With Sue in her senior year at UND in Grand Forks, and taking mostly studio classes, she spent virtually all of her energy painting and drawing. She shouldered a heavy academic load in order to finish in four years, as she had few art credits at NDSU prior to the time of her transfer. I, similarly, was doubling graduate coursework in an effort to finish an MA by commencement in May of ‘65, motivated largely by salary lane movement on the Fargo Public Schools’ salary schedule for the advanced degree. I had few distractions from the coursework, with Sue busy with her own agenda 80 miles north. On some weekends she would take the train to Fargo; on others I would head north. My memories of that time period always feature the abysmal, frigid winter of Grand Forks, the snow piled high, and brain-freezing cold wind. If you have never been in wind so cold that it makes the forepart of your skull ache, you have never experienced the best that winter on the North Dakota plains has to offer.
And my loneliness for Sue: I felt totally incomplete and inadequate in social settings as other married couples mingled happily.
On a Thursday evening, July 15, under a nearly full moon, several of my closest friends, most of who would make up our groom’s party, headed out for an evening to celebrate my pending nuptials. The party consisted of Rich Wenstrom, Phil Roesch, Bob Maier, Gary Burau, Roger Young and Mike Jarvis. We were all Theta Chis with the exception of Phil, the lone TKE, and Mike, a fallen-away Sigma Chi. We pub-crawled Fargo until closing time and then returned to the Theta Chi house where several of us were bunking surreptitiously, the house being officially closed for summer, and spent the rest of the night talking about what lay ahead of us, all poised at the beginning of new careers. We could not have known that evening, but we would all have challenging and rewarding professional lives, some extraordinary.
As the rising sun banished the setting full moon from the sky, it was time to head out for cakes, eggs and sausage, a ritual honed to a sharp edge with repeated practice that spring. I later returned to the ϴχ House to see if I could catch a few winks, as I had a major mission to execute fail-safe that day; pick up the marriage license in Wahpeton, ND, the Richland County seat before the office closed. Those orders had been given in a no-nonsense tone of voice.
As I motored down Hwy 81 later that Friday, I reflected on the change my life would undergo that weekend. The next time I would be in Fargo, I would be a married man. No longer would I sleep on someone’s couch. A home and a wife to return to at the end of the day would indeed be mine. And, there would be the matter of bills to pay, starting with the $75 a month payment on the 1964 Dodge Dart two-door hardtop, our first new car. We would have to learn to live on the remaining $225 left in the checking account monthly, for rent, grub and accoutrements.
When I arrived in Lidgerwood later that afternoon things were going full bore. My first impression was “How am I going to fit into all of this?” Sue’s mom, Regina, was flying about the house tending to last minute details, having made sleeping arrangements with friends and relatives for as many of the wedding party as she was able, as local motel rooms were few, and some were a dozen miles away. Interesting, the sleeping arrangements carved out for me were unusual; I would be sleeping in the basement of the Walby Funeral Home, along with whoever happened to be in temporary residence awaiting more permanent digs in the local cemetery. (Did I really write that?) The funeral home would play a larger role in the affairs of the weekend. In that era, air-conditioned wedding reception venues in Lidgerwood were non-existent. Fans would be as much as we might hope for in the summer of ‘65 in a small farming community. The Walby Funeral home was an exception and quite spacious; perhaps room for a hundred people or so. Mildred and Shine Walby’s offer to host the reception, gracious as it was, was partly motivated by the fact that one of their daughters was being married the following summer. In the interest of perfection, Mil Walby wished a dry run. Sue and I happened to be that practice; we were delighted.
While the women were busy that afternoon with important matters, I sought to find a place where I could secrete the Dodge Dart, secure from the evil designs of her three brothers. With Sue’s advance groundwork, I was able to get the car into an old garage surrounded by bushes, vines growing over its walls and shingles. I walked back to the Haas household smug in the belief that it would take the FBI to find the car. As it turned out, my assumption was correct. In spite of extensive investigative efforts by the brothers, they came up empty. The dispirited older brothers, Peter and Tom, repaired to Butch’s Tavern on Wiley, and drowned their sorrows to such effect that they missed the wedding, but I get ahead of myself.
