Al Batt: Some Merles remember Donald and mesmerizing mural

Published 8:45 pm Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Tales from Exit 22 by Al Batt

I used to know a lot of people named Merle.

Al Batt

I saw the name of one Merle I knew on a gravestone and thought, “No wonder I haven’t seen him around.”

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A Merle, who was part of a large family, told me he got his name because his mother had run out of other names. I still know a fair number of Merles, but not as many as I did. Maybe they’re making up in quality for what they lack in quantity.

In my estimation, we’ve never had enough Merles or murals.

The mural is gone. Had I misplaced it? Where did I have it last?

Steve DeLaitsch painted a mural on the side of a building in Hartland, Minnesota, using old photographs as models to depict its history — school, downtown, train and the depot, old car, farm, horse, school and residents. They were scenes from a View-Master without the need for a View-Master. The mural was presented like a scrapbook always open to the same page.

The mural was a connecting cord giving us a chance to remember a past we weren’t part of. Hartland is my hometown and is famous for being the place where the modern-day toilet seat was invented. The idea of cutting a hole in the seat came from elsewhere. A portion of the Heartland Theory, defined by Sir Halford John Mackinder a famous English guy, stated, “Whoever rules the Heartland will rule the World Island, and whoever rules the World Island will rule the world!”

Despite his misspelling of Hartland, it was good of Sir Halford to say.

Einar’s Hardware in beautiful downtown Hartland was a swell place. Down you, goosebumps! It wasn’t anything like the Hartland Mall we didn’t have, so my father did his Christmas shopping at Einar’s, which also sold Allis-Chalmers equipment. Years later, my brother Donald bought that business and called it Hartland Farm Equipment. This building, now owned by another, was where the missing mural was last seen.

A December 2021 tornado damaged that building beyond repair. The mural became good frosting on a bad cake. It was demolished recently and the mural along with it.

For over 30 years, Donald was a volunteer firefighter, including 25 years as the chief. It was likely over 25. Donald was 13 before he moved to Minnesota (he was a social climber), but he quickly gained that small-town Minnesota humbleness.

“Don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back,” we heard regularly. That’s why we shortchanged ourselves on our license plates, which proclaim, “The Land of 10,000 Lakes.” The DNR says we have 11,842 lakes. Other outfits claim we have 14,380 or 15,291. Minnesota has between 201 and 261 Mud Lakes. A decision maker had said, “Let’s go with just 10,000. That’s plenty. We don’t want to seem uppity.”

A friend called me after Donald had retired and experienced medical issues. The caller said my brother was on top of his house fixing the roof. I’d watched Donald climb poles taller than his house to replace the lights on the ballfield. He’d battled the sickly roof of his house all his married life. I couldn’t chase him from it.

I read a poem that said old age is a privilege of rocks and trees. Donald had his last kick of the can a few years after the mural’s paint had dried. Many people live in our memories. Those important to us continue to talk to us as long as we live. I loved Donald. We talked without needing cellphones. Brothers look at the world from different angles, but he was always there when I needed him.

When I drove past the mural on the wall of what was once his business, I thought of my brother. When I visit Donald, I sit on a bench marking his gravesite. It offers a view of a rural landscape — a living mural. It’s my brother’s gift to the living—a place to sit for a while and take a load off one’s feet. A place to remember things. A place to pull up my socks and get on with it.

I miss Donald. I miss the mural that reminded me of him.

They are shiny stones I carry in my pocket of golden memories.

Al Batt’s columns appear in the Tribune every Wednesday.