JIM THIELMAN: What I Didn’t Know About Uncle Hugo

Dad looked at the clock one night and said, “It was Hugo’s birthday today. I should have called him.”

He was closest to Hugo, his oldest brother. (Hugo, left, and Dad, pictured above).

“I feel a little bad about that.”

It was only about 9 o’clock, but that was it. Truly, it was that thought that counted.

Eldo, Waldo, Otto, Hugo (from left) and Leo (front).
Eldo, Waldo, Otto, Hugo (from left) and Leo (front).

Dad and his four brothers were mainly the same guy. With almost the same name: Eldo, Waldo, Hugo, Leo and Otto. They were farm boys of equivalent lithe statures and quick smiles. Never a guffaw.

Hugo owned the first garage door opener I saw. Demonstrating it one summer Sunday, he mentioned he had just installed one for a neighbor in his small North Dakota town.

Could Hugo’s remote open that garage door? Dad asked.

Hugo looked at his opener. Shrugged. Grinned. “Get in the car.”

The guy was in a lawn-mowing trance as Hugo’s convertible slid by.

Hugo clicked.

The door opened.

The guy stopped pushing as his mind worked. He looked down, saw us from the corner of his eye and laughed.

Small-town entertainment in the 1960s, before anyone considered the implication of a single radio frequency.

As is typical with uncles, it was mostly fun. You left and their lives stopped until the next 50-mile trip. Or so it seemed.

Decades after the garage door adventure, I settled into a folding chair at the last available set of white plastic forks and knives at uncle Otto’s 75th wedding anniversary. A retired bank president and his wife were on my right on a golden autumn day with no wind and plenty of sun outside the town hall in a tiny North Dakota burg.

A person must sprint well past 80 to achieve a 75th wedding anniversary. Otto and Aunt Ann were each 95. Hugo and Dad had shed their mortal coils.

Hugo and Otto had owned a hardware/electronics store in this town of 1,000.

Me, on the boat Hugo built. Made of wood. A cousin of mine and I wish we still had that boat.
Me, on the boat Hugo built. Made of wood. A cousin of mine and I wish we still had that boat.

Repairmen drove to your house to fix your set in those cowboy-and-Indian TV days. Hugo was the man who appeared to make your furniture talk again. He had learned the trade through a correspondence course. Hugo was an electronics maestro.

He had constructed his own home stereo system in the days of cathode ray tubes. The rambler’s astonishingly long basement featured a shuffleboard court and archery corridor. He placed audio speakers throughout the ceiling. The sound sparkled.

I walked into the town’s high school gym to shoot baskets one Sunday as hotdish and Jell-O with grapes in it flowed at a family reunion outside. Dust swirled in streams of daylight that filtered in from high, narrow windows. Between the streaks of light stood Hugo, scanning the ceiling and his memories. He eventually revealed he had fashioned the entire sound system.

It was Hugo at age 77 who pulled me through when I struggled to install a poorly labeled car stereo system. You can do a lot with a little knowledge and a 9-volt battery.

They had little formal education.

So I reminisced with the retired bank president as we ate our meals at Otto and Ann’s 75th anniversary on a beautiful day in Lidgerwood, N.D. The banker was dressed a tad better than some of the locals and had maybe seen a little more of the world. But he was still a small-town guy who shopped at JCPenneys.

He reflected on how it was rough starting out in the ’60s, just making ends meet with a wife, a kid on the way.

Color TV had arrived, and their old black and white was on the express to electronics hell. Hugo appeared to announce a verdict.

Thielman’s Hardware had received some color TVs. Hugo told the banker that these color sets were the thing. The future bank president said he couldn’t afford something like that. “I was just hoping to keep my job.”

“I’ll bring one by and you try it while I look at your set,” Hugo said.

“No,” said the banker. “I know if you bring that thing here I’ll never want to give it back. But I can’t afford it.”

The retired banker looked at me. He was a gray-haired man with his wife by his side and a condo in Florida.

He confessed to the allure of Technicolor.

“Hugo came over the next day to take my set to the shop, and he had a new color TV in the back of his truck. He said he’d look at my set, but it wasn’t in very good shape, and I could use this one while he looked at mine.

“I told him again I couldn’t pay for it.

“Your uncle,” the banker nudged my arm lightly with the back of his hand, “told me that was OK, that I’d really like this set. And if I wanted it I could pay him what I could, when I could.

“Gosh, once we got that TV, my wife and I couldn’t give it up. Your uncle didn’t care what I paid him each week, but I paid him $5 a week until I had paid it off. Some weeks that $5 was a little hard to scrape up.”

He dug into a fork full of potato salad. Swallowed. Looked over at the table where my aunt and uncle sat.

“I wouldn’t miss Otto’s anniversary.

“Those Thielman boys, they were something special.”

One thought on “JIM THIELMAN: What I Didn’t Know About Uncle Hugo”

  • shamanreb January 16, 2022 at 2:52 am

    Thank you VERY much for this :). My dad was adopted by Ann and Otto Thielman his name was Kenneth Patrick Thielman (he passed in 2000 from Lung cancer at the age of 60). I loved when we would visit them especially around Christmas. May you and your loved ones be blessed and safe this 2022 year.

    Rebecca M. Thielman


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