Memorial Day: Remembering the good old days in Rock Rapids, Iowa, circa 1940s to 1950s

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 Bruce B. Brugmann

(Reprinted and updated by popular demand)

When I was growing up in my hometown of Rock Rapids, Iowa, a farming community of 2,800 in the northwest corner of the state, Memorial Day was the official start of summer.

We headed off to YMCA camp at Camp Foster on West Okiboji Lake and Boy Scout camp at Lake Shetek in southwestern Minnesota. The less fortunate were trundled off to Bible School at the Methodist Church.

As I remember it, Memorial Day always seemed to be a glorious sunny day and full of action for Rock Rapids. The high school band in black and white uniform would march down Main Street under the baton of the local high school band teacher (in my day, Jim White.) A parade would feature floats carrying our town’s veterans of the First and Second World wars, young men I knew who suddenly were wearing their old uniforms. And there was for many years a veteran of the Spanish American War named Jess Callahan prominently displayed in a convertible. Lots of flags would be flying and the Rex Strait American Legion Post and Veterans of Foreign Wars would be out in force. We never really knew who Rex Strait was, except that he was said to be the first Rock Rapids boy to die in World War I and the post was named after him.

After the parade, we would make our way to our picture post card cemetery, atop a knoll just south of town overlooking the lush green of the trees and the fields along the lazy Rock River.A local dignitary would give a blazing patriotic speech. A color guard of veterans would move the flags into position and then at the command fire their rifles off toward the river. I remember this was the first time I ever saw a color guard in action, with a sergeant who moved his men with rifles into position with strange “hut, hut, hut” commands.

After the ceremony, everyone would go to the graves of their family and friends and people they knew and look at the flowers that would be sitting in bouquets and little pots by the headstones. The cemetery was and is a beautiful spot and many of us who are natives have parents, friends, and relatives buried here. It is one of the wonderful things that connects us to the town, no matter where we end up.

And so this year I got my annual telephone call from Dorothy Bosch, at the Flower Village florist in Rock Rapids, reminding me about the flowers I always place on Memorial Day  on the graves of my relatives in the Brugmann plot. I always get a kick out of doing business with Flower Village because it once was in the Brugmann Drugstore building on Main Street that had housed our family drug store. ("C.C. Brugmann and Son, where drugs and gold are fairly sold, since 1902.")  Flower Village  later moved across the street to the building that once housed the Bernstein Department store and is now known as Home-ology.  Dorothy always fills me in on the latest Rock Rapids news, which is particularly important this year because I will be back in Rock Rapids on June 14th for my 60th high school class  reunion of the dream class of 1953.

I always ask Dorothy to get the most colorful flowers of the season and she then sees that they are displayed near the headstones in the Brugmann plot a couple of days ahead of Memorial Day. This year, I called Pauline Knobloch to pick up the flowers and put them in her garden.  Pauline and I go back to 1947, when she was a young clerk, just in from Lester, in the store.  I started clerking at age 12  that year, selling stamps and peanuts in the front of the store.  Pauline and I worked together all my school years and she continued on until my dad sold the store in the late 1970s. Pauline is still going strong, as they say in Rock Rapids.

Ours is an unusual plot, because it holds the graves of my four grandparents, my parents, my aunt and uncle and someday my wife and I. My grandfather C.C.Brugmann and my father C.B.Brugmann spent their entire working lives in Brugmann’s drugstore, which my grandfather started in l902. My father (and my mother Bonnie) came into the store shortly after the depression.
My grandfather A. R. Rice (and his wife Allie) was an eloquent Congregational minister who had parishes throughout Iowa in Waverly, Eldora, Parkersburg,  and Rowan. He retired in Clarion. My aunt Mary was my father’s sister and her husband was her Rock Rapids high school classmate, Clarence Schmidt. He was a veterinarian and a reserve army officer who was called up immediately after Pearl Harbor and ordered to report to Camp Dodge in Des Moines within 48 hours. He did and served in Calcutta, India, as an inspector of meat that was flown over the hump to supply the Chinese forces under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek.

Through the years, Elmer “Shinny” Sheneberger, the police chief when I was in school, would say to me, “Well, Bruce, you and I have to get along. We’ll be spending lots of time together someday.” I never knew what he meant until one day, visiting the Brugmann plot, I noticed that the Sheneberger family plot was next to the Brugmann plot. Every Memorial Day, Shinny took pictures in color of the flowers on the Brugmann and Sheneberger family graves and would send them to me in San Francisco.  I would them on to my sister Brenda in Sun City, Arizona, and the families of the three Schmidt boys John in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and Conrad and Robert in Worthington, Minnesota. Well, Shinny died two years ago and alas I no longer get his annual batch of pictures. But he was right. We will be together for a long, long time.

