Category Archives: Memoirs

A Short Life Line

One of the first names to capture my imagination in genealogy research was my uncle, Justin Anker Olson, who was no more than 2 years old when he died more than 100 years ago on the family homestead in Harding County, South Dakota.

Justin was the fifth of nine children born to John and Annie Olson, and the other eight all reached adulthood, a blessing of its own considering mortality rates in the early 20th century.

According to church records, Justin was born on May 29, 1907 in Fort Ransom, North Dakota, and was baptized at Standing Rock Lutheran Church. The following spring, Grandpa John loaded his wife and five kids and their worldly possessions into a horse-drawn wagon and joined another dozen Fort Ransom families heading southwest to seek homesteads in South Dakota cattle country.

After traveling about 350 miles over America’s northern prairie, the Olsons settled at place called Clark’s Fork in Harding County outside Buffalo. During the bumpy ride, one can only imagine baby Justin being held by his mother or passed between two older sisters, ages 8 and 6 at that time, giving them a live doll with which to play.

The Olson homestead near Clark’s Fork in Harding County, S.D. around 1916.

That first fall in Harding County, Grandpa broke just two acres of ground before filing papers for his 160-acre homestead in February of 1909 and planting corn and trees on those two acres while also breaking ground on 21 more acres and building a 1½-story frame house, 16 by 30 feet with a cellar underneath, according to BLM records. That strongly suggests that the family camped in their wagon for that first winter in South Dakota, and the exposure may simply have been too much for the little guy. Pop said Justin just got sick and died.

Whatever the nature of his illness, sometime in 1909 baby Justin died and was buried on the homestead, where four more Olson kids were born, starting with my dad in May of 1910. I can only imagine that Pop represented a healing addition to a family that had just lost an infant son in the preceding few months.

The last I know of Justin is that nine years after his death the Olsons moved back to Fort Ransom, and Grandpa John faced the grim task of disinterring his baby son and carrying the remains back to North Dakota, where Justin was reburied in Standing Rock Cemetery. The return trip also took place in a horse-drawn wagon, with Grandma Annie holding another newborn, my uncle Reuben, in her arms. Reuben was the last of John and Annie’s nine kids, which included six boys and three girls.

Pop said Grandpa found only a few bones when he opened Justin’s grave, but he saved what he could, including the headstone that he’d fashioned from a cast iron stove lid in his  blacksmith shop and upon which was inscribed the baby’s  name, birth date and death date.

I’m told that stove lid remains in family hands, but no one knows where.

(Note: This was written as a Writers Kickstart prompt,  500 words or less, on the topic Short Life Line.)

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Veteran Advice

I always looked up to my dad, and even now as an old fart myself I aspire to be more like him. When others in a quandary might wonder, “What would Jesus do?”,  I’m more prone to wonder, “What would Lloyd do?”

Roll back the clock. I’ve just turned 18, and the Vietnam war and anti-war protests are both escalating in the month before the Kent State shootings, and I’m already feeling blown away. Still, you could excuse yourself from high school to sign up for the draft, so I enlisted a carful of buddies to accompany me to the draft board, where two or three of us faced the same obligation.

On the registration slip, there was a box to check Conscientious Objector. I did so and turned in my slip.

My dad’s WWII campaign medal.

That night at dinner, I told Lloyd about the experience, and the proud WWII veteran and VFW member with an older son who’d enlisted right out of high school could not have been more understanding or  sympathetic toward his younger son. Yet, while hardly missing a beat between bites of meat loaf and mashed potatoes, he advised me to reconsider my action.

“No one WANTS to get drafted,” he said at the time, “and I’m the last guy that wants to see you go off to war. But you’ll never meet their standard as a conscientious objector, and if you don’t go they’ll throw you in jail, so you  should just be a man and take your chances like every other guy in the country your age.”

“But I don’t believe in war. Or killing,” I said as a pat answer.

“No one does,” he said, “but sometimes we all have to do things we don’t want to do.”

The next day, I went back and withdrew my objector status. I wound up with a draft number well over 200 and never even got called in for a physical while attending college on a student deferment. But the registration thing and my dad’s measured response left a big impression on me. I took part in a few protest rallies   in college, but I never measured up to being an anti-war activist any more than I measured up as a soldier.

“Sometimes we all have to do things we don’t want to do.”

My big brother Skip, No. 2 in line behind our dad as my role models,  served his Navy hitch as a yeoman at the fleet supply center in Sasebo, Japan, and didn’t have to set foot in Vietnam.   With money from the G.I. Bill, he went to broadcasting school and achieved early ambitions to become a disc jockey, and I always envied the veteran link that he shared with Pop.

Lloyd was drafted into WWII and observed his 32nd  birthday on a troop train heading for Camp Claibourne in Louisiana. Within a few weeks, he was  overseas  with the 344th Engineering Regiment and spent the next 38 months as a carpentry specialist and occasional combat engineer in England, North Africa, Italy, France, Germany and Austria. The war in Europe ended on his 35th birthday, and that was probably the best birthday present he ever got, until my brother was born two years later on the same date.

My dad would be 102 years old if he were still alive today, and I’m now “older” than Skip, who died in 2005.  I think of them often with great pride, but I’m particularly mindful on their birthday every  May 8 and on Veterans Day.

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A Haunting Image

Funny sometimes how easy it is to get your buttons pushed.

Walking my dogs the other day, I got slightly wigged, passing a yard with a Halloween chicken holding a human limb in its beak.

Chickens kinda weird me out, especially big ones. Like to eat ’em, but don’t care to mingle with live ones. Touched on this previously in a prompt called Squeamish Scouts.

I can thank my mom for this phobia. She put the fear of God into me about chickens when I was a toddler. My folks were tenant farmers in Fort Ransom, N.D., when I was born, and my mom kept a flock of chickens as egg-producers and occasional table fare. The birds would rush to her in the yard, and if I was with her she’d always scoop me up for fear the birds would peck me in the eyes.  She told me that story many times when I was growing up to explain my general uneasiness about handling birds.

My dad contributed to the mystique by saying Mom’s birds were like pets and a bit on the aggressive side. In my mind, my mother’s chickens were all monster-sized, as big as I was. Quick fuckers, too. Quicker and faster than I was. Never mind flying monkeys, these were winged nightmares with claws and bird brains tuned to only one station: peck-and-kill . . . peck-and-kill . . .  peck-and-kill.   The giant two-headed bird from “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” movie (1958) creeped me out worse than any snakes or spiders. All I could  do to sit through Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” too.

My Uncle Ole raised chickens in a big way and once took me into his bird barn that housed something like 600 birds in a single room.  Still haunted today by memories of the half-dozen birds in that room at the tail end of the pecking order.

Not so many years ago, a good friend  had a fighting cock as a pet, and no dog was ever a better watch guard than that feathered little fuck. He didn’t fly well, but he flew well enough to perch atop a swing set in the yard, and I swear that he laid for me every time I visited.  If he wasn’t on the swing set, he’d come a runnin’ when you drove up and try to peck your ankle as you stepped from the car.  I threatened to punt the little pecker into the next county on a number of occasions, by my pal always sided with his bird and made me behave.

Geese were also a bitch for me while growing up because I’d seen them chase people, bite them and beat them with their wings. Turkeys weren’t so bad, but peacocks always gave me the willies, and still do in stalking mode.  I don’t really mind birds so much any more. But let’s just say I’d be in the last in line to pet an emu or ostrich.

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Leaf Laughter

While raking leaves the other day, I time-traveled back more than 20 years to when my little girl used to keep me company in the yard and play in the leaf piles as they accumulated.

My daughter’s laughter ranks No. 1 in the archive of audio clips in my brain. Leaf laughter had bit of a squeal to it as she dug out from being buried alive. Or threw herself on a mounded pile and burrowed down to hide. She was hesitant at first, until I dove in for a demonstration. After that, there was no holding her back.  Could never bag the leaves or put them in the recycle bin until after she was played out and inside napping.

She was so tiny back then, she used to hide behind  a rhubarb plant in my backyard flower bed. Her mom outfitted her in cute clothes, but really it was the girl who made the outfits cute. Rubber boots. OshKosh pants or overalls. Jacket or sweater, both with hoods on them, or some kind of hat with animal ears pulled snug over blonde hair, blue eyes and sweet smiling lips from which came that glorious, precious, carefree laugh.

