Minnesota Memories: A move to Duluth: Boys, bumps and bloodDuluth, December 1941. About a week after Pearl Harbor, my father moved our entire family to Duluth, a town of about 86,000. City life was a big change.
By: Paul Slayback, for the News Tribune
Duluth, December 1941. About a week after Pearl Harbor, my father moved our entire family to Duluth, a town of about 86,000. City life was a big change.
From oldest to youngest, my family consisted of Lorna, Myrtle, Dorothy, Violet (who died of stomach flu before I was born), Ralph, Marian, June and myself. But only Lorna, Ralph, Marian, June and I moved with my dad to Duluth. My older sisters, Myrtle, 20, and Dorothy, 19, went to California and worked in the Long Beach shipyards, helping the war effort. Two years later my brother Ralph, 16, joined the Merchant Marine.
For the Slaybacks, Duluth was different. In Finland, wild animals outnumbered the people, and most toilets were outside. Duluth had thousands of people, and the toilets were inside. Indoor plumbing, no more outhouses. We were living the high life.
Over the next 10 years, we lived in six different houses in and around Duluth. The first house was a large, angle-roofed two-story on a steep hill — North Fourth Avenue East, where everyone’s yard was lopsided. It provided great downhill sledding in the winter.
What made our house distinguishable was its color. My dad, never passing up a bargain, purchased some bright blue paint, cheap, and painted the entire house blue — it was easy to spot. It looked great to me, but my sisters were chagrined.
I overheard my sister Marian tell June that Frank Maurer, Marian’s high school boyfriend, yelled to one of his buddies, “It’s sure easy to spot the Slayback house now.” Marian and June didn’t like that kind of attention.
In 1944 Duluth, kids had freedom. At Grant Elementary, two of my first-grade friends and I were on our way home from school. We hiked along a steep 20-foot dirt bank above a flowing creek.
Leading the troupe, I balanced on the edge of the cliff. One moment I skipped along, the next the earth crumbled under my step. I tumbled head over heels down the steep embankment. My body bounced 20 feet into the creek. My left arm shot up to protect my head. My elbow hit the shallow bottom. I felt the sharp pain of broken glass pierce my elbow.
I crawled out of the creek and struggled to stand up. A piece of glass stuck out of my elbow. Blood gushed from the wound. I pulled the glass out with my right hand. Below me the water ran red. I grabbed a rusty tin can to save some of the blood — knowing it was precious.
“Your arm is turning white. Better see your mother,” Carl said. I looked down at my arm, now a blueish-white.
The cut arm against my chest, I walked, clutching the bloody can beneath the wound, 10 blocks and 20 miserable minutes to my house.
Five years before, my mother was killed in a car accident, so my 23-year-old sister, Lorna, greeted me at the house. Examining the cut, Lorna said, “Hold still, Clarence, there’s glass stuck in your arm. Let me pull it out.” Calmly, using her fingers, Lorna reached into the wound and tugged at a piece of glass. I hollered and pulled back at the pain.
“It’s too deep — we best get you to a doctor.” Lorna said.
The nearest emergency doctor was on Superior Street, a mile and a half away. She had no car. Lorna wrapped my arm loosely in a white cloth. We lived nine steep streets up from Superior. We took the electric cable bus to the Duluth Emergency Hospital. With each bump of the bus my arm throbbed.
An orderly ushered us into an emergency room and Lorna told what happened to a petite nurse dressed in white.
Within five minutes, the doctor arrived. He was a 40-year-old man with large ears, thinning dark-hair and glasses. He looked concerned. He took a quick look at my arm and called for backup. Soon, there were others doctors, interns and nurses mulling around my gurney, murmuring conspiratorially.
Finally, the serious-looking doctor — well, they all looked quite serious now — said to Lorna: “Mrs. Slayback, your son ... er, brother, has suffered a very serious laceration. It seems the glass and force of the fall cut ligaments in his arm. See the color? Gangrene is already setting in. We have to remove all of that infection.
The doctor asked me to open and close the fingers of my left hand. I tried but some of the fingers wouldn’t work. Lines of worry creased the doctor’s brow. He turned, walked over to another doctor in the room and had a private conversation. Speaking to my sister, he said, “We will try to save his arm, but we can’t promise anything. The nature of the laceration and nerve damage make it necessary that when we are removing the glass, cleaning the wound, and repairing the damage, there will considerable pain as your brother must remain awake through all of this and, to be sure the nerves and ligaments are properly reconnected, we won’t be using much anesthetic at the site of the wound.”
I heard some discussion that what they were doing was “experimental.” As one of the pretty nurses patted my other hand and soothed my brow, I heard they were going to use a lot of cat gut to repair my severed ligaments. I was in a lot of pain but didn’t cry much. I wasn’t in the habit of crying. I had no one to cry to.
Then, the comfort and sweetness ended. Held down by a nurse and two husky interns, I felt the sharp painful cuts and probes of the metallic instruments slicing, twisting and entering my left elbow. I screamed, I yelled and, if my sister is to be believed, raised them all off the operating table.
I was released the same day (we had no hospital insurance) and given follow-up instructions on strengthening my arm. My sister, Lorna, became my coach. She was as tough as they come. Day after day, week after week, often with streams of tears rolling down my cheeks, she made me lift and carry buckets of water back and forth —back and forth —sometimes to our vegetable garden.
It was grueling. My arm felt like it was on fire, with hot, deep, pulsing pain. But time heals things; it eventually worked. Today, I have a big scar on my left elbow, but “cat-like” quickness with a left jab.
TUESDAY: Back to basics: A summer in Orr with Aunt Myrtle