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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 here, here, 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.
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.
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.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois