This is a set of stories about events I experienced growing up in Wisconsin
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During the summer breaks in the mid-50’s in Sparta, Wisconsin, I enjoyed the usual fare of early morning Saturday cartoons, followed by a weekend filled with the usual youth activities of that time; sports of one type or another, swimming at the municipal pool, and most importantly to me, visits to our local library.
As ‘nerdy’ as it may sound these days, it wasn’t unusual for city custodians to plan a wide variety of summer activities for the youth at that time who were out of school on summer vacations. This was all predicated on that old axiom; “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop.” Tried and true lore to be sure, but very effective in curbing mischief before it caused serious problems.
One of those remarkable activities, I recall, was conducted at the Andrew Carnegie City Library each Saturday morning. This library was a gift to the City of Sparta in 1902 by Andrew Carnegie, and was the only building in the city that contained an architecture that could have been ‘time-shipped’ to Sparta from ancient Italy. Although a rather small stone building in itself, it boasts large fluted columns bracketing the tall front doors, and an elegant arched façade that was the pride of the our small dairy community. The entire bottom floor was devoted to a Children’s Library area.
This particular library activity was the weekly story-telling events. Each episode would begin on Saturday morning around 10:00 am, and last until about noon, when the children assembled had to return home for lunch. Many of us who remember this period in time know that libraries were sacred alcoves of learning, where “Shhhhhh!” meant, well…; it REALLY meant “Shhhhhh!” Once a week however, this prohibition was lifted, and a remarkable transformation took place.
The main attraction of this transformation was a most remarkable librarian, Ms Olson, who dispensed with her usual library duties each Saturday at that particular time, and gently guided 20 to 30 young minds into the wonderful worlds of adventure, fantasy and science fiction.
She was a slightly plump, middle aged woman, a spinster I recall, with a pair of rimless glasses framing her twinkling grey eyes. Her hair was always put up into a bun, high on her head, and I can’t ever remember her without the ever present shawl, draped gracefully across her shoulders. And as if wearing the badge of her office, a pencil was always firmly pushed through the bun of her hair, resembling nothing less than a small antenna.
It didn’t take much imagination to visualize her using this improvised antenna to spot and correct misbehavior taking place behind her, or around the corners of the immaculately stacked bookshelves.
Her most remarkable gift however, was her story-telling ability, and by way of delicate nuance, gesture and extraordinary enthusiasm she could provide all that anyone’s imagination needed to become completely absorbed in her stories.
Each child seated in the semi-circle around her, ranking from the youngest at the inside to the oldest towards the outside, actually became that hero or heroine onstage at that particular moment. Each one lived that life, fought that battle, flew that spaceship, or rescued those in the story they were a part of at that instant. Within moments of being drawn into her story-world, her audience was captive.
Ms Olson would slowly drop her voice to just a whisper, and then suddenly jump up and shout out a battle cry, or swoop down into the small line of seated youngsters, pretending to be a pirate, or a ferocious beast about to carry off one of her audience to the land of “Anywhere.”
The children shrieked with joy, and begged for more. Even the most jaded of the older children seated around the outside of the group would very often get caught up in the suspense and excitement; then laugh with the others at their own frightened reaction to what we used to call, one of Ms Olson’s ‘moments.’
Her presentations were quite varied, and we could expect anything on any Saturday, from The Last of the Mohicans; Aesop’s Fables; Hans Christian Anderson’s Tales, to Comic Book recitations. Stories of Flash Gordon would take place one weekend, only to be followed by children’s mysteries; westerns published for young minds and American history the next.
The tales of American heroes seemed to be particular favorites of hers, and through her enthusiastic presentations, soon became favorites of us as well. Unlike regular school classes, whenever she finished for the day the children would plead with her for more, until finally she would be forced to slip into her stern, ‘librarian mode,’ at least long enough to send them home to their expectant parents.
I particularly remember the summer after I’d graduated from 8th grade, contemplating my entry into the Catholic Seminary in the large neighboring city of LaCrosse, Wisconsin. By some remarkable circumstance, my mother had managed to convince both our parish priest AND myself that I had a calling for the priesthood, and I suddenly felt a need to return to that fantasy world at the library just one more time.
