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Book Report: These two works double my pleasure

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Today, two books about two very different men who were born not very far from my own natal place.

The first is Arvid B. Erickson, the Green Bay & Western depot agent in my hometown for more than a quarter of a century. The other is Nicholas Ray, "enfante terrible" movie director of such classics as "Rebel Without A Cause," "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," "Knock on Any Door," "Johnny Guitar," "55 Days at Peking" and dozens of other movies, many of them avant garde.

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"Life Before Eighty" by Erickson (available at iUniverse.com and Amazon.com, or from the author's daughter, Leone Kaylor, 7771 Friedle Road, Three Lakes, WI 54562, $17.95 paper plus postage and handling) is an autobiography of remarkable small town guy born near Black River Falls in 1889. But it's more than that. It's a history of lumbering, railroading, telegraphy: The stuff of which made central Wisconsin great.

Erickson came to my hometown in the '20s. He and his wife settled in about a block from my grandparents' home. He was the town's depot agent/telegrapher.

It also turns out he was a philosopher and poet.

We never knew that about Arvid Erickson. We only knew that he walked fast, attended almost every movie ever shown at the Pix Theatre in beautiful downtown Whitehall.

We knew he had a very big family and that all the kids were very smart.

Years later, I found out that Arvid B. Erickson over the years had busied himself writing his autobiography when the depot wasn't busy and after he retired. That happened when his son Dallas dropped in at my house in Minneapolis carrying a big manuscript.

"Dad wrote this," Dallas, a commercial artist, told me. "I think it would make a great book."

Later, I read that Dallas had died and I thought Erickson's book would never appear. Last month I received a call from Leone Erickson Kaylor, Dallas's younger sister, wondering if I'd like to see her father's autobiography, just published after an editing job by Leone and her sister Ethel.

You bet your boots, Leone.

Oh, that Arvid Erickson could really write! He had the soul of a poet and a very big heart. As he moves from decade to decade, his love for his wife and all those kids who come one after another comes shining through.

He talks of his neighbors, like the Larsons, who rented an apartment in my grandparents' house.

Very touching is the chapter in which he tells how difficult it was, as the town telegrapher too, to bear the news of soldiers' deaths during World War II to heartsick parents.

One that touched me was Raymond Langworthy's response when Erickson told him the news of his son's death. Archie Langworthy was my father's best friend.

His father's response?

"Damn that Roosevelt!"

Others just wept. And Erickson became a dreaded messenger of death.

As for the businessmen and civic leaders in town, Arvid B. Erickson does not suffer fools gladly (there were plenty to go around) and says what he figures needs to be said.

Even though I barely knew the Erickson kids, except for Ethel and Dallas (all were older), I was touched throughout the book as any small town kid would be. I found, for instance, that son Sherman got his arm broken by one of the Smith kids and it was set by Doc Koch, who delivered me into this world at about the same time.

But even if you have no interest in the little town where we all grew up, you can profit from reading "Life Before Eighty" for its first-hand attention to the history of west central Wisconsin and for Arvid B. Erickson's command of the English language.

Commenting on Woodrow Wilson's role in plunging us into war in 1917, Erickson writes: "Destiny can be seen at times to take a hand in human events and to shape our course, rough hew them how we will. Men, being short-sighted, can see no farther than his generation, but actions and their peoples are only pawns in the hands of Destiny, moving and manipulating them as a great chess player does."

Pretty good for a depot agent, don't you think?

As for Nicholas Ray, he was born in Galesville, according to "Nicholas Ray: An American Journey," by Bernard Eisenschitz, translated by Tom Milne (University of Minnesota Press, $24.95 paper).

Galesville has always bragged that because of its orchards, it was the setting for the Garden of Eden, as explained by one of its early preachers, the Rev. D. O. Van Slyke. Strange, isn't it, that a town would ignore one of filmdom's greatest auteurs and concentrate on the good reverend, who forgot to take into consideration Galesville's temperature in January and February.

Dave would like to hear from you. Call him at 715-426-9554.

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