An Anecdotal Tribute

Two pairs of brothers backpacking in 1987.  I’m on the left next to my younger brother Eric.  My dad, Tod, is on the right, next to his younger brother, my uncle Bob

Dr Robert Olson, 1940-2022

It is with great sadness that I report the passing of my uncle, Dr. Robert Olson.  After a lengthy battle with multiple myeloma that included periods of remission, he succumbed on September 15, 2022.  He was a remarkable man, and there will be many tributes that capture his many talents, his professional contributions, his passion for gardening, and his strong friendships and family relations.  They will all be inadequate, as is any attempt to capture the essence of a person’s life.

But to the list of inadequate tributes, I would like to add mine, an anecdote that I wrote a few years ago following a Thanksgiving dinner, one of many large and boisterous holiday gatherings that he loved to host, with his daughters handling cooking and logistics.  I was able to share it with Bob in a letter, at a time of better health.  He was an important influence on me during a formative period of my life.

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Indirect Endowment

[I write this not to gain credit or accolades, but as an attempt to inspire others who may have been blessed by similar good fortune or have been more successful than expected in saving for their futures to consider what to do with their “excess”.] 

My dad once told me that he was planning to “spend his children’s inheritance”.  It was his lighthearted way of saying that he was not going to restrict his spending during retirement.  He intended to pursue his passions for inventive projects and for philanthropic activity, especially for educational causes.  And that his children should continue saving for their own financial security.  None of us expected any different.

Well, he failed.  Despite his efforts to create the ultimate ham radio station, and to support his grandchildren through college, he left a surplus.  Not a Warren Buffet or Bill Gates level of wealth, but certainly more than we expected from a man who worked for a salary and who, while we were growing up, paid the mortgage by keeping our daily expenses to a minimum.

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Salt Flat Tracks

1968 was a big year for me.  I turned 15 and I went on a date, my first, with a girl who would later–45 years later, become my late-life partner and constant companion, road trips included.  But that is another story.  Earlier in that big year I experienced my very first road trip adventure.

My uncle Bob had completed his medical school training and had been accepted for the next stage on his path towards becoming a practicing physician:  an internship at Oakland Medical Center.  In 1968, Oakland California was a long way from Minneapolis Minnesota.  Yes, an expensive plane ride could get you there in three hours, but if you needed to bring more than a weight-limited suitcase, a three-day overland drive was required.

And Bob was fully ready for it, having recently acquired a 1968 model year Ford Mustang convertible, into which he packed the possessions that would support him for the next year in a remote setting.  The car was symbolic, a vehicle to take him to that next phase of his career.  It was freeing.  With the top down, the wind in his hair evoked that sense of traveling to far off destinations holding unknown new experiences.  It was a big year for him too.

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Dad’s Dressing

With apologies to Newman’s Own

My mother managed a large household in a small house on a tight budget.  She had five children within a decade during the 1950s.  Armed with her Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, she prepared dinner every evening for a table of seven and had it ready by the time Dad came home from work.  Diet and meal recommendations in the US at that time were meat, starch, vegetable.  The food pyramid was yet to be invented, but family traditions provided the same guidance.

Our family dinners were always accompanied by a green salad: iceberg lettuce, carrots, celery and tomatoes, tossed into a large bowl and passed around the table for us to fill our individual plates or salad bowls.  My mother’s care in stretching her self-imposed grocery budget resulted in a few interesting dinner rules, one of them being that no one was permitted to take more than two slices of tomato in their salad portion.  (Another consequence of her frugality was that frozen orange juice was diluted with an additional measure of water, permitting us all to have a full juice glass at breakfast).

