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The Vietnam War – Norm Nelson – from farm boy athlete to soldier

Norman Nelson agreed to a 2009 interview about his Vietnam War service. We met at his family’s Century Farm near Cottonwood. Norm proudly pointed out the farm was homesteaded by his great-grandfather, making his daughter and her husband the fifth generation of the family to operate the farm. I subsequently saw Norm at many Lakeview High School volleyball and basketball games. I mourned his passing in 2020 and share his Vietnam service as part of commemorating the impact of the Vietnam War on persons in our region.

Norm was born in 1942 in Montevideo, Minnesota, to Wilbur and Thilda Nelson. The Nelson’s had three kids including Norm’s sister, Marie, and brother, Elton. The kids grew up on the family farm located just east of Cottonwood. Norm remembered how Marie’s childhood was haunted by struggles with a long-term disease.

“(S)he had rheumatoid arthritis since as long as I can remember — probably 1-2 years old — and spent a lot of time in the hospital and many surgeries. So, she was gone a lot of times. I’d go stay with my grandfather — my grandfather and grandmother also lived on a farm — for a while.”

Norm described his parents’ busy farm operation.

“We had some milk cows, some beef cows, hogs, chickens and we raised corn, beans, and oats.”

If you are thinking that sounds like a lot of chores for the Nelson boys, Norm confirmed that reality.

“(I) and my brother had a lot of chores to do. When I was growing up and got a little older, I didn’t like milking cows, so I did all the field work. I did all the cultivating and mowing hay and that kind of thing and my dad did the milking. So, I spent time in the field more than I did with the chores. And my brother, he was bigger than I played football, so he wanted to bale. He wanted to handle bales so he could get stronger. We learned a lot growing up — the responsibility to get up in the morning and get the work done.”

The Nelson farm was near Cottonwood, so the Nelson kids all attended Cottonwood Public School. Norm shared memories of some of his teachers.

“We had some excellent teachers, especially in English. Miss Galbraith was our junior high English teacher and Miss Ann Erickson, was our senior high English teacher. They were excellent English teachers and they made it easy for us in college. Lyle Mauland was a math teacher.”

Norm added that Mr. Mauland later earned graduate degrees in mathematics and taught at the University of North Dakota.

Norm explained that he and Elton were both heavily involved in high school sports, but they balanced their sports with the family farm’s work requirements.

“I enjoyed sports in high school. In smaller schools there’s the opportunity to play a lot of sports. My brother is bigger than me and he played football. So, in the fall he’d play football and I’d be home helping Dad with the harvest. We both played basketball. In the spring I played baseball and he was home helping Dad. Senior year they made us run with the track guys to get in shape for baseball. I enjoyed that, so I ran track and played baseball my senior year. If I could do it over again, I’d do it all four years. I was gone most every afternoon from school.”

Norm graduated with the Cottonwood High School class of 1960 and began pursuing higher education.

“I went to Augustana College first. I was going to be a math major, but I had calculus and I didn’t care for calculus. I transferred to the University of MN to the Ag School. I was a little behind and then I got drafted in between.”

Norm received his draft notice in late 1965 or early 1966, but remembering harboring a hope that he might not meet the physical qualifications for military service.

“I had to report to The Cities for a physical. I thought maybe I wouldn’t have to go because I had torn cartilage in my left knee, so I had surgery on that. A couple of us had the same thing done and they didn’t have to go. So, I went down thinking I wasn’t going to go — that I was going to be rejected and I’d be coming back home. Well, I passed and they put us on a train. I think we had a place to sleep in a bunk on the train. But it was a long trip down to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. It seemed like the night took forever.”

Norm could not remember how his folks were notified that he had shipped out for Basic Training, but recalled that they were unable to contact him about an uncle of his who had passed away.

His arrival at Fort Leonard Wood for Basic Training was memorable.

“I just remember the sergeants were intimidating. They’d get in your face and they’d yell. My cousin, before I went down there, said, ‘Don’t balk at anything and just keep your mouth shut.’ So, I did that and those that would rebel or make comments, they were the ones that got in trouble and a sergeant would get right in their face and he’d yell and scream.”

Norm’s military training was underway.

The Lyon County Museum is organizing an exhibit about the impact of the Vietnam War on Lyon County. If you would like to share Vietnam experiences or help with the exhibit, please contact me at prairieviewpressllc@gmail.com or call Jennifer Andries at the museum at 537-6580.

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