[This is the fifth and final of five postings about my growing up in Sweden during WWII.]
My Mother’s other, younger, brother, Gunnar, was also a kind of hero, and in some real sense another substitute for the father I did not have until I was nine years old (it’s true that I remembered my Father from Norway before the war, but these were discrete recollections without any sequential coherence, and the only other contact was the letters he sent from California to my Mother during the war).
Gunnar was a mechanical genius. He could make anything with his hands, including the workshop he created in the basement at Knogisro, replete with a lathe he’d made out of an old pedal-type Singer sewing machine, drill stands, bench vise, and everything a craftsman could need. Since little was available during the war years, he made most of these items out of scraps and pieces from here and there, almost as if by magic. I still smell the helical strips peeling off the block of wood secured in the lathe that he would sculpt into bowls and candle holders. He made a huge O-gauge railroad for my brother and me, and no piece of track was beyond him: he designed the cross-overs and switches and the rail-joiners, and used a steam kettle to soften long strips so he could bend them into graceful curves and nail the ties to both ‘rails’. He bought Märklin O-gauge cars and wind-up trains to run on the tracks. He could make chairs, tables, book cases, drawers, shelves, cupboards. Later in life he made demonstration models for companies proposing various construction projects. He nursed his old Volvo as a mother does a child, and he once told me he had taken a tour of the Volvo plant and had, correctly, pointed out that the ‘expert’ guide was wrong in his understanding of the lubrication joints on the car’s undercarriage. He built model airplanes from scratch, and a radio-controlled boat (about three feet long) long before you could buy these control units off the shelf. He built two fully working car models in what I suspect was about 1/12 scale. The steering wheel worked just as on a real car, with the requisite worm drive on the steering column gauged to the front wheels. A long flexible metal rod that screwed onto the steering wheel made it possible for us to walk upright, pushing the car ahead of us and steering it. The engine was a masterpiece of mini-modeling, again, long before there were plastic models with parts to cut from sprue and glue together. His masterpiece, in my mind, was the car (probably in ¼ scale) he built for my brother and me to sit in and steer as we were pushed. He never had a piano lesson, but had perfect pitch and could play anything on the piano once he’d heard it – he once teased my Mother around Xmas by playing ‘Silent Night’ to a strong a jazz beat. He was fluent in German and English (in addition to Swedish, of course), but had never been out of Sweden. He was eight years my Mother’s junior, and twenty years older than myself. He was my Mother’s favorite brother, and when he died of rheumatoid arthritis at 65 that had crippled the hands that were so gifted my Mother took it very hard – perhaps harder, I thought, than was appropriate. He was a great guy and, like all the people I grew up with in the early forties, a great formative influence on me: his great patience (unlike my father’s!), his kindness, his humor.
Earlier I mentioned the Finno-Russian war. As a result of this mindless aggression, there were thousands of ‘krigsbarn’ (war children) from Finland taken in by Swedish families to keep them out of the war and give them a chance to grow up in a more settled environment. This was both good and bad, or, rather, had perhaps unforeseen consequences of a negative sort. These kids were usually under five or six when they came to Sweden, and by the time the war was over, they had forgotten Finnish and spoke only Swedish. And not a few of them had lost one or both parents in that savage war against the Russians. The question of their post-war repatriation understandably created numerous difficulties: they knew their foster parents as their real parents, and they could not communicate with biological parents they didn’t even remember and who spoke Finnish and were in effect total strangers to them. Many were adopted by their Swedish foster parents, with the sad consent of their biological parents. My first wife was such a child, and she had deeply ambiguous feelings about her biological mother, perhaps having internalized at some level the idea that her mother abandoned her. She really did not like talking about it. Her biological father had fought on the Russian front in eastern Finland and, part of a sniper squadron operating on skis in the deep snows of the vast forests of the region, had been killed in the winter of 1941 while on patrol. I once saw a photo she had of him, and I could definitely see my son’s face in that of this long dead soldier fighting for his country in a war most people today have probably never even heard of.
During the war I had two such kids as friends, both very bright and talented (one in art and the other in swimming). I don’t know what happened to them after the war – perhaps they were two who returned to Finland as I set out for America. In any event, when I returned for a year to Sweden in 1947-1948, neither of them was to be found, and I’ve never heard from them. One was named Onto (“OUn-tu”), and the other’s name I’ve forgotten. But I do recall that his foster parents (the ‘father’ was a dentist) were very cruel to him and seemed at times to treat him like a menial servant. The school I attended had quite a few such Finnish children, and I never once recall any kind of ‘racism’ or hostility against them by either students or the pathologically strict teachers – this despite the fact that Finns were not uncommonly considered lower class by many Swedes, especially those of my grandparents’ generation (when my grandmother learned I planned to marry a Finnish – though Swedish — girl, she once remarked [to my wife-to-be] that “a Finn isn’t exactly what we had planned for him” – a dreadful thing to say by any but esp. today’s criteria, but chronocentrism is perhaps something to eschew. My wife, however, never forgot this!)
