Two Old Men and the Sea

Genealogy research can lead you to many fascinating stories and people, both living and dead, and Matthew “Matty” Loughran ranks among the most memorable for me.

I’ve always enjoyed a good sea story, and Matty served up a dandy one for me several years ago while helping me research the service record of my wife’s grand-uncle Valentine Vincent Baker, a WWII merchant seaman from Philadelphia who went down with his ship in 1942.

I met Matty on the Internet in 2006 after posting a query  about Uncle Val and his ship, the SS Muskogee, on a message board for folks seeking information about service records and veteran benefits for WWII-era merchant sailors. Matty was an old salt himself, having served in the Merchant Marine at age 17 near the end of the war after the Navy rejected him for having poor vision. After the war, he spent two years as an Army medic and later worked for the U.S. Postal Service until his retirement n 1982.

Matthew "Matty" Loughran from a Newsday profile published June 20, 2000. (Newsday photo by Kazuhiro Yokozeki)

Matthew “Matty” Loughran from a Newsday profile published June 20, 2000. (Newsday photo by Kazuhiro Yokozeki)

In his late 70s when I met him, Matty lived in Riverhead, N.Y., and was the historian for the North Atlantic Chapter of the American Merchant Marine Veterans and a counselor and advocate for the veteran rights of WWII-era merchant sailors and their families.  On my wife’s behalf, he cut through many months of red tape in obtaining service records for Uncle Val from the  U.S. Coast Guard as well as the Maritime Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Those included photocopies of  Baker’s Continuous Service Discharge Book, which furnished personal information as well as  a photograph of  Val along with his signature and fingerprints and documentation of previous merchant sailings from as far back as 1938. Matty also sent reference book photos and notes about the SS Muskogee, including several mesmerizing images of the ship’s actual sinking obtained from declassified German war records through postwar research by George Betts, son of  Muskogee skipper William Wright Betts.

Photo of SS Muskogee crewman taken from the conning tower of the German U-123 submarine after the Muskogee's sinking in 1942. (George Betts Collection/Independence Seaport Museum Library)

Photo of SS Muskogee crewman taken from the conning tower of the German U-123 submarine after the Muskogee’s sinking in 1942. (George Betts Collection/Independence Seaport Museum Library)

A 36-year-old bachelor, Uncle Val had an Ordinary Seaman rating and was serving as a messman aboard the SS Muskogee, an oil tanker carrying crude oil from Venezuela to Halifax, Nova Scotia,  when it was torpedoed and sunk by the U-123 German submarine on March 22, 1942 , in a rough sea approximately 450 miles SE of Bermuda. The ship went down in less than 20 minutes and all hands were lost. Members of the U-123’s crew took photos of the sinking for  propaganda purposes, and they included images of two life rafts from the doomed ship and a closeup shot of one raft with seven recognizable Muskogee crewmen, none of which was Baker. That closeup photo later served as the inspiration for the  American Merchant Marine Memorial sculpture in Battery Park, NYC, which was dedicated n 1991.

Matty further provided online links to a compelling story about  a 1987 meeting between George Betts and U-123 commander Lt. Commander Reinhard Hardegen of Bremen, Germany. Turns out Hardegen remembered details of the Muskogee’s sinking from his log book and was able to substantiate the time, date and place of the encounter and explain the circumstances that prevented the submarine from picking up any of American survivors.

From the Coast Guard, Matty was able to obtain a Report of Casualty and a Certificate of Honorable Service, which entitled Baker to a memorial marker from the U.S. Veterans Administration. It also provided a list of medals, badges and citations authorized for Uncle Val and a copy of a Presidential Testimonial Letter from Harry Truman. I was then able to purchase replacement medals for Uncle Val through the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and put them in a shadow box display along with images from Baker’s discharge book.

