Widow's Lament

In 1956, Anna Elisabeth Colsch married a GI from the Frankfurt Army base and followed him to Minneapolis. He died in a car crash a few years later. Or so she was told.

"Once upon a time, there was a beautiful German girl--the best-looking girl you could find," Anna began her story the first time she reached me from a pay phone in March. "And this girl was swept off her feet, rescued, you might say, by love. Johnny was his name. We got married and came to America on a boat in a terrible storm, as husband and wife. We arrived in Minneapolis, and it was like a dream coming true. Then one night, Johnny didn't come home. He just vanished, I thought forever. I was told he was dead. I spent 35 years mourning as a widow. Now I introduce myself to you as Mrs. Angelic Swanson, a broken woman whose dead husband has come back to life."

Gone with the Wind

What you must understand about Angelic Swanson, Johnny's attorney said the other day from his office in Yakima, Wash., is that she's still grieving. And grief--in his line of work--can sometimes express itself as a desire for revenge. As for his client, Johnny's getting on in years; when this all blew up into a legal dispute, it nearly killed him. "This is a complex 'she said, he said' situation," Pat Cockrill concluded. "There's bitterness. There's confusion. There's great pain on all sides. It's an extremely unusual case, one that's called in the legal literature a 'heart bone' complaint"--meaning, in the vernacular, a suit brought not only for money or pure justice's sake, but also to soothe the emotions. "In all my years as an attorney," he went on, "I've never seen anything like it. To really understand the twists, you've got to go back, follow their time together step by step, and unravel the mystery."

They landed in Florida in September 1956, after nearly two weeks at sea. Johnny's parents, who ran a company in St. Petersburg that manufactured Christian memorabilia, met them at the port. Soon after the newlyweds' arrival, they threw a reception to celebrate. "I didn't speak any English then," Angelic remembers, "but I knew how to say thank you. Still, things went sour soon, and I was lost in the new world." Her story goes that Billy Graham, a friend of the Swanson family, was due in town on the revival circuit. Johnny's folks moved the couple out of the house and into the garage, onto cots between parked cars. Angelic got sick--"maybe the carbon monoxide"--and one night woke Johnny up saying she wanted to leave. They walked to the beach and slept there. By week's end, confused and a bit paranoid, she'd run off, been brought back by the police, run off again, met up with another German girl, and gotten hired on in a local cafeteria at 56 cents an hour.

"Johnny, being a decent husband, wouldn't stand for it. He came for me," Angelic explains, "and off we went to the races." The greyhound dog track, that is, where she hit the jackpot on a couple tickets. They took her winnings of several hundred dollars, bought a used Nash, and headed north along the Atlantic coast with another couple who'd recruited them to sell magazines door-to-door--Life, Good Housekeeping, Ladies' Home Journal, glossies that showed America how to live in those boom years. "It ended in a heck of a fight, we never got paid, our car broke down, and the police started coming around. We went back to Florida, but I couldn't take the heat. Johnny said, 'My little wife needs a cooler climate,' so we got out the map and picked Minnesota. I had a big jar of pennies and nickels hidden in the trunk. The Nash ran out of gas on the freeway outside Minneapolis, so we filled up the tank with spare change." At this, Angelic stops and smiles a kind of sly, benevolent smile. "That's when the story took a turn, and I started saving Johnny's skin."

He did construction work off and on. She kept house for a circle of upper-crust women in Minnetonka. In early 1957, after a falling out with the contractor Johnny worked for, they drove into the city and stopped at a lunch counter on Hennepin Avenue. He scoured the paper and circled an apartment at the Kent Hotel on Nicollet Avenue where they put down a week's rent that afternoon. Within days, Johnny was rushed to the hospital with gangrene after stepping on a rusty nail. He was laid up for over a month with a cast on his leg, during which they were hired on to manage the Anglesey Hotel, a turn-of-the-century building that was later torn down.

"I did all the cleaning, and Johnny did the paperwork in English from his bed," Angelic recalls. "We stayed there for, I think, over a year. I had a miscarriage. Johnny lost many jobs. I had my doubts, sure, but this was my husband. Johnny would kiss my forehead and tell me not to worry. I didn't understand what was going on, so he translated everything into German. He said the world was against him. And I had to believe him. Where else could I go?"

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