War hero, farmer, and family man, my grandfather was among the last of the old breed. The son of Swedish immigrants, his father had his surname, Bengtsson, anglicized when he came through Ellis Island. Thus Carl “Benson” was born in 1923. Growing up in California during the Great Depression, Carl described how he would make “chewing gum” from the tar in pavement cracks as he walked to school barefoot. He worked the family farm where his parents raised cows, grew alfalfa, and made dried fruit from peaches and apricots.
Finding LoveAfter the war, Carl returned to farming life in California. One morning while browsing through his mother’s issue of “Good Housekeeping,” he noticed an advertisement for a “personal acquaintance service.” He responded and received a questionnaire in the mail. The service’s founder, sociologist Dr. Karl Miles Wallace, was an early pioneer of “scientific matchmaking.” He ran a 10-year study that matched up over 6,000 applicants based on age, social background, and personality. Carl answered questions regarding five traits: temperament, sociability, conformity to social standards, attitude toward sex, and religious orthodoxy. He mailed it off. That summer, he received a letter from a woman in Montana, Edith Harmon.
He responded to her on August 8, 1951: “Dear Edith, I was glad to receive your nice letter yesterday and would like to know more about you.” They shared a common bond as Lutherans from farming backgrounds, and the modern urban reader might find it strange how romantic suggestions can lurk in details about crop cycles and church attendance. In his first letter, Carl reassured Edith’s doubts about her personal attractiveness by saying, “I’m not good-looking either.” It was a bald-faced lie—he was incredibly handsome. He enclosed pictures of himself but remained modest. Edith, an elegant woman, was reluctant to send him a picture in turn. This did not deter Carl. In his third letter, he asked to meet. In his fifth, he talked objectively about marriage. After acknowledging receiving her photograph in his sixth letter, he popped the question in his seventh, dated October 3: “I’ll just ask you point-blank if you’d want to marry me. Maybe I’m too doggone presumptuous or hasty, but at least you know how my thinking runs.”
Edith’s letters to Carl have not survived, so a reader is forced to infer her reluctance from his next one: “I feel we shouldn’t be swayed by what the public or anybody else thinks; we’re supposed to be the masters of our own destinies, or sumpthin’.” On October 15, he stopped ending his letters with “Sincerely,” and started signing them, “Love, Carl.”
They were embarrassed to tell people they met through an academic study, so they schemed about stories to make up. His last letter is dated November 4, two days before he drove to see her. By this time, he had his story straight: “I’m saying that I met you in Oakland last winter. I worked up there about six weeks, just for the heck of it.”
Carl and Edith Benson eloped less than three weeks later on November 24, 1951, in Bainville, Montana. They were married for nearly 70 years, raising six children as Carl practiced farming, ranching, and carpentry. They saw numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren born over the course of their long lives together.
A Meaningful ImpactI lived with my grandfather when he was in his 80s. By then, the sentimental side he revealed to my grandmother in his letters was hidden under a surface of vigorous austerity. When Carl was not reading encyclopedias and jotting down thoughts in his notebook, he would put me to work around the house and garden. Usually, he would step in to complete the job to his satisfaction—which, as someone 60 years younger, didn’t make me look very good. In church, he observed my every lapse in ritual. He was always giving advice. Most of these “rules for living,” like the Ten Commandments, took the form of what not to do:
“Never trust lawyers. They talk too much and they’re all liars.” “Never build a house. Always buy an old home and fix her up.” “Don’t try to marry up. If you’re homely, marry someone who’s homely.”
Once, while visiting him in the nursing home, I asked him if he had any regrets in life. He said that he should have bought a neighbor’s farm back in California. That was all. After he died, a large cache of silver was discovered buried on his property. Though I resented his unsolicited wisdom and relentless spurring of my work ethic while I lived with him, now that he is gone, I admire his discipline and tough self-reliance. If the world were full of Carl Bensons, its problems would largely disappear.