Thursday, June 3, 2010

Norlyn Stories

Another memoir...

My Uncle Norlyn Solberg was the second of Arvid and Hazel Solberg’s four children. He was born in 1934. My mother, born two years later, was his kid sister.

Never in his life had Norlyn been very enthusiastic about visiting the doctor but at a checkup in June 2003 he learned he had aortic aneurysm that would certainly kill him if not repaired. He might even die during the attempted repair. The surgery was scheduled, but days before the operation he lay down for bed and never woke up.

I had hoped to travel to North Dakota to visit Norlyn and Phyllis before the surgery. I don’t remember why I didn’t make it, but it made hearing he had died that much harder to take. It’s not that being there would have made a difference – a ruptured aorta will kill you in minutes if not seconds – but still…

At the visitation the room buzzed quietly as Norlyn’s family and friends told their favorite story about him. The next day, before the funeral, and at the luncheon served afterwards in the basement of Norway Lutheran Church, there were even more stories. My mind raced. There were too many stories. Which one to tell?


In 1950s North Dakota farming still largely depended on muscle power. Norlyn was unloading a boxcar on a rail siding in Cummings, North Dakota, the site of the nearest grain elevator. The boxcar was filled with bags of pesticide. The pesticide contained nicotine in addition to other poisons. A bag broke open and as he cleaned it up Norlyn passed out and collapsed face down in a mound of the poison. Norlyn was not discovered for several minutes. My Grandmother drove 90 miles an hour (“Never that fast before or since.”) to the hospital in Mayville while my Grandfather struggled to hold Norlyn down in the back seat of the car as he writhed in a seizure. The hospital had to summon five men to hold Norlyn in his bed when he snapped his restraints during his delirium. He spent three days in a coma on the edge of death.


When I was a child Norlyn was the biggest man I knew. My father was big, if a little round. My grandfather was tall and lanky. Norlyn was a gentle giant made of solid muscle. At summer gatherings all the nephews would mob him in the yard. Norlyn would pretend to struggle to remain on his knees, a great rock covered by a swarm of little monkeys, each of us trying to gain some bit of leverage, none of us succeeding. He would smile and laugh and tickle us until we had no strength to keep trying. He had the strongest grip of anyone I ever knew. It hurt to shake hands with him until I was an adult, and still his grip was like a vise.

Grampa Arvid kept a small dairy herd and we drank raw milk from a cold metal pitcher kept in Gramma Hazel’s refrigerator until the cream separated from the icy skim milk beneath it. My brother Steve and I used to go to the barn at milking time, but if Norlyn was there helping Grandpa we had to be on the lookout at all times. They used mechanical milking equipment by then, but Norlyn could still aim a cow’s teat like a rifle and hit us with a squirt of fresh hot milk from half the length of the barn.

Norlyn served in the North Dakota Air National Guard. He told me he worked on the F-101 Voodoo jet interceptor, the largest single seat aircraft that ever flew. Norlyn told me the weapon carried by the Voodoo was the Genie air-to-air missile. I was very interested to hear that it carried a small atomic bomb for a warhead and had no guidance system to track its target. The pilot was supposed to point it in the direction of Russian bombers on their way over the North Pole to attack the USA, fire it, and then try to get away before it exploded. This made quite an impression on a grade school kid at the height of the Cold War. “Anything within a half a mile was considered a direct hit.” Norlyn told me with a twinkle in his eye.

