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Hard-scrabble years: North Platte woman tells family storyTell North Platte what you think
Courtesy Photo­Image
Barb Mohrman
Courtesy Photo­Image
Downtown Oakdale on a wintery day, circa 1930.
Courtesy Photo­Image
The village edge
Courtesy Photo­Image

Fifty years ago a young girl opened a cardboard box in her basement. Long forgotten, the box contained her father’s World War II uniform, photos, flags, and other World War II keepsakes.

Years later, this box of history opened up a world of family pain and joy to Barbara Eymann Mohrman of North Platte, as she set out on a personal journey to trace her family history. Through extensive interviews and research, she uncovered much more — unspoken Eymann family secrets.

Mohrman conducted extensive research to put together a book about the family from the years 1930-47, with an epilogue set in 1999.

The result is the newly-released Four Blue Stars in the Window.

It’s a amazing but not-all-rosy family story of enduring spirit in the face of extreme hardships, Mohrman said.

The three-and-a-half-year project sped to completion when Mohrman retired in 2011 after teaching English as a Second Language and Spanish for 33 years in the North Platte schools. She said she taught in most every school building in the system.

Her book is a gritty story to which Nebraskans can relate -- hard-scrabble life in Oakdale, Neb. (pop. 851) along the banks of the meandering Elkhorn River, about 20 miles from Norfolk.

Chriss Eymann, a Swiss immigrant, and wife Hattie Mae, raised 10 children on the Dust Bowl–ravaged plains during the 1930s, in the depths of the Great Depression.

But their greatest sacrifice was ahead of them, when they were caught up in the greatest conflict the world had ever known.

They sent four sons off to war in the South Pacific and Europe. The family gathered around the Philco radio awaiting news and bittersweet homecomings.

The mother’s flag with its four blue stars on a white field proudly displayed the family’s precious contribution to the war effort, Mohrman said. Yet no one could have foreseen the emotional toll that the book traces in detail with vintage photos from 1930-47.

There is anguish, danger and everlasting hope with surprising family news that brings the story full circle, Mohrman said.

Mohrman will appear on Nebraska Educational Television in coming weeks, reading an excerpt from her book during a program about the Dust Bowl called Dust Covered Dreams. And, she recently spoke at the Durham Museum, the former Union Station of Omaha’s railroad yards.

In mid-October, she discussed her book at a youth summit at the Durham with students from Bellevue West and Millard South as part of a video conference with acclaimed film director Ken Burns, whose film on the Dust Bowl was broadcast in November on the Public Broadcasting System.

“I feel very fortunate,” Mohrman said. “Things have fallen into place with this book.”

Mohrman attended Nebraska Wesleyan University where Nebraska Poet Laureate William Kloefkorn was her teacher. She holds a master’s degree in education from the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

From Four Blue Stars

As a youth in the 1960s, I learned more of scandalous family activities. Finally, as an adult, the complete truths were laid bare, and I learned the stories of worry, sorrow, divorce, war, abandonment, and shame. After fifty years, it amazed me that I could still walk directly to any of the family graves although if asked to give directions to a stranger I would be hard pressed to give an explanation of their whereabouts. A torrent of emotions overtook me. It was not until I lost a cousin, an uncle, and a parent to this cemetery that I truly understood the meaning behind this day I had celebrated all of my life. Laying down my store-bought bouquets, I offered up a tiny prayer that my father would forgive my inability to grow the bountiful blossoms he did. Walking thoughtfully, I stood beside a grave marked only by a flat gray headstone. Beneath the shadow of the pine tree I knelt and placed the colorful cluster of spring flowers near the stone.

My eyes rested on the name etched there: Chriss Eymann. As I read the name and numbers carved in stone, I felt a cold shudder of regret. A crisp ripple of pain passed through me because after all this time, and the circumstances of his death, I was still unable to speak outloud the words written there.

Chriss Eymann was my grandfather. Next to his marker lies the headstone of his devoted wife, my grandmother Hattie Mae Eymann. I lingered there briefly, turned, and moved purposefully to the other plots nearby leaving both footprints in the mud and my other floral tributes near ornate headstones.

For a few minutes my thoughts turned to the children that Chriss and Hattie Mae brought into the world. The five boys and five girls were, at the same time, both a delight and a handful.

This World War II generation of my family was one of the few who were not careless with their youth. By necessity, the brothers (my father among them) chose deliberately how to spend their hours, cautiously doling out their precious time among the required toil of farm work, games of baseball and basketball, swimming in the Elkhorn River, hunting, school work, and the inevitable pursuit of the opposite sex.

Their rite of passage proved to be the sad and troublesome game of war planned by leaders but acted on by youths who knew the exact cost of sacrifice they were called upon to make. And this, as with so many other facets of their lives, was governed by the chance of being born, raised, and coming of age in the most trying of times this nation had to offer….

Tarawa, Leyte, Iwo Jima, Okinawa. How quickly these words became part of their everyday life. Each day became a torture with new fears and worries as my grandparents waited for word of their sons. The victories came, but too slowly, and even then were marked by the count of bodies washed up on those foreign shores.

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The North Platte Bulletin - Published 12/25/2012
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