Shadowbox display of Valentine Vincent Baker's medals and images from his Merchant Marine Continuous Service Discharge Book , (Keith Olson photo)

Shadow box display of Valentine Vincent Baker’s medals and images from his Merchant Marine Continuous Service Discharge Book , (Keith Olson photo)

One problem. The Coast Guard no longer had copies of the Mariner’s Medal, awarded to Merchant Marine sailors in lieu of a Purple Heart, as they were discontinued after WWII and only 6,600 of them were ever authorized. Mariner’s Medals were then going for hundreds of dollars when I checked them out on ebay. But Matty put me in touch with Patricia Thomas, a secretary for the Maritime Administration in Washington, D.C., who sent me a Mariner’s Medal for no charge, allowing me to put the finishing touch on Uncle Val’s shadow box display.

Thrilled with the result, I shared it with my wife and daughter and took a photo of the shadow box to send to Ms. Thomas, along with my appreciation for her help.  I also emailed the shadow box photo to Matty Loughran — perhaps the only  man in America who would appreciate the project as much as I — and phoned him to reiterate my sincere thanks for all his help. Alas, Matty was no longer available as his wife Johanna informed me that he had died.

The news hit me like a torpedo. All I could do was offer Johanna my thanks and condolences — and a parting promise to think of Matty whenever I  gaze at Uncle Val’s medals and images. Two old salts linked by circumstance and Ransom Man respect.

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Poppies for Pop

My dad died nearly 30 years ago, and while memories of him remain vivid and sweet, I don’t visit his grave as often as I used to.

Lloyd V. Olson, a proud WWII army veteran,  rests next to my mom, Vera, in the Camellia Garden at Floral Hills Cemetery in Alderwood, WA. I used to stop by randomly if I happened to be driving to or from the Alderwood Mall. But I rarely visit the mall anymore, and if I do drive past the cemetery, I’m usually in a hurry.

Poppies001Memorial Day Weekend is coming up, and I’m at Floral Hills to leave a small flag on Pop’s grave along with some clipped poppies, which I propagate in a bed next to my driveway just for this occasion. Some years, the poppies open early and fall apart by late May. Other years, the buds remain closed until June, leaving me to harvest rhododendron or peony blossoms instead.

The camellia trees at Floral Hills are early spring bloomers, so their pink blossoms are generally gone by the time I place my orange poppies, white peonies or purple rhodys.

In recent years, I’ve skipped this graveside ritual altogether if the poppies weren’t ready. Not this year. I have a fistful of poppies, enough to share between Lloyd and two of his best buddies, Cliff  and Ted, buried with their wives roughly 30 feet away on either side of the Olsons.

Pop’s headstone – supplied by the Veterans Administration – has no built-in flowerpot as many Floral Hills headstones do. So I have to bring my own plastic pot-on-a-stick to hold water and flowers.  Cemetery groundskeepers put a small flag on each veteran’s grave for Memorial Day, but I like to add a slightly larger version of Old Glory when I come.

Royal British Legion poppy

Royal British Legion poppy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My old man, who spent 36 months overseas as an army engineer in Europe and North Africa,  served 20 years as quartermaster of the VFW Gay Jones Post 921 in Snohomish while I was growing up and generally led the post’s poppy drive each spring, when members sold artificial lapel poppies as a fundraiser. Early on, Lloyd made 10-inch wood crosses on pedestals with holes drilled in the cross pieces to hold multiple poppies for business site displays.

I still have a newspaper clipping of Pop holding my niece Lisa in his lap in the mid-1970s as she offers a poppy to the mayor as that year’s designated Buddy Poppy Girl kicking off another drive.

Now, it’s poppy payback time.

The graveside thing doesn’t last very long. It doesn’t take more than a minute to fill the flowerpot from a nearby tap and leave my bouquet. I used to offer a short, silent prayer of thanks for my parents and give Pop a quick salute. But this time my prayer is aimed more for  the creator and sustainer whose neck I used to hug than to the one I’m supposed to worship.

I simply say, “Thanks for everything, Pop,” and head back into the world, leaving a flag and a few flowers to stay connected.

Sort of like church on Sundays, without sitting through a sermon.

(This was written as a Writers Kickstart prompt, 500 words or less on the topic “Here I Am Again.”)

