A modern immigrant story, part one

Photo courtesy of Terje Birkedal
Little Terje with his older brother and cousin in 1947, three years before leaving Norway.

Terje Birkedal
Anchorage, Alaska

In my previous article for The Norwegian American, I explored the reception and treatment of Norwegian immigrants to the United States. This time I will begin to tell you my own story as an immigrant. My story is nothing out of the ordinary, but it is still worth telling because it is still part of the overall story of Norwegian immigration to the United States.

I was born in Stavanger on Norway’s southwestern coast in 1946. That is where I received my very Norwegian name of “Terje Gjert Birkedal.” My father was a small businessman and with his brother ran a family business called “Birkedals Skinn og Huder (Skins and Hides)” which was located in a traditional wooden “Hansa style” warehouse on the wharf. My father bought skins and hides from the farmers in and around Rogaland (the province that surrounds Stavanger) and sold them to wholesalers in Bergen who in turn sold them in England. On any given day, my father and his brother could be found in their small office surrounded by friendly farmers talking about this and that. My brother, Audun, who was born 12 years before me, said the “snus” would often fly wildly across the room and you had to be careful not to get caught in the line of fire.

My mother was a housewife who had previously trained and worked as a secretary. We lived in a two-story house on Holbersgata near what was then the stadium of the Viking soccer team (still the reigning soccer team in Stavanger). My family lived on the upper floor and renters lived on the lower floor—a typical arrangement in Norway at the time.

Two years after I was born, my father, at the young age of 42, died of a heart attack while visiting the library. He had contracted rheumatic fever as a child, and it had permanently weakened his heart. He’d had another difficult bout with heart disease during World War II, which had made his condition worse. Norway was under occupation by the Germans and medicine was scarce. Once the doctor said he had only one aspirin in his possession, and yet he kindly gave it to my father.

Photo courtesy of Terje Birkedal
A slightly less little Terje with his mother in 1950, the year the family immigrated to the United States.

Despite the death of my father, I lived in a safe and friendly neighborhood. Rune Bjornsen, the son of my father’s best friend, lived only three houses away and little Astrid Hepness lived next door. We played outdoors like all Norwegian children in snow, rain, or shine. I once tried to convince Rune to ride down a very steep hill beside our house on a kick-sled with me—he wisely refused. He was nonetheless a devoted friend (and still is) and once sat with me at the head of the stairs by my front door waiting for my mother to come home. I had asked him to stay because I was convinced that trolls lived in the attic and they would eat me if I remained alone.

For my mother and older brother, life was not so easy. My mother began to work as a secretary again and my brother pushed a delivery hand-cart around town to help make ends meet. After he graduated from high school, he apprenticed as an airplane mechanic for Braathens at Sola Airfield. Meanwhile I started to go to a nursery school. To get there I either rode on a little seat behind my mother on her bicycle or the local commercial bus driver would pick me up at the bus stop near our house and make sure I was properly dropped off at the school (that was Norway back then for you).

Post-war Norway’s economy was badly broken and the future looked bleak. My mother and brother began to think seriously about immigration to America. My mother’s parents had immigrated in 1910 and left her behind to be raised by her grandmother. They soon convinced my mother and brother that the family should at least visit America, and in case they liked it, do the necessary paperwork ahead-of-time to stay as full-fledged immigrants. Our summer cabin was sold to cover the costs of the trip, and we all got the necessary smallpox shots.

We all left as uncertain immigrants in December of 1950. I was four and a half, my brother just short of 17 years old, and my mother 43. We boarded an old steamship of the Bergen Line and headed off for England on a two-stage overseas trip to the United States.

To be continued…

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 March 10, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Terje Birkedal

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as a child and grew up in Colorado. After earning a Ph.D. in Anthropology he served as an archeologist with the National Park Service for 36 years. He has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, the American South and Southwest, Canada, the Great Plains, Guam, and Norway. He served five years as President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage, Alaska, and he has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory, history, and culture.