Thursday, February 26, 2015


The History Channel series, “Vikings”--now entering its third season--has just as much violence and almost as much sex as “Game of Thrones,” with the added recommendation that it is a dramatization of real events.  And the even higher commendation that it is about my great-great-great-great-great grandfather and his wife, my grandmother, the Viking Shieldmaiden. (More about that later.)

Of course I must boldly underscore “dramatization,” but if the writers of the series have taken a bit of dramatic license, they have done so with the dusty books of history open before them.  The first season of the series is centered on the Viking raid of the monastery at Lindisfarne, England, in 793 A.D., which is also the year (and the event) that historians cite as the beginning of “the Viking era.” After watching the episode, I looked up the year 793 in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles; it was immediately apparent that the “Vikings” screenwriter had done the same:
on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter.
Further reading in these Chronicles even corroborates the detail, in the show’s story line, of how the Viking raiders had no sooner pulled their longboats onto the beach than they surprised and attacked the retinue of sheriff’s men who approached them, mistaking the invaders for traders.

And Alcuin, an English priest at the court of Charlemagne, writes to the Bishop of Lindisfarne:
Your tragic sufferings daily bring me sorrow, since the pagans have desecrated God's sanctuary, shed the blood of saints around the altar, laid waste the house of our hope and trampled the bodies of the saints like dung in the street.
And that is pretty much how “Vikings” depicts the action. It is skillfully written as gripping viewing for a 2015 television audience. Gripping, but, it seems, not exaggerated.

Viking leader Ragnar Lodbrok. (Those who know Caryl's
family will tell you that he looks a lot like a Nasby.)
The Vikings are variously described in the chronicles and history books as “Norsemen,” (Norwegians) and “Danes.”  Since these labels also define the lineage out of which Caryl and I have sprung, I have taken to playing a little game--while watching the series--whereby I identify a particularly strong (or beautiful) warrior (one who survives the battle, of course) and claim him or her as Caryl’s or my ancestor. The fierce farmer-King Ragnar Lodbrok, and his wife, the Shieldmaiden Lagertha—who have so far survived
The Viking Shieldmaiden Lagertha
to be the parents of many children—have thus been added to the ancient pantheon of our family: our great-great-greats. (The mathematics of heredity and genealogy show that, in terms of our relationship to real characters living at that time, this is most likely true.)

In claiming the heroes and winners as part of my own line, I am in good company. Robert Ferguson, in his excellent, scholarly, and very readable new history, “The Vikings,” points out that the annals of many early chroniclers, although a source of good general knowledge, are “prejudiced by the author’s inclination to exaggerate the importance of members of his own family in the commission of important deeds.”

Walt, an elderly member of the congregation I served in Anchorage many years ago, was a man of thoroughly Norwegian ancestry. He was a gentle, soft-spoken guy, but his eyes would actually gleam when he got to bragging about how the Vikings literally “seeded” all of western civilization. I, too, am fascinated by “family” tales of world-wide exploration and, yes, conquest. The Age of the Vikings that began in 793 continued until 1066, when—rather than coming to an end—it transmogrified into the conquest of the English by the Normans, who were somewhat more civilized (and Frenchified!) descendants of the Vikings by another name. Some historians suggest that the Norman Conquest was the most complete overturning of one people by another in all of recorded history.

Do you hear that? Like my friend Walt, I’m slipping ever-so-slightly into bragging. When seen through the swordplay-loving eyes of the armchair adventurer in me, it is easy to overlook the fact that, as many historians point out, the experience of being confronted by longboats filled with exotic, armed warriors coming out of the mist of the sea into the local cove or quiet river estuary to wreak "rapine and slaughter" was an experience of violence, fear, and, yes, terror.

The ancestral Scandinavian story with which Caryl’s and my generation are most familiar is that of our doughty great-grandparents leaving the beautiful but impossibly tiny or rocky crofts of Norway and Denmark to settle in the unbelievably vast (160 acres!) and rich prairie homesteads of the Midwest, and of the earnest young pastors they quickly summoned to bring their church to them--a church in which their descendants hold sacramental feasts of the holy food of immigrants and seafarers: Lutefisk and Lefse.

It’s a story that I love and that is in my blood. But I am grateful to “Vikings” and the History Channel for reminding me that--in addition to (and before) that of our pious pioneer grandparents Johan and Ellen and Ole and Beret--my veins also contain the blood of King Ragnar the Fierce. And the Viking Shieldmaiden Lagertha. "Grandma." 