There was only one option for dressing the salad.  My mother would never consider buying those expensive bottled dressings because my dad could make a French-like salad dressing at home.  We would often watch him do this just before dinner.  A bottle would be fitted with a funnel, into which he would deliver various amounts of spices from the small spice jars kept on a lazy susan in the cupboard.  It was quantitatively uncalibrated; he’d just shake some into the funnel, give the lazy susan a turn, and see what else was available to add to the mix.  He would then add ketchup, followed by vinegar, oil, and water.  On occasion he would add drops of Worcestershire or lemon juice.  The bottle would then be capped and vigorously shaken to mix the ingredients into a tart and flavorful concoction that would eventually separate back out to something clearish floating over something reddish.  Shaking to remix the dressing before putting it on our salad was part of the dinner ritual as we passed the bottle around the table.

We all grew up with the understanding that dinner was always accompanied by a tossed salad, and there was only one dressing for it—Dad’s.  Over time of course, we grew up and left home and were forced to explore the commercial options for salad dressings.  They always seemed to come up short- too sweet or too thick or not enough tang. There was always some deficiency compared to Dad’s.  Later on, at extended family gatherings we would insist that he bring his dressing to provide an option at the salad station.  At some point, we pressured him to write down how to make it so that we could, in principle, reproduce it.

He yielded to that pressure.  To somehow quantify the arbitrary shakes into the funnel must have been an interesting exercise for him; it took a few iterations before he was satisfied.  He recorded his measures and supplemented them with an elaborate procedure to put them together.  This is not the technique I watched as a kid (which was quite simple– just shake the bottle), but the recipe at least gives a glimpse of how he thought it should be done.

I recently encountered that recipe and made a few batches of Tod’s Homemade Salad Dressing.  It was close, but did not match exactly my long-ago fond memories of it.  On the other hand, there may not be anything that would match those memories.

Realizing that perfect reproduction was impossible, I made an adaptation that scales the recipe to fit a standard size bottle and utilizes only two distinct measuring tools.  I invite you to try it.  Feel free to make any modifications you think might improve on it.  Dad would.


Tod’s Homemade Salad Dressing
Thor’s variation, using only two measures and fitting in a 16-oz bottle.

Ingredients:
1 tsp    celery salt/ground celery seed
1 tsp    onion salt/onion powder
1 tsp    paprika
½ tsp   salt (fill the tsp measure halfway)
½ tsp    black pepper
½ tsp   lemon pepper
1 cup   vinegar, in two ½ cup parts
½ cup   ketchup
¼ cup   oil (fill the ½ cup measure halfway)
¼ cup   water

Directions:
Add the spices to the bottle.
Add ½ cup of vinegar and shake to dissolve spices in the vinegar.
Add the ketchup, probably using a funnel.  Shake to mix.
Add the oil, rinsing the ketchup through the funnel.  Shake.
Add the remaining vinegar, rinsing the oil through the funnel. Shake.
Add the water. 
Shake. 
Shake.
Shake.

Lower calorie option:  omit the oil, increase the water.

Other optional ingredients to consider:  Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, garlic…

The Wall of Books

This is adapted from a tribute that my father made at the memorial of his father, Theodore Olson, after whom we are both named, who died in 2002 at the age of 97.  I post it here for the online access of posterity, and to provide a portrayal of the scientific mindset of a family patriarch that influenced not only his students, but his entire family and several generations beyond.  Here is my father’s rendition of our family history.


The start of this story goes back almost 150 years. In about 1860 in Norway, Hans Opjörden left home and went to Oslo. Hans had the misfortune to be the second son in his family, and that meant that his older brother would inherit the family farm. Hans left home and headed off to Oslo, where he went to work in a shipyard building boats. After a while he decided he really wanted to sail on the boats instead of just building them. At this time Norway was a province of Sweden.  Shrewdly, Hans changed his name from Opjörden to Olson (with a Swedish spelling) and got Swedish sailing papers.

He went on several voyages and along the way befriended a shipmate named Peter Magnus Peterson.  We can imagine a conversation between them based on what subsequently happened.  Hans confided that he’d really wanted to be a farmer but had no prospects of getting land—and that being a sailor was not his “dream job”, but was good paying employment. 

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The Silent Key

The Vibroplex Deluxe Original telegraph key, first manufactured in 1939.

