There was a time when going to the airport was fun, a cause for celebration and a source of good memories. Long before shoe bombs and shoe removal and the threat of terrorism, air travel was rare, the privilege of the well-off, a once-in-a-lifetime event. You dressed up in your Sunday best, and clutched your tickets as if they were spun from gold. Air travel was glamorous and sophisticated, even more so when you were left to imagine it from a distance. To fly was to escape into a fantasy world reserved for the elite.
So when the entire Larsen clan turned out at Midway Airport in September of 1959, it was a most unusual family gathering. The eight children of Christ (it looks like the name for Jesus but sounds like “grist”) and Marie, and all their grandchildren—nearly forty of us by then—waited at the TWA gate for the ancient ones to return from their trip to Norway. Those who didn’t take public transportation parked for free. Everyone crowded around the gate, and the little ones squirmed between and among adult legs for a better view.
Gram and Gramps—poor as the poorest church mice—were given this trip back to Norway as a Christmas present. The family scraped up the cost because we all knew it was the last chance for them to return to the land of their origin to visit family and soak up their heritage.
For me and my cousins—most of whom thought that a trip to Indiana or Wisconsin was exotic—Norway was the stuff of our wildest dreams. Trolls and fjords, fish and Vikings, snow and ice and ski jumps, and big bulky sweaters.
Christ and Marie spent three weeks in Trondheim, the town of their birth. They had known each other as schoolchildren, even skied to school together, long before cross-country skiing became a North American hobby.
Christ left Norway for South Dakota as a young man, several years before Marie came to Chicago to work as a maid along Chicago’s Gold Coast. He left because of a traumatic experience that he kept hidden from his family for years. He had never known his father; it was enough to be told by his mother that his father left town one day and never returned. As a teenager performing his daily chore of picking up a pail of milk from the local tavern, a gray and grizzled fisherman called him over to the bar. He put his arm around Christ and pointed to the town drunk slumped at the end of the bar and told Christ that this was his father. Christ was devastated, sensed he could no longer live there, and believed that the promise of the American Dakotas was a chance to start on the path to America’s streets of gold, a way to escape the shame he now felt, and start fresh. Eventually, he worked long and hard enough in South Dakota to realize there were few streets at all and none of them were golden. He also found out that he was not meant to be a farmer.
Gramps walked with a limp because after moving to Chicago to join countless Scandinavians in the construction trades, he was injured in a roofing accident. He fell from a roof to the street, and it too was not paved with gold. Because of that accident, my parents met and eventually married (and gave new meaning to the phrase “falling in love.”) Gramps’s limp was always a reminder of their meeting, but not a foreshadowing of their relationship.
Mom was a nurse at Evangelical Hospital on 55th street near Morgan. She happened to be checking on Gramps when Dad showed up to see how he was doing, and as the conversations of care progressed, so did infatuation. This blond Dutch Reformed woman from Highland, Indiana, soon married this dark-haired Missouri Synod Lutheran from Chicago. They danced at their wedding reception to a big band in a rented hall, risking a summons to a church consistory meeting. I never found out how they got away with it, but it was an example of their free thinking and liberal leanings, which eventually gave me great comfort in my adolescence.
This heritage, pieced together over the years through stories and tall tales, provided a calm, a sense of belonging, something encapsulated that day in the airport, surrounded as I was by aunts, uncles, cousins, my parents, and sister. It felt like home in a strange setting. And it was to be a day that cemented itself in family folklore, worthy in comparison to every towering troll tale told to generations of Norwegians.
Every grandchild knew Gramps as an incurable prankster. Around any dinner table and always at the presentation of dessert, he would distract one of the grandkids, reach across the table and deftly slip their dessert behind his back, causing us to first suspect anyone near us. We were always disappointed if he didn’t try this trademark treachery, and there was great joy in catching him in the act. So, what happened that day at Midway really came as no surprise. His tendency toward mischief was on full display.
The family waited for the silver TWA Constellation to taxi to the gate. We watched, cheered, and waved Norwegian flags when we saw Christ and Marie climb down the stairs and walk toward the terminal. There were more Norwegians huddled together near the door than an entire midweek service crowd at Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church.
Gram deplaned first, and was swarmed with hugs and kisses. Gramps followed, and was hugged and kissed at first too, but then a strange reaction passed through the entire family. Whispers filled the lobby. The line to kiss him grew thin.
Frankly, Gramps smelled. He smelled so bad that you could not get near him. It was absolutely disgusting, and it fell to my father, the first born, to take Gramps aside and ask what was going on. I remember getting as close as I could bear just to hear what my dad was going to say. He told Gramps that he smelled and asked as graciously and compassionately as possible if he was feeling all right, wondering I suppose, if some sort of gastronomic catastrophe had taken place on the plane and my grandfather was too embarrassed to do anything about it. That was my hunch, and I was hoping that if this were the problem, it happened somewhere over Gary, Indiana, as opposed to Iceland.
I will never forget my grandfather’s sheepish yet strangely proud response. He removed his suit coat, and then his tie, slowly unbuttoned his shirt and showed my Dad the Norwegian salmon he had wrapped in the Trondheim Aftenposten newspaper, eight inches wide and completely around his barrel chest. Not smoked salmon, mind you. Salmon that was fresh when he boarded the plane.
“I’m sorry, Alf, forgive me,” he said to my father, “but I didn’t think customs would let me in with the fish, and it was my last chance for real salmon from Trondheim.”
I gained a new and abiding appreciation that day for my long-suffering grandmother, living as she did with a character like that. Imagine sitting next to him on a transatlantic flight with fish as a companion. I wondered if she reflected on her wedding vows and thought this was a clear example of “for worse.” I am confident that there has never been as loud a collective groan followed by prolonged and lively laughter in the halls of Midway Airport as there was that day in 1959.
Gramps should have known that there are some things you really can leave behind. Stale, smelly salmon, for one. Like you can leave behind shame, when fresh starts are possible. The latter took him years, forged by the forgiving love of his good wife, and the welcoming Gospel message he heard at their small Lutheran church. It was the hospitable warmth of the Gospel that drew him closer to Jesus and offered a way to leave shame in the past. His only limiting limp at his age was physical.
Incidentally, that same small Lutheran church which gave Christ and Marie a home as young immigrant newlyweds made sure he had a spittoon placed at the end of his pew for his disgusting habit of chewing snuff during the service. As they often sang: “Mortal ills prevailing.” He was careful, however, to use the spittoon only when all eyes were closed for prayer.