OutTakes: Tribute to a loony uncle

Herter.jpgBy Edd Merritt | The Charlotte News

True North Elite

We scream the tune

We back the loon

—Minnesota United Football Club chant

This OutTake is dedicated to the Minnesota state bird, the common loon. My uncle George was a part of their flock—loony as all get out.

He has been dead for a number of years, and I had not thought of him in quite a while until I got a copy of a Minneapolis Tribune article about him and a call from my cousin saying that my aunt had passed away—not unexpected because she was 91 years old.

She was Belgian and met my uncle shortly after his participation in the Normandy invasion during World War II. She wanted to escape Europe, and when my uncle took a liking to her, she accepted his marriage offer even though he was more than 15 years oler than she. She married him overseas and came with him back to Waseca, Minnesota, a small town in the southern part of the state, known mostly as a grain stop for trains heading to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Every town in the upper Midwest at that time was a grain hub for the surrounding farms. Even the smallest villages had tall grain elevators sticking up from the village center.

My grandfather was a clothing merchant in Waseca and German by heritage, having been born in New Ulm, Minnesota, a Deutsch depository with breweries galore (seven at one time, I believe)—not a bad culture for a town of about 10,000 people. You can figure how much brew everyone had to drink in order to keep the plants operating.

Well, my grandfather gave up beer for business and decided that he had better move to a town without a foam head to its culture and with a bit more varied population. Waseca was not far away and some beautiful houses were available, so he moved there and opened a clothing and textile store. He built it into a successful enterprise, which it was when his son George took over the top floor for his own sales purposes in 1937.

Seven years later, George found himself dumped in a landing craft heading for the Normandy Beach, going ashore against heavily fortified German bunkers. Many of the people in his boat were killed—only he and four or five others were spared. His oldest son, a psychotherapist, feels that this incident may have been a building block for my uncle’s somewhat odd nature in later life.

After his military duty Uncle George, Aunt Berthe and their first child returned to Waseca. They had three more sons, and eventually my uncle took over my grandfather’s store and turned it from textiles to sporting goods, selling the largest variety of outdoor gear in history up to that point. It was a pre-Dick’s. My grandfather had been an avid hunter, so George came by his interest in hunting weapons and other gear naturally.

In partnership with his wife, George published Herter’s Catalog through which one could purchase all his store gear and more. Even though he was a recluse, his catalog was not. I read in a commentary not too long ago in the Burlington Free Press that Vermont author Willem Lange used to go to bed regularly with Herter’s catalog under his pillow. George and Berthe also wrote a number of books. I decided to browse the two I own to see why the Minneapolis Star and Tribune called him an “outsized outdoorsman and bamboozler,” while the Waseca Historical Society feels what he did was important enough to cook up a “tasty tribute to an eccentric native son who, they say, put their southern Minnesota town on the map.”

I have volumes I and II of Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices, which he and Berthe co-authored, published oddly enough by Herter’s, Inc. (It is likely that a legitimate publisher would have been hard pressed to run them through its presses.) They contain some pretty far-out connections between historical figures and what they enjoyed in the way of food. Christopher Columbus was a fan of stuffed peppers. George says the Mohawk Indians were descendants of the Celts and cousins to the Irish, Scots, Bretons and Welsh. They thrived on Mohawk corn through a recipe used by Kateria Tekakwitha, “a Mohawk woman of great brilliance,” according to the authors.

Volume II contains five pages showing nothing but a Hong Kong restaurant menu, running from appetizers through desserts with a list of items and prices for each. Interspersed throughout are copies of art work—a van Gogh, a Matisse and Manet, a picture of a French Joan of Arc statue, as well as one of a Colt 45 pistol, Jules Verne’s moon rocket about to land, and a portrait of my great grandmother. Connected how to food? Another of his books is co-authored by “Jack Herter, Jr.” I have no clue who “Jack Herter, Sr.” is—not in my family anyway.

On another plane, one of his books held a chapter on “How to Kill a Wild Boar with a Shirt.” I think you make him wear it and pretty soon his relatives push him off a cliff.

The New York Times was not particularly gentle in its description of George. In a 2008 article the author called him a “surly sage, gun-toting Minnesotan and all-American crank…ornery survivalist, unabashed huckster, eccentric gastronome, reclusive tinkerer, teller of tall tales.” (If I were George, I might be honored by that description coming from a major newspaper.)

Berthe, meanwhile, outlived him by 22 years. I have four Herter cousins whom I had seldom seen. (There was a rift between my mother and her brother for which I never knew the cause.) I, however, with a mind somewhat aligned off center, would have liked to try to figure out my uncle’s odd nature for myself rather than having my mother say that he was just loony and a bad person. Isn’t part of life getting to know human nature so you can make those sorts of determinations?

I finally connected with the family several years ago through Berthe and my cousin Jack, who contacted me out of the blue. Berthe and I started communicating through notes. She was particularly concerned with my well-being. When the weather reports told of storms in Vermont, and when the phone rang early on winter mornings, it was often her asking me if I was all right. Beth and I spent an enjoyable evening at one cousin’s house, talking to Berthe and using the occasion to catch up on four decades of the world without us. Everyone seemed comfortable speaking about our families, where we stood in life and how sorry we all were that we had not been closer over the years. We listened and spoke honestly about our lives, and we ate creamed spinach—which, you all know after reading my uncle’s book, was the Virgin Mary’s favorite dish. All George’s sons are quite sane and, in referring to him, often preface their remarks with, “Of course, he was a bit crazy, you know.”

Relatives as social collectives often carry their own subjugate laws and beliefs. They are a subunit of larger society, sometimes with a history that transcends that society. Since relatives are born and not made, we do not have the wherewithal to change them. Hearing from many sources how crazy my uncle was, I simply wish I’d had the opportunity to see his quirks firsthand and then determined his level of sanity myself.

After all, if Monty Python can slap you with a fish, I could interpret a loon’s call.

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