Saturday, May 6, 2006

Although the Missing Bar-Maid Turns Up, a Mystery Remains Unsolved

[A continuation of some memoirs for my kids and grandchildren. It’s winter 1954-55. A bar-maid in the neon-lighted rural slum (trailer camps et al) of Sauk Rapids, a few miles out of St. Cloud quarrels with her lover. He’s the tavern owner. She takes off her ring, slams it on the bar in full view of the startled patrons, puts on her overcoat and stalks out. A short while later he follows her. After a while, he returns. She is never seen again. I report her disappearance. Rumors abound that the bar owner did her in. Hoping to get a Pulitzer for a brilliant investigation, I write a series of stories from interviews with the patrons who want to remain anonymous. They’re afraid of the bar-owner’s clout with cops and pols. One early morning while I’m working on the story in Sauk Rapids, I’m told the bar-owner wants to see me. I go to the saloon. It’s about 10 a.m. and there’s no one there but the bar-owner.]

“I don’t know what yer doin’,” he said, “but I don’t like it.”

Why not?

“Yer inferrin’ I had somethin’ to do with it. And yer interferin’ in somethin’ that’s not your business.”

I’m the cocky wise-guy at 26. I’m not inferring; maybe implying but not even that. And not interfering. I would just like to find out what happened to her.

“Nuthin’ to find out. She walked out and that’s it.”

But you followed her.

Angry: “I did not! She went out and that’s it.”

Look, she went out and later you went out.

“Right. But I went somewhere else.”

Somewhere else than where she went?


How do you know you went somewhere else than where she went if you don’t know where she went? I was getting sick of these logistics.

“I don’t—she went--…I’m just goin’ to tell you onct. You’re tryin’ to get my name in the paper.”

It’s only appeared because you’re the owner of the V-Bar where she worked.

“I’m just tellin’ you. People think you should git outta here.”

Git. Minnesotans say that rather than Get. They also say ah-unt for aunt but then we Chicagoans say “ant.”

Then the Constable came into the bar. On cue.

“I’m just goin’ to tell you: if you’re trying to get Mr. Name in the paper in connection with this thing, you’re barkin’ up the wrong tree. We have investigated—I mean the Sauk Rapids police; the Benton sheriff has investigated. She’s disappeared, maybe gone out West but people are gettin’ sick of having to read about in the St. Cloud paper every day. So my advice to you is to git out. Git the hell out of here and don’t come back. She’s not any of our concern and we’re not about to have to read a lot o’ cheap stories that infer she’s dead. We don’t have to put up with this.”

I decided not to fight at that point but also not to quit the story. I went back to St. Cloud and to the Stearns county sheriff’s people, my friends.

“They’re a funny bunch,” said the 80-year-old sheriff pruning his nails with a pocket knife. “They’re mostly eastern Europe, y’know.”


“Not like us. Germans here are more sociable.”

You’re not German; you’re Irish.

“But I think like a German `cause they vote for me and I know how they think. What’s more, the V-Bar owner has a familiar name. There are hundreds of people in that county, all his relatives one sort or another, who have that same name.”

Powerfully connected?

“Not really. Not particularly into politics. But they vote. No, they’re just an awful lot of `em. Not rich particularly. That group they belong to elect the county [prosecuting] attorney and the sheriff. Better live and let live if I was you.”

That disappointed me. The Stearns sheriff was a hero for me; stopped the Ma Barker Gang car when he was a young state patrolman in the `20s. He parked his motorcycle, walked to them; the door started to open and two guys ran out with guns and he drops them both—dead—on the spot. Knocked off two of Ma’s sons just like that all the while the FBI was looking for them. He became a hero, an Irish hero in that German county. Gets elected sheriff and stays for 30 years. Now he’s getting old I guess because he’s telling me to back down.

He kept chipping at the nails of his huge hand and he looked at his knuckles intently.

“Wal, I did call the state on this; you don’t know it but I did.”

My disappointment faded fast, changed to exultation.

You did! Called the State Bureau of Investigation, the MBI?

“Umhmmm. But those guys can’t…” and he described they’re incompetence in scatological terms with obscene overtones. But I was delighted. We roared with laughter at his description which was new to me.

“I took one witness, a guy from the bar and we, the MBI and me, questioned him over here, not in Sauk so as to be private. Nuthin’ came of it and you can’t write it up with me in it.”

Okay, but I’m sure glad to hear that.

“I’ll give you the name of the MBI guy in St. Paul. You can write it up without me in it. Couldn’t a lived with myself if I didn’t. But I was—what would you say? Discreet. That’s what you gotta do in this business. Remember that. But I don’t want you to go over there again. They want you to git and I wouldn’t go back. Do yer writin’ from here.”


But aside from the MBI interview there was nothing more to write. After the Benton sheriff called the newspaper it didn’t want to pursue it. Correction: it wanted not to pursue it.

