I think my dad, Darrell Jorgensen, is kind of a legend. In his quiet consideration of his surroundings, not many people understand him. In fact, it was just a few years ago that my Democrat mother found out my dad is a Republican. I think people’s mysterious natures can be romanticized, but it also means it can take awhile to learn impactful things.
My father is a man of few words. He sits quietly by and observes everything, and when he speaks, he’s already put much time and thoughtfulness into what he’ll say. Even then, his insight, built on his own beliefs and decades of experiences, is sure to be consolidated into just a few deliberate words that force the listener to think.
This year, Father’s Day falls on June 17, 2018. When I was a kid, my dad was rarely home for Father’s Day because he was hard at work harvesting farmers’ crops through the midwest. It was the era of no cell phones and so, if he remembered, he would call home on a pay phone or a landline of a local farmer who hired him, and I would talk to him on his short break from the Oklahoma heat and dust.
Over the years, my dad has not shared many unsolicited stories about, well, much of anything. It seems some people have an attachment, or a sense of responsibility, to sharing family legends, folklore, or traditions with their offspring. Dad shares stories from his life if he believes they’re pertinent to a very specific situation, but much of him remains a quiet, stoic mystery.
Which is why I stopped everything I was doing in March 2018, on my 40th birthday, to listen to a story. Sitting in the middle of his living room in Brewster, Kansas, Darrell Jorgensen decided he wanted to relay one of the most meaningful days in his life. My 81-year-old dad wanted this story documented, and I wanted to listen.
Tyler, Minnesota was Valdemar (Val) Jorgensen’s 1892 birthplace and childhood home. As a young adult, Val attended the University of Minnesota, where he graduated with a degree in agriculture and later from seminary at Dana College in Blair, Nebraska. (Turns out I come from a long line of thoughtful, educated, hard-working folk.) Later making his way through the midwest, Val married Louise, a widowed woman with five children, in Casey, Iowa. The family moved to Cordova, Nebraska, where the couple added four more children to their family but experienced the death of their last infant, David*. That left Darrell, nicknamed “Babe” and later “Yogi,” to be the youngest of eight children.
Val was a Lutheran pastor of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, with an especially big heart for the kids in the church, in the quaint town of Cordova; he even built the kids a playground on the church grounds. It was there he also delivered a sermon in the Danish language. When he lost that pastoral job due to some inner-church politics, he re-located everyone to Brewster, Kansas, which became the hub of his custom harvesting business. Though he was no longer a pastor, he remained involved with Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Brewster, where he continued his passion for service to youth by becoming the Sunday School Superintendent.
Darrell and his older brother, Russell, grew up helping Val in the custom harvesting business. Even as Russell and Darrell began their own families, they worked with Val, mostly leaving the aging Val to manage the business aspects while teaching his sons the ropes. Val was still involved in managing operations, and custom harvesting is no small operation! Simply put, custom harvesting means operating heavy equipment, driving semi trucks, hauling large trailers loaded down with heavy equipment, mechanic work to repair combines, mitigating field fires, living out of trailers, meal planning, hiring and firing, long work hours in the heat and dirt, and arranging for all the support vehicles. This rugged lifestyle is not for the faint of heart. Back in the day, in a less technological age, it took a legendary kind of person to do this job, though custom harvesters don’t get nearly the credit they deserve.
Wheat fields are a multi-sensory experience — I like to watch the energy move through them as they sway in the breeze; they have a calming golden hue; they fill the air with an earthy aroma. I remember going with my dad so he could test if wheat was ready for harvest. I sat in his work truck and watched him walk out into the fields of waist-high wheat, stand in silence, and turn in all different directions, taking in the energy and the sway and the aroma of the field. He would pick some kernels, gently roll them around in his strong, callused hands, and then pop them in his mouth the same way he does with popcorn while watching a movie. Then he squatted down to absorb the full effects of his senses and intuition. Consistency, aroma, flavor, and moisture are what Darrell Jorgensen was testing without the use of any type of technology. Then he would return to the truck without saying a word about his findings. He didn’t need to publicize it or earn credit for it. He just needed to know so he could do what he had to do. Legendary. I wonder if his own father taught him how to do this.
Summer of 1968 brought a bounty of golden wheat around Clinton, Oklahoma. The Jorgensens were getting set up for the harvest. Val and Louise were there, too, delivering meals to the workers in the fields and running for parts to make repairs in the field. As they drove past field after field in the vastness of Oklahoma’s waist-high wheat fields, their vehicle entered an intersection where visibility was hindered by the very thing that gave them their livelihood, the very thing that brought them to Oklahoma to work with their sons, the very thing upon which their own survival depended. Trying to navigate their way through the flowing waves of grain, they were involved in a T-bone accident.
