Why do we learn things too late from a dear person’s obituary, as in the case of my Great Aunt Isabelle Aslakson? I already knew she enjoyed “rock star status” in her small town of New Rockford, North Dakota. Many people appreciated Izzy for the spunky, former lady pilot and historian that she was. I know she was highly revered for what her late husband had started 50 years ago as a celebration of old steam threshing machines. She owned at least three of these dinosaur tractors that need an expert engineer’s know-how and a warrior’s bravery to start and run. Izzy’s grandson, my Uncle Leigh or others would drive her steam engine tractors in the parade of the fairgrounds for this yearly fall festival event. I was told when the 40 year reunion happened in September 1998, all the steam engine tractors blew their whistles at a set time, the deafening bellows were heard at distances of over 10 miles away.
Yesterday I was rather melancholy because I was missing the bitter-sweet family event of 50 years of celebrating steam engines and imagining what they would do to celebrate this time. Seems they celebrated Izzy’s passing in a poignant way. I found this out from my Mom of how the organizers honored my Great Aunt and Uncle Aslakson, (please read to the very end).
In tribute to my Aslakson relatives, I proudly wore my sweatshirt that reads “Central North Dakota – Steam Threshers Reunion.” I bought my shirt last year when I gave a research presentation about another quiet but hardworking Norwegian relative of mine, S.A. Olsness. As it turns out, my unassuming Great Aunt Izzy died on Sept. 15 on the very start of the day of the 50 year reunion. Because her funeral happened to coincide with the steam threshers reunion, my aunt and uncle from North Carolina, my other uncle and aunt from Montana were there to celebrate her long life along with my parents and brother Tony. Since they had earlier arranged to be at the big event, now it was not only a happy but sad one for them. Izzy was truly a pioneer of women in the sky since she had been my Great Uncle Ole’s only female student in an aviation class back in the early 1940s. They were married September 8, 1941 and Izzy had been a widow for over 30 years, Ole died in 1977.
Great Aunt Izzy was always so self-deprecating whenever I asked questions about her life. She knew of my desire to research more about her late husband, my Great Uncle Ole Aslakson and write up about his life as a pilot, mechanic, and farmer. Apparently Ole knew everything there was to know about the inner workings of the steam engine, he was a highly esteemed mechanic. He had built his own plane according to what S.A. Olsness wrote about him in his many diary entries concerning the Aslakson family. As a true lover of history, Izzy wanted to help me out in my desire to ferret out these little known facts about her husband. Together we surveyed the contents of the museum in New Rockford where she volunteered her time. I found out later from people at an aviation museum in Fargo, North Dakota that she actually had the old log books that Uncle Ole kept of his flying days. They were squirreled away in her house. I hope one day to see these flight logs since I talked to a few old pilots who remembered Ole and had hunted with him. I seem to recall one said that Ole had engineered a rig on his plane so that he could shoot fox from the cockpit and still maintain altitude.
I am fortunate to know a little bit more about Izzy because my Mom and I would see her every Memorial Day weekend as we made our customary day trip together to the Grandfield Lutheran church graveyard two hours west of us. That is where Great Aunt Izzy is now buried next to her husband, my Great Uncle Ole Aslakson. I will always remember Izzy spading up dirt at the cemetery at Grandfield, close to Sheyenne, North Dakota because she would carefully plant geraniums next to her late husband, Ole, and other Aslaksons in the family. She was known to have a green thumb and had a garden even last year at the age of 90. She was always interested in reading books. As she got older, she became more deaf and so perhaps her curiosity about everything and her active lifestyle is how she maintained her youthful appearance. I don’t know how many 90 year olds keep up with their loved ones, but Aunt Izzy had e-mail and she would write me. I have many short messages from her still in my inbox and she would always call them EMs. Maybe she learned to abbreviate words from her pilot days.
Izzy hopefully got my last letter I sent from Kazakhstan about 3 weeks ago by snail mail but just in case I had asked her daughter Kristy to print out the same so it would get to her sooner. I knew from Kristy that Izzy was failing in health but I hoped that she would hold out long enough to celebrate the 50 year reunion. Seems her life ended just when it was supposed to, while people from all over the U.S. and Canada could celebrate her long, illustrious life. She was known not only as the widow of the man who had started the Steam Thresher’s reunion, but she was sweet and dear Aunt Izzy to me.
The following is the last Izzy wrote on Jan. 3, 2008, eight months ago.
K. I think either tomorrow or Saturday will be O K it you want to come over, but I don’t know how much information we will be able to find in that amount of time. I have been unusually busy this morning, with phone calls, oil delivery for furnace, paying bills, etc. Let me know, if you can, or if you have ti me to do so! Happy New Year! Belated, Isabelle
The following is what my Mom wrote to summarize the event I wish I had been able to attend but is yet another family reunion that I missed because I teach half way around the world in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
There was a very emotional moment for many of us in the crowd at the Steam Thresher’s Show when a small yellow airplane flew over and circled back over the grounds in honor of the founder of the show, Uncle Ole and Izzie.