NELS NORMANN’S LAST PROBLEM
By Kimm Brockett Stammen
It was on a remote Northern California trout stream in August, 1920, that Nels Normann encountered his first problem. “At 18 months of age, I became dissatisfied with a willow stick, string and a safety-pin and wanted to fish with better equipment and salmon eggs.” His father, who worked hard and long as a carpenter to keep his family fed during Depression-era San Francisco, took him fishing for a month every summer, and the search for a better, and then for the optimum fishing rod engulfed his childhood. “At age seven I switched to spinners and flies, read books on English chalk streams in the Main Library, and began asking those in San Francisco fly shops how to tie flies.” As he did for all the subsequent problems Nels Normann encountered in his 98 years, he searched for its answer methodically, using the resource he most valued and that came most naturally to him: logic. He did not rest, nor stop analyzing or talking, until he had found, not just an answer, but the best possible answer—defined by him as “the one that entailed the minimal outlay in exchange for the best outcome.” He became an expert in the field, fished in New Zealand, in California, Oregon, Washington State and all across Canada, and wrote a book called Flyfishing New Zealand Waterways. In the summer of 1920, on a nameless icy trout stream, Nels Normann began analyzing and solving the first of a series of problems, in a process that other people, less logical, simply called living.
He married Virginia, my mom’s older sister, some years before I was born. All through my childhood my Auntie Ginny and Uncle Norm visited us at least once a year and stayed a few weeks. My aunt sprang, slender and laughing like a spring bouquet, into our house; Uncle Norm shook my hand and without saying hello immediately entrapped me in long one-way discussions about the velocities of projectiles, the properties of compressed air in bored metal, the problems of a rocket’s propulsion, the trajectory of a fly line, the reason a copper pot tarnished and the best way of restoring its shine.
He never talked about anything personal: his two marriages, his four children, the places he had lived, his friends, his parents, his work, the loss of his left hand when he was 19, or his feelings about any of it. Perhaps it was because I was a kid that he left out these subjects, but that seems unlikely since he thought I was old enough to hear about the gold standard and management techniques for the aerospace industry. Or perhaps it was because I never had courage or the sense to ask him.
“A functional solution was found,” he said, when some other relation asked about the accident on a 90-foot trawler that took his hand. After experimentation, he decided that a simple black-gloved wooden prosthetic suited him best. He wore long sleeved shirts for the rest of his life. He played Hearts and Pinochle by wedging the cards into a leather fold in the hand, he opened jars, drove, hugged, and scoured pots until they shone. A wooden hand was very useful when pushing through the blackberry bushes across the street from our house to get the best fruit, and it was often the only part of him that emerged from the thorny brackens unbloodied. The best summer cobblers, with plump sweet berries and fluffy biscuit topping—made by my mother because my Aunt Ginny managed to be both proud and modest about her complete lack of ability to even boil water—were served in a small orange casserole dish on the summer evenings when my aunt and uncle were visiting.
The problem of fish and their reluctance to be easily caught was only one of the many things to which Nels Normann applied his overwhelmingly logical mind. He had 19 jobs over 52 years ranging from sweeping steps as a child to re-engineering a cyclotron. He grew up during the Great Depression, completed the four-year Toolmaker apprenticeship program at Pratt & Whitney Machine Tools and graduated from MIT in mechanical engineering. His most rewarding job was with Aerojet, where he organized, streamlined, and managed the manufacturing of the Titan rocket engine program. At Aerojet he built, led, and motivated a formidable team of 1200 people to become the sole supplier of large rocket engines to the US Air Force during the height of the Cold War.
He then spent many years consulting with different manufacturing firms, analyzing their strengths and weaknesses. He made recommendations on how their efficiency could improve: how they could get “the best outcome for the most minimal input.” He had no interest in the internal politics of a company, nor in who would get credit for an improvement or who would be offended by a change. He was often puzzled and frustrated that his logical recommendations were not followed. “Why consult me and then not do what I tell them?” he’d ask. “People are not logical,” he’d continue, and shake his head in discouragement. The inability of other humans to embrace logic was his main source of bewilderment and frustration; it was the only problem in his life he never solved.
