(A novel by Susan Overturf Ingraham)
Hastings, Nebraska, June 1930
[The Depression has begun. Times are tough, and everyone is struggling. Lars Jacobsen begins a day at work with a phone call from a business rival, Simon Cullen. Sparks fly.]
Lars shouted a quick good-bye to Lizzie as he exited through the rear door of their brick home on Burlington Avenue. In fewer than ten steps, he was at the front of his sleek 1929 Model A Ford, purchased less than a year ago before the Crash of October 25th. He was proud of his car and took great pleasure in driving it; he had promised himself when he and Lizzie got married that he’d get a car just for himself some day. He opened the heavy door, stepped on the running board, and slid into the driver’s seat with ease. He put the key in the switch to the ON position and then pressed the starter button on the floor with his foot; the electric motor turned, and Lars choked the engine until it started.
So far, he had managed to keep up the payments on the Ford, but the Crash had caused major changes in his financial status. Going to work each day was far more difficult than it used to be. But then, he thought, going home isn’t much of a picnic either. These days, it seemed there were always creditors to defer, both at home and at work. It was a constant battle to balance the books of the brickyard where he was general manager.
At the end of the driveway, Lars paused to pick up his friend and colleague, Allan Brooke, who always met Lars at his place for a ride. Allan stepped onto the running board and plopped into the passenger side, straightening his pants and coat, then his tie, as he settled in.
“Morning, Lars. How’s it going?”
Lars nodded and continued backing out into Burlington Avenue, turning so he faced south towards downtown Hastings.
“I heard yesterday that Hastings Brick may go under,” Allan said.
Lars nodded again. Hastings had once easily supported four independently owned brickyards which provided bricks for many of the city’s streets and homes. Schaefer and Brothers — the brickyard for whom both Lars and Allan worked — had been founded in 1890. Lars had joined the firm in 1917 when he had finally given up trying to work for his father in Minden. “Yeah, I heard,” he said.
“I wonder what the world’s coming to,” Allan said.
“We’ll be all right,” Lars said. “The Schaefer brothers have been good to us, but I figure I’ve paid my dues. They owe me now.”
“I hate Neal. He’s always bossy.”
Lars laughed. “Neal’s easy to manipulate. Just talk about his favorite race horse and you’ll have him eating candy out of your hand.”
“Yeah?” Allan looked doubtful. Ten years younger than Lars, he looked up to Lars as a role model.
Lars nodded his head. “And, trust me, the older one, Rolf, is easily persuaded. I always say, ‘Look after number one.’ I’m going to own that brickyard one day, but that’s really between me and you now, you hear?”
Allan looked at Lars with wide eyes. “No! Are you serious? Where would you get that kind of money?”
“There are all kinds of ways to get money, Allan. All kinds of ways.” Lars looked straight ahead and stopped at the corner of Burlington and A street. He looked both ways and then pulled out onto A street, going west.
“I don’t see how you’ll get that brickyard. It’s been with the Schaefers since the beginning.”
“Anything’s possible,” Lars said, mysteriously. “It might not happen today or tomorrow, and I might have to wait for this Crash to be over, but you mark my words, I’ll own that brickyard one day. I’m thirty-six years old, but I still have time. I can wait.”
Allan looked at the houses as they passed by them. “But we’re losing so many men, Lars. We once had eighty men, and we’ve laid off twenty.”
“I know, but people will always need bricks, and good times will come again. I’ve been loyal to those brothers. During the Great War, some people hated them, though they had been in the United States for two generations. I was loyal, stuck by them, and helped them to make the company grow.”
“It’s still a family business.”
“I know. I know. But they like me. My father would find it ironic, though, since he left Denmark to avoid Germans.” Lars chuckled. “My, how things change.”
“I hope you aren’t hoping for something that will never happen, Lars.”
Lars slowed and then stopped at the intersection of Sand and Keystone. He turned and looked at Allan. “I’ve worked hard for these men. It’s a bad time right now, but I’m not going to throw away what I’ve worked for.”
Allan waved his hand. “All right, Lars. All right. I get the message.”
