It’s funny the things that stick in your mind, even after 60 years. I honestly don’t remember the exact moment when I was told we were moving to America. The earliest memory I have of the impending trip was a ride on my bicycle on my way to Solesjøn, to the local store. I remember thinking that, right at this time, I really had no problems weighing on my mind (although I can’t imagine what kind of problems I usually carried around at the age of 11). That was until I suddenly realized: “Oh yeah, we’re moving to America.” I don’t think I really dreaded the move, as uncle Karl and his wife and daughter had visited from Oregon a few years before and they were very nice people and the image they left in my mind was that we were moving to a place of constant sunshine. I was quite certain that everyone in America was nice. The fact that I had to learn a new language did not seem to worry me. My father however, had foreseen this problem and, on most nights, sat us down at the kitchen table (my mother, my six-year-old sister, and me) to teach us English from a blue paperback book he had purchased (it was quite a thin book and I remember thinking that if this was all there was to learning English, I’d have it mastered in a week or two). One of the minor obstacles to learning English was that our teacher couldn’t speak a word of the language either. At that time it was very unusual for people living in our rural setting to speak English. It wasn’t taught in grade school (we only had two teachers). My father had a friend and neighbor, Kasper, whose favorite expression was “I don’t begrip” (“begrip” is Norwegian for “understand”), meaning that my father’s, as well as the rest of the community’s comprehension of the English language was most likely limited to “I don’t.”
My father left for the U.S. about two months before my mother, sister, and I. The idea was that he would find a job and a place for us to live before we arrived. He crossed on “Oslofjord,” which was Norwegian America Line’s newest ship, launched in 1948. He sent me a postcard and told me of doors on the ship that would open automatically just by standing in front of them. I spent many nights lying awake, wondering how this was possible.
I can’t remember all the relatives and friends who came with us to Bergen when it was our turn to embark. I remember that my aunt Marta (my mother’s sister, then a teenager) took me to a toy store because her parents (my grandparents) had given her 10 kroner to spend on a toy for me. When allowed to chose, what I really wanted was a Hohner harmonica that cost 12 kroner. With great reluctance she spent two of her own kroner and bought it for me. I still have it. She is still my favorite aunt. This was not my first harmonica, so I knew a few tunes.
We boarded “Stavangerfjord” in Bergen on July 1, 1953. Even though this was an old ship (launched 1917), it was renowned for being able to handle rough seas better than any of the other ships of the line. The passengers were divided into three classes: First Class, Second Class, and Tourist. We were Tourist. One day I sneaked up to the First Class sun deck and, for whatever reason, pulled out my harmonica and played one of the few tunes I knew well, “Gjøk Valsen.” One of the First Class passengers gave me 50 cents (an inducement to make me go away, no doubt) but it was a coin I had never seen before and a coin I kept for many years thereafter. The trip across was uneventful, but I remember complaining to my mother that there was not enough fish or herring to eat. My mother was one of the most honest people I’ve ever known, but she demonstrated a small degree of larceny when we went through customs in New York. She had hidden a leg of lamb (dried and cured) in one of our trunks, which may not have been legal to bring into the country at that time. When the customs inspector opened the trunk and asked of its contents (he obviously spoke Norwegian) my mother said it contained only dirty underwear. He immediately closed the trunk. The odor of cured leg of lamb is not that far from that of dirty underwear.
On arrival in New York, relatives from Brooklyn picked us up and took us to their apartment to await our flight to Portland, later in the day. There I was introduced to television for the first time. It was a Hoffman (all the images were green) and there was a baseball game on, which made no sense to me at all. I quickly lost interest. Later that afternoon we walked around the neighborhood and when we came to a vegetable stand I decided to impress my mother with the English I had learned from my father’s blue book. I pointed to the carrots and told her that in English these were called “karrhot” and, pointing to the cabbage I explained that these were called “kabb-bhag-eh.” My mother was very proud. It was the extent of my English vocabulary.
We boarded a United Airlines flight from New York to Portland, Oregon (a first for all of us). I remember looking down from my window seat and seeing all the green and yellow squares down below, having no idea what they could be. Later in the flight I told my mother I was thirsty and my mother tried to impart this to the attendants without any luck at all. My mother finally stood up and said (quite loudly in her very best Stril dialect) “E ‘kje da nåken her som kan snakka norsk?” (Isn’t there anyone here who can speak Norwegian?). She got no takers. The attendants finally brought me a glass of water, for which I was very grateful. Having solved this crisis they returned to their normal duties, assuming they had finally placated the crazy foreign woman in 27D.
When we arrived in Portland we were met by my father, uncle Carl, and aunt Bergliot. When we wandered through the parking lot to find their car, I was amazed at some of the sleek, fancy cars we were passing that I’d never seen the likes of before. I was so hoping we were going to ride in one. We got into a ‘48 Dodge sedan, which, although nice, wouldn’t have been my first choice.
Thus began my life in America.
This article is part of the column Long Ago & Far Away by John Lind.
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 9, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.