#24 The Confessor of Littlefield: The One’s Who Taught You Everything

Although, this sequence is more about the early history of Rupert Dinklpfus, The One Who Taught You Everything is a line that stuck in my head from a few lines of poetry I had written about Clara and Virgie. From a wider perspective, that line points to the influences of Rupert, Virgie, and Clara, and the types of things they taught with their action and character. I wanted to explore the theme of lesbian parents, or what would’ve passed for it in the age of general MacArthur in rural Michigan, while not letting it become the prevailing theme.

These chapters are a little longer than part one of the novel, and there is far more historicity, making the reading a bit slower because of the abundance of detail. So it takes me longer to prepare these sequences than the earlier ones.

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Z

Clara Kinsdorf was from Pittsburgh and studied law in Chicago, where she worked as a paralegal. Her mother fought for women’s rights most of her adult life and was a prominent activist during the Great Depression, coming from a banking family with connections to the Carnegie’s. Virgie was with Clara in Pittsburgh on Bill’s second birthday in August, 1943. And while Trenton bummed around Rupert’s garage, Bill was rocking gently in the arms of widow Haimsworth, who always smelled of ginger and brown sugar.

The nation’s airwaves, and all the talk around offices and factories buzzed with war. Hitler had been stirring up trouble for years. The nation had heard General MacArthur warn since Hitler’s rise in the 1930’s that another war was coming. The bergs and towns of the American countryside were always on ready to express military might in some way; to assert a national ideology; to put down the aristocrat and emperor, the moral authority of a far away land.

Factory workers, farmers, laborers, lower middle class workmen and shop owners all counted a majority of military veterans in their ranks. And for many in Littlefield, General Macarthur’s was the voice of God. If he said the nation comes first and the individual second then it was a fact. “Damn liberals and communists should all be shot for treason,” Trenton railed at Rupert one day. “Sons of bitches got some nerve protesting. Well, that’s what happens when you have a liberal president.”

(The diatribe between Trenton and Rupert is between two men in rural Michigan. In June, president Roosevelt sent 6000 federal troops to Detroit to contain a race riot, which is blamed on communists and protesters in local parlance.)

Rupert measured his words as he cleaned off a socket wrench. “You know, I don’t much like reading in the paper about it. They oughtn’t let that stuff be reported. I don’t like the idea of reading about any communist crap in my newspaper.”

“Damn right,” added Trenton “It all starts with the thinkin’. They get into a kid’s head and he can’t tell right from wrong no more.”

“Well I ain’t gonna let them poison my boy. No sir. He ain’t gonna listen to the radio accept when I tell him. And he’s gonna do what I tell him to, or else. Lotta crazy things they teach kids nowadays.”

“Buncha crap from Europe,” Trenton pointed out.

“And art,” said Rupert. “You should see somma the stuff Virgie brings home from the library.”

“I heard they don’t got nonna that pervert stuff at the library. Thought ol’ Haskins’ wife took care uh that mess.”

“Virgie don’t go to the library here. She goes over to Wakefield.”

“You let’er drive over their?”

“Whaddaya mean let her? This ain’t no 1925. Women vote now,” Rupert smirked.

“Yeah, well, that don’t mean I gotta like it” snapped Trenton.

 

Z

 

(I watched the other day two sparrows in a bush in the backyard. One had a bad leg or wing and couldn’t walk more than a few steps at a time. It managed to get a few inches off the ground onto a low pine twig while another bird clung to the tree trunk to prop up the other one. I don’t picture Rupert being either of those birds.)

Rupert was born in 1902 in Mixfort, a forest town in the Central Northern lower Michigan where the primary economy was lumber. His father was a lifelong lumberman around camps ranging across both of Michigan’s peninsulas before settling into a farming job near Littlefield, when Rupert was two. After he was old enough to begin helping his father drive teams of horses through the fields he began to feel uneasy with the confinement of farm work. He imagined himself as his father was, working on a farm, trading hours for money which was never held onto for long.

