What’s the Matter Here?

September 10, 2009

The title of this blog is the name of a song that was a hit for the band 10,000 Maniacs on their “In My Tribe” album from 1990. It’s a song about child abuse, and how people turn away from it, and make excuses like “he’s their kid,” and “it’s not my business.” I have always believed that if I saw a child being harmed in any way, I’d step in and stop it. Apparently I was wrong.

I stopped at my bank at a small and old strip mall near my home, then walked down to the grocery store. This isn’t a supermarket, mind you; it’s a small store that’s been there since I was a child, and I used to go there with my mother. Most of the clerks and carry-out “boys” (many are retired men) know most of the shoppers, and have for years. As I was checking out, a mother and her young son, maybe four or five years old, were in the next lane. The boy wasn’t acting up; he was playing a little game with one of the younger carry-outs, where he’d take a few steps away from his mother, quietly, and the carry-out would pretend he was going to “get” him, and then the child would run back to his mother and giggle.

They left the store ahead of me, and he was lagging a little, like most children that age do. As we neared the end of the strip mall, where I was parked in front of the bank, we passed a dry-cleaners. Their front door was open, as it often is on warm days. The boy stopped to look in. He was fascinated. He bent over a little and just stared, wide-eyed. His mother was opening the car door and called to him, and I walked past him and said, “You’d better go to your mom now, they might clean you if you go in there!” He grinned at me and turned to his mother.

Not fast enough for her. She yelled, and I quote, “Get your butt over here, now!” in a very angry voice, and as she did she trotted up to her child and grabbed him by the wrist and yanked him towards her. I was unlocking my car at that point, and turned to see. She carried him to the car, swatting him on his bottom at least three times, then violently shoved him into the back seat. I heard another smack — but this one was skin on skin, so not on his bottom. I took a step towards them.

She said, loudly and in an exceptionally angry tone, “You are totally on a time-out, just you wait until we get home!” I took another step towards them, thinking the mother was the one who needed the time-out, and she looked up and glared at me. I stopped in my tracks. If I said or did anything, would it just make it worse for this little boy? If I did nothing, would he get a real beating when he got home? The morning had been chilly, so he was in long pants and long sleeves, and I hadn’t seen bruises, but still… She got in her car, slammed her door, revved the engine and took off before I even thought to try to write her license plate number down.

The little boy’s face, his soft blond hair and wide blue eyes and the little grin he gave me, haunted me all the way home, and long after. Maybe I didn’t have a right to intervene, but I think I had an obligation. I failed this child. At the very least, I should have written down that license number and called the police, so that a social worker could check out the situation. Maybe she’d had a bad day; maybe he’d been impossible to deal with earlier in the day, a “wild thing” like Max in the book, and she was at the end of her rope. Or maybe she was always that way. I didn’t know. I didn’t want to make her angrier, with only that child for her to take her anger out on — but I should have done something.

I know — all my “shoulds” can wear me down and take my focus away from now, and what is. I learned one lesson, though. I’ll keep my notepad easily accessible, and if I see something like that again, if I don’t feel I can intervene, I’ll write down the license number, and call someone who does have the right to intervene. No child deserves to be treated like that, and perhaps the mother needs help just as much as her son.

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A Monkey Trap

September 1, 2009

As I’m trying to finish my first draft of “Spooky North Dakota” (belatedly), I find myself feeling like I’m caught in a bear trap. Reconsidering, I think it’s more like a monkey trap.

I’m not sure where I first heard about monkey traps; I suspect it may have been in a Rudyard Kipling story. But if you don’t know about them, let me explain. Monkeys are both greedy and curious. So, take a jar with a mouth just large enough for a monkey’s paw to get in, and fill it halfway or so with peanuts. Then tie the jar to a tree. A monkey will come along, and being curious, stick his paw in. He’ll feel the peanuts, and grab a handful. With his hand full like that, he can’t get it out of the jar. So, he has a dilemma. Give up the windfall of delicious peanuts, and leave, or sit there with his hand stuck? Usually he sits there with he greedy paw full of peanuts until whoever set the trap comes along and takes him.

