Notes on My Father

Frank William Larsen, 1909 – 1993

D. E. Larsen, DVM

My father’s early life was difficult at its best. He grew into an exceptional father for having grown up without a father. He rarely spoke of his early life. And when he did, he only told stories in small snippets. It took me well over half my life to piece those snippets together into a story.

He was born in Bellingham, Washington. The last of 5 births for his mother. His father was a Norwegian sea captain who sailed lumber schooners from the Northwest to San Francisco. His father went by Samuel Lars Larsen. That is all I knew of Sam for most of my life.


Sam married my Grandmother, Mary Jane (Mollie) Coats, in Bandon, Oregon, in 1903. Sam was 43 years old, and Mollie was 21 and 5 months pregnant. They lived in Bandon and Coos Bay for several years. Sam was known for his fondest of the bottle. Some would call him a drunk, but a high functioning drunk. He had his Master’s License before the age of 40. 

In October of 1905, Sam was master of the schooner Sacramento when it ran aground on Coos Bay’s North Spite. The story was he was anchored waiting out a storm. The anchor line broke, and the ship was aground in the morning. The crew was rescued with herculean efforts by the life-saving team. This was 4 years before my father’s birth, so a large debt is owed to those men, and their wives, by many generations of subsequent Larsen kids.

In January 1906, Sam and Mollie arrived in Bellingham, where his 3 brothers lived. They had their first son and an infant daughter. According to the family story, the daughter was smothered in bed that first evening.

Sam never sailed after that. I suspect he was fired following the shipwreck. Maybe he was sobering up rather than waiting out a storm. That is unknown.

In August of 1910, when my father was 1-year-old, his 2-year-old sister died from acute bloody diarrhea. Sam and Mollie separated following that death. Mollie returned to Bandon with the 3 boys to live with her folks, Thomas and Sarah Coats.

Dad only spoke of his grandfather in Bandon a couple of times. He feared the old Irishman, probably with just cause. Dad set fire to a mattress in the upstairs bedroom when he was 3 or 4, and the old man had to throw the burning mattress out the window. That probably did not endear him to his grandson. His grandfather died when he was 4, and Dad remembered they had him stretched out on the kitchen table, preparing him for burial.

In 1917, Mollie and her mother moved to Southern California. Life was not comfortable there. In early 1920, at the age of 10, Dad and his older brother Merle, who was 13, were checked into The Boys and Girls Aid Society of Los Angeles orphanage by their mother. They were there until they turned 14, not long for Merle but over 3 years for Dad.

That Society has evolved into Five Acres (https://5acres.org). An organization offering a full continuum of care for children and families in crisis, serving over 10,000 children and families annually.

When I tracked down Dad’s records, the administrator said it was good to hear a success story from that era. That those kids had a rough life compared to today’s standards, and there were not many success stories.

Dad was released from the orphanage when he was 14. He worked as a caddie. Dad caddied for Oliver Hardy and caddied for one player in a golf tournament at Pebble Beach. His only comment of that event as he had to sleep in the car. 

During this time, he developed a love for the movies. He would stand around the theater’s entrance until a family came along and then just go through the door with them. Kids were free with paying adults.

He learned to swim well underwater because the pool had tokens on the bottom of the pool. If you found a gold token, you were given free admission the next visit.

His mother remarried when he was 16, and he did not get along with his stepfather. So he hitchhiked to Oregon and stayed with his mother’s sister, Hattie Rogers, in Coquille. He took the only job available and became a whistle punk in the logging woods.

He returned to California for a time, only to hitchhike again to Oregon. Riding the rails on the second trip, he managed to separate the cars at one point, and the hobos were unhappy because the crew kick all of them off the train.

On his second trip, he stayed with another of his mother’s sisters, Annie Tripp. He returned to high school at Myrtle Point at the age of 21. Met my mother, worked in the woods for a time after graduating. After they were married in 1934, he attended Oregon State for a couple of terms.

There are few stories of his high school years. He finished in 2 years, and I find his name on the honor rolls, something I would have never dreamed of growing up. He spoke of stealing Mom from her boyfriend, right in front of him, something I think he looked on with pride. 

