Grandpa and the way home

Marvin Johnson holds his grandson, the author of this blog, on Christmas, 1980.

At one time my grandpa kept a bar in his house in Keewatin, a small wood-paneled room full of 1950s and ‘60s sports memorabilia, Norwegian flags and light-up beer signs. In 1990 or so, I think I was around 10, he showed me the things on the shelves and said “I’m dying. One day all of this will be yours.”

I laughed.

He seemed unnerved. “That’s not funny.”

Thing was, I didn’t believe him.

Well, yesterday grandpa finally proved his point. After a long battle with heart failure and diabetes, Marvin Leroy Johnson died April 29, 2019. He’d almost died at least three times that I can count. Hurled off a mine truck. Falls off stairs and ladders. Almost always because he was stubborn, which I suspect is also why he didn’t die until this last time.

By now, the bar and its blinking nostalgia is already gone. Grandpa was sober more than 25 years. I’ve been sober 8 years, and didn’t really want that stuff anyway. What I really want is to remember.

Grandpa loved blueberries. When he was young he’d forage deep into the marshy woods south of Keewatin looking for them. He’d climb trees and hang bed sheets from the tallest branches to help find his way home, buckets laden with blue gold.

I helped my grandpa Marv Johnson celebrate 50 years in the Keewatin Legion.

The only real time he spent away from Keewatin happened when he joined the Air Force at the end of the Korean War. He spent most of his service at a refueling base in Greenland. The rest he spent on a base in Detroit, where he met a pretty young woman from Pennsylvania whose father worked for the Air Force. Our family owes its existence to a well-timed dance. Not to mention grandma’s willingness to move to Keewatin.

Grandpa was the town cop in Keewatin for a few years. An older friend told me once that grandpa getting that job was like pinning a star on the kid next to you at a pit party. Everyone was surprised. But he did the best he could. He would learn conversational phrases in most of the languages of the Iron Range, including, and especially “I am going home.”

Everyone in town called him “Two-Gun.” I spent my childhood thinking that this emerged from some dark or mysterious story from his time on the police force. He finally told me that it was because when the kids in his neighborhood played rubber-band guns, he would always carry two.

Grandpa said when he was young a lonely old miner named Jack used to give all the Keewatin kids pennies on his way home from work. Grandpa and grandma bought his house after he died and lived there five decades. They would find pennies all the time.

When he took the job driving production truck at the Erie mine Grandpa said his pay doubled overnight. With a growing young family, this more than made up for having to drive to Hoyt Lakes every day. But that drive took a toll. For several years he would drive home from afternoon shift and work through the night building a second story on his house to make room for more daughters.

In 1968 he was badly injured when a radiator blasted him off his truck, burning his skin and throwing his body 20 feet to the rocky ground below. He would remark that he owes his life to the fact that they hadn’t rolled out the “really” big trucks yet. Retrained as an electrician at Eveleth Taconite, he would later retire on disability when the pain got too bad. The rest of his life was defined by pain, some days better than others.

The pain was not always physical.

I saw him run once. Grandpa jogged into the street at the Keewatin Fourth of July parade to shake hands with Gov. Rudy Perpich, whose wife Lola was from Keewatin. He told me the union made his life good, protected him when he got hurt. He was Farmer-Labor.

When I was little would take me on adventures, which really just meant driving around Keewatin and ducking into the cop shop, gas station and bar to shoot the bull with his buddies. One Sunday we showed up at the house in Keewatin and I loudly declared “Grandpa, let’s go to the bar!”

Grandma said “you brought him to the bar? He’s six!”

We didn’t get to go the bar that day.

I saw him swim once. He emerged from the O’Brien Reservoir like a sea monster. I just now realized that I played this game with my own kids when they were little.

We worked in the shop together. He built wooden toys and toy boxes for all the grandkids, and the grandkids of anyone in Keewatin who ever commented on his work. He did this until his hands shook too much to use the saw. Or, more accurately, about two or three years after that point.

Most of the time grandpa was in his chair, watching westerns in the living room while his wife and daughters chattered in the kitchen. These last few years Grandpa lived with a lot of pain and regret. He wished he had been sober sooner. He wished he had been there for his girls and wife more than he was. I was here, he would say, but I wasn’t here.

The girls forgave him, of course. And grandma is a saint. I don’t think he ever forgave himself.

When you lose someone you love you often feel regrets. Fortunately, I am blessed that I feel things I DON’T regret.

I don’t regret that the last thing I told him was “I love you.” I am not a hugger, but I don’t regret that I hugged him in his hospital bed in Duluth. Certainly I don’t regret obliging his request that I write a column about how much he loves grandma. I don’t regret writing this piece a few years ago, after the fall that nearly took his life. It was the only time his name appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He read that paper his whole life. His daughters delivered it in Keewatin. He loved Jim Klobuchar. He told me once that he wished he could have been a sports writer, and that he was proud that I could write for the paper every week.

Grandpa took pride in all his kids and grandkids. All of us share different stories, all special.

Well, grandpa. The sheets flap in in the trees. You can find your way home now.

Home. Hjem. Heim. Koti. Doma.

I know you are free of all those burdens. You are forgiven and loved, and will always be so. I will carry the stories as long as I can. I keep one thing from your collection. The lamp from the old Bennett Mine sits on my desk, waiting to cut through the darkness. Look for me.


  1. Joe musich says

    Many old men with the tears of courage and love have taught us to be tender. A gentle tip of the hat to a loved one and a reminder to share these thoughts with them before the “going home.” Thank you.

  2. I beautiful tribute Aaron. You are lucky to have so many wonderful memories. Condolences on the loss to your family.

  3. Thaddeus Mock says

    Loved this article…lots of memories for me in Keewatin.

  4. Lorna Weber says

    Aaron, a fitting tribute only you could know and write about…thanks for sharing. We care and pray for all of you…God does love each of us and a savior died for us. Never forget
    Much love, aunt Lorna

  5. Ted Fiskevold says

    Well put!

  6. Veda Zuponcic says

    Beautiful article. I have a lump in my throat. Veda

  7. Mike Ricci says

    What a wonderful tribute to your grandpa. So many of us get broken in some way along the rocky road of life, and you and he certainly forged a close bond. I’m sure he will always live on in fond memories.

  8. “Two Gun” was one of my early best friends. That may seem strange if you know that he was 9 years older than I. We live next door to the Johnsons, the best neighbors I have ever had. From about age 7 to age 9, I spent a lot of time in the Johnson house. He was one of the leaders of the neighborhood kids. We played baseball, football, kick the can, and rubber guns (which is where I remember him acquiring his nickname. … I don’t remember potato guns). Kids of all ages played … I was one of the youngest, but I never worried because I knew that “Two Gun” would watch out for. I cried when he left to serve in the military. Then I grew up and we saw each other less often. But I can say with confidence that few people had a greater influence on my early life than “Two Gun.”. Rest in peace!

    • Hi Lorin — You’re right, it was rubber band guns. I hear about potato guns sometimes, too, but that wasn’t the origin of the nickname. Thanks for sharing your memory of my grandpa when he was young. That means a lot.

  9. Beautiful. Thank you for writing that. Made me think of my grandfathers, gone 25 years and 15 years ago respectively

  10. A beautiful tribute to your grandfather. Growing up on the Iron Range, I could picture his adventures. Condolences to you and your family.

  11. David McKoskey says

    Beautifully done.

  12. Great piece Aaron, reminded me of the special memories I have of my Grandpa.

  13. My condolences, Aaron. What a touching and wonderful tribute to your Grandpa.

  14. Elanne Palcich says

    Thanks for reminding us all to leave good memories behind for others.

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