John Wuestneck, Interim Chaplain to the Institute
2 Stories and a poem:
I believe, (you can disagree with me) we don’t get to choose our experiences with difference or diversity, they just present themselves.
I grew up in Minneapolis, MN. We lived in a working class neighborhood that was populated by lots of Swedish folks and Norwegians. I didn’t know that when I was a kid, most all of us had blue eyes and fair skin. But I was a minority, even though I didn’t really get that until high school. Names like Nelson and Olsen were spelled many different ways (Olsen, Olson, Ohlson, Ohlsson), but there was only one Wuestneck. And I was on the swimming team in high school.
We practiced at the university of Minnesota pool and since we had drivers licenses we drove to practice. We could drive at 15, which is a mistake, but that’s a whole story by itself. One evening before practice my mom was making spaghetti for dinner and since I had to leave for practice I would have to eat early. There were no pizza places anywhere near. Mom’s spaghetti was a casserole, pasta, sauce and whatever in a dish, baked for hours, but what did I know. I think the recipe is the one printed from the red and white cookbook that I found in her belongings, “The Better Homes and Garden New Cookbook”. She must have used that recipe and added the baking part to be creative because she was an artist, not a good cook. My sisters and I remember her now as the casserole queen. We used to like the hard noodles baked to the side of the dish – who knows why I even remember that. Well on the early dinner day for me I asked her or she offered me some of the unbaked spaghetti because I couldn’t wait before I had to leave for practice. I had some and I really liked it. No Italians around to introduce me to real spaghetti and gravy. So much for experience of difference. My respect for those yet to be known Italians in my life was lifted to new levels that day, and I never liked the baked variety again.
Early in my teen years I had a paper route, and I got a second job in a little corner grocery store. Morris Korsh was the owner. He was Jewish and only the second Jew I had met. There was a woman down the block from us who was Jewish and I shoveled her snow, but I never really got to know her. She seemed to always be in a bad mood, but I think that the cold and snow was the cause. Morry was different. He came from Germany before the Second World War with his family. As a boss he was simply wonderful. There were five or six of us who worked for him, stocking shelves, bagging groceries, keeping the walk in coolers filled, cleaning, getting held up at gun point, things like that. Only one gun point robbery. All of us were Christians and I knew nothing about Jews or their ways, except that somewhere we learned to cross the street and not walk on the side of the street with the synagogue. Ah, the roots of bigotry and prejudice.
Morry let us borrow his car to go on dates, drive to the beach or just drive around, he took us on fishing trips and hunting trips. He paid us well on the honor system, treated us with respect and was like another father to us. I worked for him for five years. He was a good boss and expected us to work hard and helped us play hard and was flexible and understanding about our needs and schedules.
I never knew about his Temple or synagogue. I knew his wife because she was the bookkeeper. I knew him as Morry and loved him a lot. He offered to pay our way through college and one of us took him up on that. It was much later in life that I learned why he had left in Germany and how hard his life had been. That experience with Morry gave me a great understanding of diversity even though there was no popular word like that then. His life of generosity and kindness and openness to my teen age foolishness made a big impact on me. Some of it rubbed off I’m sure. I didn’t choose these experiences, they just happened with me.
Last reading is a poem by a friend of mine. In introduction Harry writes: My Grandfather was 85 when he died nearly thirty six years ago. I finally put him to rest on Tuesday morning, April 7, 192 at 5:49 a.m. when I write this poem. He was a deacon in the Baptist Church, a founder of the local NAACP, president of the Community Center. When he was 75 he participated with the young people in the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s. He was predictably proud when the governor of Missouri declared a day in his honor. But this poem is not about that kind of thing, because, when all is said and done, that is not the stuff of which grandfathers are made.
I often get tears in my eyes when I read this poem, it has deep meaning for me.
My Grandfather by Harry Johnson
My grandfather could shoot a hole through a half-dollar
at a hundred paces.
He could shoot a marble so hard it broke the marble it hit -
and it always hit the other marble.
He could throw a ball so hard
nobody was willing to catch it.
Hell, he once pitched a perfect game: twenty-seven up,
twenty-seven down - nobody reached first base.
But he couldn't buy a Coke at the five-and-dime.
My grandfather could put out a street light with a slingshot
made from a clothespin and a couple of rubber bands.
He could walk on stilts and walk on his hands
when he was sixty years old.
He could make a quarter disappear and
find a nickle in your ear.
He could win a prize at every concession on the midway
at the Missouri State Fair.
But he couldn't buy a Coke at the five-and-dime .
My grandfather could hit a rabbit on the run
with a single shot from a 22-long.
He could pitch horseshoes so well nobody would play
against him -got a ringer nearly every time.
He could sing bass in the Baptist Church choir all by himself,
and when he prayed there was a tear in every eye
and a lump in every throat.
He could eat six ears of corn and a dozen biscuits covered with
Grannie's orange/peach marmalade - and ask for more.
But he couldn't buy a Coke at the five-and-dime.