I was born in near the Turtle Mountains of North Dakota, spent some of my early years in San Diego, California, moved to Leadville, Colorado until I went off to college, and after graduation came back to North Dakota where I’ve been for almost 40 years. Not far from where we lived in Colorado are the headwaters of the Arkansas River. The river starts out as a fast-moving stream, roars through gorges, meadows, close to Leadville to Buena Vista to a town called Salida and wends its way east until it meets up with the Mississippi River. I bring this up because for many people the Arkansas River is an anomaly. It seems it should be flowing to the west based on where most people think the continental divide is and yet it goes to the east. That was always a topic of conversation when my uncles would get together and it was by the Arkansas River not far from Salida where I have my first conscious memory of my uncle Calvin.
He lived in the not very large house, and so all the men folk were chased out to go do something until dinner was ready. My dad and I and Calvin and some other folks went out to the fields on a walk through farmland in the middle of what I was to learn was a high desert. I learned about alfalfa and how many cuttings of the crop could be made in a year. I learned about buckwheat and how many farmers raised it not to produce a crop, but to till it back in the soil to increase nutrients. I learned about how Mexican settlers made the land thrive by using acequias as a form of irrigation. I learned that Arapahoe and Jicarilla Apaches sometimes fought in this area. I learned that the town name, that we pronounced Sa-lie-da, meant “exit” or “the way out”. There was a discussion that the land opened up there to the high plains of New Mexico and way to the Santa Fe Trail. Uncle Calvin looked at me and said ”we say it wrong, but no one cares to change”. He arched one eyebrow when he said that as if waiting for a response or a question but I never said a word because the next thing that happened is that my dad and Calvin took out knives and cut willow branches and made willow whistles. It was a really neat thing that actually worked and whistled and I imagine it is a lost art today. I wish I had taken the time to ask them how to make one.
I bring this story up because years later visiting missionaries in the Dominican Republic I saw a sign that said “Salida” and I proudly proclaimed that it meant “exit”. I had pronounced it Sa-lie-da and the missionary laughed and said “you say it wrong. It is pronounced Sa-lee-da. You should come down and go to our Spanish immersion school”. Calvin had tried to teach me that years ago and I should have paid attention. That raised eyebrow was an opening that I missed. I still remember all the visits with my uncles as learning experiences.
These folks were interested in everything. Calvin was particularly interested in astronomy. He had bought a small telescope and set it up in his back yard. He spent quite a few hours looking at the planets and stars and wanted a telescope that would remain steady because it would compensate for the rotation of the earth. He and my dad starting calculating the cosine of the latitude of Salida and I was lost. Later he set the telescope on a Christmas star the Kiwanis had put up on the mountain across the way and brought my mother outside to show her the star. She thought the blue lights on the mountain were the real thing and she exclaimed “I never thought they would look like that”. She said it over and over again until she looked at where the scope was pointed. She was embarrassed of course but it was all in good fun.
I wonder if Calvin knew that not far from where he was born there is now a large sundial clock that allows you to track the hours of the day with the movement of the sun. The place is called Mystical Horizons and has ties to the solstices and equinoxes as its configuration aligns in specific ways with these astronomical events. There’s a sighting tube that helps you pinpoint the North Star and all of this very close to the Seter homestead. It is like a small Stonehenge on the prairie. The place was inspired by a man named Jack Olson who grew up in the Turtle Mountains as well and was another of those folks who were interested in everything. Maybe there is something in the water there.
My uncles could talk about the precession of the equinoxes and the ecliptic. They knew about geology and refrigeration and thermodynamics. They could identify plants and tell you whether they were poison. They were carpenters and masons. They could build walls and barbeque pits out of field stones. They were not fussy however and I don’t want to give the impression that our visits were pedantic and boring, they were anything but. I don’t not want to give the impression that they acted like know it all’s because they didn’t. A know it all would not have let me wait for thirty some years to figure what he meant by “we don’t say it right”. They were polymaths and renaissance people who came from tough stock and their lives were not easy. They spoke with soft Norwegian brogues. Conversations were hard to start but once they got going they were wide ranging. I remember listening to Marsha, Vivian and Margaret talking about literature and poetry and it was like auditing a college course.
There were 17 of them born to Carl and Mina Seter. Four children died soon after birth. Marvin, my dad was the oldest. His brothers were (and I don’t know the order), Howard, Gordon, Clair, Lynn, Vernon, Calvin, and Arthur. Arthur and Vernon are the only ones left. The sisters were Gretchen, Vivian, Shirley, Marsha and Margaret. The last three are left.
They lived right up against the Turtle Mountains and some recall winters when they woke in the morning with snow on their blankets because there was no insulation. Some winters there was so much snow they sledded off the roof. They broke ice for the livestock. My Father was laid across a wood cook stove with blankets because he had pleurisy and could barely breathe. He also spent time in a TB sanatorium even thought they were never sure that he had TB. All the boys cut wood to make fence posts and all worked with the animals and took care of the little ones. They seem to all have a fascination with berries. High bush cranberry I learned are called Pembina. I learned where blue berries grow and not to eat too many raspberries. Travelling with the uncles could be patience trying when they found a June berry patch. They would disappear into the woods for hours and come out with hatfuls of berries searching for buckets to get more. My father claimed that as a small child he saw the last of the Plains Tribes that still travelled to the Turtle Mountains to collect berries and make pemmican. He claimed they travelled with travois and a sort of Red River cart. The carts constantly needed lubrication and they would stop at the sloughs and collect small frogs that they crushed on axles to grease the wheels. I have always wondered if he actually saw them or if he had been told the story and rehearsed it so many times it was as if he lived it. I do know that there are spots where you can see the travois trails that scarred the land if the light is right and you are on the right ground.
My dad would have been 14 when Calvin was born. How much they got to know each other before dad moved off the farm I don’t know. Later in life when I was about 14 we spent quite a bit of time with Calvin. My parents were the sponsors for his children when they were baptized. When Calvin married Glenna Gibson Carpenter she fit right in but we did not have the contact we did after he moved to Texas.
I wrote this because we cannot choose the families that we are born into. We don’t get to choose where we were born, or when or to whom. There are those who will spend most of their life trying to forget their past. There are some of us who will spend their dotage trying to remember the past and the things that our amazing relatives tried to teach us. Years ago I was at a meeting at the headquarters of the Missouri Synod Lutheran church and one of my Pastor friends had come back from some conference in Texas. He said that they had met on the campus of a rather large church there and a gentleman asked if they knew a Pastor Seter from North Dakota. They said yes and they visited for a while and as they were leaving he told them to say hello to Butch. My friends said that the place was immaculate and that my uncle was a gracious host and something of a curator. They were very impressed with his obvious love for his church and witness to Christ. They were also impressed that my nickname is Butch. I still get the business for that. I had not seen or heard from Calvin for some time. I woke up the other day and found that he had died. That makes me sad and at the same time this gives all us a chance to remember the families that we have and all the connections that exist that make up a family tree. These quiet, private, wickedly smart Norwegians that are my family on my dad’s side are part of me and I am a part of them. Calvin’s intense love for his family is a tribute. His love for his church was exemplary. Christ love for him is, as it is for all of us is ineluctable. He didn’t have to excogitate on that as he did on other things. He received it and he shared it. If you don’t know what I said in those last three sentences, look it up. It will make Calvin happy.
AUG 10. 11:00 AM
Peace Lutheran Church
941 W. Bedford Euless Road
Hurst, TX, US, 76053
AUG 10. 01:00 PM
Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery
2000 Mountain Creek Parkway
Dallas, TX, US, 75211