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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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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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