My father was born one hundred years ago today, in Ramsey County, North Dakota, very near to the Canadian border. His mother was a Norwegian immigrant, his father Danish, and the nearest town to their rather isolated little farm was the mighty metropolis of Garske.
Ramsey County had been blessed with four very distinct seasons. Winters were harsh and cold, but there were times of beauty:
However, there was no work. It was North Dakota, long before that state’s current boom. And, after 1929, it was the Great Depression.
So, after some time in forestry school in Bottineau (now Dakota College), he headed to rapidly-growing Southern California, where he would live for the remainder of his life (with one notable exception), attending Pierce College when he could, working with the Civilian Conservation Corps and in construction, and eventually joining the U.S. Army for what he expected to be a brief stint in — yes, it still existed — the Cavalry, down on the Mexican border.
But then came Pearl Harbor and the Second World War. He trained at various places, including Fort Benning, Georgia; language school at the University of Chicago (while, nearby, Enrico Fermi was working on the atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project); and the same high-IQ place in Maryland, Camp Ritchie, where Hugh Nibley also spent time. For a while, he was stationed in High Wycombe, between Oxford and London. He had to go into London rather often, but it was the time of the German air raids aand the V-1 and V-2 attacks, so the city was under blackout rules and he always afterwards joked, quite truthfully, that he had never seen London with its lights on. One of my many regrets is that I never managed to get him over there to see London illuminated at night.
By this time a staff sergeant, he was sent over onto the continent of Europe shortly after D-Day, as part of the Eleventh Armored Division in General Patton’s Third Army. While there, he saw terrible things that he never forgot, including the Nazi concentration camps at Mauthausen and Gusen. (He was part of the liberation force.)
I was able to take him back to Mauthausen at the end of my mission in Switzerland. It was, I think, therapeutic for him to revisit that beautiful, green, rolling hill country near the banks of the Danube — this time during peace, when it was cleaned up and without the gruesome horrors that he recalled so vividly. I’ve returned several times myself, both because I believe these things must be remembered and as a tribute to my father.
When the war ended, he was able to spend some time with his unit in the pretty Austrian town of Gmunden, to which I’ve also made several visits, partly (again) in homage to my Dad.
While there, he had his portrait painted on a largish piece of plywood by the Austrian artist Theo Detter. On my fourth birthday, my Norwegian grandmother gave me the painting, which I still own and treasure. It has a German inscription on the back from Herr Detter. My grandmother died the next year.
My father finished his European service in Le Vésinet, in the outskirts of Paris, and then returned to California via Minnesota and North Dakota. There, he and his brother founded a construction company, and he married my mother, a widow who was already raising a young son. To his everlasting credit, my brother and I were never, ever, reminded by his behavior that I was my father’s only biological son. He was a wonderful father to both of us.
I was able to baptize him a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the night that I was set apart as a missionary. Within just slightly less than a year of his baptism, he was a counselor in my home ward’s bishopric. HIs mother had dreamed that, perhaps, he might become a Lutheran pastor. I hope that, by that time, she was at peace with his course-adjustment.
At his funeral, just slightly more than ten years ago, I said, emotionally, that not a single day would go by when I didn’t think of him. I’m not sure that I really knew what I was saying, but it’s been true. I don’t believe that I’ve ever gone a full day without wishing I could share something with him, tell him about something that’s gone well, talk politics with him, laugh at one of his jokes, hear one of his stories, ask him a question about his life. I still miss him very, very much.