Monday, May 19, 2008

Elmer Strand, Norwegian-American Bachelor

Summer brings to mind the town's old Norwegian bachelor farmers, stolidly harvesting wheat with their antiquated, clattering six-foot combines. The Norwegian bachelors were not impressed by modern 20-footers. Sure, you got done faster, but that just meant waiting longer till it was time to go to bed...

- Garrison Keillor, Radio Humorist
(Lake Wobbegon Days)

In 1965, during the laziest part of July in the San Francisco Bay Area, my mother suggested that Dad drive us all up to Sonoma County in the '57 Ford Ranch Wagon. She wanted to pay a Sunday visit to Elmer Strand, whom she had not seen in quite awhile. I had no idea who Elmer Strand was, but I was always up for a drive to someplace new.

Mom said that Elmer had been a pretty good friend of my grandfather's ever since their younger farming days in Minnesota, and he continued to stay in touch by sending Christmas cards. Grandpa (Ernest Johnson), a long time widower, and Elmer, a dedicated bachelor, even took a sabbatical together. A few years before, they had lived in a trailer on the Oregon coast and fished for a stretch one summer. It was Grandpa's treat to himself after retiring from the Ford Motor Company--a once-in-a-lifetime vacation tucked in between his move from Campbell, California to Salem, Oregon, where his eldest daughter and a few siblings lived.

Elmer Strand stayed in California and accepted a job as a caretaker on a Sonoma County ranch in the Valley of the Moon. The name of that valley, once the home of author Jack London, conjured up all kinds of romantic visions for a 12-year-old like myself. Unlike the lush, fantasy-inspired fern-filled forest that I envisioned, the valley turned out to be mostly rolling plains of dry, yellow grass, and was quite sparse of trees.  The land was spotted with vineyards instead of unicorns.  But, I'm sure that watching a full golden moon rise and set over that thirsty landscape, accompanied by a cricket symphony, would have been very nice indeed--especially for Jack London.

Elmer Strand, Doris Wheeler, and Becky Wheeler, along the main road to the ranch house, Sonoma County, California, July 1965.

Elmer Strand was aging but slim and spry, and as far as I could tell, he was a well-mannered gent who chose his words carefully. He wore a long-sleeved shirt and overalls and was in the habit of standing with a hand in his pocket, or resting it on an nearly non-existent hip. Elmer's trailer was spartan and devoid of many possessions or character, even when compared to my grandfather's bachelorized home, where documents of eventual interest to genealogists (like a confirmation certificate) shared a shelf in the garage alongside the motor oil.

Men like Elmer Strand and my grandfather spent decades without feminine input or interference: life was work and work was life, and an old Norwegian bachelor did not need "stuff" cluttering up his spare time. For recreation, there was always visiting, fishing, hunting, napping, or simply cooking up a big pan of bacon and eggs with hotcakes.

Our visit turned out to be on a very hot day, so Elmer offered Mom, my younger sister, and I some refreshments in his trailer.  Dad was off somewhere talking with the ranch owner.

"I don't have much around these days, but let me see," Elmer said. He had contracted Type II diabetes and was doing his best to eat properly. Though Elmer lived in the trailer, he took his meals up at the main ranch house and did not keep much in his cupboards. He turned to Mom: "I have this drink I mix up for myself sometimes. Would you like to try some of that?"

Mom was too polite to question what was being offered, so she agreed.

Elmer fixed up a big batch of the pale drink in his mixer, then poured it into a tall glass and handed it to Mom. My sister Becky was as hot and bothered as any fidgety six-year-old could be at this point, so she was offered the first drink of cooling liquid. She placed her small hands over Mom's as they steadied the glass together. As soon as my sister took an exploratory sip, her face quickly contorted into a grimace. "Ugh!" Mom offered Becky another chance at a sip, but my sister would have nothing to do with it.  Instead, she did a few little hops and began to whine.

Mom offered the glass to me instead. "She won't drink it, so you have this one. I'll get her something later."

The liquid inside the glass looked like a vanilla milkshake, and I could not imagine what Becky hadn't liked about that. Having patiently waited my turn, I eagerly took a drink.

The stuff almost didn't go down my throat.  It tasted and felt like liquid chalk!  I waited until Elmer was out of view and then timidly tried to give the glass back to Mom.  I whispered in her ear that I just could not drink it.  "Chery, we're not going to be impolite!" she scolded quietly and frowned, refusing to take back the glass.

Judging by the look on her face, I knew that I somehow had to finish the drink--no argument accepted. I steeled my resolve, held my breath, and gulped the whole thing down quickly, but not without feeling a little queasy afterwards. The worst part was that it did not even quench my thirst. The last thing I wanted to do was irritate my elders, but, this was above and beyond the call!

It was Mom's turn when Elmer handed her a glass of her own. She took a small taste and her eyes flew open wide. "Oh!" She set the glass down and reached for a handkerchief from her purse in order to wipe her mouth. She looked at me in sympathy and said, "Oh, Chery... I'm sorry." Then to Elmer: "I'm sorry, I can't drink this."

Elmer took the news very graciously and had halfway expected it, I'm sure.  "It's soy. That's pretty much all I have between meals these days," he said.  Soy?  Wasn't that some mysterious substance used by hippies? Whatever it was, it tasted like raw cement and went down about as well. I put it on my "don't try this at home" mental list.

I think I earned a little extra respect from my mother that day, and perhaps even surprised myself.

And, Elmer? Well, all that soy must have done him some good because he lived another twenty years, to the ripe old age of ninety-five. It was not until years after his death I discovered that Elmer was more than a family friend. His special connection to our family was not known, even by my mother.

In addition to being the only one to get that horrid drink down, I was also the one who rediscovered the family link between Grandpa and his "good friend," Elmer Strand.  Elmer was actually a half first cousin to my grandfather, and they shared the same grandmother, Thibertine Johnson Winje.

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