After all, this was the age of “duck and cover” drills in school and bomb shelters in back yards, all in response to the Soviet entry into the atomic age; another summer of polio scares and the conflict in Korea finally coming to a bloody close. There seemed to be a great many things that I wanted to forget that summer and my refuge, however temporary, was waiting for me just across town.
This time as I entered the library, as I’d done so many times before, I sensed a difference. Was it me, or was it the library? Everything around me seemed to be as it always was, yet I could feel that something was different now. I proceeded into the library and down to the Children’s floor.
There, seated as I’d always remembered were the children, youngest at the front; oldest towards the back of this magic semi-circle. And there, situated at the center of this group was Ms Olson, as always, just beginning to brew up another batch of tales with which to mesmerize her young audience.
I kept back from the group this time, listening once more to Ms Olson and her amazing rendition of fairy tales and stories of heroes from the American past. I knew then, looking around, that her work with me here was done.
I was a bit older than the oldest surrounding her this time; the stories were like old friends now, rather than new adventures. Their messages had already been burned into my consciousness, and I had my mental tool kit ready for my next steps in life. It only became a matter now what I chose to do with it.
My ‘vocation’ was a passing thing, as my year in the seminary convinced me that a lifetime of celibacy was not going to be a good fit for my desire for freedom and adventure. A few years later, I returned to visit the library once more, hoping to see Ms Olson to thank her for her contribution to my life. Sadly, I found that she’d finally been forced to retire because of a combination of age and advanced arthritis.
She had been moved to the Rolling Hills Nursing Home just outside the city of Sparta, where it seemed unlikely that she’d ever leave. The real tragedy was revealed however, when I discovered that the story-telling program at the library had been discontinued altogether upon her departure, never, at least at that time, to be sponsored again.
Unbeknownst to her however, or myself at that time, she was about to be instrumental in introducing me to the next remarkable phase in my life. I sat at the home with her for a long while, marveling at the changes that had taken place over the years.
She was a lot older than I’d remembered, but apparently she’d been pretty well preserved over the years, thanks to her Swedish heritage. Everything happened at once, it seemed. She couldn’t say much, but she left me with a simple question; ‘How are the children?’
I was home for nearly a week before I received permission to visit the library to present my proposal. There was only a week left of my military leave, and it was important to me that this all went well.
Saturday morning, 9:00 am, and as I walked into the bottom floor, I saw a sight that pumped ice water into my veins. Spread out before me in that familiar semi-circle, had to be nearly 50 children, ranging from elementary to middle school age. Sitting behind them, were many of their parents, folks that I’d grown up with.
Standing in front of them, in full Naval uniform, many thoughts were running through my mind, not the least of which was ‘What the hell was I doing here?’ It seemed like a good idea to prime the pump of story-telling once more the week before, now I wasn’t so certain that I’d made a good decision.
Expectant faces, and children squirming around on the floor, waiting for something to happen. I introduced myself, and the little eyes simply watched me, waiting… The parents smiled at me and seemed to settle in to their seats, expecting whatever the library had advertised for this weekend event; a visit from a ‘Story-Teller.’
Pulling in a deep breath, I tried to recall how Ms. Olson executed her craft, so many years ago. Soon I felt a cosmic connection to her in the home, and it suddenly became clear what I was going to share with the faces in front of me.
The exploration of Wisconsin by the French, centuries ago was extensive and hazardous, although the rewards were substantial. Much of it was done by fur traders, and while they faced many dangers, they’d managed to devise creative ways to deal with the population of Native Americans. Today, they’d learn about Jean Nicolet, and his travels from Green Bay, down into the unknown depths of the state, in search of furs.
As I related their travels to the assemblage, I tried to energize their concepts of Indian attacks, dangerous river rapids, tortuous forest and encounters with dangerous bears and wolf packs. Those dangers were real, intense and oftentimes deadly; the emotions of which I tried very hard to convey to the audience in front of me.
As I looked across those young faces, I noted a singular thing; they were quiet, much quieter than when I’d started. Each face was looking up at mine, mouths open, and eyes wide. I knew now why Ms Olson performed her story-telling chores each weekend.
This was addicting! In a surreal sense, I felt that I was now ‘channeling’ her energy, and let myself go. The parents that had accompanied their offspring had also gone silent, and with satisfaction I saw their faces mirrored their children’s.
