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Petersen’s Cafe, Alden, MN

I was unusually lucky to get to spend many days of my childhood in a small-town beer joint. My maternal grandparents, Francis and Alma Petersen, were the owners and proprietors, the bartender and the cook, the rule enforcer and the wise comforter of Petersen’s Cafe. If not the heart of Danish American life in Alden, MN, “the restaurant,” as we relatives so grandly called it, served, at least, as its huffing lungs. The extended family gathered there on Sundays and holidays, and my family lived upstairs with Grandpa and Grandma and Uncle Kenny for several months while my dad was on strike from his packinghouse job. I learned by watching and listening how a community enfolds the people who huddle at its margins:  the mentally ill, the alcoholic, the lonely, the no longer useful, the disowned, the displaced, the abused and their troubled abusers.  I got to know enough eccentrics to welcome the spice they add to a life that may look dreary and dull to outsiders. I was only eight when Grandpa Frankie’s weakening heart compelled them to sell the place and move into retirement in Albert Lea. (He lived another twenty years!) Yet I remember names and faces and incidents as vividly as only a curious child newly attentive to the world around can.

I have resolved to write some of these memories, first adhering to the limits of memory and including the misunderstandings and false assumptions created by childhood innocence and the long passage of time. Only after I have plumbed my memory will I turn to the historical record to see what I can find there to supplement, challenge, or affirm my memory. I don’t expect this project to become a book, so I will, I think, be content to blog the bits of it here from time to time. I figure I don’t have the life expectancy to undertake a lengthy research project like those my books have required.

Of course I have had to ask myself why I think my fragile recollections of the years 1945 to 1953 in a long since razed and forgotten beer joint/cafe are worthy of literary attention. Here are my answers:

–Because it was a treasured time of childhood, innocent but with an undercurrent of human suffering.

–Because people of little note deserve their dignity as much as the famous do.

–Because I was so fortunate to know eccentricity up close and to see how it is absorbed into a community.

–Because I have not done justice to my mom’s family and my Danish heritage.

–Because so much has been lost and laid flat by commercialism and suburbanization.

–Because Petersen’s Cafe is full of stories.

(P.S.  There will be photos if I can get my scanner to work again. Here is one, of Christmas at the restaurant. I’m on the left, age 2.)

 

HERMAN HIGH REMEMBERED

Herman High is a bum.  A bum isn’t a bad person—just somebody with no place to live and no food to eat, somebody who wears the same clothes over and over and wanders around begging. Herman High doesn’t beg, though. He doesn’t talk at all. He’s “dumb,” like “deaf and dumb,” but not deaf. He turns his head if you sneak up behind him and make noise. I don’t do that.

Herman High is kind of scary, but he won’t hurt us. He’s very tall, and he looks like Abraham Lincoln’s ghost. He has black hair and black clothes and a gloomy look on his face, but no beard and no stovepipe hat. Still, I think of Abe Lincoln whenever I see him coming.

He walks up and down the street in Alden and sometimes turns into the restaurant. He doesn’t say anything, naturally, and he doesn’t really look at other people, even if they say, “Hi, Herman,” which makes us kids laugh. It’s his name backwards. One day I decided to try some lemon beer, which is really just pop. I sat at the bar to drink it, but about halfway through, I had to go to the bathroom, so I left it on the bar. When I came back the bottle was empty. Pete and Gar said Herman High had come in and finished it, just like he does with bottles and glasses of beer left standing. Even if it’s only dregs, he picks it up and drains it. I didn’t mind so much that he drank my lemon beer, because it was too prickly on my throat, anyway. I will be more careful with my orange pop and my cream soda.

Sometimes after Herman High drains the stale beer, he walks back to the lunch counter. If Grandma sees him coming and is fast enough, she might dish him up some food or hand him a sandwich. (She calls it a “sanvits.”) He doesn’t like to sit down long, so soon he walks back out, his eyes staring straight ahead. Grandma twitches her head and shoulders a little and mutters “Oh hadda”* or “Goopevas.”** She doesn’t mind so much that he doesn’t pay, because she feels sorry for people who have it hard. It’s the smell he leaves behind, like a musty old coat, that bothers her.

Pete and Gar say that Herman High sleeps in an old run-down car behind the Hazle Hotel. It’s full of boxes, and Pete and Gar have seen him rummaging around in there. Maybe he keeps his stuff in those boxes, but probably not soap or a toothbrush. He must have a razor, but he doesn’t use it very well. His face is sometimes stubbly, but not like it’s on purpose. Maybe he has treasures in those boxes that we can’t even imagine. It’s probably just junk, though. We never see him with anything. He wanders around empty-handed, his arms down stiff at his sides. Herman High is a Mystery Man.

