Bess Jackson: “What train are you going on?”
By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — The first Christmas after Bess and Merlin Jackson were married in October of 1943 was bittersweet.
“Merlin came home on leave in May, and we got engaged. Then he came home again in October, and we got married. For Christmas that year, I went to Denver to be with him,” Bess recalled.
“We were there just a few days, and he was shipping out. I was sitting in the train depot in a big waiting room for ladies. And I heard somebody yell my name, and I turned around, and he was standing in the door, and he said, ‘what train are you going on?’ And I told him, and he said, ‘I’m on the same one!’ I came home to Menomonie, and he went overseas (to England), and he was gone a couple of years,” she said.
Bess and Merlin have been Colfax residents for more than 30 years.
Bess grew up in Iowa, but she and her family returned to Menomonie because her grandparents lived on a farm west of Menomonie. She attended “Aggie,” the Dunn County Agricultural High School, and the Dunn County Normal School.
Merlin, who was born and raised in this part of Wisconsin, was in the United States Army and served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
For most of the time that the Jacksons have been in Colfax, they lived in a house on University Avenue. They celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary in 2013.
A little over a year ago, Bess moved into an assisted living apartment at the Colfax Health and Rehabilitation Center.
Merlin, who is now suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, moved to CHRC in June of 2014.
Bess goes to visit Merlin three or four times a day, and sometimes, Merlin is successful in talking CHRC staff members into bringing him to see Bess.
“We’ve had Christmases all over. I remember the first time we had Christmas at Fort Carson, Colorado, and we went to the base for Christmas dinner, and I couldn’t believe that I didn’t have to have a sweater on. I could go in short sleeves. I couldn’t believe it, thinking of Wisconsin winters. It was very unusual,” Bess said.
Bess does not remember much about Christmas presents when she was a little girl, although she vividly remembers a gift her brother received.
“I remember one time when I was growing up, I had a little sled. Two-and-half-feet long, something like that. And for Christmas, the folks brought my brother a new sled. And I can’t help but say I was a little jealous. Because he got a nice big new sled, and I had this little one. Christmas was not lots of money spent, but it was good,” she said.
Bess grew up during the Great Depression. Her father worked for the railroad, and since he was one of the younger men, he was bumped from job to job by older men with more seniority until finally there were no more railroad jobs left to move into. After that, a friend offered him a job at a creamery in Iowa.
“He worked six days a week, from six in the morning to six at night. And he got $40 a month wages. We rented a little house with no running water — $7 a month rent. We lived in Central City for eight years, and at the end of that eight years, he was making $80 a month and milk and cream and butter. And he bought a car and saved $500,” Bess said.
“Grandpa and Grandma lived here, west of Menomonie. And the farm across the road from them became available for my dad’s $500. So we moved back. He went to work in Milwaukee for a while. Then he came back and worked at the creamery in Elmwood. I grew up from first grade to sophomore in high school in Iowa,” she said.
When asked if Bess’s brother let her use his new sled, she said, “Oh, yes! He was a good brother. He ended up being a teacher in Menomonee Falls for 30 years. He went to Aggie, too. A lot of people around Dunn County know him. His name was Bob Williams. He was a great brother,” she said.
While Merlin served in the Army, the Jacksons lived in Japan on two different occasions.
“We had two tours in Japan. We were there in 1953 and 1954 and again in 1960 and 1961,” Bess said.
“Merlin always said he never saw any place that was as pretty as Dunn County. After he got out of the Army, he went to northern Wisconsin to a little town called Leona, 50 miles east of Rhinelander. He taught maintenance in the Job Corps Center for almost 13 years,” she said.
Merlin then took a course in sewer plant management, and after that, there was an opening in Oregon in the ranger district.
“You had to have a certified operators license. We lived there for three years. It was 60 miles to buy a gallon of milk, up the mountain. He loved the job, and he loved it out there. After three years, I was ready to come back to civilization,” Bess said.
“He said, ‘where do you want to live? We’ll retire.’ And I said, ‘Momma’s in Colfax.’ So we came back on leave, bought a house and retired here. That was in 1981,” she said.