In my finale, as I imitated a wolf jumping out from behind a tree at the trader, I left my juvenile audience shrieking in fear and laughter, begging for more. With a crowd of children milling about me, I struggled to make it to the stairs, but couldn’t exit the library without renewing acquaintances with those parents whom I’d grown up with.
All in all, I counted this event as a success, crowned by a request from the library management to repeat the “Story Hour” the next time I revisited my home.
I did revisit the library for several years on my annual visits back home, and managed to pack the Children’s floor with scores of curious and wiggly children. Once I began the stories however, the wiggling stopped, the attention focused on my face, and it was my duty to relate what they’d come to hear.
Each time I’d come home, I’d visit Ms. Olson at the home, and each time she’d ask me, “How are the children?” From the first time I’d performed at the library, I was able to tell her, “They’re just fine.” But in acknowledgement of her rapidly deteriorating physical condition I’d resolved to give her a gift I knew she’d appreciate for the rest of her life.
Conspiring with a few of the parents of the children who attended the Story Telling Hours, we put together a surprise that would hopefully express the gratitude of everyone in our small city for her selfless service. It took nearly 7 months of conspiring, but eventually, I scheduled two weeks of leave from the Navy to visit home once more.
Coordinating our efforts with the staff at the nursing home, we settled on a Sunday afternoon when all parties would be available to come together. Three vans full of children and their parents left the library just after lunch, headed for the Rolling Hills Nursing home some miles away.
I’d ensured that all of the parents participating in our little surprise had spent time at Ms Olson’s feet as youngsters, listening to her wonderful renditions of oral “Americana.” Our plan was coming together.
Once at the home, the staff directed us into the visitor’s hall where they’d already brought Ms. Olson. Sitting there in her wheelchair, she appeared even frailer than previous visits, but I watched her face light up when she saw me. The smile turned to a puzzled look as the entire group of children and their parents entered behind me.
I stood beside her as each set of parents reintroduced themselves to her, and introduced their children as well. Her face lit up once more as she recognized her former audiences, and she beamed when the children took her hands in theirs. The squealing continued for a couple of minutes, but soon I took control of the crowd once more, reminding them that the story-time was about to begin.
As the children began to settle down, they began to sit in a semi-circle around Ms Olson and me, youngest in the front, and the older in layers behind them. Then something unexpected happened; the parents, who had been standing behind the assemblage, began to slowly follow suit in the last row, sitting down behind the children on the floor.
With my heart in my throat, I began the story-telling session with a brief, but emotional biography of Ms Olson, and the treasures that she’d shared with all of us over those many years. I gave the group a quick rundown of well-known Olson’s in the history of Wisconsin; Sigurd F. Olson, Julius Emil Olson and others, historians and conservationists all, story tellers all.
Then, the main event… I remembered a story that she’d related many years ago of a brother that she’d lost in the war in Europe. A Medal of Honor winner, he’d been given that citation for giving up his life by single-handedly fighting off a German counterattack against his position in defense of his company in Italy, even though mortally wounded.
I softened the story just a bit for the smaller children, omitting the reference about his death, but the older children and parents understood. The moral of the story I made obvious; war and killing were the result of man’s worst nature, not his best.
A glance down at Ms Olson revealed tears gently running down her cheeks, although her lips were curled into a peaceful smile. I patted her on her shoulder, and thanked her for all she’d given to all of us. I promised her that the next time I came back home, we’d meet again like this, and tell more stories.
That was the last time I saw her alive, as my mother sent me a letter during one of my tours in DaNang, that she’d passed away quietly a few months after that last visit. Not so surprisingly, she’d bequeathed a substantial donation to the library for the preservation of the Story-Telling Hour.
The last time I visited home, I was long retired from the Navy, and although it was bitter-sweet--I was burying my mother; I still stopped by the library for a bit of reminiscence. Everything looked curiously familiar, and I stepped down into the children’s floor once more. Déjà vu, I decided. This was exactly as I remembered; only the participants had changed.
As I listened to the story-teller crank up the emotional tone of her story to the children spread out before her, it became clear to me that every generation creates a great story-teller, most likely many more. And, Ms Olson’s donation was being put to a most marvelous use.
“Ms Olson, The children are just fine.”