By Bill Stork, DVM
Traditions are like fingerprints: every family has their own. They are the twine that binds future generations to the elders. More traditions are focused on Christmas than any other time of the year. The infamous Fruit Cake with a half-life that would make a Twinkie seem like day-old bread. The two pairs of Levi's my grandma bought my dad every year (the receipt would be taped to the box; they were always two inches too short).
There is an 80-acre farm in northern Minnesota, seven clicks on Google Maps from the nearest four-lane, and 80 minutes from Fargo. It is defined by the ethic of the man who founded it and steeped in traditions that will ensure the family unit will forever endure, in daily ways that are tangible and timely. A cup of tea and cookie at 10:00 and 3:00 pay homage to the physical toll and caloric demand of a farm that saw its first furnace not powered by chainsaw and splittin’ maul in 2009.
Ways that are by definition never spoken and always demonstrated, in dire times can be the difference between celebrating a 50th Birthday, and a memorial service. Duane Schwandt’s callused hands fit a hammer handle, saw and tractor wheel for the hours each week it took to provide for his wife and four daughters. They were also there for holdin’ and huggin’ when one of his daughters or his wife needed it most.
364 days a year, Duane saved and sorted scraps of kindlin’ wood from job sites. Trees that overgrew fence lines and fields were cut and split to fuel the three fires that heated the well pump, water heater and farmhouse. The brush was fashioned into a flammable tee-pee next to the pond out back where he’d use the 1948 John Deere B with a trip bucket on a pull-rope to clear a rink in the middle.
Christmas commenced midday with aunts, uncles, cousins and kin playing broom ball, sledding and warming at the bonfire. By the time the solstice sun would sink over North Dakota, the winter chill would wick the sweat from their waffle weave cotton thermals. En masse they would sojourn 100 yards up the field road. A foot of ice on a farm pond is anything but forgiving. Some were bruised; none were broken. The elders, anesthetized by brandy, limped and laughed, frozen to the bone. They would pile into the little farmhouse for a family Christmas feast and celebration of what they had: primarily one another and a pair of socks or gloves. If grain and milk prices were good and construction work aplenty, each of the four Schwandt girls would have a small toy.
On the days of the year that were not Christmas, life was not boot camp for Navy Seals. The girls were not allowed in the barn before school. To know the tenacity and inter-dependence of being raised a farm girl would eventually serve them well; the youngest would become head librarian at Jefferson Public Library. To go to school not smelling like a dairy barn was a significant point of pride.
It was also not cat-naps and cartoons after school. The Schwandts milked 26 cows in wooden stanchions until a drought nearly wiped out the farm in 1976, and drove Duane to town to find construction work. As carpenters go, an artist he was not. Duane was the black coffee from a Stanley thermos jug craftsman who cut every corner square, planed every mantle level as an alpine lake at sunrise, and every door drifted slowly shut and latched.
On a farm ruled by example and expectations, rather than doctrine, the Schwandt girls were allowed the freedom of band, choir and sports. When there were no after school extra-curriculars, it was all hands on deck. With four daughters and a wife, the “girl jobs and boy jobs” business model breaks down in a hurry. There was simply work to be done. Duane was as likely to be found on the business end of a vacuum or with a dish towel over his shoulder, as his youngest daughter Leann was milking cows or crawled inside the square-baler with a grease gun.
By the time Leann was a surly, early teen, both Duane and her mother Margie had taken jobs in town and her closest sister was out of college. When she climbed off the bus and into barn clothes, there were three fires to stoke, a herd of beef cows, and a flock of ewes to check. It was a small miracle when a 30-year-old tractor managed to start against a northern Minnesota winter. When it didn’t, the options were to feed by hand or figure out how to use a battery charger.
