OPINION — My maternal great-grandfather came to the United States from Sweden on a cattle boat during the late 19th century. He worked on the boat to pay for his passage, and continued to work for the boat owner for about seven years to be able to bring his family to the states. His last name was Jarl, which was pronounced Yarl. He didn’t think it sounded American enough, so he changed it to Engdahl. Personally, I don’t think Engdahl sounds much more American than Jarl, but he didn’t ask me.
The name ‘Jarl’ means ‘nobleman.’ It was also the name of a mythological Norse guy. Jarl and his wife, Erna, supposedly raised eleven sons, and they all became warriors. Some legends claim Jarl was the founder of a race of warriors. I guess there wasn’t a lot to do in Sweden back then besides fight. It was probably a good way to stay warm.
When my great-grandfather finally got his family to the states, he told them they weren’t allowed to speak Swedish anymore, even at home. He said, ‘We’re Americans now. Americans speak English. So we’re going to speak English.’ That was before child abuse was invented, and kids didn’t talk back to their parents. They spoke English.
My mother heard her grandfather speak Swedish only once, when he said grace before the meal at a family gathering. Mom was a little girl at the time, and she had no idea what he was saying. There were no Swedish flags in the home, no newspapers from Sweden, nothing to indicate where the family had immigrated from. They never went back to see how things were going in the old country.
In other words, they assimilated. Not a little bit, but all the way. They became American, even to the point of changing the family name. They didn’t sing the Swedish national anthem, or tell people how things were done in Sweden, or expect their children to be taught in the Swedish language at school. My great-grandfather understood that you can’t be a Swedish-American. As Teddy Roosevelt said, ‘Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn’t an American at all.’
My mother had a little sister, Patsy, and three older brothers, Bob, Charles, and Billy. They were raised on a farm north of Brady, near Rochelle, Texas. The kids grew up during the depression, so I grew up hearing about how hard it was to grow up during the depression. According to Mom, they didn’t have anything, but they had a lot of it.
There was no bathroom in the house until my mom was about eight, and for a while they didn’t even have an outhouse. My aunt Patsy burned it down. It was an accident. She was striking matches, trying to kill the flies, and dropped one in the bucket where the used pages from the Sears & Roebuck catalog went. They had to go behind the barn for a few months, until my grandfather built a new outhouse.
And maybe there was something to the warrior story. Bob, Charles, and Billy all served in the armed forces. Bob tried to teach foreign officers how to fly airplanes. Most of them spoke very little English, if any. Bob said if he told one of them to turn left he was just as likely to turn right. Or go up. Or whatever. Language barriers cause all kinds of problems.
Charles worked for the gubmint all his adult life, although not necessarily in the army. No one ever really knew what he did, and he never would say. For years my mom thought he worked at a post office, but found out that wasn’t true. It’s still a mystery, as far as I know.
Billy joined the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, as there wasn’t a U.S. Air Force until the Key West Agreement of 1948. Basic flight training was at Lackland in San Antonio, and sometimes Billy would borrow a plane and fly home. He’d buzz the home place, and the folks would all pile in the pickup and go pick him up at Curtis Field north of Brady. Mom remembered him bringing them things they couldn’t get during the war, like Hershey bars. After basic he was sent to Oregon to train in the Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter. They used to put floating targets in a bay, which were kept from floating away with ropes. Billy liked to shoot the ropes. He got in a lot of trouble for that.
My grandmother worried about Billy being a pilot, but he always told her flying was safer than driving. She never believed him until she got The Telegram. No parent should ever have to get The Telegram.
‘ON BEHALF OF THE DEPARTMENT OF THE ARMY IT IS MY SAD DUTY TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR SON, FIRST LIEUTENANT WILLIAM T. ENGDAHL, JR., UNITED STATES ARMY RESERVE, HAS BEEN KILLED IN THE LINE OF DUTY.’ Billy had died in a jeep accident in Oregon.
Way too many mothers and fathers have received The Telegram. The condolences of a grateful nation do nothing to assuage a parent’s grief. And although nothing can replace the loss of a loved one, we can at least acknowledge and appreciate the sacrifice of those who gave their lives for our freedom.
Have a blessed Memorial Day . . .
Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and minister. Write to him at [email protected]