Author: Swedish Falcon

The John Johnson Cot


My name is Yohn Yohnson

I come from Visconsin

I vork in the lumber mills there

Every girl that I meet

As I valk down the street

Says “Hello, what’s your name?”

And I say

My name is Yohn Yohnson

I come from Visconsin…

(Continue repeating first verse. This song never ends!)

Back when Joan was growing up, her family often took road trips. She and her two brothers, in the back seat of the family Chevy, would sing this song to pass the time. They would sing as long as they could keep it up—or as long as their dad could tolerate listening!

This wasn’t just any John Johnson that Joan and her brothers were singing about, but a special John Johnson who was a relative through her maternal grandfather’s family. Or so Joan believed growing up, because of what her grandfather had once told her. She only later learned that this particular ditty was just a song about some generic Scandinavian immigrant named John Johnson from Wisconsin! Joan learned the song and heard about the “real” John Johnson from her maternal grandfather, Martin Cornelius, who lived in Gary, Indiana when Joan was a child.

Joan’s grandfather had been born with the name Kornelius Kaspersen in Norway and came to America as an infant with his parents. Norwegians derived their last names by taking their father’s first name and adding sen (son) or datter (daughter). This meant that Norwegian surnames changed with each generation. Joan’s great grandfather’s name was Kasper Korneliussen (his father’s first name had been Kornelius) but Americanized his name to Casper Cornelius when the family emigrated from Norway.  That left Joan’s grandfather, however, with the name Kornelius Cornelius! Since that wouldn’t do, and they were good Lutherans, Joan’s great-grandparents decided to call him Martin Cornelius instead.

The name John Johnson came up whenever Joan’s family would visit her Cornelius grandparents because of a sturdy sleeping cot that bore his name. In order to accommodate Joan’s family of five, the “John Johnson cot” would be brought out for one of the kids to sleep on. It was a large cot with a metal frame made sometime in the early twentieth century. It was purchased about 1926 in La Grange, Illinois, when a relative named John Johnson first came to visit Joan’s grandparents and was thereafter always known to the family as the “John Johnson cot.” Curiosity about this John Johnson led Joan to try to find out more about him over the years.

John Johnson was born Johan Michal Johansen on December 29, 1865, in Lysøya, Vikna, Nord-Trøndelag, Norway. Vikna is an archipelago on the mid-Norwegian coast, the same place Joan’s grandfather was born. He was a second cousin, once removed of Joan’s grandfather. Joan learned from her grandfather that John had a special place in the family’s heart because he had helped arrange the passage of Joan’s grandfather and his parents to America.

John had immigrated in 1884, settling in Wisconsin. He wrote back to the Cornelius family (to quote Joan’s mother) that “life is such easier here”. John had procured a job with the Omaha Railroad in a little village named Roberts, Wisconsin. Today, by car you could drive to Minneapolis from Roberts in about 45 minutes. The Cornelius family, however, didn’t have enough money to make the voyage to America. John wrote them again, saying that he would loan them the money they needed. Each ticket cost $40.00, and John purchased enough steamship tickets to bring not just Joan’s great-grandparents and grandfather but also several other members of the Cornelius family. With John Johnson’s help Joan’s Cornelius family was able to make the long and exhausting trip from Norway in 1887.

John Johnson was unmarried. When Joan’s great-grandparents arrived in Wisconsin, John gave up his position on Nils Nordby’s railway section crew of the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Omaha Railway in Roberts for Casper. He said that Casper had a wife and baby to feed, and it was more important for Casper to have the job than him. John went to work on a railway section crew for the Great Northern Railway out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. According to Joan’s grandfather, John lost the sight of one of his eyes in a fist fight while working there.

John had another special bond with Joan’s grandfather as well. On December 14, 1865, just 15 days before John was born, John’s father and Joan’s great-great grandfather drowned together at sea. Her great-great grandfather, Kornelius Hallesen, had arranged to purchase Christmas goods at a small village named Austafjord with John’s father, Johan Fredrik Gunbjørnsen. Johan Fredrik was first cousin to Kornelius Hallesen’s wife, Anna Johanna Paulsdatter, so the men had family ties as well as a business relationship. Both perished at sea in the frigid waters that fateful day in December.

These bonds carried on through the years with the entire Cornelius family, including both Joan’s great-grandfather Casper and grandfather Martin. In 1913 John, while living in Baldwin, Wisconsin, wrote a letter to the Decorah-Posten, a Norwegian language newspaper published in Decorah, Iowa, that was read by Norwegian immigrants throughout the United States. In his letter he exhorted his fellow emigrants from Vikna to contribute to a memorial that led to the purchase of a minnetavle or plaque that still hangs today in the Garstad church in Vikna.