Family and guests began to arrive late Friday afternoon; Regina created prodigious amounts of a wild-rice shrimp casserole, Friday abstinence appropriate, and fed people as they arrived at the house. I was uneasy until my groomsmen materialized, knowing they would be able to keep me from harm. Mother’s brothers, sisters and my only grandparent, Pearl came from the western part of the state. Dad’s Irish twin Richard and his wife Marge had come from Wyoming. Sue’s family, many of whom lived in the community, was well represented. Following a brief evening rehearsal we adjourned back to the Haas home to get to know the respective families. Sue’s dad Pete had laid in an ample supply of Jim Beam, his stand-by, and an assortment of wine and beer such as could be purchased at the village off-sale. The Irish twins were not shy about cozying up to the Jim Beam. When Dad and brother Richard gathered to celebrate any occasion the die was cast in one direction, there would be stories and loud laughter.
In the shank of the evening, demands for music darted about the living spaces where people milled about. Not to miss an opportunity to make a bit of music, Wenstrom, Maier, Roesch and I all had strings in our cars, in fact we seldom went anywhere without a supply of guitars, banjos and ukes. The time was, after all, the nexus of the folk music era. We probably played for two hours or more before the guests had enough. Edgar Agnew, one of Mom’s four brothers who attended, and who was caretaker for Grandma Pearl, was listening quietly from a spot in the kitchen. Dad and Richard had joined him there, primarily to be closer to the Jim Beam, I would guess. At one point Edgar leaned his head into the overflowing dining room and called out, “Mick, can you guys play the Whiffenpoofs’ Song?” It was a song that we played frequently and one that I’d heard Edgar sing on more than one occasion. Dad later revealed that Edgar joined in the singing from his spot in the kitchen but after a verse or so began to falter, and then began to weep bitterly, silently, regaining his composure only after we had moved on to another song. Much in Edgar’s life had been complicated by his experience in World War II, but at my youthful 25, I couldn’t possibly perceive the sum of all complications.
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July 17, 1965 dawned glorious and sunny. I had slept little, waking frequently to see if there were specters floating about the funeral parlor basement. Additionally I had a headache and a growl in the pit of my stomach. Dad said I needed “a hair of the dog that bit ye,” an Irish cure-all...a shot of straight booze, any kind will do. Also, I wanted to take a quick peek at the safe-house where the Dart was hidden to see if I had been done in by the older Haas brothers. To assuage both needs Dad and I walked up town to the tavern, past the little green grotto where the car resided. To my satisfaction and relief it was undisturbed. I threw back a shot and a beer; Dad did the same.
The day began to heat up early. By noon it was 85, by the start of the wedding at 2 PM it was in the middle 90s; St. Boniface Church was without even a fan or primitive swamp cooler.
The details of the wedding are a bit of a blur...a mixture of friends and relatives that I loved dearly...the incredible amount of work Regina has put into making the affair memorable...the presence of so much of Mom’s Agnew family who supported me for my lifetime...and the beauty of Susan, Miss Susan, in her white bridal gown. She was entitled of course, eligible...we were of a time when a certain element of chivalry was still partially in vogue. We chose that route, for better or for worse. I have sometimes railed against that choice as we have aged; I could have loved her longer, for more days and nights. Would we choose to do it all differently? In truth I cannot tell.
Because the older brothers Haas, Peter and Tom, failed to make it to the wedding there was great alarm over who would assume their assigned duty, manning the punch bowl. Sometimes when fate collides with the best laid plans of mice and men, opportunity rears its snake eyes. The punch bowl, bereft of managers, presented an opportunity for the third and youngest brother, John. He performed admirably, keeping goblets and cups topped up in fine form. Rumor has it that he and his best friend, Rob Walby, son of the hosts, sampled the punch frequently to assess its quality, adding whatever was deemed essential to perfection.
About seven in the evening it was time for us collect our few things for the brief honeymoon journey, an overnight at the Moorhead Holiday Inn and then off to Detroit Lakes for Saturday and Sunday. We would be back in Fargo on Sunday evening as Sue would be starting summer school on Monday morning.
