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Out of sight, never out of mind

Henry Bangert is a big lanky guy in his mid-90s. He has a booming voice and likes to laugh. Most Tuesdays he shows up at the Long Prairie nursing home for a bit of exercise and to visit his friend John Kroll. John, a retired dairy farmer in his 80s, enjoys coming to the nursing home to share a cup of coffee and to swap stories.         I visited with Henry and John in December. . . Tim: Henry, when did you lose your sight? Henry: I’ve been gradually losing it all my life. I have what they call Retinitis pigmentosa. What it is, is a disease on the retina of the eye and it just works from the outside in and cuts off the blood flowing through it. That part dies and it just keeps a moving in and finally it takes all of the center. My wife always said she could stick her hands straight out and see both hands at once. Well I’ll tell you, I never could.  I never rode in the car and looked out the window and could see both the dash and the top. Tim: So, you’re talking since 1930, 1920? Henry: It just kept getting worse. I farmed until in the ‘80s when I had to quit. It got to where I couldn’t see. The thing was – this sounds funny to someone who can see – but if I can drive across the field against the sun I could see where I was going. But I could turn around and come back, with the sun at my back, uh-uh. Tim: You couldn’t see! Henry: Then I’d just have to quit. I couldn’t see nothing at all; I suppose it’s eight or nine years now. When I first went out to Phil’s, that was in ‘96, I could see where a window was or I could see a little light. But now I don’t see a thing. John: You said it was in the family. Henry: Yah. My grandad, when he was sixty, he couldn’t tell whether it was daylight or dark. Tim: As you go along you kind of learn how to adapt? Henry: Yes. I think that’s right. But I have a brother that’s never learned to adapt. It’s funny you can’t do anything about it because there is no cure. You just learn to adapt to it. You try. Or I do. John: Tell him when you got called up for service. Henry: When I was called up to service – that was in ’42 – I went to Snelling for my physical. When they put me up to see the eye chart I couldn’t see the big letters.  I could see which way the points was on it. That’s as far as I could see. The fellow says, what, are you trying to get out of the service? I said no sir, I can’t see any more. So he called another fellow and he come in. He took a flashlight and looked at my eye. He took one look in there and he said Mister, I’m going to tell you something. He says, you’re just about blind. He said if you don’t get to a good ophthalmologist it’ll be six months and you won’t see nothing. He just took my papers and put a red “x” on them and initialed them.     Before Henry was rejected by the military he had been scratching out a living on a rural Todd County farm near the village of Clotho. He had to be creative and work hard. He and his uncle had a machine that cut up logs and branches for firewood. John: Henry, tell him about when you had a sawmill. On the tractor. Henry: First it was just on the old dead head (a stationary engine) I remember one year we had a blizzard on January first. We were up on (County Road) 36. We were three hours on New Years Day sawing wood in a snowstorm. The two of us for a dollar an hour. Tim: You brought the equipment and you still only got a dollar an hour? What year was that? Henry:  It was ’41. I told dad on the way home we should start keeping track of the time we put in until we start fieldwork. Three hundred and twenty-seven hours we put in sawing on the belt. John: You got a dollar an hour. How much gas did you burn in that time? Henry: About a gallon an hour. John: It was 18 cents at that time? Henry: Yah. You brought your fuel. You brought your oil. Well, I tell you. We earned just about half in profit. That was fifty cents for the two of us. Tim: That was before the day of chain saws. Henry: Oh yeah. And I’ll tell you. Some of that stuff they brought up there for us to saw into stove wood should have gone to a sawmill. It took six to eight men to lift the twelve-foot lengths. They put a stick under the log and then got a man on either end to lift the stick up. You get it up there by the saw and he kind of pushes it, and rolls it, and saws it.     My uncle had one of those saw rigs and he said if you have one of those saw rigs you have to either be a man or it kills you. John: Did you ever have an accident? Henry shows us his hand. Tim: Ohh! You’re missing a thumb! Did the saw take that? Henry: Yup. Tim: How old were you when that happened? Henry: That happened in 1941. On September 16th. Tim: How did that happen? Henry: Well, I’d over hauled the engine. Put rings in it, ground the valves. It was a Fairbanks engine. Put new bearings on it. I fired it up to see what it would do. So, I picked up a round block. Tim: You’re working by yourself? Henry: Yah. I just picked up the block and went to put it into the saw. I had a hand on each end. I didn’t have too good of a hold on it. What I think happened is that the block turned my hand into the saw because the block was sawed all the way around. John: Who took you to the doctor? Henry: My uncle. I walked about a half-mile across the woods. Tim: After you lost your thumb!?     