Facing Accidents on the Prairies Long Ago
By Carole Koch
We are used to viewing the homesteading of prairies in a broad perspective. We state facts — who, when, where, what and how, but ignore the drama within the heart and soul of these real human beings. We skim over the cost to the inner life.
* * *
Una was tired!
Oh, physically, she was fine, but emotionally she was exhausted.
Looking around in her ugly railroad tie house, she became more depressed. Outside was no better — the horse and cattle were grazing perfectly content. Chickens scratched and clucked at her feet. They were happy — why wasn’t she?
As far as the eye could see, the tall brown fall grass rippled and swayed in the eternal winds. Not a tree, not a shrub — nothing to break the landscape. There was a mournful beauty that touched and drew an inner torment. She was reminded of the dream that had once changed her life — here again her life was being altered.
Winter was just around the corner, ready to pounce on them. For five months, the family would be imprisoned by snow. The very thought stopped her in her tracks. She could hear the boys yelling and fighting and the girls arguing — everyone short tempered, trembling with emotion, fear, and dread for what was coming. A short prayer came from her lips. “Oh, Jesus. Help me!”
Like a bolt out of the heavens, she knew. “A woman,” she shouted. “That’s what I need. That’s the answer: A good old-fashioned heart-to-heart with someone who would understand. I need a friend, a woman friend.”
“Martin,” she called to her son.
“Yes, Mor,” (Mor is the Norwegian word for mother), Martin answered.
“Hitch up the buggy, one horse will be plenty.”
“What?” he questioned. “Where are you going? Can I come along?”
“Not this time. I am going to visit Mrs. Dohrman — alone.”
“But Mom,” he wheedled. “I want to come and you shouldn’t go alone. Please! Please!”
“Martin,” she sternly replied, “I said No. Now get busy and do as I asked.”
Una took up the reins, touched the horse lightly with the whip and was on her way. “Tell your father I’ll be home for supper,” she called to her five children.
“But how…?” began Martin, and then he fell silent.
Evening was coming, soon darkness would be upon them, but no Mor. Father was pacing the floor. Then, out in the yard, eyes searched the wagon trail. No Una.
“Children,” father called, “I’m going to look for her. Something has to be wrong!”
Riding his pony toward the Dohrman homestead, he tried to collect his thoughts and fears. No understanding or comfort came. Urging his horse to a faster pace, he scrutinized the evening sky, seeing no movement except a few birds settling down for the night. Oceans of grass spread before him. Suddenly, he saw a dark object lying ahead beside the path.
“Dear Lord,” he thought. “What is this? Something is out there.”
The horse galloped furiously ahead. Lars leaped from the saddle and ran toward the object.
“Una! Una!” he screamed. “Is that you?”
No answer. Then he knew this was no object, this was his beloved Una. He gathered her unconscious bleeding body in his arms, praying that she was alive. Yes, he could feel a heartbeat. There was shallow breath, but her head and face were covered with bloody mud and grass. He must get her home at once. Holding her gently, he started walking with his horse trailing behind. There was no sign of Una’s horse and buggy. He’d worry about that later.
The children screamed in turn as they watched their father carry their mother like a small child. Everyone helped him in the house and, on his direction, they ran for warm water, soap, and towels.
Mor literally had been scalped. The skin from ear to ear above her brow was hanging loose. It was connected on the back of her neck. Lars gently washed the raw part, pushed the skin and hair back in place, and stitched it with plain sewing thread and a darning needle. Then he bandaged her whole head with strips of torn sheet.
They had no medication, no disinfectant, no painkiller, nothing but soap and water and TLC.
The girls rallied to care for their mother, treating her like an infant. They bathed and diapered her, and wrapped warm blankets around her little body. All night and the following day they took turns doing anything they could think of to be of help. Water was squeezed into her mouth and — lo and behold, she could swallow! A wonderful sign! They kept spooning water into her mouth, finally deciding to try some food. Thin gruel was cooked and given, and she swallowed that, too.
“Thank you Lord,” they whispered, “At least she won’t starve to death.”
Not until the following day did Mor start to regain consciousness — the pain was horrible. The only doctor in the area was about 30 miles away. It would take Lars at least four days to drive to Dickinson and back with the doctor. No, he couldn’t leave Mor that long. Alfred, their oldest son, was sent to Taylor, only eight miles away. He sent a telegram through the railroad station to the physician, asking him to come on the train. The answer was “I’ll come as soon as possible.”
