By: Karen Kelly Larson, RPR
“Does not play well with others.” That’s the phrase inscribed on a favorite pendant that I often wear (perhaps as a warning to the aforementioned others), and it’s actually the truth. Call it a quirk or a flaw in my internal wiring, but for my entire life I have found it difficult to interact with people I don’t know well. Consequently, I looked forward to professional functions with all the anticipation of someone facing a root canal and I’d avoid those functions whenever I could.
Paradigm Reporting & Captioning, where I worked as a court reporter for many years, has been involved with several humanitarian and/or socially conscious causes and events, and while my heart wanted to participate in these events, my “wiring” always said no. However, it was Paradigm’s involvement in the Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center of the American Library of Congress that ultimately compelled me to plunge in and get involved. As the official website states, this project “collects, preserves, and makes accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war.” My parents are members of The Greatest Generation and their era, along with WWII history, has long intrigued me, so having the opportunity to help preserve firsthand the testimony of such veterans was the catalyst behind my volunteering to be one of the reporters the next time Paradigm hosted the event. When physical issues arose that precluded me from doing the actual reporting, despite being more than a little terrified at the prospect, I then agreed to be one of the interviewers.
That was how I came to meet Carlyle Larsen, a WWII veteran from Madison, MN, on October 29, 2011. Carlyle is a WWII buff’s dream: utterly organized, articulate, and unflappable, even in the face of my fluttering, nervous hands nearly sending my glass of ice water cascading into the equipment of Lisa Richardson, the court reporter (much to the amusement of Dave Young, the videographer). Carlyle came complete with a sheaf of documents, his uniform, and other show-and-tell items, all of which combined to draw those present deeply into his narrative. A dynamic speaker and consummate gentleman, Carlyle made it easy for me and I was immensely glad that I had leapt into this project.
After his interview was concluded, Lisa, Dave, and I had the opportunity to converse further with Carlyle, who is passionately involved with veterans’ issues, and it was during that conversation that he told us about his friend Jerry Haverberg, a fellow veteran and Madisonian. Jerry had told Carlyle that he dearly wanted to participate in the Veterans History Project, but his ongoing battle with a deadly cancer prevented him from making the long trip to Minneapolis. Although she leads a crazy-busy life working as one of Paradigm’s captioners, Lisa nevertheless looked at me and said, “I think we need to go out there and make this happen,” and my reply was, “Yes, I think we do.”
And so it was that Lisa, Angie Ballman-Punton (who, after a cram session with one of Paradigm’s pros, was making her debut as official videographer), and I embarked for Madison on a beautiful Friday morning, November 4, 2011. In the spirit of full disclosure, it must be confessed that each one of us at some point in our journey to Madison did a little whining about having to make the trip when we could be perhaps putting the day’s sunny beauty to selfish personal use, but the whining was short-lived and we quickly began to see the day as a worthwhile adventure.
Upon our arrival at the Haverberg residence in Madison, we were warmly welcomed by Jerry, his wife Helen, and their portly-but-adorable little dog Sully, and as we entered their home, we found the dining room already dressed as the setting for Jerry’s interview. His friend Carlyle had been over earlier in the day to bring an American flag to use as a backdrop behind Jerry’s uniform, and Helen and Jerry had several mementos of Jerry’s military service laid out on the table.
Jerry’s physical frailty was immediately apparent, but his indomitable spirit was equally evident, and with Helen waiting in the wings to provide backup when necessary, we began the interview. While Carlyle’s WWII service had been more behind the scenes as a communications and radio expert, Jerry’s service had been in the roiling arena of combat from the very beginning, with his troop transport, the Sheffield, facing German submarines. Having averted disaster there, he went on to participate in the execution of Operation Torch in North Africa. In Algiers Jerry and other members of his detail were captured and nearly executed, but fate once again intervened and they were spared. Jerry was also involved in the prolonged, fierce fight for the taking of Hill 609, which followed the battle for Kasserine Pass, significant as the first large-scale clash of American and German forces in WWII. From North Africa Jerry was transferred to Corsica and then ultimately rotated stateside.
At more than one point during our interview Jerry became visibly emotional while recounting his combat experiences, and there can be no doubt that his military service was fraught with horror and hardship, but it was also my observation that Jerry was possessed of a merry soul which allowed him to find a little humor even in the midst of war. As he described each theater of the war he was involved in, with tongue firmly in cheek he would express his astonishment that “people were trying to kill me there, too” – including a domestic theater of operations in which he wooed and won his future wife Helen away from her then fiancé. He also regaled us with a hilarious tale of sampling the specialty of an Algiers restaurant – rabbit – only to be informed afterward by the proprietress, Madame Peru, that rabbits aren’t indigenous to Algiers and therefore had to be imported, but with the war now precluding that, Algiers’ alley-cat population had since become seriously depleted.
At the close of his interview Jerry told us about a 135th Infantry reunion that he regularly attended. Their motto is “To the last man,” and in keeping with that motto, the plan is for the last survivor to raise a glass in a toast honoring his departed comrades. The consensus was that as one of the youngest veterans, Jerry would most likely be making that toast, and Lisa, Angie, and I all promised that if indeed he were there to pour the drinks, that we would be there to raise our glasses with him.
Jerry Haverberg lost his final battle with cancer on January 30, 2012, but because of the Veterans History Project, a part of him lives on. I am deeply proud to have been a member of the team who made that happen, and my hope is that reading this article will compel others to participate in this important project.
The sage old adage is to “look before you leap,” but sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith.
Jerry, it would’ve been my privilege to raise a glass alongside you …