The Birth of the Beseda

Detroit Beseda 6-10-1939

It’s been a while since I last wrote about Clarkson’s Czech Dancers, and in particular the Beseda dances that were performed by both adults and children.  In my final (?) posting on this topic, I thought it would be interesting to say a few words about the origin of the Beseda dance form because it is much more than a complicated collection of dance steps.

The 19th Century has been called the Century of Nationalism.  During the 1800s, enlightened by The Enlightenment, and encouraged by the American and French Revolutions, the peoples of Europe began to think seriously about throwing out their kings and emperors in favor of democratically elected parliaments with real power.  In many parts of Europe these democratic movements were accompanied by efforts to break up and rearrange old empires into new nations whose boundaries were based on ethnic and cultural similarities, rather than on political wheeling and dealing.

For the Czechs, nationalism (or the National Revival as they called it) meant asserting their Slavic identity and culture. For hundreds of years the Czechs and Slovaks had been unwilling members of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and their art, music, and even language had been suppressed by the Imperial Government in Vienna.  German was the only language taught in the schools and spoken in government offices and polite society; there was a real danger of the Czech language disappearing entirely. Many Czechs dreamed of an independent state based on their Slavic language and cultural affinities, so when the spirit of nationalism took off in Europe, the Czechs (Bohemians and Moravians) responded in a variety of ways.  For example, the Sokol movement (Sokol is the Czech word for “falcon”) was founded by a Czech nationalist in 1862.  On the surface the Sokols were a youth sports and gymnastics organization, but there was considerable emphasis on moral and intellectual development and Slavic pride as well.  For many years the Hapsburgs in Vienna kept a close watch on the Sokols because of the very real concern that the Czechs were using it to build a strong, well-trained and motivated national army.

In the arts, the Czechs sought to promote the richness and value of their folk culture in order to demonstrate that, rather than being ignorant serfs and peasants, the Czechs had as rich a culture as anyone in Europe and deserved their own place among the Family of Nations.  For example, in 1855 Božena Němcová wrote her marvelous and still widely read novel Babicka (Grandmother), which celebrated the wisdom and goodness of a simple rural peasant woman.  In music, the two best-known Czech composers of the era, Bedřich Smetana and Antonín Dvořák, incorporated folk melodies into many of their classical compositions.  The essayist, newspaper columnist, and poet Jan Neruda tirelessly promoted Czech patriotism and statehood.  Not only was he a prolific writer and an influential intellectual – he was a pretty good dancer.

As the story goes, Jan Neruda disliked watching only German dances, while Czech folk dances seemed too rough to him.  So he, his dance teacher Karel Link and a musician Ferdinand Heller created the Česká beseda; Link choreographed the steps to Heller’s music arrangements.  The first performance in Prague featured 24 pairs of dancers.  The precise birthday of the Česká beseda is in dispute, but November 11, 1863 is the most commonly accepted date.  What is known is for certain is that the dance caught on like wildfire – within a few weeks, the Česká beseda was danced by as many as 140 couples at the Žofín Palace in Prague, and after a few months the whole of Bohemia knew it.

The Česká beseda has the form of a quadrille – 4 pairs of dancers facing each other in a rectangular formation.  The quadrille was an intricate dance routine that was very popular in High Society of France and England at the time.  The Česká beseda has 4 parts, each part featuring 4 dances:

I. Sousedská, Furiant, Polka, Řezanka

II. Kominík, Furiant, Obkročák, Polka

III. Rejdovák, Furiant, Hulán, Kalamajka

IV. Sousedská, Furiant, Kuželka, Strašák

The original Česká beseda was not danced to the music of a brass band, in folk costumes, as we know it today.  Rather, the dancers were dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns, and whirled around the ballroom to the tunes of an orchestra.  This was in keeping with the notion that Czech culture, while firmly rooted in rich folk traditions, was as high-brow as anything you might see in the fashionable salons of Paris.

After its first performance, the Česká beseda spread throughout the Old Country and was regionally modified (there is a well-known Moravian beseda, for example).  Czech immigrants to the U.S. further modified it to fit their liking and circumstances, so that the dance is performed differently in Texas, Cedar Rapids, and Clarkson.  The common element to all the besedas are these: they are all composed of a series of short dances, done to songs with varying meters (2/4 and 3/4 time) and tempos (moderate to very lively), all woven into one uninterrupted dance.

