Ode and Me
On May 5, 2018, family and friends gathered at Knife River Lutheran to say goodbye to Oden Alreck. Ode was my dear friend for 40 years. Since he never talked about himself, I felt compelled to tell a few of the adventures he and I shared.There were many more.
I came to serve North Shore Baptist in Duluth in August, 1977. The church had gone through a difficult period that threatened its survival. Then kerfuffles in two a sister churches sent North Shore new families, breathing in life and vigor. Oden and Joanne Alreck were among the new families. They attended Sunday mornings but I rarely saw them at social functions.
I didn’t know Ode well until we tackled a longstanding problem. When winter winds blew, the heat flew from the the basement fellowship hall stairway and out the front door each time it was opened. You kept your boots on. A curtain at the foot of the stairs helped until a service man fell, blamed the curtain, and sued the church. The curtain was removed.
A windbreak at the foot of the stairs was the obvious solution. I sketched a plan, ordered materials, and called a work day. Ode showed up with a serious tool box. When I showed him my sketch, he smiled. I yielded leadership to the pro and a bond began to form.
New Man in the Church
One Sunday a middle-age man accompanied by a junior-age boy showed up. We’ll call him Ron. He dropped off the lad for Sunday school and left but returned for the worship service. Ron seemed uneasy, but the lad fit right in. Front row at my kids’ time.
As I edged into Ron’s life, I learned booze had cost him his family. He sobered up and met a younger woman with kids who had left a miserable marriage. Acrophobia kept her close to her apartment and Ron visited often, finally persuading her to marry him. They moved into to Ron’s motorhome not far from North Shore.
One Sunday in late fall Ron asked me if I knew where he could find heavy-cardboard packing cases. I said sure, but why. He explained that his mobile home was not skirted and the floors grew really cold in the winter. Cardboard won’t work, I told him. The first rain would take it down. Ron figured rain was unlikely so late in the season; he had to something. He couldn’t handle proper sheeting. Hold off, I said. Let me think on it. I phoned Ode.
Saturday morning a crew showed up at Ron’s home. Ode’s rig held all-weather chipboard, lumber, paint and power tools. Ode measured and cut; the crew framed the mobile home, screwed on chipboard and rolled on paint. By noon the motorhome was professionally skirted.
All morning Ron had protested, “I can’t pay you!” “Of course you can’t” I replied. “You’re part of the family. The Church maintains a fund for such needs. No one but this crew will ever know.” We packed our tools and went home.
Barrel Stove Evangelism
There’s more to the story. Back in the 50s, the Lampsons, an older family, gave 17 wooded acres on Chub Lake to the South Arrowhead Baptist Association (SABA) in memory of their challenged adult son who died. They asked that the property be used as a recreation center for kids.
Choosing Camp Green Hill as a name, volunteers developed a swimming area, boat launch, ball field, washrooms, and a spacious lodge. Families cleared RV and tent sites and built picnic tables. The camp thrived, requiring a resident manager, and that made funding a challenge.
New pastors came to the churches, some with priorities that did not include camping. Pressed for funds, an aggressive launched an initiative to give Camp Green Hill to a rescue mission. I arrived on the scene.
I saw the camp as a treasure and poked around. No one knew where the camp documents were. When the issue of giving away the property came up for a vote, I protested: “We can’t give it away; the donors are still living. Have you read the articles of incorporation?” I was reasonably sure no one had. They motion lost.
A year later, the offended pastors set up a scheme to sell the camp to a developer to fund the start-up of a SABA outreach at the University of Minnesota Duluth (two such ministries already existed.) They arranged a meeting stacked with supporters. By then I had found the Camp Green Hill documents and noted voter eligibility was determined by church size. A quorum could not be determined. The sale issue went up in smoke.
Hell hath no fury like preachers scorned. In the turmoil that followed, SABA reorganized, separating out Camp Green Hill. I found myself chairman to the new management committee.
Prior to the melee, SABA had dedicated funds to enlarge the lodge kitchen, a long-time issue. With the SABA fiscal year winding down, I was reasonably sue those funds would be withdrawn under the new management plan.
I called Ode. We drove to camp. He walked around the expansion area, tape in hand. Over coffee, he came up with a materials list. I placed an order. I felt it imperative to pound some nails before the end of the year. I called for a workday the Saturday after Christmas.
A cold snap settled over the Northland. The lodge’s only heat source was a rusted barrel stove with the smoke stack stuffed up the fireplace chimney. Little wonder no one showed up to work but me, Ron, his foster son and two of his friends.
The well-bundled boys went sliding. Ron and I fired up the barrel stove and grabbed our hammers. The work went slow—it is tough pounding nails wearing mitts. Finally we gave up and sought out the barrel stove, Thermos and goodies in hand.
