To an Old Buzzard

Grandpa Sommers was the first person I knew who died. I was eleven. Less than a year later, Grandpa LaFollette would die. Not long after, my friend Norbert—a fellow Boy Scout, luminous in his wiseguyness—would be snuffed out while unwisely trying to halt a runaway bulldozer in his father’s construction yard. 

Since that time, many other people I knew have passed into Eternity. Now that I am old, it has become a trend. 

Grandpa, 1944

But the first to depart was my father’s father. When we got the phone call, I threw myself down on our couch and tried to cry. But I had no tears for Grandpa. I had always feared him. Now he was gone; it was hard to see a downside.

I was ever a timid child; Grandpa was no monster. But he had a cross-grained, profane, pugnacious personality. “Hey, you goddam kids, cut that out!” His continual outbursts were mere blips on the scale of human conflict, but they terrified me. Grandpa was also a genuine eccentric who lived on an exalted plane that no ordinary man could grasp.

It is more than sixty years now since Grandpa last walked the earth. Perhaps the time has come to give the old buzzard his due.

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Sommers band cutter

William Peter Sommers was born 26 January, 1884. He grew up in Metamora, Illinois, a German farming community where his father was a Big Cheese—building contractor, implement dealer, owner of the local telephone company, and inventor of a band-cutter for threshing machines. The Sommerses, you see, were not farmers themselves but townsmen and technicians, who drank from the Pierian Spring of science and technology.

Grandpa immersed himself in telegraphy and telephony. As a young man, he worked for his father but even then showed signs of a truculence that may have been genetic; the old man, hence the whole family, had broken with the Roman Catholic Church over a money dispute with the parish priest, whom they saw as a robber baron.

Grandpa at telephone company, early 1900s

William P. Sommers expected to beat the world through natural superiority, by mastering the new field of communications technology. The Metamora Telephone Company, however, was a cramped corporate space. There was not room enough for two egoes such as Will’s and his father’s. Will left the family business in 1907 and went to work for the Chicago and Alton Railroad as a telegrapher. 

Millie Marie
Gunsten at 18

In 1912 he married Millie Marie Gunsten, a telephone operator from Springfield. They begat children, five in all: Edward, Mabel, Stanley, Lloyd (my father), and Franklin.

In April 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. Telegraphers were nationalized and deployed strategically where the government thought best. Grandpa at age 33 went to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to help move freight shipments across the U.S./Canada border. This may have been his first travel beyond central Illinois. Later that year, he was sent by train to the Pacific Northwest, leaving Illinois on 23 September and arriving in Seattle six days later. Judging by his breathless dispatches home to Millie by postcard—two or three per day—long-distance travel made his blood race. 

Grandpa, age 30

He returned to Metamora and continued as a railroad telegrapher until 1927, when he jumped to the Sinclair (Oil) Pipeline Company. It was the same kind of work he had done for the railroad, only now he dispatched flows of oil by telegraph, not carloads of freight and passengers by rail.

He moved his family to Dahinda, tiniest of prairie towns but the location of a pipeline pumping station. They lived there three years before moving to the metropolis of Knoxville, Illinois (population 1,867), which had its own high school. Grandpa drove nine miles from Knoxville to his job in Dahinda every day in his Pierce-Arrow touring car, the one with isinglass curtains. When the Depression made money scarce a couple of years later, he had to sell the Pierce-Arrow; then he walked nine miles each way three or four days a week.

Franklin’s Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross

In 1942, when he was 58, his second son, Stanley, was killed while flying a B-17 mission in the Southwest Pacific. Stanley was a golden boy, bright and handsome, with a captivating smile, a fluent swing clarinet, and a lovely young wife. Less than a year after Stanley’s death, the youngest son, Franklin, was killed in a B-26 over occupied France. 

Bear in mind, Gentle Reader: I was not born yet when all this happened. I did not observe how Grandpa took these wartime deaths; nor did it ever occur to anyone in the family to tell me. I do know that people in those days—not just my family, not just Germans, but Americans in general—kept emotions to themselves. When I first became acquainted with Grandpa, after World War II, he was a hard-bitten old man. But he was that, quite likely, even before losing Stanley and Frankie.

Will and Millie Sommers at Frankie’s grave, 1950s

In 1949 he “retired” from the pipeline; that’s the word used in his 1957 newspaper obituary. The word Dad told Mom was “fired.” I remember that very distinctly. I was four years old. When Daddy said Grandpa had been “fired,” my mind’s eye saw him as a blackened cinder. My parents had to persuade me it only meant he had lost his job. 

