50501: A Secondhand Memoir (Part 1)

50501: A Secondhand Memoir (Part 1)

The beginning of a great-granddaughter's retelling of her great-grandfather's life.

Madeline Vonk

This past month, my great-grandfather, Robert ‘Bob’ Carlson, Gran Gran to his grandchildren, passed away at the ripe old age of 97. Since his death, my mother has been sifting through his office coming across bits and pieces of his life. This is the first installment of a series I have decided to call 50501, the zip code of the place where it all began: Fort Dodge, Iowa.

In eighth grade, my history teacher warned the class that history dies with us. His striking comment resonated within me. I could not stop thinking about what he had said. And so, to make myself feel as though I could preserve history, I decided to keep up an email correspondence with my great-grandfather. I have found those emails along with many others.

In the first email he sent me, he gave me a few requirements. He wrote:

“When writing consider WHO, WHAT, WHY, WHEN, WHERE, HOW - called 5 W's & H. I want to know these before I read a book, or article - even Books of the Bible. It even bugs me to be watching the news and they talk [about] an event, but often don't tell where it is.”

To fulfill his wishes I have made you this list:

WHO: Robert ‘Bob’ Carlson, Gran Gran, GG, father, grandfather, lifelong learner!

WHAT: A series of essays highlighting his long and lovely life

WHEN: 1920-2017, being written presently

WHERE: Iowa, California, and Michigan

HOW: Happenstance

I am laughing at the things my eighth-grade-self considered history worth preserving. I asked him about seemingly trivial things like penny candy and whether or not his mother had a Swedish accent since he was of the first generation to be born on American soil.

Looking back through the emails reminds me that he truly was a remarkable man. This is a man who lived from 1920 to 2017. He watched his family suffer through the Great Depression with the rest of America, the country fight WWII and Vietnam, the invention of the smartphone, email, and the digital camera. He was married for 67 years. Together, he and his wife, Louise, raised one daughter.

But for now, I just want to introduce him to you. Consider this a prelude to what I can retell of an epically lived life. I mean, we're talking about a man who sent me the Cliffnotes to The Grapes of Wrath when I was stressing out about finishing it before the start of school!

If you ask anyone that knew him, they will all tell you that he loved photography. He never went anywhere before equipping himself with a camera and a manila folder full of his favorite prints to hand out to anyone who would stop and listen to him. What truly amazes me about his love for photography is that he started taking pictures in an after-school club with a piece of film in a pinhole camera and ended his career snapping photos with a digital camera or his iPhone.

He had a miraculous ability to adapt to anything, including his wife’s cooking. In an email he wrote about the secret to a successful marriage, he says, “She was a good cook, and I learned to like everything, so I ate whatever she decided to cook.” I think sentence sums him up well. He took whatever life threw at him, chewed, and swallowed.

A lot of people hear his age and think I wonder what his secret was. In my opinion, perseverance and an open mind are how he did it. And perhaps my opinion will change as I continue to write 50501 and get to observe him through what he left us to read. We’ll just have to wait and see…

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