*O Herre (Oh Lord)   **Gud bevare os (God preserve us)

 

SO WHO WAS HERMAN HIGH?

Before Herman High the bum stalked the village of Alden, he was Herman High the farm laborer, the son of Swedish immigrant John Alfred High and his Minnesota-born Swedish wife, Emma. They lived near New Ulm in a township so Swedish it was called Bernadotte after the royal family. Herman, born in 1890, and his brother, Hilding, five years younger, worked alongside their father on the family farm. When World War I required American men to sign up for the draft, Herman, 27, claimed an exemption on the grounds of “religious believe,” but mentioned his gastric ulcer and poor health as well. He was a Lutheran of the Swedish variety. Hilding had an obvious out: the loss of his left hand. It was a not uncommon disability among farmers learning to use new machinery. Neither High served in the military.

“High.” I wonder about the name. It isn’t Swedish, nor is its Swedish translation, Hög, a proper name. It might have been part of a name: Höglund, for example. Somewhere along the line the family became Anglicized, along with so many other immigrants.

After Hilding’s marriage to Laura Pugsley, Herman lived with them and did general farm labor. He never married. In 1942, however, he was on his own, farming near St. Peter, while Hilding and Laura lived in Carlton County, close enough to the border to have a Wisconsin postal address. Once more, wartime demanded that they register for the draft. Herman was already 51 and included in a category for older men. He was indeed tall, 6 feet 2 and 190 pounds, with black hair, hazel eyes, and a ruddy complexion. Hilding, by this time, had an artificial left arm.

I don’t know how Herman High wound up in Alden, but Hilding and Laura, who had no children, had moved to Albert Lea, where Hilding worked as a custodian at Wilson’s meatpacking plant. Hilding died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage on June 5, 1963, right about the time of my high school graduation. I had no idea that Herman High was still alive in Alden. I’m not sure I even thought of him in those days. Six months after Hilding’s death, Herman, whose heart condition had worsened, moved in with the widowed Laura in Albert Lea. He died in her Adams Avenue home one day before the first anniversary of Hilding’s death, one day before his own 74th birthday. He was buried near his childhood home in the cemetery of the Bernadotte Lutheran Church.

There are clues here–his lifelong bachelorhood, his nearly constant proximity to family, his unchanging status as farm laborer, his spelling–that tempt me to imagine Herman High as “slow,” the term in use then, and even childlike. Maybe the behavior I witnessed was the long culmination of never quite managing life, never being capable of independence, or was it the onset of dementia? I have to believe that Hilding and Laura saw to his basic needs from their ten-mile distant grounding in Albert Lea, yet let him wander a bit for whatever dignity and sense of self that freedom allowed him.

Only one bit of information disturbs that picture. An obituary in the Alden Advance on June 11, 1964, says that Herman High attended the University of Minnesota! Following that trail may open up an entirely different story.

 

GRANDPA FRANKIE’S FINGERS

We Baby Boom cousins had a trick we liked to play on one another and on gullible adults–adults willing to play gullible at least once. We would fold our fingers down and clench them tight to make a fist, then hold the fist up and shriek, “I don’t have any fingers!” The gullible onlookers would shriek, too, and say, “Oh, no! What happened? Where did your fingers go?” Then we’d pop our fingers back up with wicked glee.

One day Grandpa Frankie played the trick on me. I knew it was a trick, but I played along just to spread the fun around. He showed me his fist and shrieked just like he was supposed to. But when he tried to stretch his fingers back up, they didn’t come. His fingers had disappeared! He even turned his hand back and forth to show me he wasn’t hiding them. Where his fingers should have been, I saw only knuckle stumps.

Our innocent game had turned dangerous. I had been warned that if I made a face by stretching my lips out or wrinkling my nose, my face might stay that way. No one had told me that if I pretended to lose my fingers, my bluff just might be called. And now it had happened to Grandpa, who was just being nice to his grandchild. The sight of his fingerless hand haunted me and made me cautious about playing any game of pretend that might turn sour.

Either I said something to Mom or she figured out herself what was troubling me. She told me that I couldn’t have seen Grandpa’s fingers fold down because they weren’t there to begin with. They had been cut off in a corn picker when he was a young man. Even she, his oldest daughter, had never known him to have fingers on that hand. I had just never noticed that they were missing. I watched Grandpa more closely after that and noticed, for instance, how he could grip a cigarette or a dollar bill or the neck of a beer bottle between his thumb and the joint of what would have been his pointer. When we recited the Dane finger names, he must have used the other hand to help us learn them: Tommetot, Slikkepot, Langmand, Guldbrand, Lille Peder Spillemand.

Now I wonder if whoever started the game did it in imitation of Grandpa’s fingerless fist. My older cousins, Pete and Gar, didn’t betray the secret to me. But then I was never more than half initiated into anything they did.