Norlyn and Phyllis lived for many years on the Old Place, the farm built by my great-grandfather Anton Solberg and his brother John in 1897. This my uncle and aunt rented from James Solberg, a younger brother of my grandfather, who inherited it from Anton even though Arvid, being the eldest son, would normally have taken it over had the old ways been observed. There Norlyn and Phyllis served as custodians of one of our most precious family traditions. Christmas Eve was the holiday of holidays. There was always a large tree, decorated and lit, surrounded by wide moat of brightly wrapped presents. There were tables and chairs crammed everywhere there was floor space. The adults had theirs and we kids had ours. There were platters of sweets and cookies. Pickles of all kinds filled cut glass serving trays. Lefse was served by the yard, with plates of butter and sugar bowls standing beside. Grandpa made his specialty, Swedish meatballs, which always struck me as ironic because we were Norwegian. It was also the only time of the year Grandpa cooked. Each meatball was the same perfect size and shape, fine grained and swimming in light gravy. For the adults there was Mogen David Concord wine, the kind that came in clear glass half-gallon jugs with a screw cap. It was served in small glasses with an equal amount of Seven Up. And of course there was lutefisk – a perfect filet of cod soaked in lye (otherwise known as sodium hydroxide or Draino) and dried for storage. Reconstituted and baked, lutefisk became a translucent gelatinous ghost of the fish from which it was made. One could not claim a rightful place at an adult table until you had tried it. You didn’t have to like it, but you had to try it. Smothering it with clarified butter, salt, and pepper helped, and gave it some flavor. Once the traditional meal was completed all the tables had to be cleared, the dished done, and the kitchen put in order before presents could be opened. Children old enough to read the nametags distributed the presents. It was a wondrous evening. Each of us have created our own holiday traditions since then, but the template by which I still measure my Christmas Eve is the one I formed at Norlyn and Phyllis’ home in Norway Township, Trail County, North Dakota.


Norlyn taught my brother Steve and me to drive in Grampa’s 1955 Chevrolet pickup truck. He coached me patiently, “Depress the clutch, press the starter, put her in first, give her some gas, let her out slow.” The truck would jerk, sputter, and stall. “Okay, try again.” Finally I got it right. I was pretty proud of myself. My cousin Rick was a year older than me and had been driving for a while. One evening at suppertime Rick raced ahead of us across an alfalfa field. Norlyn sat in the passenger seat as I pressed the accelerator to the floorboard as the truck lurched and bounced over gopher mounds. The engine was whining. “Guess you’d better shift” Norlyn yelled. “Guess you’d better teach me how.” I replied.

Sometime in my early teens I decided I was going to be a mercenary when I grew up. I told Norlyn and he thought it was a fine thing. “A missionary does good work for people in poor countries.” “No” I said, thinking he’d misheard me “I’m going to be a mercenary; you know someone who fights wars for money.” “Yep, being a missionary is fine thing, helping people, spreading God’s Word. Yep, that’ll be very nice.” A neighbor visited Norlyn’s that week. Norlyn pointed to me and told him “My nephew here is going to be a missionary when he grows up. Isn’t that nice?”

Norlyn was tough, but I don’t think he cared much for the sight of blood. I was with him once at the Wold place. He was working on a piece of machinery when suddenly there was a crunch. A finger on Norlyn’s left hand was torn and bleeding. He looked at it, stood up, and said, “We’d better go.” “Do you want me to drive?” I asked. “No.” he replied. He drove home with his left hand out the window resting on the roof. He may have put a Band-Aid on it, I don’t recall. He certainly didn’t go to the doctor. Norlyn never went to the doctor.

I was never destined to be a farmer. After my tractor safety course Norlyn gave me a forty acre parcel to disk. I think he was impressed by my inability to drive in a straight line, or turn without hitting the shelterbelts, and taking twice as long as the job should have taken. He didn’t ask me to disk again.

Later that summer I got to drive the grain truck. I’d seen other drivers – uncles, cousins, and hired men – pull alongside the combine while it was moving and take on a load without losing a single grain of wheat. I had to try it. A shower of grain on the roof of the cab, the windscreen, and the hood of the truck rewarded me for my cleverness. Norlyn stopped the combine. It took me a while to notice the combine in the rear view mirror and return. From then on we loaded the grain with the truck and the combine at rest.


Norlyn had owned his own plane once, a Mooney, a low-wing single-engine job. I remember him telling me only one story about it. Norlyn and a buddy of his had just lifted off and passed the end of the runway when a strong cross wind flipped the plane upside down. I don’t remember the rest of the story, but he must have gotten the plane turned right side up. There were other stories about Norlyn and the Mooney, none of them comforting. Perhaps it’s a good thing he didn’t own the plane any longer than he did or I might never have met him.


