Getting Bad News
(From the Online Journal of Everett Charles Albers, Friday, Sept. 20, 2002)
“A few weeks ago — but about 20 days past — I turned yellow, most jaundiced in eye and skin. Damning whatever gods may be, convinced I had somehow contracted infectious hepatitis, I went to see a general practitioner. I did tests, ultra-soundings, CT scans, an ERCP (a procedure that enables your physician to examine the pancreatic and bile ducts), during which Bismarck physician Dr. Atam Mehtiratta most kindly put a stint in my bile ducts, which has since returned me to a more natural color), and a week in the Mayo Clinics of Rochester, where I had a test not done in North Dakota, an endoscopic ultrasound). I also had a little camera inserted into my stomach by a gifted surgeon who looked around. After all this, I know what a young general physician trained at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine suspected from the moment he lay eyes on me — I have a malignant tumor on my pancreas that is too large to remove right now — or, as the curious language of pancreatic cancer goes, I’m not a candidate for a whipple (a major surgical operation most often performed to remove cancerous tumors off the head of the pancreas) at the moment. So, it’s on to a five- to six-week course of radiation/chemotherapy beginning next week, with the hope that the tumor can be reduced enough so I can go back and get a whipple — but I have to wait for a month after the end of the treatment before a CT scan to have another look at the size of the tumor, etc.
“All of this is offered, my friends, as background to any mood changes and lack of productivity you may notice from me. After sitting around a week in Rochester, spending money at gloomy motels, I’m really ready to get some work done — and to bring my life in the humanities to this little problem before me. Therefore, for what it’s worth, I will be posting some of my meanderings while I continue to do my job as executive director of the North Dakota Humanities Council and executive president of the Great Plains Chautauqua Society — and pay much more attention than I ever have to my wife, children, family and friends — so even this curse is a great blessing.”
Thus began one of the greatest feats of writing I have had the pleasure of reading in my 71 years of life. The Online Journal of Everett Charles Albers, my friend, Ev Albers.
Almost daily, for more than 18 months, Ev sat at his computer and wrote to us, a little of his struggle with cancer, and a lot of his love for North Dakota and its people, and for the humanities and great literature.
Almost daily, we waited over coffee “in the wee hours of the morning” as Ev used to say, for the words “The text for today comes from …” to appear on our computer screens and then a rambling discourse with samples of the writings of everyone from de Trobriand’s journal to Shakespeare to Larry McMurtry, Emerson and the poetry of Thomas McGrath.
I still don’t know how he did it. Mechanically, the word “blog” had hardly been invented, and blogging technology was in its infancy, but he found some software in his office at the North Dakota Humanities Council that allowed him to write in his journal and put it on the Internet. Physically, he was able to shake off the toll that 18 months of cancer treatment took on his body, focus his mind and share with us his most personal feelings as he fought for life, and the most personal feelings of the great writers he featured in his online journal, for that was the literature Ev Albers loved.
Ev died in April 2004, more than 18 months after being told he had three months to live, stubbornly refusing “to go gentle into that good night,” but his journal did not die with him. For years, his children Gretchen and Albert, and his successors at the North Dakota Humanities Council just left it sit online. I had bookmarked it, and visited it from time to time, just to see what Ev was writing about on a calendar day five or 10 years past.
But I hadn’t visited it for a while when I got an e-mail from current North Dakota Humanities Council Director Brenna Gerhardt 10 days ago, that said:
Well, it took over 120 hours of work to redigitize, but we finally republished Ev’s journal. Gretchen wrote a wonderful introduction to it also.
Wow! Sure enough, there it was, the first two entries from 16 years ago, both of which I remembered so well. I had read them many times, but not lately. Memories of Ev flashed through my mind. Sept. 6, 1965, the day I met Ev Albers, a day I will never forget, as I told Brenna in a reply e-mail. I can even remember exactly where the two of us were standing when we met.
It was my first day at Dickinson (N.D.) State College. I had come to the college on the hill 70 miles from my hometown to be trained to be a newspaper reporter, my goal in life. I had been through the registration line in Stoxen Library, signed up for as many English, literature and writing classes as a freshman could take (in addition to the required Earth Science 101, which I am pretty sure I had to take three times before finally passing it), and had found my way to the office of The Western Concept, the college newspaper, in the basement of May Hall.
I pulled open the big wooden door and was greeted by this fellow with curly hair and a booming voice, obviously four or five years older than me, who said he was Ev Albers, the editor of The Western Concept, and welcomed me to the college newspaper office and asked me what I was there for.
I stammered out something like, “I was wondering if freshmen could work for the paper.”
His response: “Well, can you write?”
I said I thought so.
He asked, “Do you know anything about sports?”
I said I had been sports editor of my high school paper for two years.
“Well, we need a sports editor,” he replied.
And that was that. We never moved more than 5 feet from the door. Editor Albers told me to come back that afternoon to talk to the newspaper adviser, Neil McFadgen, after he got out of his class. I did. I went to a football game a few days later. I wrote a story. I handed it to Mr. McFadgen. He read it and handed it to Ev Albers. He read it. I was hired as the Sports Editor of The Western Concept on the spot. It even paid — $50 a month. My high school dream had come true. I was a paid journalist.
