My father, part two
In 1947, the sons of Annanias Utkilen, (my father’s cousins) who, having formed a shipping company called “Brødrene Utkilen” bought a Swedish freighter and named it Norstraum. My father was to be captain. He also bought in as a minority owner. For months it was laid up in Bergen, undergoing major renovations. The steam engine was removed and replaced by a 240-hp, 4-cylinder Wichmann diesel. My father salvaged the old copper steam pipes, brought them home, and made the most luxurious enclosures in the barn for our pigs and sheep.
We spent a lot of time in Bergen during the time the renovations were taking place, my mother, sister, and I. My father’s cabin consisted of a large salon with sleeping quarters behind. My sister and I slept in the salon. I can still remember waking up to the wonderful aroma of oil and grease mixed in with cooking smells from the galley.
Once the modifications were complete, Norstaum started hauling freight along the Norwegian coast, mostly from Bergen north to Trondheim or Kristiansund. Sometime in the summer, we’d get to accompany him for several weeks as the ship made its runs, loading and unloading cargo. On our first trip (in 1949) he took us with him to Oslo, stopping in many cities along the way. I was only seven at the time, but was sometimes allowed to steer (standing on a box) while the helmsman showed me how to steer to a compass direction. I’d sometimes get a chocolate bar for “helping” them stand their watch. On another trip we went north to Molde and were late getting back before the start of school. As I got older, I was constantly amazed how they could motor at full speed on the blackest of nights, guided only by the light from lighthouses. I was taught that Norway has one of the best systems of coastal lighthouses in the world. You are always in sight of at least two lighthouses and, depending of the color of the light you can see from each, you always know where you are.
One summer my friend Emil (the one who got the “football” from America) and I, along with our mothers, got a ride on my father’s boat to a place in Sognefjord where Emil had relatives. My father was to pick us up on the way south. It was a beautiful place with large fruit orchards and Emil and I got our fill of pears and plums. One day a truck stopped at the bottom of the hill where the main road was and as it took off, Emil and I decided to hang on to the tailgate to see how fast we could run. Emil was two years older and a lot taller than me but I wasn’t going to let go until he did. When he finally did, the truck was going too fast for me to let go, so I just hung on, trying to stay on my feet. Unfortunately, my mother had witnessed this and started running after the truck, yelling and screaming. A farmer was cutting grass along the road as the truck and I roared by. When my mother showed up, he asked if that was her son hanging on that truck. She said it was and it really lifted her spirits when he said, “You probably won’t see him again in this life.”
After a while, I noticed the truck shifting gears, slowing down slightly, and I took the opportunity to let go. Luckily it was a gravel road and skidded on my elbows and knees until I came to a stop. My father arrived that evening and he took me onboard and bandaged me up. I thought he was going to be mad, but he merely asked if I’d learned my lesson about running behind trucks. I told him the odds were pretty good I wouldn’t do it again.
During some summers Norstraum would be leased out for the herring season north of Iceland. My father would be in charge of the crew while a notbas would be in charge of the fishing. When they left, all the barrels would be stored on deck, leaving the holds empty for barrels when they were full of herring. It was an amusing sight as all one could see was this mountain of barrels heading out to sea. Iceland herring are large and had to be cleaned (gutted and beheaded) before being salted in barrels. During one of these trips, my father fabricated an automatic herring cleaning apparatus that made the process much easier. He admitted that the downside was that the knives in the machine had to be kept very sharp in order for it to work properly. I don’t know if anything ever came of this idea.
One summer when I was about nine, my father did not go to Iceland, taking the summer off. We lived in a small house that my grandmother had built in 1927. My mother, father, sister, and I lived downstairs while my grandmother and seven boarders lived upstairs. That summer, my father put in a new parquet kitchen floor in a herring-bone pattern. Electricity had not yet come to our community, so he did it all with hand tools. I always admired that floor on my trips back to Norway after I became an adult.
I worried a lot about my father during stormy weather when the unrelenting north wind would blow for days on end. Most of the time they would sail in protected waters but there are two stretches that Norstraum would frequently travel where there was no inland passage and they would have to do battle with the North Sea. North of Bergen it was the Stadt Hav (we called Statten) and to the south it was a place called Jeren (aka Jæren). One summer when we were onboard with my father, heading south from Ålesund to Bergen in heavy weather, my father put my mother, sister, and me ashore in a town north of Statten where we took a bus and caught up with “Norstraum” after it had crossed to the south side. One of the crew told me later that it had been a rough crossing.
