Apple Man: Duluth’s Depression-Era Action Hero

Reconstructed by the Richardson Bros. from records at the St. Louis County Historical Society

Full text below.

 

~Chapter the First: Dawn of… Apple Man~

Voice of Professor Hieronymus Appleton, heard on a scratchy old phonograph:

“In those days my family’s failing orchard stood where UMD stands now. The robber barons of Meatco wanted it of course, in their drive to monopolize food production. It’s not so much they wanted the land itself, full of scraggly apple trees bearing discolored fruit with mealy flesh. It’s more they couldn’t stand the competition – any competition – even that of a dying farm run by an aging horticulturalist – myself – and my little ward Pippin, the red-haired orphan lad of 10, that I’d plucked from Lake Superior as he bobbed around like an apple in the ocean. The poor boy was so traumatized he couldn’t speak. A mismatched diploid pair, we worked that orchard together with itinerant farm workers, drifters, and all the know-how and pluck we could muster. Every week, Pippin and I would take the horse and wagon into town, full of apples, and try to sell them, hassled all the while by Meatco’s hired goons, who were often the same as the local mafia. The police looked the other way; half of them were on Meatco’s payroll. At night over the ledger I’d catalog our falling profits, our sales plummeting with the same unstoppable surety as Newton’s apple itself.

“I turned to my real love, developing new varieties. I knew somewhere in the germ plasm of the humble apple there lay a golden salvation, if only I could unlock it. In the far-flung corners of the back forty, I had cuttings grafted to rootstock of untold potential – if I could find one commercially viable apple novelty – an avatar of all the apple’s mythic associations – I was sure it would sell. Visions of agricultural bounty danced in my head – and even grander fantasies, born from too little sleep, of achieving regional market dominance over Meatco. However, my hopes were dashed repeatedly by the failures of my breeding program. A custom cultivar bred for crispness, initially so promising and ruby-red I had widely planted it, turned so hard as to be nearly impossible to bite into. If only God had seen fit to use this variety for the fruit of the tree of knowledge, it would have avoided so many problems. As fall set in, what could we do but harvest the lot? The bank and other creditors were breathing down my neck as well as the Meatco men. I despaired so.

“‘What’s the use, Pippin my boy?’ I collapsed in a heap by the wagon, now full of our hardened harvest. ‘We’ll never sell these apples, they’re hard as rocks. Even the horse refuses them.’ But then a shadow fell across me and I heard a baritone voice with a Finnish accent say, ‘I can sell those apples for you, mister.’

“Pippin ran to me cowering. ‘It’s okay lad, it’s only another poor drifter come for work and lodging. Sir, I beg you, turn around and don’t look back, there’s naught here but worm food.’

“‘I must respectfully disagree,’ the man said, ‘These may not be snacking apples, but baking apples. An hour in an oven with sugar, butter and oats will soften these right up, and this is apple-crisp country, is it not? I’ll make you a deal, mister – let me take this wagonload into town and, if I can get rid of them all, you can keep my wages for the day.’ He tossed an apple in the air, bounced it off the inside of his elbow and caught it, turning it around in his hand admiringly as if it brought back halcyon memories. In that moment I saw a pure trustworthiness in the wholesome features of his face. I could hardly argue and the stranger left on his quixotic quest. ‘Wait, stranger,’ I called out, ‘We didn’t get your name.’ ‘Why don’t you just call me “Apple Man” until I prove my worth? Otherwise I am ashamed to have you know me.’ As he crossed the property line of the orchard and I lost sight of him, I realized there had been something familiar in the way he’d bounced that apple off the crook of his arm – had I seen him play ball? I had taken Pippin to several Huskies games before the crashing market devastated ticket sales. I had to look beyond the man’s tattered soles and thick-stubbled beard to see it – but I was pretty sure our stranger was the once-celebrated minor league pitcher Oskar Omena, now fallen on hard times like the rest of the country. Little did I know what the fates had in store for him – and little Pippin, and myself. I turned around and Pippin was gone – the scamp had run after Oskar into town, and stowed away in the wagon. I prayed our ‘Apple Man’ could keep him safe…”

