Berda was a 62-year-old widow in 1945 when she taught grades K-3 at a two-room country school in central Iowa. Her husband Frank had died in 1941 and they had no children. She was a tall, rawboned lady, very Nordic looking and not what anyone would call pretty. No matter, she was the general-in-charge in her small classroom, stern but very caring.
Berda’s teaching environment was a real challenge; drinking water was pumped from a well on the playground; heat was supplied by a coal burning furnace; and toilets were two outhouses behind the building. A couple of her students were mentally impaired. Still, it was a magical place during the holidays. Berda would decorate the four windows on one side of the room with seasonal characters that had moveable arms and legs — witches, black cats and skeletons in October — pilgrims and turkeys in November — and Santa and reindeer in December.
One Valentine’s Day, most of the students didn’t come to class. The five or six who did were rewarded with a very special treat. Berda loaded them in her big, blue Buick and drove down town to the ice cream shop of a local dairy. Each kid got an ice cream cone with their choice of flavor. For a couple of them from poor families, this was a rarely enjoyed luxury.
Sometimes Berda would read fascinating stories to the whole room of 30 or so kids. Most days, however, she would move from one row of desks to the next, making assignments and checking the children’s work. She made sure her students had a good foundation to be educated adults. I was fortunate to have been one of them.
The small apartment complex where my wife and I lived with our two daughters in the early 1970s was something like an old-style Holiday Inn. Its two stories completely surrounded a swimming pool and a small courtyard with a few metal tables and chairs. Among our neighbors were an elderly couple from Fargo, North Dakota.
Harlow had been a rural mailman for 40 years, retiring after he turned 70. If there was ever a postman who epitomized the saying associated with that service — “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” — it was Harlow. His tales of winter mail delivery in bitter cold and deep snow were both fascinating and harrowing.
Before becoming a postman, Harlow served with the United States Army Signal Corps in Europe during World War I. He didn’t talk much about his experiences “over there” but sometimes he would tell me about their rations and the terrible canned meat that was mostly fat and gristle. Occasionally he would describe the muddy trenches and the debilitating problems the doughboys had with their constantly wet feet. It was a rare opportunity for me to vicariously experience what it was like in the “War to end all wars.”
Most warm mornings Harlow would come out with a cup of coffee and have his breakfast by the pool. After our older daughter went off to school, our younger daughter, who was a toddler, would go out and crawl up on his lap and he would share part of his donut with her. It became an enjoyable morning ritual for both of them.
Harlow’s wife died after a few years, leaving him alone in his late 80s. Still, he remained the same gentle soul, always friendly, always caring.
We made Harlow’s birthday a special event on December 7, which until 1941, was just an ordinary day. We continued that practice after we move away, calling him on the phone every year until he passed away at the age of 96. I was privileged to know this quietly courageous gentleman.
At the age of four and a half, Viola was more or less orphaned when her mother died of a problem related to a pregnancy and her father put her and several of her eight siblings in foster homes. She grew up in a rural Iowa farming community without experiencing a traditional family life or having the love and support from parents that a child needs to develop.
Viola was a “boarder,” until the age of eleven and during most of her early life she was a “hired girl,” working for her keep. She never enjoyed warm Christmas holidays or memorable occasions with her family like most children. Yet, in spite of these deprivations, she became a loving wife and mother. In every way, Viola was a strong lady and a woman to be admired, hard-working, honest and a productive member of society.
At the age of 85, Viola lost her husband Bill, a great guy and the love of her life. Still, she soldiered on for another 10 years, cooking her famous pot roast and enjoying her family. I was proud to be her son.
Sometimes when I start thinking the world is going to hell and there’s not much I can do about it, I recall the special people in my life who were the heart and soul of what made America great. And because I know there are still a lot of these stalwarts all across this great nation, I feel confident that there is a brighter future for our democracy on the horizon.