Kenmare ND - Upside Down Under

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Upside Down Under

By Marvin Baker, a new weekly column in The Kenmare News


This history won't repeat itself...

Posted 6/20/17 (Tue)

Sixteen years ago this month, myself and my partner Dennis Ihringer, released the book, “Dakota Doughboy, the Otto Ihringer Story.”

In the weeks and months following its release, the media was really good to us in promoting the book and its historical significance.

I like to think it was because we were such likeable individuals, but the media picked it up because it was so out of the ordinary.

Otto Ihringer was the final World War I veteran in North Dakota, he was 104 years old and he had recently been awarded the Chevalier of the National Order of the Legion of Honor, the highest award France gives its citizens.

Of course, Otto wasn’t French, but his U.S. Army heroics in the fall of 1918, helped keep France a free nation.

Yes, it was quite a story and before he died, Otto produced numerous photographs that were taken during the war whose copyrights had expired and so we were free to use them in the book. That, also had phenomenal impact.

But this isn’t about promoting my first book. This is about history and how important it is to us. Too many people pay too little attention to history and when we lose a veteran like Otto Ihringer, we’ll never get him back.

There’s a passage in the book, an African proverb that states, “Every time a man dies, a library burns to the ground.”

He’s gone and so are his stories from before, during and after the war. In fact, everybody from World War I; American, Australian, British, they’re all gone now.

That’s why it’s so important to record information that people have, because I’ll tell you what, it’s almost impossible to recreate something that a Soldier, a relative, a pioneer or even a clergyman told you something important from the past, but has since passed away.

If you didn’t write it down or record it on tape, it’s gone and all you have is a memory. If so, too many important details will be lost from our minds over time. The person who lived it will never forget it and can share the facts no matter what their age.

So today, we are losing a lot of World War II veterans and Korean War veterans. Many of them might as well have reached the gates of hell, for all they went through and they should be commended.

Many of these veterans, which Tom Brokaw dubbed “The Greatest Generation,” are too humble to talk about their experiences.

But that’s how Otto Ihringer once was, according to my partner Dennis, who was Otto’s grandson.

He was stoic, overbearing and didn’t discuss the war at all. But late in his life, he decided to tell his story so that it could be written and that history preserved.

We made sure that happened after the daunting task of fact checking the manuscript was done.

It’s a very similar situation with people here in North Dakota who have experienced the “Dirty ‘30s.”

Those people are now passing away and that profound, personal part of North Dakota history goes with them.

We all know that it didn’t rain, winters were cold and cattle starved in the 1930s. But what happened in addition that isn’t written in history books?

I studied the Great Depression years in college but the history books pale in comparison to the people who lived it.

How did people heat their homes, did the family actually gather together and listen to the radio and what did they talk about after the fact, what was it like in the public schools, what did people do if they got sick and didn’t have any money, what did people do for entertainment during such a hard time and who could you trust?

These are questions you don’t find in the history books. We learn a lot about the Tennessee Valley Authority, how Roosevelt pulled the country out of the depression and that the nation reached a 25 percent unemployment rate.

But what really happened on the northern Great Plains. That’s what should be recorded now, before it’s too late.

There’s a saying in journalism – everybody has a story – and we need to record those stories because when everybody is gone from that time period, what we don’t know, we’ll fill in the details with what we believe happened, not what actually happened.

My grandfather came to North Dakota in 1915 and homesteaded near the Missouri River west of Hazelton. My brother recorded Grandpa’s early years and it’s now been passed down four generations.

We should do that in our families and our hometowns. Truth is stranger than fiction and this history is more valuable than money.