When we arrived at the Holiday Inn the air was still breath-takingly hot and dry. I was accosted at the check-in desk by someone I knew casually at NDSU. “Hey,” he says, “Did you ever catch that pretty blonde from Lidgerwood?” “Oh, yeah,” I replied casually, “Long time ago.” I would have died rather than reveal that we were to spend our wedding night on the second floor overlooking the swimming pool, having now been married a grand total of six hours. “So how’s it with you?”
We had reservations to stay at a resort in Detroit Lakes, the Pine to Palm for the next two nights. Why we chose it I cannot fathom; likely, it came with a modest price tag. In our day there was no credit card on which to run up charges that we could ill afford. The money was either in the bank or it was not, and in our case it was mostly not. I remember some conversation between Sue and Regina before the wedding that Sue was to have some minor dental work done before we married so that it would be on Pete’s tab rather than mine. A consideration I thought both remarkable and generous. The bride was delivered with her teeth all in good order, a dowry indeed.
When we got back to Fargo on Sunday evening, our life together truly began. Shopping for groceries (me wanting to buy Pop Tarts; Sue objecting to the total idiocy of Pop Tarts), disagreement #1 well in hand. The adjustments necessary to becoming soul mates had begun. We managed to find suitable living quarters in a two-story home owned by a school counselor with whom I worked, Les Pavek. Married with young children, they owned an adjacent two-story as a rental. We secured the second floor. One bedroom, small sun porch, kitchen and bath and a few sticks of furniture that came with the rental: the sum total of our palatial first home for $95 a month. From God-knows-where we acquired a 17” black and white TV that worked occasionally; at its own behest the normal picture would dissolve into a small speck of bright light in the upper right hand corner of the screen, and after several minutes the picture would restore. That, and a chess-set constituted our entertainment center. We put the TV onto the boulevard the following spring. Sue remembers a living room floor lamp which did not work so we removed the light fixtures and created candle holders with a spike on which the candles were impaled. A romantic touch to “my blue heaven,” as one of Mom’s favorite songs (1927) went.
During the ensuing year we began to collect old pieces of oak furniture that families were casting aside as unwanted relics of the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. Sue began to mine them at farm auctions, yard sales, nunneries, attics and basements. We learned how to strip the old finish and a few tricks acquired along the way enabled us to clean out the dark ugly varnish from filigreed carvings. We bought our first power tool, a Sears orbital sander, which we wore out after several years and fifteen or so finished pieces of solid oak. In the early part of this endeavor we sealed the refurbished wood with tung oil, discovering a few years later it was not a hard enough finish to protect the wood from our behaviors and moved to polyurethane finishes which had the clear advantage of being waterproof. Now as we head rapidly for the 50th anniversary of our small town wedding, we continue to be surrounded by the same oak that others cast off as being unstylish. And love it we do, with an additional half-century’s character on it, just as we continue to love each other. In fact, it is time for the refinishing, round two. Are you ready, Gramma Sue?
One of the first orders of business as we set up the new household was finding a few square feet that would serve Susan as studio space. The solitary bedroom was not negotiable, so we settled on the sun porch. It had the advantage of north lighting with east and west thrown in for good measure. Sue’s dad, Pete, and I had created a sturdy easel to hold canvases of a variety of shapes, and it became the principal piece of equipment in the studio. Sue began to paint in the new studio following her final classes at the University of North Dakota. It would be the first of many studios over the next half-century. She also needed to complete a couple of courses at Moorhead State, transferrable back to UND, in order to be eligible to graduate. In order to supplement the family treasury Sue started teaching some art course for Jim O’Rourke at his little gallery in Moorhead. Then also came the opportunity to teach art at the YMCA. Every little bit helped in those days. It was also the time of her first commission: a large wall-sized painting of a baccanalian orgy on butcher-paper, for a house party, painted on one of our walls, maybe above the bathtub.
In the next 24 months Sue would take all of the professional education course work necessary for her to obtain public school teacher certification, as well as complete student teaching. She would also begin work for an interior design business in Moorhead. During the ’63-64 school year I had formed a strong friendship with Fulbright Exchange Ian Bailley, the first Welshman I had ever met. It was a significant meeting, as Ian’s influence caused me to become an applicant for the Fulbright scholarship. It was in this fashion that we began our lives together.