He went through the first six grades of school and then worked as a full time carpenter’s apprentice from age eleven until age eighteen, when he enlisted in the army. The news of the first world war dominated the papers and Sunday sermons of Great Lakes small towns during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, and most boys from bergs in the countryside admired Theodore Roosevelt and General Douglas MacCarthur. Woodrow Wilson made the evangelicals nervous, talking about a league of nations where we wouldn’t be able to defend our God given authority. The presidency of Warren G. Harding was a return to normalcy in small town Michigan.

Rupert wasn’t a book reader, but he devoured the newspaper just as his mother did. He had his father’s bulky anatomy; both needed to feel the weight of things in their hands, an ax, a shovel, a hammer; hammering, sawing, pounding, lifting and heaving. His father was spiritual, but not a religious man. His mother was a strong willed conservative, certain that the entire world was either going to submit to God, meaning the United States, or go to the devil, meaning the Russians. His mother was literate and read the newspaper whenever she had the chance, while his father was illiterate save to sign his own name.

Rupert grew up hearing second hand from his mother about business tycoons every time she read the newspaper. She read about men like Ford, Rockefeller and Frick and said that if Henry Ford could become a millionaire so could her son. Pa Dinklpfuss had worked his whole life with work teams of dirty men not as literate as he was; wretched, animal men who had no sense of class. Pa Dinklpfuss said, “I maybe can’t read nor write, but I can listen real good, and I know a whole lotta bush cookies when I hear ’em!”

“Don’t you listen to him, Rupert. He doesn’t know anything.”

”I kept ya fed all these years. Got tuh account for su’um.”

“Oh hush up. This isn’t about you. You did just fine. I just want to see more out of Rupert.”

“The hell this ain’t about me. Besides, why you getting the boy’s head all filled up with hot air just to have the world let it outta him when he’s old enough?”

Helping his father on the potato farm was enough for Rupert to have faith in his mother. After all, it was America. “Why should just the immigrants get to make money?,” he thought, as his mother read the news article that insisted the blacks and Mexicans were getting rich with government assistance. He calculated his father’s earnings and wondered if he could make that much money. He had a reserved contempt for his father’s life. He couldn’t understand the joy in his father’s face and attitude while working; a face and attitude that most often abandoned him while with his wife and son.

When the opportunity arose to apprentice with Wylik, the Carpenter, Rupert was elated. His mother had run into Wylik at the general store and told him about her son. Wylik tried to dismiss her, but she insisted that her son was determined to be successful and would make a good helper because he was big and strong for his age.

Wylik told her he would talk to him, and Rupert rode his horse the six miles to Wylik’s house – where Mrs. Wylik told him her husband was working on a house just a half mile from the Dinklpfuss home. Rupert rode to the work site and just missed Wylik. Next day Rupert rode over to meet Wylik who seemed to be waiting for him. He was impressed with Rupert’s size and dexterity. Rupert was attentive and seemed to have a good idea how to use tools; showed aptitude and respect. So Wylik agreed to take him on in exchange for meals, a not insubstantial expense for Pa Dinklpfuss.

Rupert was no dawdler. He always calculated his tasks: what he had to do; how much time he had; what supplies he had and what he needed. He swept up scraps, cleaned tools, packed and unpacked the wagon, tended to the horses. Often, he’d point out problems, a bookkeeping error, some waste that cost Wylik a few cents, or a workman who took some lumber. Wylik knew all about them, telling Rupert, “I make it up here and there.”

Wylik was impressed enough with Rupert to teach him more than the other workers. When Rupert went into the military, Wylik told him to make sure he didn’t forget where he came from. A man might see the world in the army but a man needed a home, and Littlefield is where he belonged. Rupert wouldn’t forget those words. In fact, they began dragging his attitude aground before he headed to boot camp.

The throngs of men – mostly German, Dutch and Latino – from across the Midwest took a while for Rupert to get used to, but as the weeks dragged on and he routinely heard from the sergeant and the captain the words, “duty, loyalty, nation, honor, and commitment,” he understood all he needed to know. (What the author of this fiction has established as “putting the We before the I.”Mind is arisen from my body, its holy ghost. Don’t be getting any funny ideas, the soldier’s body tells the mind.)