In summary, the Česká beseda was born in 1863 and used not only as a form of popular entertainment but also as an expression of Czech national pride.  Jump forward 100 years, to 1963, and we see the Beseda reappear in Clarkson for the first Czech Days Festival, once more as an instrument of cultural revival and Czech pride.

http://clarksonhistory.wordpress.com/2013/07/01/clarkson-czech-dancers-the-early-years/

Enough with the lecture.  Here are more pictures of the Clarkson Beseda Dancers and Clarkson Czech Dancers over the years.

Cooperative Consumer 1966 1 IMG_0001 IMG_0004a IMG_0005b IMG_0007 IMG_0008 IMG_0009 IMG_0011 Oakland NE 6-3-1991 1b Oakland NE 6-3-1991 2a Wilber Festival 1964

Posted in 1890s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Celebrations | 4 Comments

Sing to me, Grandma

Clarkson has always been blessed with a surplus of grandmothers.  In addition to the women who lived all their lives in town and grew old there, there was a reliable influx of retired farmers and farm wives.  In many cases these retirees turned their farms over to their son(s) and left the hard physical labor behind for the relative ease of town life.  In retirement, the men drove back to the farm to help their children or walked down to the tavern to smoke and nurse a beer or two while they played cards with their cronies.  And the women would continue to do the things that they had done on the farm – cooking, cleaning, laundry, tending to large flower beds and vegetable gardens, and, in many cases, raising laying hens in a backyard chicken coop.  They continued to can fruits and vegetables and bake the breads and sweet pastries that the Czechs love.

50s60s057As a little boy, I remember legions of grandmothers (Babičky) in town, church, weddings and funerals, on weekdays dressed in simple cotton dresses (“wash dresses,” my Mother called them).  These dear women were old school – they would not have been caught dead in track suits or gym shoes, just back from a Tai Chi or cardio class.  More likely, they were slow moving and arthritic, getting around with orthopedic leather shoes and canes or walkers.  And they were the kindest, sweetest people you could meet.  In a 1950s World in which adults, not children, were boss, the grandmothers always had time for a kind word and a cookie for a visiting grandchild. The babičky in town would walk over to pay each other visits, or pick up the telephone to dial up their distant friends and relatives.  And a few times every summer, they could look forward to seeing each other at family reunions held at city parks. 

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The Babičky would help busy mothers care for their children and were reliable, economical babysitters for parents who wanted to slip away to a dance.  Such times were a golden opportunity for the grandmas to pass on old stories of days gone by, funny or instructive stories about our parents and aunts and uncles, and Czech songs and poems.  I can still clearly remember many of the stories that my Grandma told me when she was rocking me to sleep, and even have some vague recollections of the Czech songs that she sang, even though then, as now, I had no idea what the words meant.

Phyllis and I were discussing old Czech nursery songs and rhymes that our grandmothers used to sing to us when we were little.  I remember my Grandma Antonia setting me on her lap and singing a little song that started out “Houpy, Houpy…”  She would sing it and rock me to sleep.  It turns out my brother Ron had gotten the same “special” treatment from Grandma, and he also vaguely remembered a song that began “Hou, hou, kravy do.”  Phyllis remembers those songs, and also others which involved her grandma counting Phyllis’ little fingers, drawing circles on the palm of her hand, and having imaginary mice running up her little arm.  None of us remembered the words beyond the first lines.

If three people remember something, it MUST be true, no?  So I did a little digging and found the words for the two Czech nursery rhymes.

Houpy, Houpy

Houpy, houpy,

kočka snědla kroupy,

kocour hrách na kamnách,

koťata se hněvala, že jim taky nedala.

Houpy, houpy, houpy, byly všecky hloupý.

Houpy, Houpy (English translation)

Rocking, rocking,

the cat ate the barley

the tomcat ate the peas on the stove

kittens were angry that they didn’t get any

rocking, rocking,

they were all silly.

For the musically inclined, here is the simple tune:01houpy

Then there’s Hou, hou, krávy dou.  I assume that the Czech words below are accurate, but I was not able to find an authoritative translation to English online, and the Google Translate software yields a translation that is a bit surrealistic.  (But not necessarily wrong, I suppose).

Hou, Hou, Krávy Dou

Hou, hou, krávy dou,
nesou mlíko pod vodou,
nesou mlíka půl žejdlíka.

A ta naše jalovička
U božího kostelíčka.
Kostelíček boří, stodola se boří.
Skoč, panenko, do vody,
pro ty černé jahody.

Nač bych já tam skákala,
sukýnky si máchala,
kde bych si je sušila?

U pastýře v koutku,
na zeleném proutku.
Ten proutek se otočí,
korbel piva natočí.