Like the personal events of his past, he also never talked about his past work as an engineer: that during the Cold War era he designed the batteries that started by remote control to fuel listening devices installed in the Kremlin walls. Or that he developed an image orthicon television tube that provided video to remotely steer unmanned bombers intended to target Germany during WWII—a very early drone, pressed into use before it was ready—in which Joe Kennedy Jr. crashed mysteriously. Or that the team he led at Aerojet had produced injectors for the Lunar Landing Rocket Module engine, air-to-air missiles, and guided torpedoes. When I was a kid I never heard about the things that he had done or how he felt about them; I heard only about the puzzles that were left to decipher. I didn’t hear the personal, the professional, the controversial, or the secrets, until he set out to solve his last problem.
It was long after I married and moved away, and after my dear Auntie Ginny had died, that he even realized a final problem existed. My husband and I had purchased a house in Seattle and raised a child; I saw my uncle less and less often over the years, and when I did see him I refrained from asking him questions, as he’d grown even more garrulous about engineering dilemmas and I didn’t want to encourage any more technical monologues than were necessary. I heard about his life and his family from my mom. My uncle’s children—my cousins—were grown and settled, and his money divided between them. His developmentally disabled daughter had a trust fund and a secure plan for her care. After twenty years of agonizing work, he’d written, cut down by half, cut down by half again, and self-published a manifesto called Management Logic: How Best to Satisfy Market Demands. The book, he said, “contains everything I know.” There’s a good deal in it about ammonia ampules, rocket propulsion, cyclotrons and the many other projects in industry he tackled, but also, between the lines of technical descriptions, is an autobiography of his working life. When his book was finally completed, and as he neared the end of his life, an icy realization came over him: many of the challenges life had set him or he had set himself, the problems that he’d worked hard to solve, had been solved. In fact, he had unraveled the problems of trout fishing so long ago that the book he wrote about it, his first book, was long out of print. It was this, then, that became his last problem: the absence of problems.
Had he been younger, he would have had no difficulty in stepping outside his comfortable room at the Folsom Retirement Village to find many more problems to solve. But he was tired. His body was beginning to fail. Pulling himself up onto his walker was a slower process every day. He had planned on living to 100, because it was after all a very efficient and clear number. But despite the appeal of ones and zeroes, when he turned 98 living began to seem illogical to my uncle. “I’m using resources, but not producing their equal in value,” he said to my mother on the phone, his voice beginning to break and sound faint. “It’s time to go.”
It was then that his son, my cousin, an obvious inheritor of problem-solving tendencies, sent out an announcement to all my uncle’s relations and acquaintance. “Nels Normann is now accepting all questions,” it said. “Anything about his life, his family, his work, or his thoughts. All will be answered, and a spreadsheet made up to collate and consecutivize them. Send them via email, phone message or visit in person.”
The results were spectacular. Relatives sent letters from all over the country. His children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the youngest aged five, sent him a list of fifty questions, which my cousin rationed out to him at the rate of five a day. And my mother decided that she needed to see him in person one more time, and that I needed to therefore take her to Folsom, California.
Q: What is your favorite bug?
A: None. I do not have a favorite bug.
Q: What is your favorite color?
A: None. I do not have a favorite color.
What did you do for a living?
A: I directed how quality products could be produced on time at the least cost.
Q: You will soon be experiencing life beyond this life, I wonder what it will be like. Tell me all about it.
A: The elements and compounds of the universe will be more or less the same and I will be scattered among them in no particular order.
Q: What is the key to catching a fish?
A: The key to catching fish is asking fish what they usually eat.
He had never had any interest in crosswords or other types of puzzles, as, although they exercised the brain, they produced no valuable result. But he relished the five questions a day—five small problems each day that helped solve, or at least delay, the problem of the absence of problems—and every morning demanded five more.
Q: What do you think about the possibility of extending life to 220 years old? What effect do you suppose it would have on our bodies?
A: I have done this by reading an entire text and solving its every problem before the first class; and I have done this at times by working two shifts on a job. There have been no discernible effects on my body. The objectives were worthwhile.
Q: Have you ever done anything illegal, if so what?
A: I had not reported my damage to another car’s fender.
Q: What is your earliest memory?
A: Eating mud at age one.
Q: What luxurious item or experience did you look forward to in your youth?
A: To maximize my contribution to the universe.