But Rupert lacked the spirit of brotherhood for the military. The army did not train, it exorcised free spirit. It was more like a God, with MacArthur breathing spirit into scripture to give it a national meaning. The military/God complex was more important than the existence of any individual. “Every country’s citizens believed in God,” said Rupert’s mother. “Everyone thinks they know God and that nobody else has it right. Still, God has to favor someone because we can’t all be right. If the choice was his, Rupert would rather be making money than dying so that someone else could.

Rupert and Trenton grew up together as familiar faces at markets and auctions around Littlefied during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt. It was a time when most of one’s life was conducted within a six square mile township. The paper reported the comings and goings of yourself and your fellow neighbors; who was visiting and for how long; whose kids were selling lemonade; with editorials from local church ministers and business leaders. In the army, Trenton and Rupert were familiar faces to keep each other company

When he returned to Littlefied, Rupert once again found work with Wylik the carpenter, who was happy to make him his chief builder. While in the military he was given leave to take care of the affairs of his father, who had passed away. He sent his mother to Mixfort, where she was to live with relatives the rest of her days. The old house where the Dinklpfusses lived was owned by Wankle, a potato farmer. So when Rupert returned from the military he didn’t have a place to live and he usually stayed at the work site along with the wagons of tools and materials.

It was something he liked. He had a shotgun and a rifle on hand and took a shot at a man in the dark on three separate occasions. Once, he got up out of a sleep to piss and spotted three men taking off with some boards. He was upon them swiftly, knocking one down with a forearm across the back and causing the other men to drop the load of wood. The other two attacked him simultaneously but Rupert was six inches taller than either of them and fended them off, one with his left arm, while picking up the other man by the coat and heaving him backward. The first guy who was knocked down grabbed a 1×6 and swung at Rupert, breaking it over Rupert’s shoulder, making Rupert flinch, then roar, convincing them all to run.

While in the army a man from Kentucky as tall as Rupert though not quite as heavy insisted on fighting because of the way Rupert looked at him. Rupert pushed him with a jabbing thrust to the chest with his big hands, sending the man off guard for a step. But with an agile twist, the man thrust out a stunning roundhouse to Rupert’s jaw. The man grinned when he saw Rupert’s eyes twitch slightly, but then his jaw dropped as Rupert stood staring back, expressionless. Rupert caught him with a straight right hand to the nose, breaking it. A blood bomb exploded with the snap of the nose and the man’s face collapsed into his hands as he blubbered, “ya broke muh damn nose.” Rupert didn’t grin. He was ashamed for the man whimpering like a baby.

When autumn came and the wind was colder Rupert helped Wylik in his shop making cabinets and furniture. Wylik was an artist with wood, refurbishing antique furniture besides making tables and chairs. Rupert lived upstairs with the Wyliks, keeping a bedroom and a den, where he scribbled notes and added sums while reading the business news after supper. Mrs. Wylik had his clothes washed by Olivia, her young helper, but Rupert didn’t like someone else scrubbing his underwear. The old woman had to acknowledge that Rupert did in fact keep himself as clean as a woman. And he seemed like such a gentleman for such a rugged looking man.

After Mrs. Wylik died in 1927, Mr. Wylik in 1929, Rupert settled the estate with Wylik’s son, a dentist who lived in Indiana, and took over the Wylik’s shop and building operations.

By 1930, the Great Depression had already brought new housing starts to a standstill in Littlefied but Rupert was still getting business. His work was popular among inheritor families who could afford to build new homes and buy new furniture. He built two houses per year, and they both paid very well, making Rupert one of the wealthiest men of the village. By the late 1930’s, he employed two trucks with crews of workmen and the trucks were always breaking down. The more he worked on them the more he enjoyed the challenge of making them run again.

When Winter came he divided his time between the wood shop in back of his house and the auto garage he had built at the end of Main St. and Barnett Rd.. He made a flat bed wagon out of a wrecked truck and used it to haul cars and trucks that no longer ran, fixed them up and sold them again, or saved them in the field behind the garage. He took on an apprentice to work with Cliff, his foreman, and spent more time at the garage fixing up cars and selling them.

