[This is the first of five postings about my growing up in Sweden during WWII.]
My earliest memories of Danderyd (a northern suburb of Stockholm then as now) and life in the new house my Mother’s parents had just finished building there are mostly happy ones. The chaos of Norway, the raw power grab of the occupying German hordes, and the precarious escape from that unhappy country in 1940 did not leave much of an imprint on me at the time, and it certainly was not part of my everyday thinking the way it became at various points later in my life when I more or less obsessed about its meaning, if any, for my then situation. The new house, later dubbed Knogisro (‘the place where there was much bustling and work’, à la my ever energetic grandmother [mormor]) by my Mother’s youngest brother, Gunnar, was in the final stages of completion, and I recall the roof-tilers kidding around with me.
The house was huge (of course when I revisited it at age 17 it didn’t seem quite so large!), containing a basement, main floor, second floor, and a large attic – where my brother and I spent many happy hours playing, especially when it rained and you could hear the drops drumming the roof right above your head. That attic, incidentally, also had a very distinctive smell, woodsy and pleasant, and on a number of occasions later in life I imagined myself having smelled it again, the occasion inevitably evoking pleasant recollections of the hours my brother and I spent running around up there or organizing our marching armies of soldiers and (American) Indians, cars, animals, and many other kinds of toys that we had. The roof was slanted, which created a cozy enclosure in the attic. I remember that there were a few large nails sticking out of the ceiling, obviously having been driven in by the roofers and never covered up. When we first moved there we were too short to be bothered by this, but I do recall being very careful in certain parts of that attic after I had grown to full height in later years!
Across from the house lived a girl who was probably two years older than myself. Viveka was her name, and of course I became quite enamored of her. She was a sharp cookie and knew how to wrap me around her finger, and my Mother noticed this. It amused her, and she once remarked to her mother (mormor) that Viveka’s father, though not an educated person (he was some kind of chauffeur), was highly intelligent. I don’t know how she had reached this conclusion, but she had, and her point was that Viveka had her smarts from her daddy.
Let me digress a moment. Viveka’s father (‘Herr Edesjö’) spent a lot of time in a big garage that was one house away from Knogisro and sat a little above it. I recall the outside as being red with white trim, and the inside was quite dark. I liked to hang around up there, and Herr Edesjö was always very patient with all the questions I had for him about this and that, including a car that was parked in there – during the war there was very little (e.g., some doctors) to no private car usage in Sweden, and all vehicles owned by individuals had to be stored for the duration (in the garage at Knogisro there was also a car parked for some five years, which I vividly recall being pulled out by a team of horses in June or July of 1945 after the armistice, its tires flat and its paint covered in dust). Anyway, one time when I was up there poking around in his garage, he put a cigarette in his mouth. He patted his clothes, looking for matches. At the time I had found an old golf club with a rusty head and wooden shaft leaning in a corner, and made some comment about how nice I thought it was. He asked me if I wanted it. I could hardly believe my ears, but he repeated the question. “But,” he said (in Swedish, of course!), “you’ll have to run home and get me some matches first.” My legs lay on my back as I hurried down the road and stormed into the house pleading with my Mother for a box of matches. She was understandably suspicious and questioned me about motives. When I had given her my breathless explanation of what lay behind my request, she did give me the matchbox, and I raced back to Herr Edesjö, gave him the matches, and he handed the golf club to me along with a few beat-up golf balls. From that time (1941?) I date my lifelong off-and-on love-hate relationship with the sport of aristocrats.
A few weeks later I got up very early one Sunday morning to practice my swing. I remember the intense frustration of even hitting the ball, much less directing its path. After many unsuccessful attempts I finally connected just right and the ball went flying in a beautiful arc away from the club. I still remember the frothy exhilaration of having made a great shot, a feeling that was to repeat itself over the years on those rare occasions when I hit the sweet spot and the ball, its arrogant sense of independence for once reined in, went precisely where I had meant that it should go. On this occasion, however, this aforementioned exhilaration was quickly cut short by the loud tinkling sound of a golf ball flying through a perfectly innocent glass window. I looked around, frozen in place, waiting for angry adults to peer out of intact windows and giving it to me. But the Sunday morning silence reigned supreme, and I gingerly walked up to the house to inspect the damage. The windows were double-paned, and my ball had broken through the outside glass and now lay at the bottom of the window frame in front of the inside glass. I failed to report my delict to the ‘authorities,’ no doubt not the first felon to hope fervently that his criminality never be discovered. That day wore on with agonizing slowness and nobody said anything. But as my brother and I were being tucked in that night and our grandfather (morfar), as he always did, came in to say good-night to us, he looked me in the eye and asked if I was the one who had broken the window in his study/sitting room. I confessed. I cried. I promised never to do it again. And I don’t recall exactly what morfar did – probably suggested I pay for the window by weeding a bucketful of undesirable growths in mormors vegetable gardens. To this day I often think of this incident as I address the ball on the tee, and I am not certain but that it somehow inhibits me from letting fly with the supershot of supershots!
Anyway, that was Viveka’s father, and little could he have imagined on that fateful day what he had started.
Viveka, as I said, had captured my heart, as many a member of her gender was to do so cruelly over the years. She was also old and adventurous enough to be into playing doctor – it was not called that, but “visa,” or ‘show’. “Hörru, vill du visa?” (‘Hey, wanna show?’). I wasn’t sure exactly what she was getting at, but I would have done anything for her. She explained, a smile playing about her face. On the side of the house she lived in that did not face our house there was a brush- and tree-filled slope down, and she led me about halfway down the hill (I think my brother, who would have been maybe four or five at the time, tagged along) where the action was to take place. She stopped and told me to show first. I thought it was an odd thing to ask – but she was, after all, Viveka. I pulled down my pants and she gave me a careful inspection. When she finished she laughed lightly and said she’d changed her mind and wasn’t going to show me hers – the first of many sad betrayals of my trust by the so-called fairer sex! A few days later she repeated the suggestion, but, now wiser in the ways of women, I insisted that she had to show first. She readily agreed, and we retreated to the same location as last time, and this time she did pull down her panties and lift up her skirt and showed me hers. A naked girl was nothing new to me (beaches in Sweden in those days normally featured naked children, utterly absent the contemporary American Islamic-like hysteria regarding nudity of any kind and of children in particular), but it was the first time I’d seen a girl’s “thing” up close and been allowed to inspect it. I recall no sexual titillation (I was nine when that first happened, and I will discuss it in the next chapter) of any kind but merely a kind of pleasant curiosity. Once the ice had been broken, so to speak, I recall that we had several ‘showings’ in the months that followed, and, in adult retrospect, I believe Viveka probably got a lot more out of it than I did.
Interestingly enough my brother ran into Viveka some twenty years later (the mid-sixties) in Los Angeles – I think it was actually Manhattan Beach. She had gotten a job as a stewardess for Pan Am (remember that one?) and was flying all over the world, with Los Angeles being one of the ‘bases’. I’m not sure of the details of their encounter or how it came about, but he did say that she had turned into a very beautiful woman. No surprise there, I thought wistfully! I never did meet her in adulthood.