Literary Journal – Fall 2016

Howard and the Little Girl

By Judith Wrase Nygard 

“Andy’s new school principal is Howard’s grandson,” my brother said on the phone about ten years ago.  “You remember Howard, don’t you?”

Of course, I did.  Howard was one of the two one-armed farmers I knew in the country church my family attended.  Every Sunday when we arrived at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, a few miles north of Lakefield, Minnesota, Howard always greeted me at the door.  I was never frightened by his having only one arm because his eyes and manner were kind and his inquiries about me were genuine.  He and my mother often talked privately in the church entry corner.

My brother continued, “I told him about our mom saving his grandfather.  He didn’t know anything about it.”

“I think I have the news clipping about it in Grandma’s scrapbook.”

“Would you send me a photocopy?” he asked.  “I’d like to give to him.”

That night, before I could even dig into the boxes in the spare room closet for the scrapbook, I woke up at 3 a.m. with a jolt.  I woke up thinking about the story of my mother saving Howard’s life. What was the something else that I was remembering just before the jolt? The next day I photocopied the clipping and popped it in an envelope.

A week later when my sister called, we talked about our nephew Andy and about Howard’s accident, which happened before our brother was born.  “You were part of the story,” she said.

“I was?”

“Mom told me that you had been playing outside and came in, saying, ‘H-e-e-l-l-p, H-e-e-l-l-p.’  She said you went back out again and in a few minutes came back, repeating, ‘H-e-e-l-l-p, H-e-e-l-l-p.’”

I was sure that Mom told me that story too, but it had slipped from my memory. Was this the something else that I had been trying to remember?  The clipping didn’t mention anything about me.  After a restless night I woke up with some memories.  I remember Grandpa holding my sister and me in the front passenger seat of our car.  I remember my dad driving and my mom in the back seat.  I remember blood on the back seat.  I shoved that frightening detail to the back of my mind.  Since childhood I have been squeamish around people bleeding, doctor’s offices and hospitals, yet I admire my mother and my sister for their work in hospitals.

About a month ago Howard’s name came up while my dad’s cousin, his wife and I were visiting in the living room of their Minnesota farm house.  We had been chatting for about an hour as four of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren ran in and out.  Willis mentioned that he saw an antique Case hay baler at a farm equipment show.  “I told the guy that this is the kind of baler that got Howard’s arm.  That day of the accident my dad heard a cry for ‘Help’ and sent me up on top of the barn roof to look.  Just as I was climbing up there, your folks went flying by in their car.  Your dad later told me that he climbed up his windmill to take a look.”

“Yes,” I replied.  “I’ve heard Howard’s story.”

“I think your folks found him quickly.  I can’t believe he was able to do that to himself,” Willis remarked.

I nodded.  “Well, you know I have Grandma’s scrapbook.”  My grandmother and Willis’ father were sister and brother.  “According to a clipping I found, Wesley Brodin was the first to find him.”

“Wes couldn’t have been very old.” Sharon said.

Willis posited, “He must have been a teenager.”

“How did he know to come?” she asked.

“Maybe he was working in the next field over,” I offered.

I repeated to them the story my sister had told me about my role and mentioned remembering blood on the back seat of our car.  “Quite something for a preschooler to remember, isn’t it?” I commented.

Today I decided to photocopy the clipping from the Lakefield Standard weekly newspaper to send to Willis and Sharon.  When I saw the date of Thursday, July 5, 1951, I realized that Willis was twelve years old, my sister was nineteen months old, and I was three and a half years old on that day.

Howard Barber Loses Right Arm In Hay Baler Accident Monday
Cuts Off His Own Arm To Free Himself from Baler Rollers

Howard Barber, 43-year-old farmer of Delafield township, was the victim of a tragic accident shortly after 5 p.m. Monday, while doing custom baling of alfalfa hay on the Harold Malchow farm.

The twine on the baler wasn’t working properly so Howard stopped the conveyor, but left the rollers running and attempted to remedy the trouble by throwing a small bunch of hay into the rollers.

In some way his right hand became caught in the twine and was drawn into the rollers, crushing his arm to the elbow.

Showing unusual strength and courage at his dire predicament, Howard took his jack knife from his pocket and freed himself by cutting off his arm below the elbow, where the bone was broken.

He called for help and Wesley Brodin, a neighbor boy, responded. He was followed shortly by Mr. and Mrs. Herman Wrase. Fortunately Mrs. Wrase was formerly a nurse and rendered first aid by applying a tourniquet to stop the bleeding and the couple rushed him to the Lakefield hospital.

Barber was on the operating table from 7 to 9:30 p.m. with several doctors assisting with the operation. A clean severance was made above the elbow so that an artificial arm may be used.

The attending physicians paid tribute to the courage of the patient and said he stood the operation in very fine shape.  When the Standard was printed today, his condition was said to be very good.

With typical Barber fortitude he joked with nurses Thursday and told them he would soon be back operating the baler.

After rereading these words, I started to cry.  I thought about Howard in a field with no one around.  What went through his mind as he used his knife? Did he realize that he might bleed to death before anyone found him?  Did his repeated yells for help weaken him?  Did he hope that the strong south wind would carry his cries a mile north to our farm?  Three-quarters of a mile east to Willis’ parents’ farm?  A half-mile west to Wesley’s parents’ farm?  How did he feel when he saw Wesley and my parents arrive?

How could Howard possibly know that a three-year-old little girl would hear him but not understand?  How could he possibly know that the little girl would go inside to mimic his cries to her mother – Twice?  That the little girl’s mother would sense something was wrong and would go outside to listen for herself? That the little girl’s father would not be working in his own fields and would climb a windmill to locate him? That the little girl’s grandfather would be helping on the farm for the day?  That the little girl’s mother would be a registered nurse with experience from a Minneapolis hospital?  That the grandfather would shield the little girl and her younger sister from seeing the worst by pressing their heads against the denim overalls covering his big belly?

How could Howard possibly know that – 65 years later, a few days past the date of his accident – the little girl would finally and fully comprehend why he kindly greeted her at the church door every time she arrived, even when she returned as an adult living far away.

Judy Wrase Nygard has taken up new interests since retiring. In place of responding to college essays, she now gives tours of the Pearl S. Buck house, writes memoirs and local history, does water aerobics, and learns about ancient Native American mounds in the U.S.