It’s easy now to guess how he got fired: He lipped off to somebody whom he regarded as a moron but who held the power of dismissal. It turned out all right, though. He was 65; no point looking for another job. He devoted himself to his large vegetable garden, probably half an acre; to a couple of long trips he took with his wife, Millie (additional details herehere, and here); and to a whole raft of personal eccentricities and foibles.

  • The CB&Q railroad ran just behind his house. As an old railroad man, he had a duty to count the cars on every freight train that went by, many of them more than a hundred cars long. 
  • He drank a bottle of Hires Root Beer every day. He had a theory it was a health tonic. And not to waste the drop or two of this elixir remaining at the bottom of the bottle, he refilled the bottle with water and drank it down.
  • He also advocated eating the royal jelly of bees—not that he could afford to buy it—and the white insides of orange peels. Again, health measures.
  • He wrote long, typewritten letters to editors and to politicians in Springfield and Washington, favoring them with his definitive views on how to run things.
  • He bought tiny shares of wildcat oil-drilling ventures in Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado. He had a large U.S. geological map of the region. He could and did—for the benefit anyone in hearing range—pinpoint the location of each of his wells and rattle off incomprehensible data about its production prospects, or at least the plain fact that it was about to “come in a gusher.”
  • He purchased, for his own use, a Violet Ray Machine. It was a Bakelite handle on an electrical cord, with glass tubes of varying shapes that could be locked into the handle. When he plugged it in, there arose a penetrating hummmm; a gas inside the glass tube glowed bright lavender; and the air smelled of ozone. He would fire this up in a darkened room and move the radiant purple tube across his joints, or sometimes across mine. It was a marvelous device. Cured arthritis and rheumatism. Guaranteed.
Violet Ray Machine.
  • He took nitroglycerin pills for periodic chest pains and was vastly amused that the most explosive stuff on earth was prescribed as a balm for his heart.
  • He never bought a car from the Big Three automakers. After he lost the Pierce-Arrow, the next car he bought was a Hudson. After that, in the mid-1950s, he bought a neat little sky blue Studebaker Commander. He would have argued forcefully, to anyone who would listen, that these were better-built products than Fords, Chevrolets, or Chryslers. Really, he was simply contrary.

His one-thousand-one-hundred-eleven weird sayings and doings, in my mother’s view, added up to a strange, disgusting old crank. But he was Dad’s father. What could she do?

On 27 January 1957, the day after his 73rd birthday, he drove the Studebaker to the post office, five miles away. He picked up his mail and drove homeward. Something happened. The car came to rest against the corner of the Steak & Shake Drive-in on East Main Street in Galesburg. Grandpa lay slumped over the wheel, dead.

1953 Studebaker Commander, part of the Studebaker National Museum collection in South Bend, Indiana. Photo by Tysto. Public Domain.

All the world’s royal jelly, orange peel linings, and root beer could not repair his old heart. The world’s first coronary bypass surgery was still three years in the future, and it would be another decade or two before the procedure became common.

Grandma drove the Studebaker until she was no longer able, then it came into our family and I drove it to work most of the summer of 1965. Nice car. 

Those crazy oil leases that Mom ridiculed have brought our family a minor yet welcome flow of dollars right up through the present day.

I don’t know what became of the Ultraviolet Ray Machine. I’ll bet if I had it now I could sell it to a rube for a buck two-eighty.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

A Child’s Christmas in Downstate Illinois, Part II

Waiting. Waiting. Waiting all year. Waiting in a little town on the prairie. 

Waiting through the commotion at Grandma and Grandpa LaFollette’s brown board house under the big elm on the Square. Waiting in bed at Grandma and Grandpa Sommers’ quiet house, with the lone blue light in its window, waiting with dreams of an electric train or a trap drum set, waiting for Santa Claus and his reindeer, if only they would—

It’s morning. Christmas morning!

I jump out of bed and dash into the living room. And there I find . . . NOT the amazing trap drum set from the Sears catalog. Not even a Lionel electric train, which I know for a fact Santa keeps plenty of on hand, and gives to lots of boys my age.

Something has gone terribly wrong. Under the tree, instead of a train on a loop of metal track, sits a big flat thing wrapped in red and green paper. I pick it up and rip off the paper, while the thing underneath makes clicking sounds. It’s a clear plastic box. A bunch of little metal balls inside it roll around and bump into things as I tilt it sideways.

“Look, Larry, it’s a pinball game,” says Mom, in her nightgown and robe. 