Pijte, pijte, páni,
nerozbijte džbány.
Pijte, pijte, paničky,
nerozbijte skleničky.

Hou, Hou, Krávy Dou (English translation)

Ho, ho, the cows go
carrying milk to the water below
carrying a half-pint of milk.

And that heifer of ours
is at our lord’s church.
The church is aflame, the barn is crumbling.
Leap into the water, my lassie,
for those black strawberries

Why should I jump there
and soak my skirts?
Where would I dry them?

By the herdsman in the corner
upon a green sprig.
This sprig will turn around
and will draw a tankard of beer.

Drink, drink up, gentlemen,
don’t break my jugs.
Drink, drink up, ladies,
don’t break my jiggers.

 

Here is the little finger play game that invariably brought squeals of delight from little children sitting on Babička’s lap:

Vařila myšička kašičku

Finger Play(Czech)

Vařila myšička kašičku
na zeleném rendlíčku,
tomu dala,
tomu taky,
tomu málo,
tomu víc,
a na toho maličkého
nezůstalo vůbec nic!
A ten maličký utíkal
do komůrečky
na homolečky
a tam se napapal.

 

Mother Mouse Cooked Porridge

 Finger Play (English)


Mother mouse cooked porridge
In a little green pan;
She gave porridge to this baby mouse,
To this baby mouse,
To this baby mouse
And to this baby mouse,
But there was no porridge left
For this smallest baby mouse!
So he ran and ran and ran
To the pantry,
Found some sugar cones,
And ate as much as he could.


Actions: Make circles with your index finger on baby’s palm as if stirring porridge, then gently touch baby’s fingers (= baby mice) one by one, starting from the thumb.  When you get to the little finger (= the smallest baby mouse), run your fingers along the baby’s hand up to the underarm (= he ran to the pantry) and tickle him.

Vařila myšička kašičku is still a popular game for small children, and there are a lot of videos of it on YouTube.  This is a good tutorial…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yA3ysMWVxOE


Here are some other cute versions of Vařila myšička kašičku:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PoLFDYzIIfY&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zXDZRadiya0

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&NR=1&v=9CoIrEr8rIg

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PP07kWI4rEE

 

And finally, for the truly ambitious here is a collection of Říkanky (nursery rhymes):

http://www.kubesova.cz/letni_rikanky

They are written in Czech.  If you want to see the English translations, I advise you to forget Google Translate.  Better to find a Czech grandmother to help you with them.

Posted in 1940s, 1950s, 1960s | 2 Comments

The Spirit of Christmas Past

Christmas has changed a lot in Our Town since the area was first settled in the early 1870s.  The Czech and German people arriving in the area had many rich Christmas traditions, but they often had to be put aside for a time as the immigrants struggled to adapt to the New World.  For example, the European carp had long been the centerpiece of the traditional Czech Christmas dinner (and still is in the modern Czech Republic).  However, the carp was not native to America; it was first brought to the U.S. from Germany in 1872, and was not introduced to Nebraska streams and rivers until the 1880s.  So the first Central European immigrants had to content themselves with wild game, preserved fish (barrel-packed salted cod and pickled herring), and, of course, Christmas breads (hoska/vanocka) and kolaches.

Many of the early settlers around the Maple Creek south of Clarkson were Roman Catholics, and their first years were difficult.  In her memoirs, my Mother, Blanche Cada, told an early story that was passed down from her ancestors:

“… several pioneer families had settled on Maple Creek.  They conducted their own religious services until missionary priests arrived [initially by walking from West Point].  On the first Christmas along the Maple Creek, the first settlers of the area gathered in the home of Joseph F. Sindelar for services.  Joseph Krajicek, one of the settlers, had a book of Epistles and Gospels, and a Bohemian Mass book.  Joseph Sindelar read the prayers and sermons from the books and the people sang the songs they knew.  When Mr. Sindelar came to the prayers for the Consecration in the Mass, his son rang a bell, and all the people who were gathered in the sod house broke into uncontrolled tears.”

It is interesting that the first Christmas service that the Catholics observed in their new home was an occasion for sadness and tears.  For Catholics, the Consecration is the central, most sacred part of the Mass, and it is an action that can only be carried out by an ordained priest.  Hence, the ringing of the bell at this part of the service reminded the first settlers of what they had given up when they left Europe – lovely churches, beautiful old traditions, and the comfort of a priest to minister to their needs and to administer the sacraments.

