Category Archives: Jailhouse Stories

Tilly

Tilly Overton, a spindly, wrinkled, old woman, who wore black and carried a black umbrella spied her way around the courthouse square of the town of Preston each morning purveying and seeking tidbits of information and gossip.

This morning Doc Nehring, visiting with Bill, the undertaker, at his furniture store-funeral parlor, watched her birding her way along the street pecking seeds of gossip from each passer by.

“Bill, here comes Tilly,” Doc said. Let’s play a trick on her.  I’ll get on the slab in the embalming room.  You cover me up me up with a sheet.”  

Tilly always stopped by to inquire of Bill on the well-being of the local citizenry.  By the time Tilly toddled in, Bill had busied himself among the furniture.  Her ankle length, black dress billowed from her hips and swished the furniture as she edged her way through the aisles toward him. . 

“Good morning, Mr. Heitner.”  Tilly’s  voice scraped across her vocal chords like an overworked reed on a clarinet.  “Did anyone take a walk with the Lord last night?” she asked.  Bill folded his hands, lowered his head and spoke in his somber undertakers voice.

“Poor old Doc Nehring passed away,” he said.  Tilly plucked a black hankie from the pocket of her dress.

“Oh that’s so sad,” she said remorsefully, dabbing at her eyes with the hankie.  “Could I have a last look at him?” she asked.

“I guess that would be alright,” Bill said,  “He’s out back.”  He ushered Tilly to the slab in the embalming room and reverently removed the sheet from Doc’s face.  Tilly, looked at the doctor, clutched her umbrella in folded hands and stood in silent prayer for a moment.

“I expect in many ways, he may have been a good man,” she creaked. ” But I knew that drinking and carousing throughout the night would bring him to an early grave.” 

Doc’s belly, suppressing  laughter, began to shake.  Just in time, he raised his arms to ward off the blows to his head from Tilly’s umbrella.  Bill was laughing so hard he was no help at all.

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The Fraser Boys

I genuinely liked the Fraser boys.  To this day I still have a soft spot in my heart for them and  don’t feel I would have led a full life without knowing them. They were basically honest little thieves, honest to their upbringing at least, and there wasn’t a mean bone in their bodies. They wore a sense of humor on their faces, had a certain air of dignity about them never complained of their circumstances or made excuses for their actions.  The blueprint of life set before them contained a number of social flaws for which  they paid the price without flinching.

I first met Kent and  Lyle Fraser when they were ten and eleven years old, respectfully.  They  regularly  spied on old Pop Henderson who was ‘batching it’ in a rather ramshackle, two story, house on a small acreage a half mile from the their home.  Shortly after dark one evening Kent, with his brother Lyle on look out, watched through a basement window as Pop deposited rolls of twenty dollar bills into a mason jar and hid it behind jars of rhubarb sauce on the canned goods shelf.  Being years behind on support payments to his ex-wife he refrained from depositing money in any bank out of fear she would somehow attach it..

 

A few short days later, Pop called my office and reported that someone had entered his house while he was gone and stolen twelve hundred dollars.  He showed me down the stairs to his damp cellar.  Being nearly a head taller than Pop my forehead forged a new path through the cob webs, hanging from the ceiling joist, as we made our way across a well trodden path in the dirt floor to the rickety wood shelving along the west wall where he stored his canning.  Blue-green mold grew on the lids of the peach jars and a thumb sized, black-green lizard’s tail protruded from beneath the moist, rot of an oak board in the corner.  Pop showed me where he had hidden the money.      

“Whenever I got as much as five, twenty dollar bills, I’d roll them up and put a rubber band around them.  Then I’d put’em in a quart jar and hide’em down here,” Pop said.  He brought a handful of rolled up twenties each bound with a rubber band from his pocket.  “I had two jars, with twelve hundred dollars each in’em   Half the money from each jar is gone.  Could be my ex- wife’s doing.  She always said she was going to get half of everything”.  Pop looked up at me with questioning eyes, set in a spider web of worry lines. 

I was puzzled as to who might only take half  the money, but convinced an ex-wife with back support payments due wouldn’t let a guilty conscious halt her theft in mid stream.  I considered the possibility of it being  some of Pop’s drinking buddies who’d be considerate enough to spare him some cash.  But Pop said he’d more or less quit drinking and none of his old friends had been by in months. It must have been very young children, I thought, inexperienced at thievery at this level. 

