ON THE SHELF: Blog Posts

Provocative Stories for Disillusioned Catholics

Joe Hoehn: A Friend for All Seasons

My memories of Joe Hoehn come from so long ago they seem to be from another world—a world without television—with old toilet outhouses and chicken coops in backyards, cow pastures, and skies filled with blackbirds. Entertainment was listening to a radio during nights dotted with countless stars and distant farmyard lights and wondering why a neighbor’s dog was barking as you fell asleep.

Back then, social media consisted of eavesdropping on eight-family telephone lines—for those who had telephones. All numbers were four digits only. Ours was 2765. Try dialing that today and see what you hear, or try telling someone you don’t have a phone. They will think you’re an escaped convict or maybe a terrorist. We would have thought a ‘cell’ phone was something used in the Blue Earth County jail.

What we called a long-distance phone call might be as close as Janesville or Mankato. Anything farther away was a major event. If an airplane happened to buzz over during Sunday dinner, everybody would trip over each other—leaving their roast beef and mashed potatoes growing cold—to run outside and have a gander.

This was the world of All Saints Parish, Madison Lake, in 1947-48 when I entered the first grade. Joe Hoehn would have been in the fourth, in an adjacent classroom. From that time forward, we were lockstep three grades apart through All Saints’ eight grades.

Our teachers were School Sisters of Notre Dame. They didn’t have last names. Instead they were Sister Mary This and Sister Mary That. They wore mysterious long black dresses called habits. Large rosaries clacked at their sides as they ran somewhere to break up the next schoolyard fight.

Their heads were covered with a veil, so that you could see no more of them than their faces and their hands as they wrote with chalk on blackboards or spun around and pointed at you if you were talking when their backs were turned. They seemed to have eyes in the backs of their heads—and radar. Otherwise they seemed to pray all the time, but like everyone else in those days, they hung their wash to dry in the wind on lines outside behind the school. As first-graders we sometimes played hide-and-seek among billowing rows of those long black dresses.

All Saints in those days had no more than a hundred students in the entire school. We could easily all fit into a few front pews for the daily mass we attended at our church next door. Our school days consisted of lessons and prayers, separated by three recesses, the longest at the noon lunch hour. Our playgrounds were a strip of land along the shore of Madison Lake; the frozen lake in winter when snow would be cleared away for a skating rink; and sidewalks around church and school.

I don’t think Joe and I ever said a word to each other during those grade school years, our years together at All Saints in rough-and-tumble Madison Lake.

You might wonder then why I remember him. The truth is, Joe seemed to be everywhere—racing around the church at games of tag—chasing a softball before it rolled into the lake—lighting and snuffing candles as an altar boy before and after masses—helping Father Devlin with smoky incense coiling over our heads and holy water splashing our faces up and down the church aisles.

In my world of the rural farm kid—a world reduced to things like a rooster crowing in the misty morning distance—Madison Lake was a puzzle. Every time I was there, I came home with a puzzle piece or two and would try to figure out where they fit in. As with real jigsaw puzzles, many pieces blended together with names like Frederick, Schaub, Fasnacht, Muellerleile, and Hoehn.

Any of those numerous folks—to be recalled at all—had to stand out for some reason. Joe did stand out, and so I remember him from a time I never said a word to him because among the older All Saints boys, he seemed especially easy-going, reliably friendly, safe to be around, and happy. If I happened to glance his way, he would smile.

Otherwise, if you looked at one of the bigger kids, you could get a black eye or a bloody nose. Then Sister Mary Somebody or Other would come running, and you might endure the hardship of staying after school and made to write your name backwards five hundred times.

A favorite activity of most boys was finding a garter snake lurking in the shadows, grabbing it by the tail, and chasing screaming girls with it. Joe was not like that. He loved baseball. He preferred to run around the bases, stretching a well-hit single into a triple, sliding into home plate in a dust cloud. He would race around the outfield till his cap flew off.

Joe never stood on his head as far as I know, but he stood my young world on its head by simply being what adults of that era would call a young gentleman. He was eager to hold doors for the teaching Sisters and ready to pass out hymnals. He held a steady flag at school street crossings.

