Colorful characters: Fredrik Langøy
When my grandfather, Johan Utkilen (my father’s father), was alive, he owned the largest farm in our community of Solend. Together with his brother Annanias, he also owned a sailing vessel (jekt) that carried goods and passengers along the Norwegian coast. To my grandmother’s great misfortune he succumbed to cancer in his early thirties, leaving her with their infant son, my father. The year was 1917. My grandmother could not maintain the farm so she sold all but five acres to a man named Fredrik Langøy, who came from a small neighboring island called Langøy. The history of that small island is rather interesting in that it was given as a present to a servant girl by a man named Haraldsen from Årås, who owned the largest farm on our whole island. It was presented to her as a reward for her many years of loyal service to his family.
My grandmother built a house on the five acres she had retained and it was in this house that both my father and I were raised. When Fredrik’s son Ingolf was growing up, he was my father’s best friend. Ingolf’s son Eivind was my best friend. Fredrik worked hard on his farm, except for winters when he and the rest of the farmers joined the fleet to fish for herring. Fredrik was a quiet, hardworking man, in total contrast to his wife Rikka (her name was probably Erikka) who had opinions on everything, even when no opinion was requested. Even though Fredrik looked like a normal man in both height and weight, he was renowned both far and wide for his incredible strength, a strength that would serve him well the following year.
The steamer (dampen), in those days, was the main mode of transportation for people and goods heading for Bergen or other coastal communities. When the steamer docked it was required that a man be present to help the steamer tie up and throw off the lines when the steamer departed. This was an obligation rotated amongst the households of the community and no compensation was given for the service. This duty had fallen on Fredrik that fateful morning in 1918 when the steamer Masfjord pulled in to the dock at Solesjøen. After unloading its cargo the steamer pulled away, but after only a few hundred feet it somehow got off course, hit a submerged rock and began to sink. Being the only person on the dock, Fredrik ran to a nearby boathouse owned by Ole Thorsen (my father’s uncle) because Ole owned the largest rowboat, a seks-æring (it had six oars). He kicked in the locked doors, launched the rowboat in no time flat, rowed out to the sinking steamer, and began hauling people from the water. Only two passengers had boarded the steamer at Solesjøen that morning. They were the brothers Mikkal and Ole Sinus (always known as Sinus Mikkal and Sinus Ole). Mikkal was in his late teens and Ole must have been around 14 because they were on their way to Bergen to buy Ole his confirmation suit. Mikkal could swim but Ole could not. As the steamer began to sink, Mikkal put Ole on his back and swam to the nearest point of land, which was a small island called Kalven about a hundred yards away. No one knows how many people Fredrik saved that morning, but there is no disputing the fact that without him the death toll would have been much greater than the seven who lost their lives. The steamer Masfjord was eventually refloated, refurbished (actually lengthened), and continued in service for many years. The shipping line Lindås og Masfjord Dampskipselskap awarded Fredrik a solid gold tie tack for his heroics. The first time he wore it to Bergen, it was stolen from his room at Førlands Hotel.
Masfjord did not totally sink that fateful morning. A portion of the bow and the top of the mast remained above water. Almost every citizen for miles around came to Solesjøen that day to view the wreck of their beloved dampen. Two of the ones not in attendance were a couple of young brothers, Olav and Mikkal Solheim, whose mother Randi would not give them permission to go. They were not even allowed to go up on a hill called Varhaugen, which overlooked Solesjøen and was at least half a mile away from the water. A varhaug is usually the tallest hill in a community where fires were lit in olden days to signal neighboring communities of an approaching enemy. Olav and Mikkal were eventually allowed to go see the wreck several days later when their mother had time to accompany them. Mikkal told me this story about 30 years later and was still upset about it.
A story was told of Fredrik when he was arrested by the Germans during the war for listening to the BBC. It was illegal to own radios, but Mikkal Solheim (the same Mikkal mentioned above) had a radio hidden in his potato bin. The Germans couldn’t find Mikkal so they arrested Fredrik and his son Ingolf, then in his early twenties. The story goes that as they were leading Fredrik away from his house, he told the Germans that they had to wait so he could go back and get his glasses so he could read about the Germans losing the war. As kids, telling this story after the war, we were amazed by Fredrik’s bravery. Fredrik and Ingolf were returned in about two weeks, suffering no ill effects from their incarceration. Having imagined the worst, the whole community breathed a collective sigh of relief. In a following installment I will write about the war’s impact on our community.
My last memory of Fredrik is from the summer of 1962. I was stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army, and along with a friend named Ray (he owned a car) drove to Norway for my first trip back since we emigrated in 1953. One evening Fredrik and his grandson, Frank (who was a year older than me), invited Ray and me to go fishing. This was back in the days when oars were still the main method of locomotion for small boats and I was anxious to see if I still had the rowing skills instilled in me by my father those many years before. I remembered him telling me that when oars enter the water there should be no splash and when oars exit the water the only sound should be that of water dripping from the blades. Fredrik was probably just being nice but he said he was very impressed with my rowing skills. He taught Ray and me to jig with a hook encased in a red piece of rubber tubing. We caught so much coalfish (pal) that night that the next morning was spent going around the neighborhood giving it away. Ray still refers to that night as his greatest fishing trip ever.
This article is part of the column Long Ago & Far Away by John Lind.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 26, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.