If the culprits were kids, I knew, given time, they’d make some foolish mistakes.  There was no sign of forced entry, however the door locks were old; any skeleton key could unlock them. 

  “I’ve got some ideas, Pop,” I said.  “In the meantime you better find a safe place for your money.  Ever thought of a bank?” I chided.  He put the rolls of twenties in his front pockets and led the way upstairs, his trousers hitched above the paunch of his stomach and his grey socks showing above his high-top shoes.

“I know what to do with the money,” he said when he reached the top of the stairs.
“Let’s just keep quiet about this for a couple of days while I do some checking around,” I said.  Pop nodded agreement.

 The next day, without raising suspicion, I networked my contacts to determine what children between ten and sixteen years old lived in the locality.  Most rural areas were so comfortably small everyone was a neighbor or friend and information of the type I sought was easily obtained.  Proprietors of county stores were a wealth of information so I made it a practice of stopping by the stores in the county on a regular basis.  Jake, the proprietor of the nearest store, an earthy guy with an earthy vocabulary wasn’t at all surprised by my visit.  We first talked about the weather, fishing and the lady who’d recently painted her white house in red and blue polka dots. 

“Any kids unusually flush with  money lately, Jake?” I asked.

“Not that I can think of,” Jake replied.  “Flush with money! Shit, ain’t nuthin but Paupers and Free Methodists around here.  Paupers don’t have any money and Free Methodist don’t spend any money.  The way things are going I’ll be closing the God damn doors in a month or two.”      I selected two loaves of whole wheat bread to take home with me, and placed them on the counter. Most rural folk don’t especially appreciate or respond to direct questions immediately. 

“Anything else?” Jake asked.

“That’ll be it,’ I said.  I paid for the bread and was walking out the door when Jake spoke up.

“Say,” he said.  “Lyle and Kent Fraser were in and bought a bunch of candy, not unusual I guess, but normally they have to scrape up all the change in their pockets to pay for it.  Yesterday they paid with a twenty dollar bill and got change back.”

“Let’s keep this information between ourselves for a few days, Jake,” I said.

“You damn right, doubt if there will be anybody in to talk to anyway.”

Kent and Lyle were already near the top of a suspect list I’d gotten from a contact and the report on their mother was none too good either.  It would be best if I could  intercept them away from home.  Luckily while cruising the townsite I found the two boys about four blocks from home and invited them into my car.  After a few questions and a few denials they told the whole story.  Kent was a round-faced, round-bodied, little bandy legged boy, smug and confident for his eleven years.  Lyle was slim featured, pleasant mannered, with darting blue eyes that looked Kent’s way for direction before he spoke.  I felt embarrassed and reluctant to talk to these little boys without their parents present. But, I figured I would be doing them nothing but a big favor by thwarting their outlaw careers at the beginning of their errant ways.    

They admitted to watching Pop when he hid the money and the next day, after seeing him drive away, they let themselves in his house with the use of a skeleton key and took his money. 

“Where’s the money now?” I asked.  Kent wiped his fingers across his brow then produced a twenty and some change from his pants pocket.  Lyle tugged at the sleeves of his faded plaid shirt.

“We hid the rest in a coffee can near a culvert by Hank Ernik’s place,” Lyle said.  They were friendly now and wanted to be helpful.  I drove with the boys to the hiding place where we retrieved the coffee can with the money, but there were only some over six hundred and fifty dollars inside.

“Where in the world did you boys spend over five hundred dollars already?” I asked.  They stared at each other momentarily.  I could tell they shared a secret neither wanted to reveal. 

“Don’t tell,” Kent admonished his younger brother.  I’d begun to appreciate these boys and exercised patience with them and soon they told the story.  They’d put the rolls of twenties in their pockets and walked home.  When Kent took his hand from his pocket to open the front door, two of the rolls had fallen to the front steps without his noticing.  Later their mother found the twenties on the steps and confronted the boys.  They confessed they’d taken the money from Pop’s house but hedged on the amount, telling her they’d taken only seven hundred dollars.  Mother demanded five hundred of the loot from the boys and later that day bought a new television set from the money she’d taken from them. 

I hoped the case could be handled informally through social services, but an order from the juvenile court judge would be needed before they could intervene and the county attorney declined to take a case against the mother. 