Minnetavla i Garstad Kirke – 100 år

Out of this call to fellow Vikna immigrants grew an organization called the Viknalaget, a society of immigrants from Vikna. John and Casper were founding members, and, in fact, the organization’s first meeting was held in Casper’s home in Minneapolis. In May 1932 John joined Joan’s great-grandparents on a memorable trip back to Norway, a trip that held great importance in Joan’s family and was one she heard about as a child.

John Johnson would also visit the Martin Cornelius household from time to time. Joan’s grandfather was a faithful letter-writer, and there probably was correspondence between them up until John’s death. About four months after John returned from Norway with Joan’s great-grandparents, he underwent gastrointestinal surgery and died on January 20, 1933, in Minneapolis. He was 67. Gone was Casper’s childhood friend, a man whose father had drowned in the cold Norwegian waters with Casper’s own father some 67 years before–a man to whom his life-long friend Casper was indebted and to whom Casper’s descendants remain indebted.

The “John Johnson cot” is long gone, probably discarded or given away when Joan’s grandparents moved from Gary to Minneapolis in their later years. John Johnson, however, is certainly not forgotten. If it hadn’t been for his kindness and generosity, Joan’s great-grandparents may never have made the trip to America. The (not so) simple act of giving up his job to Joan’s great-grandfather may have made the difference between failure and success in building a new life in a strange and foreign land.

As far as Joan is concerned, John Johnson IS the “Yohn Yohnson from Visconsin” in the song she learned from her grandfather and taught her own children to sing.

ER Blues

Another day, another IV in the ER

Another day, another IV in the ER

Having spent most of today in the ER, we were tempted to skip today’s blog. But we accepted the blogging challenge put to us by our son and didn’t want to fail that challenge! Read about his challenge here:

The thing about today’s trip to ER is that it could have been avoided if our medical system was more efficient (and logical!). First, some background. Our daughter has been having health problems since January when she was first hospitalized with severe anemia and kidney failure. A 10-day stay in the hospital was followed by a relapse, causing another trip to the ER and another 3 day hospitalization. In February she ended up in the ER yet again. Following this, a high dose of prednisone helped her regain her health and return to work.

Under the care of a nephrologist she has been tapering off the prednisone, dropping 10 mg a week since March 25. Now, at 20 mg, some of her symptoms seem to have returned, and we were afraid her kidneys were failing again. She had hoped to resolve her fears by calling the nephrologist’s office and keep the ER out of it (or rather herself out of the ER!). When her symptoms first returned yesterday, she tried contacting her nephrologist twice, leaving messages that were never returned. She tried to go to work but could only manage a few hours. Still feeling dizzy and light-headed, she tried the nephrologist’s office again this morning. It turns out that the doctor never received her messages because he is out of town for the week, and the doctor available was never given her messages.

Doctors’ offices seem, as a rule, to be unable to handle situations of this nature very efficiently. If a doctor had assessed her situation yesterday, blood work might have been ordered immediately and the results known in short order. Our daughter considered a trip to a local med center, but blood results would not have come back right away. In our daughter’s case blood work would have easily diagnosed, within a few hours, if her kidney failure was reoccurring. Instead her only alternative was yet another trip to the ER, the most costly option.

We all have heard that many people end up in ER for health problems that could have easily been handled by a simple consultation with or trip to a doctor. But it is nigh onto impossible to get in to see your doctor without long waits and pre-scheduled appointments. People also go to ERs because they don’t have insurance, but the new health care law should hopefully help reduce some of those visits. But the Affordable Care Act won’t resolve the problem of doctor availability. People like our daughter who are trying to avoid a costly ER visit have limited or no other options when doctors aren’t available to handle such situations.

The reasons for this are many and varied. Doctors and nurse practitioners are in short supply, most often unable to see patients on an emergency basis—or even in any kind of timely fashion. Then, even if they are in their offices, communications breakdowns and obstacles abound. Receptionists are often poorly trained and underpaid. Medical offices are quite typically poorly organized. They lose messages; they forget to handle, or mishandle, the communications they receive. And, mind you, even as we rant a little here, we must say we very much admire our doctors for their skill and dedication. We aren’t complaining about them as much as we are about the system that surrounds them.