 

~Chapter the Second: Apples of Vengeance~

Former Huskies star pitcher Oskar Omena, now an itinerant farm laborer, parks his wagonload of apples downtown, behind two oily tin shacks by the trainyard’s six congested lines of track. Smoke chokes the air like squid ink from black smokestacks, soiling Duluth’s Chicago-style brickwork, the Midwest industrial aesthetic so different from Professor Appleton’s Edenic orchard. No one wants the apples under the wagon bed’s burlap cover. Folks have even come close to recognizing Oskar through his stubble and worn clothes, an embarrassment he’d rather avoid, having fallen on hard times and with his reputation being what it is. He’d told Professor Appleton and the mute orphan lad, Pippin, to call him “Apple Man.” But once the Professor guesses his true identity, he’ll drift perhaps to the fecund orchards of Bayfield.

Through the gap between the shacks, Oskar spies several street urchins scrounging spilled coal for the coming winter, grubby kids with black hands, toxic dust accumulated in thick layers on their threadbare clothes and skin. Four abusive “security” men hired by the robber barons of Meatco approach the children.

“That’s Meatco coal, little thieves!” The weak, underfed children are quickly nabbed and soon cry from the men’s rough maltreatment.

“By gum, it ain’t right,” Oskar thinks, “The cleanest spots on those kids right now are the tracks their tears carve through the coal dust on their cheeks.” Ripping a strip of loose-weave burlap from the wagon cover, he ties it across his eyes. He sees through it well enough, a makeshift domino mask. Oskar fills his satchel with the apples of almost preternatural hardness developed by Professor Appleton’s ramshackle breeding techniques. Then he ties a cloak of fraying burlap around his neck, masking the satchel bulging with apples of vengeance.

Pippin hides in the back of the wagon, having wormed his way under the apples as Oskar had kept his eyes on the road. The freckle-faced boy watches wide-eyed through the wooden slats of the old wagon, itself straining under the weight of fruit.

As Oskar suits up and darts between the shacks towards the Meatco men, a rough tough cuffs a ragamuffin. The other burly men cruelly hold the remaining children by the ears. The red apple in Oskar’s hand is the purest sight in the evil landscape of soot and corruption. He stomps up to the hoodlums who shuffle around to face him. Two more men step from train cars, thwacking blackjacks menacingly in their palms. Six Meatco men versus one Apple Man…

“Unhand those children this instant!” Oskar barks, not breaking stride, headed on a beeline for the man standing over a crying little girl.

“Now look here fella,” the man says, “This ain’t none o’ your beeswax… say, is that a Finnish accent I hear? Filthy immigrant… you Finns are worse than the Indians…”

Oskar can no longer control his itchy pitching arm, or his righteous fury at this racist child abuser. Midstride, he coils like a spring, putting all his power and accuracy behind the apple in a fastball pitch with enough moxie to accelerate it to 100 miles per hour.

He flashes on his last Huskies game… He‘d put the crooked pinch-hitter Big George Franklin in a coma with this same pitch, refusing Big George’s clandestine underworld demands to throw the game… the incident had publicly killed Oskar’s career – already strained by his immigrant status – but privately he knew he’d saved the sport…

Foul air flowed around the baseball-sized fruit as it gained spin, leaving Oskar’s hand along a vector of momentum terminating in the bridge of the hoodlum’s nose, breaking it and sending a shock wave thru the skull and sinusoidal tissues, bursting blood vessels and delivering a concussion. The apple, almost too hard to bite, broke apart. Its fracturing cell walls burst with flying juice and pectin. The man’s head snapped back, and his body lifted off the ground for a long moment, before falling limply to the dirt and loose gravel of the trainyard. The hail of apples that followed left four more bruised and moaning men on the ground. But now the satchel was empty.

“Looks like you’re out of ammo, ‘Apple Man,’” the last Meatco man said, “What are you going to do now?”

The high-pitched sound of a young boy’s voice split the air: “Apple Man! Catch!!” Oskar turned – it was Pippin, standing between the shacks, wearing his own burlap mask and cape, tossing him an apple. The Meatco man turned to run. Oskar’s pitch, like a punch to the back of the head, sent him sprawling.

