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Hermit or Holy Man - Part One –

June 24, 2011
By Dennis Lamb
Editor’s Note: Dennis Lamb graduated from the Chelsea Public High School, and then received his B.A. in Russian from the University of Iowa and his M.A. in Slavic Linguistics from the University of Colorado. After teaching Russian and German at the University of Alabama and Colorado State University, he joined the CIA in 1972 and retired in 2002.

I enjoyed reading John Sheda’s article about some of the characters that used to live in Chelsea. He missed one, however, “Lob” Chaloupek, presumably because Lob was before John’s time.

On Memorial Day, my thoughts are always drawn to Lob, a little known WWI veteran from Chelsea, who seemingly personified the trauma and tragedy of many of his WWI comrades in arms.

I knew Lob only as “Lob Chaloupek” in growing up. Though it seemed pointless because I realized “Lob” had to have been a nickname, I recently Googled “Lob Chaloupek” on the off chance of finding something about him.To my surprise, I got a hit.

I learned his real given name was Charlie, the details of his WWI registration card, and that his parents were Frank and Mary Chaloupek from Belle Plaine, where Frank Chaloupek was a Car Inspector in the railroad yard. I also learned that Lob was born on 17 Dec 1887 and died on 18 Mar 1957. One of Lob’s distant relatives subsequently told me he believed Lob was buried in St. Joseph’s Cemetery north of Chelsea.

Lob’s WWI registration card, from 5 Jun 1917, showed also that he was tall, of medium build, had blue eyes and light-colored hair. There was no photo. He may have been handsome when he was young, but I cannot say he was handsome when I first met him around 1947. But then neither am I in old age.

He had a large nose and long, sad face. He apparently never married nor had children. When he came back to Iowa after WWI, he was something of a hermit and lived in a small ca. 10 ft. x 10 ft. shack in the timber about one and half miles west of Chelsea near the Iowa River on land bordering that of my uncle, Leonard Behounek. 

The shack, as I recall it, was made of thin boards on a flimsy frame, possibly built by Lob himself from lumber he carried from Chelsea to the site. I saw no sign of insulation when I visited the site in 1960. In retrospect, it is difficult to understand how it stood up to strong winds and how Lob managed to survive winters in it, even though he did have a small potbellied stove. It is now gone, washed away years ago by flood waters.

It seems apparent that Lob must have been affected by the war, shell shock most likely, for which he never received treatment. Where he got the nickname “Lob,” I don’t know, perhaps from a reputation for skill in lobbing grenades in the Great War. Lord only knows what he saw and experienced. Lord only knows also what he might have become had he been treated for trauma after his service in the Great War. He might have become a farmer, salesman, teacher, lawyer, or even a Congressman.

Once a year, Lob would get straw from my uncle to change the straw in what he used for a mattress. My uncle said he once looked in Lob’s door and saw that the legs of his bed were standing in cans of water. Asked what the cans of water were for, Lob said they were to keep bedbugs out of his bed.

I understand Lob kept turtles he found in the timber and potatoes in a hole in the ground of his shack for food. He must have done some fishing and may have hunted also, but my uncle never said anything about having seen him do so and, to the best of my knowledge, when he died no fishing pole or weapon was found in his shack. In 1960 I did find his WWI helmet lying in the rubble of his shack.

Once a month Lob would attach a sack to a pole and walk into Chelsea to pick up his army pension check and what meager groceries he needed to supplement his diet. On the way into town he reportedly would stop to pull weeds pernicious to farmers’ crops, though he grew no crops himself. Once he picked up his check and supplies, he would visit a local tavern and buy beers for the patrons until his money was spent, apparently in a sad and futile effort to make friends and conversation.

Instead of buying this old veteran a drink, these men would graciously allow him to spend his pension check on them. I seriously doubt any of these “gentlemen” ever bought Lob a beer in return.

Lob apparently never went to church or expressed any view on religion. Yet there were clearly parallels between his lifestyle - his living a solitary life in the woods, his kind, gentle nature, his giving his money away - and the lifestyle of religious ascetics. Insofar as we tend to consider such people as “characters,” perhaps it is because our consumer society and current values cause us to dismiss without second thought Christ’s admonition not to lay up treasuries on earth and his warning that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Quite likely Lob’s seemingly bizarre lifestyle had nothing to do with some religious belief or philosophical thought.

Yet one has to wonder: was his behavior due solely to untreated trauma and shell shock? Or did he experience an epiphany during the Great War that few of us have had or can understand? Leo Tolstoy (1828 –1910), the Russian moralist, ascetic and war veteran who wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina, two of the greatest novels of all time, would have found much in common with Lob and undoubtedly admired him as someone to emulate. One of Tolstoy’s short stories, Father Sergey, was about a monk living in a cave, and shortly before his death Tolstoy abandoned his estate, family and wealth to seek redemption in poverty. So one wonders, might there have been more to Lob than we thought?

Lob quietly disappeared from view for me while I was in high school. I did not know what happened to him. I subsequently heard that he had died but did not know where his grave was.

I have often thought about Lob because when I was a small child of about five in 1947 my father had taken me into a Chelsea tavern with him. As I stood there surrounded by adults and feeling very alone in spite of my father’s presence, a long sad face leaned down to me and asked me if I would like a dime. Now a dime in 1947 was a lot of money to a child. It would buy two candy bars or two ice cream cones. It would also buy an adult a beer, so Lob quite clearly could have done other things with this dime than to give it to a small child. But perhaps as much as I appreciated the dime, I appreciated the attention from a kind stranger.

As a consequence, I never forgot Lob. Indeed I often thought about him over the years and his generous and kind nature. As a consequence also, in traveling around Eastern Europe after the collapse of communism, I often carried candy in my coat pockets to give to children or impoverished old people begging on the streets, trying in this way to pass on Lob’s kindness to other people.

I still remember an old woman caretaker in a church in Moldova from whom I bought three newly painted icons. She started to wrap them in an old newspaper for me, and then noticed that one sheet had a photo of a wolf on it, which she said could not be used because the wolf symbolized evil and should not touch the icons. Seeing by her clothing that she was very poor, I said she could keep the change which amounted to about three dollars in the local currency. Obviously extremely thankful, she first turned her eyes to Heaven, then blessed me and got down on her knees and bowed three times to a safe that I can only assume contained a sacred object.

Seeing that this woman had a connection to God that I would never have, I later regretted that I did not give her fifty dollars and ask her to remember me in her prayers I am sure she would have done so daily the rest of her life– and maybe did anyway.

In Prague in 1990, I noticed a woman with a boy about seven years old and asked the woman if it would be alright to give him a piece of candy. She concurred and told the boy it would be okay for him to take the candy. As I watched the boy grope around eagerly for the candy, the woman explained that he was blind. To the delight of the boy and woman, I gave them all I had on me. Surprised and saddened that such a fine looking young boy could be disabled by blindness, I regretted that I did not have more.


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