“Here,” says Dad, in his wrinkled pajamas. “You work it like this.” He takes it out of my hands, tilts it so all the little balls roll down to the corner, pulls back on a handle and lets it go. One of the balls shoots up and goes bouncing around between pegs and plastic fences until it comes back to the bottom. Wow.

“Here, let me try.” I reach up, take the thing back and start shooting metal balls. I’m so busy watching the balls bounce around that I almost, not quite, forget the trap drums. 

“Why the long face?” Grandpa hollers. With his pointy nose and his wire-rimmed glasses, he stares at me like a bird getting after a worm. “Y’oughta count yourself goddam lucky to have a nice game like that!”

“Maybe when you’re a little older,” Mom says, “Santa Claus will bring you an electric train.” She doesn’t mention the trap drum set. 

Girl and doll. Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash.

Although I have given them quite a few hours of free informational talks on it, I have never heard either Mom nor Dad actually speak the words “trap drum set.” Still, Mom just said “electric train.” So there is hope for the future.

Cynda gets her heart’s desire, a stupid doll named Betsy Wetsy. Mom brings a little glass of water to pour in its mouth, so my little sister can watch as the stupid thing pees its pants. Cynda is carried away with joy. She pours more and more water until not only the doll’s panties but also its dress, its hair, its chubby hands, and its sappy face are all dripping. 

“Now let’s put Betsy Wetsy away for a while,” Mom says, “until she dries out.” Cynda starts crying and carrying on as Mom takes the doll from her hands. Betsy Wetsy, to her, is what a trap drum set is to me. She has no right to complain. Hmph.

There are socks, bigger than we can wear, hung by Grandma’s fake fireplace with care. In them are oranges and nickels and candy canes and Mars bars and a few things like that. 

We dress, eat, pile into the car and drive down Main Street to the fun grandparents’ house. Grandpa and Grandpa Sommers will come along later.

A Flexible Flyer sled within the permanent collection of The Children’s Museum of IndianapolisCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The place is already humming when we get there. The bottom of the tree swims in a sea of presents. The biggest one is for me, and I grab it right away, because it is too big to be wrapped: an American Flyer sled, longer than I am tall. It has shiny wooden slats on two red metal runners, with a wood steering bar to make it turn.

Now, this is more like it. “Mom, where’s my coat? I’m going outside to try my sled.” 

“Wait a bit,” Dad says. “We’re about to open all the presents, and then we’ll eat. You can play with your sled in the afternoon.” 

More waiting. Sigh. I give the steering bar a twist or two. It doesn’t seem like it really works. The runners don’t hardly bend. “Dad, the runners don’t hardly bend.” 

“It’s just fine, son. You’ll see.” 

My cousin Steve is there, his eyes big and round behind his glasses. He doesn’t need to be jealous of my sled. I’ll let him ride it this afternoon. He has already done pretty well at his Grandma and Grandpa Stucki’s house. He got a cowboy hat and BB gun there. His little sister, Betsy, got, guess what—a Betsy Wetsy doll! Even though she’s only two.

From left: Aunt Linda, Cynda at 2, Steve at 6, Betsy at 1, Larry at 7. Christmas 1952 at Grandma LaFollette’s house.

Aunt Bertha and Uncle Harry—Mom’s aunt and uncle, everybody’s favorites—come in through the little wooden shed that stands outside the front door to keep the cold out. (Grandpa calls it “the vestibule.”) They have red-tipped noses and big smiles. They came later because they went to church for the Christmas morning service.

Grandma and Grandpa Sommers pull up in their big old Hudson. Grandpa’s wearing his suit and tie now, with his shoes shined and his hair slicked down. He’ll be on his best behavior—no yelling and cursing here. Grandma gives him the fish eye as they come in. 

We all sit down to open presents. The grownups sit in a big circle. Aunt Sue and Aunt Linda take the presents from the tree and hand them out, because they can read the tags. I can read, too, but not when it’s written in longhand.

It’s like a madhouse. Everybody unwraps presents, whooping and hollering, laughing, showing off, trying on new shirts and sweaters. I get some clothes that are nice, I guess. But my best presents are a coiled metal thing called a Slinky, and a tin Caterpillar bulldozer with rubber treads. It has a key on the side that you wind it up with.

Grownups in Grandma LaFollette’s dining room, Steve and Larry in foreground, Christmas 1952.

I have to wait to play with my new toys, because it’s time for dinner. We go down a step from the living room to the dining room. All the rooms in this house are one or two steps higher or lower than each other. I don’t know why, that’s just how it is.