Kent and Lyle, charged with delinquency, appeared before juvenile judge ‘Itch’ Stanley, aptly nick-named for his  habit of continually scratching his genitals in public. Itch was a pretentious lawyer judge, learned in the law as they say.  After a short hearing, and well aware of the complaisant involvement of  the boys mother, who sat in court with them, he released the boys with a mild verbal reprimand and  placed them on probation……..to their mother!!  Provided  Pop Henderson would be reimbursed for his full loss. 

It was as if the court had just issued the boys a license to steal and during the next eight years Kent and Lyle were regular customers of mine for thievery and burglary and did time in two of Minnesota’s state correctional facilities 

My idyllic view of the legal system, born both of innocence and ignorance, begun its non-stop slide, to where in my mind, high court justice, administered by black robed intelligence, fell to a much lower level than the occasional, harmless uncultured fumblings of the justice of the peace courts.

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Mistaken Identity

Molly Poole, a fifteen year old sophomore walked alone on her way home from play practice at the high school.  Even though she had been in the new school for only three weeks, having moved to town from a farm in another district, she had been given a part in the one-act play.  The moon, mostly obscured by dark clouds offered little light and the street lights seemed awfully dim to Molly. She hurried on home and felt safer when she closed the front door behind her. She was alone in the house; her widowed mother worked late and wasn’t expected home till after midnight.  Molly poured herself a glass of milk and watched some of Johnny Carson on TV before going to bed.  She quickly fell asleep, leaving the front door unlocked for her mother. 

When she awoke during the night she assumed the figure sitting on her bed was her mother.  By the time her eyes became adjusted to the dim light offered by the street light outside her window, the figure had pulled back the covers and was getting into bed with her.  Suddenly she realized the person was a man and she let out a terrifying scream. The startled man jumped up grabbed his clothes and ran from the house.  Molly called her mother at work, who in-turn called the sheriff’s office.  When I arrived at their home, Molly was near hysterics and her mother was both frightened and angry.  They showed me a pair of brown wing-tips, size 12, the intruder in his haste had left behind. 

 

Sometimes, in small towns, a person can know way too much about people.  Often for a sheriff, though, it can come in handy.

“Do you think the man was drinking, Molly?” I asked.  “Could you smell liquor?”

“I think so,” she replied.

“I calmed the mother and daughter down and told them not to worry.  I was pretty sure this was just a case of mistaken identity.  I told them that the lady who lived in the house previously had an occasional visitor who took a drink now and again.  I thought perhaps after imbibing he may have forgotten the lady had moved to another house. 

“I’m pretty sure I know where to take the shoes,” I said.  “And I’m positive there is nothing to worry about, but I’ll get back to you.”

I took the wing-tips with me and a couple of days later pulled up to the gas pumps outside Charlie Benson’s country store near Wykoff.  Charlie was known to take a drink or two from time to time.  There wasn’t self service in those days so Charlie came out to pump the gas. 

“Five dollars worth Charlie,” I said.  “Nice day.”

Charlie looked a little sheepish while he pumped the gas and cleaned the windshield. When he was through I looked in my billfold.

“I’m a little short of cash today Charlie,” I said.  “Could I charge it?’

“Sure,” he said.  I got out of the car and went to the trunk.

“Maybe you should have some collateral Charlie,” I said.  I opened the trunk door and brought out the wing-tips.  Charlie turned seven colors of red and shook his head.

“You sum-bitch Neil,” he muttered.

“I handed Charlie the shoes and a five dollar bill and was on my way.

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Jesse James and Ernest Hemingway

The faded yellow house, it’s weathered paint cracked and peeling sat far back on the lot  next to a small Methodist church in the town of about five-hundred people, and four additional churches.  The wide front porch was nearly obscured by bushes grown tall with neglect and the lawn was ready for haying.  I parted the greenery of the bushes, made my way up the front steps and knocked on the door. 

“Harumph”, I heard from within, which for expediency I interpreted to mean, “come in.”  I opened the door and entered a kitchen, sparsely furnished but surprisingly clean and orderly.

 

“In here,” a voice I deemed to be male said.  I proceeded to an archway leading from the corner of the kitchen to another room where I thought the voice had come from.  My mission was to apprehend the man and have him in court for a mental hearing at two that afternoon.  It was 10 a. m. now.  I hadn’t gotten many particulars on the guy other than he was kind of a nut and forty-five years old. 

I stepped through the archway.