1934 OSU Rooks, Frank Larsen, 4th row, behind #64. Slats Gill, 1st row, far left, in suit 

At Oregon State, he managed to make the freshman football squad, The Rooks, coached by Slats Gill. He did get his picture taken with the team but quit before the season was over.

“They just use us for fodder for the varsity,” he told Mom at the time.

After winter term, they came home to Myrtle Point, hitchhiking from Corvallis to Myrtle Point. 

I heard Dad tell a friend. “We ran out of money, and I knocked up the old lady. I had to quit.”

After that, it was work and family. Dad worked in the woods, eventually becoming a donkey puncher, and they lived in logging camps and isolated houses. My sister, Linda, was born in 1935, brothers Larry in 1936, and Gary in 1941. I came along in 1945.

Life was different in Western Oregon in the 1930s and 40s. My brother told my sister’s whittling story on a door jam, and she dropped the knife. It stuck in her eye. Dad had the one car at work, no phone in the house. Mom held my sister with a washcloth over the wound until Dad got home and could get to the doctor.

In January of 1950, Dad purchased a small dairy farm above Broadbent. I am sure this was a significant achievement in his life. We milked cows, and he continued to work in the woods. We were taught work ethics by observation. We would be considered poor by today’s standards, but we thought of ourselves as well to do. California cousins would visit. Arriving in new cars and leaving with soiled clothes and broad smiles.

Dad would build a fire in the kitchen stove, the only heat in the house, before leaving for work at 5:00 AM. Mom and kids did the morning milking before cleaning up to go to school. Dad would get home and do the evening milking, also with the kids.

Dinner was always a family affair, and you would eat what was on your plate, period. Fried chicken nights were always open warfare over the white meat. Mom became creative in cutting up the one chicken for dinner.

I was home when Dad got the call that his mother had died in 1957. He cried, the only time I saw that, and he was mad at himself for it. He never had a relationship with his mother. She never did anything for him, never sent a card to any of the kids. 

I was the youngest of four kids in our family of 3 boys and 1 girl. Everyone argues about which family position is the most favored by the circumstance of birth. I can’t resolve that debate, but I believe that I benefited from observing my siblings receiving their lessons on life from our father. 

Teenage years are always difficult to live through. My father was always there and supportive. When I was 14 or 15, I challenged him, and I learned in no uncertain terms that I was the lesser man. He came at me like a charging bull, and I learned quickly. And that was that.

He saw that I understood that a job was necessary, and I got one starting my junior year in high school. I made cheese for 4 years, after school and summers. 

“You do the best job you can at whatever you do, and you will do well in life,” he told me once. I have taken those words to the bank for many years.

I don’t think he agreed with my enlistment in the Army when Vietnam was a threat, but he supported that decision. I learned in the Army that anyone with a farm boy’s work ethic was ahead of his peers. Work hard and play hard was my philosophy for those 4 years.

Dad played very little golf when we were growing up. Money and time were always in short supply. But when they became empty-nesters, he returned to the golf course. He played well, and I never beat the man. I always thought that he would get old enough and I could beat him one day. But one of his long time playing partners died suddenly, and at 81, Dad quit the game, undefeated by his son.

A couple of years later, Dad was dying from liver disease. I believe it was from a botched gall bladder surgery, but that is another story. When the Doctor in Eugene said he had done all he could do, Dad said, “I want to go home.”

He wanted to die at home, but that was too hard for Mom. Each trip to the hospital left him weaker and weaker. His final few days were spent in a nursing home. And like in birth, death is an event we all must do ourselves.

It took several years for me to fully realize the impact of his passing had on me and my life.

It’s Just a Little Cough

D. E. Larsen, DVM

Doctor, my new puppy has been coughing for a couple of days now,” Lila said into the phone. “Do you think you could get a look at him?”

“Sure, Lila, we are not in our clinic yet, but I can look at him at the house,” I said. “We have only been seeing patients for the last week, and we are not very busy. We could look at your pup right away.”

I examined Rex. A cute little Chocolate Lab pup. He had a slight temperature and a cough, but otherwise, he looked good.

“This could be kennel cough. Which, if that is the case, it will clear up easily with some antibiotics for a few days,” I said. “But, and it is a big but, I have seen several puppies in the last week with the same signs, and those puppies had canine distemper.”

