Those Vetter Boys | Prairie Public Broadcasting

Those Vetter Boys

Nov 28, 2020

If you’ve been listening to my rambling remarks over the years, you know that I am a lover of calendars--agricultural, academic, religious, recreational, you name it--and in fact, I consider calendars, the demarcation of life in cycles, and the overlapping of calendars in reinforcement or tension, to be fundamental to a rich life on the prairies.

Since April I have had this item on my calendar every Friday night: the Willow Creek Folk School, a livestreaming webcast wherein Dr. Kelley and I offer an exploration of the folksong of the Great Plains. Just to complicate things, a few weeks ago I committed to write each week a new, original song, a calendar ballad, inspired by the events of the week. The cycle began the night before Halloween, with a ballad welcoming “Dakota in November.”

We’re digging in like badgers here on our homestead claim
Outside a lonesome coyote calls and winter is his name
Some frozen night I’ll hear him singing underneath the moon
I’ll follow him and sing along because I know that tune

The next week I was stuck for a while, until I remembered, of course, this ballad is for the first Friday in November! And that while I pecked away, a recreational regiment was mobilizing across the northern plains.

Home again, home again
We hear the home place call
For Friday noon is open deer
The best day of the fall

That was when I realized that some of these ballads would write themselves, because our prairie calendar is studded with regular events of generally acknowledged significance. And another one was coming: the Dakota Bowl, North Dakota’s high school football championship games, played in the FargoDome. The nine-man game, for the small-town schools, was what drew me--Cavalier Tornadoes v. Linton Lions. The Cavs and the Lions won their way through a bracket of sixteen, and so the ballad begins,

There were sixteen teams in the 9-man bracket (Hoorah Johnny and a-Hoorah Johnny) / There were sixteen teams in the 9-man bracket long time ago / Long time ago, long time ago / There were sixteen teams in the 9-man bracket long time ago

The ballad names all sixteen teams, then offers some observations about the final combatants, such as, “Those Vetter boys don’t miss many meals,” referring to 300-pound left tackle Derek Vetter and a younger, but already strapping, cousin. Sure enough a day or two later I heard from Derek’s mom, Kirsten Vetter, who loved the ballad. She explained that every day she kept a whole chicken or a crockpot of sloppy joes on hand for when Derek and the tackle on the other side of center, Aaron Hoff-Ward, 305 pounds, came in for a snack.

The most recent calendar ballad is less celebratory, for as the COVID-19 outbreak surges, the public mood is dark as a December evening.

I hear people speak of underlying conditions
These are the excuses of rank politicians
We all have conditions--I’m Lutheran, you see
Original sin and mortality

Fasting & prayer, boys, fasting & prayer
Just who is our neighbor? is the question we share
On the road from Jerusalem to Jericho
We know what to do and where we should go

I’ll sing it as well as say it, For God’s sake, friends, think about your neighbors and take care of them. Let’s try to keep every grandpa and grandma around for another November, another open deer, another Dakota Bowl.

-Tom Isern