Tales from Across the Alley

7 Jul

Yesterday, I learned of the death of Carl Oveson, who lived across the alley from me during my childhood on the east side of Duluth. Big Carl (with me being Little Karl), who lived to the ripe age of 87, was an anchor in the neighborhood, that guy who kept to his routine with a classic Minnesotan sense of decency, staying on his feet with little projects in his garage and always seeming younger than his many years. For a time his son’s family lived with him, but even after they moved away, he soldiered on at home well into his 80s without losing a step. He tinkered around and fished and kept his lawn more meticulously than most golf courses, most likely shaking his head (though always with a pleasant, if mystified, curiosity) as our yard across the way was swallowed by an ever-growing collection of trees and shrubs. His eventual retreat to an assisted living home had more to do with a search for community than any declining faculties, as he spoke mischievously of the numerous old ladies who baked him cookies.

Carl grew up in Roseau, Minnesota, that hockey mecca in the northwest corner of the state. He graduated in 1944, meaning he missed the inaugural State Tournament by one year, and his obituary informs me that he played for a senior league team named the Roseau Cloverleafs after a stint in the military. Sadly, we’d lost touch by the time I was old enough to think of grilling him for some serious hockey history, but I suspect that Carl wrote his name into some of those early Roseau and Minnesota hockey histories, and given his sharp memory, he would have been the ideal source. Just a couple of weeks ago, after a surprise visit by Carl’s son’s family for the first time in years, the thought came back into my head. I can’t help but think I’ve lost a great opportunity to collect some stories.

And what stories they would have been: Carl was a relentless storyteller. The man could talk for hours on end, to the point that my parents sometimes hurried their walk from our back door to the garage lest they be waylaid for twenty minutes while trying to run a simple errand. He’d always be there, ready to opine on this or that or not much of anything at all. This made him an excellent interview subject for those childhood assignments in which one had to interview an old person; all I had to do was prompt him, and he’d talk for so long that my essays would write themselves.

Most of the stories Carl told me in my middle school days, though, were not of hockey, but about the Second World War. (A Google search on Carl revealed, to my pleasant surprise, that a chunk of one of those interviews has been preserved by the Duluth Veterans’ Memorial Hall.) While he didn’t see combat in the war, he did set out on a boat that would have invaded Japan in the absence of an A-Bomb, and spent a couple of years in the Philippines with a U.S. Navy refrigeration unit. There, he was part of that unglamorous task of rebuilding from the ravages of war, and was a witness to Douglas MacArthur’s fulfillment of his prophecy that he would return to the islands. His time in the Philippines left an indelible mark, and the memories poured forth: humorous cultural clashes, grueling conditions, and the occasional stroke of poignancy. He brought that little bit of history home to us, making real a world far beyond that carefully guarded lawn.

Carl was never one to order anyone off that lawn, though, and his driveway was often the center of neighborhood chatter as we kids raced about. He was a Minnesotan to the core, but he’d traveled far enough to have a sense of perspective about it all, and counted his blessings. Even his final days were well-ordered, as his family from Pennsylvania got one last quality visit in before the end. He is one of those figures who will always hover in the pleasant haze of childhood, and while I’ll keep the trees in my yard, I can only hope my later years will be so well-tended.

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