From the rear-view mirror, the weekend feels like it must have been one of those three-day operations, enhanced either by a holiday or a vacation day. But it was only Regular Size. Two different and dissimilar events in two different places conspire to leave the impression. Not to mention all the driving. But it was great driving—high quality, expensive driving on gas worth more than three bucks a gallon. How’s that for luxurious living?
I’d packed my Viking apparatus into Mrs. Hermanson the night before, and so was able to start south immediately after work. The road was Highway 169, a Minnesota favorite once you get past the congestion around Shakopee. 169 winds through a beautiful wooded valley in the St. Peter and Mankato areas It’s one of my favorite drives in the state. With Sissel on the stereo it doesn’t get much better (at least in my emotionally impoverished life). I was saddened, however, to see that one of my favorite Dairy Queens in the world, the one out in the country north of Mankato, has closed down after all these years. The last time I stopped they’d expanded their facility. Perhaps they overreached. A lesson to us all.
The road got narrower and less picturesque as Iowa approached, but I carried on. The people of the Bode (pronounced “Boad”), Iowa “Uff Da Days” festival put the cowardly Vikings (those who, like me, did not care to camp in tents) up in a motel in Humboldt, about twenty minutes away. I went there and slept well.
The day dawned gray, wet and stormy, but the forecast on the Weather Channel said it should clear, and it did that. The day went well, a welcome contrast to the heat and poor attendance in Decorah a week before. Bode is a very small town (about 350 residents), but we actually had more visitors to our encampment in one day there than we had in two days in Decorah.
We did four Live Steel Combat performances. I link to this page from a Viking discussion board where Eric posted some photos. I make the link, not because it’s terribly illuminating, but because I think I look fairly studly in the pictures, for an aging fat guy. I came home with a bruise on my left shoulder, and another on my ribcage. Also abrasions on both shins and the underside of my right forearm. I bear them proudly. They are wounds of honor. Eric is catching up to me, beating me more often than I beat him. He’s learning my tricks. However, I did fight Ragnar to a draw (we “killed” each other) once, so maybe I’m learning too.
It’s tough in small towns these days. They seem to be on the wrong side of history, and they know it. Economics and government subsidies favor big farms, so that instead of a hundred small farms, each feeding a family, you’ve got one big farm with a single family and a few employees, often transients. The towns have lost their economic base. Jonah Goldberg wrote about farm subsidies recently in National Review, and what he said was all true. But it doesn’t change the fact that a small, rural American town may have been the best environment for raising kids in the history of the world. And we’re losing it as we watch.
We tore down the camp Saturday evening, and after another pleasant motel night I set out for Belmond, Iowa and the Severson Family Reunion. I remembered that my church body has a congregation in Goldfield, Iowa, through which I passed, so I hunted it down and attended there. It’s a very small church at the best of times, and this was summer, so there were only about ten of us. The pastor is a Licensed Lay Pastor who drives up from Des Moines. Without the expense of a full-time minister, they manage to get by.
I enjoyed the service. It was neither emotional nor elegant, but it was familiar to me—more like the services I grew up with than what we have at the church I attend today. I don’t know how long it’s been since I heard a pastor give thanks for the crops. I felt I was among my own people (I know it’s wrong and evil for anyone with white skin to say that, but that was how I felt). And the sermon spoke to me.
Then on to Belmond. The reunion met in a nursing home’s dining room. Attendance was poor this year. People blamed gas prices. But the potluck was sumptuous. I met a distant relative (a lady of course) who was 91 years old. We can do better than that at the Walker reunions, but then we have higher attendance and a larger pool. I told them the story of my search for Cousin Trygve’s ancestor. I won a door prize (nearly everyone did). Everyone seemed pleased to meet me. They don’t get many people from my branch of the family at these do’s.
Then Bob, the organizer I met in Decorah, offered to take me to Kanawha, Iowa (the epicenter of Severson history in this country) to look for Trygve’s ancestor’s grave. I followed him the ten miles there, and out to the tree-bordered cemetery. It’s not a large cemetery, but I despaired of finding a single grave, without a map.
But Bob knew the place well. We started going around to places (mostly at the west end) where family was buried, on the theory that relatives tend to group together. He showed me various graves—one the son of the man I was looking for. I looked over and said, “There’s a stone that says Swelland.” (Swelland was my dad’s maternal grandmother’s married name, and she was a Severson). I went and looked at it and found a large family stone in a plot that otherwise contained only a single grave—that of Dad’s uncle Theodore, who died in a threshing engine explosion in 1918. The Swellands had a penchant for leaving underpopulated grave plots behind. They left one in my home town, Kenyon, Minnesota, too, with only my great-grandmother in it. My family took it over, and my grandparents and two aunts and an uncle are buried there. It belongs to me now, and I hope to lie there in time (but not too soon). Martha Severson Swelland’s been alone on her side of the stone a long time.
As I was photographing Theodore’s grave, Bob said, “Here’s the one you’re looking for.” I walked a few feet over to where he stood, and there was the gravestone Cousin Trygve wanted. I took several pictures for him.
I drove away triumphant.
Only afterward did I think that it might be sad for Trygve, in a way. He’d wanted to learn his ancestor’s story, but it may be he’d hoped to learn some good reason why the old man had cut off all communication with his unacknowledged offspring in Norway. If he’d died young and poor, for instance, that would be an excuse.
But he lived to be 90 and did all right for himself. One understands that after years of marriage it would be awkward to say to one’s wife, “Uh, there’s some unfinished business in Norway I need to take care of.” But for all that, the abandonment was a wrong act. This man was remembered as a Christian, a church sacristan, a man so kindly that his wife had to discipline the children. Yet at the back of his mind the old sin must have remained. Did he plan to “do something about it someday,” and did the right time just never come? Or did he try to bury the past? We can’t know, and mustn’t judge.
But it’s too bad.