Hidden Blessings

I believe that everyone goes through a series of important events in their lives that shape the person they will become as an adult. Some people have called these moments “rights of passage”, and somehow these key moments make slight course corrections in our journey. In remembering my younger years, I can recount experiences that still effect me in various degrees even to this day. I think perhaps the most significant experiences a person can have as a child, involve the people in their immediate family. Being the youngest of five children, and nearly six years younger than my next oldest sibling, the experiences I had in my young life were a bit more “mature” compared to other kids my same age. My mom would always tell me, “Your siblings always wanted you to be older and act older. They never let you just be a little boy.” This was probably why, as I grew older, I was always more comfortable around older people when it came to social interactions. I understood the more mature nuances of body language and topics of conversation.

One of the advantages of being mentored by my older siblings was being shown and taught how to do the things that they did. This included everything from operating farm machinery, to handling farm animals, to enjoying various recreational activities like snowmobiling and motorcycle riding. My brothers, Dale and Randy, both had their own motorcycles and I envied how they could just hop on their bikes and ride, and I was stuck riding a pedal bike (even though it had a cool red, white and blue banana seat and sissy bars with tassels). I tried to make the best of my bicycle by building little ramps to “launch” myself off of or popping wheelies. But who am I kidding, nothing compared to being able to drive fast and make huge jumps over gravel piles on a motorcycle.

When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I remember riding my first motorbike. It was called a mini-bike and it had a small 3-1/2 horse Briggs and Stratton motor and you accelerated by simply pushing on a lever on the handle bars which made it go, or you pulled on the brake handle to stop. You didn’t have to shift gears, so it was very easy to operate, at least it looked like it was when I watched my brother do it!

The day came when my dad said I could try riding the mini-bike myself. I remember that both of my brothers and my sister Becky were all outside in the back yard of the house. My dad was holding the bike and said, “Okay Dwight, to start this motor you need to make sure that the gas valve is open. See this lever right here? You need to make sure the lever’s arm is set in the same direction as the gas line.” I said, “Okay dad, I see”. Then dad said, “Next you want to move the choke lever right here toward the back. See it right here, it says, “Choke”? I said, “Yes, I see it.” “Okay”, he continued, “Now you want to grab onto this rope handle here and give it a few pulls until the motor starts. Now as soon as it fires up, you want to move the choke lever back to the “Run” position, otherwise it will flood it and die. Make sense?” “Yep, I think so. Looks the same as starting the lawn more right?” My dad smiled at me and said, “You got it. Okay, now watch” I watched intently as my dad gave the cord a couple swift pulls and the engine roared to life. I could feel my heart starting to race and I looked around at my siblings scattered about the lawn. My sister Becky was pulling dry linens off the clothes line and my oldest brother Dale was tossing a football around with Randy. I looked back at my dad and he said, “You ready to give it a shot? All you need to do is push on this lever and give it some gas to go.” I nervously climbed onto the bike seat and held onto the handlebars. The motor was idling and I could feel the vibration of the bike through my entire body.

Luckily, I was tall for my age so I had no problem being able to put my feet down on the ground to steady myself. I thought, “Okay, how hard can this be? I know how to ride a bicycle so I can do this. I just don’t have to pedal.” With that, I slowly pushed on the gas lever and I felt the spinning clutch grab ahold of the belt and I lurched forward. I could hear my dad say, “Keep it straight until you get a hang of it.” My brothers were yelling, “Watch out Becky, he’s coming your way!” I looked quickly ahead of me and I could see the clothes basket on the ground and my sister started to scream, “Turn, turn!!” My left arm had a mind of it’s own and it jerked the handle bar just in time for me to wiz by my sister and all the clothes in the basket.

It was an amazing feeling! I was free on this little motor bike and I felt like a king. As I circled the house turning to the left a bit more and doing minor course corrections, I came around the house back to where my dad was standing. He yelled, “Go, go!” I felt my confidence rise and my brothers were laughing at the expression on my face, which was likely pure horror mixed with wide-eyed joy. I began my next trip around the house feeling more and more confident. I decided to move the handle bar back and forth so I could sway a bit and I felt like I was a big time motor-cross rider. I passed by my dad again and he yelled, “Okay, when you come back around, I want you to stop.” I thought to myself, “Stop? My dad never told me how to stop!” I focused on making another round of the house and as I approached my dad, he said, “Stop.. stop!” and as I blew past him I yelled, “I DON’T KNOW HOW!” I could hear my brothers roar with laughter as I continued my next revolution around the house. As I came around the house again, I could see that my dad was ready. As I approached him, he stuck out his big strong arm and swept me up off from the bike seat in one motion and the mini-bike continued on and crashed to the ground and sputtered to a stop.

