I believe most everyone remembers the first time they saw a dead person. It’s usually not a traumatic event, but it is a memorable one. For me it was late January 1951, when I was almost 9 years old.
Our nearest neighbors to the Scheckel farm on Oak Grove Ridge in the heart of Crawford County 2 miles northwest of Seneca were two Irish bachelor brothers, Joe and Bill Bernier. Like the Scheckel family, Joe and Bill attended St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Seneca.
Joe and Bill often walked the quarter mile up the Oak Grove Ridge road to visit Dad and Mom and to play cards. Joe always sat in the same rocking car. He was gregarious and talkative, whereas Bill was more quiet and taciturn. He wore a floppy hat and bib overalls.
Joe carried a tin of tobacco and a book of cigarette paper to roll his own cigarettes He would retrieve a bright red tin of Prince Albert tobacco from the bib of his overalls. He would shape the cigarette paper in the form of a trough, hold the trough of cigarette paper between two fingers. Holding the tin horizontally, Joe would tap the top side, moving back along the trough of paper, and carefully fill the cigarette paper with shredded tobacco.
Joe closed the lid on the tobacco can with one hand and while holding the tobacco filled tray in the other, and placed the Prince Albert can back in his bib overalls. Now, this is the only time he stopped talking.
Carefully, Joe Bernier took a hold of both sides of the tobacco tray paper, brought it up to his lips, ran his tongue along the outside, lowered it, and carefully brought the other side of the tobacco paper over the top of the exposed tobacco and gently pressed it against the wetted side. It made a nice seal. Joe would start talking again.
Joe placed the “roll your own” cigarette in corner of his mouth, jiggling it up and down as he talked and laughed. He brought out a little box of matches, with one leg crossed over the other, the bottom of his shoe exposed to a striking match head. He brought the flame up to the end of the cigarette, took a few inhaling drags, and leaned far back in the chair, held his head back, and the smoke rose to the ceiling. Joe Bernier’s ritual never changed. Phillip, Bob and I found it fascinating. Joe could blow smoke rings. We boys would climb up on an adjacent chair and run our hands through the smoke ring.
Then we had to run upstairs to bed. Dad, Mom, Joe and Bill would play cards, either 500 or euchre. As we grew a little older, we could stay up a little later, and we would move around the table to see which player had the best hand.
In January 1951, Joe went to see Dr. Farrell at the Beaumont Hospital in Prairie du Chien. Dad and Mom went to see him. Dr. Farrell said it was just the flu, but Mom noticed that Joe’s eye was off to the side. She thought he had a stroke.
Joe was taken to the Frank and Loretta Weber home in Seneca to recover. Loretta was a Bernier, sister to Joe Bernier. The house, along with a small farm, also was owned at one time by Anton and Bessie Laskaskie. Bessie was also a Bernier. Joe died in bed during the night of January 28, 1951, a probable stroke. I believe Joe was around 50 years old.
I recall bits and pieces of the funeral. It was bitter cold. Dad later recalled that it was 30 below zero on January 30, 1951. I remember going into the Weber house in the evening, lots of people talking in low voices. My brothers, Phillip and Bob, walked over to the casket. It was the first time I saw a deceased in the casket. I don’t remember anything about the funeral Mass, but I remember seeing the casket being put into the ground, and there was no vault, as we have today, only a wooden casing.
My Dad said that Joe Bernier was the best friend he ever had.