Crazy Charlie

Charles and Dolphe

If I could talk to anyone about culture shock, I would choose my maternal great-grandfather, Charles Danielson, a colorful character by any standard. In a portrait that belongs to my mother, he’s solemn, with neatly parted hair, a strong jaw and a light blue stare, just like my grandfather Einar’s. “Carl Johan, Nov. 16, 1870. Came to America May 11, 1889. Citizen 1894,” is scrawled on the back in pencil. It’s the same clumsy cursive on a cardboard box of buttons my 78-year old mother treasures: “All kinds of buttons in here Come in handy some time When you are looking for button to your shirt or pants or koat.”

“Pap was always writing stuff,” my mother said. “He wrote on everything. Crazy Charlie they called him. He was a wild man.” Charles and his brothers changed their last name from Lindskog to Danielson after their father Daniel, upon immigrating to the United States from Sweden. Records about Charles’ early activities are scarce, but a 1930 census lists him as head of a household in Forest Hills, east of Pittsburgh. He was a steelworker with five children.

By 1940, he’d moved in with Einar, in nearby Swissvale Borough. Einar had married Della Mae Seims, a widow with two daughters: Delores and Lois. They had two more together: Donna, my mother, who was 3 when Charles moved in, and Marlene. Apparently Charles, who spoke in broken English and never drove, had worn out his welcome at the homes of his other children. After walking home from haunts that doubled as places of employment, such as the Swedish Club or Lila’s Morningstar Inn, his temperament and language could be foul. More than once, Einar, with a small daughter in tow, bailed his father out of jail.

“Pap cussed in Swedish,” my mother said. “He was a bastard when he was drinking. He used the F-word. One time he was sleeping on a bench and a cop went over to shake him. He got into a fight with the cop and broke his glasses.” During a trip to Isaly’s for ice cream, the girls saw their grandfather wrapped around a lamppost. “We wanted to go to him,” my mother said. “But my dad said ‘No.’ We weren’t allowed to talk to him when he was like that.”

She smiles when she talks about Charles’ antics, such as defacing the killers in “True Detective” magazines, and the explosion that occurred when Dolphe, his German shepherd, gobbled a whole ham off the dining room table. “For years after that,” my mother said. “All Pap would have to say is ‘Ham, Dolphe,’ and that dog would go flying.”

During an argument one day, my grandfather grabbed Charles by the scruff of his neck and his belt, intent on tossing the old man out. But Einar relented when his daughters protested. “It was about a week after that that my grandfather killed himself,” my mother said. “It was about 1953. I was 16 years old.”

Panic spread after my mother and sisters discovered Charles’ watch and a back brace in his empty room. He never left without them. They learned that he’d jumped from the Rankin Street Bridge. An eyewitness said Charles paced for 20 minutes before he sat on the ledge and let go. “He hit the abutment on his way down,” my mother said, adding that his rescuers believed they’d saved a man in his 60s, not an 83-year-old. “He came up three times. He wanted to live. He lived for 20 minutes after they pulled him out. He’d been OK if he hadn’t hit the bridge.” The structure, built in 1951, recently underwent a $40-million renovation. It provides access from Rankin Borough, next to Swissvale, over the Monongahela River to Kennywood Park and Whitaker Borough.

When I drive across the Rankin Bridge, I always think of Charles, and what it must have been like, coming here with his brothers, William (Wilhelm), Henry (Henning) and Emmanuel. In a strange land, not knowing the language, they must have been close. They all lived in the same house in McKeesport and sweated in the steel mills.

William never married, and died in 1956. He’s buried in McKeesport- Versailles Cemetery, where his father, Daniel, an ironworker, was buried in 1907. I haven’t verified this yet, but I believe Henry is buried in Jefferson Memorial Cemetery in Pleasant Hills, south of Pittsburgh.

My mother said Emmanuel, known as Manny, committed suicide after burning his hands working in a rod mill. Doctors allowed his hands to heal in the shape of the metal rods he handled so he could still work, my mother said. He just couldn’t take the pain.

Charles is buried in Monongahela Cemetery, in Braddock Hills, not far from his stomping grounds. His wife, Hilma, who died of cancer in 1927, is buried there, too. But they’re not together. His marker, which says “1870-1953; Father,” is the last one in the row at the end of a dead-end street. My mother said Charles’ daughter, Signe, a housekeeper for the wealthy, gave away his personal effects and probably isolated him intentionally.

But my grandfather missed him. Einar died in 1981, and wish I remembered more of the Swedish cuss song he used to sing. Charles taught it to him. When Charles talked about the weather, it was “Yesus Christ, it’s hot!” or “Yesus Christ, it’s cold!” When anyone talked about Charles, and what he would say, or what he would do, or wished he was there, Einar would say, “I wish the hell he was, too.”

Charles J. Danielson

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About imaleda

"When I am writing, I am trying to find out who I am..." ---Mya Angelou
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