“Whew!”, my dad said. “I got you!?” I found myself equally in shock and laughing at the same time. I felt relieved that I was saved by my dad. It was the most exhilarating moment I’d had at my young age and I loved it. I was hooked on the freedom and joy that riding motorcycles gave me and grateful that my dad spent time with me and encouraged me to take this risk. I felt like I had made another step in growing up and my dad and siblings were there to witness it. This began my love affair with riding motorcycles.

When I turned 10 years old, my parents gave me my first “real” motorcycle on my birthday. I remember waking up on the morning of my birthday and seeing a motorcycle helmet setting on my bedroom dresser. I still remember thinking, “Who put this helmet in my bedroom?”, as I was still trying to wake up. Then with a rush of excitement, I held my breath and pulled back my curtains and looked outside at the farm-yard. And there it sat, a brand new Honda XL-75 motorcycle with gold and black coloring. I quickly pulled on my blue-jeans and a shirt and bolted for the hallway and stairway going down to the kitchen. I think I had tunnel vision as I don’t recall seeing anything else but the door leading out to the front of the house. I stopped a few feet from the motorcycle and just stared. It was a cross between a dirt bike and a street bike so it had all the accessories including mirrors and turn signals. Unfortunately navigating a motorcycle with more power had its downfalls which including tipping over many times. So as you can imagine, the turn signals broke off first and then the mirrors got a bit bent out of shape. In hind-sight, I should have just taken them off until I mastered the bike, but a 10 year old doesn’t really think that far ahead. I rode many miles on that motorcycle riding the pastures, hunting gophers, herding cows or riding around the local gravel pit. I was my first real feeling of independence as a boy and I loved it!

It was mid-summer of 1978 and I was barely 13 years old, and on rare occasion there were days that have perfect weather and not a lot of work to be done. This is unusual as we lived on a working dairy and grain farm, where continuous hard work was the norm. This day was unusual. It was a Saturday in July and our parents were off on a day trip to visit relatives at an annual family reunion in Wahpeton, ND. The only people home were my older brother Randy and me and we had finished our morning chores and had the rest of the day to ourselves before the evening chores began.

My brother Randy is about 7 years older than me and ever since I can remember, I idolized him. He was very outgoing, he had a lot of friends, played sports, acted goofy and loud, loved music, and was a very free spirit. I wanted desperately to be like him and I wanted him to like me. But as it is for many sibling relationships, it’s not that easy sometimes. For some reason, I was never able to get close to him when I was younger. He tended to ignore me and would often tease me for various reasons. Even with all of that, I still tried to connect when I thought I might have a chance.

Randy and I had decided to go for a motorcycle ride around some of the fields on our property. By this time I had upgraded my motorcycle and I was now riding a used Honda XL-125 dirt bike; so keeping up with my brother who was riding a XL-250 was a little bit easier. One of the reasons my parents had decided to take time off for the family reunion was because we had received a heavy rain storm the night before. This had caused all the hay fields to be soaked and many of the ones we had already cut would not be ready to bail until they had dried. The even better part, was that this also made the fields soft to ride on and some of the lower areas of land were full of water. Randy and I raced around the fields on our bikes weaving in and around the slough areas kicking up mud and hollering our heads off. This was an amazing time for me because I felt like, for the first time, I was bonding with my brother.

As we rode around, Randy had spied a particular low spot of land that was covered with water which was about 20 to 30 feet across. I saw him waiving me over as he sat by the edge of the pond with his bike. When I rode up he slipped up the plastic visor on his helmet and said, “Hey, let’s see if we can make it across the pond. You wait behind me and if I make it across, you give it a shot okay?” I said, “Sounds great!”. So I revved up my motor and circled around behind him. He turned and gave me the “thumbs up” and pushed his visor down. I watched him pull his clutch lever and put it into first gear. He revved is motor a few time and then let the clutch go and off he flew toward the water’s edge.

In that very moment time stopped, and everything went into slow motion. I was simultaneously witnessing my brother rocket down this hill and then seemingly gliding across the water of this little pond, and feeling a barrage of mud, water and dirt being splattered all over myself and my motorcycle. I had mud in my mouth, on my face, stuck to my clothes, helmet and boots. In that very moment I could hear nothing, everything was frozen and I was in shock! In the next moment, I began to laugh hysterically and this folly! I grabbed my handle bars and turned away from the pond and began driving out of the field and toward the house all while belly laughing at what had just happened. In the next moment, I saw my brother ride up next to me with and expression of horror on his face, and probably frightened that I was crying or hurt. He then saw that I was laughing and started to laugh with me. We rode back to the farm house and recounted our little adventure and laughed while we used the hose to wash down our bikes. To this day, I still don’t know if he had planned to splatter me with mud or if it was just a, wrong place at the right time, kind of thing. It really didn’t matter because I had gotten what I wanted from my brother, to be seen and to be connected with. If I could, I’d do it all over again.

