Another spot of time that should be rehabilitated lest it become forgotten, like the forgotten people in this narrative: Rose Freshette, she of the lovely name, and others: Ole Alfson, Gust Axberg, Charley Hanson, Dato Janick, Kaspar Ofstad, Hilda Sakada, John Skaw, names in that cemetery, Oak Knoll….
It was a leap year, 1960, history was what history is, scandalous with coal mines collapsing in Africa, but less with the Vikings expansion football team arriving in Minnesota to begin playing in 1961, outside, Metropolitan Stadium. Elvis came home to record, “Are You Lonesome Tonight” and I likely was; Lucy divorced Desi; 3500 soldiers were sent to Vietnam; Chubby Checker popularized, “The Twist;” and high school gymnasiums were never the same.
Grown-ups were not dancing to teenage music and in my little hometown the Baptists were upset about the dancing.
There were sixteen of us, eight boys and eight girls who would assemble every Saturday morning at Bethany Lutheran Church for confirmation instruction. Half were town kids; the other half were farm kids. Three hours every Saturday morning until Easter when the business would conclude with confirmation.
It’s a public rite to help baptized young folk identify with the life and mission of their Christian denomination and comes about because Matthew, that gospeler, commanded that one should go out and make disciples by baptizing and teaching. That means baptism first, which gives the ‘sinner’ a new relationship with the church, the Old Adam being drowned, so to speak. Baptism makes one a member of the universal church what with the gift”of the Holy Spirit. As for me, darned if I remember; I do have a certificate and I had four folks who were sponsors. One is alive well into dementia. I’m not suggesting a connection.
If a church is doing its business and exercising concern for its members, it has to confirm its mandate to teach. Thus those otherwise good Saturday mornings. The purpose is something like this: Baptism is unilateral, is totally God’s work in us, and is not denominational. It’s not something one can wiggle out of after the fact. Confirmation is denominational and is understood in relation to sound doctrine and practice and again not to be wiggled out of, and is what makes a Lutheran a Lutheran, a Methodist a Methodist, and so on.
And so every Saturday morning, we sixteen confirmation few would gather in a large room in the building attached to the church proper—for instruction in what it means to be a Lutheran, of the Minnesota stripe.
I’m recalling this from years later but confess I don’t remember much of what the minister taught. I should, because confirmation business at the age of discovery, sixth grade or so, maybe seventh, around age 13 or 14, was when adolescents develop a sense of morality and self-identity, a preparatory time before moving into adulthood.
The body grows, voices change, and things become functional. It’s understood to be stressful since it involves new emotions, rapid growth spurts, and what Wordsworth calls moving, “Obstinate questioning and moving about in worlds unrealized.” Wordsworth has something to say about this age of discovery in Intimations of Immortality:
Those whose exterior semblance doth belie
Thy Soul’s immortality,
Thou best Philosopher….
Thou little child, yet glorious in the might
Of heaven-born freedom on thy Being’s height,
Why with such earnest pains dost thou provide,
The years to bring the inevitable yoke?
Thus blindly with this blessedness at strife?
Full soon thy Soul shall have her earthly freight
And customs lie upon thee with a weight
Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!
The thought of our past years in me doth breed
Perpetual benediction; not indeed
For that which is most worthy to be blest;
Delight and liberty, the simple creed of childhood….
But for this obstinate questioning
Of sense and outward things
Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a creature
Moving about in worlds not realized,
High instincts before which our mortal Nature
Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised….
We are not talking Piaget here and Wordsworth was not a Lutheran last time I checked. However, something seems to happen to that heaven-born freedom when one grows older. This is a time in a persons’ life when responses represent not ignorance, but a spontaneous manner of thinking about the world qualitatively different from the way adults think.
This thinking, which is a sequence of development during this age of discovery, needs some kind of cognitive development since these structures are not wired in. And apparently, the older we get, the further we remove ourselves from subjective feelings and moods which is why the adolescent as philosopher “doth breed…Blank misgivings.” The character who knows this best is Huckleberry Finn who was “being” confirmed in “good boy” behavior but chaffed at such conformity.
