He looked an awful lot like Andrew Jackson. A long narrow face, a shock of white brushy hair, and an irascible temperament. He was my paternal grandfather, Kurtz Olson. Despite his prickly, no-nonsense, narrow approach to life, I found him endlessly endearing.
The youngest of seven children to immigrants Peter and Matilda Olson, Kurtz was born in Wing River, Minnesota in 1905. Though I don’t know much about his early life, I do know that he had a had a short attention span, and restless feet.
During the worst of the Depression Grandpa worked as a welder, and scrap metal dealer. My dad like to remind us that with so many people jobless, Kurtz had lots of work repairing and parting out junked automobiles. One of my favorite snapshots from his early years is Grandpa and another man posing with axle grease below their noses. The two were making sport of Hitler, who in the 1930’s was still viewed as laughable. Grandpa Kurtz is smirking, knowing he’s naughty, and enjoying himself.
During the Second World War, he and my grandmother moved the family to Tacoma, Washington. With the “Arsenal of Democracy” in full swing, Kurtz had plenty of metal work on the coast. After 1945, he again uprooted and moved his family to Spokane, Washington, where cheap hydro power had opened plenty of post-war employment.
Still, Minnesota remained the holy land. Grandpa would hop in his truck and make frequent pilgrimages to the the upper mid-west, driving straight through (24 hours or so) to his homeland. It was as if traveling from Paris to Versailles, only longer.
Unlike my immediate family, where I was the only girl, (not counting my mom) Kurtz lived in a decidedly female home. My aunt and grandmother sat at the kitchen table reading the Enquirer and talking shit about nearly everybody. Poor Grandpa. Those two women tied that poor man into knots, and he reacted predictably. It wasn’t that my Grandfather was unkind by nature, but he was easy to wind up, perceiving the world in black and white, no middle.
Despite those women bad-mouthing me and my brothers, he liked me. And I liked him. In a fleeting, incomplete memory I see him waiting under street lights at the Spokane Greyhound depot. We all must have been meeting a relative from Minnesota. In a burst of joy I remember shouting “Grandpa,” as I sprinted to him, where he scooped me up into a hug. Another vivid moment I recall was his truck pulling up in front of our house, and Kurtz coming to the door wearing nothing but a smirk, bright red long johns, and laced boots. What a crack up.
In a NorthAmerican Scandinavian cadence some of his comments were just a hoot.
“First they call it yam, and then they called it yelly, now they call it pree-serfse.”
And Kurtz always had a dog. There had been Corky, Powder and Puff, Samantha, and Cindy among many others. Samantha was an especially smart Border Collie. After finding herself thrown on the floor of Grandpa’s truck one too many times, she figured out how to brace herself on the dashboard. He would roar up to yellow traffic lights, then stand on the brakes to avoid a red light. My god was it perpetual. My guess is a new clutch about every three months, casualties of his Mr Magoo style. Anyway, Samantha learned to watch the traffic lights and prepare.
I drove over to his house on some such errand, and pulled into his long unpaved driveway. The little white garage was separate from the house, and left a gap enclosed by a cyclone fence. Opening the gate, I saw my grandpa splitting wood. In the yard next door a dog barked at me on the far side of the fence. I called out, “You be quiet over there,” to which my grandfather said, “He doessent underschand you. It’s a Cherman Shepard.” Then he laughed, and so did I.
My children didn’t know Kurtz. And for that I’m sorry. They missed a true original. I suppose that is my job, and the job of all of us Boomers. We bridge the years between that Depression-era, World War Two generation to our children. They won’t know if we don’t share the story. And since it’s December, I’ll sign off with this Kurtz Christmas anecdote.
On Christmas Eve in about 1936-37, my grandparents packed up their children for an evening church service. Being good Swedes they had traditional candles balanced on the boughs of their Christmas tree. And they left them lit. By the time they returned home a fully engulfed fire lit up the night. They lost everything. My grandfather knew his way around a welder, but somehow overlooked the yule-tree. That incident remains today as serious family lore.
Now he’s long gone, as is my dad. But through the written word he remains as vivid as his humor, his voice, and his presence in my memory.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle.