The Lamplighter’s Rescue

Josef Cornelius Kastengren

My grandfather was nineteen years old when he left his home in Sweden and started his journey for America. By then life had already taught him that he was a man of courage and very good fortune. He had perhaps already discovered that life was not happening to him, but happening for him.

I remember my grandfather as being a man of very few words. I only have a handful of memories of him because we did not live close enough to visit very often. When my family did show up to visit, it may have been a little overwhelming. Even though he had been father to eight children of his own, I have five brothers and five sisters, so we were quite a crowd.

Mother said her father had often quipped “silence is golden.” Maybe through a lifetime of contemplation he’d realized a deeper truth in those words. Or maybe, like many men of his generation, he simply said what he meant. In any case, this man did not waste his words.

My most prominent memory is of him sitting quietly in his chair, gazing out the window. He was smoking a pipe, filling the room with rich, aromatic clouds. He held his pipe in the hand with only four fingers--since he lost his index finger in a woodworking accident. But he didn't give it much notice, seeming to wear this novelty as a badge of honor. I wish I knew when he reached this perspective, or if he’d lived his whole life this way, but he was a man with nothing to prove.

It had always been challenging for me to understand my grandfather through his strong Swedish accent, but it became more pronounced with age, as he reverted back to speaking mostly in his native tongue. I don’t know if he was forgetting English or if he just didn’t care to translate anymore, but he would point his pipe at Uncle Johnnie who would interpret for him. Grandpa had outlived my grandmother by two decades; and it was his youngest son, Uncle Johnnie, who became grandpa’s dedicated companion, caregiver, and translator.

There was only one time I ever had what could be considered a conversation with my grandfather. It is perhaps the singularity of the event which makes it so memorable. I was on my way to college, and it was the first time I got to visit Grandpa Joe and Uncle Johnnie on my own. I spent the final Sunday of the summer with them because Uncle Johnnie was taking me on Labor Day to move into the dorm so I could start college. Observing me, in my mixture of excitement and apprehension, embarking on my life‘s journey, seemed to make Grandpa reflect when he was at that point in his own life.

Grandpa showed me the army photo from his service during the First World War. His military service during the war was how he earned US citizenship. He also showed me the greeting card he got for his 90th birthday from President Ronald Reagan. Then he went to the cupboard and retrieved a goblet that looked like a small silver version of the holy Grail. There was a story about this that Grandpa wanted to tell me.

Johnnie translated, as Grandpa told the story of the silver goblet. He said that when he was a boy in Sweden, the street lamps had to be lit each night. That was Josef’s first job, lighting the gas street lamps. One night as he was making his rounds, he got to the edge of town and discovered the livery stable where horses were boarded was in flames.

Livery Stable in Panora, Iowa

My grandfather did not own a horse, but he ran to the stable, opened the door, and freed all the horses trapped inside, saving their lives. The owners of the horses Grandpa saved were deeply grateful, and one of the owners was none other than the King of Sweden, Gustaf V. To show his gratitude, the king gave my grandfather a silver goblet; as a reward for saving his horses that night.

As the years accumulated, my grandfather's story lay buried under a heap of other memories. Until, as fate would have it, on the auspicious day of Diwali (the Festival of Lights), when my cousin's daughter sent me a document, some research on our family in Sweden that her mother had done a while back. Looking through the records, I came upon a line that says the occupation of Josef Cornelius Kastengren was “gas lamplighter.”

Staring at those words the memory came softly fluttering back, as if on the whispered wings of angels. “Share the story, pass the torch, keep the lamp lit,” the spirit of my grandfather seemed to beckon me.

I told the story to his great granddaughter, and then, unable to sleep, I marveled at the lessons embedded in the story which I hadn't recognized in my youth. It was some time after his funeral when I learned that my grandfather didn’t just open the stable door and let the horses out that night as he had allowed me to imagine. He actually had to enter that burning building to unlock the gate of each stall in order to free the horses. Again and again he summoned his courage and ran back into the flaming building to free the next horse, until they had all escaped to safety.

Looking back, it seems fitting that he left out these phenomenal details. In his humility and generosity, he did not take me into the burning building with him when he recounted the events. Perhaps the wisdom of his years informed him that in every moment, with our words and with our conduct, we are writing our own history. At ninety years old he’d had time to consider how he wanted to be remembered.

My grandfather thought he was simply doing what needed to be done. But that’s what life is made of, moments like that. Our heroes are often simply someone who faithfully does what needs to be done. When you do that thing in front of you which life is calling for you to do, it can make life better in unknowable ways.

Those were not his horses. They were not his responsibility. He had nothing to gain by saving them. No one was watching. It would have been reasonable to sound an alarm, or seek help, but that’s not what he did. He boldly stepped into a burning building and rescued every soul inside, because that’s what his heart told him to do. Sometimes the most heroic thing you can do is follow the urging of your heart.

Every moment of courage, every moment of compassion, every moment of love is an opportunity for your light to illuminate the darkness. It is always worth the effort and even the pain, to be that light. Because where there is a single point of light, darkness cannot exist.

The reward he got was so much more than the silver goblet. There is the gift of grace that comes in knowing that you are a person who will act courageously when life calls for courage. That is an infinitely valuable thing to know about oneself, worth more than a king's ransom, or a king's silver grail.

The gift he gave himself is the knowledge that he was someone who doesn’t run away, doesn’t wait for someone else to solve the problem, doesn’t let fear dictate his actions. Because it turns out, you don’t become brave by surviving something terrifying or devastating; you discover the bravery living within you by facing your fear or despair, and stepping over it.

He gave himself the knowledge that he was someone who could summon enormous courage. When he stepped into the burning stable that night, he stepped over his own fears and limitations, and came face-to-face with his own bravery. Moments like that let us see ourselves in our truest nature, that of unlimited possibilities. It is perhaps as close as we ever get to seeing ourselves through the eyes of our Creator.

I’m sharing this story to remind you of the great bravery within you too. It might be waiting quietly to make your acquaintance, on the other side of that thing which you fear. So, summon your courage, and that of your ancestors! Step forward boldly, heroically to do those things Life is calling for you to do! Who knows, maybe 100 years from now, your grandchildren and great grandchildren will still be talking about it and finding the treasure of lessons in your courage, lessons that will be a light in the darkness.

May you always have the courage to do that which you have been called to do. May your courage allow you to bring forth good things. May your accomplishments shine a light to illuminate your path and a path for others to follow. May your light always be bright enough to dispel the darkness.

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