Even I got to contribute to the solution of his last problem. I hadn’t seen my uncle for several years, but when my mom and I arrived at the apartment he shared with my cousin at Folsom Retirement Village, he looked nearly the same to me as he always had. A high forehead topped with a wave of dark hair; large, dark eyes impossibly mild and yet intense, simultaneously. He looked at me, as always, with interest, as if I were a resource that might be put to good use. Moving around was difficult and although he wouldn’t say so, painful. He was forced to use a walker which I think he despised. His voice was higher than I remembered, and he needed to pause often for sighing, resting breaths, as if he were climbing something steep. But the way he spoke, his ideas, the things that fascinated him and his bafflement at the things other people wanted to know, were as I remembered.
Q: Are you afraid?
For the whole rest of my life I had avoided asking him questions; I was young and in a hurry, and he was likely to give very long answers that involved a lot of engineering terms and equations. But now, I was asking him something deeply intimate, something I had never asked anyone. Sitting across the table from him, participating, in a very small way, in the solving of his last problem, had made talking about the end of life and what might come after, seem easy. The question was simple, and it simply popped out of my mouth. It was the logical thing to ask. My uncle smiled. After being a quirky fixture for 54 years in the background of my life, endearing but sometimes annoying, in the end he helped me face one of the most primal, illogical and mysterious subjects there is, and one that many people go their whole lives without broaching.
A: No, not at all.
My mom objected. “I don’t think you’re ready to go yet,” she said. “But when you do, you’ll see Ginny again.”
“Nonsense,” my uncle replied. “My atoms will disperse, and in that way, and in that way only, I will go on. And the universe will itself, after enough time, solve its problem of imbalance by dispersing itself, and contract down to the size of a basketball, and then everything will start over again.”
My mother shares Auntie Ginny’s laugh and quick wit, her slenderness and beauty even into advanced age, and also her fearlessness in telling Uncle Norm, as I never had thought to, that his logic is rubbish. “Oh, yes, you will, because I know I will see my husband, and my mother and Daddy. And someday I will see you again, too.”
Uncle Norm shook his head sadly, gently and with great concern for her, and said, “You are deluded.”
After I accompanied my mom home, she repeated that he seemed too full of energy to go anywhere yet. My cousin filled out the spreadsheets of all the questions Nels Normann had answered. He printed out an exhaustive timeline of my uncle’s life, including more bits of information my uncle had not thought efficient to ever mention to me, and because I’d never asked him, had never known: that he’d married, had a child with and divorced an heiress in Norway before he met my aunt, and because of that neither Norm nor Nels was his legal first name, it was Carl.
On May 23, 2017, at the age of 98, after all fifty questions and many more had been asked and answered, Carl Nels Normann passed away peacefully in his sleep. My mom and I weren’t able to attend his memorial, because he had calmly insisted on not having one. But I decided that, since I had just begun a master’s degree in Creative Writing, that I would try my hand at short biography by writing about my last meeting with him. I began asking the questions that I was too young, too much in a hurry, to ask when he was alive. This short portrait has taken over a year, and despite being nearly finished it promises to be problematic: when my mom finds out what I’ve done she’ll surely want me to write about all of our relatives. Despite what, to him, would probably seem the unquantifiable and therefore dubious usefulness of the result, I think it would please Uncle Norm to know that in the act of resolving his last problem, he helped start me out on what could be quite a long list of my own.
My uncle, as a boy, standing in a remote icy stream, considered, not the beauty of the blue sky in August nor the sounds of wildlife, nor the unaccustomed feeling of spending time with his father. He didn’t notice the numbness in his feet and hands, had no conception that he was growing into a tall, dark-haired and dreamily handsome young man; he thought instead about achieving the goal of catching fish with efficiency. He measured the distances, the strength of line and rod, he wondered about trajectories, forces and torques. He compared the vibration speeds of the lines, took into consideration the variables, and tried to eliminate the interferences of water and wind. Yet he must also have felt the tingle of that faint tug on the line, the closeness of his father next to him in the stream, the emotional, the human, the illogical pull of excitement at all the problems yet to be reconciled, the questions yet to be answered, in this world and whatever comes next.
About the Author:
Kimm Brockett Stammen lives in Seattle, WA. Before beginning work on her MFA at Spalding University she was a concert saxophonist, clinician and music instructor, performing and touring across Canada and the US. She is a dual citizen, has been happily married for thirty years, has a daughter in college and a perpetually muddy dog named Birdie.