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

Colleville by the Sea

December 9, 1954—Edward turned right at Formigny, and the little German car divided the French fields en route to Omaha Beach. Millie, riding in back beside Mary, watched the hamlet of St. Laurent-sur-Mer slide by her window. No bigger than Knoxville, she thought. Not many people out. Probably taking their siesta.

Frankie’s headstone at Colleville, 2009.
Steven Sommers photo.

At the cemetery, all four got out of the car. The sun came out, but a stiff wind drove the cold into one’s bones. The caretaker, wearing a beret, led the way to Plot A, Row 14, Grave 32. Millie was glad Will had bought a new overcoat in Galesburg before they left. Thin and wiry as he was, the cold went right through him. Not like me, she thought.

There it was: 

FRANKLIN W. SOMMERS

2LT   559 BOMB SQ   387 BOMB GP (M)

ILLINOIS   SEPT 2 1943

Will polished his specs, stuffed the handkerchief back in a pocket. He stared at the cross.

That’s the look he gives to kids cutting across his vegetable patch, Millie thought. 

Edward frowned as if embarrassed how the Luftwaffe had treated his youngest brother. Mary stood by him, eyes closed, lips moving silently, hands clasped in front of her. 

Will stepped up, bent forward, ran the fingers of one hand over the letters cut into the cross. 

Frankie, second from left, and crew of Janet’s Dream, 1943.

“He was flying a Marauder, Pop,” said Edward, the pilot. “B-26.” 

Will straightened up, turned away. “Doesn’t matter much, now.”

Grandpa catches his hat. From film by Edward Sommers.

The wind was blowing from land to sea. You could see the English Channel from here. At least Frankie has a view, she thought. What a thing to think.

Will brushed his cheek with the edge of his hand as he walked away from the grave. “God-damned wind. Smarts the eyes.” 

The wind took his fedora, and he chased it across the memorial colonnade.

A fictionalized account of true events.

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After a War

CARE package, 1948. Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive). Licensed under  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany.

Western Europe today is modern, progressive, and well-to-do—a success story. But in the 1950s, when my grandparents made their only visit there, the place was a wreck. In the first half of the twentieth century, it had been destroyed, partly rebuilt, then destroyed all over again. When peace came in 1945, standing Europe back on its feet was a monumental task. There was the Marshall Plan, but that was hardly enough. We were urged by radio announcements to support the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe, which sent “CARE packages” to needy Europeans. When Grandpa and Grandma, Will and Millie Sommers, visited at the end of 1954, the contrast between American prosperity and European austerity remained sharp. 

Older Younger

He was 70; she was 65. That equates to 80 and 75 in today’s world. Folks got older younger in those days. They were not wealthy but were thrifty. Still, they might not have made the trip had they not had a ready entrée to Europe. Their eldest son, Edward, was a pilot for Pan American World Airways. He and his family lived in Bad Homburg, an old mineral-springs resort town about ten miles northeast of Frankfurt.

Due to a flight delay in Boston, Grandma and Grandpa missed connections in London and had to stay overnight at the Richmond Hill Hotel. There, at 4:00 pm on November 10, according to Millie’s notes, they had “tea, milk, and hot water; sandwiches of fish and cheese—very good; bread, butter, and marmalade.” You may think of “English High Tea” as something a bit more elaborate, but remember: This was less than ten years after the most destructive war in history. As to the hotel—“Rooms cold,” she reports, “so to bed early.

Remains of Hitler’s bunker, after 1947 demolition. Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive). Licensed under  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany.

They flew on to Frankfurt to stay with Ed and his family. In the following weeks, with Ed or his wife, Mary, at the wheel, they visited Freiburg; Alzenau and Michelbach in Bavaria, in quest of Sommers family records; and Berlin, including a brief trip into the Russian sector. While in Berlin they saw the bunker where Hitler spent his last days. “Mass of rubble – right in business section,” Grandma reports. 

At this point in her narration, she pauses to wax philosophical: “It has been said that after hearing of all the destruction, you may say, ‘There’s nothing left to see.’ But turning to what remains, there is more than any traveler is likely to take in during a lifetime.” Clearly, she was impressed by the sights of Europe.

There was one sight, however, that must have evoked strong emotions. (Understand, Dear Reader, in our family strong emotions are something to be avoided rather than sought or indulged.) On Monday, December 6, they left for France by auto with Ed and Mary. Grandma lists every city and town through which they drove. 

Spoils of War

They drove through places famously scarred by the First World War: the Meuse River and Argonne Forest, Château-Thierry on the Marne. At Verdun, they saw a monument to André Maginot, whose fortifications failed to prevent the Nazi conquest of France in 1940. At Châlons-sur-Marne, they stayed in the Hotel de la Haute-Mère-Dieu, built in 1700. They drove through the Belleau Woods battlefield.

They rushed through Paris and Versailles in less than 24 hours—a shame bordering on a crime. They continued across France to the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, a newly-built resting place above the invasion beach. (This is the setting of the imagined vignette above. It’s a piece of fiction, but from my knowledge of the individuals involved, something very like it must have taken place.) 

Grandma and Grandpa at the grave, 1954.

While at the cemetery, they spoke with the its caretaker, whom Grandma describes as “very nice – American with French wife. 2 live there with 24 hr. supervision. He was in Normandy invasion. Cemetery on shore of channel where landing was made. This was after our boys were gone of course. [She’s referring to sons Stanley, lost over the Solomon Islands in 1942, and Frankie, lost over France in 1943.]

