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The Good Ol’ Days: Thanksgiving

By Staff | Dec 18, 2015

The Thanksgiving holiday season seems to have replaced Christmas season as the most-traveled time of year. Back in the days of my youth of the 1950’s and ’60s, air travel was too expensive and most folks drove or took the train over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house. So we usually stayed in Rugby for the Turkey Day feast.

As wee youngsters, my cousins, Byron and Ruth, and I sat at the children’s card table while our elders sat at a large round oak table at my grandmother’s home. Mom and Dad were there, along with Dad’s brothers Aaron and Joel and Joel’s wife Florence and maybe an aunt or two from out-of-town. My Aunt Eunice was the early jet-setter of the family, flying up from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Minot via Denver and Rapid City. Actually, she was a “propeller-setter”, as jets didn’t serve the Albuquerque-to-Minot route in the ’50s. Aunt Eunice was a very accomplished, well-educated and well-traveled woman. She reminded us that children should be seen and not heard. I recall having had difficulty complying with that advice. A quarter century later she spearheaded the 1978 opening of the Gronvold House at the Pioneer Village Museum.

My grandmother, Alice Gronvold, her daughters and Mrs. Benedikte Egeland spent hours in the kitchen preparing the Thanksgiving meal, which was traditional turkey and dressing with side vegetables and lots and lots of mashed potatoes and gravy. Benedikte and my grandmother were best friends and loved to speak Norwegian. As a lad, I often heard the music-like strains of different languages on the streets of Rugby, as German, Norwegian and Swedish were spoken in many homes.

When the feast was ready, Grandma would announce, in Norwegian, what sounded like “Vursah goot”, which I think meant “Be so good” or maybe “Soup’s on!” We would all file to our appointed places and Byron and Ruth would recite the classic Norwegian table grace which I think they memorized phonetically. “Eesa nom kaveet dabort da horry porry torrybort…” etc. If one sat at the adult table, there was an endless exercise of passing heavy bowls and platters of food around. “You must have some more” was my grandmother’s oft-repeated mandate.

Norwegian cooking is not considered world-class, and thankfully we were spared the “lutefisk ritual”. However, Grandma’s lefse and flat bread were to die for, and her fresh-baked rolls and brown bread (made in an antique wood-burning stove down in her musty basement) were delicious. She also made krumkake, kringla, sandbakkels and butter cookies. In later years, when I would relate this to my friends from non-Scandinavian backgrounds, I was usually met with blank stares and even pity.

Hans Dahl and I once went to a lutefisk and lefse dinner in the ’60s at Marker Lutheran Church. It was in the winter and we had to stand outside for what seemed like hours, single-file, while they shoehorned the surprisingly large crowd into the warm bright basement for the foul-smelling feed. Fortunately there were other items on the menu and it was a pleasant evening with lots of jolly red faces and the sounds of Norwegian in the air.

I bought my first Norwegian sweater in downtown Anchorage, Alaska, in 1997 at a store called Pia’s near the Anchorage Hilton. Pia’s husband was the Norwegian counsel in Anchorage at the time, you betcha. And, no, I don’t know why Sarah Palin talks that way.

Every year, Soldotna, Alaska’s Christ Lutheran Church sponsors a lutefisk and lefse supper that I would faithfully attend during my ten years in the Last Frontier. The lutefisk that they served was actually edible and free of foul fragrance. It was almost like lobster…almost. Just like a Chevy Malibu is almost like a Corvette.

At Thanksgiving 1971, I was a 23-year-old Army lieutenant stationed at Camp Howard, Korea. Having grown up in the Midwest and schooled in South Florida, I was quite unprepared for the so-called “Third World”. Although Seoul seemed to be fairly modern, our camp was located in the middle of frozen rice paddies about two hours by jeep south of the capital. The rural villages did not have running water and sanitation was quite poor.

Our unit sponsored two nearby orphanages. Shortly after I arrived in country, we hiked out to visit one of them. There were about a hundred little children living there, many of them of mixed racial parentage. Their living conditions were like something out of a Charles Dickens story and there was little money to support the extremely primitive establishment. I saw very few mattresses, for instance.

It was an annual tradition at Camp Howard to invite both orphanages to Thanksgiving dinner in our mess hall. In addition to my Signal Corps duties, I had inherited the title of Mess Officer. As such, I made sure that all was in order for our visitors.

They arrived promptly in mid-afternoon, some two hundred of the most respectful, well-behaved and, dare I say, hungry little children that you would ever want to see. They somberly cleaned their plates and then delighted in all the trimmings and desserts that we, as military folk, pretty much took for granted.

After the meal, they lined up and sang several songs of gratitude to us in both English and Korean. Then, they left. We would see them again at Christmas.

Later, when things had wound down and all the clean-up was accomplished, I called all the mess hall personnel, both U.S. and Korean, together for a little thank-you speech. But, to my surprise, I was unable to say anything because of the emotions that suddenly welled up and caught me off guard. It was all too special, all too real. All too poignant.

Since then, on every Thanksgiving (and Christmas), I count my blessings. I will always keep the memory of that Thanksgiving of 44 years ago in my mind and in my heart.

God bless us everyone.

Bill is a Rugby native, graduating from RHS in 1966. His family operated the Gronvold Motor Company until 1968. He is a retired FAA air traffic controller and although he resides in Orlando, Florida, his heart will always be with the Heart of America.

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