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Civil War perspectives

Thought everyone in the country was aware of the Civil War sesquicentennial, especially in the month April when so many key Civil War dates occur. Then I mentioned it to my wife and was surprised to learn that she had no idea. That’s a failure on my part within my own house!

Glad that I didn’t have to live through the American Civil War but still feel a part of it, even though nearly all my ancestors were still in Scandinavia at the time. Two of my wife’s great-great-grandfathers served in the Union army during the war, and I’ve looked up their units to see what action they saw.

My daughter and me years ago on Little Round Top, checking out the memorial to the 20th Maine.

My daughter and me years ago on Little Round Top, checking out the memorial to the 20th Maine.

Here’s what I learned about the Civil War in high school. The South lost. It was all about Lincoln and  slavery. It started at Fort Sumter, the tide turned at Gettysburg and it ended at Appomattox.  Robert E. Lee was a cool and revered dude. U.S. Grant wasn’t, but he could operate a steamroller.

I think that got me a “B” on that week’s history quiz. Never took another class about the war or any more Civil War tests except for questions posed to Jeopardy answers.

Since then, however, I’ve done some reading on my own and developed a deeper appreciation of what many see as the most significant event in U.S. history.

Basically, there are two camps when it comes to talking about the cause of the war — slavery or states’ rights — and there’s no question that slavery brought the war to a head in 1861. But I’m not so quick to dismiss the so-called Lost Cause logic of the states’ rights side. Perhaps I’m a rebel at heart, because I grow more sympathetic to the states’ rights side every time the federal government imposes on my civil liberties.

My interest in the Civil War was stoked by my first visit to Gettysburg in the early 1980s, when my wife and I were literally blown off the Pennsylvania Turnpike by a late-summer thunder storm while hauling her sister to school at Slippery Rock.  The booming thunder, lightning, wind and driving rain simulated battle conditions as we sought shelter while driving  into town from the north in same direction from where the Confederate troops came on the opening day of the battle. Stayed up most of that night, reading brochures about the Gettysburg battlefield and plotting the next day’s mini-tour, conducted in beautiful morning sunshine.

Ken Burns’ Civil War film series in 1990, which featured historian Shelby Foote, recharged my interest, and I followed up by reading Foote’s epic, three-book history about the war. I’ve since read more and followed up with visits to several other battle sites that include Sharpsburg, Harper’s Ferry, Manassas, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Courthouse. Just saying, there’s something spiritual about walking those famous battle grounds. Adds greater perspective after reading about them.

At Gettysburg, looking out from the trees from where Pickett’s Charge was launched, I remember the feeling and Foote’s commentary about William Faulkner’s description in Intruder in the Dust: “For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago.”

I’d encourage anyone to check out Civil War sites across the country. Perhaps even attend a Civil War re-enactment. You might find it enlightening. As a member of the Civil War Trust, I also encourage others to support efforts to keep battlefield sites from being paved over and lost to urban sprawl.

Five of My Favorite Civil War books

James McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom”

Bell Irwin Wiley’s “The Life of Johnny Reb” and “The Life of Billy Yank”

Michael Sharra’s “The Killer Angels”

Sam Watson’s “Company Aytch”

Favorite Civil War Sites

1. Devil’s Den and Little Round Top  at Gettysburg

2. The Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania

3. Bloody Late at Antietam

4. The sunken road at the base of Mayre’s Heights in Fredericksburg

5. The  stone bridge over Bull Run outside Manassas

6. Burnside’s Bridge over Antietam Creek outside Sharpsburg

7. The engine house at Harper’s Ferry, site of John Brown’s failed raid.

8. Chancellor House ruins in Chancellorsville, plus the unmarked site near the Chancellorsville Interpretive Center where Stonewall Jackson was shot by his own troops.

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Tough Skating

Line art drawing of a roller skate.

(Wikipedia image)

I was very much a dweeb and a mama’s boy while growing up and consequently lacked many of the social skills necessary for early teen survival. Other boys learned to swim, ride bikes and play a decent game of baseball long before I did. So it should come as no surprise when I say that I didn’t know how to roller skate or talk to girls when I first started to catch the Everett Roller Rink bus that ventured into Snohomish on Saturday nights.

