"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Friday, January 8, 2016

Thinking of America and MN just before WWII

In wake of big blizzard of 1940
Just think of this nation as it existed in 1940. We talked of "the great war" and it was a reference to World War I. Armistice Day focused on that. People tuned in on the radio to hear the American Legion Armistice Day program from Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C.
Conventional wisdom has it that FDR's New Deal hadn't pulled us out of the Great Depression. Let's just say success was halting, or seemed so. Europe was already ablaze with World War II. It might be easy to forget we weren't on board with that horrible conflict right from the start. Americans were quite determined to stay out of it. Thus we had the "America First" movement with our famed Minnesotan Charles Lindbergh as a leading spokesperson.
The 1940 Democratic platform pledged against participation in foreign wars, except in case of attack.
As Minnesotans experienced late fall and early winter of 1940, we were a year away from the "Jap" attack on Pearl harbor, which overnight made it inevitable we'd plunge into that hellish conflagration called WWII. Had President Roosevelt allowed Pearl Harbor to happen? Speculation was rife.
In 1940 the University of Minnesota football team won the national championship. Two days before the famous Armistice Day blizzard, the U beat Michigan and its Heisman winner, Tommy Harmon. Bruce Smith raced in a memorable 80-yard touchdown run for the winning Gophers at the old Memorial Stadium. I saw one game at Memorial Stadium in the fall of 1973, when Tony Dungy was our quarterback.
In 1940 we could hardly imagine getting big league pro teams established here. In 1940 we had the controversial third term election of FDR.
Reading about the Armistice Day blizzard, one is struck by the huge role of hunting in our culture. The history of that event includes so much material about those (male) hunters all over the place, dealing with the adversity of that storm, many destined not to survive. The clothing available to hunters was not nearly as good as today's, in terms of offering protection from the elements. And, the elements became an absolute bear in a short period of time.
Initially, deer hunters liked the idea of snow falling: they could track deer better. Snow would also provide better visibility in the woods. Duck hunters, who ended up especially vulnerable in the storm, thought birds would be easy to find. Oh, if all these people could have just stayed home. The lucky people were the ones who could just hole up at home. As for everyone else, those are the people who ended up telling dramatic tales of all they experienced that day, Monday, November 11, 1940. It was a day that "went down in infamy" a year before Pearl Harbor.
The weather forecast had been quite inadequate. The forecasters used that maddeningly vague word of "flurries."
I have read a number of survival stories, including Betty Waage's (of Morris). Betty's story happened here in Morris. It's preserved in William Hull's book: "All Hell Broke Loose." My mother was offended by this title until I convinced her, with considerable effort, that the title was offered in the proper spirit. If you cannot use the word "hell" to describe that blizzard, then it would have no application.
The broad population was caught off guard by the blizzard. There's always one exception to the rule, of course, and in this vein I'll present the name of Bill Schutte. Bill left his home in St. Louis Park early on the morning of that fateful day. He felt it was a fine morning indeed. He was a pilot so he scanned the skies in a different manner than the rest of us. He was sensitive to what was happening in the atmosphere. At 9:30 a.m. he called his wife at home. Her first name isn't provided in my research, but I came across "Mrs. Schutte" which was common style at the time, and what you'll find in back issues of our Morris Sun Tribune newspaper from when Arnold Thompson was editor. (I did some work for Arnold.)
Bill asked "Mrs. Schutte" to check their "barograph," a self-registering barometer. Mrs. Schutte reported that the instrument must be broken, as the recording needle had dropped so low, it left the graph paper on the drum. Bill called a friend at the U.S. Weather Bureau office at the airport, then called "Wold-Chamberlain." His friend there offered confirmation: the needle there had completely moved off the drum.
Bill decided to go back home. He put chains on his car tires. He filled the gas tank. The gas station attendant was in shirt sleeves and was incredulous. Bill went back downtown and put his car in the company garage. The storm came. Bill left his office and began an extended process of picking up stranded office workers and driving them home. Real late he returned to the garage and then "bedded down" on an office desk. Perhaps a statue should have been erected of the prescient Mr. Schutte. God bless his wife too, whatever her first name.
 
