I was born in Northwood North Dakota but my first memories are of Thief River Falls, Minnesota. I lived in Thief River from the time I was a few weeks old until I graduated from high school. I have a brother Knute, who is four years older than I am and a sister Kyja, who is two years older. My dad was a family practice physician. My mother was a stay-at-home mom. I grew up in a Christian family. We always went to church.
When I was in 5th grade my dad donated a year of his life with no pay to be the M.D. for a mission tuberculosis hospital in New Guinea. My father even paid for transportation to New Guinea and back to Minnesota. However, he was not to go all the way to New Guinea without making the ‘excursion’ count. He decided to make a WORLD trip of it. We visited England, Norway, Denmark, Italy, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Australia on the way to New Guinea. On the way back we visited Hong Kong, Taiwan and went to expo 70 in Japan.
At home, in Minnesota, I remember swimming a lot at a private pool “The Porpoise Key Club” which my parents founded with a number of other families. When we were kids we would go there a lot with my parents, my brother, sister and friends of the family. Later on, I would bike and later drive to the club with friends when I got my driver’s license.
There was a building right next to the pool. It served both as the maintenance building and the dressing rooms and bathrooms. The building had a sloping roof that was high on the pool side and plunging down away from the pool on the other side. There was probably eight feet between the buildings and the pool. We would run up the roof to get some speed and then jump or dive into the deep end of the pool. This sort of exercise gave me an excellent training for the year we spent in New Guinea.
When we arrived at our destination in what was going to be our home-away-from home for a year, one of the first things my dad planned was for our education. For my part, I went to a one-room classroom for grades one through six. New Guinea was an Australian territory at the time. My classmates were a combination of mission kids and the children of the Australian administration. The mission kids were a collection of Australians, Americans and Germans.
Since the one-room classroom was only for grades one through six, my sister, who was in eighth grade and my brother, who was in tenth grade, had to go to a boarding school in Brisbane, near the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. They had some long vacations such as Christmas holidays and spring break when they were able to spend time with us.
I really enjoyed New Guinea. We lived right next to a swimming hole with a waterfall, a rope swing and a cave located behind the fall. Our swimming hole was somewhat famous. A couple of times, on certain holidays such as Easter, we had visitors. On those occasions we would have fun swinging on the rope swing, dropping into the foamy water of the fall, swimming underwater behind it into the small cave behind the curtain of pristine water. We would wait, in the cave, while the visitors anxiously watched for us to reappear. After a few minutes, we would pop up in the foamy water acting out as if we were out of breath like we had been underwater the whole time.
Coming home from school one day, I wanted to go to our natural pool and swing on the rope. I had a bad ear infection and was told I could not get my ear wet. I was pretty good on the rope swing and could swing out and come back and land or start by running sideways and swing around in a circle to land on the other side of the tree. The rope hung out over the water and we would use a stick to snag the rope and pull it back to where we could grab it.
I was still in my school uniform, including my shoes, which I could have taken off but didn’t. I thought that since I couldn’t go in the water because of my ear infection, I would just swing on the rope for a while. I was swinging out and landing, going sideways to land on the other side of the tree and generally having fun on the rope swing. But then I slipped on a landing and swung back out without enough momentum to bring me back for a landing. I tried swinging my body to add momentum but each cycle of my pendulous swings ended farther and farther from the landing spot, eventually the rope and I were hanging straight down, suspending me over the foamy bubbling water beneath the waterfall. I continued to ungulate my body for a while, hoping to get some movement in the rope. Ultimately, I had no choice; I just hung there hoping that someone would come along to save me. After hanging on as long as I could I eventually resigned myself to my fate and let go. I swam to shore and walked home with my wet ear, school uniform and wet shoes to face the inevitable scolding.
The jungle, swimming hole with its falls, hidden cave and rope swing was a kids’ paradise. My mom wasn’t so fond of it. Everything was humid, clothing and bed sheets would get mildew on them in just a couple of days after washing. During the rainy season, it would rain sometimes for weeks on end. Also, anytime I got a scratch on my knee or elbow, it would get infected and turn into a boil or some sort of horrid-looking gash filled with pus.