The bus came by my house around 6:30 and stopped at the mom and pop grocery store two blocks up the street on its last stop before heading to Everett. The round-trip fare was free if you bought a three-hour skate pass at the rink, which cost a dollar or so and included skate rental.

As I said, I couldn’t even skate. But I got talked into giving it try by buddies who claimed it was a great way to meet girls outside school. What they neglected to tell me was that you also had to contend with bigger boys who were on the bus for the same reason, as well as to punch, tease and generally ridicule mama’s boys like myself. I was never a small kid, but these were older, tougher boys who smoked cigarettes at 15, swore like mule skinners and put their arms around girls in the back of the bus.

Shyness broke my back in most every attempt at conversing with girls, and my inability to skate left me wearing a neon “loser” sign inside the rink and hugging the rail whenever I did venture onto the floor. Finding a partner for the couples-only skates was about as likely as finding money.

Only once did I manage a scratch single in hitting on girls at the rink, and that happened more by luck than pluck as I fell and accidentally tripped a cute Everett girl named Trish, who was apparently blinded by my sign while skating past too close to the losers on the rail.

“Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you. Are you alright,” Trish gushed after picking herself off the floor.

I told her it was all my fault, as I couldn’t skate a lick and had no business on the floor anyway. But she took pity and made it her business for the rest of the session to teach me how to skate, or die trying. She held my hand and voiced encouragement as I stumbled around the rink beside her. And she never let go when the lights dimmed and the couples-only skate began.

By 10 o’clock, I was ready to propose, but the session ended and I had to catch my ride home. Trish walked me to the bus, and said she’d look for me the next time I came to the rink. But I never saw her again after she blew me a kiss as the bus pulled away.

(This was  written as a Writers Kickstart prompt, 500 words or less  on The Bus Pulled Away.)

Copyright, Keith L. Olson, 2013

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Reindeer and Rana Roots

My grandfather, Johannes Möller Olson (1869-1954), in the mid-1940s.

My grandfather, Johannes Möller Olson (1869-1954), in the mid-1940s.

Say what you will about the Internet, it’s a wonderful resource for genealogy.

I got interested in family history about 15 years ago  after attending a family reunion in Fort Ransom, N.D, and since then I’ve traced my roots back to the 1650s in Norway, Sweden and Denmark.  Found a link to  some Finns as well among Swedish ancestors in the area known as the Finn Forest around Lekvattnet, Varmland, but it’s tenuous. Bottom line: I have Viking blood in  my veins, and I’m proud of that. I have a drinking horn and tattoo to prove it.

My biggest genealogy breakthrough came from  a website called Ancestors From Norway, which took me over the pond and put in touch with Norwegian census reports, tax roles and local church and farm histories, some as far back as the 1600s.  By posting on genealogy message boards for specific locales, I also found helpful researchers, as well as distant cousins eager to share family history from overseas in exchange for family information from the USA. Message boards also put me in touch with distant Swedish cousins.

I’d hoped to find family links back to the Viking Age, but the closest I’ve come to that is a weak (non-blood) link by the marriage of a distant aunt some 300 years ago to a man from another family tree with lineage back to the year 800. 

My paternal Viking line is rooted in a Norwegian farm called Vesteraali outside the town of Mo i Rana in Nordland county (formerly known as Helgeland). Vesteraali lies in a river valley known as the Dunderlandsdalen, where the river Ranelva flows southwest from the Saltfjellet mountains and empties into Ranfjord at Mo, about 80 miles below the Arctic Circle. Tax records from 1865

My family raised reindeer in the old country.