“Far enough,” said a man standing near the far end of the room with his back to the wall.   I didn’t heed his advice and walked a few steps further.  The man, about five foot ten, wearing a long black waistcoat, a white shirt and brown tweed trousers crouched slightly, with his wrists bent back at an angle near his hips and spread his fingers wide apart.    

“I’m Jesse James,” he said.  “When I count three we draw and shoot.”  His eyes were steely and I noticed a bulge in his waistcoat near his right hip.  I stopped my advance. 

“Damn,” I said to myself, “I’ve done it again, gotten careless and got myself in big trouble.” 

“Wait a minute,” I said while mentally kicking myself for not even remembering  his first name.  “I don’t have a weapon. (Which I didn’t)  I’ll have to go get one if we’re going to have a shoot out.”  I turned toward the archway. 

 

“Don’t move or I draw,” the man said and began parting his waistcoat with his right hand.  I knew I couldn’t make it to the archway if he had a gun.  I was in the middle of the room with no place to go, but perhaps to my grave. I decided the closer I could get to him the better off I’d be.  I was six feet from him when he drew.   I managed to grab his wrist before he fired from the twelve-inch green candle he’d had in his pants pocket.  Jesse and I got on quite well on the way to the jailhouse, where I put him away to wait his hearing.  Helen and I were polishing off the last of the Swedish meatballs and gravy from our noon meal, when a knock on the dumb-waiter summoned me to the jail, where, by now, Jesse had transformed himself into seafarer.  He’d stopped  up the floor drain in the washroom and turned on the water faucets.  The sink was overflowing and he leaned on a mop handle swaying to the wash of imaginary waves in a stormy  sea.

“Avast ye lubbers, man the mainsail,” he commanded.  I found it necessary to place the old sailor in a private cell, without plumbing, pending his hearing. 

Later that afternoon after leaving my man who had reverted to being Jesse again, off at the Rochester State Hospital I decided I deserved a bit of stress relief.  I chose the Pinnacle Room of the Kahler Hotel which overlooked the Mayo medical complex and Rochester’s  southwestern horizon for my relaxation. 

A sheriff’s duties brings him in contact with many characters, and some of his colleagues are a match for even the most unusual of them.  One of these, Willis Fraier the sheriff of Dodge County, a snoose chewing, whiskey drinking, curmudgeon’s curmudgeon called to me as I came in through the doorway into the Pinnacle Room.

“Neil, come on over, sit down I’ll buy you a drink,” Willis intoned in a voice tarnished by drink.  He sat, slouched, in a corner booth accompanied by a white bearded companion, both appearing as if they’d been imbibing for some time.  I slid into the booth beside Willis, across from the bearded man. 

“Shake hands with my friend Ernie,” Willis said.

“Pleased to meet you Ernie, I’m Neil Haugerud,” I said extending my hand across the table to shake.  There was surprising strength in Ernie’s hand, but his voice was weak and words slurred as he repeated my name.

 

“I met Ernie here at lunch,” Willis said.  I glanced at the clock behind the bar.  It was five o’clock. I had my drink and found the conversation at a level which would have made more sense perhaps if I’d been drinking with the boys since noon. Willis asked if I knew where there might be some women and Ernie seemed to be talking to himself as well as me about trout fishing.  I had a second drink and listened for another twenty minutes, during which time, in order to make conversation, I asked.  “What’s your last name Ernie?”

“Hemingway,” he said. 

“Ya, right, Ernie,” I replied.   

How fitting for my day I thought.  I bring Jesse James to the state hospital and have happy hour with Ernest Hemingway.  It gave me a chuckle as I bid my colleague and new-found friend goodby.

The following day, after dinner, in the comfort of our living room I scanned the evening paper while simultaneously watching television.  My attention became more focused on the paper when I saw an article, along with a picture which resembled Ernie, Willis’s friend.  The article went on to explain that Ernest Hemingway while being cared for by St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester and had been observed downtown occasionally when excused from care.                  

This story took place in early May of 1961.  Ernest Hemingway was admitted to Mayo and reportedly hospitalized and treated for depression at St. Mary’s hospital in Rochester on April 25th 1961.  He took his own life at Ketchum Idaho on July 2nd 1961.

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Off to a flying start….