Steve and Betsy, Cynda and I, Aunt Linda and Aunt Sue eat in the kitchen. The grownups sit at the big table in the dining room. There is turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy and sweet potatoes and stuffing and two different kinds of rice—Spanish, and glorified—and cranberry sauce. And three different pumpkin pies, each one a little different. Maybe I can try them all.

The kids’ table, Christmas 1952. Clockwise, from lower left: Steve, Aunt Sue, Aunt Linda, Cynda, Larry.

Aunt JoAnne comes into the kitchen with something called the wishbone. It was part of the turkey. I get to pull it with her. We each hold one end and pull to see where it breaks. Whoever gets the big end, their wish will come true. I hurry up and wish a wish. I close my eyes real tight to think.

“Oh, I know!” I shout. “I’ll wish for—”

“No, don’t tell!” Aunt JoAnne says. “If you tell your wish, then it won’t come true.”

Really? There are rules for wishes?  I didn’t know.

So I close my eyes again to remember my wish. Oh, yeah, that’s right. I can’t say what my wish is, but it’s not an electric train. Mom already said I might get an electric train next Christmas, so I don’t want to waste my wish on that. So I’m wishing for something else. Something that can make a loud noise.

I open my eyes. We pull the wishbone and it breaks on Aunt Jo’s side, so I win. “Hooray! Now I’ll get my train and my—oops.” 

I’ve waited long enough to play with my toys. When I get back to the living room, the uncles have set up the books from the Collier’s Encyclopedia to make stairs, and they have the Slinky walking down the steps. “This is just to show you how it’s done,” says Uncle Earl. 

Then he winds up my tin bulldozer and shows me how it can drive down the steps. This is so much fun that Uncle Dick does it next, and then Uncle Garrett, and then Richard Henderson—who isn’t even my uncle, yet. Next, they try to make it drive up the steps, but it won’t go. “Goddam grade’s too steep,” says Grandpa Sommers.

An earlier Christmas: 1950.

“We can’t give up now,” says Richard. He takes half the books out of the stack so it is shallower. Now the tractor goes up the steps just fine, but then  it turns and falls off the side.

“Maybe the damned thing needs a new driver,” Grandpa Sommers says. So finally it’s my turn to wind it up and aim it toward the book-stairs. It falls over when I start it, too.

Otto Graham. Bowman’s football card, 1954. Public domain.

By Sunday, when we go home, the Slinky has a bent coil and the Caterpillar tractor is dented, but we’ve all had a lot of fun playing with them. The sled works okay when you pull it with a rope, but when we get back to Streator, I know where a hill is, and that will be even more fun. 

We drive along between the fields of corn stubble on Sunday afternoon. Dad switches on the car radio. The Detroit Lions are playing the Cleveland Browns. “Bobby Layne versus Otto Graham,” Dad says. I don’t pay much attention to that because I’m dreaming about my electric train and trap drum set.

Detroit wins. “Guess Otto Graham will have to wait till next year,” Dad says.

Blessings and Merry Christmas, 

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Memoirs of Millie Marie Gunsten Sommers, Part I

This is a guest post by Millie Sommers (1889-1971), my grandmother. In 1969, at my request, she wrote a memoir of her life, mostly telling about her early days, around 1900. She wrote 13 pages, in clear, crisp longhand. I have broken it into three parts for easy reading. It is verbatim, straight from her pen, except for a few additions of my own, in [square brackets].

Grandma’s Narrative:

I was born Aug. 8 – 1889, at Greenview, Menard Co. Illinois. I was the oldest of 10 children. My father & mother were running a resturant [sic] in Greenview. But when I was about a month old, we moved to a small farm, about 10 or 12 miles from there.

Millie, age 5, and her sister Mabel, 3.

My father’s name was John Oliver Gunsten, and his folks were Norwegian, altho he was born in this country. My mother’s name was Sarah Elizabeth Foster. My father did not farm, but was a carpenter as were quite a few cousins of two other Gunsten families who lived near by.

They all worked together, with my father as Boss Contractor. He never had but little education, but was an excellent carpenter, and drew all his plans and then had them blueprinted. He also made a lot of our furniture, such as dressers, desks etc.

Several years later we moved to Lincoln, Logan Co. Illinois. There was a Feeble-minded Institution there, and they always kept several carpenters for repair jobs & other work that needed to be done. So my father was Boss Carpenter there.

School Days

I also had my first two years of school in Lincoln. Then we moved to Middletown, also in Logan Co, and about 25 miles from Springfield.

Later quite a few of my fathers relatives moved there, as did a few other Norwegian families.

My mother’s folks still lived in Greenview, about 10 miles away, but quite a trip in horse & buggy.