My family raised reindeer in the old country.

and 1875 indicate my ancestors raised reindeer and also kept one horse and a few cows, sheep and a pig or two and planted barley, rye, oats and potatoes in the rocky soil of the Dunderlandsdalen, where the growing season is short but the summer daylight is extensive. I think that the spuds were mainly grown for animal fodder, but I’ve also heard that Norwegian farmers pooled their extra potatoes to distill aquavuit. They also built fishing boats during the winter months and skidded them to market on the frozen Ranelva. Vesteraali is no longer a working farm. It was sold to mining interests in the early 20th century, and it is now under the site of Arctic Circle Raceway. My grandfather was a fifth-generation farmer at Vesteraali. He was in his early 20s when he immigrated to America in 1893 and joined other Rana folk living in or near Fort Ransom, N.D. 

There’s a dead end in my paternal line, which dates back to two brothers, Lars and Jakob Mortensen, born in Rana in the 1690s.  But it’s a fascinating dead end, as the brothers almost certainly descend from a man named Morten. And while data on Morten remains sketchy in the municipal records, there is a Rana folk tale  about a foundling child discovered wrapped in a bolt of cloth purchased by a Rana man  from a coastal trading site in the 1650s. According to the tale, the

Grandpa Olson in 1893, around the time of his immigration.

Grandpa Olson in 1893, around the time of his immigration.

Rana man and his wife adopted the child and had him baptized as Morten, which I’m told was then an uncommon name in the region. For me, the tale provides an element of  immaculate conception for my paternal line. Both my granddad’s parents descended from Morten. Grandpa John’s father was a great-grandson of Jakob Mortensen, and his mother was a great-great-granddaughter of Lars Mortensen. I’ve found other family trees with Lars and Jakob linked to Morten Sølfestra, born around 1629, perhaps in Bergen, but that data is not sourced. According to tradition, Morten was the first resident at Naevermoen, a cotter’s farm in Storli, and he later moved to Mo and owned property at Sør-Mo. 

I come from a long line of farmer/fishermen, including my dad, who was a Fort Ransom tenant farmer when I was born and an avid sport fisher all of his life. I’m the youngest in a generation of Olsons as my dad was nearly 42 years old when I was born, and his dad was 42 when he was born, so I never really knew my granddad. His name was Johannes Möller Olson, or Olssa in the parochial spelling of Rana, son of Ole Jakob Johannessa, who died when Grandpa John was quite young. My dad said Möller, pronounced like Miller, probably would’ve become the family surname if Grandpa had remained in Norway, as the patronymic naming system was then going out of fashion.

Most Norwegians spell Olson with an “sen” rather than “son,” but we’re an exception to that rule.  Don’t know why that is, but it makes this clan of Olsons exceptional in at least one sense.

Mo church, Mo i Rana.

Mo church in Norway, source of many of my family records. (Wikipedia photo)

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The Polar Bear Dip

It’s my first trip to the Polar Bear Dip. New Year’s Day 2012.

Hundreds have turned out, many in costumes, to eat, drink and party hearty on the Pilchuck River behind Doc’s Pilchuck Tavern in Machias, Wash. I’m with my wife Toni and our friend, Karen, and we’re meeting my old high school chum, Gordy, and his wife, Tina, who talked us into joining the insanity.

Polar 002Gordy is the event’s Grand Poobah, making his 36th annual river plunge, and he’s wearing a drum major’s hat with “Grand Pupa” across the front. I’m wearing swim trunks and a tank top under my sweat clothes. My wife’s wearing workout gear under her coat, plus a jingly dance belt from her zumba class, which will earn her spot in the photo gallery published by the local newspaper.

Fortunately, it’s a balmy 48 degrees for this New Year’s Day, under sunny skies with only a hint of hangover. The river, though, is just above freezing and about four feet deep.

Inside the tavern, it’s a mosh pit. The two pool tables are covered with plywood and tablecloths to hold Polar Dip t-shirts and a smorgasbord of potluck items. The Gator Bowl is on TV, but no one is watching. To get to the bar you have to Polar 019rub through a mass of humanity, and the only lines are those to the two tiny restrooms that double as changing closets.

