St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Sunday, June 7, 2009

Melvin Davidsavor: A Modest Hero  (2009)

Melvin was born January 17, 1947, the last and tenth child of Earl and Myrtle Davidsavor. They farmed and ran a sawmill on the banks of the St. Croix River in West Sterling a few miles from Wolf Creek and the old cemetery. When neighbors wanted lumber, they visited Earl and bought freshly cut boards or brought their logs to him to saw. All of the children, boys and girls, worked hard at the sawmill and on the farm.

I met Melvin in 1952 when we started first grade at Wolf Creek School. The first grade that year included only four of us; Joyce Fisk; Susan Rutter; Melvin and I. We were in the little room. Melvin had older brothers and sisters in the big room. We were within a month of the same age and best friends while growing up. Childhood friends are friends forever.

Every day Floyd Harris took his old 10 passenger wagon to pick up the kids for school. The last pickup on our route was out west of the River Road through the sand curves and hills to the Davidsavor place. As we drove into the farm we looked at the long flat sand fields; watched to see if the sawmill and its big old gas engine was running as we drove up to the buildings. A large silo and new barn stood near an old house. The foundation for a new house stood along the road, abandoned after Melvin’s 9 year old sister, Alice, died in 1955.

Alice was buried her in the cemetery next to the schoolyard after an illness that lasted many weeks. Melvin and I went to her grave and tried to understand how she could just die—she was a year older and a grade ahead, our active playmate. She was a tomboy, always running and playing with us. How could she just end? Why did it happen? What did it mean to die? Why do some people die young?

The Davidsavors were cheerful, rugged kids; everyone one of them, boys and girls, strong and tough from hard work. They worked at the sawmill and rolled logs, carried lumber and slabs at an early age, eager to show they could start the engine and carry the big boards. In each grade in school amongst the boys if there was a Davidsavor, he would be the one who could do the most pull-ups; climb the flag pole the quickest; out wrestle and out do anyone else on feats of strength, and at the same time be a true friend.

Melvin and I became great friends. For the five years that we went to Wolf Creek, we were the only two boys in our grade and then the only two in our grade. We did our school work together; played together and explored the world together.

“Uncle Channie gave me this agate” I said as I showed Melvin the pretty red and white striped rock one nice fall day when we were in the 4th grade, “he collects them.” “I know where there is a huge one” replied Melvin, “in the big gully behind our field going down the hill to the river. I saw it there after the rain last week.” “We should go look at it” I said. “Its just a 20 minute walk through the woods from school to my house” said Melvin “we can get there over noon hour.” Leaving word with Linda Harris that we were going for a walk in the woods and might be a little late getting back we headed off. Melvin knew the way to follow the ridges along the river. At 3 pm, just before Floyd was due to haul us home, we got back to the school, satisfied that although the huge boulder in the gully was pretty, it didn’t have agate lines. Mrs. Irving Olson, our teacher, said “You boys know you are supposed to come back from playing when you hear the bell.” “But we didn’t hear the bell” was our true, excuse, as we were probably four miles away when it rang,” Our noon recesses for the next week were printing “I will not leave school without permission” twenty five times a day on the black board.

After Christmas that year, Melvin came back to school wearing his Christmas present, a big hunting knife and sheath. He proudly showed it off to all of us. Mrs. Olson admired it “That is a very nice hunting knife. I am sure you will get lots of use out of it hunting and fishing. But, we have safety rules at school—you can’t bring it to school in the future.” Now Melvin could be pretty stubborn at times and the next day he came to school wearing it again. “Melvin, I told you not to wear your knife to school. I know you like it, but it isn’t OK to bring it to school. You leave it home tomorrow or I will have to take it away and give it to your older sister to take home.” Well, the next day Melvin brought it and he ended up with a spanking and his knife going home with his sister and staying there.

Mrs. Olson told Melvin and me to take the arithmetic book and go off to the library and work on it together for an hour each day. We did the odd numbered problems and checked our own answers with her answerbook. If we had problems (we rarely did as we both liked arithmetic) we were to come and ask her. Well, with an hour a day we managed to go through two years of arithmetic in one year. We kept this up until Wolf Creek closed when we were in the 6th grade and we went to the new Cushing school where there were 25 kids per grade. We just shutup there and did the same arithmetic books over again rather than be treated differently.

Melvin had done fine in school at Wolf Creek. At Cushing it was harder. Just having more kids meant that there were more tests of strength on the playground and more chance of getting lost with the schoolwork. He and I got separated into different classrooms. When he was 16 in St Croix Falls HS, he dropped out. In those days it was common to quit when you were 16 and go to work. I sort of lost touch with him after that –he would stop by a few times a year at our farm and visit. He bought a big old Harley Davidson motorcycle and drove that around. When he was 18, he introduced me to his girlfriend and soon to be wife, Alice Dyer from Grantsburg. About the time I started college, he got married (1965).

