When the city fathers here in Whitehall (population 1,545) decided to go with fluoride at the town's waterworks, our citizenry went crazy. They weren't worried about a Commie plot. Instead, their overwhelming concern was how the "new water" would affect the taste of coffee.
For these hardy denizens of the epicenter of Norwegian America, coffee is not just a brown fluid with which you wash down a prune danish or yukky stuff you bolt down in the feeble hope it will cure a hangover.
Nope. Coffee in the upper Midwest is a way of life, morning, noon, and night - plus once of twice between each.
The turbaned gentleman who walks round and round the can of Hills Brothers coffee is to the culture of Whitehall what the Turkish dude leering at us from the Zig Zag cigarette paper packets is to the symbolism of Haight-Ashbury.
Whitehall's sons and daughters of Norway managed to survive the Fluoridation Plot years back. But what about now, with Hills Brothers at $9.39 per 3-pound can? Now that the Brazilians are locked in deadly combat with OPEC for international monetary dominance, will my Scandinavian friends and neighbors, a group known for their independence, thrift and shrewdness, take the price hikes lying down?
My parents provide a partial answer.
Ma, Pa, and my 90-year-old Grandpa are modest imbibers who only partake at breakfast, mid-morning, mid-afternoon and suppertime.
"If there's anything I can't stand," says Ma righteously, "it's people who have to have a cup in their hands every waking hour."
"No, we do all right. We get by on three pounds a week," Pa adds. "But with these prices . . ."
I beat a retreat up Main Street to the Norse Inn ("Just Plain Good Food"). At the counter, a farmer goes through a familiar ritual. His 25-cent coffee comes. He picks up the cup and pours a third of its steaming contents into the saucer. With thumb on the back and index finger curving around its front edge, he lifts the saucer and with pursed lips blows a ripple across its rich brown surface.
His left hand goes out for a sugar lump, a "Norske Aspirin." He gingerly places it between his upper lip and his lower dentures. Saucer meets lump. He sucks daintily. The lump turns brown. And then the coffee disappears.
The farmer's eyeballs roll imperceptibly in their sockets. His shoulders slump, and he forgets about dairy price supports for the first time since breakfast.
Back at the old oak table, the mid-morning Summit Meeting convenes. Whitehall does have a mayor, a city council, and a school board, but much of the town's moving and shaking goes on around this Victorian monstrosity rescued from a farm kitchen half a century ago.
Fortified with Brazil's gift to geo-politics and diplomacy, Whitehall's most influential burghers gather at least twice daily to grouse about federal controls, the county welfare program, and the prospects for next week's ice fishing contest. More importantly, the oak table is a place where ideas are conceived, decisions are reached, and plans for town projects are put into action, amidst the clanking of cups on saucers and the slurping of coffee through Norske aspirin.
Mid-morning and afternoon coffee at the Oak Table is Whitehall's answer to Madison Avenue's Martini Luncheon. So I run an idea up the chrome napkin holder to see if anyone will salute:
"Any talk about a coffee boycott in Whitehall?"
"Boycott! Wood, you college boy radicals just don't think," answers a pillar of Our Savior's Lutheran Church. "All things considered, coffee at even 5 bucks a pound or 50 cents a cup isn't unreasonable when you think of what a bottle or a shot of booze costs."
"Yah," adds Ruby the waitress. "And with booze you don't get free refills of free sugar lumps."
Over in the corner, six women sit at "the ladies' table," deep into the fluid which washes away social inhibition and class distinction.
Jeanette Windjue, a housewife with a mail carrier husband and seven kids to cook coffee for every morning, noon and night, likes the whiskey analogy, yet she wonders how long her household budget can withstand the latest Brazilian onslaught.
Any thought of cutting back consumption?
"Yah, that was in my head for a day or two and then it disappeared."
How about a coffee substitute, like chicory?
"I'd rather have them drinking whiskey."
The second mention of John Barlercorn sends me down the street to the Highway 53 bar. It's 10 a.m. and the old regulars are stolidly seated on stools at the Formica bar. From his lofty 70-cent perch on the top shelf, Old Granddad peers down at Tubby Davidson as he ties into his third cup of Folgers.
Tubby's a retires meat cutter. He'll switch to beer in the late afternoon, but right now strong and black coffee is where it's at.
"Coffee's sure expensive, Tub."
"Yah, that's for sure."
"How do you suppose these Brazilian outfits get by with it?"
They get by with anything they damn well please. You, Wood of all people should know that," says Tubby with ill-concealed bitterness.
I knew what he meant.
Twenty-five years ago, Ma and Pa owned the coffee shop on Main Street. Costs were up and Pa wanted to raise coffee from a nickel to a dime. Ma was opposed.
"Ten cents a cup! Customers will stop coming in. No one will pay 10 cents a cup.
"Bull," said Pa. And that was that.
On Monday, the first day of the price hike, Cora the waitress held her breath. Business was brisk in the morning, but trickled off to nothing by 3 p.m. And thus began the famous Whitehall Coffee Boycott of 1952.
On Tuesday night, Pa counted up and found that we'd moved only 3 pounds of Domino sugar lumps. Old Oscar Paulson came in at 8 p.m. and drank the very first cup of tea in his life.
"Oscar looked sort of gaunt when he left," said Pa with mild satisfaction.
And on Wednesday, business was back to normal. Ma put the little box of Liptons back in the storeroom for keeps.
Remembrance of things past concluded, i walked back home for coffee with the folks, poignantly reminded that, in Whitehall, at lease, coffee was here to stay. For coffee is the solvent that dislodges our frozen ideas. Coffee is the oil that keeps the wheels of our small town's life meshing smoothly. And coffee is the opiate of old timers like Ma and Pa, who live on a modest fixed income garnered from exploiting our town's habits a quarter century ago.