It didn’t take long for these determined pioneers to set spiritual matters right.  A series of circuit-riding priests began stopping in the area every month or so to celebrate Mass in homes and schools.  By 1871 the Bohemian and German settlers had acquired land in the so-called Heun Community for a cemetery, so that they could bury their beloved dead in consecrated ground rather than in private burial plots on the individual farms.  Although they were frustrated initially by droughts and plagues of locusts, and many were still living in sod houses or crude shacks, by 1878 they had managed to construct a 30 ft. X 60 ft. wooden framed church.  Rather than naming it after a Bohemian saint as many might have wished, they named the new church and parish Holy Trinity Church, so that their German and Moravian neighbors would not feel excluded.  The first Christmas Mass at Holy Trinity Church was celebrated in 1878.

Old Heun Church 1 Old Heun Church 2

The new church started out as a simple structure, virtually empty except for a few pews and a plain wooden table for an altar (much like the earliest Christian churches, I suppose).  Over the years, the original Holy Trinity Church at Heun was embellished on the inside, filled with statues and paintings of God and his saints.

Old Heun Church Interior 1

Old Heun Church Interior 2 Old Heun Church Interior 3 Old Heun Church Interior 4

The parish grew and prospered, and in 1928 a new, brick church was completed to replace the well-used, 50-year-old wooden structure.

Two Heun Churches

Some of my happiest childhood memories of Christmas center around Midnight Mass at that little, brick country church.  It was always beautifully decorated with a cluster of evergreen trees and a large manger scene on the right side altar.

Heun Church_20080627_9_86

Midnight Mass was always well attended in those days; often folding chairs had to be set up in the back and in the aisles.  In addition to the usual parishioners, relatives living away would come home for the holidays and join their families for the services.  Young people who were in a serious love relationship often brought their boyfriend/girlfriend to this Mass to introduce them to the Heun community.

In my memory, it was always bitterly cold outside (and of course dark), so we all filed in wearing heavy wool clothing and overshoes.  The church was warm, we were packed into the pews, and because there was no place to put our heavy coats we just kept them on.  It was a struggle for a little boy to stay awake in those close, cozy quarters.

Midnight Mass was preceded by 30 minutes of Christmas carol singing, so we would often arrive soon after 11 PM to be guaranteed a seat near our accustomed pew (about 1/3 of the way back on the left side).  The organist (Eleanor Sobota in my lifetime) would fire up the pipe organ, and the whole congregation would sing those beautiful old religious carols.

Heun Church_20080627_9_76

Heun Church_20080627_9_73

We didn’t need books – everyone knew the words to those classic songs that celebrated the Birth of Jesus.  The congregation sang loudly and with enthusiasm, and when we got to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” even the plaster angels seemed to join in.

Heun Church P_20080627_16

Heun Church P_20080627_51  Heun Church P_20080627_52

Heun Church_20080627_9_36

After Mass, and hurried greetings to our fellow Christians in the frigid parking lot, we’d jump back into our cold cars and head home over crunchy, snow-packed gravel roads.  My Mother would scramble up some farm fresh eggs, accompanied by home-made butter and fresh-baked rolls for a late night snack.  Then we’d head for bed, because on Christmas Day we looked forward to visiting our extended families at Grandma’s house in Clarkson.

These days, Christmas is more of a cultural holiday than a religious holiday for many; we compete for the most outdoor lights, the largest inflatable Santa, the prettiest cookies.  It is my wish that you will be visited by the Spirit of Christmas Past – that all the rush and fun of holiday parties and gift-giving will not overshadow for you the true meaning of Christmas, a celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior.  Our immigrant ancestors may not have been eloquent or well-educated, but they understood this well.

I hope that you too have good memories of the old days, and are making more good memories every year.  Phyllis and I wish you all the Blessings of this Holy Season, and health, happiness, and peace in the New Year.  Gloria in excelsis Deo!

Heun Nativity

Posted in 1890s, 1920s, 1950s, 1960s | 1 Comment

Christmas Carols on the Prairies

In the weeks before Christmas, I often think of a popular, long-gone form of entertainment in the area around Clarkson – the country school Christmas Programs.  Up until the 1960s, the landscape was dotted with one-room country school houses, and it seemed like every one put on a program of Christmas songs, recitations, and short skits.  Perhaps it was a part of the curriculum.  In any case, it was a major effort for the teacher and students and parents to prepare for and stage the event.  Teachers would devote some of their limited teaching time to rehearsals and decorating the school, students would memorize their parts at home, fathers would set up the stage and curtains a few days before the show and add wooden folding chairs to the already crowded rows of wooden desks in the room.  Mothers would make costumes and prepare food for the meal that was served after the show.

The programs were always well-attended at my school; the audience was packed with parents, siblings, cousins, friends, and neighbors.  People made the effort to attend these little Christmas programs not only to show support, but also because they were still an important form of entertainment.  Social gatherings (card parties, dances, dramatic performances, and such) were much more common then.  For most of the 1950s, there were only two Omaha television stations to watch on your black and white sets – WOW-TV (NBC) on Channel 6 and KMTV (CBS) on Channel 3.  Late in 1957, KETV (an affiliate of ABC; Channel 7) added a third station to the dizzying lineup.  So there were plenty of reasons to go out for entertainment, even on cold, dark December nights.

A date would be set for the program, usually in mid-December, and a month or two before “showtime” we would begin practicing songs and memorizing our assigned parts.  The older kids may have had individual recitations or songs, but younger children usually performed as part of a small group of classmates.  It may have been the first time a cute little Kindergartner appeared before a smiling audience to recite a few lines about Santa Claus.

Theresa's First Program 12-1954

Christmas Program 1

Musical skits were often designed around popular songs.  For example, here’s a snappy little number that was done to the tune of Frosty the Snowman (or was it Return of the Mummy?)

50s60s002

The picture below shows how the school room was altered for the Christmas program. Heavy wires would be strung across the room to support the black fabric curtain in front, and a white curtain to cover the blackboard in the background.  (You can still see under the flag the examples of good penmanship that we were urged to imitate.  Remember Penmanship?  For that matter, remember cursive writing?).  The rows of wooden desks would be crowded to one side, and rickety wooden folding chairs would be packed as closely together as possible.  Sometimes you had to be a bit of a ballet dancer to reach an empty seat in the middle, crawling over and stepping on audience members bundled in heavy, hot, woolen coats.  Streamers decorated the ceiling, and a foot-tall wooden stage was placed in the front where the teacher’s desk and tables had stood.  Pupils waited in the wings behind the curtain for makeup and for their time to go on stage.

SCHOOLPLAY21957

The skits were short and humorous and secular – I don’t remember any manger scenes or kids fighting over who would play Mary and Joseph.  And they often featured the boys wearing dresses.  Men in drag was always a source of great amusement; their appearances on stage wearing fluffy, girly dresses or bathing suits were invariably greeted with howls of laughter from the audience and catcalls and jeers from their buddies in the front rows.  And it was doubtless a chance for the teacher to get some payback for the boys’ misbehavior during the rest of the year.

dad's003

MINSTREL2

SCHOOLPLAY1957

This last picture depicts the finalists in the District 21 Cedar Hill Bees Style Show of 1957.  It was a real crowd pleaser.

Christmas Program 2a

As the program came to an end, the children would gather on the stage in their suits and pretty Christmas dresses to sing the songs they had memorized, always a mixture of well-known religious and secular songs.

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It seems like the final songs were always sung by the entire school, which put them all on stage to receive the audience’s applause and await the appearance of….  Santa Claus!  At the appointed time, bells could be hear jingling in the parking lot outside, the door would be thrown open, and in would stride Dear Old Santa.  His bag was full of candy – cellophane bags with hard candy or red mesh bags with mixed nuts in the shell and an orange.  Every pupil would get a bag of candy from Santa, and then he would proceed to distribute gifts that were under the Christmas tree.  We had done a secret exchange of names earlier in the year, and each child brought his wrapped present and put it under the tree that night.

Heun Christmas Program big

His work done, Santa would laugh a few “Ho Ho’s”, wave, and shout “Merry Christmas, Everyone!”  Then he would stride back outside, climb into his Studebaker, and be gone in the night.

The lights would go on, and everyone would file downstairs to enjoy a delicious meal prepared by the ladies.  Topped off with an ice cream cone.  (Before the introduction of styrofoam to consumer products [in 1954], cold food was insulated with padded canvas, newspapers, whatever.  In the photo below, taken in the basement of Heun Hall, vanilla ice cream was packed in large cardboard cylinders, then each can was stacked in the insulated canvas tube.)

Dad and Jerome Spulak at Heun

I wish I had a picture of the long, decorated tables covered with food that the mothers had made for the After Party.  Beautiful, frosted cakes, bars coated with crushed peanuts, Rice Krispie treats, plates of festive cookies, big bags of Kitty Clover potato chips, and Tupperware containers brim full of egg-salad and ham-salad sandwiches made with snow-white Wonder Bread.  Boiled coffee for the adults and hot cocoa and pop for the kids.  It was a feast for a King.  To celebrate the Birthday of a King.