Times were hard in rural Minnesota during the 1930s. Henry was glad to have work making firewood. A story, that shows just how hard times were, has been circulating through Todd County for more than seven decades. John brought it up first. John:  They always tell a story where a fellow from near you went to sell a bunch of lambs . . Henry: They lived where the Olivers do now. The name was Reed . . . I think it was Stipe or Sipe. I guess their pasture got short and they had two boys. One of them led the sheep and the other followed and they took them to Osakis to ship them to St. Paul on the train. When he looked for his check he didn’t get a check. He got a statement from the railroad. He owed freight. He always said he wasn’t going to pay it. John: He used to say, “I wrote the railroad a letter and said I don’t have any money but I have more sheep”. Like a lot of young fellows Henry had a team of horses. He got a contract with the township to grade the road going by the family home. Then he was able to put his team to work for the Works Progress Administration’s road building projects in the County. John: What road did you help build Henry? Henry: Out by Van Valkenberg’s. I don’t know who lives out there now  It was 36. On the East side of the river there. We built the road right through the slough there. John: You had a team there? Henry: Yeah. John: With the team you were working off your hay? Henry: Yeah. Welfare money. You got feed from the government. Corn, oats, and hay. Tim: The government would give you that and you’d work it off? Henry: Yeah. Tim: John told me that it took you a few years to work that off. Henry: Oh yeah. My Dad was working with the team. I remember my dad had to go to town for something. So they wanted me to go up and work in his place that day. So, I had a team of young horses as I recall. I went up there and in the morning I was on what they call the two wheeler. Now, that was a two wheel outfit that had a blade . . . a basket in between the two wheels and you lowered this basket in there and it would scrape it up. Then you hauled it down to where they dumped it. I was on that for a while and then I was on just a plain scraper, a big scraper. But anyhow, before noon they had six horses on a walking plow where this slough was. To break up the sod. Tim: There was no road there. They were just cutting a new road? Henry: Yah. Cutting those ditches. The plow was to cut the dirt lose. They couldn’t get the six horses to work together. Two would go and then another two. Then another two and the first ones was backing up. Then at noon the boss asked me if I’d put my team on the plow in the afternoon. I said Bill, I’ll put my team on the plow but it will only be my team if I can pull it. I said I ain’t going to try and force them. Because I didn’t have to. So after dinner we went down and started going to it and I told them to go and they started off. They went a ways found a rock and they stopped. Then the little one, the gray – I had a gray and a bay – she nudged the bay and they started off by themselves. And that’s the way we went across there. By gol, that was more than they was doing with six horses.     Then we quit in the afternoon. ‘Bout 3 o’clock. For fifteen minutes. And I hauled my team up to where we stopped . . . I suppose it was a kind of a camp deal . . . anyhow I take my team up there and there was hay off of a wagon and I give them each a pail or two of water. I was the only one there that done that. But anyhow, Bill was just about ready to holler for us to come up for lunch when, Luke Casey was holding the plow and he says whoa to the horses. He caught the plow beam under a stump. John: They always used to say a stump was more dangerous to a plow beam than a rock. You hook it on a rock and it will stop and come out. Tim: So you bent the plow? Henry: Yup. I suppose there were seventy-five horses there. One day somebody said there was 150 horses. Well, that was the way they had to do it. By the time the Army rejected Henry for nearly being blind, horses were disappearing from the rural landscape. Tractors were causing agriculture, and farmers, to rapidly adapt to new technologies. Henry embraced the changes. Tim: You farmed for 40 years after the Army refused to take you? Henry: Yep. But, I’ll tell you, I could sit on my F12, the tractor, and cultivate corn and I could see the corn row and the two shovels of the cultivator that was along side of that hill but the rest of the cultivator and the tractor I couldn’t see unless I looked for it.            Tim: I guess you could see what you needed to see. Henry: Yah. I just went ahead and done it.

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