Lars turned down Keystone. Ahead was the brickyard, near the tracks for the Burlington and Northern Railroad where the company could ship bricks out of Hastings, though many of were sold right in town. On this bright June morning, it looked as though some clouds were already building in the west. “You see any dark clouds?” Lars asked Allan.
Allan stuck his head out of the car and looked around. “Nope. Nothing.”
“Good. Don’t want another tornado like that one a week ago.”
“Did you have much damage?”
“Not at home, no. I think it hit mostly through the southwest of town.”
“Yeah. I spent a lot of time arranging for men to clean up our yard.”
“But we didn’t lose much, right?”
“Just a few things that weren’t tied down is all.”
Lars drove up to the brickyard‘s administrative office and parked in a special space reserved just for his car. “Ah,” Lars said, as he turned off the engine, “the luxury of being general manager. I get my own parking space.”
Allan agreed. “I can’t afford a car yet, but I sure want to get one when I can.” He stepped onto the running board and down to the ground. “Thanks for the ride, Lars.”
“You bet,” Lars said, as he grabbed his briefcase and climbed the few steps to the main door and unlocked it. Allan’s office was in a smaller building and he headed there. “See you at lunch?”
“Maybe. Not sure what my schedule is yet.” Lars unlocked the door and passed through the lobby, stopping for a moment at his secretary’s desk to see if there was any leftover business from yesterday that he should handle first. Finding nothing, he proceeded directly to his office. He was the first in the building, so he decided to use the quiet moments to finish some of the paper work he had started at home the night before. He did not often take work home — his evenings were usually busy with other activities such as Shriners and Elks meetings — and he enjoyed the after-work activities with his buddies.
He sat down at his desk and began to go through the pile of papers he had left yesterday. This morning would be a long one. He had to check over the accounts for the month of May. Rolf Schaefer had informed him the day before that there appeared to be some discrepancies, so Lars had promised he would look into it. He wasn’t really sure what the problem might be, but he suspected that it had to do with the unusual manipulations he had had to do with the accounts in order to pay the payroll and ward off creditors for another month. People who didn’t deal with money and numbers never seemed to understand how these things worked. Lars had long ago given up trying to explain to Rolf or Neal how he worked the figures so that everyone was happy. All they ever cared about was the bottom line: profit. And Lars was always willing to give them that number.
Before beginning the arduous task, he reached into the bottom left-hand drawer of his desk and pulled out a small bottle of home-made wine, given to him by a friend. He popped out the cork, took a small swig, and replaced the bottle in his desk. It was a common procedure, and since he had a headache this morning it seemed perfectly natural. He always had something to drink inside his desk, but he was careful to hide it from everyone but his secretary, Mildred Porter, an attractive 34-year-old woman who had worked for Lars for three years. They had carried on an office affair for about six months. Mildred had finally ended it, since it was clear that Lars had no intention of leaving his wife, but they still saw each other occasionally and sometimes discreetly spent an afternoon or evening together.
Lars enjoyed being with Mildred and other women, but he also knew that his future aspirations required at least the impression of a strong family life. He and Lizzie tolerated each other, staying together for convenience and social status, but they spent little time together. Things in their marriage had started to change after about ten years. Until then, they had had some fun together, but Lizzie frequently complained about his drinking, and Lars got tired of her nagging. She had become more involved with the children — they had three of them now, a daughter, Katy, and two boys, Frank, their first boy, and Willy, born just two years ago. Lizzie had particularly become difficult after Willy’s birth, a child they hadn’t expected. Lars found it easier to just leave the house than to listen to her constant nagging about his failure to buy the business or to make enough money for all the things she wanted. Sometimes he felt as though he had just traded his dad for his wife — neither of them ever thought he was good enough.
As Lars sat at his desk, poring over the books, the office employees began to arrive. A few greeted him as they passed his door but most could apparently see that he was busy and did not disturb him.
“Good morning, Mr. Jacobsen,” Mildred Porter said, as she entered Lars’s office and placed a cup of coffee on his desk. She knew how he liked it — hot and with two lumps of sugar.
“Good morning, Mildred. How are you?”
