The Prairie Spy

Alan “Lindy” Linda

Uncle Hugh is important to the family for several reasons. One, he taught his son Douglas how to play guitar, and that started a generation of musicians. Music spread through us cousins like a virus in the fifties. Exciting. Electric guitars. Sock hops. Rock and roll.

He was important for other reasons. As the oldest son himself, he had many memories of growing up in Sutton, North Dakota. Now, you have to understand, Hugh himself was an entertainer, and played many instruments, and some of that talent helped them survive when times got tough. “The devil dances in empty pockets,” I heard him say many times. Even during the tough times, everyone had a dollar to spend on Saturday night, and there would be Uncle Hugh and his  band.

From thos days in North Dakota, and lots of Norwegian farmers, Uncle Hugh talked about lutefisk. He talked about the large open crock of soaking lutefisk that sat just inside the country store where they shopped often. Lutefisk comes dried, treated with lye for preservation. The lye must be soaked out. Not everyone likes lutefisk, it turns out. (I do. Don’t ask me why.) After soaking it becomes kind of slimy, detractors say. Anyway, Hugh explained that the lutefisk at this store was very popular. One day, he said, he found out why: The neighborhood dog slipped into the store, smelled the soaking lutefisk, and promptly lifted his leg and peed in it.

Uncle Hugh would tell this with a twinkle in his eye. I still don’t know if it’s true, but.

Then after things went bust out there, the family ended up back in Bailey, Iowa, right next to Mcintire, a small town on the railroad tracks that came from Chicago. My mother and her sisters came of age there, and they were all very good looking young women, and they all liked the celebration that Mcintire threw once a year. There would be a big band, like the Six Fat Dutchmen, for example, and lots of dancing and hanging out and stuff.

The other thing about Mcintire is that a lot of gangsters from Chicago rode the train to there, due to having to get out of Dodge when things got too hot, cop-wise. Plus some of the gang were related to folks around Mcintire. One of mom’s sisters was dancing with Pretty Boy Floyd, a particularly notorious outlaw from Chicago. He had a bandage on his nose. When she asked what happened, he replied: “Oh, some darned fool tried to shoot it off.” The sister thought he was kidding. He wasn’t, as it turned out.

Mom’s brother at that time was enlisted in a posse, when authorities heard that John Dillinger and others were hiding at a farm outside Mcintire. He brought, like the others, a deer rifle, and the sheriff spread them out up and down a long rural driveway. The outlaws came out, standing on the running board of a V-8 Ford, firing up a storm. “I never even saw what they looked like,” Uncle John said. He never lifted his head to peer over the top of the  boulder he was hiding behind.

Then Uncle Hugh would talk about when he studied to be a mortician. (He turned out not to  be able to because he was allergic to formeldahyde.) He would tell us nephews horror stories about how he had to be a night watchman because some of the corpses might come to life. We soaked all this in with a delicious sense of mystery, forboding, and fear. “They’d sit right up in the coffin,” he would assure us. Then when we were really hooked, he would hunker down and conspiratorially whisper: “Do you want to see a finger I got from one of the corpses?”

Oh boy would we. He would go back into the bedroom, then come out with a small wooden box cradled in his hands. He would ever so reverently open the box, and INSIDE IT WAS A WHITE GHASTLY FINGER! We would gasp, and lean in to see it more closely. AND THEN IT WOULD WIGGLE!!!

It was Hugh’s finger, talcum-powdered white and dead looking. He would get us, and then we’d watch him get other kids over the years.

Hugh and his brothers John and Nate were great sportsmen, and went to Canada fishing every year. It was a long drive. Back then, everyone pretty much had false teeth. John was the youngest, so he had just gotten his, and he complained bitterly all the way up to Canada, a long drive. The brothers got pretty sick of his complaining.

They got there, got a boat, were out on the lake. John took his new false teeth out and laid them on the boat seat, and went to sleep. Uncle Hugh took his out and put them where John’s were, and put John’s in his pocket. Uncle John woke up, stuck those false teeth in his mouth, chomped them around a couple of times, and took them out. He looked at them in his hand and said: “I’ve had about enough of these damned teeth!”

And he threw them in the lake.

He swears this is a true story.

Of course the family one about Uncle Adison hanging around the railroad station in Mcintire one winter when a barrel was unloaded from the train with only the town’s name on it. They rolled it into the corner of the station house, and while they whiled away the winter playing whist around the pot bellied stove, they wondered what was in it. They decided to find out. It turned out to be whiskey. The barrel sat there a month, and they decided to tap it, and just sample it a little. They sampled it all winter until it was gone. Someone wanted the barrel, and when he opened it up, there was a body in it.

Another true story, no doubt about it.

“The devil dances in empty pockets,” Uncle Hugh said about the depression in ND, when he was playing with bands to make a bit of money. “No matter how tough it was,” he said, “folks always could come out and dance, and drink.”

He also said this poem often:

There’s a little good in the worst of us, And a little bad in the best of us. It scarce behooves the most of us. To talk about the rest of us.

Uncle Hugh. They broke the mold.