Weeds: Overdoing the Christmas spirits just a little


Farmers raise a lot of things, including now shrimp, hemp, and arugula. But corn is still king. When farmers aren’t raising corn, they like to talk about corn.

Corn began and ended the conversation when Bart Kretschmer came over to take my order for Fertile Crescent Seed Corn. In between corn and corn, we weaved through the Vikings, Trump, families, and the demise of the 200-inning pitcher.

The corn part dealt with high yields, low prices, and high costs. That is cause and effect and cause. The expensive seed we plant has remarkable genetics, resistant to all sorts of bugs, diseases, and chemicals. Rumor has it Monsanto is working on napalm-resistant corn. We’ll show those weeds.

The Kretschmers have farmed out south of the Krzmarzicks for more than a century. Bart and I are continuing conversations that our grandpas started.

Such multigenerational friendships carry stories forward. One such story our fathers, both gone now, hoped would be forgotten. This was about 50 years ago in time. It might as well have been a thousand years ago in certain social practices

In small towns back then, business owners and their farmer customers were often friends. That remains in place today. It was a custom for businesses to serve up drinks the day before Christmas. That no longer happens. It was a way to toast the season past, the blessings they shared, and to continued friendship.

Farmers like Hugo Kretschmer and my dad, Sylvester didn’t get off the farm much; chores were constant. But there were always supplies needed on Christmas Eve day. This year, Hugo needed chicken feed and chain links for the manure spreader.

Feed meant a stop at the Poultry Clinic west of Sleepy Eye. Charlie Hillesheim smiled when Hugo came in. Charlie knew that Hugo knew that Charlie would have a bottle of Windsor below the counter. There were a couple other farmers there, and so the bottle was out. Lyndon Johnson, Orville Freeman, and Calvin Griffith took turns being skewered. There were jokes, too, almost mild enough to put into a newspaper column.

Next, chain links were procured at Miller Sellner. Hugo had an adversarial relationship when negotiating prices with Bud Miller and Norb Sellner. But it slipped quickly back into friendship. On this afternoon, cases of Grain Belt and Schmidt Beer greeted customers. A steady stream of farmers “needing” parts were sharing news from points around Brown County.

Sylvester joined that gathering. He and Hugo hadn’t seen each other in a while, and they decided to take the conversation up to the Eastside Liquor Store. Workers from Pietrus and Del Monte had different sorts of stories. Hugo and “Bester,” as Hugo called my dad, were enjoying their townie friends.

The men were in fine moods, but It was getting past time for chores. Hugo and Sylvester could see encroaching darkness every time another guy came in through the front door. They said their goodbyes and headed out.

As Hugo steered his ’56 Chevy truck down the empty, snow-crusted Main Street, he went past the Westside. He suddenly had an urge to wish a good Christmas to his buddy Red Schueller. (Yes, Sleepy Eye had Westside and Eastside Liquor Stores. A fellow could get thirsty walking a couple blocks.)

Red managed the Westside. He was wiping the bar down when Hugo came in. There were a couple guys left, guys who had nothing better to do on a Christmas Eve, and Red was about to chase them out. But glad tidings meant he had to share a drink with Hugo.

Back at home, Irene Kretschmer was starting to wonder. When Hugo finally got home, he drove the truck right to the barn instead of putting it in the shed. He never did that, and Irene had her suspicions as she looked out the kitchen window. But she had small children to tend, and the brood was especially squirrelly.

Hugo occasionally missed supper for pressing field work, but that was rare. The lights were on in the barn, so Irene carried on by herself: supper, clean up, dishes, baths, tend the baby. She often felt overwhelmed, but like moms everywhere, Irene put her head down and plowed ahead.

Hugo usually helped with kid chores when animal chores were done. Tonight though, no such aid was forthcoming. Finally, it came time to open some of the family gifts. Still no Hugo. Lights remained on in the barn, and Irene decided to check things. Eight-year old Mary was given instructions to maintain order.

Irene ran across the cold yard. She lifted the heavy latch and stepped into the warm barn. She could see the milking was done. Cows and calves were content. Christmas music was playing on the barn radio. Where was Hugo? She stepped to the feeding floor in front of the cows. There was her husband asleep on some hay bales. A stern look crossed her face. She guessed what caused this state.

It was that same look that greeted Hugo when he entered the house past ten. They had talked about going to Midnight Mass, but Irene had the kids in bed. “We’re not going to church with you like that!” she announced, her dissatisfaction clear. “We’ll have to go to early Mass to get to my family’s in time. You have to do chores early. That’s all right; I think you could use some penance.”

Hugo was feeling the back side of all those drinks. He nodded sheepishly. Much as he enjoyed the afternoon’s festivities, here was the price to pay, including a frosty reception from his wife on Christmas Eve.

The next morning, when Irene woke at four, the bed was empty. Hugo was in the barn. Besides the regular duties there was manure to clean out that should have been done the day before. He stayed on task, despite an ongoing urge to sit down and rest his head in his hands.

In the house by six, there followed a frenzy of kids waking, gift opening, getting everyone fed and clothed, and in the car for Mass. It wasn’t even light out yet. Hugo told himself that taking care of 20 cows was easier than four kids. But he wasn’t about to complain despite a splitting headache.

The young family made their appointed rounds. After Mass, there was a stop at Hugo’s mother’s house in town. The afternoon was spent with Irene’s family over by Comfrey. It was a whirlwind of visiting and eating and gifting. There were drinks offered, but Hugo declined those.

Hugo and Irene were civil in front of the relatives. They’d been married long enough though, that Hugo recognized a few glances from hell.

When he fell into bed that night, Hugo was done in. He felt as if he had been baling straw all day. Irene crawled in after putting the baby down. Usually this was the time Hugo put his arm around his bride as they reviewed the day. This time Hugo timidly moved a hand to Irene’s elbow.

“Nein!” A “no” in German was clear in any language. Hugo cringed in the dark, pulling his hand away. After a few moments of stillness, he offered in a whisper, “Froehle Weihnachten Irene.” A minute later came a reply, “Froehle Weihnachten Hugo,” a slight softening of tone. They often slipped into German when they were alone, the language they had spoken as children.

Hugo said, “The Christkind came to Earth to save sinners. I’m glad for that.”

Irene agreed, “We’re all sinners. But did you have to go and prove it yesterday?”

“I’m sorry, Irene.” Then after a pause, “Irene, I love you.”

After some silence, came a reply, “I love you Hugo. Even though it’s not always easy.”

Hugo whispered, “I know.” Now his hand went to her shoulder. It stayed there as the tired couple drifted to sleep.