“Just fine, sir.” Mildred and Lars always kept their relationship formal and polite while in the office. They were certain that no one knew of their private relationship, even during the times when things were quite passionate. It was important for Mildred, as a single woman, to be cautious about her reputation while seeing a married man — and her boss, to boot. They rarely went out together and if there was a company picnic or other company affairs, Lars always attended with his wife. Mildred had always had to settle for second place and quiet, out-of-the-way hotel rooms. Although their relationship had cooled, they still kept up a pleasant banter between them. In some ways, they got along better now than they had before because there were no longer any expectations. Mildred had heard that he was seeing someone else. She wondered who, but she would never ask. She waited for Lars to give her any instructions for the day.
“Mildred,” Lars said, “I don’t want to be disturbed this morning. I must get through these books. Please take all my calls and ask for messages. I’ll try to get back to people this afternoon.” He did not even look up from his desk while he spoke.
“Very well, Mr. Jacobsen. Shall I close the door on my way out?”
“Yes, Mildred.” Lars gave her a smile as she left, and he took note of her very shapely legs before she closed the door. He always enjoyed looking at Mildred’s legs.
For the next hour, Lars was totally absorbed with columns and numbers. He felt sure he was on the verge of working out the problem when the door opened and Mildred warily peeked in. “Mr. Jacobsen,“ she said. “I’m sorry to bother you, and I know you told me not to pass on any calls, but there seems to be an urgent situation that I think you should take care of. Mr. Cullen is on the phone.” Mildred paused and waited for Lars to respond.
Lars thought for a moment: Cullen. Yes, of course, Simon Cullen. A big man, owner of Hastings Fuel. He did not know Cullen well, but they had had business dealings, an occasional conversation at church. He usually avoided Cullen because he didn’t like him. They belonged to different clubs, except for membership in the Chamber of Commerce and the Republican Party. Lars definitely had no interest in talking to him. “Why?” he asked Mildred. “What’s the problem? What does he need to talk to me about?”
“Something about the payment of some railroad cars? He’s quite insistent, Mr. Jacobsen, and pretty angry, I think.”
Hearing about the railroad cars was enough to jog Lars’s memory. In hindsight, he wasn’t surprised that he was finally hearing from Mr. Cullen about it. For Lars, it had been an act of desperation, a way to save some money for the company. Three railroad cars had been unloaded with supplies about two months ago, and they had been left on the siding in their brickyard. It was the company’s mistake; they had thought it would take longer to unload the cars. Lars knew, however, that Schaefer and Brothers would be charged $300 a day for those cars to just sit there, so he had called a friend he knew in the railroad company and asked if he could do him a favor. “Could they move the cars,“ Lars had asked, “to the tracks behind Hastings Fuel Company?“ Lars’s friend had willingly helped out. The cars had been moved, and Lars had promptly forgotten about it. He presumed that Mr. Cullen had received the bill for the cars and had figured out there was a connection with Schaefer and Brothers. Oh, boy, Lars thought. This is going to be fun! One thing for sure: He wasn’t going to pay for those railroad cars.
“All right, Mildred,” Lars said, as he rolled his eyes, “I’ll take the call in here.” He waved to Mildred to return to her desk.
“Yes, sir.” Mildred closed the door and returned to her desk. She transferred the call to Lars’s private office at the same moment that Lars picked up his phone.
“Good morning, Mr. Cullen,” he said in his most agreeable, cheerful, best-behaviour tone. “What can I do for you?”
Simon Cullen did not like Lars Jacobsen, not since the first time they met when Jacobsen’s daughter was baptized. He knew him mostly by reputation, but they crossed paths occasionally: Sunday morning church services or even school functions since Lars’s daughter, Kate, and his son, Al, were in the same class. Simon had heard rumours that Lars was a founding member of the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan. Of course, no one knew for sure about that since membership was shrouded in secrecy, but these rumours held some credibility and Simon had no trouble believing that Lars Jacobsen was a member of the KKK. He had heard Lars speak to others at church and at the Chamber of Commerce meetings; it was enough to convince him that the man was a bigot and certainly self-serving. Lars’s drinking habits, constant practical jokes, and womanizing were well known in the community. As a family man devoted to his wife and children and as a prohibitionist, Simon Cullen did not condone the behaviour of Lars Jacobsen. He found it distasteful to even have to make this phone call, but there was an issue which had to be settled, and Simon was angry that his company was facing payment for an unnecessary bill. Like everyone else, Simon had found life difficult since Black Friday and his efforts to keep his new store on level footing were shaky at best. As if things were not difficult enough, just a week ago, they had received word that his wife’s father had committed suicide — apparently despondent over what he had lost in investments since the Crash. All in all, things looked grim, and Simon was very angry that Jacobsen had apparently used him and his company in order to avoid paying a bill.
