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A Red-haired Boy Named Stephan


Mon, May 15th, 2000
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Contest WinnerBy Margaret E. Johnson

Monday, May 15, 2000

Editor’s note: The judges were impressed with this story for its eloquent narrative flow and its vivid descriptions The domestic theme they felt, would appeal to a wide variety of readers. Margaret Johnson lives in Spring Valley, MN.

In Mother and Dad Johnson’s parlor on the farm there was an old-fashioned stereoscope on the lower shelf of a mission oak library table. Beside it lay a box of cardboard-mounted double print pictures of a variety of things. Among them, I remember a country scene in autumn with a rural school house in the foreground, a European castle, two white horses in a pasture and a western cattle round-up. Until the pictures were inserted in a in a slot in front of the viewer, they were of little consequence. Then – what a transformation! Looking into the lens one saw a single view, so dimensional and real, it created a feeling of aliveness.

Childhood memories are like stereoscopic views. Some are just double prints, often a bit hazy and out of focus. Others zoom into one’s conscienceness with singular clarity and are easy to write about. Open to speculation and wonder are the blurry memories. They offer free range of imagination, taking a person down the interesting path of "what ifs".

It is the country school in the viewer that triggered my memory. This memory, sometimes fuzzy, and then remarkably clear, goes back to a one-room school and a red-haired boy named Stephan.

Stephan’s family moved into our rural neighborhood one summer when he and I were ten and about to enter 5th grade.. The family came form St. Paul and rented a farm west of ours that was known for its wet soil and rundown buildings. My dad referred to the place as the "froggery".

Misfortune (and I presume economic downturn leading into the Depression) forced the Ballou family of father, mother and four children to try their luck at raising their own food on a farm. After losing his job as an insurance salesman, Mr. Ballou, a talented musician, played the piano for silent movies in the Twin Cities. His inexperience as a farmer was soon noted by the neighbors at an auction when he made the wrong connections hitching a team of horses to a wagon, both of which he had just bought. At this point, my father decided the Ballous needed not only friends, but someone they could consult as they mastered the basics of farming in the 1920’s. Mother and Dad offered their friendship as well as advice when requested, and discovered they had much in common with this well educated couple.

When school started in September, Stephan and I were the only pupils in the 5th grade. In spite of having to admit my classmate was smarter that I was in some subjects, I secretly liked him. At first it was a combination of liking and defending Stephan, for his red hair and freckles prompted a lot of teasing. On the playground the older boys called him "carrot top" and "freckle face". His natural musical talent, a strong, clear voice and progress in piano lessons from his dad, was recognized by the teacher. Stephan’s in tune addition to the Christmas program music drew praise from everyone except two or three students who were reluctant to give credit to a newcomer.

When winter came, the school entry was filled with coats, mufflers, caps and wool mittens as well as assorted sizes and styles of buckled overshoes. This closed area had the smell of barnyard exposure from clothing of the older boys who helped with chores before coming to school and a scent of soggy wool mittens, damp from forming snowballs. I had these various aromas all to myself as I dressed to go home for lunch. (My brother and I were the only pupils who lived that near to school.) One noon it seemed that I was being observed from a crack in the door as I bundled to go home, and I heard a lot of suppressed laughter. Just as I started to pull on an overshoe, Stephan rushed in, grabbed the boot, shook it and a dead mouse fell out. If I hadn’t thought of Stephan as my hero before, from that time on I did!

There were special times when our families got together. Mr. Ballou played the piano and we sometimes sang to his accompaniment. Mrs. Ballou made wonderful beet pickles, and her freshly baked white bread, with butter and brown sugar melting on a slice of it, was an unforgettable treat.

Eventually the day came when the Ballous moved back to St. Paul. A job opportunity opened for an insurance salesman, and the family knew that their future lay in something other than farming. I’m sure there were letters exchanged by mother and Mrs. Ballou. At some point they did some genealogy tracing on my father’s side and discovered that, several generations back, they may have had mutual ancestors.

Eight or nine years after the Ballous moved away, I was attending business college in Minneapolis. One weekend when I returned from a visit home, there was a message in my mail box at the girls’ club where I lived – "Steven Ballou stopped in to see you."

We never made connections. I often wondered what sort of man he grew up to be. Did the freckles disappear and the red hair darken? Did he develop the musical talent he appeared to have at the age of ten? More importantly, was he as kind and sensitive an adult as he had been when a boy? Had the late Charles Schulz been a cartoonist in the ‘20’s, I could have related to Charlie Brown’s unexpressed affection for "that little red-haired girl". My secret first love, Stephan, with his red hair and freckles will be a stereoscopic reverie – clear, then sometimes misty – but always a fond memory.

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