Allen Keith Ormson
Uncle Al (Allen) graduated from Barron High School in 1957, and then went to college at The University of Wisconsin, River Falls, where he earned a bachelor’s degree graduating in 1963.
Like many boys growing up with brothers, my father Dean, and his brothers Al and Duane engaged in sibling rivalry. At family gatherings, I heard stories about the time Uncle Al climbed up into the garage rafters, and by the use of secret sauce or brotherly incantation, lured my pops into the garage.
As my father walked underneath, Al dropped darts onto his head. Dad’s revenge was to put nasty stuff in Al’s chocolate milk. These are Wisconsin small-town stories that cement family bonds and create mythologies on whose reverberations family-members ride into the future. My pop and Al became close in later years, something that often happens when siblings grasp the depth of blood and jettison youthful rivalries.
In later years, inflated memories of Canadian fish stories and fantastic recitals of success in conquering Wisconsin buck fever took on Gaudian forms; and while uncle and pop were men of flesh, their noses grew longer at each telling.
Uncle began his career as a teacher, eventually earning his master’s degree from Winona State University and serving as superintendent of schools for 27 years in Rusk and Polk counties. But Al is memorable to me for his great success as a basketball coach. He took the small school Durand Panthers to the Wisconsin State (WIAA) basketball tournament finals twice during his coaching career, before the days when schools competed in separate divisions based on enrollment.
When I was 14, my pop took me to a Panther game. The stands were packed and people were excited to witness another victory. The Panthers were nearly unbeatable during the regular season. I was impressed by the show of young athletes in flashing gold and purple. Cheerleaders were shaking their pom-poms, the crowd was loud, and I was proud to see Al strut onto the hardwood. A furrowed brow and clenched jaw set a bold determination on his face.
Just before the game, players huddled together in the locker room. Tension built as the entire crowd chanted and clapped, “Hey Coach Ormson open the door, let those Panthers out on the floor.” On that night, the Panther’s beat their opponent by 50-points.
Sitting near the high school cheering section, the Durand kids found out I was ‘coach’s nephew.’ That’s when one of them pointed at me and yelled, “Hey! That’s Monkey Man’s Nephew.”
For a few minutes, I became sort of famous among the group of big, rowdy, and loud Panther backers. I was not from Durand, but right then I became a Panther.
His teams were always successful even though they were the smallest school and had a roster with barely a six-footer. Al was mastermind of the X’s and O’s, but more important, he knew how to motivate players, and he coached a rare strategy at that time, a full-court press for the entire game.
The Panthers were tenacious; they hustled and harassed their opponents into mistakes which created turnovers by the dozens, leading to easy layup baskets. I enjoyed watching the underdog Panthers take it to schools much larger – including my high schools arch-rival Eau Claire Memorial.
Monkey Man was a charismatic figure in my extended family. He laughed heartily and enjoyed a good party. In some ways to me, always looking up to him, he was larger than life; but as an educator, uncle also spoke to me in a way others did not.
When I graduated from U.W. La Crosse, he gave me a present that became a cornerstone in my development. At my graduation party, attended by Al, his wife Mary Ann, and their children David, Jon, and Krista, I peeled the wrapper from a book and told him I was familiar with Ferlinghetti’s work. “Yea, he’s a cool cat,” he said.
The poetry book was a small gift, but like my father opening his wallet and giving me gas money to power my Mustang, I cherished it. The little gifts are important because in that one moment, they hatch potential between giver and receiver.
A book of poems wasn’t just a book. It was potential and affirmation, a statement that the world of creative arts and writing were important, were accessible to me, were an appropriate gift, and were an aspect of family sharing. A book of poems, or $10 gas allowance to power my Mustang were small gifts, but ultimately acts of love.
A few years ago, when I drew my nephew’s name for a Christmas exchange gift, I wanted to offer something literary that would speak to our family heritage. I gave him Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf – an epic myth set in Scandinavia.
I was happy to see Tyler finish his creative writing and English degree from UW River Falls in 2010. It’s the same school that Monkey Man graduated from 47 years earlier and the same school from which my brother Brian graduated in 1991.
Now, in this Chinese Year of the Monkey, on this third day of uncle’s passing, I remember him. I wonder of his journey to another plane and to reconnections. From our family’s Norse ancestry, the ultimate destination has been written in myth as the great hall of Valhalla. In other traditions it’s heaven, cosmic consciousness, another crack at a more fortunate or charismatic life in the flesh next time around. Without proof, I’ll even entertain the notion that our soul’s rising aims toward some unknowable target, connecting us in Bowian Stardust.
But no matter the landing place, to lift off we must deal in this sweaty and beautiful realm of basketball, sibling and school board squabbles, poems, and the sweet and messy full-court press of love and family.
Maybe now, in the halls of Valhalla, where men and women reside in peace and contentment, uncle takes his place at the table of brave warriors, the table of contest where the monkey in his mutable nature drops from the rafters and alters the outcome of every game and the shape of 2016.
I like to imagine the Great Hall of Valhalla, and imagine Jon, and Grace, and Harry, and Dean greeting him with the full weight of blood; and in some unexplainable way, I’m comforted by my imagining yoked to a greater vision linking all of us in great poetry of words both redacted and poetic:
Lo there do I see my father.
Lo there do I see my mothers and my sisters and my brothers.
Lo there do I see the long line of my people back to the beginning.
Lo they do call to me.
They bid me come and take my place among them
in the halls of Valhalla, where the brave may live forever.