I turned to making plans to move to St. Paul which would be that coming summer. I told nobody in St. Cloud because they wouldn’t have let me write politics if they knew I was going to be the Minnesota Republican party flack. I decided not to tell them until mid-June and give them two weeks—also I wouldn’t tell anyone because in a small city news gets around quickly.

So I calculated the ways I learned to save money in the year and a half I had been in St. Cloud. First was food. Every morning I’d cage free Danish and coffee at Enga’s sweet shop because I’d discreetly add the shop’s name to some stories—like Hubert Humphrey’s stopping in when he passed by to sample the Danish: Enga herself liked that and posted the stories on the wall. It worked: free coffee and Danish.

Lunch? That varied. Once in a while I’d buy my own at the 7th Avenue Café but often I’d eat Chinese at the O.K. Café which was free because it was the only Chinese restaurant within forty miles and I wrote it up on spec for the Minneapolis Star: the story that traced its founding from the day the cook for Jim Hill’s Great Northern railroad crew dropped out when the crew came to St. Cloud in 1878 and decided to cook locally, setting up his own place for Chinese food which was a great novelty. His name was Charlie Wong (aren’t all Chinese restaurant owners named Wong?). He couldn’t speak much English so when they asked him if his food was good he’d say “Okay.” Good Chinese food, Wong? It’s o.k. Have egg roll? Yep, all o.k. Tea and rice? Yep, all o.k. So they called his place the O. K. Café and he put up the sign. Wong’s descendents now are only faintly Asian, having intermarried with the Germans but they still had that faint caste to their eyes and kept on saying, in deference to the memory of their great-great grandfather, “everything’s o.k. at the O. K Café.” In honor of that story which was widely reprinted by the AP I got all my lunches free there, which was also o.k.

Gas for the car? That was a problem for my `47 Chevrolet. Until I wrote up a story about the Tenvoorde (pronounced “ten-forty”) Ford dealership for Automotive Weekly, a national magazine that paid me $200. John Tenvoorde was Henry Ford, Sr.’s assistant chief mechanic in Dearborn, Michigan when he decided to go back to St. Cloud to take care of his ailing parents and started one of the first Ford dealerships in the country. Henry Ford visited him once in the 1930s and the dealership remained in family hands. The younger Tenvoorde put the story in his store window and made it a kind of circular that was given out to prospective buyers. They had a gas pump in the back of the garage and I would fill it up often. Car repair was not so simple but I usually got the guys who worked on the Sheriff’s fleet of cars to give repairs gratis.

Haircuts were easy. Free. From any Indian picked up by the sheriff’s police for drunkenness. The sheriff believed firmly that all Indian males are born with knowledge of cutting hair. I don’t necessarily believe it but they were free. Dinners I had to pay for usually. Fried chicken was $1.10 all you can eat at the Modern Bar and Grill but often I ate dinner at the home of the managing editor whose daughter I take out. Dental services usually free thanks to Dr. Rolf Steichen who went with us on the Knights of Columbus initiations? Medical? Negligible for a young man of 26. But whenever I would come down with a heavy cold I’d go to the infirmary at St. John’s University, my old school which had a doctor and nurses. And whenever I wanted serious R & R I’d go to St. John’s which was fifteen miles away and located in a glorious bit of scenery between two private lakes. The Rule of St. Benedict orders monks to take in any wayfarer. Every so often I’d show up, get a room off the monastery and eat good monastery food—home-baked cracked wheat bread—baked by the nuns and socialize with ex-classmates who had become monks and the faculty members I got along with.


By the time Spring came, I had totally forgotten about the missing bar-maid. I was at my desk early one morning, calculating what I had to do to make myself presentable to my new Republican bosses in St. Paul when the phone rang. It was the city Fire Department reporting that they were going to reclaim a floater that was coming down the Mississippi from Sauk Rapids. And I knew it was her.

I got to the spot on the river bank where a lot of people were gathered, straining to see, some with field-glasses, what that bulk was that was floating down the river and which has caught on some rocks. A bunch of them, seeing me, said, “Bet that’s the girl you were writing about last winter.” I got in the power boat with the firemen and as he roared out there one said, “don’t touch it now, it’ll be toxic.” I never figured out exactly what that meant. They got a hook and pulled it into our boat. It fell heavily like a log and could have passed for a log; the overcoat was torn and ragged like bark. The face,when we turned it over, was worn smooth like an old statue they occasionally unearth in archeological digs, with eyes open but the pupils gone like those statues have. Its face was chalk white, the hair yellow with the dye having run together. The hands were clasped like in prayer but the fingers all meshed together in a formless mass, melting into the arms. The color of its dress was purple not black which was the color the bar-maid wore but it was easy to see that it had once been black and the color had changed having been in the water for three months.

The most significant mark was a heavy, deep gash on the side of its head.

