The Threads of Roger’s Life
by Guy Haglund
Ninety three years – it was a long life my father lived. And not just long, it was wide and deep too, so there’s a lot of information here. I’m going to try to select the main threads that made up the fabric of his life and tie them all together, and that’s going to take some time, but, I hope you’ll agree, he deserves it.
Most of you probably know that my dad was born and raised here in Isle, but you may not know that his grandparents were some of Isle’s pioneers before the turn of the last century. August Haglund and his wife, Ingrid Holmgren, arrived in covered wagons around 1891 and literally had to build their own roads and bridges to reach the homestead near Opstead where they planned to settle. Their son, my grandfather, Gust Haglund, was only about four years old then! Thirty years later Roger would be born in a little house about a half mile up the road from August and Ingrid’s homestead.
So time passed and my dad grew – I can only imagine his boyhood in and around the Opstead wilderness. His mother, Myrtle Miller, died when he was only about 10 years old, and Gust moved the family to a house closer to town in Isle. Gust was away for long weeks during the summer, managing his road construction company, so Roger had the run of the town, and I know he got into his share of mischief!
But he, and the town, survived it and he graduated from Isle High School in 1940. I don’t know what his grades were, but I know he was smart and I know he was a star athlete – leading the IHS basketball and football teams to winning seasons (OK, I might be exaggerating a bit here. Maybe not winning seasons, but I know they won at least a few games)!
After high school, Dad gave a shot at college, aiming at Civil Engineering at the U of M, but after the first semester he realized that funds were short and he was going to have to take a break from college to earn his tuition. He decided he wanted to see a bit more of the big wide world so he went to Detroit where he got a job as a machinist. But he never was nor ever would be a city boy, and after a few months he was back in Isle. He signed on working as a Caterpillar driver and mechanic on grandpa Gust’s road construction business, and the two of them, along with their crew, built roads and highway bridges all over northern Minnesota, some of which are still in use!
The skills he learned as a machinist and driving and repairing Caterpillar tractors in those years served my dad well when the war broke out and he joined the Navy Seabees. As a Seabee, his brigade island-hopped across the Pacific in the advance toward Japan. The Marines would land first and establish a foothold on an island, often against fierce resistance, and then the Seabees would arrive and work virtually round the clock, sometimes under daily enemy bombardment, to complete a landing strip for the Army and Air Force fighters and bombers to land. The Seabees were some of the unsung heroes of the Second World War, but the Marines were the first to acknowledge the importance their work. My dad loved to quote a Marine refrain of those days: “So when we reach the 'Isle of Japan' with our caps at a jaunty tilt, we'll enter the city of Tokyo on the roads the Seabees built."
His experiences during those two years under fire never left my dad – for most of his life he was not even able to approach the topic without breaking down and weeping. Finally, in his later years, I was able to talk with him about what had happened and he described seeing comrades killed, once being bombed nightly for nearly 60 consecutive nights, and once nearly being killed himself by a bomb that smashed into his tent during a nighttime raid. He was saved because even in his sleep his ears were so attuned to the opening of bomb bay doors of the Japanese planes that he was able to dive out of the tent into his fox hole before the bomb hit!
So I guess we can say that his wartime experiences formed the first of the major threads of my dad’s life. The second, and ultimately most important thread, actually began before the war. He had known my mom back in high school, but she was four years younger, just a kid. So, soon after getting back from his short sojourn in Detroit, he stopped by the Isle Cafe on Main Street where Faye was working as a waitress. He was instantly smitten, and he commented to his friend Don Carlson (who was also Faye’s cousin). “Faye has certainly blossomed!”
So they married after the war – a striking couple from what we see in photographs – Dad was strong and handsome and Mom a real beauty! And then the three of us came along – me, the gangly towhead, all knees and elbows and buck teeth; Jackie, once described by Mom as a “four-year-old Rita Hayworth”; and Holly, the baby, who later majored in entertaining us with her nearly-perfect loon-call imitations on our family canoe trips in the Boundary Waters. That was the family, complete, and then there followed years of summer camping trips and water skiing and electric trains on Christmas morning and basketball games and Boy Scout hikes and tap dancing lessons and piano lessons, etc. Mom and Dad both worked hard to raise us, and I’m sure there were ups and downs in their lives, but we didn’t know about them. And they continued being in love, but I guess we really didn’t know what that meant either.
And in the process, we moved from a trailer house to our own little house by the lake in town, and finally to a new, bigger house built from scratch out of town on Twin Bay. And also in the process, Dad progressed from being a cat-skinner on the road construction crew to starting a new business in town – Isle Bottle Gas – with his partner, Clarence Christenson.
And this is the third main thread of my dad’s life. He and Clarence ran the Bottle Gas successfully for many years, each contributing his own talents. The Bottle Gas was definitely a family business – and all seven of the kids from both families were part of the crew at one time or another. I’m sure none of us will ever forget the dreaded and painful annual “Inventory” where every bolt and nut and screw and nail in the store had to be counted by hand. Whew!
When they eventually amicably parted ways, Clarence continued with the Bottle Gas and Roger started a new business in town – Lake Country Products – manufacturing winter fishing tackle and other related products. It was a labor of love and Dad was able to bring his mechanical talents into full play, often creating machines and automated processes from scratch when what he needed didn’t exist. Dad ran Lake Country Products for the rest of his working career, and finally it was time to retire, and the fourth main thread of his and their lives began.
My dad retired at the age of 62. He told me he did the calculations and thought it didn’t make sense to wait for 65. So he and Mom were able to live a dream that may not be possible any more these days. They were able to live a comfortable, not extravagant, life in the home they had built, travel whenever they wanted to, and do so for more than 30 years! Their time was theirs, but it wasn’t a time of pure leisure. In this period Mom and Dad decided they wanted to build their dream house, a log home, there on the lot they owned next to the house on Twin Bay. So, in true Roger-Haglund style, he decided to do it right. First, they would build a practice log cabin on the banks of the Berry Creek next to our hunting lodge in Brimson, Minnesota, in the woods about an hour north of Duluth. In the process they would, and did, learn what they needed to know to build their dream house.
So, early one summer, they packed up their little travel trailer and parked it on an old farmstead on the banks of the Mississippi River not far from Palisade, Minnesota. Dad had gotten permission from the DNR, and over that summer, the two of them harvested the tall straight Red Pine logs they would need for the log house and hauled them back to the building site on Twin Bay. The bark had to be stripped from the logs and then they were cured for a year or so before construction began.
Using his small chainsaw like a surgeon’s scalpel or a sculptor’s blade, Dad notched and trimmed the logs to fit like a Lincoln-Logs puzzle. He had welded a boom to fit on the front of their Chevy Blazer so, using the Blazer’s winch, it only took two people to lift the logs and set them in place. It took two summers to finish the project, with many helpers pitching in when we could. The result is a work of art that is a testament to Roger and Faye’s lives and spirits.
Over the course of the remainder of his retirement my dad had numerous tasks and pastimes to keep himself busy. With their motorhome and travel trailer he and Mom traveled all over the country, from Alaska to Florida and from Maine to California. And when he was home, he was always fixing things around the house or working on his two main hobbies, wood carving and knitting, and became a true master at both. From the two businesses he had operated, Dad knew virtually everyone in Isle and the surrounding area, and whenever a friend or relative or even total strangers at times, came to him asking for help, he never refused. I’ll talk more about that later. All through this thread of his life, the love and partnership my two parents shared was a constant.
So that’s the life we’ve come here to remember and celebrate today. I know some of you are here to say goodbye to an old friend and others may be just getting to know him. For the three of us, my sisters and I, now that both of our parents are gone, we’re entering into what my cousin Kurt calls the beginning of a new phase of our Rite of Passage. First there’s the denial, then there’s the grieving, and then the period of feeling like a ship without an anchor. In reality, I think these three stages happen simultaneously and with different levels of intensity for each of us. And for some people, at some point during this process, they receive a clear call to carry on their parent's Mission.
I’m not saying that I’ve received that call, but I’ve thought a lot about whether or not my father had a mission and what it might be. My conclusion is that if Roger had a mission, it was simply to serve, like he served his country in World War II. In his working life here in Isle he served the community as a business man, a provider of goods and services and jobs. In his social life he served the community through his support for his church. At one time or another he served as Scoutmaster to the local Boy Scout Troup, Commander of the local American Legion post and Grand Master of the local Masonic Lodge. In his family, of course, he served us by providing for our needs and loving us. Even his hobbies were used in service at some times – like when he participated in a project to knit sweaters for refugee children.
And as I alluded to a minute ago, after he retired he continued to serve by offering his knowledge, skill, energy and experience to anyone who asked for it. At one point, maybe five or six years ago I remember going with him on a winter day to check out a friend's house – he had promised to keep an eye on it while his friends were in Arizona for the winter. It turned out that there was a problem that day – a valve had failed in the water heater and the utility room was flooded! And so we embarked on the job of replacing it. I helped as much as I could, but in this arena he was the expert. So here he was, this 80-something, lying on the floor in a puddle of water, tugging on a pipe wrench trying to break free a rusty old valve. When we were done I asked him, "Dad, why are you doing this? Surely we could have hired a plumber. And why don't you ask for a little pay for yourself?" His answer was, "Son when I retired, I made a promise to myself that I would never ask for money for anything I did again." As far as I know, he kept his promise to himself.
Don’t get me wrong, my dad was no saint, in fact, he had the capacity to be a grumpy, stubborn Swede, and his motto inside the family (and maybe outside too) was – “I may not always be right, but I am never wrong!” But he was a good man, the best I've ever known – he would never ask anyone else to make a promise like the one he made to himself, but that was his mission. Like I said, I don't know if it's a mission I can take on myself – times are different, my life is different – I'm not part of a community where I've lived for 90 years, my friends are scattered all over the globe…but I sure couldn't ask for something better to aspire to.
I know this has gotten long, probably three times what I wrote and recited for my mom 11 months ago, but I discovered that eulogizing my mother’s spirit came easy – in a way she was a simple and a joyful soul! But now that my dad is gone and I’ve spent the last two weeks thinking about his life and who he was, I’ve realized that even though, on the surface, my dad appeared to be a simple man with simple pleasures and simple relationships, he was not a simple man. The things he had gone through and the responsibilities he had borne in life created a complex man below the surface. And not only that, it’s virtually impossible to summarize Roger’s life without mentioning the more than 70-year love affair he and Faye shared! Of course their marriage had bumps, like any marriage. And of course, with 50, 60, 70 years of practice, they knew how to push each other’s buttons. My dad would be napping peacefully in his favorite chair and my mom couldn’t resist: “Yoo hoo, Roger, wake up!” But in the final years, their love was like a magnetic field that surrounded them – inducing a bit of heaven in everyone who came near. My dad suffered greatly after Mom died. He would hold her picture in his hand and weep, “She was so beautiful, I miss her so much!” But the consolation is that, whether you believe in heaven or not, you have to believe that they are together again now.Goodbye Mom and Dad, we love you!