"Is it news that some fellow out in South Succotash someplace has just been laid off that he should be interviewed nationwide?"
-- President Reagan
The heavy hand of winter still hangs over this pastoral village in northern Minnesota where the men are staunch Republicans, the women are merely staunch and the children are so exceptional that they actually believed John Belushi died of natural causes. It is a special sort of place that Time forgot, but Newsweek remembered.
Our story begins on a Monday morning in early March when the South Succotash Savings and Loan ("You'll find our interest rates interesting -- not high but interesting") lost its last depositor. It was just before noon that 83-year-old Mrs. Katrine Bergmeister withdrew the $11.06 that was in her Chirstmas Club, saying, "I know you need the money, but the Donahue show just had a special segment on money-market funds."
By nightfall, the 106-year-old bank, a two- story landmark towering over Succotash Square, was no longer. In its place were the computerized teller machines of the North Global Interstate Banking Conglomerate and Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Inc.
When he arrived at work the next morning, 31-year-old chief teller Lars Bjorn learned that there was no place for him in the new order. Lars, a strapping six-footer with blond hair, deep blue eyes and a lopsided grin, was a twofer -- a victim of both high interest rates and the computer revolution.
The Bjorn family adjusted to this turn of fate with the cheerfulness that is characteristic of South Succotash. Lars filed for $143 a week in tax-free unemployment benefits. His wife Mathilde immediately answered a magazine ad ("You can get rich while sitting on your duff") to address envelopes at home. And the two Bjorn children -- 8-year-old Sean and Buffy, 7 -- bicycled out to the Burger King at Succotash Plaza to apply for work. The kids were under the misapprehension that the Reagan revolution had already eliminated child labor laws.
Wednesday and Thursday will always be remembered with a special fondness in the Bjorn household at number 17 Forest Primeval Lane. Mathilde introduced Lars to the wonders of "General Hospital." While the children were at school, the couple also tried out some of the marriage-encounter techniques that had been featured on "Good Morning, America." And Lars finally fixed that broken flagstone on the patio.
But even in South Succotash, tranquility does not last forever. The doorbell rang on a dark and overcast Friday morning while Lars and Mathilde were watching a "Leave It to Beaver" rerun. There on the doorstep was none other than ABC correspondent Nick Nightline. Waiting on the lawn was the ABC helicopter, a nervous producer from New York and the omnipresent three-man camera crew.
Without introducing himself, Nightline immediately launched into his standup: "I'm here in South Succotash, Minn., standing in front of the modest home of Lars Bjorn -- a casualty of Reaganomics. Until Monday, Lars was a respected banker in this jerkwater town. Now he and his family must share the heartbreak and the agony of unemployment. What makes their privation and despair particularly ironic is that the Bjorns are registered Republicans. Lars, share with us how it feels to be so miserably betrayed by a president you once trusted."
Unaccustomed to television lights, Lars' eyes began to tear. The cameraman, sensing poignancy, moved in for a closeup. Lars, who had never felt claustrophobic before on his own front porch, stammered for a moment, "I-I-I'm not important. I'm not news. We're doing okay. Watching a little TV, fixing things up around the house. Went down to the bank yesterday, for old times' sake, but there wasn't anybody to talk to, just those funny machines."
By now, Nightline, who had been allocated just 78 seconds for his "Real American Suffering" segment, had enough tape. Turning his best profile to the camera, Nightline said, "Lars Bjorn, obviously stunned by his pink slip, tries to project a brave front. But you can sense his torment as he confronts a life without hope. This is Nick Nightline for ABC News among the unemployed of South Succotash."
Nightline and his crew were merely the first wave of the media shock troops. By midafternoon, Lars had taped similar interviews with NBC and CBS and the front lawn looked like the aftermath of a rock concert. The family had also been visited by reporters from Newsweek, The Minneapolis Tribune and The New York Times. The Timesman had been in such a hurry to file that he left behind a Mont Blanc pen and a pair of gold cufflinks. The Bjorn children had been followed home from school by a staff writer for People magazine who promptly moved into the family's guest room -- an air mattress under the ping-pong table in the basement.
Monday morning was even worse. The "Today Show" did their entire morning broadcast from the Bjorn front lawn. Mathilde caught Willard Scott rummaging through the chocolate chip cookies in her kitchen. Lars was forced to give a press conference on the front stoop before leaving for the unemployment office. When Lars finally was allowed to get into the family Toyota, he was followed by three network camera crews, six Hertz cars and a press bus. The entourage caused the worst traffic jam in the history of South Succotash -- a virtual gridlock outside Tony's Barber Shop on State Street.
It was that evening, after watching the network news on three Sony color TV sets donated by Paul Bunyan appliances, that the Bjorn family decided drastic action was needed. Mathilde wanted to call the governor and ask for protection from the National Guard. Sean and Buffy suggested that the family get in touch with Spiderman, their favorite superhero. But it was Lars who decided to write the president, saying, "I read in the papers that Mr. Reagan only works three hours a day, so he'll have plenty of time to read my letter."
Shortly before dawn, Lars climbed out of the bathroom windown on the second floor, shinnied down the drainpipe and crawled three blocks to the nearest mailbox. The letter he sent reads as follows:
"Dear Mr. President: I'm being held under house arrest at my home in South Succotash. I haven't committed any crime. I'm a good Republican bank teller who just happened to lose my job. Now the media won't leave me alone. I can't take a bath without being followed by a camera crew. My kids want to go to school, my wife wants to go shopping and I want to enjoy my unemployment. Mr. President, isn't there something you can do? Couldn't you say something to the media so they can pick on someone else?"
Two days later, Ronald Reagan read Lars Bjorn's letter right before giving an interview to The Daily Oklahoman. The rest is history.