We found Grandpa on eBay a few years ago. How we found him is a tall tale of serendipity, born out of a fortuitous confluence of our love of personal computing (do we call it that anymore?) and our passion for collecting old treasures, especially ones that relate to our family history.
During our lifetime advances made in personal computing have been, to use the Sixties phrase, “mind-blowing.” We both wrote our first computer programs in COBOL, a hoary old dinosaur of a programming language if there ever was one. We harnessed extinct beasts like DEC KL-10 mainframes, keypunch cards, card readers, and line printers to prepare, compile, and revise them.
Then, in the early 1980s things began to change. We were “early adopters” and purchased our first personal computer in 1983, a NEC (Nippon Electric Company) system running the CPM-86 operating system. We had a COBOL compiler, WordStar word processing, 256K of memory, and an 8” floppy drive. We were in digital heaven. Not soon after we acquired a first-generation IBM-PC with two (count them! two!) floppy drives. We were awash in computing wealth!
Today we pull out our smart phones, IPads, and MacBook Pros to perform the many tasks we know they are capable of, from searching for nearby ethnic restaurants to seeing if it was Gary Cooper who starred with Barbara Stanwyck in the wonderful 1941 classic film, Ball of Fire. Joan and I think, as a couple of a “certain age” with a long history of interaction with computers, that only those of us who’ve lived the personal computer revolution from its inception can appreciate exactly how far we have come. We certainly don’t take our IPhones and IPads for granted.
Before we ever laid hands on a computer, indeed from the time we first started dating, we have been “collectors” of old treasures. Back in the late Sixties we started visiting thrifts, Salvation Army stores, Goodwills, and, of course, antique shops on a regular basis. It was, and remains, a passion of ours.
We pretty much buy only bargains, at first because we didn’t have the money to do anything else, and now because that habit is ingrained. Also, to be honest, we have a bit of the treasure seeker in us, and maybe more than just a little hunger for the hunt. Nothing is quite as satisfying as spotting an unappreciated treasure in the midden heap and plucking it up, researching it, and saving it for posterity. Should you be thinking certain thoughts as you read this…we are not hoarders. We are collectors. Like minds will readily recognize the distinction.
When eBay first debuted in 1995, we found a new way to find hidden treasure at (sometimes) bargain prices. Finally, two of our lifelong passions had intersected. We could use our computers (and the whole massive infrastructure of the internet and the WWW) to help us sniff out our historical, antique, and collectible prey.
One of the greatest treasures we have ever found online, on eBay, was a photo postcard (RPC or “real photo postcard” in eBay parlance) of Joan’s paternal grandfather, Theodore Nelson. EBay lets you set what they call an “email alert” using keywords describing items that you might be interested in purchasing. An email alert set for “Lemont, Illinois” is how we came to discover Grandpa for sale online.
Theodore (“Ted”) Leonard Nelson was born on August 12, 1891 in Lemont, Illinois, the son of Swedish immigrants. Leaving wife and daughter behind in Sweden, Ted’s father first looked for work in Brooklyn, New York and then moved on to Lemont, now a southern suburb of Chicago, where he heard that men were being hired to work in the local limestone quarries. He worked for $30.00 a month, scraping enough money together to pay the passage from Sweden for Ted’s mother and oldest sister. Ted was the sixth of eleven children to be born into this solidly Swedish family.
Ted worked hard at everything he did. He had a long and successful career at US Steel. But both as child and as adult, it was clear Ted loved baseball with a passion and not just as a spectator. He wasn’t just a fan, he was a player.
He played pick-up games with the neighborhood kids as a young boy, developing his skills and taking his game to the next level at every given opportunity. He played as often as he could, including Sundays.
This didn’t sit well with Mom and Dad Nelson, devout Swedish Lutherans. They forbade Ted from playing on Sundays. An old Nelson family story has it that when Ted’s mother found out he was playing baseball on the Sabbath, she buried his uniform in their chicken yard. Undaunted, Ted somehow discovered its underground hiding place, retrieved it, and continued to “play ball” behind her back. He must truly have loved the game to cross Mom Nelson!
Joan inherited from her grandfather Ted a book entitled LEMONT Illinois. Its History In Commemoration Of The Centennial Of Its Incorporation 1873 1973. On page 154 is featured a photo of her grandfather with a neighbor and friend named Alfred Anderson; the photograph was taken in 1911.
On one of our visits to Gary, Indiana where Joan’s grandparents lived, Joan learned from her Grandma Nelson that her grandfather had played third baseman for the team in 1909 and then three years later joined another team in nearby Lockport, Illinois. Then, early in 1916 he took a job with US Steel in Gary, Indiana. He was offered a position in the Time Department, but there is great suspicion that he was hired (and took the job) primarily to play baseball for the US Steel team.
Joan has fond memories, too, of seeing her grandfather sitting in his favorite living room chair, smoking a Dutch Masters cigar, and watching Chicago Cubs games on television. He loved baseball all his life. Joan didn’t realize as a young girl how involved he had actually been with the game. The sedentary Cubs fan had, in fact, had a serious relationship with baseball.
Sometime in the late 1990’s Greg was sitting at his computer (no laptop yet!) checking email when he noticed that the “Lemont” keyword had generated a message from eBay that something was available for sale. The item up for auction was a postcard picturing the “Lemont Blues” baseball team as they were in 1909. It had been sent from a Lawrence Sandberg of Lemont to his uncle in Ritzville, Washington, eventually finding its way to eBay.
Joan was busy upstairs when Greg called her to come down to his study where he asked, “Would you recognize your Grandpa Nelson if there was a photo of him as a young man?”
Joan was pretty certain she would recognize her grandfather. Sure enough, it was Joan’s grandpa in the back row of the photo, dressed in a light shirt, dark vest, and hat but not wearing a baseball uniform. He would have been about seventeen years old when the photo was taken. Joan had never seen the photo before, but it was clearly Ted Nelson.
After a successful bid to win the auction, Joan showed the postcard to her father, Don. He said that he remembered seeing this particular shot in a Lemont newspaper article some years before. He said that the picture was taken the first day Joan’s grandfather had joined the Lemont Blues. That’s why Ted is wearing street clothes and not a uniform.
The postcard is stamped “12 M 1909 Lemont ILL” with a one cent stamp attached. The card is addressed to Mr. Wm. Olson Box 85 Ritzville, Wash and reads:
This is the Base Ball team I play with. X is were I stand and the mascot is Brother Emil. All in very good health and hope you are too.
What a circuitous path this postcard must have taken. The miles it must have traveled to find its way from Lawrence, Ted’s old teammate and neighbor, back to Joan, Ted’s granddaughter! It is certainly a tall tale of happenstance and circumstance. How many chances there must have been to miss the opportunity to recognize and buy this small but meaningful treasure.
As we digitize our lives, our possessions, and present them for view through Google and maybe for purchase via eBay and Etsy and the like, we increase the chances of moments of such serendipity as “finding Grandpa” represents. But, even so, it is both a minor miracle and a testimony to one of the true advantages of modern life: to be able to discover what was hidden, to see what was previously unseen, to find that which was well and truly lost.