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Given the Choice, Who Would You Like to Talk With?

Jerry Nelson would talk to his grandfather.

A popular question nowadays is, “If you could talk with any person, living or dead, who would it be?”

Many would name such history-altering figures as Washington or Lincoln or Weird Al Yankovic.   
       
I would be happy as a toad in a mudpuddle if I could visit with a couple of guys who were born in the 19th century. Specifically, my grandfathers.     
 
Both of them have been gone for 30 years now, and maybe it’s true what they say about absence making the heart grow fonder. Or perhaps it’s just because it’s autumn, a season that’s known to trigger acute nostalgia.
 
My grandpa, Emil Hammer, emigrated to America from Norway in 1915 with little more than the shirt on his back. Emil joined the Army when World War I broke out. After the war ended, he was given an honorable discharge along with papers that said he was a U.S. citizen.
 
Emil started farming in eastern South Dakota. He worked hard and saved up and sent money back to Norway so that more of his family could join him in this country.
 
I hadn’t given this much thought until lately, but this means that my mother is a first-generation immigrant and I’m second-generation.
 
English was Emil’s second language. It was difficult for us kids to navigate his thick Norwegian brogue. But children are highly adaptable, and we soon realized that the pronunciation of certain letters were interchangeable. It was as if we had to learn a hybrid of Norwegian and English to converse with him.
 
Emil and Grandma Amanda had a mess of kids and lived good, long lives. Emil was 93 when he joined our ancestors in Valhalla, and Amanda lived to be 95. I don’t know what their secret to longevity might have been. Emil was an inveterate Copenhagen devotee and regularly consumed massive slabs of lutefisk that were soaked with melted butter and generously salted. Maybe that’s what kept him going.
 
If that’s the case, I’m in trouble. Don’t tell my doctor this, but I’ve never used smokeless tobacco and it’s been many months since I last consumed lutefisk.  
 
My grandfather, Erwin Nelson, was born in 1898 to a family of Norwegian immigrants. He proudly told me that he didn’t learn a word of English until it was forced upon him when he started going to school. The Lutheran church he attended held services in Norwegian until the 1920s, switching to English only after most of the old pioneers had died off.
 
Erwin told me how one day, when he was a young man, a neighbor rushed over to his family’s farm. The neighbor was apoplectic because he had heard that a trainload of Dutch immigrants was about to arrive in town.
 
The neighbor was adamant about what must be done: they had to go to town and prevent the newcomers from getting off the train. If we let the Dutch get a toehold, said the neighbor, they will take over the entire country and there won’t be anything left for the rest of us.
 
Grandpa told the neighbor that this was nonsense, that there was plenty of everything here for everybody. Years later, two of Erwin’s children would marry people who were descended from Dutch immigrants.
 
Grandpa often related how he had gone to the local Army recruitment station as soon as he’d learned that World War I had begun. He was rejected because of his partial deafness, so he hopped on a train and went to the next recruitment center where he was again rejected. He told this story with a wistful sense of loss. It was clear that Erwin believed that he’d missed out on a grand adventure. He might have also missed out on being killed, in which case I wouldn’t be here to write about him.
 
It was a challenge for Erwin to keep track of his 30-some grandchildren. A few stood out for him, such as my cousin Greg, which he frequently mispronounced as “Dreg.”
 
Greg had taken a job in a machine shop. In Erwin’s mind, Greg was an old-fashioned blacksmith, standing beside a blazing forge, hammering ingots of incandescent steel upon a colossal anvil.
 
“I told Dreg that when the sweat runs here,” said Erwin, pointing to his forehead, “you know you are working!”
 
I didn’t have the heart to tell Grandpa that Greg probably spent much of his time operating a wire-feed welder. Besides, I didn’t know that Greg didn’t have a coal-fired forge.
 
All of this reminiscing has made me hungry. I think I’ll go to the store and stock up on butter and see if the new lutefisk has arrived.
 
———————
Jerry’s book, Dear County Agent Guy, is available at Workman.com and in bookstores nationwide.

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