Ev Albers, a senior that year, was my hero and mentor for my freshman year in college. One day, not long after classes had started, he asked me if I could act. I said I had been in a couple of plays in high school. He said rehearsals were starting for “Inherit The Wind” in a few days and they needed someone to play Howard, a 13-year-old boy in the play about the Scopes Monkey Trial.
Those of you who know me now will find this hard to believe, but at the time, I was a skinny little shit, 5-foot-2 inches tall and weighing just over 100 pounds. Ev took me to the office of Dr. Brian Gackle, head of the Theater Department, and said, “I think I found a Howard.”
Ev had already been cast as “The Judge” in the Monkey Trial, and auditions were pretty much over, but I read for Dr. Gackle, and he cast me as Howard and told me to show up for rehearsals. That was the beginning of my short-lived theatrical career. The end was another play Ev talked me into, Pirandello’s “Six Characters In Search Of An Author,” a play that was way over my head (and the heads of the few students who came to see it).
The play, as I recall, is a strange story about six people with no names, other than the Father, the Mother, the Son, the Stepdaughter, the Boy and the Child (a girl). There’s a scene where the Father (being played by Ev) had to carry the Boy across the stage, and they needed someone little, who Ev could lift, and I fit the bill.
So director Bill Fleming gave me the role (nonspeaking, I’m pretty sure), and Ev carried me across the stage in a few rehearsals and a couple of performances, and then I left my theater career for a part-time sports writing job at The Dickinson Press and never looked back. Sigh. No Oscar.
I think that was the end of Ev’s college theater career, too, because he graduated a few months later and went away to Colorado to get a master’s degree. The rest is history. He taught humanities at Lake Region Junior College in Devils Lake and at Dickinson State, and then founded the North Dakota Humanities Council, where he served as director until his death.
Brenna has re-created the website, and she launched it on Sept. 20, 16 years to the day Ev launched his, and she is putting up his daily posts, so now every day you can read what Ev wrote exactly 16 years ago.
And best of all is the wonderful introduction written by Gretchen, who knew him like no one else knew him, and has just captured his essence:
“My dad had a knack for journeying from the very particular (the childhood memory, the colorful character from Hannover at mid-20th century, who was long since dead) to the very broad within a few pages, as he exhorted us always to look at the past in order to figure out where on earth we are going. In these essays,
“Ev ponders how we can search for the spiritual without stifling either intellect or creativity. He examines (prompted by the example of a strong-willed mother) the ways in which German Lutheran paternalism and a belief that wives and mothers belonged in the sphere of “Kinder, Kuchen and Kirche” (children, kitchen and church) failed to recognize women’s full humanity.
“He wrote about the heavy burden that a fundamentalist upbringing can lay on the hearts of not only women but also men— men like his father, whom my dad recalled in his journals as struggling with immense guilt on his deathbed, despite having lived a blameless life, a life of loving his wife, raising children and rising early and working hard each day even when the bottom fell out of the price of dairy and it made absolutely no economic sense to work as hard as he did.
“He explores the tension between his immigrant family background and the Native inhabitants of the region. He remembers the events of the 1950s as he first heard about them as a farm boy in Hannover — the fear that a nuclear holocaust was imminent and the Civil Rights movement happening in seemingly faraway places — while he attended a church that would have had him believe that people of other beliefs and ethnicities, and in particular the godless Communists, were probably damned to hell.
“But even as a young person, Ev had a suspicion that perhaps the problems of the “outside” world were not all that far away. He wrote about race and religious extremism in our country, about the politics of fear in the wake of 9/11, writing always from the standpoint of one of the great quests of the humanities: that of humanizing the other.
“So much has happened since my dad left us in April 2004 that would have fascinated him. Not just the rumblings of change from another oil boom in western North Dakota, but the backlash against systemic sexual harassment, most everything about the ascendancy of Donald Trump, and so on. I wonder so much what my dad — the descendant of so many good plains folk who just would not acculturate to American norms, and didn’t want to — would have written about the current debate over immigration, for instance.
“That we stay questioning, and questing — not convicted, and never sure — and that we continue the conversation, always, would be my dad’s greatest legacy. I hope, in that spirit, that you enjoy his essays.”
— Gretchen A. Albers, August 2018
Now, go there, to the site Brenna has graciously given us, click on “About” to read Gretchen’s whole introduction, and then scroll down the right-hand side to the “Subscribe” button, and spend the next 18 months reading “The Online Journal of Everett Charles Albers.”
But before you go, let me share with you the perfect example of how Ev faced life after getting a death sentence, this from one of his morning ramblings:
“ I thought this morning, gonna have me some watermelon tonight to help keep the old body hydrated during the chemo — ’twill be as good as the wild strawberry in the zen story I remembered this morning at 4 a.m. May your dreams be as sweet, dear kola — here’s the story:
“There was once a man who was being chased by a ferocious tiger across a field. At the edge of the field there was a cliff. In order to escape the jaws of the tiger, the man caught hold of a vine and swung himself over the edge of the cliff. Dangling down, he saw, to his dismay, there were more tigers on the ground below him! And, furthermore, two little mice were gnawing on the vine to which he clung. He knew that at any moment he would fall to certain death. That’s when he noticed a wild strawberry growing on the cliff wall. Clutching the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other and put it in his mouth.
“He never before realized how sweet a strawberry could taste.”