America was even greater then.
Father would have been 101 years old today, 4 July 2020. Jerome L. Blaska was proud that he was born on the Fourth of July, fought in WW2, served in the state legislature, and raised a hard-working family. He was also proud of his field crops. He shared his birth date on Independence Day with older sister Evelyn (Owens) (1910) and younger sister Juanita “Dolly” Blaska (1920).
As a result, Independence Day was an even more consequential event at the John M. and Rose (Schuster) Blaska farm house on County VV east of Sun Prairie dating at least to 1910. In my very young years, the celebration was held on that farm, then at Angell Park in Sun Prairie.
My Boomer generation of the family mostly associates the celebration of our nation’s birth date — for it was a celebration (not an occasion to denounce) — with Uncle Cy’s stewardship of the tradition.
Deal the cards
Cyril and Grace (Counsell) Blaska hosted annual Independence Day parties at their farm north of Watertown full of beer, buttered sweet corn and peas. And red, white and blue flags, balloons, and streamers. Everywhere! After eating the younger set played volleyball and the older generation settled into euchre — the ladies at one card table, the four brothers at another table.
(Aunt Evelyn, who became a professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, titled her autobiography: Deal the Cards. Her book relates how Grandma Rose, well into her 90s, is told that son John Jr. has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. She thinks on that for awhile, then announces “Deal the cards.”
(Many years later father Jerome was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer; the Lovely Lisa asked how he felt about it. He responded, “I guess I’ll just have to deal with it.”)
Cy Blaska was known as the King of Corn and the Prince of Peas, given his leadership role in Wisconsin vegetable processing. Cy liked to direct the operation through a bullhorn. One year Bulgarians situated at Uncle Greg and Cousin John’s dairy operation were invited. They loved waving the American flag. Cy barked into the bullhorn: “Would someone please feed the foreigners. Feed the foreigners.”
Among the family were a smattering of priests and ancient religious nuns. Still remember Cy’s amplified voice commanding “Feed the priest. Will someone please feed the priest.” Father Val Schuster — kin to Grandma Rose (1885-1979) — of Oconomowoc married us. His brother Wilfred started St. Maria Goretti Church here in Orchard Ridge, Madison. They grew up on the farm across the road from ours.
Boil the sweet corn
Brother Mike, Cousin John and cousin-in-law Gordie Howe (Margaret Blaska) boiled the sweet corn. Cy chased various blood relatives out of the kitchen because they were not preparing the peas properly. He paid my wife the ultimate complement, “You’re the best Blaska of them all” after he approved of her peas.
Uncle Greg liked to gig his older brother by transplanting a stalk of field corn from his farm — it came up to a man’s armpit — into Cy’s field, which was only knee-high, then tease him about it. It was a competitive family.
Also political, which meant a lot of speechifying. The various members had run for and served on city councils, town boards, county boards of supervisors, school boards, and the state legislature. As well as farm and veterans organizations. Cy co-chaired WI Democrats for Nixon in 1972.
As darkness fell on Cy and Grace’s farm, a huge pile of brush chock-a-block with high grade explosives was doused in gasoline and then lit. For good measure, your correspondent retrieved his father’s firearm and fired into the exploding fury.
Should have given my sweetheart a laminated card the first time she was exposed to the family to identify the crowd of cousins emanating from the nine Blaska siblings of the Greatest Generation. (circa 1982)
The last of the Greatest Generation left us in December 2016 — Laura (Klein) Blaska (Mrs. Gregory) formidable in her own right. They farmed great-grandpa’s land. Sad to say, we, their descendants, have let the tradition lapse except, one year, for the remarkable Jessica (Blaska) Grady, John and Liz’s daughter.
The nine Blaska siblings, most of whom came of age during the Great Depression and five of whom served in WW2, were raised Catholic, Democrat and close to the soil. As were their children. We learned that one worked for what they got. It was expected that you serve the larger community. We loved our state and nation, we fought injustice.
We never thought that we were the problem with America. Not then, not today.