The large department stores in Stockholm, NK and PUB, had, as I mentioned, a huge kind of basket placed at the center of their locales into which one could throw from the surrounding balconies packages meant for the Finnish people and soldiers as Christmas gifts. Apparently mittens were a prized item, and my Mother, an inveterate knitter all her life, made mittens for the soldiers. These mittens fascinated me, for while my own had a thumb plus body or a thumb plus four fingers, these mittens had a thumb, index finger, and body. I asked my mother about that, and she explained that the soldiers had to have a separate index finger on their mittens so they could pull the triggers of the rifles they would be carrying to kill Russians. It made a deep impression on me, and I felt especially privileged when she allowed me to toss one of her mitten packages into these huge containers.
Two other points: dogs and the Japanese. I have been uncomfortable around dogs all my life, and I attribute this to an attack made on me by a large boxer when I was about six or seven and returning from school. This dog was loose near Knogisro and somehow got interested in me. It started barking ferociously. I panicked. I began running frantically for the gate to our yard, and that delighted this miserable hound. It set out after me, snarling and slavering, and fear put wings on my heels and allowed me just to get inside the yard and slam the gate before the beast could rip me apart and gobble me down like some Nordic Actaeon. It still awes me to think of this very vivid incident.
Less traumatic but of more philosophical interest is the matter of the Japanese. During the war a number of Japanese diplomats had been posted to neutral Sweden, and they were very enthusiastic though very unskilled golfers (if they hit a brand new ball into the forest, unlike any other golfers of the time who would spend half an hour to find it, they simply laughed nervously and moved on). My brother and I caddied at the course named Kevinge near our house, and all the caddies wanted to do the Japanese: they spoke no Swedish, never yelled or screamed at you, always smiled, and had no idea – so it seemed – of the value of a krona. That is, they paid outrageously well! Although caddying by children in our age range of 6-9 would land the player in prison today for child abuse, in those less regulated days it was no problem. My brother and I have wondered from time to time if we could be considered traitors to our country for having caddied for the Japanese who of course at the time were, though entirely unbeknownst to us, mortal enemies of America, the country whose citizenship we carried in spite of our never having been there or knowing its language. We have decided that we could not reasonably be so deemed. In fact, the monster then in Sweden was not the far distant Japanese but the more proximate German.
Before I end this section and move on to the arrival in Mission Beach, just north of San Diego, I’d like to pause to recapitulate in broader terms my impressions of the five years of World War II that I lived in Sweden. Central was the household of my maternal grandparents. As the frames of these years have unspooled before my mind’s eyes it is always my grandparents who hover in the background, or foreground, perhaps even more so than my Mother. My Father was a fading memory, and it is not inaccurate to claim that I really did not start to know him in any real sense until we arrived in California in August of 1945, when I was nine.
I’ve alluded from time to time to my Grandmother, an extremely energetic, forceful, and giving human being whose memory remains ever warm and welcome. Without depreciating the influence of my parents, I can aver that she—along with her husband — it was during this extremely formative period in my life who taught me how to be, imprinting in me many of the repertoires of such decent behavior as, I hope, came to characterize me as an adult. Of this I was not consciously aware at the time. What I remember are the special treats she would arrange for my brother and me on Saturday evenings, allowing us to “play restaurant,” complete with sandwich tongs to load up our plates with the special treats (butter, chocolate, sugar) sometimes available in war time. She bundled us up when we set out for the golf course to go skiing in the winter and made sure we had our lunches with us before we headed off to go swimming in Edsviken in the summer. Especially during the bitterly cold winter of 1942-1943 when there was little coal for heating, she it was who was up first and started the wood-fired stove in the large kitchen in which we (grandparents, mother, uncle Gunnar, my brother and myself) gathered to keep warm (coal was scarce!). She got the breakfasts ready, she baked her aromatic breads and pastries, she fixed the dinners. From time to time she would take my brother and me in to Stockholm to go shopping at the two giant (to my mind at the time) shopping centers, Pub and NK, and then treat us to such sandwiches and pastries with hot chocolate as might be available that day at a famous locale on Kungsgatan whose name I have forgotten (?Tornet? but it was still there – rebaptized — in 1997 when I visited Stockholm, and I had a nostalgic lunch there for old time’s sakes). I also remember her taking us to Skansen, a large outdoor zoo-like park with animals. In a very real sense, she was everywhere in my childhood.
My grandfather, her husband, I have discussed elsewhere.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, and this is as good a time as any to leave Sweden — for a while.