He Is Us, Pt. 3

     Oh, very well.  If you have to hear how the story finishes up, we can put the joke column off until Wednesday.  How the millions of joke column fans will…what was that?  Don’t be rude.

     I hope everyone who read the first two installments has tuned in for the conclusion and was not thrown off by what may have seemed an unnecessarily crude detail in our second installment.  Those who had been reading may have remembered vaguely that this was a story about the immigrant experience, and how my grandfather felt there was a lesson to be learned in the story of HIS grandmother about how to treat The Other, the stranger who wasn’t like you.

     Yes, we ARE going to get to the story,  We left sixteen year-old Magdalena “Lena” Ruppel lying in the straw at the livery stable, afflicted by the pangs of cholera, a deadly disease that was seasonal throughout the civilized world at this time.  No one wanted tyo have anything to do with the German-speaking waif who was obviously sick: half a dozen white people hurried past and a black man turned and ran.

     Well, if you think of Galena as Oz, and Lena as Dorothy, she had just encountered her three main allies.  The freedman who turned and ran was going to serve as her Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion.  Like the Woodman, he had a heart, and it went out to anyone dying on a sunny day in Galena.  Like the Lion, he had courage, and did not fear the disease that was going around.  But like the Scarecrow, he also had a brain.  This was Galena, Illinois, it was 1843, and he knew what would happen to a black man seen carrying a white woman through the streets of town.  He would be no use to Lena once he’d been pummeled to pulp.

     So when he ran, it was home to his wife, where he called “Ma, there’s a little Dutchy girl with the cholera lying in the straw at the livery stable, and she;s going to die if we don’t help!”  His wife did not pause to take off her apron, but hurried down to carry Lena to safety.

     Lena received the care she needed to recover, and also got some advice from the couple who had carried her away from death.  “You’ll always catch the cholera when it comes back, now you’;ve had it once,” she was told.  :What you want to do is cross the river and go to Dubuque, Iowa.  They never have the cholera there.”

     Dubuque was a lead-mining town well-known in a lead-shipping city like Galena.  And it had grown up in one of the hilliest sections of Iowa.  (It ain’t all flat fields of corn and hallucinatory baseball diamonds.)  Because of all the hills, sewage ran down into the Mississippi River before it had time to contaminate the drinking water supply (except for those who drew directly from the Mississippi) and it thus had an accidental but true reputation of being healthy.

     So when she was well enough to travel, Lena hit the road again.  She had learned a modest bit of English by this time, and was able to find work in the home of an old woman who lived alone.  Lena, you need not guess, did the laundry, washed the dishes, washed the floors…Lena’s life was a soap opera in more ways than one.

     Iowa had not even become a state at that point, and life was still on the frontiersy rugged side: they had absolutely NO WiFi.  So the lady of the house amused herself by taking an interest in the lives of those around her.  There was a sturdy young man from Alsace doing the yardwork and carpentry and other heavy chores around the house, and the lady never lost a chance to drop a hint to Lena about what a fine husband Heinrich would make for some lucky girl.

     Lena and Heinrich (later Henry) were married, and had four children, whom she tried to teach, among other things, that people who didn’t look like you or talk like you were not necessarily evil.  Henry died young (trying to build a better house than his brother’s, he lifted a stone that was just THAT much too heavy.)  Lena fretted about her youngest child, a ne’er-do-well who hopped freights around the country, learning about more people who didn’t look or talk like him, until she finally bought stock in a furniture company so she could make the supervisors give the boy a job.  He was named Jacob, after Lena’s brother, but legally switched his first name with his middle name, August, so people would call him Gus, which sounded less foreign.  (Lena did not live to see World War I, when speaking German in public eas banned in Iowa, but there were already those who looked on foreigners with suspicion.)

     My grandfather preferred to end this tale by pointing it out that it happened in 1843, and noting that in 1943, just one hundred years after Lena decided she was going to die in a pile of straw, he was leader of a Boy Scout troop.  The local Scout supervisor came to him and asked if he could add one more boy to the troop.

     The troop was already about as big as he could efficiently manage, but he said, “I suppose so.”

     The Scoutmaster said, “I should warn you.  This boy has been turned down by three other troops.”

     My grandfather thought it over.  “Does he smoke?’


     “:Does he drink?”

     “:Is he crazy?”

     “No,  He’s a Negro.”

     <y grandfather kept asking questions.  “Is he over twelve?”


     “Does he want to be a Scout?”

     “Yeah, that’s the problem.  He….”

     “Will he take the Boy Scout oath?”

     “I suppose.”

     My grandfather nodded.  “My manual says if ha boy is over 12, wants to be a Scout, and will take the oath, he can be a Scout,.  It doesn’t say anything about being a Negro.”

     “You’ll take him?”

     My grandfather never mentioned  this Scout’s name, but mentioned he was a good Scout: not the best and far from the worst, and lost to the world of Scouting when  high school started.  (The Boy Scouts lost a lot of them at high school age in Dubuque because baseball practice night was the same night as Scouting night, and each boy had to make a choice.)  But in his own way, he felt he had lived up to Lena’s story about a man who rescued a stranger who spoke a different language and was a different color.

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