In mid-summer when the sunflowers were ripening Norlyn would load the shotguns, the cats, and my brother Steve and me into the truck and drive to the edge of the field darkened by clouds of blackbirds. We would load our guns and walk toward the field. At some point the sinuous cloud would suddenly take flight and we would empty our guns into the crowded sky. A tidy circle of birds would tumble from the black cloud with each pull of the trigger. The cats were very happy. Years later I realized than some of the sunflower fields weren’t even Norlyn’s.

Norlyn took my brother Steve and me hunting for geese, ducks, grouse, and pheasant. We would drive west across the state of North Dakota chasing grouse, crowded in four door sedans – the men smoking and talking, we adolescent boys dozing – as the road buzzed beneath the wheels. Everywhere we stopped it seemed Norlyn either knew everyone we met or at least had some friend in common with the strangers we encountered.

My first deer season in North Dakota my grandfather loaned me his Winchester Model 12 shotgun and bought me a couple packets of shotgun slugs. He, Norlyn, and I walked along a shelterbelt in a field that had been given over to prairie grasses. I heard crashing in the trees and a “Coming your way!” from my grandfather. Two whitetail does bounded by so close to me I thought they might run me over. As they made their escape I loosed a fusillade in their general direction. Five shots were gone in only a second or two. “Hit anything?” my Grampa inquired from the other side of the tree line. “No,” I replied with chagrin. “Never heard my gun shoot that fast before,” he gently chided. Norlyn walked over to me and said quietly “Since you only have a buck license you probably shouldn’t be shooting at the does.”

Norlyn favored a tired old 12 gauge Marlin pump shotgun that had been obsolete before he was born. He owned a second one just like for spare parts. One summer I cut the barrel short on the spare, the better to play “cops and robbers”. That fall Norlyn’s tired old shotgun fell into the grass during lunch and was run over by a car, bending the barrel. “Mike, do you still have the parts gun?” he asked. “Uhh…” I moaned as my heart sank. I told him what I’d done with his spare barrel. He grinned and shook his head. Norlyn did his best to straighten the bent barrel but it was never quite right. He never mentioned it again.


My Aunt and Uncle moved to my Grandparent’s farm after Arvid died in 1989. They remodeled the original farmhouse, adding to it a more practical kitchen and another bathroom on the ground floor. Norlyn, to the shock of some, had the barn lowered by having the ground floor milking parlor removed so that the rounded hayloft portion could be used as a large shed. I was a little surprised the first time I saw it but decided it was better to get some use out of it rather than watch it rot unneeded and unused. Once Grampa’s barn, it became Norlyn’s shop. He installed a word burning fireplace which served to remind me that the barn had never been heated except by the warmth of the cow’s bodies at milking time.

We were living in California then. In November 1997 I’d just spent a week in northern Minnesota hunting with my Uncle Harlan and my cousins. The farm was not that far out of the way so I stopped to visit Norlyn and Phyllis on the drive back to Minneapolis. I noticed that the tools in his shop had been spray-painted bright orange while hanging on their hooks. Norlyn was developing cataracts. The paint made the tools easier to find, use, and put back. My uncle would eventually have surgery to restore his vision but today he said “Good to see you Mike.” He handed me an orange jacket and said “Let’s take a drive. I need to shoot my deer.” We drove to the Wold place, a thickly wooded farmstead on a quarter he owned. “Let’s take a walk.” He took a scoped 243 rifle out of its case and said “You hold the rifle.” I didn’t have a North Dakota license; hadn’t since 1975. We kicked up a few deer but we were within sight of the highway and I never cared for shots at running deer. We got back in the truck. We found the deer grazing on the other side of the highway. Norlyn parked with a shelter belt between the deer and us. “You carry the rifle” I said. We crept the length of the belt. Before we reached the end we crawled into the tangled hedge. Norlyn handed me the rifle “You’ll need to do this for me.” A few moments later a shot rang out, a dandy whitetail buck fell in the field, and Norlyn’s venison harvest was complete for the year.

