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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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Super Reflections

super bowl

(Photo credit: sinosplice)

I’m old enough to say that I’ve watched and enjoyed all 47 Super Bowls, and eagerly await the next one, which hopefully will include my team, the Seahawks. Never been to a Super Bowl, but that only means I’ve missed the hoopla, not the game.

Thoroughly enjoyed Sunday’s game as the Ravens held off a 49ers comeback.  Has to rank among the best just for its down-to-the-wire finish.  Game turned on a kickoff return and clutch defense. This could’ve been one for the ages if San Francisco had completed its comeback. Now it’s just one for the ages for Baltimore fans.

I was a football player myself when the Super Bowls started in the late 1960s and felt more personally linked to the action in those days.

Sorta like naming the presidents, I can pretty much recall every Super Bowl winner, although the order might be skewed. And like the presidents, I remember the early and recent ones best.

I grew up admiring Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers and read Jerry Kramer’s “Instant Replay” as gospel. Read it on the recommendation of my high school coach, who was a big Lombardi man in his own right. Recall the scene in “Instant Replay” where Kramer talks about going out for ice cream at training camp and ducking around a corner when he spotted Lombardi approaching. Not that Kramer was doing anything wrong, mind you; he just didn’t want the coach to see him enjoying himself for fear of  what he “might” say. Had a similar respect for my high school coach, who was a  tough ol’ bird to play for, but a source of pride for me years later when I’d still rather eat a cigarette than allow him to see me smoking one.

Memorable Super Bowls for me include those involving friends who also played for my old high school coach: Curt Marsh with the Raiders in 1984, coach Keith Gilbertson Jr. with the Seahawks in 2006  and coach Bret Ingalls with the Saints in 2009. Always been a Seahawks fan, so the 2006 loss to the Steelers remains particularly vivid.

Before the Seahawks, I very much liked the Vikings coached by Bud Grant and the Cowboys under Tom Landry,  in addition to Lombardi’s Packers. I also appreciated Chuck Noll’s Steelers, John Madden’s  Raiders and Marv Levy’s Bills.  Never cared much for the Raiders after the Madden days, or the John Elway-led Broncos when they were division rivals of the Seahawks. Not much of a 49ers fan now either for the same reason.

 I like offensive football as much as the next guy, but I like good defense even more, which led me to embrace Minnesota’s Purple People Eaters, Miami’s No-Names, Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain and Dallas’ Doomsday Defense in the 1970s.

Most Memorable Super Bowls

1. Seahawks losing to the Steelers in 2006.

2. Joe Namath delivering on his victory guarantee in the Jets’ 16-7  upset of the Colts in 1969.

3.  Dolphins’ 14-7 win over the Redskins in 1973 to cap a perfect season.

4. Giants’ 17-14  win over the Patriots in 2008, spoiling New England’s perfect season.

5.  Steelers’ 27-23 win over the Cardinals in 2009.

6. Giants’ 21-17 win over the Patriots in their 2012 rematch.

7.  Ravens’ 34-31 win over the 49ers on Sunday.

8.  Colts’ 16-13 win over Dallas on Jim O’Brien’s last-minute field goal in 1971.

9. Bills’ 20-19 loss to the Giants in 1991 on Scott Norwood’s missed field goal on the final play.

10. Chiefs’ 23-7 win over Minnesota in 1970 to give the AFL it’s second SB win prior to the NFL-AFL merger.

Most Memorable Super Bowl Plays

1. Miami kicker Garo Yepremian’s botched pass after a blocked field goal, and Mike Bass’ subsequent TD interception return, in the Dolphins’ 14-7 win over the Redskins in 1973.

2. John Mackey’s tipped-ball, 75-yard  TD catch  from John Unitas in the Colts’ win over the Cowboys in 1971 in the first Super Bowl after the  NFL-AFL merger.