“But Doctor, it is just a little cough,” Lila said. “Isn’t distemper a much more severe disease?”

“Distemper comes on in phases. The first phase is probably not noticed by most people. The might be a temperature, and the puppy is not bouncing around for a day, then he is back to normal. The next stage starts out as a cough, like this, that is indistinguishable from kennel cough. But in Distemper, rather than it getting better, it gets much worse. We see pneumonia and often diarrhea. Then it can progress to the central nervous system.”

“Is there anything we can do,” Lila asked?

“Unfortunately, at this point, there is not much we can do. We can send some samples to the lab, but time will give us the same answer. We can treat pneumonia and diarrhea, but in a puppy of this age, most of the time, the disease progresses to a brain infection, and seizures develop. Most of the puppies this age who get Distemper do not survive.”

“If this is distemper, I am going to be really mad,” Lila said. “The owner gave this pup a vaccine when I picked him up three days ago. That vaccine must have given him the disease.”

“The vaccine didn’t cause the disease, Lila,” I said. “If this turns out to be Distemper, the pup was incubating the disease before he was vaccinated. It is just a matter of timing.”

“If I hear you correctly, we are going to put him on some antibiotics and wait to see what happens,” Lila said. “What about another vaccine?”

“No additional vaccine today, but later, if he pulls through this,” I said. “Puppy vaccinations are complex because these pups get some immunity from their mothers, and we never know just when that immunity disappears. We know that it is gone in 90% of the pups by 12 weeks of age and virtually gone in all pups at 16 weeks. That is why we give a series of vaccines.”

“When will I know if Rex is going to be okay,” Lila asked?

“I think we will know in a few days. We should set up a recheck on Monday. There would be an outside chance that he could recover from the respiratory disease and then start seizures a couple of weeks later. But that would be unusual.”

“Maybe you could give him a vaccination then,” Lila asked?

“That might be a good idea since we don’t know anything about the vaccine the owner gave,” I said. “We will deworm him also. That is assuming he is doing okay at that time.”

“You are not very optimistic, Doctor,” Lila said.

“Very cautious at this point. I have seen more Distemper cases in the first few weeks in Sweet Home than I have ever heard of someone seeing. We have a very under-vaccinated dog population and a high incidence of disease.”

After Lila left, Paula, my new assistant, was eager it expand her understanding of canine Distemper.

“How are we going to deal with this disease situation,” Paula asked?

“Vaccination is the way to deal with this disease. It is highly contagious. Vaccination for puppies can be complex, Dr. Craig uses a measles vaccine initially. The measles virus and the canine distemper virus are very similar. But that vaccine is not used much these days. We will use a series of vaccinations, 2 or 3, depending on when they are started.”

“That will solve the problem,” Paula asked?

“This community has not had a veterinarian before me. There is probably a majority of the dog population that is not vaccinated. It is a disease that will take years of work and education to control. The best thing we can do is protect the clinic. We will require a vaccine two weeks before any clinic stay.”

“Why two weeks before a procedure?”

“If a dog is incubating the virus, the vaccine will not prevent the disease. The dog will get sick following vaccination. People will often blame the vaccine for the illness, just like Lila was prepared to do. If they visit the clinic for a procedure, a neuter, for example, and we vaccinate them on the day of the visit. If they get sick the following week, they will blame the vaccine and/or the clinic. If we require a vaccine 2 weeks before the procedure, if they are going to get sick, they will get sick before their clinic stay.”

Lila was all smiles when she returned with Rex. Rex was recovered from his cough and was bouncing around like a young puppy was expected to do.

“I hope this means we are home free,” Lila asked?

“Probably, but I have to reserve a small hedge, just in case. Rex looks outstanding. I think we can vaccinate and deworm him with little concern.”

I struggled against the distemper virus for several years in Sweet Home. We had significant problems with the city-run dog control. The facility they were using to house captured dogs was a nidus for infection. When we finally reached a point where most dogs were vaccinated and the city pound was disinfected, the infection rate declined dramatically, just in time for the Parvovirus pandemic.

Photo by Jairo Alzate on Unsplash.

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