IN MEMORIAM: Hans and Ellen Hansen
My grandfather had come to America aboard the Cunard ship Caronin, past the statue of liberty (who he thought looked down her nose at him in his home spun clothes and cardboard luggage), and through Ellis Island. If I ever make it there, I'll look up his name in the registry. From New York City he made his way to Cheyenne Wyoming where he looked up an uncle who drove the horse-drawn carriage of the governor. Unable to speak but a few words of English, he tried the front door and was redirected to the servant's entrance, he recalled.
Hans first came to Oregon for work, at a relative's dairy. However, he did not last long in the dairy, probably because he'd moved to America largely to get away from that work and become a cabinet worker. He never did become one, but he did his own woodwork and produced some impressive pieces such as a scaled down victorian doll house for a cousin of mine. It was four feet tall and had a roof, furniture and furnishings in every room, and a removable wall to access the home. I have a desk in my room he made, pictures he framed, and so on. His dream to be a professional woodworker may have never come true but he did a lot on the side while he worked.
Taking a railroad job back in Cheyenne, Hans Godfried Hansen learned English through interacting with his friends and he especially remembers taking an old catalog, looking up items, and asking their name in English from the other workers. Hans was a short and slight man with a wiry, powerful frame. I remember well his bone crushing grip when he was an old man, and he was a vital, strong man all his life. He was also a very gentle, peaceful man of deep, personal, private faith and patience. When things went hard - and for a man of his day, sometimes they were very hard - he took the burden on his shoulders and carried the whole family through day after day, through depression, through misguided persecution, and through age.
He smoked until the 1960s when he had a heart attack, then he simply put the cigarettes aside and never did again. Until the day he died, he had a pack in the drawer of his workshop in the garage, but never smoked them. Hans was born in Bryndum Denmark in 1897, and he spurned his father's desire to take over the family dairy and, broken-hearted by a girl who turned him down, he moved to America in 1921 at the age of 24.
Hans and Ellen had four girls, all natural blond. They must have made quite a stunning sight as a family in Cheyenne, I have seen pictures of them in their youth and they all would have turned heads. In 1954, they moved to San Bernadino where Hans tried to find different work from the railroad, but that was an especially hot April and the job market was not good so smothering from the heat and jobless, Hans took them to Colorado to work at the railroad once more.
I remember my grandmother always had a hearing aid. These weren't the tiny earpieces we have today, it was a pretty large unit and it was attached to a box she wore under her blouse. I remember it clunking against me and often squealing when we would share a frequent hug. Ellen was 18 months old when she contracted spinal meningitis which weakened her heart and damaged her hearing greatly. With the hearing aid she could hear fairly well - I remember buying her a Walkman so she could listen to music easier in the 1980s, but I don't know if she ever used it.
In 1953 the family was on a trip to the mountains, up to a spot called Red Feathers Lake above Fort Collins. While on their way home on highway 14 through the rocky mountains, the brakes failed and the 1948 Hudson plunged off the road into a canyon, rolling until it came to rest against trees far above the road. Although banged around badly - and suffer injuries to this day - everyone survived the horrific crash. Taken into nearby Fort Collins, they were refused entry to the hospital that night and had to wait for the following day. Why?
This is a matter of some speculation but at that time, anti-communist fervor stirred up by the efforts of the House Committee on Unamerican Activities (led by Representative Charles McCarthy(R-WI) ) was at a fever pitch. My grandfather never lost his heavy Danish accent and my grandmother due to her brain tumor acted very strangely at times, and the people in Cheyenne were very odd toward the family. My mother remembers close friends suddenly deciding they were not friends any longer. She attributes it to the red scare; people thinking strange and foreign meant possibly communist.
The doctor at Fort Collins refused to see the family, was it because of this sort of attitude, or because they were not very wealthy? Was he just a colossal jerk? Was he having some personal emergency and had no time? No one knows. Had he acted swiftly, perhaps some of the painful problems my aunts face to this day could have been avoided. Broken bones, disjoined limbs, and worse afflict them all. My mother suffered some kind of brain damage and has had (thankfully controlled) epilepsy since.
Hans retired from railroad work in 1962, he moved to Durango in 1966, and the only thing I remember about that home is a patch of cucumbers grown at the side of a very big, I think white house. Of course I was very small so the house might not have been that large in truth. Hans loved Oregon, even if he didn't care much for dairy work, and he always wanted to return. The Willamette Valley reminded him a great deal of Denmark (I've heard from Dutchmen it reminds them a lot of the Netherlands, as well), and that is where He, Ellen, and their youngest daughter Sue Ellen moved in 1968. They chose Salem, and lived there for the rest of their lives.
There's a lot I don't know about my grandparents which I wish I could ask about; for example there is a picture of my grandfather in a military uniform, in Denmark. He never spoke of those days, but he would have served during World War I but Denmark was a neutral country and did not get involved in the fighting.
My grandfather died in 1986 and my grandmother in 1988. I still miss them after all this time. From my grandfather I learned solid, unshaking faith fed by the Bible every night, a quiet strength and steadfast fortitude to face all difficulties, and he faced things I've never even had to consider. Hans G Hansen was a small man but he was the strongest man, both physically and personally I have ever known. Ellen Hansen was a woman who faced such pain and hardship in her life she could have easily been bitter and angry, and while I remember both being pretty stern when I was a little boy - sternness I no doubt earned quite well - both were deeply loving and caring. My Grammy's deepest concern was for me to love Jesus, because she believed that loving Him would affect every aspect of my life and how I grew as a man. I love them both, and every year I miss their leadership and quiet wisdom more.
If you have grandparents you don't visit much or haven't talked to about their past, take today to do so, even if its just a short phone call. Don't miss this opportunity, do not fail to tap into that font of wisdom, even if they don't seem so wise to you. Learn from them, get to know them, learn about them. You won't have too long to do so, and chances are you'll miss them as long as you live.
*UPDATE: I'll pass on a little bit of background from my aunt, the oldest of the four girls:
[Hans] worked for the "store Dept." at the railroad. He did operate the cranes, also drove truck. I can remember his diving our to Burns for loads of Potoates. I have no idea what they did with them at the RR. Then he was promoted to "Outside Foreman" a job he held with much pride. He had a way of handling the men. He never let his small stature stop him, and if the guys at the RR got to funny with him, he would just "throw them". I guess he was much stronger than most of the men he worked for and they all liked him.I don't doubt he could handle pretty much any of the men. Grampy (as we called him) was about 5'3 but he was strong as any linebacker, and no man to take any sort of crap from anyone. I'm guessing nobody gave him trouble twice.