The Vietnam War was heating up at that time. If you were out of school you were sure to be drafted into the Army. Melvin was drafted in 1967 and after training spent a year in Vietnam. After he came back he volunteered for another term. He ended up serving 18 months there, getting several awards for bravery and excellent service. Near the end of his time he was no longer feeling healthy. Up to then he had been very healthy and prided himself on his physical condition.

He returned home to his wife, Alice, and started working, but continued to have health problems. After two stays in local hospitals, his doctor told him to go the Veterans Hospital in the Twin Cities. He resisted as long as he could, his stubbornness showing. Finally, Alice persuaded him. It was Cancer—Hodgkin’s disease. After three months of suffering and wasting away, he passed away, two months shy of his 23rd birthday. He was buried by his sister, Alice, in the Wolf Creek Cemetery. The Hodgkins disease was later attributed to exposure to Agent Orange while in Vietnam. He died 18 months after Vietnam.

When Melvin came back from Vietnam, I heard he had gotten some awards for heroism. I asked him about Vietnam and his awards. He didn’t want to talk about it and just said “you do some crazy things when people are trying to kill your buddies.” Melvin earned 10 military awards during his two years in the Army as well as two Bronze Stars and the Air Medal and various sharpshooter rifle/machine gun bars.
One bronze star award with a “V” (for valor) reads “For heroism in connection with military operations against a hostile force. Private First Class Davidsavor distinguished himself by heroism in action on 21 June 1967, while serving as a rifleman with Company B, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry during a search and destroy operation near the village of Van Thien, Republic of Vietnam. On this date, his company became engaged with elements of a North Vietnamese Army regiment. PFC Davidsavor immediately began placing a heavy volume of fire on the enemy positions. With complete disregard for his own safety, Davidsavor crawled forward and destroyed a key machine gun bunker which had caused his platoon several casualties and had kept them pinned down for several hours. His display of personal bravery and devotion to duty is in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service, and reflects great credit upon himself and his unit, and the United States Army”

Steven Warndahl remembers Melvin “Though Melvin was a lot older than me he always took time for me and we remained friends until his death. Folding the flag at his funeral was a sad day for me. I have not missed a Memorial Day at Wolf Creek since the day we buried Mel. I always make sure I visit his grave and pay my respects to him, his mother and father, and sister Alice.

Melvin was the toughest and strongest men I have ever known. I would watch him do one arm pull-ups on a broken beam in the Davidsavor barn then switch hands while not touching the floor. A bird had built a nest half way down the track in the haymow so Mel rode up on the fork telling Earl to stop if the rope got tight. Well it did and Earl didn't stop in time and the carriage smashed into Mel's head cutting him badly. He should have gone to the hospital and had several stitches but instead gave me a ride home on his old Harley Davidson 74, and then had someone tape his cut shut to stop the bleeding.

Mel was a good hunter and was blessed with a father that taught him. I was 13 and witnessed Mel run down a wounded deer and tackle it.”

With the help of his widow, Alice, and another Vietnam Veteran and friend of Melvin, Steven Warndahl, and the Davidsavor family, we will have some pictures of Melvin and copies of his awards on display on Memorial Day at Wolf Creek at Melvin’s grave.

The Wolf Creek cemetery has been holding Memorial Day (Decoration Day the old timers called it) ceremonies since the Civil War Veterans started organizing after that war and the first veterans were buried there in the 1870s. In the 1890s up to 600 people would attend.

The American Legion marches in at 11:00 AM and there is a 30 minute program including reading of the veterans list, music and a speaker. Then we all move next door to the historic Wolf Creek School (now the Methodist Church) where the Ladies Aide has lunch (please donate liberally) and we visit with old neighbors. After lunch, at about 1:00 pm, the Sterling Eureka and Laketown Historical Society will take you on a free stroll through the cemetery, exploring one of the oldest cemeteries in NW Wisconsin. We will stop at the Davidsavor plot and remember Melvin and his service for us and his family.

Forty years Melvin has lain at Wolf Creek, next to his school and near the old farm he loved. He has neighbors at the cemetery from his Wolf Creek School friends; Jimmy Rutsch, Linda Harris and my own brother Byron. He lies next to his sister Alice and his parents.

I visit Melvin’s grave every year. I ask the same question he and I asked about Alice so long ago. He went to Vietnam when he was asked, heroically served our country, and came back and died. Remembering him and the other veterans is the right thing to do on Memorial Day.