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‘My life’s been crazy’

St. Cloud man reflects on his interesting, full life... lived without literacy

By Jim Palmer

Life hasn’t always been easy for Frank Erickson of St. Cloud. He grew up in a home with little money, never learned how to read or write and he was even homeless for a while. But despite these challenges, Frank has lived a fruitful and adventurous life. He has been a truck driver, a printer, a heavy equipment operator, a baker, a granite polisher and a business owner (multiple times). He has performed music, written books, flown planes and even built two houses. He has one interesting story to tell.

Frank Erickson has performed in 48 of the 50 states and has the ability to play many different instruments. Here he plays a button accordion in his St. Cloud home. Contributed photo

“My life’s been crazy,” said Frank, “but the Lord has helped me with everything. Everything I have done, I just hold the pen and the Lord does the writing.”

Frank grew up in St. Cloud and was the seventh boy in a family of 11 children.

“When I was young, I would lay in my bed and watch the nails coming through the ceiling get covered with frost every winter. We had no insulation. I have the heat turned up a little warmer than most now because I was cold all the time growing up.”

School was a big challenge for Frank. He struggled in many of his classes -- and on every assignment that included reading and writing.

“When I was in elementary school I was having a real hard time learning how to read and write. I couldn’t do it. And I was just passed on to the next class. The teachers basically just got rid of me,” he said. “In 10th grade I quit school. I thought, ‘I can’t read or write, what am I doing here?”

And he never really learned. Today, he continues to struggle with even the most basic words and phrases.

“I’m not too good at all at reading and writing. I can just do some Dick and Jane type stuff,” he said.

Going through life not being able to read or write is possible, but it is not an easy road.

“There are all kinds of challenges that come up because I can’t read or write,” he said. “All kinds.”

And those challenges happen every day.

“When the mail comes, I can’t read it. My grand daughter lives across the alley and she comes over to read my mail for me. My daughter and son also help me with things like that.”

Has Frank considered finding a training center in the area to learn how to read?

“I think I’m too old for that,” he said. “I’m 77 years old and that ain’t young. I feel young, but I’m 77.”

After dropping out of school in 10th grade, Frank started working. Over the course of the next 50 years, he worked at couple bakeries, drove a semi truck, worked as a granite operator, was a heavy equipment operator, owned a construction company, owned the Purple Lantern bar, owned a taxi cab company, owned a limo service, played Santa Claus on the side and had short stays in a variety of other jobs.

“My first job was at Cox’s bakery back in 1961,” he said. “I made $72 every two weeks.”

When he landed a baker position at Murray’s restaurant in Minneapolis, he was so surprised, he asked the boss why he hired him.

“There were all kinds of people from Dunwoody’s (Baking School) who applied for the job and I got it,” he said. “I asked Mr. Murray why I got it and he said, ‘you are an old time baker -- if you screw something up you know what to do to correct it. The others who applied would just throw it away.’”

Frank worked as a printer in Winona, which is typically a position that requires a keen eye for mistakes. He said he relied on the company secretary to make sure the print jobs were accurate before he printed them.

When he owned businesses, he always relied on someone to keep an eye on things.

“I could keep track of my income and expenses and that was all I needed,” he said. I had an accountant who took care of everything else.”

Frank said people often ask him why he had so many jobs in his life?

“I just tell them that I wasn’t getting paid enough I had to look for something better,” he said. “I enjoyed all my jobs.”

When Frank wasn’t working, he was often entertaining as a second source of income. His stage name was “Hillbilly Sam.” He would dabble in some magic, but his specialty was country western and Gospel music.

“I have sang in every state in the United States except Hawaii and Alaska,” he said, giving a small tour of his music room that includes an organ, accordion, guitar, violin, harmonica and a variety of other instruments.

As long as he could remember, he loved music. But his musical talents were never offered at school.

Frank Erickson wrote a book called A Fishy Thanksgiving, a poetry book and even had one of his poems from the book transcribed to sheet music. Photo by Jim Palmer

“I actually got kicked out of music in 7th grade because I hit the teacher,” he said. “She took me in a room by herself and she played the piano and asked me if I could stay on key. I did that and she got all excited. But when it came to class, I told her I wouldn’t sing. So I didn’t sing a note. She came over to me and picked me out of the chair by my hair. Right up by my hair! I popped her. It was just a quick reaction. I didn’t mean to hurt nobody. I didn’t go to music no more. I went to study hall instead.”

Why didn’t Frank sing? It wasn’t because he was shy or didn’t know the music.

“They were singing Old McDonald. By that time, I was already singing grown up songs like Your Cheatin’ Heart and Cold Cold Heart and songs like that. I thought I was too advanced for Old McDonald. I just wouldn’t sing those songs,” he said. “I was singing lots of country western and Gospel songs by that time. I got my love for country western music from my parents. I was playing the accordion when I was four years old. God gave me the musical talent. If you brought me a new instrument, in a half hour I would be playing you a song. It is gift from God that I got.”

Frank is also an author. How is that possible from someone who can barely read or write? Well... he figured it out.

“I wrote this book a few years ago,” he said, holding up the book A Fishy Thanksgiving. “The reason I wrote it was because I was watching TV before Thanksgiving and there were Christmas shows on TV. I thought, what is going on? This is Thanksgiving. I went and got my tape recorder and everything came out from the beginning of the story to the end. That is why I know that God did this, because I couldn’t write a book. My granddaughter typed it up for me. My brother’s niece in Florida drew the pictures and sent them to me, one a week. It is a good story.”

Frank also wrote a poetry book the same way, and he set all the poems to music. The poems all deal with personal experiences in Frank’s life. To read one of his poems, A Nickel at a Time, go to the bottom of this page.

“I played the music and someone transcribed the songs into sheet music,” he said. One of his poems (and later a song that was transcribed to sheet music) was called “A Letter to God.”

“My brother is a minister and my son is a minister, and I’m just a hillbilly,” he said. “I always prayed that I could be like them so I wasn’t so different. But it never happened. Finally, I decided, ‘well I am going to have a talk with him.’ I got my tape recorder and the poem and song came out. When I wrote this song, I realized, if God hated me, he wouldn’t give me all the good things in my life that take care of me,” he said. “I have two kids, and that is one thing that the Lord did better for me than any of the rest.”

Frank is very thankful for his current house. For a while in his retirement, after some unfortunate financial dealings, Frank found himself homeless for nearly 6 months.

“I prayed and after a while things started to work out and I eventually had an opportunity to get this house in St. Cloud,” he said. “I credit everything I have and everything I have done to God.”

Nickel at a Time

By Frank S. Erickson of St. Cloud

You can’t have us both, dear.

Wake up and you’ll find,

The casinos are driving

you out of your mind.

The plans that we had, dear;

Wake up and you’ll find.

You’re throwing them away

A nickel at a time.

I sit home alone each night

And wonder what went bad;

And why you’d want to throw away

Each dream we ever had.

And how many nickels

will it take for you to know,

If you keep on gambling

Your family’s going to go.

You think that you do OK

Every time you leave home.

But every time you play the slots

You leave us both alone.

And how do you love someone

who’s never ever here,

And that’s why I say, listen,

I’ll make it very clear.

You can’t have us both, dear;

Wake up and you’ll find.

The casinos are driving you

out of your mind.

The plans that we had, dear,

Wake up and you’ll find.

You’re throwing them away

A nickel at a time.

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