By 1933, Rupert sold the wood shop to Cliff to spend most of his time on automobiles. Every morning during the late Spring into early Fall, precisely at 7AM, Rupert could be seen leaving Casie’s Cafe with a cup of coffee, walking to the end of Main Street; and just as he was reaching for the handle to the side door of his auto shop, taking the last sip of coffee from his cup before shaking out the remainder. Then he would twist the key and give the door a shove with his shoulder.

Rupert was responsible for bringing autos and pickups into the lives of many of the families of Littlefied. When he bought his first truck in 1927, most of the community still didn’t have cars, or roads on which to drive. Wylik didn’t want the expense and time to take care of a pickup. A horse and wagon was easy maintenance. But since the interstate highway was constructed in 1926, it was time for most families to trade in their horses for cars, and Rupert had a knack for making cars behave when others had given up on them. In the early 1930’s, he couldn’t work on the cars and sell them fast enough to keep up with demand. He didn’t have to drive farther than the next county to find autos. There were all kinds of dead autos in back yards waiting to be had during the Depression.

People began bringing their old cars to Rupert to exchange for what cash he would give them. Soon he had more than enough cars to work on and took on apprentices as part of a county school program teaching skills to High School workers who provided the work for free. Most of the kids sent by the school annoyed Rupert and he sent them back. When the school board told him he had to accept the workers sent to him he said in a severely controlled tone, “then send some damn kids that can move quickly and not have to think about every little thing they’re doing.” It didn’t seem to help, but once in a while he found a kid who could pay attention and do what he was told and keep up with the work. To that kid he would delegate responsibility to take charge of the others who annoyed him so much.

While in the military, Rupert bought bonds with his pay and spent as little money as possible. He and Trenton kept to themselves, spent no money, drank no booze, paid no women. The others thought Rupert was pious. He let them. Anything so they would leave him alone. When he returned to Littlefield, he thought of investing his money in stocks. Some of his mother’s relatives were making money buying and selling on margin, something his mother had attributed to Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. On his way home from the military Rupert stood in the street outside the window of a Chicago brokerage, rapt in the spectacle he was watching.

A man on a raised platform called out stock trades as he read them from a scrolling ticker tape, with about 50 men shouting and waving frantically in a trading pit below and making marks in note pads. Against one wall was a row of gray haired men in suit coats and ties reading papers and occasionally looking up to watch the activity. Once in a while one of them would see or hear a signal that caused him to make a mark in a note pad before walking over to the trading desk to enter an order. Rupert was excited at the idea of fabulous riches but was appalled at the thought of losing money; so he decided to put his money to work along with him. If he failed it wasn’t going to be because Mr. Rockefeller failed; it was going to be because he, Rupert Dinklpfuss failed.

When he was 37, Rupert was getting old, he thought to himself, and he was thinking he didn’t want to die alone. After he returned to Littlefield from the Phillipines, the gossip of Littlefield was that Rupert kept a woman in another town somewhere. He didn’t discourage the suspicions of others because it was better than telling them he was a loner. But a thirty seven year old man decided he had to show himself to be a decent fellow and get married. He just didn’t know how to meet anyone who was available.

He started going to the Lutheran church across the street and was introduced to some of the members of the community he had sold cars to; the VanInnerns, the Haskinses, the Dymes all greeted him. There was a banker, a school superintendent, the village manager, an insurance salesman, factory workers, antique dealers. He was sure to find an available woman. He attended a year before Virgie Haskins came to live with her aunt and uncle – the deacon and deaconess, as Virgie always referred to them. Virgie was an intelligent, self educated free spirit with an indomitable will who clashed so completely with her aunt and uncle that she was just glad to talk with someone who seemed to listen, even though he didn’t answer much.

Virgie’s parents met Rupert for the first time at the wedding. Her father had taken a job at a hardware store and sold the family farm. All of Virgie’s brothers had gone off to war and the other two girls, one older, one younger than Virgie had other plans that weekend. Truth is, none of Virgie’s brothers save for the youngest, who was one year younger than Virgie, would’ve come to the wedding. She never liked them and all their talk about the military and how sacrifice and loyalty didn’t just apply to a career military man but to every citizen.