I was moved recently by an unexpected item encountered while clearing out my parents’ home.  They both passed away in recent years leaving, as we all will, a lifetime of accumulated possessions.  Perhaps it is a rite of passage that we all mark our parents’ passing with tributes and shared memories, and then respectfully distribute their earthly possessions.

Those possessions usually include home furnishings of a previous era, and clothing that might fit but doesn’t match anyone’s current style or fashion.  Many kitchen utensils will find their way to donation centers.  Easy items to dispatch are those for which there are few memories.  The more difficult are those with sentimental attachments.  

My dad was an amateur radio operator, a “ham”, which is a term for the enthusiasts across the world that participate in this form of communication, ever since Marconi sent his first wireless message.  There is a broad and varied number of these practitioners of a discipline that requires technical expertise and skill, and a desire to share their experiences “over the air”.  

I grew up in this culture, listening to the chirps and squawks of my dad’s radio receiver late into the nights.  One of the essential ham skills was to tap out Morse code messages with a telegraph key — the first level of an amateur radio license (“Novice Class”) required proficiency at five words a minute.  My dad was extremely skilled at this and could signal at much higher rates.  As one improved in this skill, the limitations moved from brain-hand coordination to the mechanical key itself.

This limitation was recognized early on, and various ingenious adaptations of the simple momentary contact key were invented.  Some worked better than others.  Over the course of my dad’s ham career he acquired various makes and models of telegraph keys with which he competed in amateur radio contests, to see who could make contact with the most other hams in a weekend.

His amateur radio station equipment will find homes with other ham operators, but his set of telegraph keys were distributed to his children, all of whom have those memories of dot-dash Morse code beeps in the night.  This is the item I received:  on a beautiful chrome-plated base, the key itself is a delicate collection of mechanical components, carefully balanced and customized to the hand of the operator.  I am told that operators have a distinct “signature” that can be recognized when listening to the delivery of Morse code, each hand having its own rhythm and style.

This identifies the manufacturer, Vibroplex, and proudly displays its serial number and patented status.  The logo is a lightning bug, carefully anodized or painted red on the brass plate, a feature maintained even on current models.  This may be a collector’s item as there are many similar to be found at http://www.vibroplexcollector.net.

The ham community has an endearing term of respect for their fellow amateurs who have since passed away: Silent Key.  It is a reference to the early days of telegraphy where the letters SK were sent to designate the end of a transmission, and then the station would become silent.  

There is a national silent key registry,  the cumulative obituaries of the ham community, where you can look up life accounts of past amateurs, including my dad, K0TO.

His station is silent now, but my memories of it will remain until I too become silent.

Full House

Eight years later, we re-create a photo given as a Christmas gift to our parents in 2011.

Growing up in a home headed by a “ham” (an amateur radio operator), we often would hear my dad’s radio conversations with remote, distorted, and static-filled voices.  In one such contact, the usual exchange of technical banter was augmented by a personal one.  Dad mentioned that he had a “full house”, the poker hand, in describing his children: three boys, and a pair of girls.  

We all overheard such over-the-air dialogs, as well as evenings filled with the clicks and beeps of Morse code.  Such are the experiences of the children of a zealous radio amateur.

But it has been a very long time since we were all together for any extended time under the same roof.  My dad’s Morse code telegraph key went silent a few years ago, and it is the second passing of a parent that now brings us together to figure out the final disposition of their possessions.

The last time we spent this much time in such proximity we were on a family backpacking trip in 1972.  It was a wonderful and new shared experience, but as teenagers there was always plenty to bicker about.  Some things never change.

And although we still sometimes act like squabbling siblings, the things we argue about are no longer the outrages of personal space violations (“Mo-om, he’s looking at me funny”).  Instead, they are the banalities of politics.  On the things that matter, we all seem to agree!

Over the course of four days we came together under the roof of the house our parents enjoyed at the end of their lives and we applied our individual strengths and skills to the task at hand.  We unearthed familiar artifacts, discovered old photos, revived faded memories, and re-told family stories as the contents of a very full house were processed by the “full house” of siblings.