January 26, 2021

Reflections on Growing up Olsen

(On November 11, 2009, I videotaped my uncle, Eric RP Olsen telling stories about his life in Marquette, Michigan. This post is but a segment of this recording and in Eric Olsen's own words.)

I have learned that if I become a success it’s because of my parents.

I was born on July 17, 1939 to Emil and Edna Olsen. My dad came to this country from Norway on a whaling vessel when he was 14-years-old back in the days when kids worked. On his second voyage on the Whaler he got sick and they put him off in New York City and he ended up on Ellis Island, recovered and made his way to Minnesota and from there to Chicago where he met my mother. Dad sailed for years on barges on the Great Lakes. 

In 1918, everyone had the flu and this killed an awful lot of people. Dad quit his job on the Great Lakes as a skipper to come home to take care of the family. 

I had four brothers - Clayton, who died of diphtheria at two-years-old, Donald, Richard who retired as a skipper on the Great Lakes ... who became a pilot on the Great Lakes, Russell who had nothing to do with the water. My brother Don (the Barefoot Norwegian's father) was raised his first couple years on board a ship - back then you could be on these vessels. He walked the decks of these Great Lakes freighters where my mother was a cook and my father a chief engineer. When Donald was about three-years-old he got off the vessel and had to learn to walk all over again. As he got older he still didn’t walk very well. He had walked decks too long. I also had two sisters - Janice and Betty.

I was born just before the start of WWII and it was 4-5 years before I got acquainted with my brothers. My sister Betty was a different matter. My mother became sick and lost her eye sight for a short period of time after I was born so Betty quit school and took over raising me. My first remembrance of her was that she was like my mother, she took care of me.

My father worked at the Cliff Dow Chemical Company for a short period of time so we had a company house down in the Furnace location in Marquette. It was quite a life. My favorite memory of growing up in the furnace location was the start of my life of crime. 

My friend Paulie Pringle and I were about three-years-old and we use to go lay under the porch. When the women put the milk bottles on the porches, Paulie and I would take our cut of the money in the bottles. Then we would head up to the north end tavern where they sold these little packages of six cookies for 3 cents apiece. We would spend all our money on these cookies. I’m sure Paulie talked me into it - it just doesn’t seem like a thing I would do, but I did.

We moved from there out to the farm in Big Bay where dad got a job with the Ford plant and got back into his old field of engineering. He was the operating engineer at the plant and kept the steam engines running. 

We lived on the farm for a short time and there are a lot of memories there. I was about four-years-old and I remember my mother being a wonderful person - to me she was a saint and took good care of us. But she had one failing – she loved to play poker. We lived in the country and were 20 miles from the nearest town and a mile from the nearest neighbor. My aunt and uncle, Dupra, owned a place up the road and they use to sponsor a poker game once a week and my mother would go play. My younger sister and I would have to traipse along with her. 

One day we were coming back home and there was something in a cherry tree right behind the house. My mother did the lady-like thing and went in and got the shotgun. I held the flashlight and she shot what she thought was a bear, and thank God it wasn’t my dad up there. It was a porcupine. We washed it out and the next morning we had some rather suspicious meat on the table, which I am sure was porcupine.

 After about six months we got a company house.

Living in the Upper Peninsula we ate some strange things. Porcupine, never ate a skunk, but we had muskrat because my father trapped these and we regularly ate and loved them. He use to shoot geese and I didn’t like eating a goose because I hated to clean them.  We lived on wild game and it was amazing – everything from snapping turtles to venison.  Some people say it was a terrible way to live but I learned to really appreciate a good beef steak now, or even a poor beef steak. 

After living on the farm for a while my dad got a company house in Big Bay. I remember the day we arrived in Big Bay - every kid in town was in the front yard. Dad had been there for six months living in a little shack down in a place called Squaw Beach. He made every kid in town a sling shot and sling, like David used to shoot Goliath. My dad was unusual in that he could use a sling and was good with it. Every kid in town had a sling in his back pocket along with a sling shot. The kids were all just waiting because they knew I must have been something special to have a father like dad. Those were some wonderful, formative years and I was learning things that I never realized would come in handy later in my life.

The first thing I remember my dad doing is taking me with him on his trap line when I was about six-years-old because I was interested in that. He came home and had half a dozen muskrats and he said  

“you watch me trap enough you should know how to do this.” 

So, I started setting my own traps in a ditch around the Ford plant – a place I could walk to. The first year I caught about 30 muskrats and that’s when they brought in $2.50 to $3.00 apiece. I was the best paid first grader. The other kids were living on a quarter allowance, if they got an allowance. Some of these people never saw a quarter, or a beef steak.  But I was making pretty good money trapping.

Now my mother was a very frugal person and when I got my first check from Sears and Roebuck of $18.75 I had to buy a darn war bond. This continued for many years and even in high school I was buying bonds. The benefit of this story as when I bought my first car I cashed in bonds and paid for it. Mom had that in mind when she made me buy these bonds.   

Those were interesting days and Big Bay was an interesting place.



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