The rural Christmas Programs are gone, but no doubt they are alive and well in the town schools.  I hope you’ll have the opportunity to enjoy one this season.  Or, better yet, sit down and read a Christmas story to someone.  And sing a few of the dear old Christmas carols together.

Posted in 1950s, 1960s | 6 Comments

Our Village as Cold War Sentinel

These days our lives are often affected by preparations for and reactions to acts of terrorism – the threat of terrorists hijacking airplanes, the bombing of the Boston Marathon, armed gunmen walking into schools, businesses, and movie theaters.  We are all vulnerable to these acts of violence – deadly and horrifying, but also localized in their effects.  A recent, random comment from an e-mail correspondent reminded me of a much greater, more pervasive terror under which we Clarksonians have all lived, every day, for decades.  Since the early 1950s, we have been vulnerable to attack by an enemy armed with nuclear weapons, and in the beginning the Village of Clarkson had a role in protecting the U.S. from this threat.

Hiroshima

Imagine looking up into the 1950s skies and seeing a flight of Russian bombers, carrying atomic bombs, each capable of obliterating a city.  Jetting in over the Arctic Circle, these enemy airplanes might drop their nuclear bombs on northern cities, potentially including Omaha, the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command, before they could be detected and stopped.  In the 1950s that scenario was a real possibility, and the United States helped protect itself from a Pearl Harbor-style sneak attack by expanding a program of civilian volunteers called the Ground Observer Corps (GOC).

The use of civilian observers to sound the alert about enemy aircraft goes back to WWI, when the British watched for German Zeppelins.  Civilian ground observers really got cranked up during WWII, in England during the Blitz, and in coastal cities of the United States as an inexpensive and effective means of avoiding another Pearl Harbor.  As the war wound down, so did the GOC ; it was dis-established in 1944. But it started up again in 1950, when Russia demonstrated that it possessed both a workable nuclear bomb and long-distance bombers to deliver it.  One radio spot darkly announced  “It may not be a very cheerful thought but the Reds right now have about a thousand bombers that are quite capable of destroying at least 89 American cities in one raid…. Won’t you help protect your country, your town, your children? Call your local Civil Defense office and join the Ground Observer Corps today.”  The Cold War GOC brought local Civil Defense agencies together with the military services.  During the decade of the 1950s, more than 800,000 volunteers stood alternating shifts at 16,000 observation posts.

GOCSearch

GOCMap1952

Clarkson was a proud participant in the GOC in the mid-1950s.  Many citizens in town and countryside were involved, but it is so long ago that the memories of its organization and activities have faded.  Synthesizing the bits and pieces of the observers’ recollections, our GOC program went something like this:

The Clarkson GOC was organized by the Clarkson Fire Department, and Lumir Prazak was the Fire Chief at that time.  The adults who were involved took turns observing aircraft flying over the area only at night.  They would gather at the new high school on the south end of Clarkson and lie on the lawn looking up at the night sky.  Whenever a plane was observed, they would report the observation by telephone in the high school.  A surprising number of aircraft were observed late at night, and the men reported the time and the direction of flights.  Initially, the GOC was comprised of adult men –  Al Dusatko, Lumir Prazak, Vince Prazak, Ron Vavrina, Slavy Vodehnal, Louis Pavel, Dick Moore, maybe Doc Odvarka were mentioned.  There doesn’t seem to have been any adult women involved in watching the night skies.

Later, high school kids and even grade schoolers took their turns watching for enemy airplanes during daylight hours.  Eleanor Sousek Loseke, Edie Kudrna Welch, Avis Studnicka Heithoff, Edith Novotny Nepper, Arlys Dolesh Wehrer, Robert Prazak, and Gene Cinfel were among the high school students who participated.  Grade school observers included Bernice Studnicka Cada, Rich Neuhaus, Dennis Houfek, Tony Dusatko, and Bill Sixta.  There were meetings at the school to give the students guidance and information.  There was usually, but apparently not always, adult supervision of the juvenile GOC members.

Even the Girl Scouts got in on the action.  Evelyn Zrust, troop leader of the Senior Girls Scouts, combined enemy plane identification (taught by Mike Hammond and Bob Jonas) with a first aid class. The girl scouts were given books for instruction and plane recognition; they met twice a month, and after passing a test they began observing, as a troop, on Sundays.  At other times, the Girl Scouts were paired up and did 3 or 4-hour shifts on weekends.

