Tommy Carlson

The Carpenter from Ockelbo

by David Hawkinson

1938 – 2015

I asked the tall bearded, wide-shouldered man for a light. He gladly offered it. We stood together on a snowy day on the bridge outside the Wallgren Library doors. I had known about him. He lived above my grandparents, Eric and Lydia Hawkinson, at 5223 Christiana, with his wife Joan and young daughter Kerstin.

Photo of Tommy Carlson

We were both in 19th century European history with my father Zenos. He had waded far deeper into Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August than I ever would. He was hot, the flakes barely clinging to his bushy chin. Steam rose as he began to talk about the lunacy of the Maginot Line as any kind of deterrent. His voice rose in great peaks of outrage mixed with a hearty laugh so deep and full. I had now met the carpenter from Ockelbo.

He already had a boiler engineer’s license. Now he was delighting his other palate with all the history he could consume. I quickly fell in love with him. Together, I’m sure we drove more people away with our manner of wild and ferocious argument.

Tommy was a thick, rough-cut plank of Swedish spruce, known for its strength and ability to carry heavy loads but also straight in grain, perfect for turning and planing the white stock into such furniture that would be handed down lovingly through the generations. We moved to Minnesota together after graduation to begin a painting and remodeling company.

There is more about Tommy than can be said here. But I want to bear witness to what I found so authentic about him and for which he was completely unapologetic. He loved Sweden. In the words of the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer he was “someone who belongs to the other world, but got left here anyway, he thumps, wants to go back.” To be with Tommy was to be half there with him. To listen to his big heart beating was to catch the original rhythm of his Pietist ancestors. He brought all this to our Pietisten fellowship and our common endeavor. He was skeptical of institutional power and any doctrine that constrained the human mind and spirit. He accepted the full prerogatives of the “priesthood of all believers.” He cared not a whit for, nor did he ever defer to any degree or position someone held in our meetings. We were on the same floor. No distinctions!

For all the beauty Tommy created with his hands, his finest craftsmanship was brought to his translation of Waldenström’s commentary on the New Testament that appeared in every issue. In those earliest of days, as we dreamed of Pietisten, when Tommy signed on to the translation we became Pietisten. It rooted us. And it rooted him in the soil he loved and in the language he preferred. We never discussed his exegetics, though he had profound respect for the text. He was a “reader,” bringing to life the words that nurtured the faith of our mothers and fathers and ours in the moment of urgency.

He fought for that faith and was often saddened and even outraged at what the Covenant was becoming. I said to him just before his death, when he was in a gloomy state about all this: “Tommy, a state church is just what we need. It’s the best soil for the conventicle to gather around the hearth once again. It’s our history.” “Maybe so.” He smiled. His eyes twinkled. “Maybe so,” I replied to my old friend. We clinked our bottles and finished our beer. Grace and peace to all who encountered and loved this wondrous spirit.