My hometownPublished 8:35am Thursday, August 19, 2010
Jon Laging, Talking Sports
I grew up in the small town of Mountain Lake, a Mennonite community. I first saw the town on a gray rainy day in June. After traveling 850 miles from Dayton, Ohio, my father, the town’s new lightplant superintendent went to find a garage for the trailer and somewhere for us to sleep. My first impression of the town was that it was not at all like Dayton. My father found storage for the trailer. A wet and muddy place. We stayed that night and the next seven weeks in the Mountain Lake hotel. The tallest building in town, it still stands.
The people I first met in town were very nice. I was a tall 9-year-old and I think they had an eye on me for a future basketball player. When we moved to town it was just beginning 11-man football. It already had many champion basketball teams.
Soon we were invited by the town mayor and his wife to Sunday dinner. My dad was just beginning his job and he reported to the town council and the mayor headed the council. We wore our Sunday best and after church reported for dinner.
The mayor, trying to put us at ease, gave us a tour of his home. He took us down to the basement where he showed us a large iron cauldron set in a brick oven. “What’s that? asked Dad.” “That’s where we make soap,” said the mayor. We heat the oven and toss lard and other ingredients into the Meergroppa.
“The what?” asked Dad.
“Meergroppa” said the mayor.
Meergroppa was the Low German Mennonite word for the iron cauldron and brick oven. We completed the tour of what seemed to be a conservative Mennonite home.
Dinner was about to be served. Before dinner there had been a lengthy discussion about Twiebach, the Mennonite name for a dinner roll the Swedes call Zwieback. We were given to understand that the very best Twiebach had freckles on the top half of the roll.
Dinner was ready and after giving thanks to the Lord we began. It was delicious. The main course was ham with mashed potatoes, vegetables and of course Twiebach. They had freckles on top. During a lull in the conversation, Dad looked at the twiebach and said, “Please pass the Meergroppa.” There was silence and then a burst of laughter. The Mennonites were no stuffed shirts and enjoyed a joke as much as anyone.
I entered fourth grade, sat behind pretty Carolyn and our family settled into Mountain Lake. I would often get asked my age by the townspeople. There would be an aside: “Tall for his age isn’t he?” “Do you like sports?” Told them that I did. More smiles and nods.
There were three strongly approved activities in Mountain Lake: church, music and basketball. Thirteen churches, as many if not more choirs, and a basketball hoop in every other yard. And more times than not, the hoops were busy and the shooters were serious.
Mennonites are pacifists and when universal military training was discussed, our friends were against it. We kids played cowboys and indians, but I don’t ever remember playing war.
Aggressiveness on the basketball court was not discouraged. There was an article in the Minneapolis Evening Star quoting a local doctor that perhaps the Mennonite boys’ success in basketball came from seeking an emotional outlet. Mountain Lakers kind of pooh poohed that, but I suppose some agreed that playing basketball was better than fighting a war.