One of my best memories was the fact that I got to follow my dad around when I wasn’t in school. I saw him visit patients, review x-rays and treat those poor souls. I never had a chance to do that in Thief River.
For the last few months spent in New Guinea, my dad also ran a general hospital that was quite a ways away through the jungle. The doctor there died of a heart attack, so my dad had to run both hospitals for a while. When we went to the general hospital we would drive across bridges made only of concrete slabs punctuated of culverts. Since 200 inches of rain a year would mostly fall in concentrated time periods when normal bridges would be washed away, they made these low concrete slab bridges over which the water could just flow during flooding. When the bridges were covered with water we would have to drive to a large suspension bridge, the kind you see in all those scary jungle movies. We would walk across the long suspension bridge way above the water to the other side where a Land Rover would be waiting to pick us up and drive us the rest of the way.
One time there was a visiting doctor that had come with his wife and mother in law to learn about the mission hospitals. He actually drove across the suspension bridge with a dirt bike with his mother in law sitting precariously on the back saddle. He said that she was always talking, but when they hit the bridge, she stopped talking. She remained silent the whole way across but started talking the instant they made it safely to the other side.
On another occasion, when my brother was with us on a break from boarding school , my dad arranged for us to use an out rigger canoe. We had to paddle it from its owner’s location on and along the coast for a few miles then up the Mopee River to our house. As we are paddling, my brother, all the sudden, gasped in horror. He had seen fins slicing the water not far from our location. Fortunately, neither of us panicked, we just waited to see what would happen next. Frankly, I couldn’t stop shaking. The waiting seemed endless, but to our relief they were dolphins, not sharks. They swam alongside our out-rigger canoe. We also had flying fish flying alongside our boat and some landed in it. When we got to the Mopee River, The ocean water was a clear teal blue and the river water was muddy. There was an obvious line where the river met the ocean. It was an odd sensation when we crossed that line because the saltwater buoyed our boat up higher than the muddy “freshwater”. So as we crossed the line our boat suddenly sink deeper into the water.
Every second Saturday night, a group of us; adults and children from the tuberculosis hospital, would all pile into a Land Rover, drive 12 miles through the jungle, to Finchhaven and watch a movie. The movie house, if one could call it that, was only a one-room building where a regular movie projector was placed on a table, facing the makeshift screen. The adults would sit in chairs and the children would all sit on the floor.
In New Guinea my mother was encouraged to hire a New Guinean to assist her in her regular house work. This was designed to help the local economy and give a few New Guineans jobs with the missionaries. My mom hired Guraba. She was the oldest girl in her family and she had quit school in sixth grade to go to work. The money she earned would help support her family. We don’t know how old she was because many New Guineans don’t keep track of their birthdates. I was ten years old and we thought Guraba may have been fourteen at the time.
When we came back from New Guinea we brought her back to Minnesota with us. By getting some education in the United States she would be allowed to get back into school in New Guinea. As an Australian territory, New Guinea residents were given free education from the first through the 12th grade. However, education was not required. In fact if anyone dropped, at any grade level, they were not allowed to go back and pick up where they left off.
Guraba lived with us in Thief River for two years before going back to New Guinea. Although she was older than I was, she was small, just a little taller than I was. Since she had a 6th grade education, she started seventh grade at Franklin Junior High school. I was in six grade when we got back. I joined her at the middle school the next year. Even though we knew she was older she didn’t seem out of place in junior high.
Guraba was like a second sister to me. In fact I saw a lot more and did a lot more with her than my brother Knute who was five grades older than I was and my sister Kyja who was three grades older than I was.
Guraba had a lot of new experiences with us. On our way back to Minnesota we visited Japan, where we stayed in a large hotel. We all walked into a little room, the door closed and open again. We walked to our room. Guraba went to the window to look out and exclaimed, “How did we get way up here?” We had taken an elevator to the 14th floor!
Our first winter in Thief River was very exciting for Guraba. She was absolutely amazed that the river behind our house would freeze over completely. That we could walk, ride snowmobile and even ride and drive our horses on the river. She said she loved the snow but “why does it have to be so cold?”
NEXT TIME – CHAPTER 4 – RETURNING TO THIEF RIVER