Reflections on a Keltgen cap, an old farmer and the chittering call of happiness

It was the Keltgen Seed cap that captured my attention. You don’t see those much anymore. And this one looked almost new.

A pleasant-looking fellow named Raymond Schweiss was wearing it this morning on a replay of Due North Outdoors, a Fox North show I watch from time to time.

I was in the kitchen, scrambling kale and sweet pepper and egg whites and sipping jasmine green when I glanced up at Raymond and his cap — and his wrens.

A Keltgen Seed cap always catches my eye, because it’s been so long since Keltgen Seed was a fully functioning seed-corn company.

My former father-in-law, Keith Keltgen, founded the company with a group of five courageous associates willing to depart from well-paid, secure jobs at what had been called Trojan Seeds — before it was acquired by Pfizer Genetics — in Olivia, Minn., for an adventure that would be a challenge and a success.

I’d like to stop here and tell you how I saw Olivia Newton John in Olivia, Minn., once back around 1980, when she followed a whim and an invitation to appear at the town’s appropriately named Corn Capital Days.

But this is about the cap and the wrens, and some other recollections.

Between the time Keith Keltgen — appropriately known to those in corn country as the Corn Doctor — started Keltgen Seeds back in 1977, I married his daughter, Jaciel, and soon also fell in love with her family, parents Keith and Bev, and seven siblings.

We were married 12 years (almost all of them, in my opinion, good years), had two kids and divorced in predictable misery but about in about as amiable a way — since we both did our part in the failure of our marriage — as is possible. Our kids benefited from the fact that we have never really stopped caring for each other, to this day. Nor did we ever hate each other, or act like we did.

Jaciel and I benefitted from that, too.

That’s another story. Back to the cap, and the wrens.

Keith played an essential role for me, filling in for the father I lost when I was 16. It was an unreconciled, unfathomable loss that left me spinning through my formative years in a sort of untethered search for a father figure and for kind of peace and perspective.

Keith was there when I desperately needed him. We hunted and fished together, celebrated family events together, argued sports and politics together and spent time at the Keltgen factory together, as he explained the genetic imperatives of corn breeding and sales, as well as the essential of human interaction.

Keith and I stayed close after the divorce, and I was part of the family at St. Aloysius Catholic Church, where Jaciel and I were married, for Keith’s funeral in1999.

The Keltgen hats, once so common and comforting across the farmlands of Minnesota and South Dakota, diminished with time. So did the Keltgen Seeds signs at farm driveways.

So now when I see a sign or a cap, I connect again with the man and the family who will always matter to me.

Raymond Schweiss clearly took good care of his brown cap with the gold K on the front. It looked to be one of those stylish corduroy models that Keith included in his diverse collection of promotional items.

So I had to stop and watch the show, about Raymond and the wrens he loved and tended on his neat, Minnesota-style farm outside of Fairfax.

My mother, Marie, loved wrens, too, and enjoyed the same “music” that Raymond talked about.

“When they’re happy,” he said on the show, “I’m happy.”

And they’re always happy, if you judge joy by their song.

So I spent some time, tea in one hand and fork in the other, standing in front of the kitchen TV, watching Raymond and his hat and his wrens and thinking about my own mother and her wrens and my only ever father-in-law (Mary’s dad, Red, had died before we got together) on this earth.

It warmed me like the tea, settled me like the sound of wrens in the backyard at Chamberlain, or the loving weight of Keith’s strong hand on my shoulder and his even-stronger words in my memory.

Near the end of the show, the wrens flew south, silencing Raymond Schweiss’s neatly managed farmyard, and he bid them farewell until the following spring.

I wondered then how many springs Raymond Schweiss had left, at 79. And I learned a few seconds later that he died a few weeks after the segment was shot.

I was saddened by that, of course. And that sadness called up the deeper essence of more profound and personal losses that I — like you — carry every day.

It called up the question Stanley Kunitz asked in The Layers:

“How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?”

How indeed. Kunitz suggests the answer is to “live in the layers, not on the litter.”

And, oh, how rich the layers can be, including the sadness and the joy of recollection found in a TV image of a hat, a old farmer and the music of wrens.

And while Raymond Schweiss won’t be there waiting next spring on the backyard step, the wrens will return, navigating on ancient instinct back to the place of their origins, offering their chittering call to happiness.

If only we have the ears to listen.

 

 

 

Posted in Tell Kevin, Uncategorized.

3 Comments

  1. My father-in-law was a Keltgen dealer for many years. Francis Wall from Waverly, SD. I still have a few of those hats.

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