Volume VI, No. 4, Summer 1979

I'm in Love with Life


Edited by John Shore, Photographs by Mary Schmalstig

"They say be careful about what you want most in life because that is what you'll surely get," commented Lester Mondale, smiling, "and if you get what you most want and you're happy with it you're darn LUCKY. Lester Mondale, a former Unitarian Universalist minister, has been fortunate to live the life that most pleases him. Although with his wife, Rosemary, he now enjoys a quiet semi-retirement in the Ozarks, he has led an active life according to his own personal wants and needs. "It is to know yourself, to accept your basic drives and to heck with what other people might say about what you should be." He believes that it takes work to be what you want to be, and his life has been most fulfilling for him. "I've lived what I've enjoyed most, and I don't think I've hurt many people along the way. But, one never lives entirely to himself, and if you do what you most want to do, it always includes others. You can't help but include others."

The Mondales reside in a log house which they built themselves. Their home, decorated with hand-made furniture and wood-burning stoves, captures the charm of rustic Ozark life while providing many of today's luxuries. "We have the best of both worlds," Mr. Mondale said while telling of his life in the Ozarks.


"We have a beaver dam across the St. Francis River down here on our property. We just discovered it. We've never seen a beaver yet, but it's quite exciting to have a beaver dam."

My previous wife, who is now dead, and I struck out from Chicago back in the early '30's heading for Washington to be with some people for our honeymoon. We wanted to see what the Ozarks were like. We happened to come up to a cabin camp where Highway 72 crosses the St. Francis River. Paddling up the river we saw this creek coming into the river, so we followed it. up to find this swimming hole and the rock formations right down here. It was sort of a dream existence to me at that time. We more or less forgot about it for a while. Later When we were living in Kansas City, I happened to inherit a small sum of money. I decided we were going to put that money into Ozark land. With our tent camper connected with the car to travel around, we looked in Arkansas and various other places, but didn't find anything satisfactory. So we said, "Let's go back to the place where we were earlier." It was more beautiful than we remembered it to be. However, we couldn't find out for awhile who owned it. We finally found out that a college in Philadelphia owned it--it had been willed to them a year before. We got in touch with the authorities to buy it. The place provided a chance for my three daughters to grow up close to nature. Being a Unitarian minister I had the summers free. Our church closed for the summer to get along with themselves and give the minister a time to read up and sort of change worlds for a little while and come back fresh in the fall. During the summer I could build on the property and the girls would mix with the neighbor children. I could also use it for retirement later on.

After we talked with the Mondales for a while they showed us their land. Mr. Mondale's study, located away from the house (further into the woods) is a small building where he works on various crafts. He and his daughters lived there when they were building the big log house.
The Mondales also have a small house used as guest rooms when relatives or friends visit, in which are stored his great surplus of books, as well as garden vegetables and fruits, supplied by their Ozark "forest crop" farm.

This is called wild land--you can't use it for anything. It extends over that hilltop and then way back this way and over across the river--eighty acres with a creek and a river. It looks as if it's completely wild, and yet I swear about 200 people regard this place as their secret fishing hole! People keep coming up here all the time. We hear them scraping their boats over the rocks down below, and then we hear the voices, sometimes the shooting. We are perfectly happy to have people down here, to fish, even camp down here, if they would only pick up after themselves and not make too much racket.


"I want to tell you this sad story. There once was an Indian chief who supposedly lived around here, and he was entertained by some French trappers who had truffles along with their venison. Truffles were underground mushrooms that grew under white oak trees. The truffles were so good the chief found out just how to dig them and where to go for them. Of course being a good he-man Indian, he would not get them himself. He had one of the women do it. He had a daughter by the name of Pocanhontious that he sent to look for these truffles. She left with a basket under her arm and was never seen or heard from again. There were no tribes reporting of her being captured, no scouring of the woods revealed a thing. Yet we know now what happened. She got into the ground looking for the truffles. If you come over here, you can see just what happened. She got in the ground so deep that she couldn't get out. She got stuck and petrified. That's poor old Pocanhontious."

This is our swimming pool in the creek. And as you can see, these trees have leaves here so that we have a completely perfect screen. It's 150 feet long, and right there it must be between six and seven feet deep. It's good swimming depth. We haven't had rain for I don't know how long, but it's still a nice pool. The water lilies are gone now this late in the season, but earlier we have water lilies around the side. We have a sand beach over there, and a succession of pools--the shallow ones for the younger ones. My youngest learned how to swim in the shallow pools. That rock has a series of natural steps where you can walk to the other side and climb up and jump off from there. It's just about everything a fella could ask for.