“I went to Aggie. Then I went upstairs to Normal. From there I taught school at Miller Hill (by Knapp). During the time Merlin was in the Army and he was stationed in Indianapolis, I was very bored. With both kids in school, I decided to go back to school, and I became an LPN. While he was with the Job Corps in Leona, I was the charge nurse in a 50-bed nursing home for over 12 years,” Bess said.
“We had a couple of Christmases in Japan, but they weren’t much different than any of our other Christmases,” she said.
“We always had a turkey and a ham and lots of pies for Christmas. The kids like cheesecake, so I always had a cheesecake,” she said.
One year, Bess bought Merlin a gun for Christmas for deer hunting.
“But he picked it out. He was a great deer hunter. That’s why the boys all are. They took after their dad. He always had them all out (to go deer hunting),” she said.
“My most memorable Christmas present was — Merlin and I had been married many years. He had gone to Korea to the war. I had two little boys at that time, and we moved back to Menomonie while he was gone. He left on the 7th of December. Christmas was very blue that year,” Bess said.
“One day underneath my Christmas tree appeared a big box. And it was from my mother. I opened it on Christmas morning, and it was a set of dishes that she had dearly loved. She had gotten them as Larkin gifts. She had been a Larkin dealer when I was a toddler. It was a beautiful set of dishes. She knew I always loved them. Because Christmas was so lonely that year, she gave me the dishes,” Bess said.
When asked what the dishes looked like, Bess stood up and went to her cupboard.
As it turns out, 60 years later, she still has those dishes.
“The pattern is a cabin by the lake. They are hand-painted Noritake China. A little cabin by the lake. One thing that was always interesting, when the Japanese hand-paint dishes, they had a little place set off to the side so no one would walk by and jar his arm so he didn’t make mistakes. But you could tell they were hand-painted dishes because none of them were the same. One would have the door here and the window here, and the next one would have the door there and the window there. They were not identical,” Bess said.
“I was very thrilled. It made Christmas what it should be. He was gone, and I didn’t know when he would make it back,” she said.
“My mom was a great lady. She lived here (in Colfax) until she died. She was a woman who always wanted to be married. My dad died of a heart attack when he was only 41. So she remarried. They were married 17 or 18 years, and he died of a heart attack. She married Elmer Salsaa, and they lived here in Colfax. Then he died. In the end she was alone. She lived with us the last years of her life,” Bess said.
Bess and Merlin have three sons, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
One of their grandsons is superintendent in the Loyal school district.
“All the time we lived here in Colfax, the family always came home, and the last few years there were 20 of us. And it was so nice to have everybody together. But now I couldn’t have them here in this little home (the assisted living apartment at Colfax Health and Rehab),” Bess said.
One of Bess and Merlin’s sons and his wife are planning on having Christmas at their house. Last year, they went to another son’s house for Christmas.
Of their three boys, one lives north of Colfax, one lives east of Colfax, and one lives in Fall Creek.
Bess says she is not driving anymore outside of Colfax. The son who lives in Fall Creek is retired, so he takes them to their doctor’s appointments when they need to go.
“I can’t believe Merlin is 94, and I’m 90,” Bess said.
Lately, Bess has been sewing quilted table runners to keep herself busy.
Each piece has many little squares and triangles of fabric sewn together.
Bess says she enjoys finding the material and matching up a variety of colors to make a unique pattern.
She obviously inherited her mother’s knack for sewing. Her mother sewed Bess’s wedding dress with only a week’s notice.
“My vision is failing fast, so I don’t know how long I’m going to be able to keep sewing. There’s a mistake on each one,” Bess said with a laugh.
Sewing the table runners takes two days to finish one of them.
“I don’t do anything else. But I’ve made so many of them, that I have it down. My vision is going. But I’ll do them as long as a I can,” she said.
This year, Bess took her quilted table runners to the craft sale held each year the opening Saturday of gun deer season at the Grapevine Senior Center.
Bess says she has had a long and happy life.
“I’ve been lucky. I’ve known great people all my life. And I’ve had a good husband,” Bess said.