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Karen Shoemaker

The Meaning of Names


The Meaning of Names is about the experiences of a German American family during WWI when anti-German sentiment swept the country and the Flu Pandemic, which killed as many as 20 million people world wide in a three-month period, struck the Great Plains. Fritz and Gerda Vogel are farmers near Stuart NE. The year is 1918.



            The Vogel farm on the northeastern edge of the Sandhills of Nebraska was as flat as the palm of a man’s hand. Trace the contours of your own palm to know how deceptive that flatness can be. Level fields, like smooth skin, drop abruptly into gullies and draws caused by seasonal water flow. Land pillowed and sloped so gently, the horizon seemed distant on all sides, the line of it marking the empty edge of an overturned blue bowl. A short walk in any direction, however, can swallow a human figure from sight.
            The highest point of this particular farm, say at the base of the thumb, marked the watershed between the Elkhorn River and the Big Sandy Creek. The Elkhorn, flowing east to meet the Platte River, the Big Sandy winding north toward the Niobrara, they all join the Missouri eventually. The rise between them was Fritz’s favorite spot on his farm, perhaps in the entire world. Working this field he always felt lighter and younger, closer to that wide blueness above that was, he believed, God’s true home.
            On this particular Sunday morning he had used the excuse of needing to check the ripeness of the wheat before Mass in order to arrive here just as the sun tip-kissed the world. The moment never failed to fill and tighten his chest. He faced east, patiently waiting for it to come again. Light, lighter, gold! Wheat-heads shimmered and glowed. The entire field moved like the back of a well-stroked cat.
            Fritz smiled for the sheer joy of it. For this one sacred moment his blessings were without reserve or qualification. Gerda, six months pregnant, was round and clumsily graceful as a mare about to foal. His wheat fields were heavy with grain, his potato vines thick and thriving. His cattle lowed in the near distance. Life was a suspension of pure promise and Fritz felt almost giddy with the beauty of it all.
            The whinny of a horse nearby startled him out of his reverie. His own team was back at the barn and the sound of a horse so close, though not an unfriendly sound, seemed so out of place and unexpected that it caused a cascade of images in his mind that robbed him of his elation.
            Gypsies, he thought, and he worried about what would be gone when he returned from church. A few hens missing and the cows milked dry would be bad enough, but lately the gypsies had gotten bolder. Raven-haired children had been seen roaming the alleys in Stuart and Victory Gardens denuded of harvest. The neighbors just to the south lost a pig a couple of weeks past and little could they afford it, what with Daniel still sick from the illness that put him down last spring. Fritz didn’t mind the gypsies as much as others did, the family group that came through last spring had proven to be fine pot menders and the price they’d charged was reasonable enough.
            For Fritz, the problem wasn’t so much what they did or how much they lifted from any given farmstead, it was their strangeness. They seemed to appear and disappear from one community to another without actually traveling the roads between them. He would go to bed one quiet night and the next morning wake to the smell of a campfire and there they were again just across the road. Or evenings after a long day of working in the fields he would step out to look up at the stars after supper and he would hear their jangling music and laughter come up from a camp near the river. They would be settled in before he even knew they were there.
            Not today, he thought, not this season. They could not stay. With another baby coming and no sign of the war letting loose its strangle hold on a farmer’s profits, Fritz simply didn’t have enough to share. Telling them to move along wouldn’t be easy, no telling what they’d do, but a man had to do what he had to do to protect his own. He headed for the ravine where they had last camped and from which he’d heard the whinny.
            Where he expected to see three or four of the weathered green wagons, he saw instead the gleaming black of a new buggy. He stopped to study the scene before him. The upper branches of the cottonwood saplings crackled in the morning light, but darkness still bowled down in the draw where a dapple-gray mare stood uneasily in her harness.
            Fritz recognized the mare, a delicate-looking Arabian, as one that belonged to Owens, the local storekeeper. Not quite sure what he’d stumbled upon, he waited and listened. He thought he heard the muffled sound of a man’s voice and then the clink of glass on metal.