Outside the back door, there’s a patio overlooking the river and burn barrels every 20 feet or so with warming fires. There’s also a beer station selling $3 cans of Budweiser, and a kiosk selling $2 oysters raw or barbecued on the half-shell. A big man in a woman’s swimsuit with oversized breasts and an overabundance of pubic hair holds court while posing for pictures.

Polar 011It’s only slightly less crowded outside, with a line forming on the bank below the patio and extending a good 60 yards downstream. At noon, a blow horn signals the start of dipping, and Gordy is the first to plunge into the frigid stream, leaving his “Pupa” hat on shore. For more than two hours, revelers file past to enter the river at the designated spot. Wedding and prom dresses are popular attire, as are diapers, loin cloths and flannel underwear. Everyone wears shoes to handle the rocky river bottom as well as the shore.

I’m in and out in less than a minute, emerging with clenched teeth while streaking for dry pants. Inside, the restroom lines remain long, so I opt for one of the porta-potties in the parking lot. But there’s a backup in those lines, too, so I duck between two parked trucks to drop my trunks.

At that moment, four women happen past and get an eyeful of the naked man.

“Water must REALLY be cold,” one of them hoots.

“You have no idea,” I answer.

“Oh, I think we do,” another voice shoots back amidst group laughter as they move on.

(This was written as a Writers Kickstart prompt, 500 words or less on the topic “Standing There Naked.”)

Copyright, Keith L. Olson, 2013

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Throwing F-Bombs

I must have heard or read this somewhere, because I can’t possibly be the first person to ponder the usefulness of the word fuck.

First off, it’s vulgar. We all know and recognize that. But I think we lose sight of that the more we hear and use the word. Rather like swearing in general, it becomes second nature.

F-BombI once tried to give up swearing for Lent, and it lasted about 30 hours.  First swear word out of my mouth was fuck. Don’t recall the precise circumstance, but it didn’t take a pry bar to come out.

As a young man, I bought into the notion that salty language just added color to one’s voice.  Now I have trouble reining in the rainbow in front of Aunt Fran, Aunt Teddy or anyone’s mother. Probably embarrass myself more than I embarrass others. But only when I bother to think about it.

The word fuck has multiple uses, some of them contradictory or confusing.

It can be  a noun or a verb or an either/or, as in “So-and-so is a lousy fuck.”

It’s a frank and straightforward word for sexual intercourse. But why then do we “feel fucked” when we’re ailing or when someone does us wrong? Or why is it “fucked up” when something goes wrong? I like to think that having sex feels good. Beyond the glow, however, feeling fucked might be seen in terms of being in a subordinate position. Kind of a domination thing or manipulation, regardless of the activity. I guess being fucked or being a fucker  rests on control. And when it’s not going your way, that’s when you can ask, “What the fuck?” in a bid to find out where you stand.

In summary, for those translating earthy English, keep this in mind:

Glossary of “Fuck” Usages

1.  Fuck! (Simple expression of exasperation; also a little used and rarely successful mating call.)

2. Fuck? (Uttered in a quizzical sense, it means surprisingly good or at least not half-bad!)

3. Fuck me! (Acknowledgement of a mistake, whether true or not, often tied to slapping your own head; also, a demand for sex.)

4. Fuck this! 0r Fuck that!  (Stop; unless spoken in a literal sexual context, when it means just the opposite.)

5. Fuck yes! (Firm affirmation.)

6. Fuck no! (Firm denial, or I wouldn’t do that if you paid me!)

7. Fuck off! Fuck you! or Go fuck yourself! (Leave my presence and go pleasure yourself till you’re raw but don’t enjoy any of it.)

8. Fucked up. (Confused, injured or ailing; also, under the influence of  drugs.)

9. Fucking around. (Spousal infidelity, promiscuity or generally silly behavior.)

10. Fucking New York Yankees! (The despised baseball team.)

11. I’m fucked! (Faced with unpleasant consequences.)

12. New York Fucking Yankees! (The lionized baseball team.)

13. Wanna fuck? (Invitation to sexual intercourse; also an invitation to face slapping with Nos. 6 and 7.)

14. What the fuck? (Expression of incredulity)

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