Norlyn liked his venison. He liked the idea of venison. He respected it. Norlyn taught me to care for our deer in his shop. We would clear the table, wash it, and cover it with butcher paper. We would wash and sharpen the knives. Deer were dressed in the field where they dropped. As soon as possible thereafter we got them into the shop and hung on the rail. Not all were large, but each was treated like it was destined for the table of a fine restaurant. If it was a warm day we’d pull the skin and turn out the shoulders. “Feel that” he’d say “hasn’t been dead an hour and it’s already cool to the touch.”

Norlyn introduced me to the family woodlot – a wooded river bottom near the Goose River that Anton Solberg purchased in the 19th century so he’d have a source of firewood on an otherwise treeless prairie. My buddies Greg Clemmer and Eric Ching, brother-in-law Jim Lathrop, my son Erik, and I have had many fine hunts there. One November afternoon Norlyn sat with me in a ground blind in the woodlot so that he could fill his gratis tag. I’m a bowhunter so I’m very careful about scent control. All my clothes had been freshly washed in odor control detergent. I had not worn my hunting boots indoors since I bought them. I had just taken a shower in scentless deer hunter soap. I had brushed my teeth with baking soda. I’d developed the ability to sit quietly, still yet alert, for hours at a time. This is the best time of the hunt, this waiting for the game to appear.

“You know this brush could be higher.” Norlyn’s voice shattered the silence.

“Okay” I whispered. Our ground blinds were little more than brush piles with a spot in the center to sit in.

“Yep, it not hiding much of us.”

“Okay” I whispered. I used this blind, called “Eagle’s Nest” because of its appearance, to hunt with the bow as well as the rifle, so it couldn’t be too high or my arrows would strike the brush.

“Wouldn’t take much work to make it higher.”

“Okay” I whispered. I braved hoards of hungry mosquitoes every summer repairing and building up the blinds and clearing shooting lanes in the woodlot.

Time passed. The sun was warm on my back. The breeze was a luxurious brush on my face. The woods were still. Any time now, the deer would begin their quiet infiltration.

“I’m going to stretch my legs.” Norlyn grunted as he stood up.

“Okay” I whisper. If we sit perfectly still a moving deer will not see us until it’s too late. When we move we give up all advantage.

Norlyn stood up, stretched, and walked out of the blind, leaves crunching under his boots like corn flakes. I continued my surveillance of the woodlot. I heard the sound of a zipper and moments later a familiar sound. Norlyn was urinating on a tree behind the blind.

“Much better” he said as he sat down again in the blind a moment later. “Seen any deer?”

“Nope” I whisper. Deer are so much smarter than us in the woods.

Still, it wouldn’t be long now. There were some shots to the east, then a few more to the south. The deer ran here from all four points of the compass when they are pushed. The fun would begin any moment.

I smelled smoke. Fire? Nope, tobacco. Norlyn had lit a cigarette! I smiled and shook my head.

Shortly thereafter the deer came in anyway, as they always did.


The young man who became my father, Larry Brady, was Roman Catholic. The woman who became my mother, Kay Solberg, had been raised Lutheran but she made the momentous decision to convert to Catholicism. As a result her mother – my otherwise sainted grandmother, Hazel – threatened to disown her own daughter if the marriage proceeded. My mother relented and broke off the engagement. One evening Norlyn, no doubt risking the ire of his mother, drove Kay to visit with Larry one last time to make sure they were doing the right thing by breaking things off. But for this intervention by my Uncle Norlyn it’s possible none of these stories would ever have happened.


It happened something like this every time I came to visit Norlyn and Phyllis. Sometimes, like today, Phyllis was still at work at the retirement home in Hillsboro. Norlyn was as often in his shop as in the kitchen. Today he was in the kitchen.

“Hello Norlyn.”

“Hello Mike. Do you want a cup of tea?”

“No thanks. Just had some coffee.”

“You sure?”


“You want a piece of pie?”

“Nah, I ate on the drive up.”

“You sure?”


“You want a cookie?”

“Sure, why not.”

“There’s milk in the fridge.”


“You want a donut?”


“You sure?”

“Well, maybe just one.”

“You need a sandwich?”

“No, I’m good.”

“There’s some ice cream in the freezer.”

“Maybe later.”

“You sure?”

“Yep, thanks though.”

“Phyllis will be home soon; then we’ll have some supper."

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