The Mondales live in a three level log house which he and his neighbors built on the granite contour on the shelf of a cliff overlooking Brewers Creek.

The neighbors thought we were crazy to want a house out in the woods like this, but it had everything I wanted--view, building material, privacy. I started building the house in the summer of 1948. I had to drag in the rocks and then shape them, and then make the forms for the inside walls. I had one of these hill boys, Ray Tripp, do all the cement work and piling up the rocks. We did it together, but it took us half the summer. When we were building the house we would work hard during the day and then I'd run into some obstacle, the lay of the land was different or something, so I'd have to revise the plan at night.

Since we burn our wood, we have practically no expense for our heating when other people are just spending so much and also using up fuel that's irreplaceable. I don't know what people are going to do fifty years from now when this oil and gas will be so badly depleted. We have trees dying all the time. It's just a matter of cutting them down and using them for firewood. We have so much of this beautiful black walnut. The trees are dying, for the soil isn't rich enough to sustain a big black walnut tree, and we're using it for firewood. It just tears me up to slice up this beautiful wood.


There's the dug well, and the pump house. We have an irrigation system that goes up 900 feet to the garden. I'll pump water from down here to the garden. our well was witched. From the well top to the bottom it's only about twelve, thirteen feet. I had decided where I wanted the well to begin with. My neighbor, Fred Pogue, came over and cut his witching stick. He happened to land in the place where I wanted it, and he said, "I think there's a vein coming up from this direction, up that hill there." He and I worked at that well, picking and blasting and piling until we got into granite. He was a little fellow but terrifically dynamic. He kept telling me, "It's kind of a mystery, but there's lots of water in granite." He had dug a lot of wells for people around here. We went on down, but we weren't getting water. It looked to me as if the granite was getting tighter and tighter as we went down. It was getting toward the end of the summer and we had to get back to Philadelphia where I was working at that time. My money was running a little low, too. I said, "Fred, seems to me that we ought to leave this until next summer. But, he said, "Let's just go down and have a little look." He put one foot in the bucket and I lowered him down. There was water off at one side. He filled the bucket once, filled it twice, and that was it. So, I reeled him up. He began talking about how much water there was in granite and he stopped. He looked at me, and he said, "You know, you can't let granite stop you." We went on down, blasted down for another couple of feet, but we still didn't get much water.

Then another year another neighbor came down and we blasted down a little further and we got to what geologists call a dike. It's black rock coming in among the other layers of granite. We blasted into that. Then, by golly, water did begin to come. But I couldn't help think of what Fred said with that witching rod, "Well, there's another vein coming in up there."

We lead a very satisfactory life here. In one way, it means we have a close life with our neighbors--our farmer neighbors and our worker neighbors. We don't attempt to talk Ozark language, but we swap work back and forth. I've butchered with them, I've fought fires with them, I've worked in the hay fields with them, and they help me with my work. Over the years we've established a very warm relationship. They include us as their neighbors which means that we don't suffer from those class lines. We feel that we are leading a class-less life here. Class divisions in our society today are abominable. the people on one side of the tracks never know the laboring people on the other side of the tracks and what they've got to offer and how smart they are. Our hill people, believe me they're no dummies.

There's another thing that is satisfying for me living here--the activity. I don't know about you women, because when you get done with your daily day's work you go home and do your housework, whatever it amounts to, or the cooking. You've always got to be shaking a leg, but men? What the heck! In this modern civilization what do they do? They get a job, and what's their job? To sit on their fannies all day long, and the hardest work they do is to wiggle their tongue or a pencil or something like that. Then they go out and jog, jog their guts out when they get the time to get the exercise--abomination.

But here, I can spend mornings reading, writing--half the time writing letters this last year, it seems. And in the afternoons I'm out chain sawing or working in the garden--doing physical exercise. It's marvelous therapy.

Mr. Mondale has a broad range of interests. His awareness and love for the Ozark region is typified by his dabbling in different crafts and recreation. He enjoys canoeing, mushroom hunting, gardening, wood carving, and he plays guitar and organ. He and Mrs. Mondale are also very fond of traveling, having been to many countries in Europe. Mrs. Mondale related some of their experiences while traveling in Europe.


