Have I mentioned the extreme flammability of naphtha?
After the explosion, everyone in the family ran out to find grandpa lying in a pile of debris that once was the wooden shell of the outhouse.
“My God!” everyone screamed, “what happened, Grandpa?
Standing up and brushing himself off, the old gentleman said, “I don’t exactly know. Must’ve been something I et.”
J Harlen Bretz had originally planned to get his degree in biology and he always had a warm spot in his heart for reptiles—especially snakes. One of Bretz’s best snake stories just gets better and better as it is told.
Bretz had his entire class with him on a visit to Gibraltar Rock, near Devil’s Lake. Working their way up a narrow canyon where Bretz was showing his students a number of geological and biological features, a fat, six-foot snake was basking in the sun on a ledge above them. Disturbed by the sudden appearance of all these people, the snake tried to slither away but, instead, it fell off the ledge and landed right in the middle of the group. Needless to say, most of the students scattered in all directions. One of them shouted “rattlesnake!” Another boy attempted to demonstrate his bravery in front of the girls by heaving a ten pound rock at the snake.
Unfortunately, the rock missed the snake and instead bounced off an outcropping of rock then hit Bretz in the shins. This caused him to jump around on one foot before falling over and landing face to face with the snake. In typical Bretz fashion, however, as he lay there in pain just inches from the coiled reptile, Bretz suddenly announced that this was no rattlesnake, but it was either a bull snake or a pine snake.
Never one to miss an educational opportunity, Bretz announced that when they went into town later that day, they would look through some books at the local library and see if they could identify the snake they had found. And so, with a handful of exuberant, mud-stained boys in tow, Bretz entered the library and they all tromped over to the biology section and started looking for photos that depicted the snake they had found in the canyon.
While this was going on, the librarian silently glided over to remind them in a whisper that this was a library and they would need to keep their voices down. About this time, she also couldn’t help but notice the six-foot snake coiled around the neck of one of Bretz’s students. Violating her own rules of library decorum, the librarian let out a shriek at the top of her lungs and the Bretz group quickly exited the library in what Bretz described as “a hasty retreat.”
Now, as nice a story as this is, it doesn’t end here—Bretz kept the snake in the camp throughout the length of his Devil’s Lake course that year, and on the last night before heading home, Bretz and his son Rudolf spent the night at the Warren House Hotel, with the snake safely coiled in a cardboard box. Unfortunately, it escaped sometime during the night and despite a lengthy search by Bretz and Rudolf, They couldn’t find it anywhere.
Because he was running late to catch a train, Bretz headed for the front desk, where he planned to warn the owner that their pet snake had escaped—but that it was harmless. Unfortunately, he found only a small boy behind the counter and Bretz was unable to make him understand his message about the snake.
For the next few summers, conversations often gravitated toward that snake and everyone wondered what might have happened to it. Then—a few years later at a regional art exhibit, Bretz’s wife saw a painting called “Danger on the Stairs.” Depicted in the painting was a big snake coiled at the top of a long flight of stairs. The stairway was clearly the main set of steps at the Warren House Hotel.
Some of Bretz’s funniest stories involve experiences he had while traveling around the country with his wife, Fanny, and his two children, Rudolf and Rhoda. But in later years, it was his own grandchildren who recalled some of the more outrageous experiences they had with their grandfather.
Bretz’s grandson Peter Bretz recalls seeing his grandfather in action when he was visiting as a boy. As they strolled through the back yard, Bretz was calmly remarking that he would like to show Peter a piece of erratic rock he had brought back from the scablands.
“He stopped in mid-sentence,” recalls Peter, “leaped for the tool shed and came out with rifle in hand. I looked and I saw a shape, low to the ground. BLAM! Doc missed and the neighbor’s cat ran away.”
Bretz then proceeded to forget all about erratic rocks and tell Peter a series of horror stories about “cats and birds and feces.”
Remembering a visit to Boulderstrewn when she was about 17 years old, Bretz’s granddaughter Bonnie was shocked to discover a headstone in the yard reading “Sacred to the Memory of…” followed by a list of all the creatures Bretz had killed while they were in the act of trespassing on his property and vandalizing Fanny’s gardens. Among the dearly departed were cats, squirrels, opossums, raccoons, black birds, sparrows and rabbits.
Granddaughter Wendy Bretz recalls visiting her grandfather during Christmas vacation and as they all sat down for dinner, the doorbell rang. Bretz left the table and went to the door. As those at the table sat and listened, Bretz’s conversation with a stranger at the door became louder and louder until they finally heard him shout, “And stay off my property!” before slamming the door and stomping back to the dining room.
“Can you believe that guy?” Bretz said loudly. “He comes to my door, interrupts my dinner, begins reading passages from the Bible then starts trying to convert me. And on Christmas Day of all times!”