Back then, I had only the leaves from one pear tree to contend with.  I’ve since added a pair of birch trees on north side of my yard, tripling the area of the red, yellow and brown leaf carpet and rising up closer to the house to fill my rain gutters, too.  There’s now a small maple tree in the front yard as well, adding scarlet leaves to the boughs, berries and brown shakings that blow down off the three cedar trees grouped in the southeast corner of my place. The cedars offer great foliage for Christmas wreaths, but we’re in no hurry for that, with Halloween and Thanksgiving still to savor. The magnolia trees that my daughter and I planted in her youth on the south side of our yard retain most of their leaves but still shed year-round.

Fall also brings to mind the sound of the cannon they used to fire at Snohomish High football games after every touchdown. You could hear it all over town. That tradition started when I was in school and ended shortly after my daughter graduated when the cannon, apparently stuffed with an oversized charge,  blew up and injured one of the ROTC kids manning the gun.  Great fun while it lasted.  Football fortunes have seemingly been down ever since.

The grown girl doesn’t jump in my leaf piles anymore, but, unlike the cannon, I still hear her live laughter on a regular basis, and my fortunes are reassured.

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A Life Well Played

When my friend and former high school football coach Keith Gilbertson Sr. died in February of 2011, I contacted the minister doing the funeral and gave him a copy of the classic Grantland Rice poem “Alumnus Football,” suggesting that he reflect on the verses and think of Gilby as the “wise old coach Experience” while preparing his homily.

Can’t say whether the reverend took my advice. He made no mention of Rice or the poem during the service, although he and others spoke in glowing terms of the great and modest man who coached at Snohomish High School for 61 years, including the last 30 as an unpaid volunteer.

Keith Gilbertson Sr. bust at Snohomish High School

“For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against  your name, he writes not that you won or lost, but how you played the game.”

from “Alumnus Football” by Grantland Rice

Since Gilby’s death, I’ve written and/or edited some two dozen articles about him in conjunction with a fund-raising effort to permanently endow an annual SHS memorial scholarship in his name.  Sadly, the campaign has yet to generate the groundswell of grass-roots support that we expected among from the thousands of students, athletes and teaching/coaching colleagues that Gilby touched over the years.

Next to Grantland Rice, I feel a bit like Edward Everett speaking for hours at Gettysburg before being upstaged by Lincoln’s brief and appropriate remarks deemed closer to the central idea of the occasion.

I’ve written that Coach Gilbertson lived what he always taught: Whatever you do, give it your best shot. But I don’t think I’ve conveyed the spiritual side of the wise old coach and mentor as well as Rice did nearly 100 years ago on Nov. 2, 1914, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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Witch Story

Karen Persdatter wasn’t as wicked as some folks thought. She had a reputation in the Dunderlandsdalen as a trollkjærring – literally a Norwegian troll woman, but more like a witch or sorceress in the English translation. They say she could throw a spell that would make your hair fall out, or perhaps make your cow give blood instead of milk. But she never did anything like that without a reason. Folks mostly just kept their distance.

Born in 1734 at Østerdal farm in Nordland near the head of Rana Fjord, Karen married Jon Larssa from nearby Vesterfjelt farm and they had several children, most of whom died young under mysterious circumstances that were never recorded in the parish archive, which at that time kept the whole family ostracized from the church. But there were two daughters, Ragnhild and Ane, who supposedly learned a few tricks from their mother.

No one knew where Karen picked up the witchcraft, because those who knew her as a girl saw nothing odd in her behavior. It was not until Karen was married and cartoon witchbegan losing children that folks who crossed her began suffering misfortune, although there was nothing to link any of that to Karen, except for her freely expressed contempt for anyone or anything connected to the church. That and an ugly redness that developed in one eye.

Jon Larssa froze to death on a hunting trip when Ragnhild and Ane were still young, but folks say Karen was able to provide for them from a slab of shoulder meat that hung in the shed and mystically restored itself whenever portions were cut out. They also kept some chickens, a milk goat and a few sheep, and along with a rocky garden patch, they managed to raise everything needed except the one thing Karen wanted most – grandchildren.