I was shy, a scared-to-death country kid, the oldest child, and so the first to be at school through days long enough to seem forever. Joe was the youngest in his family, lived in town, and so knew the ropes, as they say. I was aware of him, though, as the exception to a rule, a gentle hand in a world of town bullies spoiling for a fight.

Joe was what our catechism teachers described as a good example.

He loved baseball, especially the St. Louis Cardinals in those days when Minnesota did not have a Major League team. Stan Musial, a St. Louis slugger and hall-of-famer was his sports hero. Musial is remembered to this day as Stan the Man, a solidly-built, reliable hitter with a .331 lifetime batting average who, like Joe, seldom had an unkind word for anyone. In other words, a standout gentleman and a good example.

Joe was not a power hitter in that cow pasture playing field, but no one could beat his enthusiasm.

His cap is another reason I remember him. He would tip it slightly as a boy whenever he passed by this church. This is my earliest memory of him—tipping his hat as he strode along the sidewalk a few feet from here. This can seem strange to us today, but men in that era would do this as a courtesy and sign of respect when they passed each other. It was called doffing.

And so those early school days turned to weeks, the weeks to months and years. All this before Joe and I spoke, till one day, we found ourselves sitting together on a school bus shuttling the older Madison Lake kids to Mankato. Joe was a senior and I a frightened freshman at Loyola. Mankato seemed as big as New York City. From that day forward, on daily trips back and forth, during the screaming riot of an afterschool bus ride home, we spoke in quiet tones and got to know each other.

Joe became my first real friend.

We had been buddies without knowing it; soon enough, he saved a seat for me. He always sat in the middle of the bus by a window where he could gaze upon the farm fields and the wild lowland meadows gliding by.

I think he was a bit of a dreamer, as was I, both of us too young yet to know how easily dreams and ideals can be trampled and crushed by people who think otherwise.

We discovered that year how much we had in common: stamp collecting, baseball, and weather among them. We both were keeping weather journals recording highs and lows. Thanks to Joe, I could tell you what the high and low temperatures were and from what direction the winds blew the last day I saw him. He pulled from a closet in the house where he grew up a long black cassock of the type worn by seminarians. He beamed with pride. He would become a priest.

After that, thirty-five years passed in silence. We had gone our separate ways as so often happens with school chums. I am sure he crossed my mind now and then and maybe I crossed his as we both went through many innings of that baseball doubleheader called adult life.

Came a day in a most unexpected place, a Catholic churchyard in distant Grafenhausen, Baden, Germany.

My wife Kate and I—after years of searching—had found the birthplace of my Great Grandfather Wendelen Kasper. A single street away was the Schaub Bakery. Nearby was a sort of general store run by the last person in that village to have been born with the surname Kasper, a second cousin. The cemetery itself was a mirror image of Sacred Heart at Madison Lake. Familiar names were everywhere, among them that of Höhn, Hoehn with the German umlaut. Strolling the street were young men and women, girls and boys who might have been the school children of All Saints. People would mistake me for a local and speak to me in German because I so much resembled one of them.

Joe and I had come from the very same world an ocean and the Rhine River away! His ancestors and mine had known each other during the great German migration from Baden and Alsace-Lorraine. Everyone in Grafenhausen knew of a Fasnacht, a Frederick, a Muellerleile, or a Hoehn living nearby. My cousin Gerlinde recalled that last word from our family in America had arrived by a letter in 1901, more than a century ago.

Of course, I had to find Joe! Kate and I began a new search. We caught up with him and his wife Carol in their Worthington home surrounded by flowers and the garden plants Joe loved. We talked about ancestors, our children and grandchildren, about old times in Madison Lake, about baseball, and the weather, and of course that school bus.

My last three years at Loyola, I hitchhiked to and from Mankato. Joe should not have been surprised. Nobody else could have filled that seat in the middle beside a window. Joe was always a middle sort of guy, a peacemaker, among the blessed ones, those who shall be called children of God.

# # #

James Casper, formerly of All Saints parish, went on from St. Louis to live in London where he and his wife Kate continued their travels. A peripatetic writer, his most recent novels are Everywhere in Chains and An Accidental Pope, which both draw upon his childhood experiences in Madison Lake, Minnesota.