Friday, January 20, 2012
He was a German, a German-American, and fiercely proud. He stood up in front of our tour bus and sang the praises of his own German heritage as he showed us around his town, New Ulm, Minnesota. He could just as well have been outfitted in lederhosen; after all, the whole town is.
One of our people was an immigrant Dutchman with a wooden leg from a biking accident, a man with a thick accent even though he'd come to Albertan flatlands a half-century before. Sitting in the back of that bus and just listening to that fiercely proud German story-teller made him hot as pan of bacon. He could not hear that tone of voice without remembering four long years of German occupation, including a winter when people burned books to stay warm and ate cats to put something, anything in their stomachs.
We pulled the bus over in a spot where the German man, a historian, told the story of the 1862 Dakota War, especially how--twice!!--fierce Dakota warriors tried to burn down the settlement of the people they called "the Dutch" because they couldn't say "Deutsch." Think of an old Western, half-naked savages screaming and yelling and launching fiery arrows toward a couple hundred German folks holed up together to try to stay alive. Twice, the white folks fought off the rampage. Twice, against significant odds, they survived.
What that German historian didn't tell our visitors was how white folks had lied, had cheated, had not delivered the goods they promised in a treaty that wasn't worth the parchment it was printed on. What that German didn't tell our visitors is that those German immigrants, back in 1862, were vastly more hostile to the Dakota people who lived in the Minnesota River valley than the American pioneers who were putting down homesteads in the hardwood forests and the sweet green meadows all around. What that German historian didn't recount is that there are two sides to the story.
I don't know that our Dutch immigrant friend knew that we weren't getting the whole story, but somehow I knew that our host's uniquely German manner, a manner that carried some pride, was going to just make the Dutchman sizzle--and it did. When he finished the story and we pulled up in front of Martin Luther College's new chapel for a tour, our Dutch tourist didn't get off the bus because he was bromming. No, there's not enough oompah in that Dutch word--he wasn't just bromming, he was burning. And he was alone.
He wasn't proud of himself either. After all, this German historian's family was in Minnesota for almost a hundred years when the Dutchman was kid. To be angry with him about the Nazi Occupation wasn't right either--it's just that his manner, that arrogant German carriage, was unmistakable. He sat for a while alone in the back of the bus, and prayed.
And then he left the back seat, walked out the door and into the chapel.
The rest of us had been blessed. It's a beautiful chapel, and it just so happened--a kiss of joy--that the chapel's organist happened to show up to practice. Once our host had talked about the chapel, we sang hymns, something we like to do on our tours, especially when we're in old churches--or, in this case, new chapels. And this time, when we did, that organist, parked somewhere out of sight, heard the melodies and decided, graciously, to play along--even "A Mighty Fortress," Luther's own.
It was absolutely gorgeous, took my breath away, made me weep. I'm serious. And that's when I saw the old Dutchman come limping up from the back alone and rejoin the group. Honestly, I thought I knew the story.
But I didn't hear it from the man himself until he sat beside me a few hours later in the basement of the August Schell Brewery, a place that didn't get destroyed when the Dakota freedom fighters attacked way back in 1862, and still pumps out great beer. We'd toured the place--wasn't long--and ended up in a basement tasting room, where our very gracious hosts didn't spare the samples.
That's when he told me the whole story--of how insanely angry he became sitting in that bus, how that German's arrogance evoked wrath he hardly knew he still had, wrath that had brewed in him for sixty years; but how he'd also told himself it wasn't right for him to be that mad, how he'd ushered himself out of the bus and into that chapel, and how, when he'd walked in, he'd heard this music, people singing hymns in a way that reminded him of the angels on high, it was that beautiful. "And God told me I was wrong," he said, deadly serious, in his own thick Dutch accent, a cold August Schell beer in his hand.
And that's why a couple of weeks ago, when I spotted this half-case of August Schell beer in Wal-Mart, a sampler, I didn't hesitate for a moment. I bought it. I was born in Wisconsin, the nation's beer-brewing capitol. It's not the first 12-pack of beer I bought in my life.
But I've never come home with one that has any better story.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 5:59 AM