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Man vs. land, and man won

Photo by Ethelyn Pearson Don Carter

My thanks for the tip that mentioned Donald Carter had an interesting life that was worth the telling. His wife, Shirley, was a resident at Fair Oaks Lodge for a time.

Don was born in Britton, S.D., in 1927 to George and Esther. He was raised in Forman, N.D. A school day included riding a horse 9 miles each school day to Gwinner, N.D., where he graduated from the Forman High School. Thirty degrees below zero didn't faze his transportation.

During these years, Don hunted rabbits, skunks, fox and muskrats for spending money. One year he sold 500 muskrat hides at $1.90 each. It was what he was doing when his mother told him our 7th fleet at Pearl Harbor had been sunk.

When Don was 17 his father signed so he could join the Navy in 1945. He was sent to three months of intense training in a medical school, then sent to a base in Texas. He was there only a short time when he volunteered to go to Guam, crawling with Japanese and magnetic land mines.

In 1945 they were ordered out to sea, to deep water, where they had a better chance of surviving the 100-foot wall of water headed their way. It had lost its strength by the time their ship reached it.

Don was Navy master at arms of Navy Hospital 103 on Guam. He always drew night duty. Being master at arms meant it was his job to make sure no Japanese were hiding out in the dense undergrowth of the jungle near the hospital. For instance, if a coconut fell off a tree it registered and he had to check the area for enemy. It was a scary job he hated.

After Don was discharged he met Shirley Bodin in Minneapolis. When he left to come visit his father in Bertha, he took a gold cigarette case he knew she prized from her pocket, saying if she wanted it back she would have to come and get it.

When Don found work in Colorado he took the cigarette case along. Well, wouldn't you know it; she soon followed him to get it back. A short time later they were married on a Saturday night by a Justice of Peace.

After trying a number of things Don decided he would like to farm. When he spotted a 250 acre place, he asked Wadena County agent Miles Rowe to evaluate it for him. Big mistake! Or was it?

Maybe not, because when Rowe said: "That farm is on sand, no hardpan base to hold moisture. It is run down, needs almost everything. The last several farmers who have tried went broke on that place. Don't buy it. Save your money." It started a fire in Don that has never gone out. It became a challenge, his goal.

The next week Don bought it.

Don delved into building up this hungry piece of real estate with the bad reputation. He held back nothing. He gave it the applications of phosphorous, sulfur, potash and 5 tons of lime the University Farm in St. Paul recommended. He was the second farmer to install irrigation in Wadena County in 1976. As other farms around Don came for sale he bought them, giving them the same treatment, until he owned 700 acres.

Besides the farm Don put in 8-hour days in construction work. Nights often found him out in a field on a tractor. He had a beef herd and kept 100 sows to farrow, hiring help whenever he needed it.

Shirley worked as a bookkeeper for Merickel Lumber Company for many years, until a stroke crippled her in 1986. For the next 17 years, Don used the knowledge gained those years in the hospital on Guam to care for her at home, until she needed more when she became a resident at Fair Oaks Lodge for the last years of her life. She died in 2010. The Carters have a son and a daughter.

A few years ago, when Old Father Time, greedy old cuss that he is, started gaining on Don, he sold down to 127 acres to have something to do. He claims that he did not work all of the time. There were the many years he bowled, even having his own team for a time. All of his life he has been an avid hunter. A few years ago he toured China, just because he wanted to see it, to walk on the Great Road of China.

While Don has mostly enjoyed agreeable times, life wouldn't be without a few setbacks. Having his house burn down in 1954 was one of them. With the help of neighbors he built a small building the family lived in for 3 years until he saved enough money to build his house.

As Don prospered he shared with community, like when he wrote out a check to help make the physical therapy unit at Fair Oaks Lodge more modern and efficient.

Time and space limits the telling of the many interesting things Don has done and places he has been. For instance, like the time he was called in as a mortician to perform an autopsy on one of the many bodies ranked in the hospital refrigerated unit awaiting a doctor's diagnosis. The experience taught him much.

The journey through the years, the self-assigned job of turning a patch of sand into a productive unit of soil any farmer could be proud to own, has been profitable and interesting. The thought that he would like to be out of debt by the time he was 40 often occurred to him. He was.

Our afternoon is growing thin, but out of curiosity, I wanted to know one more thing, so I asked, "In all the times, what thing or incident really scared the britches off you?"

Without preamble, Don said: "On Guam, when alone in the jungle at night, I had to cruise it for the enemy whom I knew were hiding everywhere with magnetic mines. When the brush rustled behind me, I froze stiff. A Japanese was sneaking up, I was sure.

"I turned, ready to shoot, when in my army battle lamp's light, sat a Guatnamese dog. Relief flooded over me. I stuck the barrel of my gun under his nose. I said, 'Dog, I should shoot you for scarring me like that, but I won't.' I shook the rest of the night.

"Another time, on our way to Guam after passing Saigon and Tinian, we were roused out in the middle of the night to dress and be ready because a Japanese magnetic mine was seen drifting head-on in line with our ship. The only chance we had at this close proximity was to shoot it. We knew the odds of hitting so small a bobbing target with one shot in this restlessly moving sea at night.

"The next order was to get ready to abandon ship if the shot missed, and by the way, there weren't enough lifeboats to go around. They forgot to mention the sea in these waters was alive with sharks.

"Let me tell you, when that mine exploded with a glare into the night sky, a thankful roar went up from that ship that could have been heard all the way to the mainland! It was a time I will never forget."

Then Don said, "My life's goal has been to get that poor excuse of a farm, with sand that leaked water like a sieve, into a shape that a farmer and work with and make it, raise a family. Stop by some day and I will show you the awards on my wall for winning the Corn Growers Association Award for the Northern Section eight times. I think I've reached my goal, don't you?"