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

Isinglass

“Fried egg sandwich and a turnip,” Millie said, with a clack of her new boughten teeth, something she did unconsciously these days, to settle them in her mouth.

“That’s good, it’ll fix me up for the walk home.” Bill heard the turnip clunk inside the lunch pail as she handed it to him. He would not eat this lunch until he got off work at two. 

She turned away to stoke the woodstove and start mixing cornmeal mush for the kids, who were due to get up an hour from now. 

Bill buttoned his wool greatcoat, pulled his fedora down around his ears, and stepped out into the five a.m. March drizzle. 

He walked east in darkness on the damp shoulder of the Peoria Road—U.S. Route 150, as it was now designated—almost sprinting, almost at a lope. A man of spare physique had to hustle to walk the nine miles to Dahinda in three hours. Bill usually made it in two and a half. Good to be early to work; some of those god-damned young jay-larks at the pumping station could take punctuality lessons from him. Not that he was old. He wouldn’t reach fifty for two more years.

Still, it was hard to be walking three hours each way, six days a week, for a six-hour job. Get six hours’ pay, but it takes you twelve hours to do it. The pipeline company had cut his hours a year ago, to make room on the payroll for a few more men. Well, everybody had families to feed, and most of the big employers were reducing the standard workday. The imbecile in the White House, Herbert Hoover, encouraged them all to do it. Not that this Roosevelt would be an improvement.

Damn it, he missed the Pierce-Arrow—a 1929 touring car, made shortly after Studebaker bought the company. Bill had bought it new for just under three thousand. A bit of a luxury, but it was a fine machine and well within the range of what he could afford. Then the stock market crashed, the company cut back hours, and something had to go. He couldn’t sell back Millie’s teeth—and anyhow, they wouldn’t fetch one-tenth the price of a Pierce-Arrow. He had sold the car at a sacrifice, but better fifteen hundred than nothing. Every one of those dollars would be needed to keep feeding five young mouths—plus his own and Millie’s, of course. Even with the large vegetable garden he kept.

Pierce-Arrow touring car. F. D. Richards, Creative Commons.

So far the company had only cut hours, not the hourly wage rate. But that was coming, no doubt. Things would get a lot worse before they got better. They couldn’t move back to Dahinda after moving all the way to Knoxville for Edward’s high school. And the other four were coming along right behind him. Best to stay put. So trudge three hours each way, whatever the weather. Sometimes he could hitch a ride from a passing freight truck.

Still, he missed that touring car. It had the optional side curtains with little isinglass windows in them. Just the thing to roll down and keep warm and dry in weather like this. He clutched the handle of the little steel lunch bucket. Nine hours from now, he’d need the nourishment before the hike home.

A fictionalized account of true events.

Grandpa’s Pierce-Arrow with Isinglass Curtains

My grandfather, William P. Sommers, terrified me. By the time I knew him, he was a bombastic, profane, old man—a bantam rooster, probably not over five-foot-two in his size six shoes. But I was naturally timid; he really meant no harm. He simply believed he knew best and everybody else was a damned fool. And what were children, if not to be yelled at?

Dad told me that Grandpa had once owned a Pierce-Arrow, one of the finest cars of its time, but had to give it up during the Great Depression and then was forced to walk to and from work. Nine miles was only a short drive, even on the roads of that day. But to walk it twice each day, rain, shine, or blizzard, must have been brutal. Maybe that’s part of what made him a tough old buzzard.

Dad said the Pierce-Arrow had “isinglass curtains you could roll right down in case of a change in the weather.” He was, consciously or unconsciously, quoting Curly, from Rogers and Hammerstein’s Broadway musical  Oklahoma!, who sings exactly those words in a song about “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” 

But what are isinglass curtains, whether used on a horse-drawn surrey or on a fine motor car? The quest for the answer is perplexing.

In the first place, “isinglass” means at least two different things. 

