had been our voice of hope and courage through the long war.

On August 14, 1945, Japan surrendered. The war was over. We went to town that night, Leonard, Mom, my two sisters and me. Farmers gathered in the tavern to celebrate and mothers made plans for parties to welcome the boys home. Fire sirens, car horns and train whistles wailed into the night. I have never seen people so happy in my whole life.

In the weeks to come newspaper and magazine articles appeared with photographs of giant mushroom clouds. The atomic bomb was used on Japan to end the war. I was reading by then and quite frankly those articles and photographs frightened me more than anything I had seen or heard before. They still do.

By Christmas, my brothers were all home. They didn't say much about the war, and my mother told me to stop asking questions. They got on with their lives. They dated their old girlfriends, got jobs, married and had children. But the flag with the five stars still hung in the window. It was still hanging there when war broke out again. This time it was a little country called Korea.

Note: "Five Stars in the Window" was first published in ECHOES MAGAZINE.

PICTURE OF A SOLDIER 
by Ozzie Tollefson
I'm driving south of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on Route 15 heading for Gettysburg. September 14, 1995. The trees have lost their summer luster, and though the leaves have not begun to turn, they hang wrinkled and drab from a summer of drought. The farmers in these parts call it the worst they can remember.

An opened manila folder lay on the seat beside me. My dead brother looks up at me from a black and white photograph, lying there with photocopies from military histories, my scribbled notes and directions to the Battlefield Holiday Inn. "Bring along any pictures you have of him," Wayne Alderson had told me on the phone. "One of us might just remember him." Wayne and his wife Nancy have coordinated this year's reunion of Company `B', 7th Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division.

These men, now in their seventies, saw some of the bloodiest combat of World War II. They suffered heavy casualties in Anzio, Italy, invaded southern France, endured the bitter winter of 44-45 as they fought their way to the German border, the Colmar Pocket, the Siegfried Line and finally the Rhine River crossing on March 26, 1945, the night my brother died. His body was found two days later, a few miles down the river from the point of the crossing. He had no wounds. Cause of death: drowning.

I'm on a four lane stretch of highway with little traffic. I hold the picture in my hand. It's a blow-up of his head and shoulders from the group shot of his company taken during basic training at Camp Joseph T. Robinson. He was eighteen years old. I take short glances into his eyes. He looks apprehensive. Is he asking, "Now what?" For fifty years I've wondered about the night my brother died. In recent years I've read the military books, general accounts of the movement of troops, locations, dates, times, number of dead and wounded, but nothing vivid or detailed enough to place me in the boat beside my brother the night that Company "B" crossed the Rhine.
Battlefield Holiday Inn is in the center of Gettysburg. I stand on the steps and imagine it must be very close to Jenny Wade's house which I had visited with my family thirty years ago. Jenny was the only civilian killed in the Civil War battle that raged there on July 1,2 and 3, 1863. She was baking bread for soldiers when a stray bullet came through the wall and killed her. More than 50,000 soldiers joined her in death.

In the lobby I see a tall, thin man with only one leg. He walks with crutches, one pants leg folded up and fastened at the hip with safety pins. He wears a white baseball hat with blue lettering on front, "Company B, 7th Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division." I get my room key at the desk and ask for Wayne Alderson. Another veteran with the same baseball hat tells me he and his wife have gone for a walk around town. I'm also told that there will be a get-together in Hospitality Room "A" after dinner.

I go up to my room and stretch out on the bed. I try to doze off, but can't. The man with one leg. How did that happen? The other men in the lobby, all wearing the white baseball hats. Would my brother look like them, if he had made it through the war? I glance at his picture again. Nothing has changed. Troubled eyes forever frozen. The phone rings and it's Wayne Alderson. "Glad you could make it. Come down to the desk and join us for dinner."

We fill our plates at the long buffet table and sit at a large round table with a white linen table cloth and white napkins fanning out from the tops of our water glasses. Wayne Alderson introduces me to Robert O'Kane from New Hampshire, Tom Carr from San Antonio, Willis Daniels from North Carolina and Jack "Doc" Gover, the company medic from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I stand and shake hands with each of them and their wives. Jack Gover grew up in Corin, Kentucky, and I recognize his accent as similar to friends of mine from that coal country. His voice is soft and gentle, "I'm gonna introduce you at our little meeting after dinner and I have something I want to present to you." I thank him.

