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General Manager's Report

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Natural Times, June/July/August 2017

Steve Kobs

Sumer picnics taught me the most valuable lessons of my life. I learned that Cracker Jacks are disgusting, discrimination can create love, and that I would never be beautiful.

Ottilie “Tillie” and Johann “Fred” KobsMy great-grandmother Tillie died a month after I was born. Ottilie “Tillie” Berndt was born in Berlin and came to Minneapolis in 1893. She met Johann “Fred” Kobs in a section of Minneapolis that would be home to generations of immigrants from Sweden, Ireland, Poland, Germany, Tibet, Cambodia, Viet Nam, Somalia, and Syria. Tillie and Fred got married for the simplest of reasons, they were both from Germany.

A quick scan of the, now annual, Kobs Family Picnic attendees reveals that we are built for windstorms and not beauty. The ladies wear practical shoes and have permed hair that can be done at home. The men look used, many walking with a catch in their step as they extend strong hands with short fingers for handshakes. If you leave us outside, our skin turns to leather. There are children, lots of them, happily running around unaware of what they will become, but now wearing sunscreen. The June heat bothers no one as the adults barely move from aluminum folding chairs and children are refreshed from a five-gallon galvanized milk-can now containing orange Kool Aid. Everyone, but noncompliant Millennials, has brought something to share.  Massive amounts of bubble gum are chewed in order for Cousin Mari to blow the biggest bubble each year. Without doubt, Mari is the best-looking cousin, even with her face covered with bubble gum, thanks to refreshing genes from Arlene. Bubble gum makes for the quietest part of the picnic. The Hokey Pokey is the loudest, singing and accordions.

Many dishes evoke praise and inquiry, “Ohhhh! Who made this?” Betty’s ambrosia salad is often imitated but never duplicated. Broccoli, carrots and beets appear in astonishing combinations as Rachael Ray influences a new generation of Kobs cooks. “I’ve never seen this before?” Uncle Hank shouted, as though his hearing aids make it hard for the rest of us to hear. “HANK, THAT IS BROCCOLINI! BROC – O – LEAN - EEEEE! IT IS A KIND OF BROCOLLI! Just try it for God’s sake.”

The pot luck also includes a lot of pathetic offerings next to the planned dishes that are packed in brightly colored plastic bowls with matching lids. Doug has brung a 5-piece KFC snack pack and, one year, there were a dozen White Castle sliders. I’ve seen Cousin Bruce put a Domino’s pizza on the folding table, two slices already missing. He can do whatever he wants; Bruce is one of the few family members that still smokes. I mostly remember Bruce because, the first time I felt dread was when I thought, “I am never going to see you again,” when he shipped out to war. Bruce came back from Viet Nam, but there are never enough cigarettes. These days, the church that Bruce’s part of the family goes sponsor dozens of Hmong and Somali refugees. No one really talks about it; discrimination, acceptance and love I mean.

After lunch, the “formal” part of the picnic begins when Beverly and Gretchen get out their accordions. Everyone stands and we sing the National Anthem. Uncle Fred, who lied about his age to enlist in the Navy after Pearl Harbor, puts his thick hand over his heart. Bruce stands, looking absent, with a burning cigarette at his side. Uncle Jerry, a career Army Staff Sergeant, is buried just two miles away. His wife, Arlene, does not get up. Children fidget waiting for this song to end.

Games follow. Aunt Margaret has prizes for all participants in wheelbarrow races, water balloon toss and the egg (raw) toss. The prizes for kids rival Halloween and include dangerous small plastic toys, all manner of candy and a box of Cracker Jacks. Anyone can guess what is in the small box, wrapped like a Christmas present. Hint: Margaret works in a dental office so it is almost always something from her office.

Each year, during the long drive home, we assess the prizes we got from the picnic. My sisters and brother start to devour the Cracker Jacks, a treat we never got at home. Fine with me. I only eat as much as is needed to get to the prize inside. “Jacks” make my stomach hurt, the prize is always underwhelming and my fingers are hopelessly stuck together. As my Dad drove, I asked him why the Anthem was played at the picnic. His answer was short, “We need to show we are Americans.” We did not really talk about things.

What he meant to say was that Tillie and Fred had to work harder than everyone else to prove they were worthy to be in America. They expected their children to do the same. When WWI began, German-Americans were treated with suspicion, something that made life more challenging. America, though, had a very small part in that war. When Hitler rose to power, German-Americans were thought to be potential spies. Even my grandfather, a junior high school janitor, was isolated and ostracized. Apparently, Henry Kobs knew some secrets about public education that could help the Nazis. 

After going to enough picnics, I figured out a few things. That I was given the genetics to work hard, not say much and have trouble digesting flavored popcorn. That someone in every family took a huge risk to do something new and were disrespected for taking that chance. During horseshoes, the three-legged race, and the drive home, I figured out that the way to be “American” is to welcome all the new risk takers during their journey.

 

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