Both Val and Louise were taken to a rural hospital in Clinton, Oklahoma. (It’s likely there was a long wait time for an ambulance in rural Oklahoma before the quick convenience of cell phones.) Russell and Darrell were already in the area, but their sister, Norma, drove down from Nebraska to be with the family. Thankfully, Louise remained stable.
Darrell’s new wife of two months, Jackie, had recently graduated nursing school and recognized quickly that Val was coughing and was anxious and confused. Frustrated with the nursing care Val was receiving, she spoke up and told them, “His lungs are filling up.” Val had already been in the Clinton hospital for a couple of days with little to no effective treatments related to severe trauma.
Doctors finally decided to transfer Val from Clinton to Oklahoma City, about 90 miles away. Norma was designated to ride in the ambulance with Val so before the transfer, Russell and Darrell stood on either side of Val’s bed in his hospital room and listened through Val’s delirium. Val grasped Russell’s hand in a handshake and said, “Help me up. You know what we gotta do.” He repeated the same with Darrell.
Those were the last words Val’s sons heard from him.
Darrell remembers going to the ambulance bay to watch as they loaded Val into the ambulance. The vehicle was a newer model 1967 Chevrolet ambulance, but the crew had the hood up and were walking around and back and forth investigating a buzzing noise, what Darrell thought to be an alternator problem. Val was loaded up in spite of any mechanical concerns.
Indeed, around El Reno, Oklahoma, about three-fourths of the way to Oklahoma City, either the alternator or generator failed. They were forced to stop and call another ambulance to continue the trip…probably yet another long wait for someone who needed quick, comprehensive trauma care. While Val’s own daughter, Norma, stood in the ambulance and held his IV bag during the ambulance trips, she watched her father fade away in his final moments while murmuring, “Jesus, Joseph, and Jacob,” almost, she said, as if he could see their faces.
Val made it to Oklahoma City but died shortly thereafter on June 17, 1968, with only Norma at his side. Russell and Darrell were unable to be with their father at the time of his death. But they knew what they had to do.
Wheat harvest is time sensitive, not to mention farmer sensitive and wallet sensitive. Darrell’s and Russell’s father’s last words to them were, “Help me up.” Keep on going. “You know what we gotta do.” The adult sons in their thirties, who had just suffered the loss of their father, did what they had to do and finished the job they started around Clinton. Within just one day of getting that job done after Val died, they kept on going and loaded up to move the entire operation to Jetmore, Kansas, where they parked equipment and finally went home to handle funeral arrangements for their father.
Louise was transferred to the hospital in Colby, Kansas and was able to take leave from her hospital stay to attend, for the second time in her life, the funeral of her husband. She went on to live until the age of 83. In 1979, while Russell and Darrell were gone on barley harvest south of Alamosa, Colorado, Russell’s wife, Daryl Ann, discovered that Louise had died in her own bed. The brothers found out the news when the Alamosa barley farmer, Thales, drove up to the edge of the field where they were working and said simply, “I’ve got some news. Your mother has passed away.” The brothers were unable to be with their mother at the time of her death.
“Help me up. You know what we gotta do.” Words of my father’s father that, even in moments of trauma-induced delirium, showed his overall ethos of dedication, hard work ethic, persistence, responsibility, obligation, and perhaps a stubborn streak.
The day Valdemar Jorgensen died changed my dad forever. Much of who Darrell Jorgensen is remains a mystery because he does not often articulate details of what and how things impact him. But the fact that this man of such few words chose this one story and shed a few tears and worked through a shaky voice while telling it illustrates the impact Val’s death had on my dad.
So, today, June 17, 2018, I honor my father and his father — The Fathers Jorgensen. Without each of them, I wouldn’t be living this bountiful life with my very similar ethos as that of Valdemar Jorgensen.
* Incidentally, Val’s and Louise’s son, David Jorgensen, who died in his infancy, was born on December 17, 1943. In 1968, Darrell and Jackie welcomed their firstborn on December 17, exactly 25 years later, and named their son David Jorgensen. Only later would they discover the correlation.
Note: It took me three months to finish this blog post, and I could never quite figure out why. As June closed in on me, I thought I would make Father’s Day my personal deadline and make the written version of my dad’s story his Father’s Day gift. As I polished up the story the day before its publish date, June 17, 2018, I was reviewing obituaries and recalling my dad’s version of this tragic day when, only then, I noticed the synchronicity. (Maybe you’ve caught it by now.) My dad’s story — the one he asked to be documented — is gifted to him on Father’s Day, June 17, 2018, the exact date 50 years ago that his own father, Val, died. There was a reason the universe had me wait to write this story.