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“Isn’t life strange?” Meteors, Calamities, and Memories

The meteor striking the atmosphere over Siberia on February 15, 2013, was, of course, not the first such disaster to strike the region. In 1908, an asteroid struck Tunguska, Siberia, ramming into the earth with power 1,000 times that of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.  My grandfather, Werner Wehlen, saw that explosion when he was twelve years old on his parents’ farm near Sundsvall, Sweden.  Only when he was 83 years old, after he had immigrated to the United States and settled in the Midwest, did he learn what it was he had witnessed that summer day 70 years before.

Trees knocked over in the blast from the 1927 expedition.

Trees knocked over in the blast from the 1927 expedition.

As he told his story in his lilting accent, “Last week I went to a lecture given at the University of Chicago given by a famous astronomer from Harvard.  He told about a new theory they have now; that a tiny particle of antimatter–something very dense but very small–passed right through the earth in 1908. It left a big circle of wreckage in Siberia and it came out somewhere in the South Atlantic.  There was a flash of light seen over northern Europe at the time that it was supposed to have hit.  As he was talking, I remembered seeing such a flash, sitting in my farmyard in Sweden when I was a boy.  It was so bright it took the color out of everything, even though it was daytime when I saw it.

“After the lecture, I raised my hand and told the astronomer I had seen that light.  He became very excited and asked me where I was when I saw it and what year it was.  I was able to date it pretty exactly, because it happened at about the time of the death of a cousin of mine.  The astronomer wrote down my name and the place I lived in Sweden.  Then he told me I was lucky, because I was probably the only person in the room to have seen that flash.  In fact, I was the only person he had ever met who had seen it.  Most of the other people in the lecture room were young students, and the astronomer himself was only about forty years old.

“Just think. I had seen that flash from my farmyard in Sweden when I was a boy, and I had to wait till I was eighty-three to learn what it was.  Isn’t life strange?”

My grandfather, Werner Wehlen, in 1984 at age 87 after his first airplane ride.

My grandfather, Werner Wehlen, in 1984 at age 87 after his first airplane ride.

For my grandfather’s generation, waiting a lifetime to find out about a scientific or environmental calamity, would not be unusual.  Now, videos of catastrophes are uploaded on YouTube filmed by dashboard cameras and shared with the world almost instantaneously.  Isn’t life strange?

Sometimes stories don’t have an ending for decades, as my grandfather sensed with this event, tying his youth to his old age.  His story was recorded for American Mosaic, a book co-written by my mother Joan Wehlen Morrison.  My mother felt that everyone has a story, one that may not yet be apparent. As she writes at age 18 on October 19, 1941, “to understand one’s story is to weep with pity.”

Joan also writes about the coincidence of personal, political, and environmental calamity.  On Thursday, January 26, 1939, at age 16, she writes about the death of her best friend’s father.

“Gee, I came home and Mom told me. I used to play cards with him and tell jokes and I saw him last Saturday and today he is dead and the Spanish Civil War is over and the Chinese War is going on and 8,000 people died in the Chile Earthquake and people all over the world are eating their suppers and doing their homework (as I shall) and laughing and reading and moving about in lighted rooms and a man I know is dead.

"El Mirador Alemán", in Concepción, after the earthquake.
“El Mirador Alemán”, in Concepción, after the earthquake.

It’s funny . . . coming home on the elevated train tonight I made an equation—a geometric equation to prove that Life cannot be cancelled.

Matter + Energy + X = Life

Matter and Energy cannot be cancelled.

Therefore: you cannot cancel Life.

But I don’t know. I will not be speaking to my friend’s father any more.

I feel low to be eating and writing in here and doing my homework when someone is dead . . . but someone is always dead. . . . 8,000 people that other people knew are dead in Chile. Barcelona fell to the Rebels and a war is over and I talk thus.”

The actual death toll in Chile was much higher, estimated to be between 25,000 and 50,000.

50th anniversary  of 1939 Chilean Earthquake Commemoration placard

50th anniversary of 1939 Chilean Earthquake Commemoration placard

My grandfather, on learning what he had seen in the “old country,” asked, “Isn’t life strange?”  Now we know that an object half the size of a football field narrowly missed the earth on the same day that another object –thankfully, much smaller – slammed debris into it.  Life is strange—and precious.  All we have—the dashboard cameras, the YouTube videos, the farmyards, the diaries, the memories—could disappear in a flash.

A flash that may be remembered by someone decades hence.

42 responses »

  1. Thanks for sharing your story. It never ceases to amaze me that so much history is carried by people like your grandfather.

    Reply
  2. Very timely post as we are commemorating the 2nd anniversary of the Christchurch earthquake down here.

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  3. Life is certainly strange and beautiful all at once. You are very fortunate to come from such great storytellers; your grandfather and your mother,and to share in their experiences and thoughts, through their words. Lovely mix of life,thanks for sharing

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  4. Life IS strange and precious! It’s perfect an unexpected – I don’t know what the “X” is in your mother’s equation and am sometimes boggled by its endurance and continuity, but I’m grateful for it all the same. Fantastic story! Thank you for sharing!