Everyone in town wanted to help when they found out about the accident. Arrangements were made. One of the men would bring the doctor out as soon as he arrived
Alfred brought the message home to a worse situation than he had left the day before. Mor had lapsed into a coma, and infection had set in, with pus draining between the stitches. No one knew what to do. They prayed together, asking Jesus to heal their wife and mother.
Of course, life on a farm goes on. Animals still must be fed, eggs gathered, and cows milked. That’s when it happened. While milking, Lars remembered something he had heard while still a boy in Norway. “Boys,” he called, “Finish all the chores. There is something I must do.” He raced to the house returning with clean towels. The cows were stationed in their stalls, munching evening grain. Lars walked behind them, watching like a hawk, waiting for one to defecate. Success! He caught the dung in the towel and ran back to Una, and placed the cloth containing the hot feces directly on her inflamed, draining head. Another towel was added to keep the cow’s body heat within. Thus a poultice was fashioned.
Mrs. Dohrman, Una’s would-be confidante, came to help. Night and day everyone worked together, changing, washing, feeding, and loving Mor. The poultice was working. Her infected area looked cleaner with every dung change.
Five days went by. Mor started to move. Her eyes opened.
“What’s all the fuss about?” she asked.
Everyone shrieked with joy, hopping up and down, hugging and crying together, thanking God. Una was going to be all right.
In the midst of this hilarity, a strange voice came through. “Where is the patient?” The doctor had finally arrived.
Mor’s wounds healed, leaving only a small scar. Hair even grew again. Not thick and heavy as before, but the girls kept it curled and fluffy.
When asked about the accident, she said her horse shied at something, perhaps a rattlesnake, and ran out of control, toppling the buggy with her trapped under it. Then she couldn’t remember.
Needless to say, while such a poultice may have had curative properties, I do not recommend its use in modern times, especially when more sophisticated medical attention is now available.
Learning from Sample One
Sample memoir chapters or essays are provided at this site for several reasons, but the primary reason is to serve as a learning tool. One of the chief ways that writers hone their craft is by learning to READ LIKE WRITERS. When you read like a writer, you read primarily for pleasure, but you also take note of what it is about the piece you are reading that, as writers say, works. What is it about the piece that makes it pleasurable and rewarding when you read it?
For example, in the piece, “Facing Accidents on the Prairies Long Ago,” Carole Koch took a true story that had been passed down in her family and breathed life into it. She did this by entering into the experience fully with her own imagination and thereby fleshing out the details. She even added dialogue, using “poetic license,” if you will, to help the reader engage in the story as deeply as possible.
Many beginning memoir writers worry about adding dialogue or details that they can’t remember exactly. They want the stories to be based on truth, and indeed truth is a lofty goal. However, what is most desired in a memoir, I think, is not historical and legal truth so much as an aesthetic and emotional truth.
Yes, we strive to get the historical and legal truth correct to the best of our ability; and we can refine the details over time as our pieces are read by others who can provide facts that we may have left out. But if I mention, in a memoir piece, that Grandma was wearing a flowered apron, and in actuality she wasn’t wearing an apron the day I’m describing, it’s okay. If Grandma might have been wearing an apron, and typically wore an apron, then it’s certainly okay to add that detail in a given scene. As for dialogue, readers know that dialogue in a memoir can only be an approximation in any case. Few if any memoir writers audiotaped their lives! We’re allowed to reconstruct, even invent, dialogue that helps to render the truth as we remember it. You may wish to preface your memoir essays with a disclaimer such as the following:
The following memoirs are constructed from what I (and others with whom I conferred) can remember of the times depicted. While each and every event may not be true in every detail, the events described contain a larger truth that I call emotional truth. These are the ways the memories presented themselves to me and grew in my mind as I dwelled on the gifts of the past. I look forward to hearing from others who may remember things differently. We can learn from each other.
If we limit our prose to that which we directly witnessed, or can remember with 100% clarity, then our memoirs will be thin and uninteresting. I recommend doing what Carol did in the sample piece provided: Use all of your knowledge and life experiences to flesh out the details to the best of your ability. You will find that as you do this, you will find new details and/or memories popping into your mind. The writing process itself can take you on a creative journey. The rewards will be for you and for your readers.