Friday, December 12, 2008

Ole's Swap Shop - A True Adventure

When we were kids, my two younger brothers and I would spend time every summer with my Grandpa and Grandma Alberts in their home in Northeast Iowa.

My Grandparents lived in Decorah, a town in a region settled by Norwegian immigrants some generations before. The influence of those Norwegian settlers remains today; many of the area residents still speak in Americanized Norwegian accents.

Grandma would take us along when she drove “uptown” to run her errands. Then we would pile back into her car to drive over to the K&S to pick up a few groceries.

I was always drawn to a place I could see from the car as we were driving home from the K&S - Ole’s Swap Shop.

Grandma’s errands never led us to the Swap Shop, but someone pointed Ole out to me once. To a youngster he seemed a scary man, with the look of Norwegian impishness that was common to the older men of the area. It was a look that never admitted, with any certainty, whether you might get a pat on the head or a pinch on the arm.

I did have what one might describe as an indirect encounter with Ole once.

I had been told that Ole and his wife lived just up the hill from Grandma’s house, and that the couple sold things out of their home too. The house was said to be packed with all sorts of cool stuff - swords, army helmets, and animal pelts that seemed to stare down from the rafters of the front room. It was the sort of thing that young boys dream of seeing… touching… maybe even possessing.

So one afternoon, when Grandma was busy with her garden, I struck out with my two younger brothers in tow. We made our way to the alley that led up Pleasant Hill, and began our ascent.

The sides of the alley were overgrown with weeds and volunteer trees, and conditions grew worse as we continued up the hill - but we kept walking.

Near the top of the hill we came to a narrow lane that led down a shallow cut in the hillside. Grass grew between two ribbons of gravel that led past a couple of outbuildings before ending near the small, dark, run-down house.

We stopped at what seemed a safe distance, to deliberate whether this was the place and if we should go on. The trek up that forest of an alley had given us “the willies” and the appearance of the house wasn’t doing much to bolster our confidence. To our excitable young minds it looked like something out of a tale by the Brothers Grimm.

We were torn between the desire to see a real railroad-lantern and the risk, just maybe, of never seeing Grandma again - and her not even knowing where we had gone. As is usually the case with young people, the desire won.

We moved quietly down the lane… past the first outbuilding… and the second. Still moving toward the house, we spotted a sheet of plywood leaning against the side door of that second building. It was a sign - and hand-painted in large white letters it read:

Keep Out!
Or I Will Cut Off Your Ears
And Pickle Them
And Eat Them For Supper!

My youngest brother lost a shoe that day. He was trying to run, but his feet rarely hit the ground as he was being carried between the other two of us.

Many years later, after Ole had passed away and I had grown, I went back to that not-so-scary house and visited with Ole’s widow as I shopped the relics in their home.

The sign was gone - I never mentioned it, or my prior visit.

I’m glad I went back. I treasure the memory of that first adventure, my later visit with Ole’s widow, and the small kerosene lantern that I bought that day.

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