    Reply
  5. Pingback: “Isn’t life strange?” Meteors, Calamities, and Memories | mahmoudoun

  6. Fascinating story. This reminds me of something that happened to me in 1983. I was hitchhiking in California and this couple in a pickup gave me a ride and told me that their friend had a dream about an impending earthquake in California. An earthquake happened about a week later.

    “New Camadoli”
    http://hitchhikeamerica.wordpress.com/2012/04/21/new-camaldoli/

    Reply
  7. Great post. Hit home for me in a lot of ways. Thanks for it.

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  8. And let’s not forget the bubonic plague this summer! Survived by my daughter and our family- life indeed is strange!
    http://darcydowning.wordpress.com/2013/02/01/httpwp-mepne39-5q/

    Reply
  9. This moved me. What an experience to be able to hold on to for so many years. And I love the message within, we better appreciate the strange of our lives. That other- larger object could have wiped us off the map of time.
    Well told, well written, thank you.
    Reblogged.

    Reply
  10. Reblogged this on Grizz-Tion.

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  11. Lovely thoughts. Your grandfather seems really interesting, and still alert for his age. Congrats on being on fp.

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  12. My grandmother used to say, ” what a wonderful world we live in”. I think your post speaks to that. It’s awesome to realize how tiny and transient we are, individually. But the stories that are passed down keep us connected far more than our documentation.

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  13. Great post! I feel like that life is kinda strange to, like for instance what is life, or what is our purpose in life. Just some topics i think you should talk about in your blog. :) P.S don’t forget to follow the book of similes blog it talks about alot of things in the music industry that tires out of the world.

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  14. yes life is strange but that strangeness makes our lives worthwile

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  15. Lovely.

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  16. Nice blog, maybe we can follow each other? x

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  17. I have enjoyed reading this and other pages. I think our blogs have much in common. A desire to speak out before whole histories are lost. Congratulations for being Freshly Pressed, well deserved.

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  18. thank you for sharing – interesting – i too have written a blog relating the recent meteor effect –

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  19. What a beautiful yet bitter sweet sentiment.

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  20. Mai Patrocinio

    Fascinating! True, life is strange and it will always be, I guess. We weren’t born yesterday but the stories being passed on from generation to generation makes yesterday a present reality, giving us hope though the future may look bleak and uncertain.

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  21. I’m so excited to be “freshly pressed” and for the response. Thank you, everyone! Just to clarify: my grandfather–one of the heroes of this piece–was born in Sweden in 1896 and came to the U.S. when he was 16 in 1913. He died at the ripe age of 92 in 1989. He was a tough old Swede and his coming to understand what he saw as a boy was very rewarding for him. Gives us all hope that we might understand something from our youth many years hence!

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  22. Thanks for sharing that history! Before the new War of the Worlds came out my Grandmother had told me that she listened to the original broadcast on the radio when she was kid. She knew it wasn’t really happening because she was a sci-fi nut back then. We sat and watched the original movie together on TV as well, it was time well spent!
    I loved my Grandparents and hearing about there childhoods!

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  23. What a lovely piece of writing. Thank you for sharing it with us.

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  24. This was really great thanks for sharing this personal story I greatly enjoyed it!!

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  25. I love your mom’s quote. Nice reflection. ‘

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  26. this is awesome.. thanks for sharing.

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  27. I especially appreciate the photo of your grandfather; a treasure. It is great when elders experience their history being acknowledged.

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    • Thanks! He liked to think of himself as a tough old Swede. And on that first ride on an airplane in 1984 at age 87, he asked the flight attendant, “Can I step out for a cup of coffee?” :-)

      Reply
  28. I can imagine what it must have been like for your grandpa to be sitting there and making that connection. Exciting!

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  29. This is so true! thanks for sharing!

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  30. Yes, true life is strange. Sometimes it does take a lifetime to understand something you might be right in the middle of, surrounding you.

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  31. Absolutely loved your post. Thanks and congrats on FP. I wrote this post about my grandparents, read it if you get a chance …

    http://notestoponder.wordpress.com/2012/11/28/regret/

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  32. I enjoyed your post no end, although I’m wondering about the use of the word ‘struck’ in relation to the Tunguska event. You point out yourself that there are theories such as the one about the particle of anti-matter passing through the earth. I watched a documentary a few days before reading this post which discussed perhaps the most widely held theory to date, namely that the meteorite exploded in the air, and the devastation caused was a result of this explosion. This theory is popular because there is no physical evidence on the ground of a meteor collision. Your grandad sounds like a fascinating guy; perhaps appreciating how strange life is helped keep him young at heart.

    Reply
  33. Pingback: A Story for Generations: Home Front Girl — Blog — WordPress.com

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