October 12th…“WHAT WISDOM DID YOU GLEAN FROM AN EXTENDED FAMILY MEMBER? LIKE AN UNCLE OR SOMEONE.”
Spectacular, undulating Northern Lights in the frigid, ebony night sky. Snowmobiling at midnight with a full moon so bright that its reflection off the pristine white of the snow made the joy of the moment feel like daytime. Moose coming out of the forest to run alongside the car…….these, and other scenarios, are just an inkling of the wonder of the life that was lived by my Uncle Barney Hollembaek.
Even as children, our lives intersect with those whose persona and life-force manifest sets them in a class of a “folk hero” type of being. That was exactly what I perceived in the life of my Uncle Byron J. “Barney” Hollembaek. Not only was he a tall, strapping man in his physical stature, but he carried himself in a tall way, also, by how he walked and talked and did business, as well. Without a doubt, he was a special man that I found to be very impressionable and fascinating in my young life. My father’s lovely sister, Ileen, married Barney either during, or shortly after World War II and they saw life together in the wild 49th State of Alaska.
The pleasant city of Palmer, Alaska was hometown to the Hollembaek family when I had the great adventure to travel there in 1972. Barney owned and operated an agricultural supply store in town. If my memory serves me right, it was called “Knik Farm Supply”. That thriving farming community was nestled up against the Chugach Mountain Range. That jagged mass of mountains had been launched straight into the sky by Almighty God Himself with majestic Pioneer Peak looking down from its lofty 6,000 foot perch.
Alaska was, and still is a growing State in our grand nation. As agricultural needs in that area of Alaska arose, Uncle Barney would make trips down to the “Lower 48” (States) to purchase machinery, supplies and even animals that his clients needed for their Alaskan farms and businesses to flourish. On one such buying trip, that brought our uncle through southern Minnesota, we found that Barney had purchased a number of cows called “Brown Swiss”. Something in his schedule necessitated that the “Brown Swiss” had to be kept safe and secure for a short while until Barney could arrange for them to complete their journey to the “North Star State”. Our beloved farmer friend, Harry Bauman, had some barn space and offered to bed those bovines for whatever time was needed before shipping could happen. That evening, after our dairy herd had been milked, we followed Uncle Barney’s monstrously large cattle truck to Harry’s farm. There I stood, bathed in a single yard light and in complete awe of the immense size of these gentle giants of the bovine family as they were unloaded from Barney’s big cattle truck and into Harry’s barn. In later years, I researched and found out that this sturdy breed of animal was first bred in Switzerland and, therefore, could survive the numbing cold of Alaskan winters just as their ancestors did on the mountain slopes that were shadowed by the mighty Matterhorn Mountain.
In the Spring of 1972, I was a young buck of 18 years when my folk hero, Uncle Barney, flew into the nearby airport of Portland, Oregon. We were thrilled to pick him up at the airport and give him a heapin’ helpin’ of our hospitality at our home across the State Line in Battle Ground, Washington. Besides busying himself with business nearby, Barney had come to our home to retrieve and personally drive a 1969 Ford Mustang all the way back to Alaska. We had been keeping the car safe for Barney’s son, Scott, who had dropped it off with us and flown to Hawaii for a construction job. As visiting went back and forth that evening, Uncle Barney turned to me and said, “Hey Elliott! Would you like to ride along with me back up to Palmer and keep me company on the journey?” OHHHH BOYYY!!! Would I!!! Hot dog!!
What a chance for adventure! As a Senior in school that year, my high school was out on Spring Break anyway, so I had those days open for fun. And, as far as my Box Boy employment at the local grocery store, my manager gave me his blessings to take the opportunity and gave me at least a week off, too! I was STOKED!!!
The Old Testament Book of Proverbs 19:20 plays a role in each Christian’s life as we have the opportunity to learn wisdom from, not only our parents but, other elders who have experienced so much more in this journey of life than we have. In this case, my dear uncle taught me so many things on that adventure-filled drive that we shared together. Just one of those nuggets of knowledge had to do with winter season driving techniques. Early in our journey, as we crossed the Canadian border from Washington State, Barney said that he’d rather drive a car when the temperature is 30 degrees BELOW zero rather than 30 degrees ABOVE zero. The logic behind that preference was that super cold temperatures help to make the tires literally “stick” to the road for better traction. One morning, as we exited our motel room, I was about to find out, first hand, how that sharing of his wisdom was going to be applied. With breakfast in our tummies, we saw that the temperature was right at the freezing mark of 32 degrees…..a rather jeopardizing omen. The morning sun was going to be adding its warmth to road conditions…..which was another key for trouble. As far as our chariot, my Cousin, Scott Hollembaek, had fine-tuned the engine of that ’69 Mustang to the zenith of performance perfection. So, needless to say, Uncle Barney and I were climbing into a blue powerhouse of pulsating pistons just yearning to have us “put the pedal to the metal!!”…..but, hopefully, not over a cliff. Barney, like a kid in candy shop, punched that Mustang through her gears and away we went down the Alaska/Canadian (AlCan) Highway.
I’m so thankful to the Lord, that Uncle Barney was at the wheel that day and not this ignorant kid. I wouldn’t be here writing this, if I had been driving. As we rounded a corner of that snow-packed gravel road, we saw about a 1,000 foot drop-off into a canyon to our left. The combination of higher temperatures and warming sunshine had “set a trap” for us. In a blink, that Ford began to “fish tail” (which is the back end of the car slipping from side to side, like a fish’s tail does in swimming) on the partially melting, ice-packed road. My eyes were as big as a dinner plate in fear, but my hero, Uncle Barney, automatically put his decades of Alaska driving skills to use that day. He knew exactly how to spin that steering wheel to bring the car back from the canyon’s precipice and keep the ‘Stang on the road. When the “powerhouse of pistons” would buck the vehicle the other way, Barney, once again, reined it into control. All the while this was going on, Barney was literally talking to the car, as if it were a wild woman personified……..“Come on Honey!! You can do it!! Stay on the straight, Dearie!! Smooth out and fly right, Kid!” As our flip-flops necessitated, my uncle was spinning that steering wheel one direction, and then the other to make that 3,000 pound metal marvel obey his commands and resume a straight line of driving along that ice-encrusted highway towards Alaska with a very grateful Norwegian Farmer’s Son.