Colorful characters: Kasper Brügger
There were many wonderful characters living in our community when I was growing up. One of my very favorite was Kasper Brügger, not only because of his sense of humor but also because he was one of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet, which you could say about his whole family. He was one of my father’s best friends and a fellow ship’s captain. Kasper owned a small coastal freighter named Kapp I.
His oldest daughter Åse and I went to school together. She was also my girlfriend until the time we emigrated. The way I came to know she was my girlfriend was because my parents told me she was, although I kind of suspected she might be ever since she shared her orange with me in third grade. I was not what one might call “worldly” in my formative years. She later married one of our classmates, Berent Helland.
It was the custom back then for all boys in our area to “go to sea” once you finished school (which usually consisted of seven years of grammar school and one year of something like a junior high school, framhaldsskulen). Åse was the only female among my friends who also followed this tradition. She had gone to school to learn telegraphy and when she signed onto one of the Fred Olsen boats as a telegrapher, she automatically became an officer. Berent, then her boyfriend, also served on the same ship but was only a deckhand. According to the rules, officers and deckhands were not allowed to fraternize. Knowing them, however, there was plenty of fraternizing going on. Berent, subsequently, went to school and got his Mate Certificate (and later his Captain Certificate) making him an officer too, at which point they could legally fraternize. Every year, ever since I left Norway in 1953 (at the age of 11) I have received a Christmas card from Åse, first by herself, then from her and Berent, and again by herself after Berent died of a heart attack while out fishing.
What made Kasper such a humorous person was not that he told jokes, because I can never remember him telling one. His humor came from his general approach to life. He saw humor in almost everything. I remember once when Borghild Solheim came to call and Kasper answered the door. Upon seeing who it was, he called over his shoulder to his wife Jenny to lock the liquor cabinet because Borghild was here. Borghild never touched a drop of liquor in her life. Like most people in our part of the country, Kasper spoke no English, but his favorite phrase to explain something he didn’t understand was “I don’t begrip” (begrip means comprehend).
Most men my father’s age enjoyed dancing. One Saturday night in the late 40s, my father and Kasper were docked in the same town, Ålesund, and decided to take in the local dance. After the dance, Kasper and my father were heading back to their respective boats, Nordstraum and Kapp I. They were walking down the street, chatting away, when my father realized that Kasper was no longer with him. He looked back and saw Kasper and a strange woman on all fours on the sidewalk in a fit of laughter. It turned out that a button from Kasper’s overcoat, which he wore open, had caught a buttonhole of the coat of this woman as she walked past. Kasper’s button had popped off and they were on the ground trying to find it. My father joined the search, and the button was eventually found.
When Kasper came home and explained to Jenny about his missing button, he told her, with his usual dry sense of humor, that he would have to leave her because a higher power had selected another woman for him. Jenny, who usually had a great sense of humor herself, saw no levity in this story. My father didn’t help matters. When asked by Kasper to verify his story my father pleaded total ignorance and told Jenny he was making it up.
Jenny did, however, get back at him. They were in the process of building their house and Kasper was nailing up siding. When he got all the way up to the attic, it was easier to stand on the inside while nailing siding to the outside. When he has sided up as far as he could, he realized that there was not enough room for him to get his arms and head through the hole that was left. Jenny thought this was hilarious. Kasper threatened her with grievous bodily harm if she ever told a soul. Within an hour the whole community was chuckling over how Kasper had nailed himself into the eve of his house.
Kasper’s life was not without tragedy. Kasper and Jenny had a son named Terje. One could tell, as soon as he began to talk, that he was the spitting image of his father. He was always jovial, and for some reason had a very deep voice. The whole community adored him, and even though I was only about six years older than Terje, I could not have been closer to him if he’d been my own brother. Terje died of croup before he was five years old. As was the custom, he was laid out in his little coffin in the living room of his house. Members of the community would then come by and pay their last respects. My mother told me to go say goodbye to Terje, but I just couldn’t do it. I thought if I didn’t see him in his coffin I could pretend he was still alive and maybe it wouldn’t hurt so much.
The pain felt by Kasper must have been immeasurable. Saying that Terje had been the apple of his father’s eye didn’t begin to express the affection Kasper felt for his son. I hope it was some consolation that his grandson, Roger Helland, grew up to become the best soccer player ever produced by our island. Roger played professionally for many years for Bergen’s team, Brann, and on occasion was given a berth on the national team. I’m sure Kasper took great pride in this.
The last time I saw Kasper was in 1992. He had undergone quadruple bypass surgery and, although recovered, Jenny would not let him take his little cutter out fishing unless she came along. It was a sunny summer day and my friend Ove and I were out in my boat, a rowboat from northern Norway rigged for sailing called a hylekrok. We were having a problem with the mast placement and could not get the boat to tack into the wind. To tack, we had to turn downwind, which is universally the sign of a poor sailor. It’s called kuvending in Norwegian, referring to the way a cow will turn her rear end into the wind. Kasper and Jenny were out in their boat watching my predicament and finding it very funny. He hollered over to me, saying that if this is the way they sail in America, it was no wonder they lost the Americas Cup and that he and Jenny might just get a boat together for the next time the Cup race is held.
This article is part of the column Long Ago & Far Away by John Lind.
Norway has come a long way in a few decades. When Jon Lind was a child they still dug peat for fuel, carried water from a well, and lit their houses with kerosene. Lind was 11 when his family moved from Austrheim to Oregon, and considers America his home. Yet in memory the Norway of his childhood seems idyllic. In this column he shares some of those memories. Share your memories with him at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 12, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.