When both daughters came of age, Karen asked them which of the parish bachelors they fancied most, and she then mixed a special drink that made the two favored men fall in love with her daughters and marry them. Karen warned her daughters that the spell could be broken if they ever told the husbands how they’d been tricked. Years passed and both couples produced children before the two sisters one day argued over whose kids were cutest, and Ragnhild blurted out that Ane was so ugly she was lucky their mother had a magic potion to even get her a man.

Ane’s husband overheard the fight and instantly became so enraged over Karen’s trickery that he cut her down with an ax before killing everyone else in like manner. He then set fire to the house and perished himself by remaining inside.

Neighbors saw the flames and rushed over, but it was too late. The stock was dispersed, and someone even made off with the shoulder meat from the shed, but it was consumed in a matter of days, and that was the last that anyone thought about Karen and her brood.

(Note: This was written as a Writers Kickstart prompt based on four tarot cards: the Ace of Wands, the Sun, the Stars and the Four of Swords.  The story is loosely based on a  nineteenth century Norwegian folk tale told by Mikkel Mikkelsen Saghaug Tørrbekkmoen (1805 – 1894) to Rana researcher Ole Tobias Olsen. Karen, Jon and their daughters are real people from my family tree.  For more on Norwegian witches, check this link about the Vardø witch trials of 1662-63.)

Lisbeth Movin portrayed the historical Norwegian witch Anne Pedersdotter in the 1943 film “Day of Wrath.” Unrelated to my ancestor Karen Persdatter, Anne was burned at the stake in Bergen in 1590.

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Inner-Tube Baseball

Long before there were video games or paint-ball guns, my buddy Gale and I developed a game of our own called inner-tube baseball. It was an offshoot of Whiffle ball after our last plastic ball either caved in from overuse or got belted into the neighbor’s blackberries.

All you needed for inner-tube baseball was a wood bat and an inner tube like any of the ones we all used to float down the Pilchuck River in the summers of our youth. But the game was unique in that you could only play it in my backyard, because of the ground rules.

Muttsy was a pitcher’s best friend in inner-tube baseball, unless his chain on the drag wire cracked you in the head.

Pitching and hitting was  simple. You rolled the inner tube toward the batter, and he smacked it with the bat. Any tube rolling past the pitcher was a single. Past the pitcher in the air was a double. Past the pitcher and over my dog Muttsy’s elevated drag wire was a home run. The drag wire ran half the length of our backyard,  six to seven feet off the ground, between the garage and the catalpa tree,  just this side of the clothesline. The foul lines ran from home plate to the grape arbor in left field and from home to the corner of the chicken coop in right.  Home plate to the drag wire was maybe 25  feet. There were also two fielding hazards to consider: 1) a raised water spigot roughly 12 inches high in right-center, and 2) Muttsy getting excited by any passing person or animal and racing blindly across the field, pulling his chain along the drag wire and head-smacking anyone in the way.

There was no baserunning in inner-tube baseball.  Every swing was either a hit or an out. Any tube snagged in the air was an out, whether it cleared the drag wire or not, and anything smothered before getting past the pitcher was also an out. Two tubes hit foul or any tube that happened to strike Muttsy, fair or foul, also constituted an out.

And, as a carryover from plastic baseball, you had to announce who you were before every at-bat:  Mantle . . . Mays . . . Maris . . .  Yastrzemski . . . Frank or Brooks Robinson  . . .  Clemente . . .  Kaline . . .  Aaron . . . Alou (any of the three) . . .  Frank Howard . . . Boog Powell . . . Tony Oliva.  Gale favored the Giants and the Orioles, while I liked the Yankees and Twins. Gale’s dad once duck-hunted with Harmon Killebrew, so that made him a dual favorite in my yard.

It was mostly a game of strength, as you had to hit it well to clear the drag wire. Anything popped up was  caught, so you had to hit liners or launch like Willie McCovey. Grounders down either line had a chance to get through, but anything  up the middle on the ground was an easy out.

Being stronger, Gale had the upper hand from the start. Then my big brother Skip waded in to challenge the winner and he dominated.

“Way to go, dumbass,” he taunted me, “inventing a game that you can’t beat anyone at!”

That eventually spelled the end for inner-tube baseball. That and the drag wire getting broken or pulled down so many times that it no longer functioned as a measuring rod or a dog restraint.

Still, it was fun while it lasted. Even if I never beat anyone.

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