It’s not peanuts for me. It’s the mystery and clues around one of the stories I’m including in my book. It’s not a huge haunting. In fact, it’s not a haunting at all. It’s a “spooky.” (Since I’m stuck with the title I might as well make the most of it.)

The story is that of a Lutheran minister, Heio Janssen, who  in 1938 poisoned his pregnant 16-year-old maid, Alma Kruckenberg, while his wife was out of town, then burned the parsonage down to hide his crime. (This happened in Krem, ND, which is no longer there, but the church is — and the lawn next to it where, they’ll tell you, the parsonage was before it burned down. Church members don’t volunteer why it burned.) Such things don’t stay hidden, of course, and the firemen found the body almost as soon as the flames were out, and the coroner found the pregnancy. Janssen denied quite stoutly that he had anything to do with it, even when the parents of the girl confronted him, begging him to tell the truth, since they’d entrusted him with their youngest daughter, who was “a good girl.”

He didn’t break down until he was shown her body, which was just a torso, and the jar that contained their child. Then he confessed, saying the devil got into him and made him do it. (Really. He said that.) He actually made so many conflicting statements that when he was taken to Mandan’s then-notorious “midnight court” (mostly to prevent a lynching) he was convicted of perjury along with all the other charges (rape, murder, arson, etc.).

The people of Marsh, MT, read about this. He had been their pastor from late 1915 until 1933, when he’d left abruptly. They recalled how he’d seemed close to Rosa Opp, the teenaged daughter of one of the church deacons. She disappeared in September of 1930, and her body was found a few days later in the Yellowstone River. The coroner said she’d died from drowning, and called it a suicide. No autopsy was done. Now the folks in Marsh began to wonder. Rosa was a happy girl. Just before she disappeared, she was preparing to be a sponsor to one of her sister’s children at his baptism, and was very excited about that, and making herself a new dress. No one knew of any reason why she would kill herself.

When questioned about Rosa, Janssen said he had nothing to do with her death. But then, he wasn’t facing her body or her father…

Then the people from his very first parish, Lincoln Valley, started to wonder as well. Lincoln Valley no longer exists as a town, but it’s near Harvey, ND. In 1915, just before he went to Marsh, his teen-aged sister-in-law, Margaret Monseur,  disappeared. She was never seen again, and no body was ever found. They went to the judge who’d convicted Janssen of Alma’s murder, and he ordered that Janssen be questioned about that, too. Under intense questioning, he confessed to having “relations” with his sister-in-law, and with at least one member of his congregation in Marsh, but still denied killing them.

These are the peanuts. I have a story — I have everything I need to put it in the book. But I can’t seem to let those peanuts go. I’m searching for information about Margaret. Did she reappear somewhere? I didn’t  find her with a Google search or in newspapers, or on http://www.findagrave.com — although a friend of my sister, who is helping me search, found Alma’s grave in a cemetery near the Krem church. But I already knew that. The friend also found the grave of a man who is more than likely one of Janssen’s sons, in Colorado. I want to try to find his children, if he has any, and find out what they know. I’ve been in contact with a man whose roots are in Marsh, and he’s sent me photos of Janssen with the church there, and stories from his late father and his 93-year-old aunt, who remember Janssen with dislike (their stories of finding Rosa’s body are much gorier than the actual death certificate tells — but make a great story). I want to know more from the people of Marsh. I want a seance, so I can talk to Rosa and Margaret, who by now is undoubtedly dead, even if Janssen didn’t kill her.

But, if I don’t let the peanuts go, I’ll never finish the book. I have all the story I need. I’m promising myself that when I’ve finished my commitments, I’ll return to the murderous minister, and search for more clues. Maybe there’s enough for a book, or at least a longer story. Or perhaps fictionalize it. Not so much a whodunnit, since the answer is clear, but a why. What makes a man of the cloth, top of his class in seminary school, become a rapist and murderer? What demons lived in his soul? Did something happen to him when he was growing up, or while he was crossing the Atlantic on a great ship? What makes a murderer — or was he born bad? I’m about 60 years too late. He died in 1946 in the State Penitentiary, of natural causes. But I want to know more…