The fireboat got to the shore; the city police loaded it into a truck and went to Tschumperlin’s funeral home, parts of which were used for the city mortuary. When we arrived the Stearns county coroner was there, Dr. Phil Lippert, who was a friend of mine but we were waiting for arrival of the Benton county coroner who was definitely—and I mean definitely—not. When he arrived, Lippert and he went into the examining room and worked on the body while I waited with the police—and a mortuary attendant who was smoking in the rear.

They came out and the Benton coroner said it was possibly the bar-girl but they wouldn’t know until her parents would arrive from Sartell. It was obvious she had been in the water for three months at least. That was all he wanted to say.

I said, well what about the gash? Dr. Lippert smiled faintly.

The Benton coroner said, “what about the what?”

The gash on her head.

“The bruise? Probably from something she hit while she had been in the water.”

Come on, that’s not a bruise, is it, doctor?

Dr. Lippert, the Stearns coroner, said, eyeing the Benton coroner: “He’s right [meaning me]. I’d definitely call it a gash.”

The Benton coroner said, “Well, terrible things can happen to a body when it’s been in the water that long. For one thing, maybe she fell from a bridge which could have gashed her. There are rocks in the water. Anything could happen.”

They went back to the body to confer. Ultimately the cops went away leaving me alone with the Tschumperlin funeral parlor worker.

“See,” he said crossly, “this doesn’t help me a goddam bit. I got all this work here to do”—sweeping his arm across the room and for the first time I noticed that what I had earlier noted as furniture, covered by drapes, were actually pallets on which dead customers of Tschumperlin’s were laid with sheets covering them up to their chins, their sightless eyes staring up at the ceiling. How I hadn’t noticed them before stunned me. I took them to be furniture which like a furniture store closed for the day had drapes over them.

“They’re all embalmed,” he said, “which is o.k. but I’ve got to dress each goddamned one of `em before I’m done here. We serve other regional houses in the area: embalm, dress `em, get `em in the hearses and deliver `em. And now here comes this Lippert who has a piece of this funeral home and holds a big meeting in that room where I can’t go so I gotta wait. Now I gotta wait until these people come from Sartell. So I likely gotta cancel my evening with my fiancé because of this! I’ll probably be stuck here until midnight! Wotta life.”

He lit a cigarette, flicking the ashes discouragingly near a sweet-faced old lady who was lying supine, her eyes staring up at the ceiling, her soft white hair fixed just so. Next to her was a shockingly lifelike young man, with black curly hair, eyes staring up. He gave me the creeps because I guessed he was my age so I moved close enough to him to ascertain what had gone wrong with him, moving my hands over his eyes in a foolish gesture to see if he blinked.

“Watch it! He’ll bite you!” he said and laughed as I instinctively moved away. “[Scatalogical], this city’s gotta get a morgue. You write a lot now you know. Old man Tschumpelin goes bout his business like a millionaire, livin’ above this store. He’s sound asleep at night while I go about my work here.” He picked up a bit of floating dust from a fat man’s roseate cheek.

“He’s Andy, the cab driver; you remember him? The other day I happened to put a wrong suit on a guy—brown instead of blue and I put the blue on the guy who shoulda had brown. Anyhow the widow said she wouldn’t go through with it unless we put him in his blue suit. We tried to reason with her and say can’t you go ahead until the end of the wake and we’ll re-dress him before the funeral Mass? Nope. No soap. The other guy had his suit on, you see.”

I said helpfully, why couldn’t you just switch the heads?

“That’s right. Pretty good one. I never thought of that.”

When the parents arrived, they went into the examining room and a scream of recognition from the mother told us that it was the bar-maid. Soon after, the parents left to sit for awhile outside and pull themselves together. The Benton coroner filled out his papers, had Dr. Lippert co-sign and left. I went outside to find the parents.


It was a beautiful afternoon, about 5 p.m. and the elderly couple was sitting on the river bluff near the funeral home, looking down at the river where their daughter had been recovered. I say elderly: they were in their fifties, twenty years younger than I am now. They cried. And cried. When they finished and were sniffling, I came up and said how sorry I was for them.

They bought the Benton coroner’s theory entirely. Their daughter had been estranged from them—their only child. She had been educated well and a good Catholic. But something happened after she began smoking and after she turned seventeen they never saw eye-to-eye with her again. Then came the job as a bar-maid; they came into the bar to try to remonstrate with her but no use. She fell in with the bar owner; they had a fight. Then she left the bar and gone walking. She must have fallen into the river. Either that or suicide. I didn’t offer any other possibility. So I mused with them about the uncertainties of life. And left.

I was going to my car when the Stearns coroner, Dr. Lippert, caught up with me.

“We changed the word from bruise to gash,” he said.


“So now you know,” he said softly, “that some murders are unsolved.”

I’ve never forgotten those words. And never will.

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