Every year the rep from our American Legion Post puts a small American flag on the grave of every person buried in the cemetery who served in the Armed Forces. Chip Berg, who was three years ahead of me in school, performed this chore every year. My uncle gets one. And, Chip assured me, I will get one someday. I earned it, I am happy to report, as an unhappy ROTC soldier for two years at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln (1953-55), as a cold war veteran (1958-60), as an advanced infantryman at Ft. Carson, Colorado, as a survivor of two weeks of miserable winter bivouac in the foothills of the Rockies, and as bureau chief of the Korea Bureau of Stars and Stripes (carrying my favorite byline: SP5 Bruce B. Brugmann,  S and S Korea bureau, Yongdongpo, Korea.) I am proud of the flag already. B3, who never forgets how lucky he is to come from the best small town in the country.

P.S. As the years went by, I became more curious about how my uncle Schmitty, as he was known, could leave his three young boys and his veterinary practice in nearby Worthington, Minnesota,  and get to Camp  Dodge so fast and serve throughout the entire war. I asked him lots of questions. How, for example, did he handle his veterinary practice? Simple, he said, “my partner just said let’s split our salaries. You give me half of what you make in the Army and I’ll give you half of what I make in veterinary practice.” And that’s what they did and that’s how the veterinary practice kept going throughout the war. Schmitty returned to a healthy practice, retired in the 1960s, and turned it over to his second son Conrad.

P.S. 1: Confession: I was not drafted. I enlisted in the federal reserve in the summer of 1958, which amounted to the same thing. Two years of active duty, two years of active reserve, and two years of inactive reserve. I did this maneuver so that I could formally say that I beat Elmer Wohlers. Elmer was the local draft board chief who had spent a little time in World War I, "the big one," as he would say. The word around town was that he never got out of Camp Dodge in Des Moinesm but you would never know it by his rhetoric. He had a bit of black humor about his job and we had a running skirmish for years.

Whenever he would see me on the street in Rock Rapids, he would say, " Bruce, I'm going to get you, I'm going to get you." And I would reply, "No, no, Elmer, you'll never get me."  I think he was particularly annoyed when I escaped his grasp and went off for a year to graduate school at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City. I would send him cards through the years, from an ATO  fraternity party at the University of Nebraska, or from my hangout bar in New York City (the West End Bar, across from the Columbia Journalism building.) I would write in effect, but with elegant variations, "Elmer, having a wonderful time. Keep up the good work. Wish you were here." When I was in town and we would spar on the street,  I would invite Elmer over to the Sportsmen's Club for a martini, but he always refused, most testily. 

And so I joined the federal reserve and ended up with the initials FR instead of  US on my dog tags that hung around my neck for two years. I was officially FR17507818 and rose from lowly  recruit in the 60th infantry at Ft Carson, Colorado, to the lofty position of  E-5 and bureau chief of the Korea edition of Stars and Stripes bureau. But my big accomplishment was that Elmer didn't get me. I still feel good about beating Elmer at his own game.

P.S. 2: Here's how things work in Rock Rapids.  One year, in sending my annual Memorial Day drill in an email note to Rock Rapids alumni of my era,  I recounted the Shinny anecdote and placed the Brugmann and Sheneberger plots in the southeastern corner of the cemetery. I promptly got an email note back from Joanne Schubert Vogel (class of '49). She wrote that she had sent my note to her brother Dale Schubert in Rock Rapids (class of '55, who was a halfback when I was a quarterback on the celebrated Rock Rapids Lions football team. Dale called her and said that I had made an error and that the Brugmann and Sheneberger plots were in the southwestern corner of the cemetery, not in the southeast corner. Amazing. He was right and I was wrong. Joanne softened the blow by saying she was sure that this was the first error I had ever made.


(Bruce B. Brugmann, or B3 as he signs his emails and blogs, writes and edits the Bruce Blog on the Guardian website at SFBG.com   He is the editor at large of the San Francisco Bay Guardian and the editor and co-founder and co-publisher of the Bay Guardian with his wife Jean Dibble, 1966-2012, now retired. He can be contacted at Bruce@sfbg.com.)