3. Jackie Smith’s dropped pass in the end zone in the Cowboys’  35-31 loss to the Steelers in 1979.

4.  James Harrison’s 100-yard interception return in the  Steelers’ 27-23 win over the Cardinals 2009.

5. Mike Jones stopping Kevin Dyson a yard short of the end zone on the final play in St. Louis’ 23-16 win over the Titans in 2000.

6. David Tyree’s one-handed, top-of-the-head catch from Eli Manning during the Giants’ game-winning drive against the Patriots in 2008.

7. Mario Manningham’s clutch 38-yard reception from Eli Manning in the Giants’ game-winning drive against the Patriots in 2012.

8. Jacoby Jones’ 108-yard kickoff return in Baltimore’s win over San Francisco on Sunday.

9. Willie Parker’s 75-yard TD run against the Seahawks in 2006.

10. Joe Montana’s game-winning TD pass to John Taylor in the final seconds of the 49ers’ 20-16 win over the Bengals in 1989.

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The Plunge

Yes, Disneyland and Universal Studios have some wonderful rides. But for homegrown exhilaration, it was tough to beat the laundry chute at the Hollister house.

Nine-year-old Gary Hollister discovered the marvel within weeks of the family’s move into the old three-story Victorian house on the edge of town, and he kept it to himself for almost a day and half before letting his 8-year-old brother Billy in on the secret.

After that, it was easy to make new friends. Easy to make a little money, too, at 25 cents per slide.

Laundry chute photo from enonhall.com, dedicated to a family restoration project of an 18th century  home in Lancaster County, Va.

Laundry chute photo from enonhall.com, dedicated to a family restoration project of an 18th century home in Lancaster County, Va.

Unlike most laundry chutes with a simple vertical drop, the Hollisters’ chute was unique from interconnection to drop spots on all three floors. It featured a lengthy slope of about 70 degrees between the third and second floors, then a 5-foot vertical drop to a similar slope cutting back the other way to an eight-foot drop from the basement ceiling into a pile of pillows, couch cushions and dirty laundry.

Feet-first was the recommended method, although Gary and his new pal Ron pulled off memorable head-first efforts that earned them neighborhood acclaim.

There was a “no girls” policy early on. But that ended the day Ginger and Wendy heard of the fun and sweet-talked an invitation from Gary at school. And Billy caught wind of the intrusion when he came home and heard giggles coming from the third floor.

“Now, girls, once you start down, keep your body straight and your hands at your side, and you’ll go through like water in a hose,” Gary said. “Don’t lift your knees or ball up in any way, or you could get stuck. Got it?”

“I’ll show ‘em,” said Billy, who assumed a seated position on the sink counter, put his legs inside the laundry chute’s pull-down door, leaned forward and disappeared like a mole down a hole, as the word “Geronimo” echoed back.

“OK, Ginger,” Gary said. “You’re next. Feet-first, if you please!”

“Forget that!” Ginger said as she eschewed a helpful lift onto the counter and dove head-first into the chute, with Wendy on her heels in like manner.

It was the first tandem head plunge in Hollister laundry chute history, but the point was quickly forgotten when neither girl emerged into the basement pile.

Fearing they were stuck, Gary called out from every drop station in the house and received no answer. He then dropped a basketball down the chute from the third floor and it came through with no trouble.

“Holy cow,” Billy hollered up while climbing the stairs. “The girls got swallowed.”

“Only one thing to do,” Gary responded.  “Got to go in and find ‘em.”

He dove headlong into the chute but found no obstruction – just a long, dark slide of twists and turns before landing on a haystack near Ginger and Wendy in a strange new world of anime Amazons and flesh-eating monsters. No link to home except for Billy, and he soon followed, feet-first, with “Geronimo” still on his lips.

(This was written as a Writers Kickstart prompt, 500 words or less on the four-part topic Laundry, Children, Dirty and Secrets.)

Copyright, Keith L. Olson, 2013

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