“Good morning,” Simon responded to Lars. “I’m sorry to bother you, Mr. Jacobsen, but I have a problem here which I hope you might be able to solve.”
Lars cleared his throat and played the idiot. “Problem?” he asked. “I can’t imagine what problem you could have that I could solve for you. But go ahead. I’ll see what I can do.”
Simon was certain that Lars Jacobsen knew exactly what he was calling about, but he was not surprised that Lars was pretending to be ignorant of the whole sorry affair. Trying to maintain his patience, he carried on. “A few weeks ago, some railroad cars were pushed onto the siding at the back of our store. When I arrived for work in the morning, I found the cars but did not know why they were there. I immediately called the railroad company, but it took some time for them to figure out where the cars were from and why they were parked at our siding.”
“How strange! Did you find out anything about it?”
Simon could almost hear the sneer in Lars’s voice. He wasn’t sure how he was going to get Lars to admit his collusion, never mind agree to pay for the railroad cars. He thought carefully before he spoke. “Mr. Jacobson, I think you know very well that I found out that those railroad cars had been at the Schaefer and Brothers brickyard and were moved, at your request, to our siding so that your company wouldn’t have to pay for their storage!”
Lars waited only briefly. “Mr. Cullen. Where on earth did you get that idea? I know nothing about those railroad cars. It’s true that we often use the cars for both deliveries and supplies, but I’d certainly never order them to be moved to your siding. That’d be very irresponsible of me and of our company. You’ve clearly made a mistake. I can assure you that Schaefer Brickyard had nothing to do with this matter.”
Simon knew he was wasting his breath. Lars Jacobsen was going to continue to lie to him and to leave Simon’s company with the responsibility of paying the $900 bill to the railroad. The truth was, he could not prove that Lars had done what Simon knew he had done, but he was quite certain that his information was correct. As well, this act was very typical of Lars Jacobsen. In his twisted mind, Simon thought, Lars probably considered it a great practical joke. Although Simon knew he was going to lose this battle with this unpleasant man, he still hoped for some acknowledgement of wrongdoing. He persevered. “I’m sorry to hear you say that, Mr. Jacobsen. I believe your company is responsible for this. Why don’t you just admit what you’ve done and pay this bill?”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t do that. I didn’t order those cars sent to your siding and I know nothing about how they got there. It may be true that they were at our yard before they went to your place, but any orders to have them moved did not come from me. I’m not responsible for any bill.”
Simon knew there would be no changing this man’s attitude. Just as he used to fight back against the bullies of his youth, he wanted right now to fight back. His Christian teachings, the words of his father, his devotion to his wife and family — all fought against his desire to force this man to admit what he had done. But he knew that Janie would never condone any violent behaviour and he decided that it was a good thing he was not in the same room with Mr. Lars Jacobsen. In a split second, he made his decision to let it go. “Very well, Mr. Jacobsen. It’s obvious that I won’t convince you to do the right thing. Let’s hope that some day, sir, you pay for what you’ve done.” And he slammed the phone down.
Lars smiled and chuckled to himself. Simon Cullen is amusing, he thought. Such a man of principle! He rose from his desk and passed Mildred on the way out the door. “I’m going out, Mildred. See you in an hour or so,” he said. Mildred merely rolled her eyes.
- Continue to Chapter 16.
- Refer to Family Tree to keep relationship of characters in mind.
- Return to Family Legacies Table of Contents.
Disclaimer: While it is true that my characters were inspired by my own genealogical study, I could not and did not know my ancestors with the same intimacy that I have created in my characters. Therefore, let it be said that these characters are fictional and created from my own imagination. Similarity to persons living or dead is unintentional and coincidental.