From the book about Southwest Minnesota, Victory Gardens and Long Handled Dippers
Juvenile Delinquency, Minnesota Style
Submitted by Charles H. Josephson of Tucson, AZ
I was intrigued by the note in a recent Minneota Mascot about helping to write a book. I was raised on a farm close to Minneota, and it crossed my mind to put down a few things I recall. My brother, Allan, two years older than I (I'm 81), was involved in most of these and agrees they are accurate. I hope you find one or more of them to be of interest. (As my Creative Writing teacher in college once said when we asked why his novel was one thousand pages: "I didn't have time to make it short.")
As I look back on it, my older brother Allan and I were generally regarded as the cream of the crop in many ways, good students, active in every available youth activity, and often chosen to lead when asked. If we did these acts of delinquency today, we’d be rewarded with much time in “juvie” and even a “record.” But these sorts of things – and worse - were probably done by every farm or town kid in our small town. Maybe the way they were treated says something profound about small town culture.
We were probably around six or seven years old, living on a farm in the summer during threshing time. The threshing machine spewed out huge piles of dry, dry straw, probably a twenty-foot high cone of the lovely yellow stuff. Often there were weed seeds in that, and my father would get rid of the weeds by setting fire to the pile. He did that by lighting one of his strike-anywhere wooden matches, setting fire to a fistful of straw on the tines of a pitchfork, and then touching the lighted fork-straw torch in several places to the base of the pile. It was fascinating to watch, so fascinating that we decided to try it.
The men went in for dinner at noon, and we saw the opportunity. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize that it was important to pull the threshing machine away from the pile before it was lit! The flames raised quite a stir. We ran away through the pasture, got caught, and learned a lesson from the bottom up, if you can guess what I mean. It seems to me there were soot marks on that thresher for many years.
Today we would be sent to a therapist for treatment of abnormal fascination with fire, I suppose. I don’t think we became arsonists, though.
Breaking and Entering
The most obvious act for which Allan and I could have been arrested, charged, tried, and convicted was about in 1942 or 1943. We attended a one room school with perhaps fifteen to twenty students, all grades, one through eight, and one teacher, Miss Granger, as I recall. The school was quite adequate and better than many. One of its modern features was indoor toilets, a foul smelling chemical tank with a stool on top! No flushing needed; everything was just a splash in the chemical. Most other schools got by with two or three holers outdoors. Our school also had a large, deep basement that was used for recess, games and such, if the weather was just too bad outdoors. The basement windows were at ground level, perhaps three feet tall and four feet wide. The basement windows were locked from the inside with little metal clasps.
Each pupil was assigned a desk, used for their personal books, pencils, paper, crayons, etc., everything necessary to get through the day. The desks were of various sizes, small ones for the early grades up to much larger for the seventh and eighth graders. You were assigned your desk on the first day and kept it for the year unless you outgrew it.
Our plot went like this. We would find a way to leave a basement window unlocked, come by during the weekend, let ourselves in, go up to the classroom, and switch everybody's desks. What fun to see everyone, especially the first and second graders, wonder what happened to all their stuff!
The raid went exactly as planned. On Monday morning, there was a huge commotion after the Pledge of Allegiance and National Anthem as the pupils discovered they had taken the wrong seat! It took a while, but things got put back. I remember being a bit chagrined when Miss Granger said, “Allan and Charles, do you know anything about this?” Silence from us. (Perhaps the fact that ours were the only seats in the right place may have helped her detective sense? Hmmm.)
Our parents were called in to deal with this; I have forgotten what the punishment was. One thing I do remember about punishment, though, as we got older. The harshest reminder available to my mother was a sad comment, administered with a shake of the head, “Josephson’s don’t do things like that,” and that hurt worse than fifty slaps on the butt. In any case, no one even considered making lawbreakers of us, though we deserved it. Burglary just didn’t seem worth it after that.
Reckless Destruction of Property
I was probably in seventh or eighth grade when I would occasionally drive our Model A to town, perhaps for a trombone or piano lesson. I was twelve or thirteen. We sort of ignored the idea of driver’s licenses, since we obviously knew how to drive and the folks trusted us.
Once coming back from town the car started acting up a bit. The Model A had a special lever for control of the carburetor and choke. The lever was placed right in front of the passenger seat so the driver had to reach across the car to give it a pull or a twist adjustment.
I was a shorty then and could barely see above the steering wheel. I had to bend over almost horizontally to adjust the lever. When I sat up again I was staring at the ditch, not the road, and going too fast to stop. In a second or so I smashed into a mailbox (a federal offense, don’t you know) at the end of someone’s driveway.
Let’s see: driving without a license, destroying federal property, and distracted driving, quite a few problems there. It happened that the mailbox belonged to the farmer who, with his wife, was leader of our 4-H club. I drove up and told him what I had done. He laughed and said he was going to replace that post anyway, so forget about it. I didn’t forget and now wonder what I would do to someone who smashed into the mailbox here in front of my house. In fact, mailbox vandalism is a police concern for us today!
Cruelty to Animals
We were in high school. Allan was trusted to drive feeder cattle to market in South Saint Paul, and I rode along. We were both delighted to take the drive for several reasons. One was that we had begun smoking but tried to keep it hidden from the folks. On the road, though, no one knew, and we could puff away as we wished.
Our truck held about eight cattle, and it was always a project to get them loaded and off on the trip. The truck had a decent bed of straw – dry as tinder – when we started, and as the trip went on the natural excretions of the cattle, worse than normal because of the ride, turned the straw to slime and mud, but not until quite a few miles and certainly not right away.
After five or six miles or so, I finished my cigarette and tossed it out the window. I thought nothing of it until a few minutes later I looked in the side mirror and saw smoke coming from the side of the truck! I yelled at Allan; he coolly took action and saw a farm nearby. We drove crazily up the driveway, saw a hydrant with a hose, and got the flames out. I believe the owner of the farm came out and helped, but we probably told him there must have been a spark from the engine or something. He was glad to help.
With incredible luck, there was no damage to the truck, and the only lasting result was that one of the heifers had obviously been burned. We both felt terrible for the critter, but there was nothing we could do about it. We turned the cattle in for sale and spent our own money to pay for a good washing of the truck, something we rarely did since we could clean it for free when we got back home.
The only lasting evidence of my stupidity was that the check for the cattle included a deduction: one of the cattle was “docked” for some unexplained damage. Allan and I knew, of course, but never let on. My father was puzzled, but never pursued the matter.
I wonder what the SPCA would do to us for ignoring the wounded heifer. It didn't occur to us to take the animal to see a veterinarian right away.
In actuality, incidents like this were great learning experiences. What is most remarkable is that they were almost surely completely shrugged off and forgotten by everyone except us, the perpetrators. The lessons were for us, however, lasting indeed.