I had hardly flown all summer, and now the summer of 1958 had passed and there I was on the grass strip airfield at the Hamervold Farm and Flying Club, ready to get back in the air. I pulled our club plane out of the hanger, a vintage red-and-white two-seat Areonca tail dragger, checked the oil and cleaned the beginning of a bird’s nest from the engine cowling. With everything else ready to go, I chocked the wheels and gave the prop a spin. The engine sputtered, started at a gentle idle and purred patiently while I removed the chocks. The air was still, the sky a clear, gorgeous, fall blue. 7:45 A.M.

 After takeoff, I made a left turn out of the flight pattern at 400 feet and continued climbing, leveling off and throttling back to cruise speed, at 800 feet, where I had a clear view of the countryside. I was born here in Fillmore county, named for Millard Fillmore, U.S. President in 1853, the year the county was incorporated. I was over Forestville, an abandoned townsite in the Root River valley, surrounded by nearly a thousand acres of dense hardwood forest. It was the business hub of the entire county until the railroad came through Preston, nine miles east. The Meighan family owned the store and stables I flew over, which they closed in 1910, leaving all the fixtures, dry goods, cold and sickness remedies and sundry items; everything intact. They didn’t remove an item, just locked up the store. Some folks propose to make the Forestville area a state park, to preserve the rugged woodlands and make the store and village site a historical interpretive center. I smiled as I looked down at the crystal clear river by the store building, where even today, over fifty years later, in an unprotected rural setting, thieves and burglars had spared this historic treasure; nearly everything was still untouched. No wonder this county of 20,000 people and 553,000 acres felt the need for only a sheriff and one deputy.

The landscape was pockmarked now with shallow, rusty, open-pit iron ore mines, some as small as an acre, others as large as ten. Many of the excavated areas had filled with water, providing habitat for Snow geese and ducks. I could see them from the plane.

I neared another grass airstrip owned by a local mechanic named *Bernard Peiternpol, who built his own airplanes with Model T Ford engines in them. From this height I could see the distinctiveness of the terrain which differentiated between glaciated and non-glaciated land from the ice age. The ice stopped here. To the west and south, flat open farmland, to the east where I had come from, rugged hills and bluffs gouged by the glacier runoff. The hay fields and pastures, in this first part of November, held a dark green color, my favorite, the likes of which I had never seen elsewhere. During the last week the hillsides, a match for any New England scene, had lost most of their glorious fall colors; only the stubborn deep brown-red leaves of the pin oaks and the burgundy leaves of the sumac gave contrast to the barren limbs in the woodlands.

*This was Bernard Peitenpol’s original home field. Bernard was a self-taught engineer who designed his own airfoils and made his own stress analysis. He is Minnesota’s premiere homebuilder, constructing his first homebuilt airplane in 1923 with a Ford Model T engine. The plane’s plans are published and it has become a favorite homebuilt airplane, even to this day. The international Pietenpol association is located at Box 127 Blakesburg Iowa 52536

I shot a few touch and go landings at Peitenpol Field to sharpen my skills. Throttle back, glide to the runway, stall out for a touch down, then give full throttle for take off and go around for another. It was safer here than at Hamervold, which had a power-line at one end of the runway and a deep gully at the other. No room for error there.

Touch and go, much like door-to-door campaigning where you knock on the door, introduce yourself, ask strangers to consider you when they vote, and take off for the next house. I was running for sheriff of Fillmore County and I felt good about the campaign. I’d devoted practically my whole life to it, since early June, and I thought I’d knocked on almost every door in the county. People had confidence in me and trusted my judgment, even though some thought that at twenty-eight I was too young for the job. I’d already served as deputy sheriff in the county for three years. Now, thank God, the campaign was over. All I had to do was cast my vote on Tuesday and wait till the wee hours of the morning for election results.

Flying broke me free of such concerns; it left the campaign on the ground behind me. When I was a kid I used to run downhill, with my arms extended, dipping from side to side, making airplane noises in simulated flight. Now with a mere nudge on the stick in the cockpit I could make it a graceful reality. I set the trim tab so I didn’t even have to touch the controls and cruised back towards the town of Harmony, toward home. I could see a deer with two late fawns on the ground, chasing around a straw stack. I pulled the throttle back and glided in for a closer look.

One of the things about flying I like the best is the quiet serene glide without engine noise, only the rush of wind across the wings. My wife, Helen, never flew with me as pilot. She liked to have her feet on solid terra firma, she wouldn’t go near the water or even climb past the third step of a stepladder. We set her on a little Shetland pony one time and she screamed because it was too high for her.

