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.

#

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

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