Ron had not been a church man prior to North Shore. He was profoundly moved by the skirting project. He listened intently to my preaching. As we sipped coffee, absorbing what little heat the stove offered, Ron said, “Pastor, what does it mean to be a Christian?” We talked and prayed and a few weeks later I baptized him. I remember Ode’s declaration as he held up his hammer: “This is my pulpit.”Top of Form
Wally Olson ranks up there with Ode as one of my all-time special friends. Here’s how those men became fast friends:
Wally showed up at the March SABA pastors’ meeting—a new bunch since the Camp Greenhill divide. Wally reported progress on the new mission house to be built at Lac La Croix, a remote Native village in Canada. He displayed the floorplan: 20 by 36 feet. I shook my head. That’s a box car, Wally. All we can afford he replied. I looked again and asked Wally if he could come to my study the next morning. I wanted him to meet someone who might be able to help. He agreed to come. I went home and phoned Ode.
Wally and Ode clicked immediately. Ode examined Wally’s sketch and asked how the building would be used and how much the Fort Francis lumber supplier wanted. What are you doing Saturday? Ode asked. Early Saturday they headed north to Fort Francis, a new building design with nearly twice the space in Ode’s folder. They returned with a contract for materials delivered to the building site for about the same as Wally’s plan. But there was one nervous missionary: Ode had negotiated a five percent discount for cash, far more than Wally had.
Time was the critical factor. Lac La Croix was accessible only by plane, boat, and an ice road over lakes and portages. The weather had turned mild. Within days, I boarded Ode’s truck bound for Crane Lake where we would rendezvous with Wally and the supplier.
The Road to the Village
The ice road from Crane Lake to Lac La Croix village ran about 20 miles over lakes and portages, some with steep hills and occasional marshy spots. Puddles were already forming on the lake track. South-exposure portage trails would be muddy.
Ode drove a 4wd three-quarter ton pickup. Wally’s beat-up 4wd Jeep sported a sturdy winch, which saved our skins on every hill. The supplier arrived in two vehicles: a rear-powered van and overloaded, one-ton stake truck with small duals.
It was an extended marshy spot that beat us. Wally had no problem—slow and easy. The truck driver attempted to plow through, counting on momentum. He bogged down. He revved the engine; the dual wheels screamed; a rear tire blew. Unbelievably, the truck had no wheel wrench.
Wally worked his way back around the truck to attempt to winch the truck out backward. No go. There was nothing to do but unload. Soon a heap of lumber, windows, doors, paneling, roofing, and hardware lay on the side of the trail. The supplier tried to talk Oden and Wally into hauling the stuff the rest of the way but we were running out of time. Empty, the truck could roll with one dual missing. A forlorn supplier headed back to Fort Francis to return the next morning with a proper rig. We loaded the most vulnerable supplies and we reached the village without incident.
Wally was respected in the village. Stashing our load in a secure building, we touched bases with the elders and began the drive home.
Throughout the harrowing day, I noted how easily Ode and Wally worked together; laughing, joking—Norwegian/Swede stuff. That bond strengthened through many years loaded with adventures. One day, Ode and I wept together as Wally headed homeward.
A lot has changed since Ode and Wally built the Lac la Croix mission house. A land road has been pushed through from the north. The village name has been changed. But old traditions and problems continue
It took about six weeks to complete building the mission house. Native-born Art Holmes and his wife moved in. Art was an alcohol-dependency counselor and ordained minister. He served for several years; then a new chief was elected who booted Art out and the mission house became a home for several villagers.
Wally somehow came up with the money to pay cash to the supplier and gain the five-percent discount Ode had negotiated. The dealer delivered the materials safely and Wally recruited week-long work crews from churches. North Shore men took the first weekend. I felt obligated to join them. Ode stayed on, neglecting his business back home.
Ode, Wally, and two Christian Native friends joined six North Shore men and construction began. The village picked the site, pointing out the graves of Little Moose and his wife. Care was taken not to disturb them. Village kids were a concern, but though older teens played tricks, they but did not create problems. Younger kids were constantly up close and personal.
At one point I asked foreman Ode for an assignment equal to my talent. He handed me a shovel and pointed out the outhouse spot. Sandy soil made digging easy and I tolerated the kids who danced about, kicking in dirt about as fast as I could shovel it out. I was down about five feet when ground water began seeping up. Ode gave my work his approval and ordered me in the pit for a photo. Every kid hopped in hole with me! That evening I was awarded a PhD–pottyhole digger.
You Men are Kind to Kids.
For the second time, a change in village chiefs had cost Wally a mission house. Many would say that’s it! What a waste of missionary dollars. But that’s not the way Wally saw it. He never gave up on Lac la Croix. The very act of building was missions—God fulfilling his purpose through his people. God is always doing more than we know.
The girl from 313 found a great quote: If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. Here are hidden values gained through the new building: A lifelong bond formed between Wally and Ode that endured through their lives with consequences it would take a book to tell. And I was reminded of my first Lac la Croix adventure.
It was he late 60s. I hung onto Wally as the snowmobile bounced over rough ice. It was the most decrepit machine in the world, but Home Missions, Wally’s supporting agency, had vetoed replacing it. Someday I’ll tell you how Wally got a new Rupp and I parlayed the process into a missionary lot in Mexico. God was laughing.
The first week with second mission house saw the crew clear the site, build the foundation, frame and sheet the 24 x 36 foot building. Then those who came by boat took off. As we waited for our float plane, we puttered, the small boys still underfoot. Hearing the plane, we headed for the dock, the kids clustering around me. One of them looked up and said, “You men are kind to kids.” That’s missions.
Saving Fredenberg Chapel
Fredenberg Chapel was in a rural setting about 20 miles north of Duluth. When I came as interim pastor, attendance was down, morale was low, and the building program was at a stand-still. The congregation needed a spark. I grabbed a hammer, called a super sheet rock Saturday, the women fixed lunch, and fresh breezes blew.
Pros had constructed the large metal structure; volunteers from the chapel took it from there. Some were artisans, some broom and shovel people. When I was assigned to build a wall in the balcony, I asked to see the blueprint and they chuckled. Work was mostly room by room seat of your pants. No blueprint.
Early on we ran into a major problem. The main stairs to the lower level would never pass inspection. Anyone six feet tall had to duck to clear the heading at the bottom. The first-level floor was precast reinforced concrete; the stairs were poured concrete. It seems there was no fix. I consulted with treasurer Harvey Sandstrom and phoned Ode.
Once again, I watched two men bond: Ode, a rough-hewn contractor; Harvey, a first-class artist. Ode took on the project at half his usual pay.
He solved the stair problem and one day pointed out another flaw. He stood with men at the head of balcony stairs looking down on the auditorium. “First time ten people stand here, this end of the balcony will collapse.”
The rest of the balcony was cantilevered over the rooms below, but there was no way to cantilever over stairs. He secured the balcony to the exterior wall. Ode stayed through major construction, often improvising the seemingly impossible.
We held the Christmas program in the new fellowship hall. When I left Fredenberg in the spring for other duties, the building was complete except for carpeting and lighting. Had it not been for Ode, the project could have died.
Somewhere Ode was Grinning
My years of friendship with Ode enriched me more than I can tell, but sometimes he was downright sneaky.
North Shore Church folded a few years after I left, destroyed by two my-way-or-no way pastors. Finally, sixteen remaining members convened and the pastor’s motion to disband prevailed. The property reverted to the denomination, which put it up for sale.
While the sale was in progress, a small group of North Shore friends secured the use of the Fireside Room to cluster around a young mother hit by cancer. They met Sunday mornings under Clyde Roger’s leadership. Though I had followed North Shore’s sad decline, I hadn’t heard about the group.
Then Elsie seriously injured her back and I became a full time home caregiver. As her mobility declined, church attendance faded and we missed it.
I had kept in touch with Ode and Joanne, early casualties at North Shore. Ode had friends in the care group. One morning he phoned. He said the group needed help. I suggested we meet at Clyde’s to talk it over. We agreed on a date. I showed up but Ode didn’t. The following Sunday, Elsie and I made our way to the Fireside Room.
The group eventually morphed into a house church with Clyde and I sharing leadership–Elsie could handle a lounge chair. We enjoyed nearly three years of blessed fellowship.
Somewhere, Ode was grinning.
The Old Trapper’s Cabin
My stories with Ode could go on forever. I’ll share one more, set in a Bible camp in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
In 1991 I served as interim director at Lake Ellen Bible Camp near Crystal Falls. I had had a hand in the camp’s beginnings 20 years before. Good leadership had built attractive buildings and a strong program around the waterfront and ball fields, utilizing about 20 of the camp’s nearly 400 acres, which included small Loon Lake.
I believe every camp should offer its kids an outpost experience. Nature will speak to hearts, if we give it a chance. When the board asked me to suggest ways to enhance the camp’s outreach, my mind flew to the outpost potential of Loon Lake. I proposed building two shelters for cabin group overnights. Board members listened politely but I gathered they had other priorities.
In a moment of insanity, I asked if the board would allow an outpost if I could pull it off without involving staff or camp dollars. I got an OK. I had no idea how I could pull it off. My first camp newsletter reported the Lake Ellen Hunting, Fishing, Camping, and Literary Society whose sole purpose would be building an outpost on Loon Lake called Fort Brainerd.
By late summer, volunteers had built and paid for two Adirondack shelters and an old trapper’s cabin overlooking the lake. The cabin presented a problem. Its location on a steep bank called for a tricky foundation so that had not been accomplished.
That’s where the project stood when Garry Cropp came on board as director, ending my interim. It weighed on my mind as I returned home. I called Ode.
A week later Ode we were on our way to Lake Ellen. Volunteers were waiting. The lumber yard in Crystal Falls provided material, and with Ode as ramrod, we built the hillside foundation, deck and railings in three days. We headed home pleased.
The End…and Beginning
This wraps up the Ode and Me series but memories stirred in my heart will last forever, however much forever I have left. My prayers send comfort to Joanne and her family. Life gives each of us only a few deep friendships around whom we build our days. Ode with his hammer pulpit rests in the top shelf of my toolbox.
Lloyd Mattson 2018