November 6, 1987. Vice President George H.W. Bush was speaking in a college auditorium in Decorah, Iowa, three weeks after announcing he was going to run for president.
“As a people, we have moved during those years from Cold War fears, to the euphoria of detente, to the realism and skepticism that prevails today… I saw the reality of Soviet intentions and how often they are cloaked in disinformation and propaganda …[W]e must have an intelligence capability that is second to none in the world…”
Then, an interruption.
“Vice President Bush? Excuse me, Vice President Bush? This visit was advertised as an ‘Ask George Bush’ session, and I have questions for you about my farm.”
A hoarse voice was coming from below on the ground floor of the auditorium. I was in the balcony with my friends. My English teacher let us out of class early so we could get across town to the college and try to get a seat in the auditorium. The speech was for college students, faculty and “the public.” The vice president was traveling the region on a tour called “Ask George Bush.” When he was introduced, the audience was told that there would be no time for questions.
When the voice interrupted his speech, George Bush looked around to find the source of the question. The auditorium, which could accommodate 1,400, was over capacity. Students piled in the aisles; groups of people stood in tight clusters in back. The polite crowd looked around for the questioner among us. He must have arrived early because he had a plush velvet seat in the center of the room, 15 rows from the stage. Everyone leaned to see and then we all held our breath; the building, itself, seemed to hesitate on its foundation. And then, men in suits moved quickly toward the vice president and there was more movement coming from the auditorium’s perimeter.
“Vice President Bush, with all due respect, I have a question about my farm. You and Reagan have allowed the FmHA to call in Ag debt on thousands of family farms – some of them my neighbors – and…”
Bush stepped back from the podium, looked down, and smiled. When he glanced at the balcony, his eyeglasses flashed back at the dim spotlights staring at him from the ceiling. Two Secret Service agents had come to stand between him and the audience. I could see them exchanging words and chuckling.
I followed the movement along the perimeter of the auditorium with my eyes; more Secret Service agents filtered into the seated crowd toward a tall man, now standing in the middle of the auditorium. Here was the questioner. His overcoat was rumpled, and he was holding a faded orange seed cap in his hands. It was Ingolf. My Ingolf.
In childhood, I loved seeing Ingolf’s truck wind around the corner of our driveway and park in the gravel beside our sagging windmill. I was both scared and delighted by him. I watched him from a distance as he and my dad sat in aluminum folding chairs near the garage. What I loved about Ingolf is that his eyes glowed warmly when they settled on me; his eyes could tell great stories that I wanted to hear. The energy around him was like a bee hive, thrumming curiously and sweet. I wanted to hear the stories behind those eyes.
At church, Ingolf sat in the balcony just like I did. He sat alone on his side and I sat alone on my side. We were like bookends on an empty shelf. I imagine my dad chuckled at the two of us when he looked up from his pulpit. I could lean back in my chair, peek around the edge of the organ, and spy on Ingolf; he always had a 4-o’clock shadow and wrinkled shirts. His Sunday shoes were his work boots; bad manners, I thought. If he happened to glance my way, I ducked my head forward pretending that I was listening to the service.
He was angry at my dad, once. His truck leaned around the bend of our driveway and gravel dust was still coughing around him when he pounded on the sleeping porch’s aluminum door. My dad hollered to mother to tell Ingolf that he wasn’t home. Then, dad ran out the front door, down through the woods, and into the church to hide. Ingolf heard my dad holler at my mother, and he didn’t hesitate. He threw open the storm door and barged past my mother and into my dad’s study. Not finding him there, he noticed the front door standing ajar and took off after my dad through the woods. The sheriff came.
Sitting in this auditorium with the weight of the crowd leaning toward Ingolf, I wanted to protect him. I wanted to say, “No,” when men in suits took him by both arms and handled him. He was protesting and arguing with the men. I whispered “No.” Stefanie was sitting next to me. “What did you say?” she asked.
Afterward, I learned that the Secret Service had taken Ingolf outside and talked to him for awhile. They walked with him to his truck, and then they followed him in their own vehicle as he drove away from the auditorium and out onto a solitary paved road that winds through the valleys toward Minnesota. Satisfied that he was on his way, the Secret Service would make a wide U-turn at the “Y” in the road and, watching Ingolf’s taillight – because one was burned out – sink into the valley near an old quarry and a place where goats were pastured. They would backtrack to town as Bush’s retinue was, itself, cresting the southern ridge line on their way to another stop in the “Ask George Bush” tour.
Eleven days after the vice president’s speech, a neighbor called my dad to say that they couldn’t find Ingolf. Together with the neighbor, my dad searched the house and outbuildings at his farm; his brother hadn’t been able to locate him in the fields. When they finally found him, my dad was heartbroken. I have imagined the scene. My dad and the others stand in the doorway of the abandoned building. The neighbor with her hand tightly to her mouth spins around to walk outside. My dad leans against the vacant doorway taking a quiet breath. Everyone’s eyes are spilling tears. Ingolf died by his own hand.
As the Farm Crisis of the 1980’s unfolded around me and my family, a few – like Ingolf – took their own lives. One farmer even took the life of his wife before taking his own. A generation of farmers – grandchildren of immigrants – had been the backbone of a thriving family farm economy during the 1970’s. During that decade, the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA loans) and the Ag Department encouraged farmers to grow bigger: use the land as collateral to borrow. The government promoted this activity and assured farmers that there was nothing to worry about. Until the government changed its mind.
Kurt Lawton writes for Farm Progress, “Tight money policies by the Federal Reserve (intended to bring down high interest rates upwards of 21%) caused farmland value to drop 60% in some parts of the Midwest from 1981 to 1985.” There was a grain surplus so farmers couldn’t get back what they put into a single bushel of corn or beans. By 1984, farm debt had doubled. In Iowa alone, Iowa Public Radio records that the state averaged 500 farm auctions every month in 1983. A record 300,000 family farms were foreclosed on during the 1980’s Farm Crisis. Ingolf was one of the casualties.
One day, two years before the “Ask George Bush” tour, my dad was calling on parishioners down in the coulee past Ingolf’s place. The sun was getting ready to duck under the horizon; it was the close of day. My dad maneuvered his car up the steep, gravel road rising from this place – a coulee, a steep valley – one of hundreds which unfold into the Mississippi River basin below. He crested the intersection as the sun squeezed between the barn and house on Ingolf’s farm. It blinded him. He stopped the car and swiped the sun visor down so he could recover his vision. Gravel dust engulfed the car, curling through open windows, and powdering the dashboard. There was movement in the field beyond Ingolf’s house — the tractor. My dad sat there for a while watching Ingolf driving the tractor in circles and figure eights. He was standing up on the platform holding his hat in his hand, gesturing and yelling at the field and sky.
My dad took his foot off the brake and turned onto the road in front of Ingolf’s. He leaned into the passenger’s seat to get another look at what he was seeing. The sun was a fierce crimson and Ingolf, on his tractor, became a shimmering silhouette; he looked just like a god.
Sara June Jo-Sæbo is the author of an upcoming volume of history and storytelling from 1800s Virginia and Wisconsin and is curator for the Midwest History Project.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call 988 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741 to reach a trained counselor at the Crisis Text Line. You can also visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional support networks.
Farm Aid also maintains a Farmer Resource Network that offers information on a variety of topics, including mental health.