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Easter Blizzard


When Albert V. Cole set up his Nebraska homestead, he'd already made it through a dozen lifetimes, and he wasn't yet 30. He'd begun life as an orphan. His father died when he was two months old, and his mother as much as gave him up when he was ten. "I had never had a home," he admits in a pioneer memoir. "I had been pushed around from place to place."

That’s how he explains the difference between himself and his wife. She was 19 when she came out west to the end of the world, where she missed her Michigan family dreadfully.

But Albert V. Cole's story isn’t about abandonment. On his way west, he figured heavily on taking advantage of benefits for his service with the Union Army, his impossibly lengthy service. Listen.

In the spring of 1861, Cole joined Company C, Fourth Michigan Infantry, and took off south, to engaged the Rebs at Yorktown, Newbridge, Hanover Court House, Savage Station, White Oak Swamp, Ellison's Mill, Gaines Hill, Fredericksburg, Malvern Hill, Second Bull Run, Antietam, Shepherd's Ford, and a host of smaller engagements. [Got your breath back?]

Albert V. Cole was a vet. Was he ever!

In December '63, signed for more war with Custer's famous Michigan brigade, and he saw more action at Todd's Tavern, the Wilderness, Beaver Dam Station, Yellow Tavern, Meadow Bridge, Mechanicsville, and Pomunky River, until he took bullet at Hawe's Shop (one of hundreds of casualties) and thereby was forced to lie on his back for six months without moving, and suffering, or so the history says, "in the most excruciating agony. . .as gangrene and erysipelas [a fiery red rash with raised edges] set in."

Cole had lived through a difficult life when he homesteaded in Nebraska. He'd blazed through more savagery than a fierce Great Plains blizzard, even a bad one like like the one he couldn't help write about when he sat down to scribble out his memoir.

That one hit late Easter afternoon, when, for the first time, the bloodied war veteran had just then taken a wife, Susan B. Crane, just 19 years old, who had never been "a thousand miles from her people," he says, and "separated from her mother." Cole's memoir doesn’t mention the Civil War really, but goes on and on about that first giant blizzard, not because he was fretting about snow and cold, but because he was worried sick about that new young wife.

Mrs. Cole must have said what was there on her mind and in her soul just then. "The wind blew more fiercely than now," Mr. Cole says, "and she made me promise that if our house ever blew down, I would take her back to Michigan."

That storm hung around for three days, during which time the Coles put up some neighbors and friends in their three-room homestead shanty. The neighbors, a couple building their own place a half-mile east, had been out for a ride on a warm Sunday afternoon when the storm descended. They needed shelter. Others came too, so that their little shelter held six adults and one child. The three women and the child slept together on the bed, the men on the floor.

It was no picnic, but it's clear from what's there in the sketch that Civil War wounded-in-action vet Albert V. Cole's greatest worry those three days was Susan Crane Cole, who, her husband says, "almost prayed that the house would go down so she could go back east." He can't have known that; the almost he uses to say it suggests his concern, and, if I dare say it, his love. "Mrs. Cole almost prayed. . ." he says. He was more worried about her than he was about his claim. He thought he had a new and wonderful home, his very first. "I had a home of my own and was delighted," he says, "yet my heart went out to Mrs. Cole."

Yes, it did.

For the record, Mr. and Mrs. Cole went on to have five children of their own. And it'll do you well to hear that Mrs. Cole's brothers and even her parents put Michigan behind them and settled into the open skies of the Great Plains, where the they all became neighbors.

There are many stories that are not as kind, but this one, I think, the wounded vet and his sweet young bride. It’s kind of picture-book end, don't you think?

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa.
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