The Sognefjord, in Norway, out of which the Vikings sailed
to invade England, and through which our grandparents
sailed in their journey to America.
In the mountains above the Sognefjord. The beautiful but
impossibly rocky Nesbo farmstead from which
Caryl's Great-Grandfather emigrated in 1878.

Monday, February 16, 2015


A politician looks to the next election; a statesman looks to the next generation. ~unknown

I enjoy paying taxes; with them I buy civilization. ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes

Every once in a while, when I ponder something I have just learned or when I am the beneficiary of a marvel of modern science or medicine, a small light bulb will flash over my head, lit up by the idea that this thing I have just heard about or experienced was probably the result of somebody’s life-long research in a lonely laboratory.  I have such thoughts in regard to something as commonplace as the wireless magic that allows me (alas!) to instantaneously purchase and possess the Bach cantata I have just heard on the radio, or—perhaps more profoundly—in appreciation and awe of the
Although the robot looks like he's ready to take over,
the doctor actually performs the surgery!
robotic equipment used in my recent successful surgery. (I was relieved to learn—pre-surgery—that it was actually the doctor, and not the robot, who would be conducting the operation!)

“Life-long research,” and “lonely laboratory” may be something of a romantic exaggeration—but not much of one, in many historical cases. And in this modern era, their successors are to be found in both the gleaming laboratory filled with research assistants and the one-man garage workshop.

According to last week’s episode of PBS’ “American Experience,” laboratories and one-man sheds each contributed to the breakthrough that led to the modern treatment of tuberculosis in the twentieth century. Although the disease is statistically the biggest killer in human history, the documentary was titled “The Forgotten Plague,” because of how thoroughly (if not completely) it has been eradicated. Because of research.

I’ve watched almost every “American Experience “ that has aired in the last thirty years; I had decided not to watch this one because it seemed to me that it would be depressing. In any event, I sat down, became engrossed, and watched the last ten minutes of the program with tears in my eyes. The tears were not for the millions of victims stretching back through the millennia; they were rather something like a delayed reaction to being told that one had been reprieved of a death sentence. That sounds a bit dramatic, but there is a bit of drama—selfishly, for me and my generation—in the timing of this saga: After rampaging through the human population for 6,000 years, the first effective vaccine was administered in the early 1940s, clinical screening tests in schools shortly after that, and I was born in 1946.  As the narration of the documentary caused that realization to wash over me, another reprieve came to mind: I was diagnosed with—and eventually recovered from—a “mild” case of polio in 1950, when I was three years old. This was at the time the Salk vaccine was achieving its first successful trials. Although I am fuzzy as to what part—if any—the vaccine played in my recovery, it was soon universally administered to school children, relieving what has been described as the most frightening epidemic in history (especially for parents).

It is safe to say that each of us, dear reader, can subscribe to or add to this list of potential terminal illnesses from which we or our children or grandchildren have been spared. (We can all add smallbox to the list.)

Robert Koch, 1843-1910
Robert Koch, of Germany, won the Nobel Prize in 1905 for his groundbreaking discovery of the bacterial cause of tuberculosis. (His 1882 presentation demonstrating his discovery is considered by many to be “the most important medical lecture in history,” according to the Nobel Prize Organization.) His American disciple, Edward Trudeau, did painstaking follow-up work for years in something like a garage (actually an outbuilding he added to his home for the purpose). Jonas Salk worked in a laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh before taking advantage of a larger space at the fledgling National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. To read the stories of the findings (indeed, the careers) of all of these men is to read a history of research. Science. From Robert Koch’s lab demonstration in 1882 to the first successful tuberculosis inoculation in 1941 is a lot of research. For the most part, government-sponsored or academically sponsored or
Jonas Salk (1914-1995), in his laboratory
publicly sponsored research.

In my neck of the woods, the University of Minnesota is currently lobbying for more money for research. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker is suggesting that the budget of the great University of Wisconsin should be cut by three million dollars, and that professors should help by just “teaching more classes.” Nationwide, there is a movement among a significant number of politicians to cut taxes to the minimum for the sake of cutting taxes to the minimum.  It is not my intention to be churlish when I suggest that—whatever their political stripe—these politicians have something in common with me: They are alive (or healthy) as a result of the very approach to clinical and other research that their short-sighted proposals would cut. All they need to do is recall their birth year, and then read the history of research.  Somewhere in there they will find a “life-long researcher in a lonely lab.” Or maybe a huge university medical facility. Perhaps the light bulb will come on.