“Much wreckage still in Channel – which is covered during High Tide. Drove along water – Fort still partly standing there with German Gun still sticking out.” 

Later the same day they visited Dunquerque (which the British spell Dunkirk), site of a major battle early in World War II, a beach from which more than 330,000 men were spirited across the Channel in a huge boatlift. Grandma’s notes report: “Desolate country  . . . . Immense amount of damage. . . . Looked across at White Cliffs of Dover.”

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Grass

by Carl Sandburg

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo. 

Shovel them under and let me work— 

                                          I am the grass; I cover all. 

And pile them high at Gettysburg 

And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun. 

Shovel them under and let me work. 

Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor: 

                                          What place is this? 

                                          Where are we now? 

                                          I am the grass. 

                                          Let me work.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

A Flock of Recall

The tagline of this blog is “seeking fresh meaning in our common past.” It’s my mission as a writer. I’m all about the past. Especially, I take an interest in how the past comes down to the present, and what that means to us.

Sometimes a mere object flushes a covey of memories like doves bursting from cover into sunlight. Who can say the meaning? One must be content to list the fowl of the past and let them perch where they will in the present.

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I rummaged through a box of old junk—some to scrap, some to keep. My 7-year-old grandson, Tristan, said, “Bapa, what’s this?” 

It was a lighter—the self-capping Ronson type, not the Zippo type. A handsome thing in silver and white, it touted the Galesburg Register-Mail, “A Better Newspaper.” The gizmo enthralled Tristan, who had never seen one. He is mechanically inclined and immediately discovered that this thing flips its lid with a satisfying click every time you push its lever. There was no other effect—no spark or flame—because the lighter had lost both flint and fluid long ago. But the mere action itself: that, Tristan loved.

Circulation

I explained that it was used to light cigarettes back when everybody smoked. And that the reason we have this item is that my great-uncle, Harry Young, was circulation manager of the Galesburg Register-Mail in those days. Tristan’s eyes scrunched up the way they do when he’s working something out, so I told him what a circulation manager does; that many boys, not much older than Tristan, were hired to fling papers on porches all over Galesburg, Illinois, a city of 35,000; and that Uncle Harry made sure enough boys were hired and told them which houses were to receive the news.

There was more to it than that. Uncle Harry had overall responsibility for getting the paper out to all its customers. When a delivery was missed, the phone rang in Aunt Bertha and Uncle Harry’s house—in the middle of supper, for the Register-Mail was an afternoon rag. Uncle Harry usually had two or three spare copies on hand; so they would finish eating, get in the car, and drive the paper out to the stiffed subscriber. Then, if it was a nice summer evening, they might stop at Highlander’s for ice cream.

A Family Affair

In the late Forties, when I was a tot, my father attended Knox College on the GI Bill. Mom had a part-time job, but even so, we needed a bit more money. Uncle Harry hired Dad—that is, his niece Barb’s husband—to drive a Register-Mail route every afternoon to Bushnell, thirty miles south of Galesburg. All to make sure folks got their papers.

Aunt Jean worked as a secretary at the Register-Mail for a year or two after she graduated from Knoxville High School in 1952. I don’t know whether she worked in Circulation or elsewhere in the paper. In any case, being Harry Young’s niece was a good thing.

Aunt Bertha and Uncle Harry were family favorites. Down-to-earth, droll, with no children of their own, they doted on my mother and her six younger siblings. And, by extension, on me, my sister, and our cousins. They took us swimming at Lake Bracken. They had the whole family over for fish fries after they made a good catch.

Nothing lasts forever. Uncle Harry, a lifelong smoker, succumbed to emphysema. The  loss devastated Aunt Bertha. She did not long survive him.

A Presence

Even after their passing, the Register-Mail went on. It remained a presence in our lives.

In the 1960s, I attended Knox College following my father’s footsteps. For spending money I  worked the lunch rush in a hamburger joint, Charlie Nash’s “Big Guy” restaurant. One day, a lunch customer made a strange remark about President Kennedy; but I had hung up my apron, was on my way out the door, did not stop to inquire.

I walked a block out of my way to pass the Register-Mail on my way back to campus. The printing plant had a huge front window, so townspeople could see the paper printed. Pressmen would crayon headlines on a big sheet of newsprint and tape it up in the window, a preview of the day’s edition. If the news about Kennedy was important, I would see it in the pressroom window.

No sheet hung on the pressroom glass. The presses were still. No employees to be seen working inside. 

“They killed him.”

I walked back to school puzzled. The silence was eerie. No cars moved, as far as I remember. Near Seymour Hall, the student union, I encountered one living soul—a history major I knew, Ray Gadke. Ray walked toward me, away from the union. “They killed him,” he said, tears in his eyes. He staggered on by. 

We had only one television on campus. It was a floor-model Sylvania with a fine wood cabinet and commanded form one corner the Seymour Lounge, a large room with lots of sofas and chairs. Students, professors, administrators, staff members occupied all the furniture, leaned on walls or pillars, sat on the floor. It was a scene of flowing tears, faces frozen in shock.

The sound was cranked all the way up. Martin Agronsky of NBC-TV News announced  that the president had died.

You know the rest, if you were alive then. If not, you have heard all about it all your life. No point rehashing it. It’s just that it comes up, inevitably, when a flock memories is flushed out by the mere mention of the Galesburg Register-Mail.

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Someday I’ll share all of these things with Tristan. He knows that Uncle Harry worked for the paper, managed the lads who delivered it across town; and that the lighter itself makes a delightful click. That’s enough for now. 

But we’ll hang on to the lighter, for the time being. 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author