The haphazard way in which the receptionist fielded our daughter’s call, unfortunately, seems to be the rule, not the exception. Just last week Joan called her ophthalmologist’s office due to a reaction to an eye medicine. She got a call back the next day from a triage nurse telling her to stop using the drops (Joan had already decided to stop them when she didn’t get her call returned the day before.) The triage nurse was to contact the doctor to see about using another medication and get back to Joan. That doctor works primarily out of another office so he wasn’t physically present when Joan first called.  Never receiving a call back, Joan called the office again one week after her initial call. Apparently the doctor never got the fax the triage nurse sent him (they said the fax was broken!). And no one thought to follow up. So the message fell through the cracks as it did in our daughter’s case. There appear to be no procedures in place to double-check whether messages get to doctors and whether responses are made in a timely manner. If one part of the process falters (fax not received, doctor out of town), nothing happens unless the patient calls repeatedly, wasting everyone’s time. When something is serious, it prevents obtaining treatment in a timely and cost-effective fashion. For many of us, there seems to be very little middle ground between going to an emergency room and having a doctor’s appointment. Affordable, well-staffed clinics might be a solution, but they are in short supply.

For us today’s trip to the ER had a happy ending (in the sense that our daughter does not appear to be relapsing into interstitial nephritis). She is most likely coming down with something more minor, as we all do from time to time. But the fact remains that this ER visit could have been prevented if a simple message had been delivered and a simple phone call returned.

Donald T. Nelson, Hero

Donald T. Nelson, Home on Leave

Donald T. Nelson, Home on Leave

Both our dads were decorated war heroes. In this post, we are going to talk about Joan’s father, Donald T. Nelson. Donald entered military service in 1941 and qualified for Officers Candidate School in the field artillery at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. On June 23, 1942 he was appointed Second Lieutenant and assigned to the 158th Field Artillery, 45th Division at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. He was promoted to First Lieutenant on May 20, 1943.  On July 10, 1943 he landed with the first wave of troops near San Croce Camerina in Sicily, serving as a forward observer officer. He fought in the “Bloody Ridge” battle near San Stefano, Sicily and was awarded the Silver Star for his leadership and courage under difficult battle conditions.

On September 11, 1943 he participated in the landing near Salerno, Italy. He was wounded during a German tank assault on September 12th and later was awarded the Purple Heart for injuries he received in his right eye, forearm, chest, and thigh. After recovering in a hospital in North Africa, he served as a Field Artillery School instructor at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. Donald was promoted to Captain on January 20, 1946 and retired from service in March of that year.

Joan’s dad was blind in his right eye for the rest of his life. Like many men who had fought, he rarely spoke about his experiences. Joan didn’t know he had served as a forward observer until she was a teenager. She was watching an episode of the television show Combat! in which an American Army forward observer fighting in France had gone ahead of the others to check out the German enemy’s position. Her dad was sitting nearby in his favorite chair reading the daily newspaper. During the commercial break Joan turned to him and said something about the courage forward observers must have had to go ahead alone and how dangerous it was. That was when he told her he had himself been a forward observer during the war.

In March 1993 Joan’s dad returned to Sicily with his former Army comrades. He visited Scoglitti, the small fishing village on the south coast of Sicily, where the 45th Infantry Division made its amphibious invasion on July 10 fifty years earlier. He revisited “Bloody Ridge” near San Stefano, the site of the toughest fight of the Sicilian campaign.  “Bloody Ridge” was a series of five steep ridges about 3,000 feet high firmly occupied by German troops; they were successfully taken by the Americans after four days of intense combat. Joan’s dad also visited the grave of one of his best buddies in the 45th, First Lieutenant Capers R. Wactor, who died in Sicily and is buried at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno, Italy.  One of the hardest things Joan’s dad had to do during the war, he said, was contact Caper’s new bride and tell her that her husband had died on July 17, 1943.

Going back to Sicily was a cathartic experience for Joan’s dad. He opened up to his family for the first time, and Joan finally learned details of what he had gone through. He shared with her the newspaper articles he had saved from the war years:

“Beachhead Battles Nothing New for Gary’s Lieut. Nelson. Fought in Sicily and Italy: Wins Silver Star for Heroics”
“Lieut. Donald Nelson Wins Silver Star for Gallantry in Action”
“Gary Lieutenant Wounded in Italy”
“Gary’s Lieut. Nelson Gets Purple Heart”

Joan’s dad was one of thousands of Americans who showed courage and heroism during terrifying times. We have often wondered how we would have reacted under similar circumstances. We all think we are brave, that we wouldn’t flinch from danger. We would all like to think that there is a hero in us, waiting to emerge when duty and danger call. In this era of superheroes like Superman, Spiderman, or Captain America, we think that only the extraordinary can be heroes. But Donald Nelson shows us that real heroes are real men who rise up from their ordinary lives to do extraordinary things when they have to. Then they go home, have children, live quiet lives and answer the questions their inquisitive daughters ask them.


The Gary Post-Tribune, May 1, 1944

The Gary Post-Tribune, May 1, 1944