With 15 ewes lambing singlets, twins and triplets by late February, not every one was born head and front legs first. There was no calling dad on the cell phone, the vet or the neighbor. When a ewe was in dystocia you’d find Leann lying face down and shoulder deep searching for a back leg to pull. One Valentine’s afternoon she came home to find a lamb lying motionless in the straw. He was nearing “room temperature” but still breathed, nearly imperceptibly. She stuffed the little lamb under her coat to protect him from the West wind between the barn and the kitchen. She laid him on the bottom rack of the wood-fired cast iron “Daisy”, and the cook stove became an incubator. She opened one damper as slight as possible and propped open the door.
Many know Leann the librarian. For those of us who have attended their annual Halloween gatherings, we retain visions of her; graceful and statuesque as Marilyn Monroe or Lady Liberty. To learn that she is adept at setting corner-posts square and a gate that swings true, and can hit a nail squarely on the head literally as well as in conversation, requires us to pause. The next time we stop to hold the door for a pretty woman, we realize she may have framed it, hung it, trimmed it, painted it and set the lock. In the case of Leann Lehner, she may have poured the concrete on the sidewalk leading to it.
For her father, Duane Schwandt, growing up in The Great Depression and driving teams of mules in the Korean conflict was little more than a pre-season warm up compared to raising four girls who may have been slow to earn their halos on a farm with two bathrooms: one in the house, and one out. When it came to parenting, Duane was self-taught and spot on: discipline when it was deserved, affection when it was needed.
The day he fell off a barn roof, breaking his elbow, three ribs, his pelvis and lacerating his liver, he walked 50 yards back to the house. He had a cup of coffee, then drove himself to the hospital. The morning he had to tell Leann the lamb in the oven had passed, nearly broke him in two.
Duane Schwandt was defined by productivity, tenacity and multiple permutations, punctuations, and emphasis on his go-to phrase: “Son-of-a-bitch” (ironic for a father of four girls). He accepted help only when it was imposed upon him. By his way of thinking he wasn’t worth a plug nickel unless he was building, fixing or growing something. To his four daughters, the time when he was not was ultimately impressionable.
He would never allow himself to sit for more than two hours at a time, and only then when he had earned it. When he did, there was a book in his hands, a cat on his lap, and at his feet.
There were times in her teens when life at 34310 County Highway 4, Frazee, Minnesota, was just short of house arrest. Realization would be a slow burn. By age 47, life on that farm would prove to be salvation.
January 2008: Leann and her husband Kevin were visiting friends and skiing at Lost Trails Mountain, Montana. Halfway between Salt Lake City and Canada, perched at the intersection of the Continental Divide and the Idaho state line. You will find no Californians or Texans: Lost Trails is for locals and friends in the know. The Mountain features more than 50 runs over nearly 2000 acres, but is served by only five lifts. Its base is at 6400 feet of elevation, and it peaks at nearly 9000.
As it turns out, 300 inches of powder and two miles of elevation will take a toll on a Minnesota farm-girl librarian. After a few runs Leann was feeling a bit puny. Owing the sensation to elevation and hydration, she retired to the rental car, reclined the seat and napped as the windshield amplified the afternoon sun.
When in Rome, tour the Vatican. When fortune finds you on a mountain top in Sula, Montana, on a Bluebird Sunny Saturday afternoon, Leann Schwandt is not sitting by the fire and drinking cocoa. After an hour, Kevin woke her from the nap. Raised on a farm where anything short of an open, compound fracture of one or more major long bones was treated with Aspercreme, Bengay or peroxide, she was convinced an epic eructation would set things right. She let fly a “BRAPP!” that would blush Homer Simpson and they caught a lift to the top.
Buzzing from the thrill of 2 ½ miles and 1800 vertical feet of pure powder, Kevin turned to Leann. The chair lift hit their backsides and they lifted off and settled in for the 30-minute ride to the top. Vibrant and well-spoken by nature, Leann was suddenly grey as the collar of her ski jacket and slurring like the proverbial sailor. Her arms went numb as she struggled to stay coherent. When she leaned toward a 60 foot fall off the antique lift chair, Kevin thrust his pole to form a gate.