Music to preserve memories
Several days ago I put up a post that presented a song I wrote, inspired by the Armistice Day blizzard in Minnesota. I like the song very much, but when finished with writing it, I felt I hadn't fulfilled the mission totally. Maybe I hadn't covered all the ground I should have. With my mind so full of details connected to the blizzard, I went to work on a second song.
Perhaps my mind got so focused on the event because my late father always had an interesting story to tell. I heard that tale from when I was very young. My mother, about a junior in high school at the time, must have just taken refuge in their house, a minimal house but still sufficient, in Brainerd MN. My mother never said much about the blizzard. She had a brother Edwin who was so typical of young men of that time, about to be swept into WWII commitments. He survived the war. Brainerd had a National Guard unit that got swept into utter tragedy, as it was sent to the Phillippines where they were captured by the Japanese. (Edwin wasn't part of that.)
There is nothing good about war. The war may have pulled us permanently out of the Depression. Too bad we couldn't have fought it with rubber bullets.
What if we had never been forced to build up our military so much? What would have happened in connection to the Korea and Viet Nam conflicts? Could the Red Army have wiped out the Nazis without so much help from the U.S.?
My second song about the great Armistice Day blizzard of 1940 has a melody that is more consistent with ponderous lyrics. I'm thinking right now that if I have either song recorded, it would be the second. I fact, I might have it done soon. Here are the lyrics:
 
"The Blizzard of '40"
by Brian Williams
 
The Armistice dawned like nothing was wrong
Way back in that autumn of '40
We honored the boys who fought for our soil
And made sure we all knew their story
The Gophers were fresh from thumping their chest
Accomplished on their football mission
They rumbled and ran for all of their fans
Dispatching the Wolv-rines of Michigan
 
When Monday arrived we looked at the skies
And did not see anything troubling
A light misty rain seemed normal and tame
A storm did not seem to be bubbling
The rivers and lakes were quite the fine place
For men with their shotguns to venture
They scoured the skies with ducks as their prize
With nary a thought to the weather
 
And then the snow came, could not be restrained
But would it be just a few inches?
As it piled high we had to realize
The weather gods were sons of bitches
An ocean of white commanded our sight
As we faced a test of our mettle
We looked all about to find a way out
But mostly we stayed where we settled
 
The radio dial was on all the while
With 'CCO as our companion
Those voices advised how we might survive
We heard it from ol' Cedric Adams
Our coats were not made to keep us real safe
We could have used more goose down filler
With good antifreeze our cars might not wheeze
But they were still no match for winter
 
We battled the storm as Europe was torn
We wanted to mind our own business
We heeded the word of Charles Lindbergh
Who honored the best of our wishes
The wind was a brute up north in Duluth
At 63 miles per hour
It dug out the trees, defying belief
So much, Paul Bunyan would cower
 
We'll never forget the worst blizzard yet
When people were fans of Jack Benny
We could not yet see a glowing TV
But candy would cost just a penny
A snowfall so big, it blew off the lid
Of records and standards longstanding
And those in the know will hasten to crow
We'd rather have Hurricane Sandy
 
The stories were stored in books and in lore
To keep the awareness so vivid
Of all the travail we faced in that gale
And how the Lord taketh and giveth
If it came today there'd be hell to pay
No matter our progress or vision
Those piles of snow would still have to go
they don't disappear by just wishin'
 
We feel winter's wrath but then it does lapse
With spring and the days getting longer
We're left with our dreams of winter's extremes
And all of its stresses to ponder
The Armistice term is no longer heard
And Nazis were sent into Hades
Our heroes returned where home fires burn
Got married and had lots of babies
 
But we'll never forget the blizzard of '40
We'll never forget the blizzard of '40

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