In the beginning there was no building available; volunteers lay in the grassy area on the south side of the new high school (before it became a parking lot), and if they saw anything notable would go into the high school to phone it in.  Later, a building was dragged or erected near the high school to house the observers.  Initially, an old, windowless, cob-shed type of building was used that was perhaps 6’ X 8’ in size. It was propped up on the front to level it out, with a handrail across the front; there may have been a porch.  Later a deer stand sort of building on stilts was constructed, elevated one story above the ground.  Steps went up from the west side and there were lots of windows.  The building was unheated, but it had a light bulb hanging from the ceiling and it protected observers from the elements.  The buildings had their own dedicated telephone for dialing up (what they believed was) Offutt Air Force Base/Strategic Air Command Headquarters, or perhaps the Civil Defense Office in Omaha.  In fact, the calls went to one of 73 “filter centers,” where yet more civilian volunteers collected the data, plotted trajectories of aircraft that had been called in, and made judgments about the significance of the observations (Clymer 2013).

The dedication of Clarkson’s youth to fighting the Cold War was not absolute.  By one  account, most of the time the kids did not stay in the building, but could be found goofing around outside waiting for a plane to fly over.  For example, Bernice Cada wrote: “My most vivid memory from this world-saving practice included Bill Sixta. Several of us started collecting ears of corn from the neighboring field. We had a corn kernel fight. I placed one throw perfectly into Bill’s ear canal. As we tried to remove it, it just wedged tighter! He had to go visit Dr. O’Neil to get the kernel removed. I was scared and embarrassed. Thought I would lose my volunteer job!  But those Russians never made it past our watchful eyes.”

In fact, Clarkson’s young were not the only ones to occasionally let their “eternal vigilance” slip.  Public participation in the GOC never reached the levels hoped for, owing to skepticism about government’s warnings of the imminence of a Russian attack and optimism about the capabilities of the U.S. Air Force to detect and intercept enemy planes before they got to the continental U.S.  “By all indications, even the Soviet Union’s possession of an H-bomb [in August 1953] did not stir much desire to volunteer for the GOC.  Recruitment remained a chronic problem.  An Air Force report noted that, absent an emergency, the vast majority of Americans would rather play bridge [or taroks?], watch television, or go to bed.  By mid-1954, … a major problem had developed with attrition of volunteers who faced disparagement of friends or acquaintances.” (Clymer 2013).

There were posters on the walls of the observation building to provide information about friendly and unfriendly airplanes, and a book of silhouettes of planes was used to help in identifying what they were seeing.  Binoculars, pen and paper were used to make note of types of planes and estimates of speed, direction of travel, altitude, and identifying markings, which were entered in a log book.  A sign-in sheet logged the names and hours of the participants.

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One of the purposes of logging in the hours spent watching the sky was to amass enough volunteer hours to be awarded a cool blue and silver lapel pin – the winged GOC pin.  Lumir Prazak would turn in the names and hours of the observers.  Obviously this lapel pin was a desirable prize – many of the participants still have theirs.

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As the Cold War wound on, offensive weapons and defensive systems were improved.  In the late 1950s the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, a radar-based early warning system in Canada, became operational, and eventually the slow-flying bombers were replaced by intercontinental ballistic missiles.  The value of civilian airplane observers was diminished, and on January 31, 1959 the Ground Observer Corps Program was shut down.

In retrospect, it seems pretty unlikely that Russian bombers could have flown all the way to Nebraska without being detected somewhere in Canada or the Dakotas, but you never know, eh?   Let the record reflect that there was not a single bombing of the U.S. mainland during the existence of GOC.

Thanks to Dennis Houfek (who first told me about the GOC in Clarkson), Rich Neuhaus, Bernice Cada, Tony Dusatko, Ele Loseke, Edie Welch, Ron Vavrina, Edith Nepper, Arlys Wehrer, and Robert Prazak  for their memories of (and membership in) Clarkson’s Ground Observer Corps.

An excellent history of the U.S. GOC is provided by:  Clymer, K. 2013.  The Ground Observer Corps – Public Relations and the Cold War in the 1950s.  Journal of Cold War Studies. 15(1):34-52.

Ground Observer Corps, Hurray!

Protects our Nation every day.

Protects our flag, Red, White, and Blue,

They Protect everyone, even you.

Always on guard with Watchful eyes,

Never tiring they search the skies.

From now to eternity we shall be free,

America’s guarded by the G.O.C.