            “Hello the buggy?” he called out after a moment. The horse turned and looked at him and Fritz noted the arch of her neck. He’d always dreamed of owning a fine horse like that and if he were the envious type it would be for something like her. She’d cropped most of the grass within easy reach and Fritz surmised she’d been standing there quite some time.
            He heard a rustling sound and again a man’s muffled voice. The buggy squeaked as a man rose from the ground on the other side, pulling heavily on the wheel for support.  It took a moment for Fritz to recognize the figure as Owens. His usual neatly slicked hair was in disarray, standing up at the back and a lop of it hanging across his eyes. His black suit coat was twisted off one shoulder and his starched white shirt hung untucked. Thinking he was hurt, Fritz started toward him, but before he’d taken a step Owens barked out a command. “Stop!” He pointed his finger at Fritz and narrowed his eyes. “Stay away.”
            Fritz froze in mid step. “Are you all right, Owens? Have you had an accident?”
            Owens continued to point his finger at Fritz, sighting down the length of his arm as if aiming a pistol.
            “Owens?” Fritz said, not sure what to make of the other man’s behavior. After a moment Owens dropped his hand to his side, bent over and vomited abruptly. Fritz started toward him again, but Owens put his hand up to stop him.
            “Leave. Me. Alone. You filthy German bastard.”
            Fritz settled his weight evenly onto both feet, the better to meet whatever was coming.
            Owens stared at him through narrowed eyes. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve, elbow to wrist, an action so out of character for the fastidious man that it startled Fritz out of his anger. Neither man said anything for a stretch and the only sound was insects in the grass and meadowlarks trilling from tree to tree. Owens fumbled in his pockets and pulled out a small bottle, shaking hands tipped it to his lips.
            Even from this distance Fritz recognized the amber liquid. His father had been a drunk and he knew there was no point in talking or arguing about anything with Owens now. Whiskey logic had no ears. He considered walking away then, acting as though he’d seen and heard nothing, but something didn’t feel right to him. Fritz didn’t pretend to know everything about Owens’ life, but the man had no reputation as a drinker and in a town like Stuart that would be a secret impossible to keep.
            The sun topped the rise behind Fritz and the morning glared fully onto Owens’ face. A day’s worth of stubble stood out darkly against his pale skin. His eyes so bloodshot they seemed about to bleed. Dried spittle streaked his chin.
            Long ago Fritz’s father had destroyed any sympathy he might have felt for a drinking man. He felt little more now than curiosity as he watched Owens. What Fritz had learned from his father was that a man in the clutches of the drink was not a man at all, but an animal trapped in a man’s form. The confinement made him wild. He still sometimes had nightmares about his father turning into a wolf, his teeth growing longer, his hair shaggier with each swallow of the foul smelling liquid. He could see that creature in Owens now as he spun suddenly and flung the empty bottle into the trees, his movements feral and unpredictable.
            The bottle thudded impotently in the grass beyond and Owens bent over again, his hands on his knees. His face contorted and Fritz thought he was going to vomit again, but instead Owens cried out, a sound so filled with anguish it seemed to come up from the darkness at the center of the earth not from the small broken man standing in the shimmering light of morning. The gray mare startled and lurched forward, but the front wheel was lodged firmly against a rock and the phaeton creaked and shuddered but didn’t move.
           “My son,” Owens cried. The two words strung together in a long keening moan. “My son! They’ve killed my son! Those lousy German bastards have killed my son.” He slumped onto the ground and pressed his face into the sandy soil.
            Fritz closed his eyes and saw the face of Owens’ son, a young man in a new and ill-fitting uniform when last he’d seem him. The faces of his own sons replaced Owens’ and he saw them growing older as the world marched endlessly toward war in search of peace. He felt the air pressed out of his lungs and a sudden weakness nearly buckled his knees. He moved toward Owens slowly and dropped down beside him. Tender and slow as only a man who has worked with animals all his life can be, he put his arms around Owens.  He must have felt like a bear to that grieving man so small in Fritz’s massive embrace, but Owens did not struggle to pull away.
            Kneeling there on the yielding familiar soil, Fritz held Owens close to his chest, awkward and careful and so afraid of what the future held. He looked up to the top of the hill he had just come down. The close horizon formed a deceptive, ever receding line. On the other side of it, Gerda and the children waited.