The idea of being subservient to any man or government was simply out of the question to Virgie. Rupert intuited this in his 24 year old bride, but as a fairly well to do businessman who needed a wife to establish honor with his community marriage was necessary. Virgie’s parents stayed at Rupert’s house after the wedding. Rupert offered a honeymoon but Virgie said she didn’t much feel like travel so Rupert did his best to turn his house over to her. He opened the attic and installed more insulation in the ceiling and walls before the wedding so the Haskinses would be comfortable. After three days, they went back to Indiana with generally good impressions of Rupert but reservations about Virgie. They knew their daughter didn’t feel love for the man she married, but they hoped for the best.

Less than a year after Bill was born, Clara began to visit. Virgie introduced her to Rupert as a second cousin twice removed. She had not been at the wedding but the Deacon and Deaconess knew of her.

They often asked Virgie where she got the money for her travels and she would tell them she sold some drawings, or that she was modeling, but her aunt and uncle knew better. The rail workers knew Virgie and protected her from prying supervisors whenever she hopped on board. She could’ve found her way back to family or old friends at any time in Indiana but never did. Instead, she rode the rails along Lake Michigan and Lake Huron; or went as far as Minneapolis or Pittsburgh, rocking with the train at night under a clear cool sky, huddled against the window while the conductor would walk past her, collecting tickets. She would fall asleep and wake in South Haven and on the bench next to her would be a sandwich wrapped in paper.

In Evanston one afternoon, Virgie was sitting at a coffee shop near the train platform keeping an eye out for Rudy, who would let her aboard as far as South Bend, where she would wait for Earl to let her aboard a train bound for Detroit. Clara had just arrived from Pittsburgh and stopped at the coffee shop for a cinnamon bun and a cup of coffee before hailing a taxi home. Virgie had taken off her coat and there was a tear in the shoulder of her shirt and her shoulder was visible through it. Clara jerked her head away when her eyes met Virgie’s in the reflection of the window. Virgie had also noticed Clara; the confident way she strolled and looked about. At the moment she was the very symbol of power and grace. She, too, looked away when she saw that Clara’s reflection was looking at her. Virgie watched Clara order at the counter and then stand aside to wait. She looked over at Virgie and smiled. The waiter handed Clara a cup of coffee and told her the cinnamon bun would be ready in ten minutes. Virgie walked up to the counter to tell the waitress she would also like a fresh bun and turned and smiled at Clara.

Clara took her home and Virgie got a hot bath and a good night’s sleep. The next day Clara drove Virgie in her Lincoln back to the Haskinses house in Littlefield. After that, Virgie told her aunt and uncle she had a job in Chicago with Clara modeling for catalogs. It was partly true; Clara would draw pictures of Virgie in various positions in the nude.

Virgie saw Clara for two years, and then a former lover of Clara’s came visiting and found Virgie and Clara together. Later, Virgie received a phone call while Clara was away. A woman’s voice rasped “I’m gonna kill you! I’m gonna put a bullet in that pretty little head of yours, bitch!” Virgie wasted no time getting her things into her small suitcase. “This is more than I want” she told Clara when she came home. “I don’t know who that was and I don’t care.” Clara, who was about to surprise Virgie with a ring she had made for her to show her undying devotion, tried to reassure Virgie that Winnie, her friend, was just blowing smoke. She could never kill anyone.

“I can’t just take your word for something like that. That person threatened my life.”

Virgie swept up her suitcase and was already opening the door to leave before Clara was able to compose herself and blurt. “Where are you going?”

“Where nobody threatens to kill me.”

Clara knew it was no use trying to get her to stay. And she didn’t dare try to see her for a while. She waited a year. It was a blustery January morning in 1942, almost a year to the day she had last seen Virgie, and she was now walking through the whipping January wind on the way from the train platform in Littlefield; walking past the window of Casie’s Cafe, as Rupert looked up from his paper. When he saw the woman walking in the cold wind at 8AM it was evident from her dress she was a metropolitan type; a foreigner. Rupert flinched and said to himself, “that woman is here to see Virgie. I don’t know why, but I just know it.”

 

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