Saturday mornings, then, eight boys and eight girls assembled as in school. A blackboard in front. I don’t remember much of what the minister said was teaching. We did not read the Lutheran Book of Concord; I don’t remember it being mentioned. I’ve come to think later in life that whatever “confirmation” was, it did not consist of credal documents taught as authoritatively Lutheran. What I did learn about that Book of Concord came in college. Creeds were yardsticks and the “Augsburg Confession” is steadfastly Lutheran.
I do remember how for an hour or more during the session the girls would be separated from the boys and hied off to another room with that minister. The boys would sit in a circle and the point was to “open up” about whether we were doing the Lord’s bidding, coming forth into the newness of life. We were supposed, one-by-one, to pray and talk about when we would start receiving communion.
When the girls returned, it was easy to see they had been crying. I’ve been thinking about this for years and have become convinced the minister was misusing confirmation unless confirmation involves humiliation. He may have been inflicting harm even if his intentions were good. Young persons are vulnerable and if their time together with that minister brought them to guilt, shame on him with his bullying fear: The flesh corrupt to the spirit; the risks and consequences of petting…
It wasn’t physical abuse but I believe it a misuse of the minister’s clerical position. I’ve asked myself over the years “why” but if “confirmation” is understood to be a “rite” and if a “rite” is an “initiation,” then I wonder what kind of power did he arrogate to himself less with the boys and more with the girls?
Baptism is a happy time since God does not hold back his graciousness. Why wouldn’t one wish “confirmation” to be the same? And when that day arrives it’s something we celebrate with thankful hearts. Shouldn’t the process, those Saturday mornings, be equally joyous?
We assembled one Saturday morning for the Field Trip. Sixteen piled into that small church bus which beetled its north along Highway 71. It was an in-between time, winter leaving, spring arriving, a dingy time with melting dirty snow drifts in the roadside ditches. There was plenty of chattering about last night’s basketball game which we won, the dance in the gym, the music, “Good Vibrations,” “Walk Don’t Run,” “Save The Last Dance For Me;” and “Teen Angel,” had me swooning.
We sang, “Let The Little Girl Dance,” Billy Bland, that little wall-flower who gets the nerve and takes a chance, and Martha in the aisle, doomed a few years later to be the Homecoming Queen, dancing and smiling with “Delight and liberty,” as Wordsworth calls it.
We were to visit a hospital in Willmar, Minnesota, about which we knew little. We found it after a few hours and drove the bus through the open metal gates and stopped in front of a building that looked like the central hall of a college campus with two building wings left and right. There was brownish ivy covering part of the facade, winter kill. There were decaying steps leading up to the building which had three floors total, a large cupola on top, and nothing suspect until one noticed all the windows were covered with heavy metal mesh screens. A paper sign on the door said, “Tours Start Here.”
We arrived at the main building of the Willmar State Hospital for the Insane, our field trip, an asylum for inebriates one time, but now for the so-called hopeless custodial cases sent to Willmar from other state hospitals. There were outbuildings, dormitories: six for women, an equal number for men, separated by a good distance.
It was dingy; I learned later that at one time the population was about 1500 but by 1960 was half. In its heyday, these forgotten people were crowded together to the point of sleeping in the attic spaces. If the history is correct, like other psychiatric hospitals, they were secretive about what went on there.
We assembled and walked up the steps followed by the minister through the front door which had an oval-shaped window above and glass windows on both sides, all with wire mesh. A man in a white outfit came out and welcomed us; he would be our guide. He started with a bit of history including the time when the “clients” did daily menial work on the campus farm, now gone, the equipment sold off.
We huddled at the “threshold” at the far end of that entry, where hallways branched off left and right, a man poked his head around the corner and yelled, “Get the hell out of here.” He said it again and then again until another man in a white outfit wrestled him away.
