My mother never met a grisly story she didn’t like.
And she never met one she considered unfit for her children, no matter how young we were. In fact, she often retold these stories to my little sister and me with startling, sometimes morbid delight, as though she not only wanted to tell us stories of death and grisly destruction, but she considered it her parental duty to do so.
I’m not just talking about the vague imparting of mishaps in broad strokes, either. I’m saying she really got down there in the muck and with a keen reporter’s eye relayed calamities she’d heard from another party or recounted those that she herself had witnessed first-hand.
I once heard my grandmother tell about how “Daddy,” which is what she and everyone called my grandfather, had “cut himself with a hatchet” one day when the children were young, while he was out splitting firewood. For my mother, my grandmother’s tepid little generalized anecdote was much too murky and way too lacking in all the horror, dread, and grisly details of the actual event.
Though I and my sister were standing right there and I was probably only six years old—if that—and my sister was three years younger, my mother hopped right in with: “Oh, god—I remember that day so plainly! He buried that blade so far in his leg I didn’t see how anyone was ever going to get it out. I think Bud or Wayne finally got it out, but only after a lot of pulling and grunting--and oh my gosh, there was blood everywhere!”
“Oh, Yvonne--the kids!” my grandmother scolded my mother, jerking her head at my sister and me.
The admonishment didn’t derail our mother a bit. The proverbial horse was out of the corral and it was galloping across the back forty...
“I remember we got him into the car, that old Model-A we had, and we all thought for sure he was going to bleed to death before we got him to the doctor in Rugby--twenty miles over rough roads. He was as white as a ghost! And afterwards, when he was all sewn up and we got him home, we kids had to go out and clean the blood out of the car. I remember his boot was half-full of the stuff!”
“Oh, Yvonne!” our grandmother admonished once more in defeat.
But it was too late. The horse was heading for the neighbor’s filly, and the image of that bloody axe and the deep gash in our white-as-a-ghost grandfather’s face had been burned into my and my sister’s impressionable young brains.
When I was maybe five years old, there was a middle-aged farmer named Boob Keller. Boob always dunked his fresh donuts in his black coffee, and I got a big kick out of that, the way little kids do.
Boob was a big, tall, affable man with a bald head and huge ears and a long, broad nose and jutting chin. His light-blue eyes were always smiling. He’d tell the funniest jokes and stories while sitting around my aunt and uncle’s farmhouse kitchen, often with me on his huge knee. This is when my family was living in Rolette, North Dakota, and we spent a lot of time out on my aunt and uncle’s farm near Cando, where the old Minnesota Vikings running back, Dave Osborn, grew up.
Anyway, Boob Keller, who always smelled like grease, pulled so many quarters out of my ears that I often thought I’d be rich if I could get at all the money that must have been rattling around inside my head. Boob would give me sips of his coffee, too, and my uncle, Leif Dahl, always told me it would make my blond hair turn black. After every few sips of coffee I’d go run and look in the bathroom mirror...
One night in our home in Rolette, my mother hung up the phone, sobbing. She’d just spoken to my aunt, Lenore. Boob was dead. He’d been killed that afternoon in his gyrocopter.
“In his blame gyrocopter!” my mother sobbed as though scolding Boob himself for being so foolish as to fiddle with something so dangerous.
“How did it happen?” Dad asked Mom, gently. We were all in the kitchen and dining room. Mom had been washing dishes, and Dad was drying.
“Apparently he got tangled up in some power lines and crashed in a wheat field east of his place. Oh, just imagine! All those blades must have cut him up something awful. Poor Boob! And then the electricity... I guess when the sheriff got there, all he could find of Boob was that damn copter and his boots. Otherwise it was all blood. Blood everywhere!”
Dad cut a look at my sister and me, both of us staring in hang-jawed shock. “Yvonne, the kids don’t need to hear this!”
Mom looked at us, then, too, tears dribbling down her cheeks. “Pete, you remember, Boob—don’t you? The guy who always dunked his donuts in his coffee? He’s dead!”
“Yvonne!” Dad cried in defeat.
I stared at my mother in horror, my heart shrinking, my insides recoiling at the grisly picture of blood and steel-torn flesh that she’d just painted for us. I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around the idea of death, but I could see as though in Cinemascope that bloody wheat field and the big, affable Boob Keller cut to bits in it. And his boots.