In our small village, consisting of about 20 families, there were four ship captains. Being a ship’s captain was the most prestigious job one could have. From our house we could not see the dock where these ships tied up. However, when one arrived, we could always tell by the sound of the engine which ship was coming. Norstraum had the only 4-cylinder engine and its sound was very distinctive. Whenever I heard that sound I would run to Solesjøen and be standing on the dock before they were properly belayed. My father was a popular man and there were always visitors at the house when he came home. On nice days they would sit smoking their pipes on the front porch. One of my favorite duties was to run to the store and buy pipe tobacco (Tidemans No. 5) whenever he ran out. To say that my father was my hero in those formative years is no exaggeration. I thought we had the ideal life.
This makes all the more puzzling why he would leave that life and emigrate to the U.S. at the age of 36. I asked him many times over the years why we pulled up roots in Norway, and always got a different answer. There are obviously factors that I was not aware of and, to this day, I am not sure of why we left. When he was 90 years old and in a nursing home I asked him again. He said he had always wanted to fish Bristol Bay. He and I did this for several years, together. This may be the answer, but I doubt it. He and my mother are both gone now and I miss them a lot. I have so many questions that will never be answered.
My father’s favorite poet was Jakob Sande, who grew up in Sunnfjord, just a couple of fjords north of our island. He wrote in a dialect that closely resembled the dialect we spoke. Some of his poems were slightly bawdy in nature and scorned by the Church. He also wrote poems with religious overtones, like “Det Lyser I Stille Grender,” describing the birth of Jesus, which has become one of Norway’s favorite Christmas carols. Of the many Jakob Sande poems my father could quote by heart, his favorite was “Eit Gasta Slag” which I have made an attempt to translate:
EIT GASTA SLAG
Ein kveld då eg gjekk inni byen og stranda,
og ingenstad kjenningar fann,
då kom der ein ølslusk med hatten i handa
og bomma meg fattige mann.
Eg svara med langmod og sa mellom anna,
at pungen var slunken i dag.
Men fyren vart vill so han freste og banna,
og gav meg et nakkedrag.
Då brann eg i harm som ein sprakande loge,
og dermed so langa eg ut,
so fyren vart slegen til tverst i ein boge,
pålag som ein uppvriden klut.
Så rusla eg heimatt og la meg i kassen,
men spurte så snart det vart dag,
at folk hadde funne ein fyr der på plassen,
som likna ein skraphaug pålag.
Kvar einaste tonn som han åtte var krusa,
so stubbane vidspreidde låg,
og der som det før sat ei blomstrande nasa,
ei svartskurvet vorte dei såg.
Men kjeften såg ut som ei sundtrakka ausa,
han gjekk korkje opp eller i,
for beina som helt han i sammen var lause,
so han laut nok hardaste svi.
Kvar einaste skjel som den stunda stod hjå han
eit tilskot til gravølet gav,
men so var der ein som slo brennevin på han,
og då sto han upp og stakk av.
A SPLENDID FIGHT
One evening I walked by the docks in the city
and no one I knew did I see,
when came there a drunkard expecting my pity
demanding my kroner from me.
I answered with patience and said to him plainly
my pouch was quite meager these days,
but wild went the beggar and screamed quite profanely
and hit me right square in the face.
My temper flared up like a wild raging fire,
and therewith I lunged at his scrag,
I beat him severely as vent for my ire,
until he was wrung like a rag.
I rambled on home and to bed I retired,
and rose with the morn from my nap,
had somebody found there a man, I inquired,
who looked like a big pile of scrap.
Each tooth that he had in his mouth had been shattered,
a stub here and there still had he,
his nose, once the pride of his face, had been tattered,
a black scabby wart one could see.
His mouth, now a trampled-on ladle reflected,
the slope of its shape quite unclear,
the bones in his frame were no longer connected,
his pain could be naught but severe.
The group that was gathered stood quiet and solemn,
convinced he was close to the brink,
whence someone came by and poured liquor upon him,
he rose and was gone in a wink.
This article is part of the column Long Ago & Far Away by John Lind.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 6, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.