We huddled closer. We walked past the crossing and through a narrow hallway and into the empty and cavernous dining hall/kitchen, and through another door he keyed open which led to some steps going down. We entered the tunnels. He explained the campus was designed with tunnels for heating and electrical purposes and connecting the buildings. It was dimly lit with bulbs in heavy wire cages.
We huddled along and made a turn to the left; and after a short walk, turned right and up the stairs to another door he keyed open. We walked into what he called the, “Service Building,” a chapel at one time and also what he called the, “movie hall.” It was empty and dingy, dust motes, the place no longer used, chairs and tables stacked.
We stood for a bit and looked at the grimy windows with the mesh screens and then turned back through the door and back into the tunnel. To the right was the tunnel to the women’s cottages; he keyed open a door and we walked along. We looked down the tunnel connecting the women’s “cottage.” There were “clients.” They wore the same shapeless grayish washed-out shifts. Some were standing; many were lying on the cement floor next to a heating pipe, their faces turned toward the wall. The walls were scrawled with what looked like hieroglyphics, but in no language anyone could understand unless one belonged to this cadre of forgotten people.
We took the stairs to another door which did not need to be keyed open and another set of stairs, and out of that tunnel and another door and onto the first floor of the nearest women’s cottage. We walked the hallway; the rooms were large with beds, most of which were occupied by women wearing the same shapeless shifts. Some were not. Mattresses were rolled up. One woman with no legs was seated on a heavy oak chair in the hallway. She was rocking back and forth and chanting, “Da popa da, da popa da, da popa da.”
The guuide keyed another door he open and we were outside. As we walked down the connecting sidewalk, our guide pointed out the old agricultural buildings including the slaughter house, the machine sheds, and an open area with a leaning simple wooden cross, Oak Knoll Cemetery. Dingy….
We walked past the Service Building. He pointed out what he called the, “Superintendent’s Cottage.” Up steps to the first of the men’s cottages. He keyed open the front door. It was much the same: men in monotonous drab shirts and pants, some standing with hands in their pockets, some sitting on the floor, some in heavy oak chairs with hands on their knees staring listlessly. Some paced; one man was scraping his feet along the floor as if dancing to music only he heard. On the floors above there was yelling.
We left and he keyed the door to lock it; As we walked, he pointed out the abandoned green house, the water gravity tank still in use, the laundry room from which steam was escaping, and the power house, the origin of all those tunnels.
And back to the main entry, the main building. The yelling man had disappeared but we could hear screaming from above, a bedlam of sounds. We learned that the building’s wings, those left and right of the main building, were also dormitories and housed the serious cases; the explanation for the yelling, the seriously disturbed. We would not visit those floors, would not or could not….
Our guide took us to the second floor of that main building where we walked down a hallway with closed rooms to the right and left, treatment rooms, some used some not in use, and another door he keyed open. We saw a series of cabinets which housed the patient records which he called the “inventory,” and up-to-date from 1907 to 1960. Everything was in there: statistical records; inmate property records, he said, forgetting the word “client;” tuberculosis records; and surgical records. This made it pretty clear that a good deal went on in this hospital over time. Private information was closed for 75 years from the last date of entry. The whole thing looked like a library card catalog for the mentally ill. I thought of this years later when reading Kafka.
The guide pointed to one set of drawers at the end that contained death records, autopsy reports, and burial records. The last of the drawers was for Oak Knoll Cemetery.
Years later I researched this a bit: There are 865 forgotten people buried in Oak Knoll Cemetery. This is not a cemetery per se since there are no grave markers other than those that are same-sized, and monotonous, and even with the ground. They bear nothing more than a name; sometimes no birth date. Just the ubiquitous, “Unknown,” a death date, and all with the same monotonous chiseling. It’s the sameness I find disturbing.