We don't stay where Americans stay--or where they travel--we stay in little villages where they've never even seen an American. In Yugoslavia I'm sure they never saw an American in places where we went. We would always ask them in the beginning if they had an English menu, knowing that little restaurants where all the working people eat couldn't possibly have an English menu. And they would shake their heads. So they would take us out to the kitchen and lift the lids off the pots, and Lester would take these three things and I would take these three things. We didn't know what we were eating. They presented us with a bill, and I'm sure they never cheated us. In Yugoslavia they wouldn't. I don't think that they did in Greece, either. In Italy you might have gotten cheated if you just held out your money and let them take it.

In Athens the Greek drivers were so bad that we were afraid to drive the car, so we just parked it and took the public transportation. They had a subway going to the middle of the city. I had to say two tickets to Attiki. I learned it in perfect Greek, but the man never understood it. The same man day after day never understood me. He always acted like I was talking some foreign language, and then he'd finally say, "Oh," and then he repeated it back to me. It sounded to me like just what I said, but not to him. Then he would sell me my two tickets, and we would ride the subway down where we wanted. It was really fun.

Mr. Mondale has no trouble keeping busy. His wife once asked him when they were going to retire! The seventy-four-year-old Mondale has no intention of retiring completely. He works on different activities with the zeal of a person many years younger. He told a few stories about the different activities he engages in as part of retirement in the Ozarks.

There's the political side, for as you probably are aware, we have a political name. We get invitations all the time to appear at fund raisers to give little political talks. We recently attended a fund raiser in Cape Girardeau. The week before we were at Patton.

Then people write in to the Vice-President's office (we're half-brothers, you see) and say that they have the same relatives and want to establish a connection. Immediately my brother's offices writes us a letter or gets us on the line to ask, "What's what?" For instance one man wrote in, "My grandmother was your grandfather's sister. We're cousins." The office sent the letter to me to reply. I got in touch with the fellow and asked, "When was your grandmother born and where?" He replied, "My grandmother was born in 1858 in Oslo, Norway. She's your grandfather's sister." I could hardly see how that could be unless this was the longest pregnancy on record, because my great-grandfather left Norway in 1856! We also get requests for things. For instance, the Vice-President was making a speech in Canada, and he was going to make a toast. He wanted to get the exact data as to when his grandfather or great-grandfather, he didn't care who, settled in Canada from Scotland. So he called us on the telephone long distance. I happened to have the data. So two hours later he could go on toasting to his great old ancestry.

Then I get invitations from Unitarian and other liberal religious groups to speak in various parts of the country. We were in Michigan a few weeks ago where I gave three talks. Before that we were in Minnesota where I gave a talk at the First unitarian Church in Minneapolis.

So that's the political and the religious.

Then we just get invited to talk to groups like the Kiwanis Clubs and Rotary Clubs. They want entertainment. They're interested in our way of life, or our roots, our farming history and things like that. My wife and I wrote a book on our family and we have some idea of what would be involved in digging up your roots.

Much of Mr. Mondale's time is devoted to his writing. He has seven publications to date, including PREACHERS IN PURGATORY and VALUES IN WORLD RELIGION. He writes two columns for local newspapers, "Echoes from Copperhead Cliff" and "Adventures in Understanding." Mrs. Mondale explained the contents of the columns.


"This is my art," quipped Mr. Mondale. "Anyone can produce a work of art. You don't have to have any preparation, you just start piling rocks up and finally you've got something. If people start asking what it is you just tell them, 'If you can't guess it, then I can't tell you.' This is proof that any ass can be a genius."

"The name, Mondale, was originally Mundal. My grandparents owned land in Norway called Mundel. They sold it in 1856 and moved to America. They thought Mundal didn't sound like an American name so they put an E on the end. When my grandfather went to take up some of his homestead after the Civil War, the papers came back MONDALE. So we ' re Mondal es now."


"Echoes from Copperhead Cliff" is an appreciation of nature, appreciation of the way neighbors help each other out here. It's very homey. In "Adventures in Understanding," Lester tries to bring about a little understanding of the religions of the world and how common they are--the Moslem, the Hindu, the Buddist, confucius, all the various ones. He'll bring in things like that.

The following are exerpts from "Echoes from Copperhead Cliff."

