Saturday, December 29, 2012

Uncle Chris by Wanda Johansen

Chris and Elsie were always in my life, as long as I can remember.  They lived in Iowa when I was a little girl, but it was always good news when they were expected to visit in West Denmark.  They truly were the Aunt and Uncle that every kid wants.  Fun loving, always bringing the best sweets, especially Aunt Elsie’s famous chocolate chip cookies, and took time with the little kids that we were.

For some of my youth, I would only really see the Iowa relatives at the weddings of my cousins, where Elsie and Johanne would be busy in the preparations and wedding day activities.  They were ‘the aunts’ who took care of everything.

Once I was living in Colorado, I would stop in Des Moines on my travels to and from Wisconsin, usually (but not always) spending the night at their house.  Sometimes, much to the dismay of both my aunts, I would motor on after stopping for a short visit over coffee.  Aunt Jo would really worry, and always tried to talk me into staying until morning, but perhaps I have some of that stubborn Dane that many talk about.  In the days when I would stop in Des Moines to stay the night, Uncle Chris was still making wine.  If I had a glass or two of his wine, the decision was made that I had to stay.  His wine packed a punch.  It was always very tasty though and someday I hope to try my hand at duplicating a few of his recipes.

Some years ago, I got a call from Chris and Elsie that they were camping near Estes Park in Colorado and they wondered if I would be able to come for a visit.  As luck would have it, I had the next 4 days off from working at Coors, so packed up my sleeping bag and headed to join them.  The camper was brand new and had plenty of room for me to stay.  There was a problem with the drain on the ice box on the camper, it wanted to drain out onto the floor, so I got under the camper and Uncle Chris was in the camper, and between us we were able to feed the drain tube down the hole where it belonged and it fixed the problem.  Uncle Chris praised me for a long time over being able to help fix that problem.  It was a very fun visit.  There was a parade in town, so Uncle and I went to watch while Elsie was shopping with her sister in law.  (I think it was Don and Carol who were staying at a cabin in the area.)  Uncle Chris was quick to point out one of the entries in the parade that was a rowdy group of Mountain Men.  He thought I might be interested in one of those guys for a spouse, ha.  After the parade, we thought we should see if we would see those Mountain Men again, so we slipped into The Wheel Bar for a beer or two.  I think we caught heck from Aunt Elsie for that, but I enjoyed the fun time with Uncle.   Uncle and I also hiked up to Emerald Lake during that camping trip.  Once at the top of the trail, we ran into some people from France.  Somehow the conversation went that Uncle Chris had served in Europe and these people thanked him profusely for all that he had done to help them during those war years.  It made a real impression on his niece.

One year, I went on a train trip with Chris & Elsie and Dad & Ev to California.  They took the train to Denver and stayed a couple of days and then we continued on to the West Coast for a visit with Gary and Maru and also Bobby & Carole.  It was a fun trip and we laughed so much over silly stuff.  One big joke got to be splitting the check at lunch and whether I might owe Elsie 49 cents over a senior discount.  We got a lot of mileage out of that, and many laughs over the years remembering the silliness of it all.

One of the stories that Uncle Chris told me about farming in Wisconsin can still make me chuckle.  He talked about how the cows had to spend the entire winter in the barn in those days.  It must be made them pretty stir crazy, don’t you think?  So, when the weather would finally get nice enough to let them out, Uncle told Aunt Elsie to come and watch, and when the cows got out into the pasture, they literally kicked up their heels and sprang around for joy.  It is an image in my mind of pure joy and I can vividly imagine both Chris and Elsie getting a very good laugh out of the escapades of those cows.

After Aunt Elsie was gone, it happened that Uncle Chris’s Army Timberwolves convention was to be in Arlington, VA and Dad’s Navy Seabee reunion was to be in Youngstown, OH.  So, a plan was hatched, that I would drive us all to both reunions and we would have a scenic trip through the country on our way there and back.  The 4 of us had a very fun trip.   Uncle Chris contributed a box of tomatoes to the food supply and we continued to eat his tomatoes for most of our 2 week trip.  Our lunches were mostly picnics in some park along the way.  Uncle Chris and I shared a room to save on expenses, so we had plenty of visit time.  It was the trip of a lifetime for me, to share that time with both Dad & Ev and Uncle Chris.  In DC, getting around was somewhat challenging, but in those days, Uncle Chris carried a cane, so he got preferential treatment from the bus drives and the like.  Since I was his escort, I too got some prime seating on the bus.  Dad & Ev were not so lucky.  Of course once out of sight of the bus driver, Uncle Chris’s cane didn’t touch the ground much, it was held parallel to the ground and helped with balance while he hoofed it down the sidewalk.  We had many a laugh on that trip and I have a photo album that documents our stops along the way.  It was my first introduction to the Timberwolves.  This is a group of men who served their country during WWII and many of whom held the utmost respect for my Uncle who had been a leader and a hero in their combat time together.

Uncle Chris leaves us with a legacy as well.  He spent much time writing about his memories as a kid, his service time, West Denmark as well as other topics.  I was his typist for some of his writings and I was honored to do it.  He had the gift of writing that seems to come from the Henriksen genetic pool.  He wrote much as he talked and it was always a joy to read his latest work.  These writings live on, and leave us with a part of him that will last for many generations to come.  It was always in my mind to get his work put into a book for publication for the cousins and others, now I need to move that up my to-do list.

The last time I saw Uncle Chris was on my Dad’s 90th birthday.  I drove Dad and Ev to Des Moines and we had coffee with Uncle, Aunt Johanne and Uncle Thorvald, Mary Riber, Nancy and Pat O’Keefe and Gary.  It was a good day for Uncle, he was clear about who we were and the ‘adults’ had quite a discussion about West Denmark in the days when there was some conflict in the congregation.  I enjoyed hearing them talk of this and was amazed at how well they all, but especially Uncle Chris, remembered the events of those days long ago.  We left him that day with a smile and it is how I always think of Uncle Chris.  He was generous with his good spirit and smiles.  

I was lucky and proud to be his niece.  

Chris and Elsie were some very special people on this earth, how lucky heaven is to have them there together again now.

Wanda Johansen
December 29, 2012

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