My oldest brother Dale is only a year older than Randy, but he has a very different approach to life. In a word, I would describe him as steadfast. He is like the metronome of our family with a steady, constant beat that moves forward resolutely and without failing. He has a saying he likes to use when talking about tough times, he says, “We just need to press on.” and that is exactly what he does every day.

Like both of my parents, Dale is a very hard working person. He always looks at whatever task he is given, or decides to do, and breaks it down into a sequence of steps. I always admired him as a young boy because if I was ever confused about what needed to be done or how to do it, I would just watch him and listen. He always seemed to have a plan and it felt like it was very well thought through. It gave me a sense of safety and comfort to know that he was around to rely on for guidance. He was also my protector in a way. When my brother Randy would tease and bully me, Dale would intervene if he was there. I remember one time, I was upstairs in our farm house and Randy was relentlessly bullying me to the point of tears. And just then, Dale came flying out of his bedroom, yelling at Randy to leave me alone. I was stunned. I don’t remember anyone ever standing up for me before like that. I was grateful that I had a protector in my oldest brother.

Like most farm families, we oftentimes worked together. I remember one summer day when bailing hay in the alfalfa field west of our farm, I was told to join my two brothers and dad. I needed to learn how to ride the bail skid that was pulled behind the bailer and stack the bails as they came off from the back. The bail skid was basically two 4ft x 8ft pieces of plywood bound together by a metal frame to make a flat 8ft x 8ft square skid that was hitched behind the bailer. As the hay bails came out of the bailer bound by twine, you would grab the bail and stack it in a criss-cross pattern on the bail skid until the stack was about 5 or 6 feet high. Then when it was a full stack, you would take a large metal rod and drive it into the ground through a two inch gap between the pieces of plywood which would force the entire stack of bails off from the skid. Stacking bails was hard work, but I loved being able to help my dad and brothers. We told jokes, yelled directions back and forth with dad and tossed the bails higher and higher.

When we had stopped for a break to drink water and eat some sandwiches my mom had made for us earlier in the day, I remember listening to my brothers talking as my dad worked on the bailer. All of the sudden, Dale began jumping around like he was dancing and yelled, “Oh crap, what is that.” and both Randy and I looked at him with confusion because we didn’t know what he was talking about. Just then, Dale began hitting the side of his leg with his hand saying, “Shit, shit, shit…” Then he grabbed a big section of his blue-jean pant leg in his hand and squeezed it hard. Randy and I, still stunned, said, “What’s going on!?” Dale yelled, “I have a mouse trying to crawl up my pant leg!”. Both Randy and I started roaring with laughter! “Holy crap!”, Randy said. I was out of breath laughing as I watched Dale trying to unbuckle his belt and pull off his pants with his one hand in the middle of the hay field. Dale managed to do all of this without loosing grip on the mouse. Even in the throws of having vermin crawl up his leg, I was impressed with how Dale remained in control and determined. This was another example of how I looked up to him and how to behave in a crisis. Finally after removing his pants and dumping out the body of the mouse, we re-assembled ourselves and continued to “press on” with our bailing.

Dale was also the first person in our family to really go off on his own. First he ventured into the Peace Corp in Guatemala where he leveraged his knowledge of agriculture and animals by assisting with irrigation, animal management, and raising turkeys. When he would come home for visits, it was always amazing to hear his stories of the experiences he had there. After the Peace Corp he met and married an woman from Brazil, then he joined the Air Force which took him and his family around many places in the USA and the world. The experiences and knowledge he gained has always amazed me and I could listen to him for hours on end and never get bored. I think I would have to say that Dale has inspired me the most to become more curious about the world and not afraid to travel.

For many young boys, idols are often characters in books, television or in the movies, but for me it was my dad and brothers. Each experience I had whether it was triumphs, teasing, work, or being protected; each had a significant impact on who I am today. I see each of these moments as gifts and even blessings. I look up to these men in my life and yearned to be connected to them. It’s now over 40 years later and I still have that same yearning and I think I always will.

Dwight Jon Raatz
Memoir, Non-Fiction
3/3/2018