Wayne Alderson sits across from me. He is full of energy and a take-charge kind of guy. I was later to read in his biography "Stronger Than Steel" that he had been a scout and was the first American Soldier to cross the German border. At the Siegfried line his face was blown off by a German "Potato Masher". After six plastic surgery operations, he still carries a highly visible hole in his head just over his left eye. "Did you bring a picture of your brother?" he asks. I tell him I did. "Good," he says. "Bring it to the meeting and we'll pass it around."

After dinner I sit by Jack Gover in Hospitality Room "A". Voices are all around me, laughter and jovial talk. A three piece band is setting up over in the far corner. Wayne calls everyone to order in a loud voice. He goes over the itinerary which will include a guided bus tour of the battlefields at 1:00 P.M. tomorrow.

Jack now stands and introduces me. He presents me with an official Company "B" baseball hat, a name tag and a name tag for my brother Arthur. Why are they applauding? I thank them and shake Jack's hand. Now it is silent and I remain standing looking into some fifty faces, husbands and wives in their seventies, white baseball hats and kind eyes fixed on me. My voice is dry and I feel tears welling behind my eyes. "I want to thank Wayne and Jack for inviting me to your reunion. My brother Arthur was with your company from February 4th until you crossed the Rhine on March 26th. His body was found down river without any wounds. When the telegram arrived at our farmhouse in northern Minnesota, there were very few details. I was nine years old and for the past fifty years I've had a lot of questions about the night Arthur died. It's hard for me to talk, and it's not from the sadness of my brother's death. That was a long time ago. I guess it's the joy and gratitude I feel from being with you all."

I take a sip of water and wipe my eyes. I reach into my manila folder and pull out my brother's photograph. I hold it up for them to see. My hands are shaking. "This is the only picture we have of my brother in uniform. It was taken during basic training at Camp Robinson. I'll pass it around for you all to see. I know it was a long time ago, but if anyone remembers him I would sure like to talk to you." They applaud again and I sit down.

The meeting is winding down and men are coming up to me. Some remember the name, but have no specific recollections of being with him. One of the men had the company roster and he shows me the names of the men who joined the company as replacements with my brother. The band plays; they sing and laugh. At least a dozen men approach me from time to time offering what details of the river crossing they remember.

Willis Daniels tells me about carrying the sixteen foot aluminum boats through the woods in the cover of darkness, the heavy shelling from both sides of the river. Fourteen men to a boat, they sit in two rows, bodies heavy with winter clothes, rifle, full pack, ammunition belt and four bandoleers of extra clips. Some of the outboard motors won't start, boats drifting down stream, young soldiers paddling with helmets to cross the 984 feet of cold, black current.

Robert O'Kane describes the phosphorescent tracers overhead. "They gave me an eerie feeling of them seeking us out in the dark water. I tried to make myself smaller...to shrink inside of myself, and so present a smaller target." Tom Carr tells of boats going over, men in the water, heavy as stone going to the bottom. My brother is there. Suddenly he's gone. Taken by the river.

Now the photograph of Arthur has moved from hand to hand, of the men who were there, men who made it and the women they married. It comes back to Wayne Alderson and he stands again to make some closing comments. He studies the picture and speaks, "You know this picture represents all of us, because we were all that age at one time. We were just kids, wondering what it's all about. I see myself in this picture and especially those who didn't make it. This picture of Arthur is symbolic because it represents those veterans who paid the supreme price. They are the real heroes."

I didn't ride with Company "B" on the bus tour of the battlefields. I followed alone in my pickup. I haven't worn my Company "B" baseball cap nor will I in the future. I plan to build a glass case for the cap, Arthur's photograph, his medals and a GI can opener given to me last night by a veteran machine gunner the men call "The Chief". He said, "I want you to have something your brother had in his pocket when he died. If he didn't, he couldn't eat."
I sit in the parking lot and watch the bus unload at Cemetery Ridge. The veterans and wives slowly walk to the high-water mark of the Civil War. They stare out across the field to the west where Pickett made his ill-advised charge, where seven thousand soldiers died in two hours. I recall what Robert O'Kane said to me this morning at breakfast. "War is stupid, barbaric, it reduces one to do barbaric things one would never dream of doing. And that is a terrible human indignity. We have these reunions because the only people with whom we can communicate are those who were there. It is difficult for the man on the street to comprehend the utter terror, the utter feeling of hopelessness, the fear, the dirt, and everything that is barbaric. And those of us who know about it should talk more to anyone who will listen. Anything to alleviate the need for anymore of this stupidity."

Note: This article was first published in ECHOES MAGAZINE