So Helen hadn’t come with me this morning; she was readying the children for church. Truthfully, I, myself, had Sunday school to teach, but there was still plenty of time. I thought to fly east and check out Roger Johnson’s place. He’d asked me if I’d give him a ride some day and I knew on Sunday there was free time for farmers. Most of Fillmore County was farmers, construction workers, truckers and other trades people. I’d grown up on a family farm myself, one of ten children. I left the nest right after high school for a stint in the Marine Corps, knowing that gainful employment on the farm wasn’t an option.

Even though Roger lived in a hilly area, I figured I could set the plane down in his hay-field without any trouble. I approached on a silent glide then just above his house opened the throttle to announce my presence. The hayfield was on a hill, a level above the house with a long slope to the east. I buzzed it low and slow on the downhill run, looking for gopher mounds or woodchuck holes. Then I climbed, made my turn and came back for a landing on the uphill slope. I didn’t even have to apply the brakes. Takeoff downhill, without any wind, would be a piece of cake.

When I got to the house, Roger’s wife, Alice, stood on the front steps. “That was a fine way to wake up a household, Neil,” she said. “Is Rog home? I thought we could go for a spin.” “No, he went in to Harmony for something. What are you doing? I thought you were a Sunday School teacher” “I’ve still got about an hour,” I said. “Is Helen going to be in church? I need to talk her. I just found out our circle has to serve lunch at a funeral Tuesday. Lutherans and lunch. Lutherans and lunch. Sometimes I think they’re the same word.” “Sure, we’ll be there,” I said.

I was looking forward to teaching my Sunday School class and going to church with my family. And maybe in the evening Helen and I could take in a movie for a change. She’d been on the campaign trail too; now seven months pregnant and harboring a dislike for handing out campaign cards. ‘like a door to door salesman’ she’d said, and the way she said it , it was clearly not a good thing. “Tell Rog we’ll go flying another day,” I told Alice. I walked back up the hill and picked a Haroldson apple off one of the trees before I climbed over the fence to the hayfield.

The sun was warm and I unzipped my blue suede jacket. A red-tailed hawk circled peacefully above in the cloudless sky. If things were going any better I’d have a run-away, I thought. With the plane facing uphill, I wouldn’t need chocks. I turned on the key, did the pre–flight check and gave the prop a spin. But even before I had time to step back, the plane was after me full throttle, growling and grabbing, trying to eat me up. I tripped over backwards and the plane began to move. I rolled to the side to avoid the prop, jumped up, grabbed the wing strut with one hand and opened the door with the other. With the plane picking up speed and turning downhill, I swung my feet up and tried to hook my ankles on the lower part of the doorway. By now the plane was going faster than I could run. I either had to get in or let go of the strut. When it appeared my feet might leave the ground, I chose the latter and went tumbling and skidding head first across the hayfield. I watched in disbelief as the plane raced for the fence at the end of the field. That’ll be one hell of a crash when it hits that fence, I thought.

To my amazement the damned thing lifted gracefully off the ground and cleared the fence like a breeze. What the hell now? I stood transfixed, staring, as if in a dream, wanting to wake up. FAST. I watched the little plane climb out of the valley. About a mile away it began to turn to the right. Then I lost sight of it behind some hills. I spotted it again just above the horizon. It appeared to be making a wide circle that would bring it back to where I was standing. I waited. No, its path would bring it crashing into the barn. I shut my eyes. When I didn’t hear the crash, I opened them just in time to see the plane clear the barn roof by two feet. Then it roared past me just sixty feet in the air. I felt like my feet had sunk into the earth and my heart was beating below my navel. The damn thing began another circle that I calculated would bring it back near the vicinity of Roger and Alice’s house.

The next thing I knew I was pounding on Alice’s front door. I didn’t even remember going over the fence. I let myself inside. “Alice, Alice,” I shouted frantically. “Get the kids and get out of the house. The plane is coming.” “Are you crazy, Neil? I just got out of the shower. I don’t have any clothes on.” “Grab something. The plane got away from me and is heading for the house.” The urgency in my voice convinced her something was wrong, but she was too late. The plane cleared the house roof by ten feet before she arrived on the steps in her house coat with the kids. “You’re trying to trick me,” Alice said. “Who’s the nut flying that thing?” It took some lengthy explaining. Then the plane was making another circle, but it was getting higher so we were out of any immediate danger. I just stood helplessly watching it perform, while Alice and the kids got ready for church. It climbed in full one-mile circles, each carrying it further southwest, toward Harmony.