So I welcome those many signs of the coming Fall. Here and there we see the occasional red leaf on a Gum tree. Much of the ground cover, like Woodbine, and the like, is both reddish and dried. Up and down our country road the Spanish Needles paint a greyish green landscape in bright yellow. The Golden Rod, after having done its best to celebrate the passing of summer, is going to seed. Milkweed pods are drying rapidly, and presently they will be releasing millions of their seeds to float on the breezes to other planting ground, carried by their parachutes of silken fuzz.

Speaking of inspiring scenery: What a delight, to watch Nature change clothes for winter! She's worn various shades of green for a long time, since May. But now, to greet the new social season of the elements, how much more appropriate the reds of the Gums, the purplish red of sumac ravines and hillsides, and a thousand others--including the late blooming purples of the Asters, and the various yellows. At this writing the Oaks haven't put on display their wardrobes, whatever may be their offering for this particular year. Maples, of course, have to outclass all others with their gorgeous evening gowns and make old Ma Nature into a fancy debutante.

His study is a sanctuary where he continues his reading, writing and thinking.

I have a terrible ambition, life long ambition to break into fiction. We nearly did it the last time, but I'm working on something else now. I work in my study in the mornings. Then when I'm working on something with continuity, I'll sit down at the table under the light in the evening, after I've read the newspapers. I'll go over it, change words, cross out and add and the like. I keep two copies, one in the study, and the other in the house. If anything should happen--burning of the house or anything--at least there would be two copies. Second, third draft and it'll have to be worked over for a fourth or more. Now that's work!

I don't believe too much in inspiration. I think you do better when you have trouble making the words click, if you keep swatting at it. Finally this sentence comes and another and finally you get a paragraph which turns out much better. Nothing is as important as discipline to keep working and working at it, whether it's writing or drawing, or whatever. You may have talent to begin with, but, to produce something of real excellence, it just takes work and work until these things become sort of second nature. You've written down this paragraph and you look at it and say, "No, it's not right." You can't say what it is at the moment, so you put it aside. Later, you pick it up and cross out and add, until it finally has that rightness to it. The trick about these works that are the best written is that they look so simple. Writing sounds so simple because the writers had the discipline to achieve that simplicity. You look at some of these writings and you say, "Gosh, I could do that," but when you sit down to do it, it's a different matter.

My philosophy of living has to do with the importance of discipline. I think we can make something out of anything in our experiences. We can make something out of even the disastrous mistakes, and I've made plenty of them. Some of the young people will go off on these tangents and make such damn fool mistakes they'll mess up their lives. That's not my way, I'm sorry, poor guy, but I'm not going to follow you. Also the older people. We see them all the time just making one mess of themselves after another. These are pretty good examples at what not to do and what not to be. But I think we owe just as much to the people who have achieved as the people who haven't. We owe as much to success as to failure. I feel it's good for young people today, if they find someone they really respect, not to try to be just like them, but to kind of model themselves in their image. Is there any other way? If somebody has achieved something and is the kind of person that, if you see yourself, ten, twenty years from now doing the same sort of thing, then by golly there's guidance there, isn't there?

At the same time there's these poor devils that tell you what not to be, too. I think there's just as much guidance from the fellow who made the mistakes. I know one man whom I highly respected, John McCarthy. He was a well-to-do man on LaSalle Street in Chicago with a financial firm. He was about seventy-two or three when the Great Depression came along and wiped him out. Then about a year or so later, I saw him out in the back of my church handing out business cards. He was starting a new business at seventy-four. Then, in the 30's he was taken on as an advisor of a big bank in Chicago at a fine salary. Another bank, the Federal Reserve Bank, asked him if he would be interested in coming over there.- Friends of this eighty year old man asked, "John, changing jobs at this time of your life, isn't it kind of precarious?" He said, "You know, I just can't figure out which job has more of a future." I like that. He was in his eighties when I talked with him about his bad fortune. He said, "I've failed more than once before." He wasn't going to take it lightly. Now that's an example of someone who could do it.

Then you see someone who's had a sickness who has morale and keeps up the good fight. All right, if she or he can keep on doing it, well I can, too. You asked me to preach a sermon--there, dang it, you got it.

"This cliff is a natural shelf. When we were building the house, it seemed like every day someone would shout, 'Copperhead! So this is Copperhead Cliff. It named itself."


Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.

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