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A Thousand Words and More

What One Funny Picture is Worth To Me

photograph by Wendy Stolt

This is my all-time favorite personal picture for the simple reason that I can’t help but smile every time I look at it. The wardrobe malfunctions alone serve as a good reminder of how we should step back and laugh at ourselves once in a while. e damn good therapy right there. But there’s more.

The year was 1980. Late Spring. The occasion was a family wedding and at this point, the ceremony had just concluded. The four of us, left to right, are Uncle Al, Great Uncle George, my cousin Craig, and myself. We’re standing outside of Little Norway Lutheran Church near Black River Falls, Wisconsin, waiting for whatever was next on the celebration schedule.

(Any further details of the day have escaped me after all these years, but the guess here is that plenty of free beer, food and a rented hall at the local V.F.W. Post were involved.)

To this day, we in the family laughingly call this The Norwegian Mafia picture. La Cosa Norske. Why? Well, for starters we’re all of Norwegian heritage. Proud of it, too. But not so proud that we don’t take ourselves too seriously all the time.

Secondly, there’s what apparently passed for fashion sense in our eyes back then. That alone begs for parody. Don’t we look like we came out of central casting as extras for a low-budget mob movie? Or better yet a comedy?

Now, as far as I know, there is no such thing as the Norwegian Mafia. The Mafia is organized crime imported from Italy. It’s murderous vendettas and notorious names like Capone and Luciano. In Norway, it’s all about snow and fjords and Gilbertsons and Ingebretsons. Doesn’t set the same menacing tone, does it?

Hence the obvious parody of comparing us to the Corleones of The Godfather fame. Not that there is anything wrong with that, since having a healthy sense of humor is what it’s all about when our family gets together.

So, in honor of “the Family,” let’s take a closer look at the four mugs in this picture.

Uncle George — the guy in the fedora — is the one looking like an old-world Mafia don casting a leery eye on the crowd. He passed away in 1987, but before that he was a lifelong bachelor and, by all known accounts, was damn grateful for that. Come to think of it, I don’t suppose the local women were complaining too much about that either. But in truth, he was a good man.

In his younger years, he was a carpenter by trade. He was also was the last one in the family who knew how to speak Norwegian, and he liked his lutefisk and aquavit whenever he could get it.

(For the uninitiated, lutefisk is strictly a Scandinavian thing — a gelatinous codfish that is soaked in a water and lye solution before cooking, and aquavit is a grain or potato mash liquor that pairs especially well with pickled herring.)

Uncle Al — the guy with the dark suit and cigar — was born on October 24, 1929. Here he looks a little like the Don’s consigliere — his right-hand man, complete with sharp-dressed suit and cigar.

Among his earliest memories was the long walk he had to take every day to the one-room country schoolhouse that served the surrounding farms. “When it came to school,” he would later say, “it was uphill all the way for me.”

After growing up on a farm with four sisters, he volunteered for the Air Force in 1953 and he proudly served his country during the Korean War. While in Korea he learned how to be a sheet metal welder, and after the war made his living doing just that for a major manufacturer in Milwaukee. He retired in 1990 and moved back home to Black River Falls.

My cousin Craig is the one in the blue suit. In our little fantasy scenario, he would be the one who is the mob driver, or maybe the hitman. In the picture, he’s got that razor’s edge look about him.

In real life, Craig always has been handy with guns. By that I mean he’s always been quite the outdoorsman, especially when it comes to hunting, be it deer or moose or even elk. That is where any similarity to him and a hitman ends. Believe me, Craig is as laid back and friendly as they come. He has a great sense of humor and he and I have shared many a good time together.

Then finally there’s me, looking like, well, I’m not sure. Maybe the half-crazy mobster lieutenant. Mark Twain once said that “Humor is mankind’s greatest blessing.” You might guess by my expression that humor is right up there at the top of my list of things I’m grateful for.

A long time ago I started writing a fictional story about a disgraced Mafia hitman running for his life and hiding out in a small town in northern Wisconsin during deer-hunting season. It eventually grew into a novel manuscript that became the thesis for my degree in Creative Writing.

Thankfully that amateur manuscript never saw the light of day. But maybe, just maybe, the whimsical scenario dreamed up with this one photograph — The Norwegian Mafia — did have a little something to do with bringing out the writer in me.

It’s well been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. I don’t think I could express better in ten-thousand words the essence of laughter and fond memories that is found in this one photograph.

To me that’s priceless.

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