When I was a teenager, before I could drive, I ran errands on Saturdays for a shut-in just a few houses up the street from us. Swede Chamberlain [his first name was Lester; Swede was a nickname] was a tall, large, elderly man. His house must have been one of the best-looking houses in Vail at one time, maybe 100 years ago. It was located on a corner lot; it had a nice porch, and large maple trees accented the perimeter, giving him a lot of shade in the summer.
Swede sold greeting cards out of his house. The only entrance he had available was the large step up into the kitchen. “Come on in,” he would yell to visitors/customers after knocking. He would be sitting in his rocking chair in the room next to the kitchen, which may have been a dining room at one point, smoking his pipe. He wore the same sweater every time I saw him. The converted dining room had three walls of greeting cards in wooden display boxes lined up according to birthday, anniversary, sympathy, etc. He sat in his chair looking out a window that overlooked the intersection where the Nelsons drove through without looking for kids sledding. He also had a very good view of the entire southeastern part of Vail, including our house.
Prince Albert pipe tobacco stinks. But Swede lit his pipe and didn’t care if you liked it or not. It may not have been a very good business decision, but then, I think the Ryan family was his only customer. Mom would say, “someone go up to Swede’s and get a card for me.” That person was me. Perhaps Kathleen did a time or two. We were the only ones who knew Swede on a first-name basis.
I inherited the job of getting groceries for Swede from my sister, Kathleen. It would have been Carol’s turn, but Swede freaked her out. The grocery list always had a quart of milk, a loaf of bread, a tin of Prince Albert pipe tobacco, and a package of either Juicy Fruit or Double Mint gum. Occasionally, he would include a box of stick matches. I can’t remember other items he may have purchased outside of some lunch meat or similar protein but being a kid with a huge appetite and an over-functioning metabolism, I often wondered how he survived. As I mentioned, he was a large man. He was over six feet tall and must have weighed close to 250 pounds. When he did walk, I could see that his legs were probably swollen to more than twice the usual size.
Kathleen and I always had to go to Eddie’s E & J Market and give the list to Eddie. He would compile the merchandise and take the ten-dollar bill, hand us the change and off we would go. Upon bringing the groceries into Swede’s house, he would pay us thirty-five cents and a package of gum – the one in the bag of groceries. I’m sure it was more than the price of one of the cards he sold. And actually, he had some very good cards. I’m guessing they cost a dime or quarter during that era.
I don’t know much about Swede. I have no idea if he ever had a real job, a wife, a family, or a business. Once a month, an ambulatory limousine would come from Sioux City with a person or two already in the car and pick up Swede to take him to Iowa City. Swede was enrolled in the State Papers Program at the University of Iowa. The program was a service provided by the U of I in which indigent persons across Iowa were admitted for a day to receive compassionate care and diagnoses for ailments not addressed by small town doctors, or unrealistic for certain people to pay. The program offered patients for med students training to become doctors. The limo would drop Swede off at the sidewalk of the intersection late in the day after it picked him up. I watched him walk up the steep sidewalk with his cane several times. It was painful to watch.
I remember the Legislature preparing for debate on the matter of the State Papers Program. Although it wasn’t terminated through the Iowa legislative process, it was discontinued, eventually.
Swede died in 1988 at the age of 90 and is buried at the Vail Cemetery. His house was razed, and the new owner built a fallout shelter in its place. That’s another story for another time.
* “It’s a Hallmark”