“Pippin?” Oskar asked, “Where did you come from…? And… you can talk!?”

Pippin stood boldly with hands on hips. “Pippin is mute, but you can call me… Apple Lad!”

 

~Chapter the Third: Apples of Fury~

Goons working for the robber barons of Meatco come pouring out of the woodwork. Apple Man attempts a horse-drawn getaway up Lake Avenue in the decrepit wooden wagon.

“Gee willikers, Apple Man,” squeaks Pippin the Apple Lad from the back, perched atop the pile of loose fruit, “Those men are gaining on us, and they’re only on foot!”

Apple Man whips the reins. “I know Pippin, but the wagon’s laden with harvest. Ginger’s only one old mare, and she’s sick of apples. Professor Appleton said you were mute!”

“I never had anything to say until I became Apple Lad… Here they come!!”

Goons swarm the wagon’s very slow escape, the sickly horse pulling the straining wagonload up the steep grade.

“Take the reins, Apple Lad! I’ll keep them at bay!” Apples of fury launch from his hands, leaving red streaks in the air with a series of meteoric fastballs, floating curveballs, and devious sliders. The excruciatingly slow chase leaves the street littered with semi-conscious men, pieces of shattered apple lying about their heads like haloes.

Behind the times and over budget, Duluth’s one Model-T police car races after them, the primitive transmission making a herculean effort to ascend the street. By the time it closes the gap, it has slowed to the same speed, approximately four miles per hour. Cops hanging off the running board leap towards the wagon.

But Apple Man unlatches the back and the apples cascade out in a flood. The cops and hoodlums ridiculously try to keep their balance amidst rolling, bouncing apples. The police car grinds away in applesauce, backsliding into a lamppost on Third Street.

Gung-ho police lieutenant back at the station: “It’s got to be the horticulturalist Professor Appleton. He might as well be throwing his fingerprints at us, Chief…”

The cops arrive at Appleton’s Orchard at the top of the hill, future site of the University. The distant lake frames the apple trees like a sheet of colored glass.

“We took a statement from a Meatco employee down at the tracks. He awoke with black eyes, a bloody nose, and his face covered in apple pulp. Claims he was attacked by a giant apple. Would you know anything about this, Professor…?”

“Well, assuming someone threw an apple at him, it’s probably the last thing he saw. The apple approaching his face blocked his visual field. His conscious mind didn’t register it, but to his subconscious mind, it was a giant apple. The image literally pressed into his retina, becoming an apple of the imagination. The apple of Eden. The golden apple of Discord. Newton’s apple, that missile of knowledge, thrown from Heaven, the pitcher’s mound of God… The fecundity of Johnny Appleseed grafted to the rootstock of our minds… the apple gifted to the teacher. Be on the lookout for somebody with great chompers.”

“Professor, we have reason to believe your filthy Finnish immigrant farm laborer is the Apple Man, and that your farm boy is the Apple Lad. They were heard colluding during the chase that wrecked our police car.”

“Sorry Chief, Oskar’s been with me all day, and Pippin here is mute. They could not possibly be Apple Man and Apple Lad. Smell those apple pies cooling on the window sill? Pippin, serve these men some pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream from the icebox. Oskar — the coffee. Gentlemen, I submit that Apple Man is a myth, wrapped around that most mythological of foods. The humble apple still shines with a primordial purity. If there is an Apple Man, as you claim, he might be part of a long tradition – the first Apple Man launching apples with unerring accuracy onto the bayonets of the charging redcoats… an Apple Man for every era. But you are chasing a Phantom.”

Wafting scent of fresh apple pie and flaky lard crust tempts the chief and his men.

“Chief, we’re eating the evidence.”

“Goddammit Lieutenant, I can’t help myself. The evidence is delicious. The seeds of the crime may have germinated right here, but the touch of cinnamon in this delicious pie means we’ll never know for sure. Wherever this Apple Man is, I just hope his commitment to justice is as rich and satisfying as this scrumptious pie. If my wife could make pie like this, I’d let her vote.”

Oskar Omena circa 1930

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