Ski lifts don’t do reverse, and the Continental Divide is one of the most pristine places on the planet, largely because it is not cell-served. Urgent and firm, while attempting not to alarm Leann, Kevin began a chain reaction S-O-S. He asked the next occupied chair to summon the ski patrol… pass it on! By the time word made it to the “liftie” at the summit, the message had morphed into “she’s in labor with her first child”, but it was nonetheless effective as the ski patrol was waiting at the top.
The Lost Trail Powder Mountain Ski Patrol is an all-volunteer, 62-member team dedicated to the safety of the skiing public and the triage, treatment and transport of skiers who “taco”, “scorpion”, “face-plant” or “bite it”. LTPMSP boasts members who have served of 30 years or more on the mountain. Presented with a hyper-extended thumb, they’ll have a splint built around your ski pole in time to catch the next lift. A heart attack on the hill will ruin your entire day.
When their chair reached the top, they were met by the “mountain ambulance”. Leann was draped over Kevin’s shoulder like Raggedy Ann. Her gums were pale and heart was racing. Some are EMTs, nurses and dump truck drivers by day, but on the mountain with their white crosses and red down jackets, LTPMSP are saviors.
Leann was laid flat in a transport toboggan and wrapped in thermal-foil blankets like a papoose. An oxygen mask was strapped to her face. The strongest of the ski patrollers strapped the yoke of the toboggan to his waist and began the methodical descent to the helipad at the lodge. The mountain was consumed by the gravity of the scene. Like traffic parting for an ambulance on the highway, skiers paused to cross themselves and nod as the armada of ski patrollers tacked their way down the hill. Kevin followed, his entire world reduced to his wife, a wisp of her blond hair on top of the blanket as her breath fogged the mask.
Their mettle was only beginning to be tested. As the lodge came within view the helipad was vacant. The silence in the sky was deafening. The nearest cardiologist was 92 miles north on I-93 at St Patrick Hospital in Missoula.
Like a quarterback executing a flawless two-minute touchdown drive, there was not so much as a hesitation. A rented Isuzu Trooper would have to suffice until an ambulance intercept would meet them halfway, in Hamilton. Still in thermal blankets she was transferred to the passenger seat, barely coherent but nodded her gratitude from behind the O2 mask.
There are times when emotions are not permitted. Before he stepped into the car, Kevin turned to the Lost Trail Ski Patrol, spread his arms wide and partially bowed. The five volunteer professionals returned thumbs up and clenched fists. Kevin’s quick thinking and the flawless execution of their training very well may have saved the life of the woman who would come to the rescue of a clueless single dad in need of the perfect Halloween costume.
Her first memory after boarding the lift was 24 hours later in Missoula. To find yourself in a hospital bed with an intravenous catheter in your arm and an ECG blipping above your head can happen to anyone. Leann looked up from her pillow to see her right hand being held by her dad. It was then she knew it was serious. Duane Schwandt left his farm to go to church, the feed mill and the lumber yard. He hadn’t been on an airplane since being discharged from the Marines in Korea.
Doctors in Missoula are aces when it comes to broken femurs, clavicles, concussions and assorted carnage courtesy of the nearby ski hills. Multiple atrial septal defects and a dissected descending coronary artery were “out of their wheelhouse”. When her pressures came up, heartrate came down and she cracked her first joke about an impromptu family reunion, doctors determined she was stable enough transfer back home.
1400 miles gives a family room to hope. Still, with the best diagnostics in all of medicine, the world class cardiologists at St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison looked for viable arteries to bypass or stent. Into and out of consciousness Leann heard the cardiac surgeon speaking to his nurse, “We’re going to have to talk to the husband.”
She would later relate, “Bill, at that moment I felt the only thing that kept me alive was my will.”
She walked out of the hospital a week and seven stents later.
Early this fall, Kevin and Leann adopted two new and ultimately devious kittens. We finished doing their blood tests, vaccines and playing ball with them. The next appointment was running a bit late.
“Leann, when you had your heart attack, do you think growing up on the farm had any impact on the outcome?” I asked.
"Bill," she paused and looked me squarely in the eyes, “it was the difference between life and death; quitting was not an option.”