“It’s all part of the trainee program.” That was the phrase that has lingered as I think of that summer day on our farm in Wisconsin, the day the powers-that-be decided to butcher my whole flock of chickens. There were 30 birds, not that many compared to Foster Farms, but still we had a little assembly line going in the back yard.
Removing feathers, innards, and feet. You could even see the eggs in various stages of development. No wonder I am a vegetarian now!
We had the help of three good sports for this unpleasant task, young “trainees” from Denmark: Jens, John, and Jenny.
My dad had an arrangement with the American Scandinavian Foundation that sent a series of young Danish men to come to our farm to work and to learn American farming methods. We usually had at least two Danes at any one time. They would stay about six months and then go to California for another half-year of training, learning different methods of agriculture in each state. They lived up stairs at my grandmother’s house a quarter mile away, but my mom always fed them breakfast after the early morning milking. So as a young girl I could listen to the conversations around the family breakfast table, learning something about a different culture as these young fellows struggled to perfect their English.
The most remarkable of these young men was John. (My dad would anglicize their names, so we never knew him by his real name, Johannes Bitsch Jensen.) Full of humor and spunk, he would entertain us at breakfast with his 10 Words for the Day. Prepared with his dictionary, he would select the next 10 English words he wanted to learn. Then he would have us explain the words, the pronunciation, and how the words would be used. You see, he had a secret agenda. He really wanted to become an English teacher, not a farmer. But he didn’t tell the American Scandinavian Foundation that. Still, he was no slacker; he gave all he had to the farming tasks, such as the chicken butchering project, along with his humorous and upbeat comments.
But all was not completely well with John. He started to mention his girlfriend Jenny who he missed terribly. My dad would urge him to add extra sugar to his coffee so he could get the sweetness he was missing another way. That was not enough, and soon John had persuaded us to have Jenny come too. She lived with us; it would not be proper for her to live at my grandmother’s in the same house as her boyfriend, after all.
She was a delight, so lovable, and a thorough worker. After doing the supper dishes she would practically wash the whole kitchen. We all missed them when they left for California for the next stage of their U.S. experience.
Letters kept coming, and soon after they returned to Denmark we received a photo of John and Jenny in their wedding garb. Three children followed and each Christmas there would be a letter from John detailing the progress of his family, and his job as a teacher and finally principal. My parents made several trips to Denmark to visit. One time they all met in Paris. After college on my European tour I visited too. Jenny and John asked me to bake them an apple pie and they introduced me to a real smorgesboard and aquavit, a Scandinavian schnapps. Years passed and their youngest daughter came as an au pair to Santa Monica, and John and Jenny came to visit me here in Laguna. I needed a lemon for the paella I was fixing and went outside to pick it. They took a photo of the lemon picking and still talk about that amazing event.
Alfredo and I spent several days with them in Denmark in 2002. We cooked a Mexican meal for the family including their grown daughter and grandkids. In the morning from the upstairs window of their farm house we could see John in his little cap, now retired from school and a gentleman farmer, walking his geese to their grazing area.
Months after we returned we had a telephone call from John. “The doctor says I won’t be having very many more birthdays.” He had cancer, he explained. Sad, powerless, and so far away, I sent him a packet including the book, “Tuesdays with Morrie.” On his last call he said that he liked it and that he had gotten a Danish version for Jenny. Then we learned that he had died.
Early this year amid all the usual junk mail we received a real letter, addressed by hand. It was from Henrik, Jenny and John’s grandson. He had been working in the U.S. as a caregiver, to get some experience before deciding on his college studies, and was touring California before returning home.
Fortunately for him we had no chickens to butcher, but we did sit around the breakfast table and talk about old times.