I was only a little older when she recounted the tale of a bloody car accident that happened when her family was living in Noonan, North Dakota, and she was going to high school. Two teenage boys and a teenage girl who “ran” with one of the boys were drinking and driving too fast on the highway, and rolled their car several times in a ditch. They were thrown from their vehicle and killed instantly.
Apparently, there was no undertaker in Noonan—or at least none like we have today. Someone drove his pickup out to collect the teenagers’ bodies and deliver them to their families. When the pickup was parked outside the home of one of the dead, Mom and several friends walked over to the pickup to have a look.
Mom gasped and rolled her head and eyes, the way she always did when recounting such a delightfully ghastly event. “Oh, my gosh—you should have seen it. No, I wouldn’t even want you to see such a thing, and I hope you never do! This was before safety glass. The cars back then had real glass in the windows. Imagine that—real glass! And of course no one wore seatbelts. Well, you can just imagine how badly those boys and that poor Candace Syvertsen were torn up. I recognized Candace by her long hair. But the boys--hah! I remember that one had dark hair and one was a towhead, but after going through those glass windows there was no way you could tell them apart!”
Over the years I learned in vivid detail about drownings, electrocutions, farm accidents, plane crashes, stabbings and other murders, and even about the death of one of my young friend’s mothers who had gone into the hospital for a simple surgical procedure and ended up dying from a blood clot.
“Dead at thirty-four!” my mother lamented, bawling after learning the news from a neighbor. “She left three little boys and a little girl. Just think, Pete—Julius’s mother is gone! She was younger than I am. That poor boy. Who’s going to raise that family now?”
Mom really drove that one home. The possibility of my mother’s demise haunted me for a long time, keeping me awake nights.
Another one that troubled my dreams worse than any bogeyman was the retelling of a shooting accident. Two teenage boys and their father, Dale Westemyer, went out hunting deer one fall afternoon. While they were walking through a grove of trees looking for whitetails, another hunter mistakenly shot Dale.
The Westemyer boys and the hunter who’d shot Dale got the wounded father into his pickup and drove him to the nearest doctor. But they were too late. Dale had died on the way to town.
“Just think if something so terrible ever happened to Dad!” Mom cried. “Oh, it’s even too awful to think about!”
But of course I thought about it. For many nights on end. It was as though the void was yawning over me, threatening to suck me up out of my bed and smother me under its wicked wings. Or worse—kill my parents and leave my little sister and me to wander alone in a horrifying world plagued with sudden and arbitrary tragedies.
Sometimes I thought that by relating such violent and chilling events so vividly Mom was being malicious. That she was purposely trying to scare the hell out of us. Sometimes, after some close calls we ourselves experienced on life’s perilous highway, she seemed to enjoy horrifying us even further with what might have happened. Like when we were on vacation out West one summer and a car plowed into the little travel trailer Dad was towing behind our Chevy wagon.
The car missed the station wagon completely but it hit the trailer broadside. Suddenly, our little seventeen-foot home away from home was little more than a scattered mess of sticks and paper plates and cups in a ditch. Mom turned around to look out the back window, eyes wide in horror.
“Oh god, oh look, kids—what if one of us had been riding back there? There’d be nothing left!”
Having had time to think about it for more than a few years, in the seventeen years since she died, I don’t think Mom was trying to scare the hell out of us. She didn't realize she was traumatizing us. I think that in her emotional ignorance she was trying to vent and thus purge herself of her own often-overpowering anxiety. True, she did often scare the hell out of us, and her reasons seem a little psychotic and selfish as well childish to me today. I doubt that any current books on parenting would sanction such loss of self-control.
But my mother was raised during tough times in western North Dakota, on what was essentially still the American frontier in the 1930’s and 40’s, where people died tragically, unexpectedly, and in often grisly ways. My mother’s own father, whom I am named after, drowned after being electrocuted by a water pump at the bottom of a flooded strip mine. Mom and her twin sister were only seventeen at the time, and they’d worshipped “Daddy” as though he’d been a god.
Only a few years later Mom’s oldest brother, Delbert “Bud” Mayer, died near the same mine his father had drowned in. From a mine office window, Bud saw a coal car rolling free on its tracks, and ran out to stop it. Bud climbed onto the car to try and set the brake, but he fell to his death under the heavy iron wheels.
“Cut in two,” was how one of my uncles told it.
No, Mom wasn’t malicious. She was getting all of that off her chest in the only way she knew how. By sharing it. It wasn’t her fault she had a vivid imagination and a way with words. Hell, I do the same thing for a living.