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.

Grave Yard Blues

  • River Road Ramblings: The Grave Yard Blues

    We had a large crowd at Wolf Creek Cemetery on Memorial Day. I counted well over 200 people who took time from the holiday weekend to honor the 104 veterans on the role call. Half the visitors stayed for the delicious lunch served at the church by the Ladies Aid and twenty hung around for the afternoon cemetery walk by the Sterling Eureka and Laketown Historical Society. SELHS had prepared a hand-out booklet and a large picture poster about Melvin Davidsavor, the veteran singled out for special attention this year. We plan to select a different veteran each year for this honor.

    I was feeling sad, thinking about my old school friend Melvin, the Vietnam veteran we honored forty years after he died. The Davidsavor family were there in force and all of the stories about Melvin cheered me up a little. I choked up when the young woman read the list of veterans and got to Melvin and read his Bronze Star Valor award, and again when Steve Warndahl placed the wreath on his grave.

    I cheered up greatly when a pretty woman, who looked like someone I should know, came up and introduced herself as Susan and told me she was the girl who went to school with Melvin and me for grades 1 and 2 at Wolf Creek. I had not seen her since she moved away early in the third grade—more than fifty years ago. We didn’t have time to visit, but I hope to catch up on what has happened with each of us someday.

    I still remember her as the first grader who could only sing her “ABC’s” and who was my duet partner in the first grade program when she sang “I’m Sunbonnet Sue” to my lip synched “I’m Overall Jim” while Dennis Edwards stood behind the curtain doing the real singing. She was very cute, dressed in calico with a sunbonnet, while I just wore my normal farm overalls, a straw hat and had a stick with a red hanky bundle over my shoulder. We both sat in rockers, rocking on the makeshift board stage. “Russell, you rock calmly and don’t sing, just mouth the words!” were my strict instructions from Teacher. I think that was the first time I realized how satisfying it is to get fame and credit for someone else’s efforts, a circumstance that this column is built upon.

    Susan was my very first girl friend. I know this because she gave me a valentine that I had to hide from my brothers. I liked her, and showed it by being particularly bothersome. She was neat, colored in the lines, wrote beautifully and behaved well enough to be picked to wind the clock on Fridays. I scribbled and never was the best-behaved student, even for a whole day, so never wound it. However, I did buy it at the school auction and now wind it whenever I need a boost.

    While at the cemetery, I asked Duane and Donna (cemetery board members) about buying a lot. There are scattered openings in the heavily populated downtown areas and a completely new suburb to the west with prime lots being gobbled up—buy now so you can look down on your neighbors! Margo and I have been thinking about being cremated and sharing a single lot. I am not really happy with cremation as it takes lots of energy and creates air pollution as all my 15 mercury fillings go out the chimney into the air, water, fish and eventually a fisherman, unless some undertaker hammers my teeth out first. To cut down the furnace energy needed, I have been conscientiously and successfully trying to add to my own personal fuel supply—especially around the hard-to-burn middle.

    Dad lies in the cemetery amongst the large Brenizer family area. “They were my good neighbors in life and I like the idea of staying in the same neighborhood.” When Bill Ramstrom’s nosy neighbors suggested he save some of his money for his burial rather than spending it all on himself, he replied “I don’t see many people lying around above ground” and sure enough he is buried with a respectable stone.

    I do like the idea of a gravestone stating the basic facts for genealogists. In my dabbling at genealogy, I have grown fond of searching cemeteries and looking at the diversity of stones and inscriptions. I want one of those old style ones that has a large cap on the top of a rectangular stone—one that will fall and severely injure cemetery vandals. The lawyers will be hard put to sue me!

    Margo and I had a surplus of syrup this year so we sold 30 gallons to Andersons. Steve took a taste of it; swirled it in his mouth a moment and then said “cooked on a wood fire; made from 80+ year old west hillside sugar maples grown in clay soil; early to mid season runs; collected in open pails; filtered with a new filter; about 1 Brix thin ( he meant 65 instead of 66% sugar); with a very subtle hint of chocolate.” We looked, and sure enough, one of the 5-gallon pails I had poured it into boiling hot was formerly a Wal-Mart chocolate frosting pail. Steve blends syrups to come up with each grade he sells, so unless he kept that pail to sell as Choco-Maple, it will disappear in a few thousand gallons mixture. I rather liked Choco-Maple and may try it again for my own use! His storeroom is completely full of syrup he bought locally from this year’s bumper crop.