Attention Minimizers and Refuseniks: Here’s an Uplifting Tale of Woe and Intrigue.

By Gary Dickson, Rural Sociology & Human Behavior Reporter

We certainly do live in interesting times.

What appears to be a majority of Americans are willing to follow guidelines and orders from their state’s governors or city’s mayors to shelter at home, to not gather in groups larger than 10 people, to close non-essential businesses, to close schools, etc. so they won’t get infected with or infect others with  the Coronavirus aka covid-19.

However, since this is the United States of America, there are a vocal, active minority who chafe at such government directives and stubbornly refuse to follow the guidelines, complaining that they are an infringement upon their rights and liberties — even though there appears to be plenty of scientific evidence for the effectiveness of adhering to such rules. South Dakota appears to be blessed with its share of these folks with fatal wishes.

This reminds me of a story that was told to me. I think it’s especially appropriate to times like these.

I purchased my first house in 1977 in Sioux Falls. It was an older Craftsman Bungalow about a stone’s throw from Sioux Valley Hospital. My first wife and I were probably the youngest couple on the block and we were surrounded middle-aged and retired couples. Across the street was a retired man and his wife. He was in his seventies and had been a physical therapist at the VA hospital in Sioux Falls his entire professional career. His name was Norval Knudtson but everyone called him “Doc”. This apparently was a nickname that patients at the VA started calling him early in his career. So, he just went with it.

Doc was born and had grown up in Minneapolis. He was good humored and full of stories – many of which were true. After graduating from high school, Doc didn’t want to go to college right away, so he joined the Army rather than be drafted. After serving a tour of duty fighting in the Korean War in the early 1950s, Doc came back to Minneapolis older and temporarily hard-bitten. He said he still didn’t want to go straight into college, but he didn’t know just what to do.

So, his mother suggested he talk to her brother Einar, who had a job as a custodian in the Foshay Tower in Minneapolis. This seemed like a great idea to Doc. He even figured that being a custodian in the building had an element of glamour to it, because at that time, the Foshay was the tallest building in the Twin Cities and would remain so until the IDS Center passed it by in 1972.

The Foshay Tower, far left, and the Minneapolis skyline, ca 1950.

Doc called his Uncle Einar who told him there was an opening on the custodial staff.

“Einar told me to come by the next day and he would introduce him to his boss,” Doc said. “So that’s what I did. Evidently the boss was pretty impressed that I was a Korean War veteran and he hired me on the spot! I started the very next day.”

Doc said it didn’t take him too long to get used to his job as he was in good physical condition and was a quick learner.

“I graduated with honors at Minneapolis Central,” Doc said proudly. “I didn’t think I’d have any problem learning the job. After about a week, Uncle Einar showed me a trick to help me pass down time like lunch and break times. He took me to this custodian’s room on the 18th floor. It was unique in that it had a window in it. Einar had loosened the screws so he could move the window in towards the room. That way he could get fresh air on nice days. You could hear the traffic and honking of horns and police sirens and such, too.”

But the best thing about the custodian closet window was that Doc could see the birds walking along the window ledges and hear them chirping. One day he decided to tear off some bread on his sandwich he’d brought from home, broke it into smaller pieces, leaned out onto the ledge and put the pieces there for the birds. Doc would pull up an old wooden chair to the window, eat most of his lunch and share the rest with the birds, which now consisted of a number of pigeons. Doc would even stop down at a nearby pet store after work and buy some bird seed to feed his feathered friends on the 18th floor.

One day, just after Doc went inside the custodian’s closet to have lunch with the birds, there was a big commotion out in the hallway with lots of shouting and such. He ran out into the hallway and listened. The noise, he said, seemed to be coming from upstairs. So instead of taking the elevator, Doc decided to go up the stairs to see if he could find out what was afoot.

“Well,” Doc said, “after I walked up to the next floor, here comes Uncle Einar hightailin’ it down. He almost knocked me over! I asked him what was going on upstairs that there was such a commotion about.”

“Einar said, ‘Well now, young Norval – he always called me by my given name –, you don’t vant to go up dere. It’s better if you come wit me.’”

“So, I asked him why I should do that?”

“’Why, ders a fella whose climbed up on the observation deck railing on the 30th floor,’ Einer said excitedly. ‘And I thinks he’s a gonna jump!’”

Doc said he asked his uncle if he thought they should try to stop the man or call somebody for help.

‘Oh no,’ Einar said, ‘I don’t do dat. I don’t get involved in dose tings. Besides, I tink da policemens been called and dey are on dere vey.’”

Einar guided Doc back downstairs to the custodian’s room and then he scampered off to another floor to continue to clean bathrooms.

Doc said he got curious, so he went to the window in his room and gave his bird friends some food. Then he said he opened the window inward a little bit more so he could lean out further – but not too far – and try to see what was going on.

“Well sure enough, there was this guy 12 floors above me hanging on to the observation deck fencing, Doc said. “That fencing is pretty tall, you know. It’s about 10 feet tall and made of iron bars too narrow to squeeze through. I guess he shimmied up there somehow, and was just about to climb over the top! I looked down and could see all sorts of police cars and fire trucks down there and people were scampering every which way to stay out of the jumper’s way.”

It was then that everything got real exciting according to my neighbor.

“I leaned out further,” Doc said, his eyes getting big, “and that fella had gotten himself over the railing and was leaning out into space while hanging on to one of the bars with one hand. It looked like he was having a staff meeting with himself to try to decide what to do.

“Then several police officers came out on the observation deck, shooing all the onlookers away, and started trying to talk that man out of jumping. At least that’s what I thought they were doing. I couldn’t really hear them. Maybe they were telling him to jump! Nah, just kidding.

“Anyways this guy was wearing a grey suit. Looked like he was on his way to work, you know. But he starts to leaning further out and the police officers started reaching for him. And just like that, he steps off the edge of the observation deck just like he was stepping off an elevator.”

I asked Doc what he did when the fellow jumped.

“Well, I didn’t really know what to do,” Doc said. “I knew I was too far away to be able to do anything to help him. So, I did what any good person would do. That was be friendly to him.”

Friendly to him I wondered?

“Sure,” Doc said. “A bit before he got to me, I yelled, ‘HEY, HOW’S IT GOING?’ And then, right as he went by, he yelled back, ‘OH, SO FAR SO GOOoood!’”

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