The Giant Swede: My Great-grandfather’s American Life
Making the crossing from Solna, Sweden in 1912, he’d been in America just two years when duty called. And answer he did. Standing all of seven feet tall and with hands the size of dinner plates, the man they called the ‘Big Swede,’ left the farm fields and cattle of his new Nebraska home, said goodbye to his diminutive young bride and returned to Europe to battle the Hun in the Great War. He fought with a fearless valor that made those around him question whether he was brave or just plum crazy. And though he was the biggest target that ever jumped a trench and with swarms of bullets all around, nothing could stop the monster of a man who never once considered himself a ‘Swedish-American,’ and who couldn’t have been more proud than to wear the uniform of the country that had welcomed him through the Golden Door.
He fought at Belleau Wood where they turned the tide, and marched the muck and blood and mire of a thousand miles of wounded fields of infantry crossfire, struggling in the mud and the rot to find replacement boots large enough for his feet, until two lungs and a stomach full of mustard gas sent him home with the insidious conditions that would eventually take his life two decades too soon.
And though he survived to toss hay bales two at a a time into the summer barn loft on the family place and sometimes pulled tractor hitch and grain cart yoke together with his bare hands to save time, the visions and scars of the carnage of that smoky hell reflected in his eyes in the silent evenings of Nebraska’s two seasons of corn and snow.
And although belated for Memorial Day, it’s never too late to retell the family legend that my great grandfather Olson left behind. The long shadow over history of a man in full at 19 and an immigrant who was an American before he ever left the boat. And whose crops and chickens and larder fed the empty bellies of strangers and passersby the family door during the Great Depression, without question and without fail.
Somewhere in my veins, his Viking fury roils and boils and his memory echoes down in a bassoon voice that rattled the rafters, reminding me and all of us that generations of strivers and soldiers and heroes gave us the broadest of shoulders to stand upon, asking only that we be willing to extend some fitting measure of sacrifice and strife to preserve the liberties and dreams that they carried with them in nothing more than the love in their hearts, the mettle in their guts, and the clothes on their backs.