DIGRESSION ALERT: When I was a boy, there was a popular quiz show on the radio called Twenty Questions. Panelists guessed a secret object by asking no more than twenty yes-or-no questions. The quizmaster started each round by saying whether the object to be guessed was “animal, vegetable, or mineral.” (Come to think of it, old radio programs might be an excellent subject for a future blog entry!) END OF DIGRESSION ALERT. WE RETURN YOU TO YOUR REGULARLY SCHEDULED BLOG POST: 

Isinglass would need to be classified as both animal and mineral. From Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition: “isinglass . . . 1 a form of gelatin prepared from the internal membranes of fish bladders: it is used as a clarifying agent and adhesive 2 mica, esp. in the form of thin, transparent sheets of muscovite”. So now you know.

Fish bladders?

What is this fish-bladder stuff? Other sources say it is a substance obtained from the dried swim-bladders of sturgeon and is used mainly for the clarification or “fining” of beer and wine. (Exception, however: The isinglass used for making kosher beer or wine must be from a different fish, because sturgeon is treif, or non-kosher.) This kind of isinglass is also used for darkly-hinted-at “specialized gluing purposes.” 

Sturgeon. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Russian mica

The mica form of isinglass is a “phyllosilicate mineral of aluminium and potassium” that occurs as thin, transparent sheets. That form of mica is known as “muscovite” because large quantities of it are mined in Russia. 

I can’t imagine either material being made into carriage-sized curtains that can be “rolled down.” The mineral mica would not be flexible enough; the animal mica would not be durable enough. And neither could be made in large enough sheets. Curly, in Oklahoma!, probably spoke imprecisely to achieve a lyric that would fit metrically into the song. That’s probably the answer, for we know that horse-drawn carriages and early automobiles did have fabric curtains inset with small windows or peepholes of isinglass. But, which kind of isinglass: animal, or mineral? 

Coachbuilt.com (which appears to be published by “Adirondack Motorbooks & Collectibles LLC dba Auto Antiques” of Palmyra, New York) reconciles both sides of the question quite nicely: “ISINGLASS—typically a window made from thin sheets made of a material other than glass. Early isinglass was made from a transparent sheet of gelatin, processed from the inner lining of a Sturgeon’s bladder. As it was flexible, it was perfect for the storm curtains and window on early touring cars. The term is now commonly used as any non-glass sheet material which passes light, such as mica, oiled paper, celluloid or plastic. Early isinglass of all varieties yellowed and scratched easily.” 

This explanation is logical and harmonious; but is it true? Were fish-gelatin sheets really used for windows? It’s hard to swallow—except perhaps as a fining agent in beer or wine, which could be easy to swallow. At least it would be flexible, so it would roll up nicely in a curtain. Mica, on the other hand, has only a slight flex—less than that of the wobble board Australian singers use on songs like “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport.” Such windows would have to be tiny to roll inside a fabric curtain without undue lumpiness. The most sensible thing about Coachbuilt.com’s explanation comes at the end, for no doubt all different kinds of things have been casually called “isinglass”—just as in the days of my youth any kind of transparent candy or food wrapper was called “cellophane.” 

Wikipedia states: “Thin transparent sheets of mica were used for peepholes in boilers, lanterns, stoves, and kerosene heaters because they were less likely to shatter than glass when exposed to extreme temperature gradients. Such peepholes were also used in ‘isinglass curtains’ in horse-drawn  carriages and early 20th-century cars.” This seems to contradict Coachbuilt.com’s theory, but we might be wise to take this Wikipedia factoid with a grain of salt—or perhaps quartz or feldspar. 

My other grandfather—Alvin E. LaFollette, also of Knoxville, Illinois—had a kerosene space heater that stood in his living room in winter and kept it warm. It had a round window in front, about six inches in diameter, through which you could see, somewhat indistinctly, the leaping orange and blue flames. I think this actually was mica. But note: In stove/boiler/heater applications, the isinglass did not have to roll or bend. Mica, for its heat-resistant properties, was perfect in the application.

In short, when old Bill Sommers longed for the comfort of his isinglass curtains, and when his son Lloyd passed the story on to me, the exact composition of the particular transparent windows was hardly relevant. It was just “isinglass.” Whatever that may have meant to them.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author