I called Alice’s brother–in–law, Dick Johnson. We’d hitchhiked to the Dakotas together when we were sixteen, to work the wheat harvest, and we’d been fast friends ever since. But we’d played a lot of tricks on each other, and I was having trouble making him believe this plane was not another joke, one I’d cooked up for his benefit. I couldn’t get him to stop laughing. “I’d a pissed my pants if that happened to me. Did you, Neil?” he chortled. Alice dropped me off at his farm on the way to church. The plane was so high in the sky, I could barely see it. Dick said he would drive and I should keep track of the plane.

It was a picture of grace as it continued its climb, flying as if the most experienced pilot was at the controls. It was only a tiny speck high in the sky when we stopped at my home in Harmony.

Helen met us at the driveway. She was dressed in a navy blue chemise maternity dress, with a white-collar and buttoned down front. She looked so pleasant and content with life. It was like breaking a spell. I didn’t want to tell her what was happening. The baby was due the first week of January.

She said, “What are you guys doing? Where’s the car? I thought you were flying. What happened to your head and your jacket?” I looked at my jacket, streaked with grass stain and dirt. My head was scraped up a bit from where I took that dive in the hayfield. I realized I looked like I’d lost a few of my faculties, and Helen probably thought I’d crashed the plane or the car. I pointed to the speck in the sky. “The plane is flying, but I’m not.”

There was no time for explanation because suddenly the speck in the sky began a nosedive, seemingly aiming at the Lutheran Church. I thought of my Sunday School class, waiting for my arrival beneath that steeple. I thought of my sister and her children, and all the others in danger if my plane crashed into it. I said a multitude of silent prayers and made a lot of promises to God I wouldn’t be able to keep, if He would just help get that plane down without hurting anyone. And then the plane turned out of its dive and climbed just as steeply back into the air.

It hung fluttering on its nose before it turned over for another dive. We all watched from the driveway as it repeated itself, each spiral bringing it closer to the earth. I ran into the house and called the fire department. I told them to turn on the fire siren and keep it going until the plane crashed or flew away from town.

Back in the driveway, we could hear the siren start its wailing and I knew everyone in town would be thinking “fire”: but at least many of the people would step outside to see where the fire engine might be going, that way if the plane came crashing their way someone’s life might be saved. “Call the FAA,” I shouted to Helen as Dick and I left the yard, as if she had any idea what or where the FAA was.

We drove with the car windows down. This was all my fault. Of course I could have called Roger before I left home and had him meet me at the airstrip. Or better yet, adhered to the advice of my instructor never to land anywhere other than at an authorized airfield, but that’s no way to be a barnstormer, this wasn’t the first time I had landed on a farm field. I was sure I had closed the throttle before I spun the prop, but was sure no one would believe it. I was having trouble believing it myself.

That Areonca was wound up and screaming at such a pitch I thought the engine would come apart each time it pulled out of a dive. It pulled out of its next spiral a couple hundred feet above the church steeple. The next was near the west edge of town. One more and it would be clear of the city limits.

About this time Dr. Hettig, a veterinarian, was driving back from a call. Doc Hettig and I had wet a line on occasion, in pursuit of wily trout, and sipped a spot or two of tea together. He screeched to a stop on the highway in front of us. It didn’t appear the plane would make another round. Now it was out over a harvested cornfield. It was pulling out of the dive when its wheels caught in the corn. The nose dipped down, the prop threw corn and dirt in the air trying to burrow a hole in the ground before the plane upended and cartwheeled tearing the wings off.

Doc Hettig would say later that he had admired the ability of the pilot as he made his loops through the sky, before becoming upset that the pilot performed so close to town. Being a pilot himself, Doc said he damned near pulled the steering wheel off his car on the last turn. He remembered slamming on the brakes, pulling on the wheel and yelling, “Pull her out. Pull her out.” Then the crash came. “Look at that som-a-bitch come apart,” Dick shouted. With the plane on the ground and no one injured and miraculously no other property damage, I gave thanks to God. Then, deranged, excuse speeches for the voters began to flit through my brain. Brazen lies at first. “There was so much smoke in the cockpit I became disoriented, opened the door and fell out.” Or “I’m suffering from sleep deprivation from the campaign and can’t remember anything until I saw the plane take off.” I even thought of some kind of story with aliens launching the plane before taking me into their craft. But my conscious mind was so relieved I really didn’t care about the election. The truth would suffice.

