During summers of college years I worked on a construction crew in my little town in the middle of North Dakota. There were 10 of us on the crew and the pay was good for that time.
I saved what I earned and could nearly cover my tuition at Notre Dame year by year. I know that is unheard of now, but back then it worked like that. Work hard, save your money and you could go to school.
Our crew consisted of two college students and eight older men who worked construction and jobs they could find full time. We got to be close friends and became a tightly knit group that looked out for each other.
One man was a German immigrant named Carl Martin who had a thick German accent. We all liked Carl and helped him as he struggled with English language and adapting to American ways. We teased him a little, all good natured, and he seemed to like that.
We would imitate his German accent and Carl would grin broadly and always reply, “I givenshet.” That was his way of saying the American phrase, “I don’t give a,”…. well you know. We all worked hard and sweat and joked through those hot summer days together.
One summer there was a severe North Dakota drought which resulted in devastating crop failures. My little town relied on farmers for its economy, and the stores there depended on farm income for survival.
That next summer after the drought there was no money for anything. The farmers and nearly everyone in the town were broke. Stores closed, and men with families went off to other locations for work to support their families. Everyone cut back. There was no construction work to be had, and my crew was laid off. My next school semester seemed doubtful.
Then we caught a break. A man from town specialized in constructing storm sewers in other towns where they were lacking, and he needed a crew of men for a project in Wahpeton, N.D. He told us that if we went to Wahpeton he could keep us employed for the summer.
Now that town was on the Minnesota border and more than 500 miles east but we all jumped at that chance and signed up immediately, including Carl. We kidded him, as usual and told him that he’d be away from his Frau and would have to make his own schnitzel. He just grinned his impish grin and said, “I givenshet.”
Then we foresaw another problem. Most of our crew had families and only one car. Their cars would be needed for families and kids. So we arranged car pools with the two of us who had access to a car.
Even though we would be scattered all over Wahpeton in rented rooms, we would make do with the two cars. We would use them to pick up all crew members from whatever rented rooms they had even though this would take a lot of time every morning.
Then our new boss came through again with some wonderful news that solved this problem. He found a rooming house in Wahpeton that was just reopening after a fire had damaged it. There were five rooms there that could accommodate all 10 of us on the crew. So we loaded up early the next morning and set out for our new adventure. After ten or twelve hours on the road we headed straight for the newly opened boarding house.
Our new landlady was waiting for us and had us sign in. She was delighted to have us because we would fill up her business for the entire summer and she wouldn’t have to worry about finding boarders who might come and go as the summer went on. So we lined up and, one by one, filled out her forms which she stacked in a pile on the desk. She asked for a $10 deposit and we knew that was coming so we all had a $10 bill for her. She stuffed these into her apron pocket as we gave them to her.
As usual, Carl hung back and was the last to sign in. All went well until then. But when she heard Carl’s thick German accent she became hostile and shouted that no German Nazi was going to sleep under her roof. She ordered Carl out of her house immediately.
Now this was only about 15 years after World War II and we speculated later that she may have lost a relative in the war against Germany. Carl picked up his sign in slip from the table, sheepishly told her, “I givenshet” and walked out the front door. The rest of us knew what to do. One by one, each of us walked to her desk, picked up our registration slip and told her, “I givenshet” and followed Carl out the front door.
We had to scatter around in rental rooms and boarding houses, but we did and were glad to do so. None of us will ever forget that day. Neither will Carl.
Mike Kirchen is a resident of Pleasant Prairie.