I was born late in the morning at the old Hibbing General Hospital on a cold day in December 1979.

Built by the mining companies decades earlier, the "Rood" hospital, as it's known locally, was where children and grandchildren of the immigrant miners were born. It's also where Mesabi pioneers died. And where the mines hauled their broken workers.

Workers like my grandfather, Marvin Johnson.

Except for a stint in the Air Force during the Korean War, Grandpa was a lifelong resident of the city of Keewatin, five miles west of Hibbing.

He was the town cop in the 1950s and early '60s, learning conversational phrases in a dozen immigrant languages. But the money was bad, so he signed with Erie Mining Company and later at Eveleth Taconite.

In 1968, when Grandpa was around the same age I am now, he had a job driving a giant haul truck at the mine. He was checking the engine when the radiator blew up and hurled his body 35 feet to the ground below.

His body was crushed, his skin scalded by the steam and boiling water. He should have died. Instead, he will tell you, he was perfectly fine.

Of course he wasn't, not really. The accident wrecked his arm. The company trained him to work as an electrician, even though Grandpa hated electricity. He was able to work about 15 years before going out on permanent disability.

Which brings the story back to me, that baby in the hospital.

My grandfather always longed for a son. He wanted to do all the things that his father, a hard-working Norwegian railroad man with drinking problems, couldn’t do with him. Play sports. Go to football and basketball games. Work in the shop.

Instead he and my grandmother had six girls. He loved them all, but still no son.

His first grandchild was another girl. But as he lay in the hospital recovering from shoulder surgery, word came of his first grandson.

Grandpa heard the news from a nurse and, despite the pain, immediately rose from his bed. With tubes and wires still attached, he wheeled down to the nursery and burst through the door.

At the time men were kept out of the nursery, especially when they looked as battered as poor Grandpa.

Fighting off the nurses, he bellowed: “I’m here to see my grandson!”

So it went for Grandpa and me.

He would take me around Keewatin for adventures. To visit the cops. To shoot the bull in the post office. To check out the mine pit on the north side of town. To stop into the bar for as many peanuts as I liked.

One of my favorite memories its Grandpa pinning a sheriff’s star to my shirt. We loved watching old westerns together. Despite my mom’s aversion to violence, Grandpa always let me sneak into the living room to see John Wayne or Gary Cooper save the day.

Later, when I realized the sheriff's star was lost, Grandpa wiped away my tears.

When I was 10, my mom told me Grandpa had fallen down the stairs. He was back in the hospital.

He really did fall down the stairs, but that wasn’t why he was hospitalized. He was there for something called alcoholism. Something was wrong with Mom’s voice when she finally explained the truth.

Mom suggested I make a card for him, but I just stared at the sheet of blank paper.

Eventually Grandpa came home and we went back to being pals. He tested all his jokes on me, the same ones he told the guys at his new treatment center, where he started delivering speeches every month.

For me he was the same Grandpa, but I started noticing flickers of sadness. The fun parts of his stories were switched for regrets, for everything he denied his family by his absence, for being short-tempered and unavailable all those years.

As I grew up and pursued a career in journalism, Grandpa was proud as ever. I was the newspaper writer he wished he could be. He never really wanted to be a miner. But I was more like Grandpa than anyone imagined.

When I turned 30, my life took a familiar turn. My casual drinking habit escalated into the rationalizing and self-destruction that comes with alcoholism.

I tried to stop drinking. But I kept finding myself drunk and ashamed, even during life's happier occasions. I began to understand what haunted my grandfather through the years: The desire to do better than the generations before, only to find yourself repeating history.

I never fell down the stairs, but I was still broken. I sought help and took comfort in time spent commiserating with Grandpa.

Grandpa’s daughters knew his drinking, but my boys would never know mine. With Grandpa's help, I was able to stop this generational disease. After all, Grandpa had learned to love his family and accept their love. I could learn that, too.

This November, stubborn as a mule, Grandpa climbed a ladder to change a light bulb in his shop. He’d been shaky in recent months, poor circulation from a heart problem.

He fell straight back off the ladder and broke his back, pelvis and ribs.

A couple helicopter rides later he was in Minneapolis on a ventilator with chest tubes for pneumonia. Surgery wasn’t an option. We were advised to visit, but I couldn't get away from work for a few more days. Each hour hurt, wondering how long we had.

The automatic doors of Hennepin County Medical Center swooped open, revealing a boiling broth of sickness and health, people crammed into the waiting rooms with bad coughs and chronic conditions. My wife and I fought our way through the crowd to the information desk. My heart fluttered as it seemed every turn was blocked by people who didn’t know.

Arriving at the desk, helpful eyes met my own.

“I’m here to see my grandfather.”

He almost died. But miracles do happen. Or perhaps Grandpa is just an old twisted piece of steel.

Marvin Johnson is home for Christmas this year. He won't be back in his small house in Keewatin for a while, if ever. Months of therapy are ahead. But he’s close to us now. He can sit up. And our family is closer than ever.

We're grateful to Grandpa for his gift to us: his life, his presence and yet another lesson about picking your-self up again, even if you need to reach for help.

 

Aaron J. Brown is an author and community college instructor from the Mesabi Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio (KAXE.org). He lives in rural Itasca County with his wife and three sons.