Alma Marsh was buried first in 1926. What followed were plots in units of ten, but with Catholics separated from Protestants. Space still exists but the last burial was in 1973, Victor Berdan. The cemetery is owned by the State of Minnesota. Mabel Bjork was buried on March 22, 1941. But about her, her parents, siblings, nothing seems to be known. Blanche Boyd, the same, December 1957. Fred Burdo, February 1950. Elizabeth Engelgow – and the list goes on. There are very few with any lists of siblings, or photographs, or anything to associate with the human being buried beneath those headstones of monotony and drabness blending one to another un-memorably.
In September 1939 Rose Freshette was laid to rest in Protestant Grave 239. She may have been a Lutheran. Some mornings I say a prayer for Rose Freshette, she of the lovely name. If I had time, I would do the same for as many of those forgotten that I could remember. And that, I think these latter days of my life, is the true purpose of my “confirmation.” For Rose, let the little girl dance.
That field trip came to end, and the fellow in the white outfit thanked us for coming. We had no questions. The ride back home was quiet. Martha wasn’t dancing and didn’t look up or out a window the whole time. The rest of us sat and stared out the windows at the dingy landscape feeling that dinginess deep inside our own young hearts grown just a bit cold. We got out in the church parking lot and one-by-one walked away, the town kids to their homes, the farm kids to their cars. I can see it in my mind’s eye to this day, that disbursement. The minister said nothing, explained nothing, and never in the Saturday morning sessions remaining explained away the nothing.
What was the point? Was he coercing some kind of submission to something doctrinal? Were we supposed to say at the end of that field trip something about how but by the grace of God we escape such? Well-intentioned? Perhaps his idea of pre-destination?
I know a gulf opened between his sixteen confirmands and him. The remaining Saturday sessions were more quietly sober than not. The group was largely sullen, going through the motions.
I had not read Joseph Campbell at this time; but when I did in later years, I came to understand some things about, “Crossing a thresh-hold” with the usual warnings from some unusual figure about staying the hell out of there.
And at one time, I became caught up with theories of the absurd and how individuals are supposed to embrace the absurd; but that was nothing more / nothing less than philosopher talk in a college dormitory room The efforts of humanity to find inherent meaning in life will fail and thus, it is best to maintain ironic distance. Reject hope, too. And by rejecting hope, fearing nothing and fearing nothing. Free….
With this, one could head into a sort of life of study, reading Albee, Beckett, Genet, Kafka, Sartre, Heller, Pynchon, Ionesco, those black and white movies of Bergman, and a whole library of cuckoo’s nest absurdism.
When it came time to be confirmed on a Sunday as part of the service, we assembled and stood together and he asked us a series of questions which began with a prelude: “You have been baptized and you have been taught the faith according to our Lord’s bidding. The fulfillment of His bidding we now celebrate with thankful hearts. Do you intend to remain steadfast in this confession and church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?
Do you desire to be a member of the Lutheran Church and of this congregation? There were other questions but if I remember right, every question was answered with a monotone, “Yes.”
And we were confirmed and had a picture taken.
I’ve not seen the folks in that picture for years. Three, I know are dead. Three moved away a couple of years after the field trip. As time passed, everyone entered into adult reality. But I wonder today if we were supposed to understand that reality is hostile. Still, what kind of conclusion could a 13-year old take away from a confirmation field trip to an asylum housed with forgotten people and an experience much like a bad dream?
Were we supposed to think that all of spiritual life was like a dingy mood of self-condemnation? Is that what it means to mature? To cross from one world to another which would suggest that life’s maturing processes are not for the faint of heart? We had gotten in that bus and traveled north leaving the familiar behind. Was that journey north and into those tunnels a life experience we were supposed to understand as a sort of belly of the whale metaphor? We being swallowed into an unknown, consumed by irrational energies.
I do believe life’s road is a road of trials. And I know that all of those confirmands would at one time or another find themselves going somewhere dangerous, including one who would be swallowed by the jungles of Vietnam, an abyss of death. And then home and different.
I do know this: In the years that followed, I never again saw that little girl dance with the same abandonment as she did that Saturday morning in the aisle of the church bus which beetled its way north….