Siemens Family Stories
Here are the youthful tales, the fading memories, the poignant moments, captured now and meant to be shared. Send your own Siemens family stories to Cynthia.
THE INCREDIBLE FLIPPING CAR: My Uncle Jake told me that, even though my grandfather, G. J. Siemens, had moved the family to Shafter, California from Saskatchewan in a Model T Ford in 1923, many of the older Mennonites still weren't sure the automobile was a good thing. Jake says one day there was a church picnic at Kern River Park, later Hart Memorial Park, which is above Bakersfield. As people stood around chatting, some teenagers came roaring--or rather, chugging--into the picnic area in a Model T. The driver cut the wheel hard and turned the car over onto its side. Everyone was horrified. Later the same driver did it again. Jake says that convinced some of the older brethren that the automobile was an invention of the devil. ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES: How Grandpa and his family ever got through a Saskatchewan winter without side windows on their Model T I can't imagine, but when the farm began prospering a little, he did have them installed. This was back in the days when people still took Sunday afternoon drives, and one day the family embarked on one, complete with some ripe tomatoes to snack on. Grandma, however, found one that was actually overripe. Without thinking, she tried to pitch it out the window, and pretty well covered herself with tomato pulp. MAN OF MYSTERY: The best story, though, is illustrative of the great dignity of my grandfather. He was a very proud man in the best sense of the word. I even have a picture of him at Mt. Abel, where we had gone to enjoy the snow, dressed in a three-piece suit and tie. In the mid-1920s, before he had got on his feet financially, though, he still had the old Model T. He received news from some friends in Saskatchewan to the effect that they were going to visit Shafter, and they asked him to pick them up at the train station. Grandpa told me he stewed over that the entire night before they were to arrive, because he knew that the Canadians already had cars with self-starters. He was going to be utterly humiliated as they watched him go to the front and crank it, and he imagined they would be smirking at his predicament.
When they arrived, he loaded them and their luggage into the car, and was so nervous that he actually forgot to crank-start it. On the older Model Ts, if the distributor stopped at precisely the right spot, the engine would fire up without cranking, but this was a one-in-360 chance. Still, he turned the key and the engine started as if on cue. Out of the corner of his eye he could see his guests looking at each other, wondering how he had pulled that trick off, but he simply smiled and drove them to the farm.
BUMPER CROP BLUSTER: On one of those visits by some Canadian friends, Grandpa was showing the man his wheat field. He asked him, "How many bushels per acre do you think I'm going to get?" Grandpa said he knew exactly what was going through his friend's mind: "A normal crop in Saskatchewan is 20 bushels, and a bumper crop is 30. Everything is better in California, so I'd better say 40." He did, and Grandpa said, "No, it will be more like three times that much."
The man said, slowly and sadly, "Brother Siemens, I love you too much to call you a liar, but I have to say I really don't think you're telling me the truth."
Grandpa told him, "All right. When the crop comes in I'll send you the receipt." He did, and it showed 122 bushels per acre. To rub it in, Grandpa apologized for being off by two bushels.
THE SWIMMING LESSON: My mother, whose maiden name was Blondina Klassen, was a tough, practical woman. I remember that on my first day in kindergarten, in 1942, she drove me to Richland Primary School in Shafter and dropped me off at the curb. It didn't occur to either of us that she might have walked me to the door of my classroom. She asked me whether I wanted her to pick me up when school was out, and I said no, I would walk home. That involved a little over a quarter mile and crossing only two streets, so it wasn't a problem. Besides, it was wartime, and gasoline was rationed.
That gave me enough courage so that one day I asked her if I could just walk the other way to my grandparents' house, about a mile away in the country.
One day during the previous summer, though, she took me out to the far end of the farm. It was interesting to watch the farm land gradually creeping west. There was always desert just beyond where we were growing cotton on our newly-opened land. I was escaping the 100-plus heat by splashing around in the irrigation reservoir while Mom watched. Finally I became tired of that and shouted at her, "Hey, Mama, teach me to swim!"
She calmly looked down at me and said, "Splash around there till you figure it out for yourself." That's probably the way she and her considerable number of siblings had learned, and it was good enough for her kids as well. One benefit of her system was that it never occurred to me that it might be too hard to figure it out for myself, and within a few minutes I was swimming pretty well, although still a bit awkwardly. In the ocean a couple of weeks later, however, I got disgusted with my splashy stroke and decided to change to the stroke I had seen good swimmers use. Mom was one heck of a swimming instructor.
"FORE!": My father, William Miller Siemens, G. J.'s oldest son, was a big, barrel-chested man. He never showed off his strength, but it was always evident, even when he was older. A lot of that strength came naturally, but having to muscle heavy farm machinery around from about age fourteen on built up his muscles and kept him strong. Doing that in heat that sometimes got to 120 degrees in the early days in Shafter was pretty certain to build up your endurance or kill you in the attempt.
In what must have been about 1926, Dad was in the eighth grade at Maple School, which in those days was in a little building about a mile west of where it is now. He was on the softball team, and he felt it was his duty to hit a home run every time he came up to bat. He told me of one time when his team sorely needed a hit, but he swung so hard that he struck out miserably. He went back to the bench pretty discouraged. His next time at bat, he took what he thought was a weak, halfhearted swing, connected perfectly, and as he put it to me, "I don't know if they ever did find that ball."
Dad applied that same softball hitting stroke to his golf swing, with mixed success. Often all he did was lift the ball high in the air and about a hundred feet down the fairway. One time, though, he and I were facing a tremendous north wind at the North Kern golf course. Dad got under the ball again and hit it almost straight up into that stiff wind, which nearly dropped it back on the tee. That's one of those times when you yell "Fore!" to the others in your foursome.
MENNONITE DUCK TALES: My grandparents, G. J. and Helen Müller Siemens, used to leave Shafter during the hottest part of the summer and rent a cabin at the Mt. Hermon Christian conference center, near Santa Cruz, California. Whenever possible, they took a cabin named Lingerlong. Dr. Charles E. Fuller, beloved preacher of the Old Fashioned Revival Hour and founder of Fuller Theological Seminary, owned a cabin nearby, so Grandpa and Grandma got to know him and Mrs. Fuller fairly well. Apparently, though, that friendship had become more informal in the mind of Dr. Fuller than it had in Grandpa's, because one summer, when the two couples met on the road for the first time, Dr. Fuller exclaimed, "Well, here comes that flat-footed Mennonite duck!" At first, Grandpa felt a little insulted (because he did happen to be somewhat flat-footed), but as he thought about it, he was able to laugh with the Fullers.
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