FRAZEE, Minn. — Methodism, and our family’s abidance to it, explains as well as anything how as a kid I ended up fishing near this small town.
My maternal grandfather was a Methodist minister in Frazee, thus my periodic landing here in summers. Sometimes Dad and Mom also would stay a week or more while my brother and I vacationed with Grandma and Grandpa. Other times they visited only a day or two while dropping us off or picking us up.
A bit of an outlier to his in-laws, Dad was a fisherman, and a Camel-smoking fisherman at that. Come Sundays, he was in the proper pew listening to Grandpa preach. But his more universalist beliefs pivoted on the special kind of salvation a live minnow impaled on a small hook can deliver, and he tested that faith whenever possible.
Grandpa was 80 when he died in 1961, and I was 10. I suspect he was born to be a Methodist preacher, because his name was John Wesley Frisbie — John Wesley being the founder in England in the 18th century of the Methodist Church.
An Ohio native and a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan, Grandpa and his brother, Clifford, also a Methodist minister, were sent to North Dakota to spread the faith. In that state, Grandpa served various small-town churches before retiring to Frazee, where until his death he pastored the Richville Methodist Church.
Grandma — Elnetta was her name — was, like her sisters, Myra, Grace and Elsie, a college graduate, a relative rarity for women in the early 1900s. Myra I don’t recall. Grace was gracious. But Elsie … Elsie was a problem, particularly for Dad, and especially when there were fish to clean.
Growing up in Fargo, Dad liked to shoot pool and race motorcycles. When he could, he and his buddies rode to Detroit Lakes, about 10 miles from Frazee, to fish. He graduated high school just before World War II broke out, and soon conscripted himself to the U.S. Army. He shipped out to North Africa and then to Italy, and was discharged, at war’s end, as a staff sergeant.
How exactly Dad met Mom I don’t know. After high school she enrolled in American University in Washington, D.C. When the war started, she left school to work at the Pentagon. Years later, on a trip home, she met Dad, and they were married in 1947.
I’m sure it was Dad’s idea to honeymoon in northern Minnesota, at Gunflint Lodge, which he and Mom did. The roads couldn’t have been much. But Dad was a car guy, as well as a motorcycle guy, and whatever he had for wheels at the time would serve the purpose.
Naturally genial, and a hard worker, Dad was in the grocery business in North Dakota. We lived in various small towns where he either managed or owned stores, and we ended up in Rugby. In those years, Dad didn’t fish much. But he shot the heck out of ducks.
In 1962, we moved to Michigan, and it became quite a haul, in summers, to drive from there to Frazee. But routinely my brother and I were dropped off there for a week or so, and for breakfast we’d eat Grandma’s oatmeal before running with neighbor kids to Town Lake, where we’d goof off until lunchtime.
That routine repeated itself every day except the Sabbath, when Grandpa and Grandma and my brother and I would climb into Grandpa’s ’53 Chevy with its three speeds on the column. Grandpa might preach only in Richville, or also substitute in Frazee, Vergas or another town, in which case we would hear his sermon multiple times. Liturgical repetition or not, back in Frazee at noon, Grandma’s fried chicken served as a sort of culinary benediction that ended one week and began another.
Among Dad’s best attributes, he never traded money for time he could spend with his kids.
So when he showed up in Frazee on those summer days, we knew he’d have his 5 1/2-horse Johnson outboard in his car trunk, and soon enough we’d be heading to a neighboring resort to rent a boat and pass a good time, fishing.
After one such outing, near dark, Dad, my brother and I returned to Frazee with buckets full of crappies. The mosquitoes were horrendous, and Dad intended to clean the fish on Grandma and Grandpa’s back porch, with its screened windows, long table, hand pump for water, and light bulb overhead.
But he had forgotten Aunt Elsie was also visiting, and when she heard of the fish-cleaning plan, which in her view was heathen-like in the manner of animal sacrifices, she summoned the righteous indignation long familiar to the self-important and the privileged, and cast our lot instead to Grandpa’s dark, bug-ridden garage.
Dad accepted this banishment not as a concession to a familial or social hierarchy but as an acknowledgment he was playing on someone else’s home court, and that maintaining decorum was the best response, especially with his kids present.
“It’s OK,” he would say.
The other day, in Frazee, I visited the Methodist church. Then I drove to Grandpa and Grandma’s house and stared at it a good long while. In my mind’s eye, I could see the bedroom where I slept, the kitchen table where I ate, and Grandma’s vast root cellar with its long rows of canned tomatoes, cucumbers, beans and corn.
Grandpa’s garage was still standing, and I imagined also Dad bent over there, fillet knife in hand, cleaning fish.
Long before his time, cancer got Dad, and he was sick the last dozen years of his life.
Perhaps in the end, in his delirium, he dwelled on fast motorcycles, the war, or mom, or business successes and failures.
As likely, I think, he recalled the halcyon days when he toted a 5 1/2-horse Johnson in the trunk of his car and fished the lakes near Frazee with his sons.
These many years later, especially on Father’s Day, that’s what I remember.
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