“My dad was honest, hard-working, loving, friendly and handsome,” said my mom, Noma, when she reminisced about her father. “I loved him very much and was sad that he was killed so young.”
John Larson was 56 when he died in a fireworks accident on the Fourth of July 1950.
Annually on that day, residents of Mission, South Dakota, and local farmers gathered for a community picnic at Lydon’s Dam. There were big cottonwood trees to provide shade, and everyone brought food to be shared at noon.
After lunch, a softball game got under way, my mom recalled. “Dad usually pitched for one of the teams: he was ambidextrous, so he could pitch both left- and right-handed.”
In the evening, neighbors had contributed money to purchase fireworks.
“The first display of the night was to be a grand beginning with a firework that looked like the flag,” Noma said. “My dad and Tom Lydon were in charge of lighting the fireworks.”
The two men lit the fireworks and waited for it to go off. When it didn’t, they walked up close, thinking they hadn’t lit the fuse properly. “As they bent over to look, it exploded in my dad’s face and burned Tom.”
The nearest doctor was 45 miles away in Winner and John was taken immediately to the hospital there. My mom and her sister went to the family farm and shut up the chickens, before driving to Winner, too. When they arrived, they learned their father had died.
Born in Laholm, Sweden in 1894, John immigrated with his parents and nine siblings to Nebraska in 1897, where they had purchased a farm. In 1910, the family moved back to Sweden because they had obtained an inheritance.
Later the eldest three boys, John, Leonard and Lars, moved back to America.
Although he never attended high school (eighth grade was apparently the highest schooling he received), John eventually served three terms on the school board. When a place was needed for a teacher to board, he and my grandma shared a room with the four children, so the teacher could have a room of her own.
“My father loved to read and especially loved National Geographic,” my mom remembers.
The family had a radio that was powered by a car battery, and when they bought a windcharger, it upgraded the radio. Not unlike California today, “If there wasn’t any wind, all electrical use that wasn’t necessary was forbidden,” Noma said.
John had a team of horses, May and June, that pulled the wagon, so the family could pick the corn. “When Neal [her oldest brother] was in the Army, dad, mom and I would go out to pick the corn,” Noma said. “We could do four rows at a time. I would take the row closest to the wagon, mom the next row and dad would do the two farthest from the wagon.”
Her dad smoked hand-rolled cigarettes, but “he only smoked in the house because there was a fire danger because everything was so dry. He used Copenhagen chew when he was working in the field.”
When he took cattle to Sioux City to sell, “one time he brought back two dresses for mom. I think those were the first store bought dresses she had ever had.”
My mom remembers that in 1933, a severe drought hit the mid-section of the United States — and that produced destructive swarms of grasshoppers and dust storms.
“I remember going up and down the rows in the garden with a dish towel trying to keep the grasshoppers from eating the vegetables,” Noma said.
Even scarier were the dry lightning storms that occurred in July 1936. “We would get lightning, which started fires, but no rain,” Noma said, noting that her father kept barrels of water and gunny sacks ready to go to fight fires. “He even moved his bed, so he could see to the south, north and west.
“There were no phones, which meant we couldn’t alert neighbors. So, fires could get a good start.”
Her father, unlike many in the 1930s, wouldn’t take any government help. “My father was independent and insisted he could take care of his family without aid,” Noma said. “One thing dad and mom instilled in their children was that hard work never hurt anyone. If you wanted something you had to work for it.”
On Father’s Day, we remember not only the dads, but their fathers and grandfathers who have gone before them and thank them for all they’ve done.
Not only have these men worked when they didn’t feel like it, but they have provided for the family – sometimes under trying conditions. Most importantly they have consistently given love to their children – and there may be no more valiant job or crucial undertaking in life.