Again I say: “I love Norway”
A man’s search for his grandfather’s village became something that’s lasted a lifetime
Chagrin Falls, Ohio
In late November 1975, I completed my undergraduate work for Hiram College at the University of Cambridge, where I’d studied Shakespeare. The real drama would come next—my journey to Norway.
My parents, Mel and Josephine Stai Lax, had traveled to Norway three years earlier but weren’t able to visit the tiny village of Stai, from where my grandfather, Knute Charles “K.C.” Stai, had emigrated to North Dakota, then to Finley Lake, in Chippewa County, Wis., where he settled with my grandmother, Gilma Pedersen, also a Norwegian, on a farm. Mom had two older siblings, Willfred and Vivian.
A snowstorm hit Finley Lake Farm in early March 1929. While unhitching his horses and sleigh, Knute slipped and was run over, breaking his neck. Gilma ran through the snow for help, according to The Chippewa Herald Telegram, “a distance of 2 ½ miles to a neighbor… carrying a 4-year-old girl on her back.” The little girl was my mother. The train to the hospital was snowed in for 20 hours, and Knute, 44, died.
I wanted to understand where Knute came from, and why I felt so close to someone I’d never met. I studied maps and consulted with a Norwegian travel bureau in London. I hitchhiked often in those days, which came in handy traveling around England, Scotland, and, I’d learn, Norway.
After Cambridge, with a pack on my back and diary in hand, I headed for my ancestral home.
12/4/75—NORWAY!!! I’m in love—with an entire country. I feel so at home. The view from the airplane, from the train from Bergen to Oslo, the fjords, the mountain villages, the shops, the cobblestone streets—all beautiful! And the people—I fit in with them, even more than in England.
I drank with Norwegian sailors last night. We talked of the beauty and virtues of women. I’ve been thinking of how I could live my life here. It seems like most of my tastes are consistent with the Norwegian way. Since I’ve been in Norway, I feel as if there’s nothing in the world I’d rather be doing, and no other place I’d rather be.
Once off the train in Oslo, I inquired about a room and was sent to an old age home, of all places! I elected to walk and not take the trolley. A trifle spooky, but clean, cheap, and adequate.
12/5/75—Hamar. I slept in until 9:30, as I was exhausted physically and emotionally. Walked to the train station and bought my ticket. Had to wait, so walked around Oslo from noon till 3. My pack is heavy, but I feel good because I’m staying in shape. Caught the train and missed my connection in Hamar. Took a bus back to Hamar and the Astoria Hotel. I asked about the price for a single: 950 Krone. I said too much, did she know of a cheaper hotel, and she said, would 750 help. I said yep, so it all worked out. Later, I went downstairs to have a beer and smoke my pipe. The bartender asked me to sit in the TV lounge because I wasn’t dressed up.
12/6/75—Hamar. Waiting for train. Beautiful, cloudless, dry. I won’t get to Stai until about 5 pm. Again I say, I love Norway.
On the train to Stai. Norway spruce everywhere, leafless white birch, occasional lakes. Everything I love. Snow deeper up here. Hills and small mountains. No roads. Few houses. Clean beauty, out of a storybook. Sundown, darkness coming. What will I find?
8:15 pm. Stai. I found a beautiful, hilly little town, under a sky with incredibly bright stars, more than I think I’ve ever seen. I first went to an immaculate, white building, which turned out to be another old folks’ home. There I was directed to a man’s house. He tried to figure out what to do though he spoke only Norwegian. The thing that puzzles me is who is the “C. Stai” that painted those pictures he showed me? We walked up the hill to the house of some English-speaking people—Ole, his wife and daughter, and her husband, Harry, a Greek who lived in Australia, now a Norwegian. They fed me cookies, sandwiches, and tea and showed me around the house. Greek music. “The natural life.” I felt good, talkative. Now I’m at the hotel, and tomorrow, Sunday, I’m going to Stai. Monday morning at 10 I’m meeting Ole at the hotel kafe in Koppang. Ole will take me to the Kommune—the town hall. Keep on pushing.
12/7/75—Last night I went downstairs and joined guys about my age watching TV and drinking wine. The one who invited me was Steinhard. We got on well. We all talked politics—again, as in Bergen, I was told of the love of JFK—“The best American President; the best the U.S. will ever have!”
“I like you. You’re a good person,” one said. When I told them why I was here, they were impressed and interested, especially the one with the beard who agreed with me politically. “Ve Norwegian boys like to drink and dance!” he said. “Skål!” we all shouted. I felt at home. They said something about me having to have a good welcome in Koppang. “You’re back home. Come, you drink and dance like your grandfather!”
I stopped in to the dance. They announced me, and I drummed to “Johnny B. Goode.” I’m amazed at the way the Norwegians danced—proper, mixing traditional Norwegian music with rock.
12/8/75—Quick food at the kafe, then hit the road for Stai. Walked about 2 miles, hitchhiked and got a ride with a nice man and his daughters. He advised me to talk to Hans Hannsen. I climbed the hills, walked all over. So beautiful. Started for Koppang about 2:30—the sun was already behind the mountains. Walked about 5 miles before I got a ride with another really nice guy, Mr. Bjontegaard, who invited me to his house to talk to his five sons. (Two spoke English.) But first, we went to the same place where the dance had been and where the local youth and adults will put on a Christmas pageant. I talked to a friendly lady who took me to Hans Hannsen’s place—he must be quite somebody—certificates all over and a medal from King Olav. He is a retired and well-respected schoolmaster and knows much of these people. He tried to help me but didn’t come up with anything.
Later, at Mr. Bjontegaard’s house, I had a good dinner and enjoyed talking to his boys. They asked me to stay longer if I’ll be town.
But I couldn’t stay. I left for Oslo the next morning. While I didn’t find relatives in Norway, I found people who welcomed me, in deepest winter, with kindness and warmth. On Dec. 10, 1975, on the jet home to Cleveland, I made one last diary entry: “And now it’s over, but it will never end in my mind or heart. It’s a living part of me.” And so it remains.
Scott Lax, called“a master wordsmith of the first order” by The Midwest Book Review, is a Norwegian-American writer and adjunct professor at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he teaches screenwriting and creative writing. His two novels, The Year That Trembled and Vengeance Follows were reviewed in The Norwegian American in 2016. He lives in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, with his wife, Lydia, and their 8-year-old son, Finn. They hope to return to Norway on holiday.
This article originally appeared in the January 25, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.