The crash site was a few hundred yards west of Doctor Wagner’s house, the medical doctor. I saw him leap the fence by his house carrying his black bag, his long legs churning toward the crash scene. Just two years ago Doc Wagner had delivered Susan, our second child. Doc Wagner and a farmer were searching for bodies by the time I got to the scene. The doctor took a startled look at my head and jacket. “How the hell did you get out of there?” he asked. “I wasn’t in it,” I said.

They started searching the corn field again. “There isn’t a body in the plane. Whoever it was couldn’t have been thrown far,” the farmer said. “There wasn’t anybody in it,” I said. “What!?” “There wasn’t anyone in it.” “What!!” “It got away from me when I started it.” Wag was speechless but only for a moment. “I can refer you to a good shrink, Neil,” he said with a grin. I still wasn’t seeing the humor.

An hour later I lay on the floor of our living room, hyperventilating. “I called the FAA,” Helen said. “I’m sure they’ll call back.” I caught her inference that there’d be an investigation, and I detected a little smirk on her face, but she quickly turned away. I figured with the election just two days away this little fiasco would kick my chances of getting elected right square in the ass. Six months of gaining the confidence of people all shot to hell. Not funny, Helen.

Then the phone began to ring. United Press International….Associated Press…… The Minneapolis Tribune…..The Rochester Post Bulletin…..ABC…..CBS — it never quit. Monday’s UPI headlines read. “Sheriff Candidate’s Plane Takes 45–Minute ‘Solo’ Flight.” And the next morning the phone began to ring again. School friends from throughout the nation, Marine corps buddies from Louisiana. “I don’t know why you’re messing with those new-fangled gadgets,” said one Cajun. “We both know your place is behind a plow.”

With the election being the next day, I was sure of it. I began to see the tragic humor of it all. On Wednesday morning the phone rang yet again. “Doc Wag here. Congratulations, Neil. You won handily. Damndest campaign stunt I ever heard of. I take coroner duty from time to time. Look forward to working with you. Stop by the office sometime after five-thirty. We’ll call a few friends, have a cup of prescription tea and you can fill us all in on your strategies of getting elected to public office.”

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Jailhouse Stories: A Memoir

Let’s get acquainted……

Jailhouse Stories is my recollection of experiences associated with the Sheriff’s office in Fillmore County, Minnesota in the mid-fifties and early sixties. It is mostly about honorable eccentric characters who happened to be alcoholics, just plain drunks, thieves, burglars, robbers, doctors, lawyers, judges, farmers and ordinary citizens, if there is such a thing.  I tend to believe not.  I came to understand how people make a lot of mistakes, but in my view there are very few bad people.

Doctor Nehring, with whom I worked closely as County Coroner became such a rich source of unusual tales that I felt obliged to repeat them, first to my wife Helen, then after a small libation or two at social gatherings I’d share some with the group.  Thereafter, on many occasions about town I’d be requested to tell Doctor Nehring stories.  My transition, from storytelling to story writing, late in life, after serving nine years in the Minnesota legislature and a stint with the federal government (where it seems the cast of characters were strikingly similar)  has been difficult and challenging.  I first read one of my stories in public to the Minneapolis Writers Group in 1994.  They liked it and asked for more.  With this as encouragement I began to search through the old jail register.  The list of names jogged my memory of many people and incidents.  So I set about to weaving the stories into a larger story of how they related to and affected our family life.  We were one of the last sheriff families that served in an era when the family residence, the sheriff’s office and the jail were all in one building.  So in many ways we all became family.  It is out of respect for these characters that I write.  I hope you enjoy my interpretation of our experiences along this rather dusty path of life.  

 I thank the many people who gave direction for the writing of this book: Ashley Warlick author of Distance From The Heart of Things, for setting me firmly on the path of reality and guiding me until I was able to walk by myself; the Minneapolis Writers Group for their listening and editorial critiques; The Camp Creek Writers Club for their many lively discussions.  And a thank you to my wife and daughters who kept me from disposing of the manuscript in the fireplace on many occasions of self doubt.

We’ll continue with Chapter 1 later…….

Neil’s latest book Holiday Forever is now available in eBook format on both Amazon and Smashwords.

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