I recently returned from a memorial service in Southern California that honored the life of my former Brother-in-Law Roger Nielson who unexpectedly passed away from a massive brain hemorrhage. In short, the service was a glorious celebration of a unique and adventurous human being who marched to his own drummer. The reception that followed featured an eclectic array of vintage (and slightly expired) wines, a full spread of delicious Mexican food and plenty hilarious “Roger stories” at the open microphone.
Roger Nielson was a brilliant geological scientist who loved collecting and consuming vintage wines, dining on complementary happy hour “meals”, hanging out with his buddies and neighbors and scoring a great bargain. He was a simple man who was not materialistic or vain. He enjoyed telling elaborate stories and owned several running and non-running automobiles. His passions involved anything mechanical.
As a child and teenager, I would spend my summers in Southern California visiting my older sister Suzanne (who was married to Roger from 1970 to 1986) from New Jersey. In the fall of 1976, my parents and I moved to Northern California and I continued to travel the short distance to Southern California to visit my sister and Roger.
The moments I spent hanging out with Roger were some of the most extraordinary adventures I have ever had in my life. They will never be duplicated or forgotten. In fact, many of them are vividly returning to my mind as I write this blog. Roger lived life to the fullest and loved company doing it.
Roger and I shared a profound passion for aviation. I remember how excited I became when Roger announced it was time to watch some planes land at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). I can still see my sister’s eyes roll as we loaded the family into one of Roger’s beat up vehicles to make the long drive down to LAX.
Most people I know who enjoy plane watching probably do so from a reasonable distance. Not Roger. We would park underneath the landing path of one of the four main runways against the airport perimeter fence. This position offered the best possible place to experience maximum aircraft decibels and believe me back in the 1970s, passenger jets were extremely loud. Being one of the busiest airports in the United States, airliners were landing every ten minutes or so. During takeoffs, you could feel the hot exhaust from the engines while covering your ears from the deafening roar. It was better than being at a rock concert. Roger and I would be the only ones standing outside while the rest of the family hunkered down inside the car holding their ears.
I learned much about automobiles and engines hanging out with Roger. He loved to buy old beat up cars at a bargain and fix them up or cannibalize them for spare parts. For the first time in my life, I witnessed the inner workings of a car engine while learning what pistons, camshafts and valves do. I watched as Roger invented ways to repair cars that were extremely innovative and even patentable. I remember he once repaired the ignition system of a late 1960s Oldsmobile Toronado leaving two wires sticking out of the dashboard. Instead of turning a key to start the engine you had to touch two wire leads together with your fingers. As you could imagine, this operation was tricky as you could easily electrocute yourself starting the car.
Roger always drove below the speed limit because he did not want to apply un-necessary stress on his repaired or rebuilt car engines. I remember once being late for a flight back home to Northern California. Roger was (as usual) driving below the speed limit on Interstate 405. At the time, all I could remember thinking was how pissed off my mom was going to be if I missed my flight. Just before reaching the off-ramp to the Long Beach Airport, we were pulled over by a California Highway Patrol officer. Instead of acknowledging responsibility for breaking the law, Roger calmly lectured the officer on the potential hazards of running older car engines at higher RPMs. This lecture did not faze the officer, however, as he finished writing the ticket and handed it though the open window. Fortunately, I made the flight home with minutes to spare.
The summer parties I remember ranged from elaborate dinner parties to grabbing lawn chairs and moving from driveway to driveway in the neighborhood. Each party featured plenty of wine, cheese, crackers and other goodies Roger would pack in a brown paper bag. Needless to say, sobriety was not an expected outcome at many of these neighborhood shindigs.
There are many more stories I could share. During the memorial reception, the open microphone session lasted more than two hours. When God created Roger Nielson, He destroyed the mold. There was simply nothing like being with this man. I sipped my first glass of wine, smoked my first cigar and started my first car engine all on his watch.
So now, I proudly raise my glass of aged Pinot Noir to you Roger Gibson Nielson. I thank you for all the memories and adventures we had together. I thank you for teaching me and others the value of being frugal and, most importantly, being yourself. I know you are now seated at a large table surrounded by all your good buddies who have passed before you. I also know you are enjoying a great glass of your favorite wine accompanied by some tasty goodies from Trader Joe’s. You will be greatly missed on this earth.
And if I’m ever at a dull party, I promise, I’ll always remember your famous line: “Relax, relax. The wine’s coming”.