Monthly Archives: March 2013

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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