A modern immigrant story, part two

How the American Dream worked out for Norwegian Terje “Ted” Birkedal and family

Photo: Terje Birkedal
One of the travel trunks that the Birkedal family used on their trip to the United States. It still has the original travel stickers!

Terje Birkedal
Anchorage, Alaska

In the March 10 issue of The Norwegian American, I began the story of my family’s immigration to the United States from Norway. In Part I of that story, I took you up to the day we boarded the passenger ship that would take us from Stavanger, Norway, to England, the first stage of our journey. My story is not unique or special but is nonetheless a part of the overall story of Norwegian immigration to the United States.

The ship we took from Stavanger in December of 1950 was one of the old World War I era passenger ships of the Bergen Line. We quickly encountered a large storm on the North Sea, and water up to a foot deep would slosh across the upper deck when the seas got particularly unruly. According to my brother, Audun, passengers would have to carefully time their crossing on the deck by watching the motion and rhythm of the waves. A large rope had been lashed across the deck to allow passengers to “safely” leave the cabin area and make a mad dash to the dining hall at the other end of the deck. Once while making this dangerous run, my mother lost hold of me and I fell to the deck amidst all the water. Luckily another passenger grabbed me and kept me from sliding over the side of the ship. This, it would turn out, would not be the only time I was nearly taken by the sea on my trip to America.

Despite the storm, we reached Newcastle, England, without losing me or any other passengers. There my family took a train to Southhampton in southern England for the next stage of our journey. Here, Queen Elizabeth I, the pride of the British Cunard Line, awaited us. We boarded as second-class passengers along with a diverse group of other folks heading for the United States. Many on the ship’s manifest (which I have recently consulted) were listed as “stateless” and the United States was apparently their last hope. My older brother, who has always been a keen dancer, amused himself by having a good time with the Irish girls during the scheduled evening dances.

There was no longer a third-class steerage on the Cunard Line, so life was not bad as we crossed the mighty Atlantic. As is common in winter, a huge storm kicked up and most of the passengers hid away in their rooms heaving their hearts out. My family is not prone to seasickness, so one breakfast we were the only guests in the second-class dining hall. We had a great time feasting on eggs and ham while most of the passengers could not even think of food.

But not everything went so well. Again, the sea did its best to claim me. During one deck crossing during the storm, my brother felt my grip on his hand loosen and he watched me tumble helplessly across the deck. This time I rolled under the lifeboats near the outer railing. Luckily, I stopped for a moment in the lull between waves and my brother managed to reach me and pull me to safety. I don’t have a memory of that event, but I do remember the yellow toy truck in the window of the ship’s on-board store. Boy, did I want that truck, but it wasn’t to be; it was too expensive for second-class passengers such as us.

After four and a half days at sea, we reached New York City and passed by the Statue of Liberty. Here we were greeted and hosted by my mother’s middle sister and her husband (my mother’s two older sisters had immigrated in 1922). They took us to their apartment in Bay Ridge on 85th Street, then the heart of Norwegian Brooklyn. Here, I ate bananas and ice cream and watched television (wrestling and roller derby), all for the first time. My brother liked bananas so much he bought five one afternoon and ate them all up sitting alone by himself in a little Brooklyn park. We also got to see the Rockettes’ Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall and went sight-seeing on the New York ferries. My brother did not like New York; he thought it was much too noisy and crowded compared to Stavanger. But he did like the cars, especially the Studebakers.

As planned, we left New York for the home of my mother’s oldest sister in Colorado Springs, Colorado. We rode non-stop on the Greyhound Bus for three days, getting off only to eat and go to the bathroom. For me, this three-day bus ride was the best fun a kid could have. I especially liked riding in the far back of the bus.

We arrived in Colorado Springs at the foot of Pike’s Peak and spent a month with my mother’s oldest sister. Though I could not speak English, I remember playing with the neighborhood kids who were very nice to me. I remember one older kid who wore a World War II pilot’s leather helmet complete with goggles.

Next we boarded the Greyhound bus again, this time for Sonoma, California. This was the home of my mother’s parents, whom she had not seen since 1910 when they had immigrated to America and left their three little daughters behind to be raised by their grandmother. Like many Norwegian immigrants, they had officially changed their last name from “Thorstensen” to “Thompson.” They lived in retirement on a little four-and-a-half-acre farm with a few sheep and a chicken coop without any chickens. It was my mother’s parents who had most urged her to immigrate to the United States. Perhaps they had wanted her to take care of them in their old age? Neither my mother nor brother liked the situation. My brother got a job a local winery for a dollar an hour, but neither he nor my mother saw any benefit in staying in Sonoma. It was just a sleepy town back then with few prospects; not the bustling mecca for rich wine aficionados of today’s California.

My mother wanted to go back to Norway, but my brother wanted to return to Colorado where he thought he had the chance of a better job and brighter future. My mother finally relented and decided to follow him to Colorado. She did not want to see the family break up further after the death of my father. My mother’s older sister and her English husband had connections to the Broadmoor Hotel and helped my brother get a good starter job as a caretaker for a carriage museum on the hotel grounds. My mother first got an office job at the Broadmoor but then took a supervisory position in maid service. Later she returned to office work. My brother became a bellman and then joined the U.S. Air Force where he made a successful 20-year career. He received his American citizenship in 1954 on the deck of the battleship Missouri in a special ceremony for foreign-borne servicemen. In 1972 he immigrated to Canada with his Canadian wife and had a successful second career in vocational education in northern British Columbia.

As for me, life was fine playing with the other kids living in the Broadmoor Hotel employee apartments. When I was eight, I asked my mother not to speak Norwegian at home anymore. I had proudly announced at school that we had bought a T.V., but I had pronounced it “Te Ve” and then all the kids in the class laughed and I was humiliated. Also, my brother had given me the nick-name “Ted,” to replace my real name “Terje,” so American children could pronounce my name. Soon, I lost both my Norwegian language and identity, two things I have been trying to regain since adulthood.

My mother never lost her Norwegian language or identity, and her final wish was to be buried beside my father in Stavanger, a wish my brother and I fulfilled in 1985. Her life as an immigrant turned out to be a tough one. On the other hand, her unflagging support helped me find opportunity and a good life in the United States. At eight years, old I first had the dream of becoming an archaeologist, and the dream came true.

Terje “Ted” Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He grew up in Colorado and earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Colorado. He retired in 2012 but remains active in his field and has served as the President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage since 2012. He has conducted archeological fieldwork in the American South, the Great Plains, Norway, Canada, Guam, and Alaska. He has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory and history.

This article originally appeared in the April 7, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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