My father, part one
To fully describe the many-faceted man that was my father would require much more space than is allocated here. He was only four months old in 1917 when his father, aged 32, died of cancer. His father, also named Johan, had spent most of his adult life at sea but had purchased the largest farm in the village of Solend, on the island of Fosnøy, after his marriage to Mathilde Veland in 1916, intending to settle down. Upon his death my grandmother sold the farm to Fredrik Langøy in 1918 for 9,000 kroner, about twice the amount she and her husband had paid just two years before. She retained about an acre for herself and built a house on this property in 1926.
About two years later, my grandmother “adopted” one of her sister’s children, Hjørdis (seventh in a batch of ten) and raised her from infancy as her own. In the interim, my father spent a lot of time on Veland with his grandparents. Veland is a village rising steeply from the fjord below with occasional shelves where farmers scratched out a living. The view is unbelievable. My father told me that when his grandfather built his house on Veland, he would pay the kids in the neighborhood one øre (about one-seventh of a penny) for each roof tile they carried from the dock to his property. It was a 20-minute trip up a very steep road. There was no lack of takers.
Even though my father grew up without a father of his own, he had a very close relationship with his extended family. His uncle Ole (married to his father’s sister) became his surrogate father. He and aunt Anna lived but a five-minute walk away and my father spent most of his time there when he and his mother were on Solend. Uncle Ole had spent time in the U.S., but being the oldest, returned to Norway to take over the farm. I had the good fortune of knowing uncle Ole when I grew up in the early 50s. He was one of the most remarkable men I’ve ever met. There was nothing he couldn’t do and he had a remarkable gift for telling stories. By that time he had sold his farm to Edvard Børilden but (as was customary) had retained a living room/bedroom with an adjoining kitchen for him and “tante” Anna to live out their days. He was very ill with stomach cancer when we left Norway in 1953 and I will never forget how he struggled to raise his hand to shake mine and bid me farewell. He died four days later. He had a great impact on my life but the impact he had on my father’s life must have been infinitely greater.
I find it interesting that my grandmother did not keep tight reins on her only son as he was growing up. When he was 11, he and his friend Ingolf, who was 12, took the steamer to a community about two hours away to retrieve a rowboat that once belonged to my grandfather. After spending the night with a relative in the village of Keila, my father and Ingolf set out in the rowboat, heading north, the only way they knew how to get home. They then noticed that the relative, standing at the end of his dock, was waiving his arms, telling them to go south. They turned the boat around, raised the sails, and sailed south for the better part of a day. This is a boat without any keel at all and, as a result, it is very easy to tip over. They finally started to recognize the area, realizing they had sailed around the south end of the island of Njøten. As night arrived they tied up to a buoy, spent the night, and sailed north and home in the morning. Our family still owns this boat (a hylekrok) and it scares the dickens out of me to sail it when there is any wind at all.
My father’s ambition was to become an engineer. He was all set to start school in Bergen but became ill with pleurisy and had to postpone for a year. In the interim he took a job as a cook/deckhand on the coastal freighter “Alstein,” owned by his father’s brother Annanias Utkilen. By the time the next school year rolled around he was already first mate and decided to forego his engineering ambitions. It was a decision he regretted as he grew older.
By the time he was 20, he was already captain, though he couldn’t technically get his captain’s papers until he was 21. I think those years at sea in the 1930s were the happiest years of my father’s life. When he became an old man, suffering from dementia, drifting in and out of reality, it was the times when he imagined himself back behind the ship’s wheel, fighting squalls and navigating through narrow channels on coal-black nights, enjoying the comradery of fellow crewman, when we saw real joy returning to his face. He served on several vessels, Tryggen and Kilstraum among them, by the time he married my mother in 1940.
In 1931, upon completion of grammar school, the students were required to spend the summer in Catechism Class (taught in the local church) in preparation for confirmation into the Lutheran Church of Norway. The students from Austrheim (my father’s province) and Fedje (the island where my mother grew up) were combined, as the church on Fedje was being remodeled. This is where he and my mother met and they must have stayed in touch as they started dated seriously in 1939. My mother told me (with great pride) that her mother-in-law had quoted my father as saying that he was dating the most beautiful girl on Fedje. They were married in 1940 (their ceremony chronicled in a previous segment). The only other schooling my father had was a year of framhaldsskole (continuation school), one year following grammar school, and a course in furniture making. His furniture-making skills enabled him to make a complete dining room set with curved-back chairs and a table that expanded to seat ten shortly after we arrived in the U.S.
My father was not home much when I was young. His freighter was constantly running up and down the coast, but he would make it home for a day or two every couple of weeks. My fondest memories are of the nights when he told me stories. We would sit in the living room in front of the coal stove in the evening and he would tell me about Robin Hood, Robinson Crusoe, the Count of Monte Cristo, Tordensjold, and many others. He would also tell me about local legends, about trolls and nisser as well as funny stories about neighbors, present and past. One of my favorite stories is about the first airplane that flew over our island. As the story goes, an old couple named Sinus and Sofia Solheim who lived slightly north by the crossroads were planting potatoes on a clear spring day right after the end of World War I. When the roar first started, no one knew what it could be. It was not until the plane was spotted that people realized that this must be the source of the noise. Sinus and Sofia stood up and looked at the plane, and they kept looking at it until it was completely out of sight. It was then that Sofia turned to Sinus and said “Du ska’ ‘kje imbilla meg at den ikkje heng ette nåke.” (You’re not going to try to tell me that it isn’t hanging by something.) It loses a lot in translation.
This article is part of the column Long Ago & Far Away by John Lind.
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 23, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.