SkywatchSticker

Posted in 1950s | 4 Comments

Answers and More Questions

You may recall that when I was delving into the history of the Clarkson Czech/Beseda Dancers, I was given a marvelous photo of the first Children’s Beseda Group, who made their appearance in 1964.  My question was “Who are these kids?”  Eldora Gentzler, Patti Polodna Berryhill, and Bob Stonacek (all of whom are in the picture) responded to the call with their excellent memories.

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Top Row – Sandy Hockamier, Bobby Nebola, Jackie Toman, Scott Odvarka, Kathy Nykodym, Billy Novotny, Cindy Nelson, David Vavrina, Eldora Gentzler (Instructor)

Row 3 – Theresa Nosal, Keith Vrbicky, Kathy Bukacek, Johnny O’Neal, Debbie Belohrad, Kenny Podany, Christine Gentzler, Bobby Odvarka, Marj Stonacek (Assistant)

Row 2 — Sheila Toman, Patti Polodna, Danny Nosal, Mary Kay Tomka, Tony Pekny, Shelley Hockamier, Tommy Hamernik

Front Row — Patricia Gentzler, Joey Toman, Kathy O’Neal, Timmy Nosal, Nancy Toman, Bobby Stonacek, Cynthia Bukacek, Kenny Stonacek.  Not shown: Roger Haist

This week’s contest involves 3 more pictures that need identifying:

1965 Firemen

Question 1.  Name the men in the 1965 snapshot above.  As the sign suggests, I think these guys were volunteer firemen.

FRONT ROW: (L-R) 1.unidentified, 2.unidentified, 3. Joe Svik 4.unidentified, 5. Curtis Koehn, 6. Dick Urbanek, 7. Pee Wee Wasko, 8. Spitz Belohrad, 9. Joe Toman.

SECOND ROW: 1.unidentified, 2.unidentified, 3. Clarence Moore (partially hidden) , 4. Alden Manak, 5.Joe Sedlacek, 6. Marcel Brabec, 7. Jim Kratochvil, 8. Dick Moore, 9. Ed Svik.

STANDING: 1. unidentified, 2. unidentified, 3. Reuben Uecker, 4. unidentified.

 

Question 2.  What do the next two pictures have in common?  (And can anyone identify the two men in the second picture?)

1935

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Is the fellow on the right a young Slavy Vodehnal?

The first person to correctly answer this week’s quiz will win a Tupperware container filled with pancakes left over from Clarkson’s first Pancake Day in 1949!  The flapjacks were recently unearthed behind the Clarkson Museum (don’t worry, the Tupperware was properly “burped” and sealed).  Perhaps your prize will be delivered by the majorettes:  Inez Kudrna, Doris Cernin, and Doris Sousek

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Posted in 1930s, 1940s, 1960s | 6 Comments

Autumn in The Land of Corn

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When our ancestors arrived in eastern Nebraska, they were met with a trackless, seemingly endless expanse of tall grass prairie.  Mile after mile after mile of a landscape that looked something like this, broken only by an occasional tree along the banks of a stream.

As soon as they were able, the immigrant farmers plowed up that prairie, parceled it into neat one-mile square sections, and began to grow bountiful crops of cereal grains.

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By the time I came on the scene, a mixture of field crops and livestock supported a lot of families around Clarkson, and by extension a lot of businesses in Clarkson.  To my Big City friends I would describe my parents’ farm like this:  Dad planted and harvested wheat, corn, oats, barley, alfalfa, sweet clover, sorghum and soybeans.  On the 11-acre home place, my parents raised beef cattle, milk cows, pigs, chickens, and ducks, and maintained a sizable fruit orchard and vegetable garden.  A typical family farm, I said.

By the mid-1980s, my description  brought grins from people who knew how agriculture had evolved.  The kind of farm I remembered now exists mainly in the storybooks. Many farmers around Clarkson have become specialists, planting hundreds of acres of nothing but corn or maintaining huge cattle feedlots.

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Acre after acre of corn, and in October and November the harvest is full swing.  To say that the landscape is totally dominated by corn would be an exaggeration.  The monoculture is occasionally interrupted by bales of hay…

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or cattle grazing in the fields (of corn stubble)…

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But some things have not changed since the time of our immigrant ancestors.  You can still listen to the crisp, cold autumn winds moving through the cottonwood trees,

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and over the pasture grasses,

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The maples are still blindingly yellow on a bright sunny day,

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the milkweed pods still split open to release their fluffy seeds,

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the trees and fences cast long shadows,

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and all around, things are being tucked away for the winter.

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It’s a good time to be home.

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Posted in The 21st Century | 4 Comments