I finished my schooling in Middletown, which had 8 grades, and 2 yrs. High School, as most small towns had.

This was all one 2-room building – one downstairs and one upstairs, with two teachers.

I even taught several times in the lower room, when the teacher was sick or had to be away.

I was large for age and also rather quick to learn, so I suppose that was the reason I was chosen.

In those days only the “well-to-do” tho’t of going away to High School or College.

Small Town Life

After finishing school, we moved to Lowpoint, Ill. a very small town in Woodford Co. But it was a very important town, and was practically owned by three brothers. They had a large general store, lumber yard, elevator, coal, etc.

Millie, age 18.

They always kept a Carpenter for their house building etc. thru out the country, so that was my Dad. The telephone exchange was in the middle of the General store, and there were wires extending from there to different parts of the store for the cash boxes. So I was the telephone and cashier there.

There was a blacksmith, but he was independent, and let everybody know it.

Several years later we moved to Springfield. My mother’s sister lived there, and later most of the rest of her family moved there. 

The older ones lived there until their deaths. I still have one sister living there. My mother’s father lived to rather a good age, and her mother [Martha Elizabeth Smith Foster] lived to be 100. She was in good health always and able to get around rather well altho her hearing was not too good. She was knitting a suit for one of her grown up grand-daughters, and finished it soon after.

But she seemed to give up at 100 years, and 6 mos. later she died.

Marriage and Family

William P. Sommers, around age 30.

I worked as telephone operator in Springfield for awhile, then later did office work, until I was married on May 29, 1912 to Wm P. Sommers of Metamora, Illinos. He and his father [Peter Anton Sommers] owned and operated the Telephone Exchange in Metamora, as in those days most of Telephone Exchanges were privately owned.

My husband was a Telegraph Operator, and railroaded since quite young (14 yrs.) Those days they worked as apprentices ˆ(and general roustabout) in a station until they learned Telegraphy and then they were on their own.

One of Grandpa’s telegraph keys, an unusual Foote, Pierson & Co. “Twentieth Century” key from the early 1900s, popularly known as a “Pump Handle Key.” Larry F. Sommers photo.

We lived in Metamora 23 yrs. Our 5 children (4 boys & 1 girl) were born there. My husband was station agent there for awhile, then he went to work for Sinclair [Oil Corporation]. At that time they dispatched their oil [on their oil pipeline] by telegraph, and had pumping stations every 40 miles (I believe). He had to work as relief Opr. at different places at vacation time until a permanent place was open. Finally we moved to Dahinda, Knox Co., Ills. We lived there 8 yrs. but as the children had to drive 10 miles to High School, we moved into Knoxville where we still live (or at least I do.) My husband died Jan. 1957. He had retired from Sinclair after 16 yrs. The children all live away now.

Our children all graduated from Knoxville High School. The oldest Edward went to University of Washington 2 yrs. Then enlisted in the Naval Cadet Program, which was being pushed at that time on account of W.W. 2 looming up. After 4 yrs in Navy, he went with Pan American Airway where has been [sic] ever since. 

He married Mary Nelson of Knoxville, and have three children and 3 grandchildren.

Next oldest is Mabel, who married Robert Hiler of Knoxville, who is mechanic for United Airlines in California. They have one son.

The third was Stanley, who went to Knox College 2 yrs. & then enlisted as Aviation Cadet. He became a Pilot and 2ndLt. He married Mary Parkins of Galesburg just before going overseas.  

He was killed in So Pacific. Dec-1st 1942.

The youngest Franklin was also a pilot and 2nd Lt. He was killed in France at age 20 years. Sept 2 – 1943.

The next to youngest was Lloyd went into the Army, just after High School.

He spent 3½ yrs. in So Pacific and came home in fairly good shape. He then went to Knox College for 4 yrs, and taught H. School for 3 yrs. [Mistaken: Actually 2 years.]

He is now Chemist for Johns-Manville in Waukegan, Ills. He married Barbara La Follette of Knoxville, and they have two children. Cynda, the youngest is in first yr. college.

Larry who is overseas with Army Air Corp [actually, U.S. Air Force], works as interpeter [sic] of Communist broadcasts, for one thing.

Millie Sommers, 1950s

He went to a Chinese language school & studied the Chinese language. Since being in Okinawa part of the time, he has studied Japanese language. He is the one who gave me the idea of writing these memoirs. He wanted me to write of some of the things we did differently in the days when I was young, and what we did for fun. So I will try and think of some things that might be interesting.

Next Week: Fin-de-Siècle Pastimes

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author