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Barndomsminnen fran Grangshammar: The Life of Gulli Ingegerd Kula


Reprinted below with the permission of Gulli Kula’s daughter Judy, and her son, Lars.


December 15, 1983



  1. One year ago, I became a candidate for degree at the Harvard extension. One of the requirements is that you have to take to English composition courses within one year. That is my primary reason for being here.Why the choice of this particular course? The title sounded interesting and since my hope is to someday write about my early years, the part about experience sounded good.This particular time? My husband has a course on the third floor of Sever Hall right now.
  1. English is not my original language. I was born in Sweden and came to this country when I was already an adult. Therefore, whatever writing I had done, had been in Swedish until five years ago when I started taking Harvard extension courses. In many of my courses – art history, archaeology, etc. – I had to write term papers, an experience I found surprisingly enjoyable. In Sweden, composition had been one of the things I liked least in school. Science in various forms was my favorite. My college education was in pharmacy. I have read extensively since I came here, especially during the first 20 years. Historical novels in certain authors, such as Neville Shute, John Steinbeck, Delderfield (“God is an Englishman”, for example) appeal to me most.Since I started studying archaeology my reading has changed to more literature associated with that subject.
  1. My children were never much interested in listening to stories of my childhood in the lives of my parents and grandparents. I thought it would be very nice if I could write it down now. Then, maybe, someday they will be interested.

October 6, 1983

Chapter I

One Woman’s Life


Each year Good Housekeeping magazine publishes the names of the 10 most admired women in the United States. The list is very predictable – – wives of the president and other politicians, as well as stars of the entertainment world. They seem so unreal – – the results of PR, press agents, gossip columnists, and Hollywood image- makers. All of us know women who deserve our admiration much more than the celebrities: the ones who struggle quietly to make a go of their lives and those of their dependents. Many of our ancestors fought for their family survival long before it became fashionable for women to take on responsibilities of this type. In my own case, I have great admiration for my maternal grandmother, Johanna Christina Elfving (1864-1934). I was only six years old when she died, but I remember her very well.


Mormor, as I called her (” Mother’s mother”, in the proper Swedish terminology for our relationship), lived in Skenshyttan, a small village in Sweden that was 12 miles from the nearest town. The location between two lakes could not have been more beautiful, but communications were very difficult: you walk where you wanted to go. The railroad station was within walking distance – two miles or so away. Yet, a railroad trip was something you only undertook at times of utmost emergency, since people lived on a barer subsistence level.

My grandfather, Daniel Elfving, was from the same village. As was Mormor, he was of farming stock, but was too low on the family rung– – the seventh child, perhaps – – to inherit any land, so he went into mining. He worked as a machinist in an iron mine some 6 miles away through the forest. Commuting was difficult but reportedly he and other workers hitched rides in the aerial baskets to deliver the iron ore to the railroad station. The rest of the way he walked.


The two managed to buy a small farm with a little red farmhouse, located very idyllically on a point in one of the lakes. Reality was not idyllic, however. The first two sons did not live long. When they fell ill with either croup were diphtheria, Mormor took her sons to the nearest city, 20 miles away. One of the boys died on the train, a fact that she felt she had to hide from the train conductor, lest she would have to get off the train. The other son died in the hospital.


They later had six other children, however, of which my mother was the youngest. Providing for all these children must’ve been very difficult, but things got worse. In 1909, when my mother was a year old, her father who normally worked above ground at the mine, took the place of an absent miner below, lost his foothold and fell to his death. Mormor, left with six children, aged 17 to 1, was expected to bring them up on a very small farm with perhaps, at most, two cows.


Cows were a measure of wealth, or, in this case, the lack thereof. An accident settlement gave her about three dollars per quarter (three months) per child under 16. Pensions had not been instituted in those days, but somehow she managed. She helped out on other farms at harvest time, while her cows, chickens, and fields guaranteed her family a basic diet. For extras, she grew her own flax, prepared it completely, and wove linens. Her skill as a linen tablecloth weaver is still remembered among the old-timers in the village.


The children had a go to work while still very young, and became hard workers and upright members of the community. One son became a builder, another a miner, and the third a foreman at ASEA, a big electronics industry factory. Higher education for any of the children was impossibility, even though the oldest daughter would have liked to become a teacher. She and the other daughters had no choice but to find work in families. The oldest eventually became a tailor after being widowed at 36; another the wife of a railroad engineer; and my mother married a farmer.


As the youngest grandchild at the end of Mormor’s life, I probably held a special place in her affection. We lived in a smaller village, 4 miles away, but I often spent whole weeks with her. I remember her as a tall woman, with a back not bent in spite of all the hard work she had to do, and with the warmest and kindest blue eyes.


In the evening the old women of the village came to visit dressed in their old fashioned long dresses with kerchiefs on their heads – – fashions long ago abandoned by the younger woman. Some of them smoked pipes, something I had not seen anywhere else in my young life.


Entertainment was one’s own responsibility, since those were the days when no one had a radio yet, except people in the city. We all sat on the front steps during the late summer evenings – – the midnight sun was not much further north – – while the women told tales of horrible snakes, ghosts, and other equally frightening stories. Towards the fall when the darkness came earlier, the women hurried home before 9 PM when the electricity was shut off for the night.


As a child I naturally had no feeling that more Mormor’s life was harder than anyone else’s. At that time, perhaps it was not. A Social Security system, started in Sweden in 1913, would have given her a pension at the age of 67. She also lived surrounded by three of her children who had build homes on part of her farm. Perhaps she felt safe and protected during her last years, satisfied to have honorably discharged her obligations in life.

My paternal grandfather’s ancestors (Ahs) had been employed by the ironworks since the 18th century—as smiths, as long as the village mill was in operation, and after that, as farm workers. Some of the children moved away to other parts, even foreign countries, such as America (my father’s aunts) and the Belgian Congo. My grandfather’s brother, Johan Gustaf Ahs, went to work there in 1908 as a telegraph worker. Almost immediately, he became the victim of a tropical disease, probably yellow fever. My father, however, stayed as a farm worker in Grangshammar until 1940, when times had changed to a better economy than during the Depression. He wanted to give himself and his children “a chance for a better life”.


October 13, 1983

Evaluation One


When I handed in my first paper for comments by my fellow students, I was frightened, I must admit. Hardly anything I had ever written would be read by more than one person. This was different. I felt as if I were diving headfirst into unknown, murky water. Would I break my neck? Luckily, I’m still alive. My classmates were kind!


My English writing had previously been limited to letters,” Minutes of the meeting of Lexington Weavers’ Guild”, and an occasional newsletter and annual report, until four years ago when I started writing term papers for courses in archaeology, art history, sociology, etc. I am comfortable with those. I like collecting facts and combining them so that I can draw some conclusions from them.


In this class, I held the mistaken belief that one could present thoughts and feelings, alone. The rules, however, are really the same as for science reports: Facts, in the form of examples, must be furnished. I realize that I have erred in that.


One only need look out over the class to see why I may have a problem with writing something of interest to my classmates: I am of another generation. I don’t have a problem with that – – my children and their friends are of the same age as many of the students, and I’m familiar with them. For the other students it may be boring to read what I write, but if so, they must skip what they don’t like. The only alternative I can offer, is the 20 pages of “Textile Technology of Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus Civilization – – a Comparison” which I must prepare before the end of the term.



After the iron working was abandoned, the people who remained in the village were involved in the farming operations on the estate. The owners were a noble family who lived some miles away on another of their estates. The manor house was occupied by their administrator, while the workers lived in houses of the same vintage as the forge buildings. Eight buildings, lined up along the road as in a New England mill-town, each housed a few families. We shared a stucco – covered house with the overseer of the estate. He had three very large rooms, we had three on two levels, and the mechanic and chauffeur of the administrator lived in two rooms upstairs. The rest of the people in the village lived in either two rooms or even one, except for the schoolmaster, the parson, and the forester, who were the local representatives of the middle class. The houses were generally kept very neat and clean. This was no slum! Water was piped in, and that was the only improvement in sanitary equipment. No indoor bathrooms! Saturday night Bass took place in wooden wash stubs.


The free living quarters were part of the wages. Each apartment also had a garden. Ours had several apple trees, current, gooseberry and raspberry bushes. We grew vegetables there: carrots and turnips were stored for the winter; peas were canned; and beans and dill dried. The owner of the estate also provided a potato patch on one of the fields. The milk supply was no problem. Each family was given a certain amount of milk as part of their wages. The three members of my family used three liters of milk a day. We ate many puddings, milk soups, and porridges!


The woods around the village were full of berries and mushrooms, which we collected-even more than we needed. Stores in the town bought the surplus. We picked wild raspberries, strawberries, cloudberries, blueberries, and mountain cranberries. My mother made large amounts of jam, which we ate with the puddings and porridges. She also canned mushrooms of several types.


It was important to grow and collect as much food as possible. Wages were low, and the village did not have a store. The groceries we needed were brought to us once a week by a man from a nearby, somewhat larger village – – Mr. Edman. Each time he delivered an order, he collected the one for the following week. Once a month, after the wages were paid out, he would come and present the whole month’s bill. The major part of the wages undoubtedly went into his hands, leaving very little for clothes, etc. I remember my parents calculating very carefully each month whether anything would be left over after groceries, insurance, time payment on a bicycle or radio, etc. Mr. Edman, however, was a very fair and kind man. He did not charge unfair prices in spite of his monopoly, and he often came with little gifts – – small bag of candy or a chocolate bar. On my 10th birthday, when I was sick with an ear infection that sent me to the hospital for two weeks the next day, he brought me some French waffles – – the first time I ever ate a pastry that fancy! It was too bad that I couldn’t enjoy it.



Other salesman also came to the village. Once a week a baker came with his truck full of delicious rye bread, buns and apple-filled doughnuts. My mother baked her own bread, so we didn’t often buy from him, however. A brewery truck brought so many different flavors – – difficult to choose when I was given a treat! – – and a drink similar to beer, but with almost no alcohol content. Most people were teetotalers, as a result of a successful temperance movement against the alcohol abuse of the previous century.


Peddlers came frequently to offer their wares: aprons, underwear, buttons, pins, etc. They would only make emergency and “I – can’t – say – no” sales. For more important purchases we could go to the town 12 miles away. During the warm part of the year we rode bicycles, but once a week we could go by bus. It made two round trips in one day, leaving the shoppers a few hours to run their errands. The major shopping expeditions took place just before Christmas. They had a dual purpose: people wanted to see the glittering Christmas displays in the stores, as well as to buy presents. The latter were mostly clothes and accessories, but with a little bit of luck, one might also get a toy or a book.


The mailman, Mr. Berglund, brought our mail three times a week – – by bicycle in summer and by” kick sled” (a small sled with an attached handlebar, so that one could stand on the runner with one foot and kick to move forward with the other) in the winter. He must’ve been a very hearty man; he came faithfully in all kinds of weather on his route that must’ve been 25 miles long and very hilly.


The whole village belonged to the owner of the estate, with three exceptions: the church, the parsonage, and the schoolhouse. The church, an unusual octagonal building from 1834 shone in its white stucco on a knoll downstream, surrounded by the parish cemetery. Great oaks grew around it – – they were among the northernmost representatives of their species. Further north, oaks did not grow.


The parsonage lay more than half a mile outside the village, banished there after a legendary dispute with an earlier ironworks owner. The parson had not lost out on his banishment: the location was beautiful at the edge of the forest, overlooking the fields and the lower lake. On the highest hill in the village stood the schoolhouse. There, the two teachers lived with their families, as well as taught. The building was also used as a community center. The benches were pushed together and long tables set up for festivities – – weddings, meals honoring the agent once a year, funerals, etc. It was also used for meetings, such as those of the active temperance lodge. On rare occasions a lecturer came and showed slides or educational film. The building also held the community library, in addition to the one for the school. Even though the village had only 50 to 60 inhabitants, we had some culture.


Insert map of Grangshammar. Also insert pictures of the Silvberg parish house, Gulli’s home until 1940, and Anna Wikstrom in 1937



October 27, 1983

Chapter III

The People in the Village


I see now that the village, Grangshammar, could easily be described as a sociological model for a stratified society with only the merchants missing. As a child in the 1930s, however, I saw the people only as individuals, and for some of them you had to curtsy a little deeper. They – – the top of the hierarchy – – were from outside the village, while the workers were local people. Perhaps that’s why I felt more comfortable with the locals – – they spoke the same dialect is my parents and I. But high status or low, people left the village one after the other when the Depression was over, or they were so old that they did not have many years left. All were just common people who lived everyday lives.


The top spot of the hierarchy was held by Mr.Walldegk, the administrator, who represented the de Geers, the owners. While we lived in the manor house, we were not allowed in the park that surrounded it, but we occasionally sneaked in to run along the spiral in “Queen Christina’s Riding Hollow”, or to pick up chunks of bark that had fallen from the old oaks. The bark pieces were excellent for making boats to sail on the nearby stream. Had the old gentleman caught us in the park, he would probably not have been very angry, but we were very afraid of him. He looked so impressive, tall and quite heavy, as he walked around the estate on his inspection tours, using an elegant walking stick and smoking a fat cigar. In 1937 he moved away upon retirement, leaving the manor deserted. After that, we children at times invaded the park more deeply. They had excellent apple trees in parts we had never before seen. The best fishing spots were also along the dam in the park – – much better than on the other side, where our swimming pier was.


The relationship between the management and the workers was really very good. The forester who supervised the logging and saw to it that no poachers shot the game – – moose, roe deer, fox, hare, and game birds – – was a kindly man, as was the overseer, in charge of the farming operations. Neither made any impression on me, although the overseer had two boys who let me play along in their games. But they moved away in 1938.


I don’t remember very much about the workers, except that they were very happy to let us children ride on the hay loads in the summer. In the winter, we held on to the horse-drawn timber loads, sliding along on our skis or” kick sleds”. The cars passing through the village were very few, so there was no need to sand the roads. Those that came had chains to prevent getting stuck on the hills, and we had no problems was skiing along the roads.




One of the workers stands out in my memory – – the mechanic, Mr. Wickstrom. He was a Jack – of – all – trades: the little electric power station was his domain; they went there every evening at 8 to lower the power. He lowered the dam gates to conserve the dammed up water. While the administrator lived in the village, Mr. Wickstrom was his driver. He also ran the smithy, so whenever our skis needed a new base, we went to him. The wood tar he used, burning it in over the smithy’s coals, smelled so good, but it took quite a bit of use, before the glide of the skis was good again. Mr. Wickstrom’s daughter, four years older than I, was almost my only girl playmate – – when she had the time. She ran the household for her father from the age of 10, when her mother died. The Wikstrom’s had the first radio among the workers. When election came up, the whole village gathered in their apartment, listening to the election debates.


My father didn’t have a radio until 1938 and that was fairly early in the village. My father was in charge of the cattle and had two people working under him. This position entitled us to a somewhat larger apartment – – three rooms instead of the usual two. One of the workers had twelve children and still lived in two rooms. That was possible only because the oldest had moved out by the time the youngest, twin boys and a retarded girl, were born. The girl, Olga, six years older than I, was usually harmless, but when I was eight, she attacked me and beat me so much that I had black marks all over me and a swollen face. We didn’t complain to the authorities about her, and I wasn’t even frightened of her afterwards. We just accepted the way things were very complacently.


Grangshammar had very few young people. They left to look for jobs elsewhere as soon as they grew old enough. Old people stayed – – perhaps they had no place to go, or they may have liked it where they were. My paternal grandfather’s ancestors (Ahs) had been employed by the ironworks since the 18th century—as smiths, as long as the village mill was in operation, and after that, as farm workers. Some of the children moved away to other parts, even foreign countries, such as America (my father’s aunts) and the Belgian Congo. My grandfather’s brother, Johan Gustaf Ahs, went to work there in 1908 as a telegraph worker. Almost immediately, he became the victim of a tropical disease, probably yellow fever. The de Geers, the owners, let the people live in small apartments when they could no longer work. My paternal grandparents were among this group of people. Farfar, Carl Ahs, was a son of the former schoolmaster, but had been in charge of the horses until a very severe asthma made his work impossible. He worked on the farm as long as he could, but had to retire early. My father, however, stayed as a farm worker in Grangshammar until 1940, when times had changed to a better economy than during the Depression. He wanted to give himself and his children “a chance for a better life”.






My tiny grandmother, Farmor, was not in good health – – they shared the house with the creamery, a cold, damp environment – – she was strong enough to let my older cousin on my father’s side spend many a week with them. That gave me another playmate, probably my favorite one, who went fishing with me, went on bicycle rides and ski outings with me. I also went to visit my aunt and her family occasionally in the town where they lived, but I didn’t like it very much. I liked it better when they came to Grangshammar. but Farmor died when I was 10, and that changed everything. My cousin couldn’t come, now.


Another old couple was the Arnbergs. Per, the old man, had a long white beard, and his job was to deliver the Christmas oats sheaves that tradition said we should put out for the birds. He looks so special that I thought he was Santa Claus. The Arnbergs were very old, and were soon gone.


A few single women and widows lived in small rooms in the attics of the eight houses. I liked to visit them, since they told interesting stories of the olden days and often treated me to a ginger cookie. My favorite was a spinster who as a childhood had diphtheria, had lost her hearing, and spoke in a strange, flat voice. Her sister was a maid to the Baroness de Geer, and some of her noble hand – me – downs trickled down to the deaf woman in our village. She enjoyed showing her fine things, and I enjoyed looking at them.


The only son of another old woman had emigrated to America in his youth. When he lost his wife there, he brought his daughter to spend the summer with his mother. Margot from Chicago, who was my age, was my best friend for one whole summer. She came back a couple of years later with her father and her new mother, but we didn’t feel close again. Margot’s grandmother later became very senile, unfortunately, so I learned very early what can happen to an older person. She thought she was being eaten up by moths and tried to prevent it with mothballs everywhere. Luckily, she did not have much time after her mind went.


The Parsons family became very important in my life. The three daughters, one of them my age, often invited me to play in the parsonage. Theirs was the first middle-class home I entered. It was a large, well-kept house with beautiful furniture. The girls even had their own room. Unfortunately, they moved away the summer when I was seven. Later, when we left Grangshammar, I found that Barbro, the eldest, was in my secondary school class in the city. What a relief! She was able to smooth the way for the shy little backwoods girl. Whenever the school had something going on in the evening, her kind mother let me stay overnight with them, since I couldn’t get home at night. Barbro and I remained friends until graduation at age 20 and beyond. Every time I went back to Sweden, I tried to visit her and her parents, as long as they were alive. They remained a bond with my earliest childhood, as well as my teenage years. To be continued.




November 3, 1983

Evaluation Two


I have never before taken a course that has required so much involvement as this one – – both in time and emotions. It has been a strange experience to form a picture of a person from their writing, only finding out later who they are. Each Thursday I’m filled with anticipation. What will the day’s harvest be? After class I hurry home for a first reading of the stories, leaving comments, etc., for later.


The interest I have in the stories varies, of course, a factor I evidently share with my classmates: one person could not get interested in one of my stories that another found the most interesting. The vast majority of stories have held my interest, however, although I have my favorites. I probably show my emotional immaturity by saying that Maura’s bathroom story was hilarious. (One is supposed to grow out of bathroom jokes by age 6!). Several stories have had great emotional impact, for example James’s piece, ” Our father”, and Cindy’s ” Almost sister-in-law”, as well as many others. I’m also happy to announce that Al’s writing his favorably changed my opinion of the college football hero. They do grow up, eventually, and have a concern for something other than themselves. (This bitter reflection comes from seeing my daughter’s heart crushed, at times, by one of those guys.).


I have probably been very of obnoxious with grammar corrections, but you cannot study foreign languages without developing sensitivity for grammar. One of my pet peeves is that you see in print and hear on TV subject forms of certain pronouns after prepositions: For you and I (Grr!), From he, etc., instead of object form ” for you and me”,” from him”. It has happened in class, too. For some reason people never say” to we”. Why not? – And how many incomplete sentences are permitted?



















November 3, 1983

Chapter IV

The Village School


I had waited long for the day when I would be seven years old and finally allowed to start first grade. The older children from the outlying hamlets walked by our house six days a week on their way up to the schoolhouse on the hill, the highest point in the whole village. I wanted to go with them so badly much earlier, but no one could start before the age of seven. If I hadn’t liked Eric, the overseer’s son, so much, I would have been very angry with him, since he was allowed to start with me, even though he was a year younger than I. The following year the new parson’s son also started first grade at age 6. The rules probably had to be stricter for the farmworkers’ children!


We were only three in the first grade: Eric, a girl named Viola, and I. Our teacher, Miss Kyhle, who taught first and second grade, a total of five students, was a sweet elderly woman with gray hair in unchanging waves and a knot at the back of her head. She had come from the city and spoke a cultured Swedish. In vain she tried to remove the worst traits of our strong local dialect, more closely related to Old Norse than her Swedish was. Her brother was a clergyman, and she would probably have chosen the same career, had she been a man. She never raised her voice – – she didn’t have to. If you as much as whispered, she looked at you with such sad eyes that you under no circumstances wanted to hurt her. Every morning she led her five students in the singing of a hymn a cappella. This was required. The Lutheran Church was – – and is – – a state religion, so this practice followed us throughout school until graduation at age twenty. In first grade my favorite hymn was” a poor little child I am, but still happy and safe”! It was very reassuring, and the singing created a comfortable ritual for the beginning of the day.


School was all I had thought it to be – – fun! I remember feeling as if I could never get enough of learning. (I’m still at it, 48 years later!). Since we were allowed to go at our own speed, and the other two didn’t like school quite as much as I, Miss Kyhle was forced to look for outdated schoolbooks for me. The teaching of” art” consisted of filling in outlines and coloring books, mainly. I didn’t mind that; I didn’t know it would crush any artistic ability I might have had. I just enjoyed everything.


On the last day of the school year we decorated the schoolroom with wild flowers so that it was totally unrecognizable and smelled so good. Our mothers and grandmothers came to hear how well we had learned to read, do arithmetic and sing. At the end of the ceremony, we went up to the teacher one by one to get our grades. It was a big day; bigger yet the following year when the ceremony meant that we would be graduating into the room next door, where the head teacher at the school, Mr. Moller, reigned over third through sixth grades.


The school suddenly grew the year I entered third grade: another village school merged with ours, and the new children were brought in daily by car. Our grade still had only three, until Eric’s family moved and we became two. The grand total in four grades was never over twenty.


I thought that Mr. Moller was very old in 1937 but he could not yet have been thirty. (He is still alive; I visited him and his second wife last year.). Mr. Moller, who lived on the second floor of the schoolhouse with his family, was a very talented man. He served as the organist of the local church and sang solos during the services in a good voice. His talents in woodworking were well known, as he taught that skill to the boys. He also served as an “ambulance driver” when emergencies arose, since his was the only car the village beside the administrator’s, as long as he was there. Once when I got a bad cut in a sledding accident, Mr. Moeller took me to the doctor for stitches.


Unfortunately, what Mr. Moeller like to do the least was to teach. Oh, he was very good when he felt like it – – he had us up at the blackboard doing spelling and arithmetic, and he gave us homework in history, geography, mathematics, etc. His favorite trick, however was to have us do what he called “silent examinations”: we had to write essays about her homework, while he went into the woodworking shop across the hall to attend to his projects. He didn’t totally neglect us: Anyone who started fooling around would soon find that he had his ears opened! He was not a strict disciplinarian, however, so we weren’t exactly afraid of them.


Mr. Moeller was free of us for a while, on the three or four days a week when we listened to the hour-long school radio programs, set out by Radio Sweden. They brought a little of the world and new ideas to us. At one time, in fourth grade, Radio Sweden even gave me something tangible. They sent me a large red Edam cheese, the third prize in an essay competition about” the cow and what she gives us”. It came just before Christmas and added much to our less than bountiful feast. I don’t know if it was worth it: the other children gave me such a hard time about the cheese. Who did I think I was? It was unfair that I got a prize. I knew too much about cows through my father, etc. Of course some of them had cows at home, but I didn’t think of saying that.


I really like those” silent examinations”! Once you finished writing them, you could read whatever you liked, until Mr. Moeller came back. I always hurried as much as I could – – Come to think of it: I wonder if he ever read what we wrote? – – So that I can continue the book I was reading at the time. We really had an amazing library for such a small school – – several hundred volumes. Books replace the playmates I didn’t have, since most of the children lived in hamlets quite far from the village.

The books were good substitutes. I” traveled” all over the world: Selma Lagerlof introduced me to the rest of Sweden; I went with Sven Hedin, a Swedish explorer, to Mongolia; and with Kipling to India. The New World appeared in Cooper’s “ The Last of the Mohicans”, and Prince Edward Island in L. M. Montgomery’s” Ann of Green Gables”.

I even became familiar with Concord, Massachusetts, through Louisa May Alcott’s” Little Women”, not knowing that I one day would live so close to it.


My social life was concentrated around school. We had great fun during recess playing the usual children’s games of hide- and- seek, marbles, and ball games, especially a version of baseball. I have a very painful memory in connection with one of those ballgames: I got so angry with my best pal Erik for getting me” out” that I took a bat and hit him in the forehead. He got a big bump, but the worst of it was that he didn’t even get angry, just smiled his usual sweet smile.


In winter we skied to school, during recess, and again after school. On sunny days in late winter when it was a little warmer, Mr. Moeller would take us on ski outings to some nice spot by a lake or along a power line. We really loved him, then! Another favorite time of ours was the first spring day, when the school grounds had dried up after the long winter. Then Mr. Moeller took as all outdoors with rakes to clean up last year’s grass, broken twigs, and branches. We built a large bonfire and had our lunches around it. The smell of burning grass still means spring to me.


In March 1939 almost all the pupils came down with scarlet fever, so the school had to close. People who caught the disease had to be isolated for six weeks in the epidemics hospital in town. Penicillin was not invented yet, so the infection had to run its course. I was one of the few who didn’t get sick, so I found it hard to keep occupied. Even the library was closed. Before school opened again in the middle of August, I had borrowed everything readable from every household in the village – – which wasn’t much. Books were a luxury in those days when the main problem was bare survival.


Fifth grade, 1939 to 1940, became my last year in the village school. My parents knew that if we stayed in Grangshammar, but would never have a chance to go to school beyond sixth-grade. They could never afford to let me board with a family in the provincial capital where the secondary school was located. My mother was also expecting a second child at this time and to give both children a better chance in life, they decided to move as near to the city as they could. My father found work on a small estate, located so that I could ride my bicycle in spring and fall, but take a bus to school in the wintertime. At that time it was not very happy with their plans – – I liked it where we were – – but the move opened the door to the world. I saw that later. To be continued. Insert picture of the village school in Grangshammar with teachers and Gulli.








December 1, 1983

Evaluation Three


So writing about a writer is the task? What does a poor person do who this semester has found that she (1) reads for contents, (2) reads for grammar, (3) Looks for active verbs? (That’s just about it, although I have started to be more observant of language and style.). I can of course come with certain observations over points that have caught my interest.


I was happy to read Orwell’s Politics and the English Language that it may not be only my own stupidity that prevents me from understanding some writers. There’s a possibility that the writing may be bad, as in the delightful concoctions in Orwell’s examples. I do think, however, that our modern ears have gotten used to some of the “bad” examples that Orwell gives, so that we don’t react with the same horror as he. An example is the “Pretentious diction” section. I think most people find “phenomenon” and “extramarital” offensive. I also find it amusing that Orwell wants stale metaphors avoided, but in the end he recommends that by jeering loudly enough, one might “send some worn – out and useless phrase… into the dustbin where it belongs.” How’s that for a stale metaphor?


Descriptions of social conditions appealed to me greatly, and I find James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name just to my taste. The rich contents are presented in such a seemingly simple way. The flow of the essay is unhindered, arranged in a logical sequence without bottlenecks of hard to read sections. Yet he gives a complete picture of a culture that is all its own. Baldwin has a way of saying so much with just a few words, such as, ” A ghetto can be improved in one way only: out of existence”…or “The South is not the monolithic structure which, from the north, it appears to be, but a most various and divided region.” I find Baldwin’s details so interesting, perhaps because they are mostly of internal conditions: human and social, as well as feelings. I would like to contrast his descriptive passages with those of James Agee in ” Late Sunday Morning”, where I find the details annoying, so that I am tempted to skip over them. Walker accompanied Agee, so he should not have competed with Walker’s photography, exquisite in itself. He didn’t have to write “high glittering dusty Sunday late morning heat of sunlight”. (And they say women like using adjectives!) Baldwin doesn’t go to such excesses, although he may refer to a stunted city tree as” snarling”.


A large number of metaphors seem to creep into Baldwin’s writing, but without offensiveness. In “Fifth Avenue Uptown”, he speaks of ” one’s feet have simply been placed on the treadmill forever”. In another section he says, “…someone drops a match in the powder keg and everything blows up.” In Nobody knows My Name, he writes, “the most gifted teacher cannot but feel himself slowly drowning in the sea of general helplessness”. I hope not even Mr. Orwell would have taken offense on reading these passages.


Chapter V



A description of sister and brother, their impact on family, their roles on the farm, and their apparent perspectives as compared to Gulli’s.


Insert pictures (individual and together).











































December 8, 1983

Chapter VI

Growing Up in the Eye of a Hurricane

Or “Some Undamaged Space”


During our last months in Grangshammar, the horrible storm that became World War II started and gradually gathered strength all around our little country of 7.5 million people. The war threatened us during the whole six-year period, and it changed our life, but it didn’t engulf us. I didn’t understand fully what was happening around us until the war was over, but I was grateful for each day, month, and year we were left in peace.


I remember so well that day in 1939 one we heard that Germany had invaded Poland, something my parents found very disturbing, but what happened so far away didn’t as yet mean much to me. I felt very important, however, when I brought the news to my schoolmates, none of whom went home for lunch as I did. To them Poland and war probably were as distant as they were to me. Soon, however, two Polish refugees came to work in the village, bringing the conflict closer. It was so strange to hear them trying to master a few words of Swedish. The radio brought news of fighting and killing, and I became more more frightened that war might also happen to us.


Our neighbor, Finland, became involved in a war with Russia, as uneven a match as that of the proverbial mosquito and the elephant, but, surprisingly, Finland held its own that first, unusually cold winter of 1939 – 40. Radio Sweden started broadcasting news in Finnish, and sympathy for our neighbor ran high. You heard about someone’s relative having gone to join the Finnish army, and Finnish children began to arrive for safekeeping with Swedish families. None came to our village, only to neighboring ones. Later, after we moved, I got a Finnish girl as a classmate. I felt very strange with her and was always trying to find out if her experience of having gone through a war had given her some characteristics that set her apart from us. She probably was very homesick for her family and Finland and very worried about them. To me she seemed even more reserved than I was.


The spring of 1940 was frightening. Russia had beaten Finland, and Germany occupied Norway and Denmark on our other side. Everyone was convinced we would be taken over next. The Swedish army was not prepared to fight. After all, Sweden had a 126-year history of neutrality. Only a few years earlier – – 1933 to 1934 – – the obligatory military service for 20-year-olds had been suspended, since there would be no more war! At other times, military training lasted only 21 days.


Rumors said that the officers, who were of the nobility, and the old king, Gustav V, were pro-German, but the common people hoped that the United States would enter the war, just as they did during World War I, to put a quick end to it. For a while it seemed unclear which side in the conflict would invade us to get control over our steel but in the end, no one did. The storm swirled around us, but we were not caught up in it. Perhaps it was in the interest of both sides to leave some neutral space, space that was used to the fullest by many groups of people.


The Jewish population of Norway and Denmark were among the first to take refuge in Sweden. So did the members of the underground who no longer were safe in those countries. These people usually found work in homes, although many Norwegians lived in camps on large estates, requisited for their internment. They were able to move about freely in civilian clothes. Two camps were located close to the city where I went to secondary school, so I got used to hearing people speak Norwegian, a language close enough to Sweden to be understood with little difficulty.


People of other nationalities found it harder to communicate. Sweden became very cosmopolitan, especially after the United States entered the war. British and American pilots, who were unable to make it back to Britain, often landed in Sweden where they were interned for a while, until they could be smuggled back to Britain. In the meantime, they lived a very good life. They earned much more than the average Swede, they were well dressed and they frequented the best hotels and restaurants. Needless to say they were very popular with some of the girls.


Refugees from other countries found their way north. A French resistance worker, the grandson of a former French premier, Briand, brought a touch of history, as he came to work as a clerk in the local woolen mill. A few Greeks also settled in the city where I went to school. I found all these nationalities very interesting, as they added something exotic. Once, in 1944, I felt very frightened when a German ex-soldier came to the farm where my father worked, looking for a job. He had been with the occupation forces in Norway, wanted to get away from the war and fled to Sweden. He found work somewhere, although not at the farm, and came to visit at times. I eventually got over my fear of him and realized that even Germans were regular people. As it turned out, however, he was no more honorable toward Sweden than he had been towards his own country. In the early fifties, he was deported for having been involved in thefts on a grand scale.


Compared to the hardships endured in the rest of Europe, our life in Sweden was easy during the war, although we noticed a radical change. Gasoline disappeared in 1939, but no one in the village was affected, except the schoolmaster, the only owner of a car. The buses kept running one day a week, outfitted with wood-burning contraptions, as were other vehicles. A trailer containing a stove, or boiler – like attachment to the side of the bus, created gases which were collected and used to drive the motor. It worked, at least most of the time, although many motorists were stranded with clogged motors or wet wood that wouldn’t burn.

After we had moved close to the provincial capital, I rode was seven other children to the school where I spent sixth grade, in a taxi outfitted with one of those trailers. It showed up on time most days.


Food was of course rationed, and the amounts given per month were very small, especially of meat, butter and coffee. Certain foods, such as vegetables, potatoes, for some reason, oranges from Spain were available throughout the war years. We who lived in the country could grow our own vegetables and were able to buy eggs from a neighbor. Substitutes for many foods appeared. “Ersatz” coffee smelled vile, but so did regular coffee to me at the time. Coupon free sausages were available, although rumors about their contents discouraged many from buying them. They were probably made from cereals and vegetables and not the alleged cats, rats etc. Fish sausages were also for sale but not to be recommended. To me the best emergency food was polenta pudding, a corn pudding which we ate with jam, sweetened with saccharine, for dinner 3 to 4 times a week in 1943 – 44. Not such a well – balanced diet, but filling.


A friend of my parents was the cook at a temporary military training camp close to the farm during this period. He occasionally gave us some food that was left over at the camp. That helped us, but it wasn’t always a blessing. My family got so sick with diarrhea once, and very likely, it was the donated food that had been infected. I was six for two or three weeks. Luckily, the camp moved on soon after.


Clothing was available by rationing, as well. Substitutes for natural fibers were hurriedly manufactured, and clothes made with those were sold freely. Wood is plentiful in Sweden and a kind of wool was made from its cellulose. The product looked all right, but gave no warmth, compared to real wool, stretched, and didn’t wear well. Heels and toes on socks wore through in no time. My mother had been able to hoard enabled five pairs of long woolen stockings for me in 1940 (we girls almost never wore pants), but since I was at the awkward age, I managed to fall and tear the knees of them all in a very short time. During the rest of the war, I wore the same stockings, increasingly mended on the knees!


On the whole once we’d gotten over the initial fear of invasion, the war years were quite happy, even though our lives were disrupted. My father who had been declared unfit for military service because of a heart murmur when he was twenty, got drafted and was sent off, first to southern Sweden, then to the very far north, to the Finnish border. This left our little family, my mother and her two daughters, 15 and 3, feeling defenseless, but I think my father enjoyed the travel, as long as he didn’t have to fight. I had to take over some of the chores he used to do.






We, for example, got inundated with mice in the attic, while he was away. My mother had heard somewhere that if you boil eggs for very long time they get poisonous. We tried to feed some of our precious very hard-boiled eggs to the mice, and they were undoubtedly grateful, since they didn’t die. In the end I had to go to the apothecary in the city to try to persuade them to sell me some rat poison, something they hesitantly did because of my young age. In the spring my father came home and took care of us, since he was declared essential for the farming.


It was with a great sense of relief we saw the end of the war approach. We were prepared by the news broadcasts that it was coming, but it was brought into reality in the spring of 1945, when we saw the internment camps of the Norwegians empty out. They had really been training camps for the refugees, and now the soldiers boarded trains for northern Norway to merge with the allies there and to help flush the Germans out. It wasn’t long before the war in Europe ended.


Ironically, when the war was over, it became a reality for me. That was the time I learned what really happened just south of us. The concentration camps were liberated by the Allies, when some of the Polish women who would survive there, moved into the camps that the Norwegians had vacated a few months earlier. They were so thin. The rumors we heard were true. People had starved and been mistreated, and this was how they now looked. They weren’t even the worst cases. We felt happy that Sweden could do something for them. Here they could eat and gain weight, get medical care, and enjoy a breathing space. They had time to figure out what to do next, since their homes were gone and their families scattered. I had at times felt guilty that we had been spared the horrors of war. Yet, now I could see how fortunate it was that some undamaged space was left on a continent in ruins.





















December 15, 1983

Evaluation Four


I wasn’t at all sure that I would last through the semester when I saw what this course would involve. But I’m very stubborn and rarely give up on anything, so here I am at the end of a very good experience. I’m surprised how much fun it has been. After all, I had always disliked writing in Sweden and had not done much in this country until the last few years. Thus I was very inhibited in the beginning, as you all could see, but I decided that the key to survival was to put pen to paper and try to spout words. And spout they did – – I must have dammed them up unknowingly. Unfortunately I am such a novice that I don’t have the control I would wish.


I first tested your tolerance with my grandmother, and then held off a week with the car interlude. When you received Mormor warmly, I proceeded with my childhood, a childhood I wanted to explore ever since my mother died in the summer of 1981. At that time I suddenly found myself the oldest generation in my line. I had no one to ask, “How was it when…” etc. Before my senility sets in, I wanted to jot down my memories of that strange world I grew up in, in case my children someday developed an interest in the matter.


It seems ironic to me that almost everyone had asked for more emotion in my writing, since this has been such an emotional period for me: an awakening of the feelings that I thought were comfortably under control, those of separation, loss, uprooting of the emigrant, something you have to live through to understand. Writing about my childhood, or perhaps remembered only the sunny hours. I didn’t dare touch the pain with words, thus the lack of emotion.


I don’t know what I will do about writing in the future. I have no ambitions beyond breaking down my childhood into shorter segments, perhaps individual portraits, and carry the whole thing through my college days and the first years in this country. I’m going to concentrate on my childhood next summer. The setting should be right: I will spend a few weeks in the cottage built on one sixth of my grandmother’s little farm that became mine when my mother died. I will stay there for a while, surrounded by seven of my cousins who either live in the village, or have summer places there.


Whether I’ll write beyond that I don’t know, but I doubt it. I’ve fulfilled my degree requirement, and my regular” self-expression” is weaving. But I will miss this course; I have gotten so much out of it. Besides learning to like writing, I have learned to read with more attention to the English language, to appreciate it more. Before this I really could relish only the Swedish language. I’ve also been among terrific people who have let me share their thoughts, had so much patience with me. Thank you, all, for your feedback, even now who can’t stand my punctuation. By the way I try to follow the rules in Warringer’s English Grammar and Composition (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.1977).



Chapter VII



Why, how, when, where from and to, and the early transitions.








































Chapter VIII




Before, during, after.































Chapter IX




































Chapter X

My Sister


Her story after you left Sweden. Your feelings released.

































Chapter XI



A story in itself, a bridge to where you’re from and a confirmation of things covered in the Harvard writing.

































Chapter XI

Cars in Our Life


Ours is not the typical suburban family with two late model, well – groomed cars in the driveway. They may be new from the beginning, but our cars rapidly become old, with chrome strips that fall off, and rust spots that appear. For as long as a mechanic can keep them in shape to start in the morning and take us where we want to go, we hold onto them. We must be either masochists, or else we feel that rundown cars at a little adventure to our otherwise quiet lives.


Neither my husband, Eric, nor I, had grown up in families with cars. When we bought our first one, we felt free as birds. Eric was in graduate school at MIT, the year was 1952, and the car was a 1938 Ford touring sedan (a four-door convertible). She was such a colorful thing, in spite of her black exterior, and became such an important member of the family, that we gave her name – – Rosa. Immediately after we got it, we went on a trip to Nova Scotia – – 3000 miles and four flat tires. We also discover that Rosa used almost as much oil is gas. Every 50 miles we had to stop and had two quarts of oil. But we did see a little of the world!


Two years later Eric graduated and went to work for Ford Motor Company in Detroit. Rosa took us there! She must have been a good advertisement for the company – still alive after so many years! Yet, Eric decided to replace her with a new Ford. Friends of ours, who were still back at school, accepted that our offer of a free car. They found an MIT student who was willing to drive it back to Cambridge from Detroit. Our friends added a battery and sold Rosa for $25, a year later. The new owner adorned her with a new top, but then we regrettably lost track of her.


After six months in Detroit, Eric got drafted; we heed the sigh of relief and left Detroit. The peacetime Army was better than that city! The two years in the Army passed, and we celebrated the return to civilian life with a trip to Europe.





Even here, a grouchy old car played a main role in our life. One of our friends, still at MIT, offered his car, garaged in Sweden, to us for our travels. We happily accepted, not knowing what lay in store for us. The car turned out to be an old Ford Anglia – – very temperamental! Since it wouldn’t start mornings, we had to remember to park it on a hill each evening, so that it could roll to a start the following day. After the first start it would be all right until the next morning. This method works well in most places, but when we got to Denmark and Holland we were stuck. No hills! We had to phone for help, or people helped us push.


The car also let us down with occasional mechanical failures. The bolts holding the back of the driver’s seat were stripped and as you drove along, this back suddenly would fall off. Very disconcerting! Once, the car almost died on us. Driving along the German autobahn on a Saturday afternoon, we felt that we were crabbing. The wheels were scraping against the body of the car. We hurriedly stopped at the gas station, where they told us that a bolt had been lost, and that the rear axle had shifted. The mechanic who could solve that type of problem had gone for the weekend, however. When they saw how distraught we were, they promised to try to get a hold of him. They found him; he came and gave us several hours of his afternoon, helping us. He even had to manufacture the proper size bolt, but charged a pittance for the whole job. Receiving his help really warmed our hearts.


After that trip, our relationship with cars went rather smoothly until 1970. At that time we decided to try a novelty for us: automatic transmission. I realize now that operating a manual transmission requires more skill than running an automatic, but at the time I was totally mystified by the latter. We had expanded our” stable” to two cars a couple of years earlier: a small secondhand Saab shared the driveway with the new ‘67 Oldsmobile station wagon. One day I jumped into the Olds, started it up, and began to back out. Then I realized that the Saab was behind me and had started to glide backwards down the sloping driveway. I jumped out of the Olds, not putting it into park – – I did know about those things! – –, but before I was able to get into the Saab and pull the emergency brake there, I had to run back to stop the Olds. That succeeded! By that time the Saab was beyond stopping! The only solution was to run down to the street and stop the busy traffic there. The Saab rolled to a safe stop in the middle of the street, but traffic was backed up on both sides, while I ran in to get the keys. Boy did I feel stupid!


That ‘67 Olds was a good car. Took a family on a five-week camping trip across the country when it already had gone about 80,000 miles. Eric wanted to go no further West than Arizona and Colorado, but our two children and I voted for continuing to Southern California. We drove there through the deserts of northern Mexico. Just after we’d gotten back into the US, the car gave out a large puff of smoke, hesitated a little, but luckily kept going. The next day however it chose a better place to break down- San Juan Capistrano.



While we waited for a new transmission, Eric had no choice but to let us see Disneyland, something he really didn’t want a waste time on. We rode there in style in an ancient Cadillac, lent to us by the owner of the transmission shop, since President Nixon was in his San Clemente estate at the time, and his staff had rented all available cars. Afterwards we had smooth sailing back to Lexington.


Right now where we’re in a fairly stable state with our cars. True, the 78 rabbit has a habit of stalling, when you drive along, but it usually starts up by itself, again, giving off its characteristic groan a few seconds after startup, with the” Fasten Seatbelt” light and buzzer going on. Also the FM – band on the radio has something wrong with it. When you hit a bump, you lose the FM altogether, but if you hit the top of the radio with the flat of your hand, it may come back. Otherwise you can always switch to the A.M., since that works.


The ‘75 Oldsmobile Omega starts up on the first try, even on the coldest weather day, so it is worth holding onto. It still has one chrome strip, but it has a lot of rust, so I wouldn’t drive up to a local country club or to Bonwit Teller’s in it. That’s all right. I don’t go there, anyway.






















Chapter XII



It had snowed before noon, and when I came home at 2:30, the driveway lay there as a clean white sheet. But the door! It stood wide-open, even though no one was home and it was just before Christmas. The storm door was fixed so it stood partly open, too. I knew immediately that something was wrong. Several neighbors had had their houses burglarized, and this was like the scene that had met them when they got home. We had been spared when Eric’s father lived with us all those years. He was always home. Now when he was in a nursing home, I had expected that our turn would come for break in. Here it was!


My heart beat so fast that I could hardly breathe, as I ran inside to see how bad things were. I didn’t even consider the possibility that burglars might still be in there. They could have gotten in through the other side of the house. Luckily they had left long ago. The house was ice cold with the wind blowing right through from the open back door to the front. I tried to close the back door, but the frame was broken, as was the door itself, but the undamaged storm door kept out the win. I called the police. The man at the station said they would come in a few minutes.


A quick look around the living room confirmed my worst expectations: the stereo, speakers, and tape recorder were gone, as was Eric’s father’s color TV in the family room. Furniture doors and drawers stood open everywhere. The silver spoons we had inherited from Eric’s mother and which we had used just two days earlier were taken. I wished I had put them in the usual hiding place in the basement! I ran quickly up to our bedroom. What a mess! Dresser drawers pulled out and their contents strewn on the floor! The Christmas presents Eric had wrapped a few days earlier were all torn open and thrown on the floor. I would have liked to see the burglar’s face when he saw they were all books, though.


My jewelry box was gone. Normally I use it to store only costume trinkets of little value. I really expected visitors like this. But a few days earlier I had placed in it Eric’s mother’s engagement ring and a gold pin that I inherited from my mother when she died five months earlier. How dare they take it!


Eric’s trinket box was also gone, but they had taken out a pair of old glasses from it and put them carefully on the dresser. Very considerate! In the box Eric had stuck a visa card when our daughter recently returned it to us after she started working. We would have to cancel it for the third time in two years. Once our daughter got mugged in Nairobi, next she had her wallet stolen in school, and now this!





What else? The cameras were still left. The basement? They had looked there but decided it was too much for them. For once I was grateful for the mess down there, that is, the collection of the indispensable, but not immediately needed “ treasures” of three generations. That was lucky!


The police came, and it had only been surprisingly few minutes. What did you lose? Money?”” No.”

” Guns?”

” No, we don’t want anything like that around the house.”

” Well, make up a list of what you lost.”

” I found the screwdriver they used on the back door line on her bedroom floor. Can you get fingerprints from that?”

” No. It won’t work. It isn’t flat.”

” But on TV they can,” I thought.

” Do you think we might get some of our stuff back?” I asked.

” No. We have so many cases like this, and usually nothing is ever recovered,” the policeman said.” They sell the silver and gold, and it is melted down over in Chelsea right away.” Fine and dandy! Why don’t they check up those melting places, then? They are too easy on the crooks. You work hard, pay your taxes, and mind your own business, but each time you leave home, you wonder what will await you when you get back. It is not the financial damage that is so worrisome. The insurance repays you. No it is the feeling of being personally violated. A stranger has ripped the pillowcase off your pillow, his been digging around in your most intimate belongings, and robbed you of things of great sentimental value – – but of value only to you. The stores that give out merchandise on the stolen credit cards get hurt. Ours was used in Cambridge, Roslindale, and Jamaica Plain the next few days, we found out later. We had reported the loss and didn’t get hurt.


You feel safe for a long time afterwards and perhaps never. Lights are always on in our house now except when we sleep. Each time I drive up to our house, I look for the telltale open door. In addition I have lost faith in the police force that I thought protected us, the same police force I considered overzealous with a once drove into our driveway behind Eric at 11:30 one night, asking what he was doing. All this for a few dollars the burglars got when they sold our things.


I don’t understand what is happening. Why can’t we be left in peace? Are we going towards a situation like that and South America, where people must live a guard in their house at all times? I do know one thing: We are not going to replace any of the stolen items, except for the stereo. Music we cannot live without, but we don’t need silver spoons and jewelry.







September 29, 1983

Chapter XIII

Ode to New England Autumn


At this time of the year, newspapers and magazines often have articles about depression, aggravated by the change of seasons. Some of my friends are sad to see autumn come. They can only think of the fact that summer is over and that winter is coming. Some live only fully during the summer season, and, in a way, I envy them. To me summer is something that has to be endured, with only a few cool, rainy days, or crisp, sunny ones bearable.


I once read a guidebook to Africa where the author praised the African climate. In his opinion, however, Eastern United States has the worst in the world, with its cold winter and its contrasting heat and humidity during the summer. I partially agree. Nothing is worse than the high humidity and temperatures of more than 90°F of summer here. When September comes around with its crisp, clear air and beautiful sunshine, I’m very relieved and revitalized.


A New England fall is something so glorious that everyone should feel greatly invigorated by it. Soon, when the autumn colors of the trees foliage appear, we are treated to a unique spectacle. Each year is different, it seems, but for me the show always begins with the red maples down the street turning into all shades of red, orange, and yellow. After their leaves have fallen, other maples contribute their reds and golds, and the locusts up the hill beyond turn yellow. Finally, only the copper of the oaks is left against the green of the pines. By that time it is November and early December with days that can still be very warm and sunny. On those days when the sun is low, the hillside is bathed in a very special light that makes the green fields so incredibly green, with the blue sky above so very blue. The horses grazing in the field; the V formations of the Canada geese heading south; and the blue jays and cardinals visiting the birdfeeder, all add further beauty to the picture. It is then good to be alive. Somehow, I cannot remember any stormy days in autumn.


I perceive life is following similar paths as the seasons. Autumn can be just as beautiful as spring and summer, but each day must be savored for what it can give of new experiences. There is so much left to do, so much to see, so much to learn! No one has learned all there is to know the world in which we live during spring and summer. I discovered that in my twenties, when an old friend of mine in her eighties took up the study of botany.


With the first snow the vista changes again. For me, winter is an additional factor in the beauty of New England – a season which I personally find almost as good as autumn. Will the parallel to life continue there?




Chapter XIV

A Five -Minute Perspective


If I weren’t in class right now, I would like to be with my husband at some very exotic place of great archaeological significance, for example Machu Picchu, Peru. I would be photographed there, sitting on the terrace, overlooking the steep drop to the wild Urubamba River, 2000 feet below. The amazing walls are still standing around me, five hundred years after they were built in this lost city of the Incas. A few llamas are grazing in the background, and the peak of Huayna Picchu with its terraces rises behind me. A condor slowly circles the peak. White dahlias and begonias, garden flowers for us at home, bloom on the terraces.


This scene would re-create an event that made the greatest impression on me in my life. While the date was March 1978, we were back in another era – – a dream world – – with absolute peace around us. The beauty of this perch in the Andes made me stand in awe. I knew that peace is not always reigned there. Archaeologists have unearthed the bones of too many sacrificed maidens, and the sacrificial altar still remains. The city was never seen by the Spanish conquerors, however. It was spared the violence of other Inca settlements, such as the leveling of Cuzco, their capital. Hidden in the mountains, it slept as an inanimate sleeping beauty for almost four hundred years after the Spanish Conquest, until Hiram Bingham stumbled upon it in 1911.


You feel surrounded by the magic of a fairytale when you visit Machu Picchu. It is a great feeling, as a contrast to the everyday world.


















Chapter XV

My Sweden


Connecting roots and realities, today.

















October 20, 1983

Chapter II

Memories of Childhood: The Village


Stockholm was only 120 miles away – – to the southeast – – but it might as well have been in Africa; we never went there. I saw it for the first time when I was 20 years old and ready to start my pharmacy training. Our world was the village, Grangshammer, the church center for the 10 to 15 villages of Silvberg Parish. It was situated in the steel and mining belt of Sweden, but Grangshammer has had its days of glory during the last few centuries, and it seemed to be gradually dying. Only a few reminders of the past were left.


A silver mine enriched the king’s coffers during the 16th and 17th centuries, but now only a number of water filled holes in the ground remained a couple of miles away in the forest. The royal House of Wasa had owned the lands in those days, and legend connected its members with certain physical features in the village: the remaining trunk of an ancient oak was said to have supported King Gustav Wasa once when he visited during his reign (1521 – 1560). A spiral riding hollow was named for his great-granddaughter, Queen Christina (1644-1654), who’d supposedly used it. The manor house, in whose park these things were located, was fine enough to have housed royal guests. The manor was the most elegant house in the village – – of a class that could not even be compared with the rest.


Throughout 3 1/2 centuries, numerous iron working operations had used the power from the waterfall in the stream connecting two lakes. The power was made greater by damming up the stream; the process created a third lake, the dam that set off the manor house and its terraced gardens to great advantage.


The buildings of the latest and most successful operation, a forge abandoned in 1877, were still standing. Oval cast iron plaques under the eaves proclaimed their age: 1817, 1823, and 1828. They were made of slag from earlier smelting operations – – light blue rocks with layering of greens and grays. I like to look at the individual stones, trying to decide which one was the most beautiful. Now the buildings were used for different purposes: the huge coal barn stored hay; one housed the power generator for the village; others were smithy, a workshop, and the laundry. Here the women did a month’s work of laundry – – linens, mostly – – at a time. They soaked and scrubbed the sheets and towels in huge wooden vats, boiled the white ones in the large iron pot, and finally rinsed them outdoors in the run-off from the waterfall. This water was fed into large rectangular wooden basins. Laundry was a strenuous task and very cold in the winter!

Fahim Issa Qubain


There’s a four-year old photograph of Fahim Qubain floating around on the Internet. He’s standing in a crowd in the rain at a college graduation, with the look of a proud and happy parent on his face. The picture, taken by a Palestinian, is captioned, ” the 84 year old legend.”

Fahim Issa Qubain died last month from MRSA contracted at a hospital during a hip replacement. He was a giant of a man who spent most of his years here as the unlikely owner of two old motels in Buena Vista.

He was born in northern Jordan 88 years ago, the youngest of sixteen children. His family was partly Jordanian, and partly Palestinian. He went to live with two of his sisters after his mother died when he was a young boy, and was sent to a Quaker school in Ramallah. He was smart, curious about the world around him, and a voracious reader. He witnessed the violence over the creation of Israel and the end of British rule in the Middle East, and saw some of his family members uprooted and forced from their homes. He joined the Arab Legion in Jordan, but wasn’t cut out for the Army and decided to go into the import-export business with one of his brothers. The brother remained in Jordan, and Fahim came to New York.

The business didn’t work out, and Fahim became a clerk to the Palestinian delegation at the UN. One day, he packed up his suitcase, got on a bus, showed up at Guilford College, and wrangled himself an instant scholarship. He went on to win a PhD from the University of Wisconsin, and a few years later wound up in Washington, D. C. With his expertise in the politics, history and culture of the Middle East, it wasn’t hard for him to find work in several government agencies. He was an analyst. He did some translating. He was a researcher, and the author of the defintitive book on the crisis in Lebanon in the 1950s, and another on education on the Arab world that was snapped up by Soviet agencies as they formulated policies to gain a foothold in there.

As time went by in Washington, Fahim   came to the conclusion that his work for the US government was being used against his own people. So, he decided that what he needed to do was gain financial independence to fund his own work. The motel business seem to be the ticket. He looked at a few in Washington, then spotted one that seemed right for him. It was the Barnes Motel in Buena Vista.

It wasn’t a great motel. But the price was right.  (There was considerable haggling over the deal, but Fahim had haggling in his genes and intended to feel insulted over business deals that didn’t involve a great deal of it.”)

So, in 1974, he and his family moved to Rockbridge County. His little motel empire grew a bit. He brought one in Harrisonburg and another one in Buena Vista.

Fahim turned out to be a shrewd business person. He wasn’t too crazy about the motel business. It bored him. But he liked the mountains here; they reminded him of his old home in Jordan. And unbeknownst to his customers, and most of the folks who ran into him here, he kept writing scholarly articles about the Middle East, and amassed an incredible library to fuel his mind.

He was all set to sell the Barnes in November, 1985. But 2 days before group of Buena Vista investors were supposed to look at the place, one of the biggest floods the town had ever seen swamped it, and he was stuck with the motel for another decade. (A  restaurant that was part of his other Buena Vista motel was destroyed by fire before he could sell it. Ironically, perhaps, it was called Fire Creek, and was the home of some pretty raucous live music and dances for a few years.”)

Fahim was a political animal at heart, but he stayed out of local politics until he read about an air permit application for a proposed coal-fired power plant in Beuna Vista. For the next three years, he used his research and propaganda skills to fight the plant and irritate the hell out of anyone who supported it. He started an organization. He wrote an incredible series of letters to the papers-one of them ending with the line,” if this plant is built, we will be forced to live like pigs in the streets of Buena Vista.” He liked that sentence a lot.

The plant was never built. But helping kill the power plant is a small part of his legacy.

After he sold off the motels, he wrote a piece in the Washington Post about a kid who was throwing rocks in Palestine. And in 2000, Fahim and his wife, Nancy, formed what he called his crowning achievement, the Hope Fund, a non-profit organization dedicated to sending some of the most vulnerable young Palestinians to college in America.

Fahim used his contacts, his wits, his haggling skills, his persistence, and everything else he could muster to make the foundation work. And it did work, and continues to work. It began with two students who grew up in refugee camps in Lebanon, who graduated Cum Laude from Roanoke College. It brought three students to Washington and Lee, and another is coming next year. Two of the W & L students made Phi Beta Kappa.

One of the reasons Fahim was so keen on bringing the students to America was his conviction that colleges here were more concerned with developing critical thinking than rote memory. Another was his desire to put a human face on the Palestinian uprising. Another was to give Palestinians a chance to learn what America is really like.

The foundation Fahim established has brought hope for a better life and the tools to obtain one, to more than a dozen young refugees and street urchins. He was proud of being able to do that, and even prouder of the achievements of those he was able to help.

Fahim was a remarkable man who made a difference in this world.  And he had a good time doing it.

Thanks to The Rockbridge Advocate of Lexington, Virginia  for their permission to reprint this story  from their May, 2012 issue.

I left Lexington in 1971 and missed Fahim. The Rockbridge Advocate’s editor said that he regretted leaving one word out of this homage: “irascible”. I wish that I had met him.





Labrador 1974

Emily M Labrador

Emily M Labrador

In June 1974, six young sailors left Maine for Greenland, via Nova Scotia, St. Pierre and Miquelon, Newfoundland and Labrador on a 48-foot wooden sailboat. Ice migration from the Arctic was very late that summer.  Icebergs and their calving remnants (“growlers”) crowded the coastline. The group never reached Godthab, but they scratched cultures and histories on their trip. One of the sailors kept a journal, which will be presented herein as excerpts, as below, and published later as a memoir:

August 1

In Labrador Current, 55 miles east of White Bear Islands at the mouth of Hamilton Inlet.

Sometime around 1015 PM, the clouds above were showing some blue sky streaks and the day’s eternal gray had lifted a bit. We were busy with DFs to determine directions further up the Labrador coast for our planned approach into Hamilton Inlet with guidance from the Herring Island light. At the time, we were under a gentle breeze with mizzen staysail and genoa jib, and the haloed moon, full as mentioned, was burning erratically through the clouds, throwing the proverbial  “ eerie glow” on an ocean surface that resembled a separate coastland. Rem was up with us in the cockpit.  We soon heard a thundering ahead that sounded like waves breaking on a beach, though our fathometer read great depths and we were nowhere near the coast. We felt the chill in the air that we’d come to associate with icebergs. Night seemed to carry this crashing noise to us more easily, and sure enough, out of the darkness ahead, separate icebergs, huge shadowy mountains, loomed up, one after the other, their growler “debris” reminding us with collective hissing of the sounds that we had first heard earlier.  By now, Gina had taken the helm, and with the rising moon now brighter, we sailed into a soupy patch of growlers that grew thicker and more dangerous to the boat’s wooden hull. These ice fragments from a mother iceberg somewhere ahead could be as large as dinghies or steamers, and we only wanted to avoid them altogether, especially when we encountered them at night.  As we continued the sail, Grant and I took spotlights to the bowsprit and hoarsely shouted out directions (“hard to starboard “) back to Gina at the wheel.  The ice fragments thickened and appeared more frequently. The roar intensified, and our situation turned  dangerous, especially with the  “mother berg” in the  vicinity. We made a quick “come about” circle, then swung erratically to find openings between growler ice. All six of us were now topside, clipped by safety lines to the pitching gunwales and shrouded from different angles in the quicksilver glows of moon and spotlights. I was wide-eyed and freezing on the bow. It was getting too difficult to avoid ice. Taylor and Grant took down the sails, we switched to engine power, and then started a ten mile steam east and out to sea, away from all destinations. As the growlers thinned, we slipped through fog bands and sought radio replies from the Goose Bay weather station on ice conditions in the area. We had already discovered them first-hand from our cold bow watches, our reality far ahead of any reports. Pitching swells and lightning on the horizon suggested a storm threat on top of everything else. We retreated, mesmerized by the night and the silvered ocean to the west, beyond the sailboat’s cockpit. Our “heave to” started at 130 AM on August 2. As our watch ended, I fell into the forecastle berth, exhilarated from the three hour “ice drill”. With no frantic boot clomping noises from topside, I slept undisturbed for eight hours. 

Rafting the Mississippi-Up the Creek 1972

Raft Launch from Paducah, KY

Raft Launch from Paducah, KY

In September, 1972, a group of young friends from New England built a thirty-eight foot raft in Paducah, Kentucky and then traveled for twenty-one days and nearly one thousand miles on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans, Louisiana. Excerpts from a forthcoming memoir chronicle the experience:

September 16, 1972. Departed Paducah, Kentucky. Rain. 2:00 pm.

A big work project on the banks of the Tennessee Chute ended on Saturday, September 16, one week after the arrival in our Paducah.  At 10:30 am, we motored away from Walker’s boatyard under dark, sprinkling skies. Puddled rainwater leaked through the raft’s roof into galley pots positioned across the cabin floor. We felt proud and jubilant, but conflicted about leaving newfound river friends behind. Most had quickly bought into the trip and helped us, a bunch of strangers. We couldn’t share much in return. We’d get closure if and when we reached New Orleans and they would miss that endgame, the point of it all. Some didn’t care, of course. To a river town, all that really matters is what occurs between the arrivals and departures on its own banks.

The maiden launch from the construction site lasted for one quarter of a mile, the distance between Walker’s and the boat ramp footing Paducah’s Broadway on the Ohio. Townspeople and newspaper reporters filed through the floodwall gate and down to the raft. We topped off our gasoline, waited for all to assemble, and finally shouted out as Mabel Hall christened Doolittle Driftin’ KY 4418-R by whacking a bottle of champagne against a river rock wedged atop the bow’s breakwater. She teetered back to shore on the skinny gangplank, and we fired up the outboards and headed out into the Ohio. Waves, hurrahs and champagne bubbles faded.  Looking back at Paducah, we faced the painted  “Welcome to the Port of Paducah” sign as we exited town. After the land-locked boatyard building phase, floating by and scanning the shore panorama was a first real taste of the rafting escape.

The thrust of our outboards overwhelmed the wooden transom. The motors separated from their mounts and we had to return, red-faced, to Broadway for repairs.  A two-hour delay shortened the day’s river time, but when we pulled away again from Paducah, spectators and rain clouds had disappeared.  “Nothing but blue skies” welcomed to the west. We sunbathed, prepped lunches, and rope-jumped into the river. Twenty river miles west of Paducah, we braced ourselves for passage through Brookport Lock 52 near Joppa, Illinois. Locks combine both up-river dams, fully or partially across a river’s breadth, and holding “chambers”, usually two, side by side. This scheme accommodates different length boat and barge rigs when water levels are too low or a tow is too long.  Dam walls, or “wickets” of wood or steel, are raised up as needed from flat passivity to sturdy barrier. The river before them rises; the boat moves into the lock chamber with its more manageable water level, the lock closes, the water drops, and the boat safely proceeds on the newfound river level. The series of “pools” created between the dams and locks resembled stair step river stretches of varying mileage. The Ohio’s locks had started at 710 feet above sea level in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and had dropped after 938 miles to 302 feet above sea level in Brookport. At 3:15 pm, we eased into the lock under the guarded gaze of a lock man whose responsibility was to tie us up for “the drop”. The Doolittle’s reported “lock-lift drop” at Brookport was twelve feet. We dropped; the raft swung sharply to one side and splintered the end edge of the stern transom that had caused the Paducah launch delay.  Unfortunately, rubber “bumpers” had been omitted from our equipment list. They would have helped here, and at every other wharf stop downriver. Dick and Bob extended their arms and tried to push the raft away from the rusted, steel lock wall. Dick lost his balance and toppled into the river.

So we wasted no time dealing with a “man overboard” scare. Talk about a snake-bitten raft launch! Dick generated some urgent, impressive splashing (chilly water and live outboard props will do that) with his freestyle strokes back to mother raft. He had never swum so fast, and he never did again. His crewmates on the stern quickly snatched him back on board. On the far southern shore of the Ohio, Mabel Hall waved at the Doolittle and turned to drive the thirty-five road miles back to Paducah with news that “they” (we) had made it to and through the lock. She might have been shaking her head and clucking about the wooden transom and how many more incidents it might trigger. Her Gordon was leaving for a while, too, and hopefully coming back in one piece. Surely that was on her mind.

The raft dropped at least twelve feet in the lock. The abrupt “thank you ma’am” gut shimmy sensation mirrored a fast car drive over a road bump. We adjusted to the new river level, relieved by stability at last.  Captain scanned the river map and the northern shoreline for a potential mooring site. Dick changed shorts; Catherine shampoo-scented the bow. Susan slapped together peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and ladled out chicken soup. Jim perched proudly on the bow’s folding chair for his first piloting shift. Bob scrutinized, frowned at, pushed and pulled the interior cabin supports. Chris thumped his guitar face like a drum. Ben and Tom launched themselves into the river with a knotted rope attached to a poorly inflated air mattress. Judy journal-scribbled. Uli prowled the galley, Mary Jane and Cooper laughed from life preserver cushions on the bow.  Niek and I tried to organize watch and meal schedules for later.  Everybody flexed his or her wings in a folk dance of early help. All tested the limits of the raft’s cabin and deck space. Most of the crew migrated to the raft’s bow to evaluate new scenery. Bob warned that too many up front burdened the raft’s butted mid-section. He worried that the foundation would break in half (great!). So soon after launching, we were having too much fun to accept that possibility. Bob delivered the adventure’s only voice of reason during that first day on a river.

At 6:00 pm, Cooper picked a sheltered mooring spot east of the C E & I Railroad Grain terminal on the northern, Illinois side of the Ohio. Facing a red, western sun that insinuated next day rains, we approached a riverbank gnarled by shrubs and cottonwood roots and skirted by a forty-foot belt of sand and mud. A splintered grey shack sat back in trees, seventy yards from the water’s edge. A grizzled, baggy-panted, grey-bearded, nearly toothless bum stood rigidly in the brush beside two dented dinghies.  We floated up to him on our raft of peppermint stripes, oil drums, and younger bums, some pretty. Imagine how that all looked to him.  “River risin’ or fallin’?” Cooper hallowed to the stranger, trying to decide on tying up near the bank or some yards out. The guy squinted, nodded his head and mumbled in a raspy drawl, “Risin!’“ before turning and wandering back towards the shack.  We accepted his report and moored close enough to the sandy mud skirt to extend a board gangplank from raft to shore. We later improvised a campfire ring with wood stumps and old logs for seating. Empty, smelly, shiny mussel shells trailed from the water’s edge to the woods, past the old plastic red and aluminum dinghies and eventually to the river coot’s shack.  That structure’s distance from the river proved deliberate.

The crew was ready to sleep after the long, rainy inaugural of stops and starts. The steps to shore on the sagging gangplank were tightrope acts, with or without alcohol. We wondered what the riverbank coot was thinking about the folk who had invaded his frontage stake. How often was he interrupted? Did he own the land? What was on his mind as night fell? Was he a peaceful sort?

We felt safe in the strength of our numbers. The mysterious local would have never navigated the treacherous gangplank, judging from the shuffle that he had demonstrated as we landed. If future moorings were to present such chilly mystery, perhaps the Captain’s cache of weapons made sense after all. Our fresh adventure had hardly started.

Around 4:00 am, watchman Uli Schnell, likely on German time, rousted all from sleep to report that the Ohio’s water level had fallen, that the raft was stuck in the shore mud, and that the river was barely lapping against our port-side foundation barrels. We were grounded. This surprise had followed planning so meticulous that we had overlooked the rising and falling behaviors of our rivers. At least the Captain had asked a local before we moored.

By 7:00 am, using long joust poles, old trees, and boards propped at angles beneath seven thousand pounds of drum and wood, we labored, inched and rocked the raft back and forth away from the mud towards clear water.  This dance of grunted lifting and pushing with levers lasted for almost three hours. After each attempt at lifting, the raft fell heavily back into the mud with a splash and a squish. If we couldn’t free the raft, we would have to wait its eventual rise…more delays. We would have been obligated to invite the coot for dinner and cards.

We eventually worked enough of the raft back onto the edge of the Ohio to attempt a re-float. Coffee, adrenaline, and fear fueled that miracle.

That first day of rafting delivered big lessons:

Boaters thrive and survive by managing draft, the depth of a boat’s hull under the water line as river levels fluctuate. That’s how “sounding” and “mark twain”, Samuel Clemens’ eventual pen name, became river jargon. Sounding was measuring river depths with a weighted hand rope line; mark twain was the second of two six foot marks on that line. It designated two fathoms or twelve feet, considered a safe depth for riverboat passage in the 1800s.

You’d better know if and by how much a river is rising or falling. From point to point, depths and drafts change like the weather.

Consider the source and credibility of information offered up along the river, and then consider both again.

September 21, 1972. Departed Hales Point Chute at 6:00 am. Landed at Brandywine Chute, Tennessee at 7:00 pm. Mile 751.1.

A popular sailing rhyme says to “take warning” when the “sky is red in the morning”. That ditty crossed some minds on September 21st. We hadn’t encountered truly bad weather on our two rivers but the early morning sky showed red.  We left a chilly Hale’s Point Chute at 6:00 am, that an improvement over the two previous days of awful heat. Ugly clouds started to clot the sky and flies hugged the interior netting and roof of the cabin in swarms, behavior that usually meant rain. We killed the flies with towel swats and sweeps of the broom, but new battalions quickly replaced the shooed and the squashed. Were those rafting flies or roaming swarms, and how did they find the confines of a raft drifting down the middle of the wide river? Had they tired of possum meat from nearby shore towns?

To form, the clouds quickly thickened as the weather threatened.

We drifted into a notorious river run. Below Hales Point at Mile 779.5, a small Confederate fort, Fort Pillow, had once sat on the Tennessee bluffs. In 1861, sixty, rarely engaged soldiers manned it.  The Union army and navy had planned to attack the fort in June 1862, but when they advanced, they found it abandoned. Its troops had been tipped off. They established a new, small Union garrison of three hundred black and two hundred white soldiers at the fort because of its strategic river position. The mixed race forces were significant because many of the Union’s black soldiers, by design, were recruited, and motivated slaves from the south. Late in the war, when the Union army was well established at Fort Pillow, Nathan B. Forrest, a former slave trader and Confederate General, attacked the fort. One thousand “rebel” soldiers surprised its undermanned troops and reclaimed it, bloodily, for the South.  This skirmish, or massacre as the press described it, embarrassed the Union and its highest levels of Government, including President Abraham Lincoln. The acceptance of former slaves into the Union army was strategically supposed to demoralize the Confederates and all slaveholders. There were an estimated one hundred thousand black Union soldiers garrisoned along the Mississippi in various captured forts at the time, and the Fort Pillow setback became a rallying cry for both sides in the conflict. As we drifted nearby, Cooper mentioned the fort and its history. Though the Union ultimately prevailed in the Civil War, Confederate successes at Fort Pillow and Plum Point lived on as brief, hopeful milestones.

From the raft, we couldn’t visualize conflict that had routinely occurred on the docile Mississippi’s banks. River travelers had always been vulnerable targets, caught by floods, pirates, Native Americans on the run, armed traders, relocated African and Haitian slaves, drifters, carpetbaggers, soldiers and war, most uncomfortable situations. Fear and hatred still lingered along the Lower Mississippi River, occasional breezes on a small town street or in a visited store. In 1972, we were no better than bird-watchers with assumptions.  Along the river, trees grew in our heads.

In the early 1800s, a second treacherous river stretch developed between Hales Point and Memphis near Mile 752. The Mississippi channel meandered due west, then south between three small islands on its western banks and a large peninsula on its eastern banks. At the southern tip of Devil’s Elbow peninsula, it headed north again, the peninsula now to its west and another rounded point to its east. Convoluted and typical, the river at the time had neither conscience nor shaping help from a modern Army Corps of Engineers. In April 1832, the southbound steamer, Brandywine, caught fire and sank off of the eastern point, giving the nearby spot its name, Brandywine Point, and its notoriety for the loss of sixty passengers and all of the boat’s cargo. In 1876 and later, a natural, more direct “Centennial Cutoff ” leap-frogged thirty miles of river channel and turned Brandywine Point into the western edge of the newly-named Brandywine Island.  This newly created north-south channel was named Brandywine Chute. We had traveled sixty-seven river miles in nine hours before we approached Brandywine Island from the north.

We felt bad weather and noticed a broad pink and grey downriver band filling the gap between horizon and water line ahead. It hit us first with wind and hail, then with full-blown rains. The river swelled with real waves and the raft surfed south like a cork, faster than it had ever moved. It shot the channel, its outboards overmatched by the river. We were smack in the Brandywine Chute, north of Memphis. Cooper, the one guy who best knew the river, showed the most agitation. His guts and good intentions were presumed when he joined the expedition, but at seventy-six years old and experienced or not, he knew that weather fixes were limited. From his perspective, the raft lacked towboat power, a protective steel hull, and maneuverability. Following him, we realized that we were in trouble. The crew scrambled and put on life jackets. The outboards strained and ran hot.  The raft frame bent and tested its joined midsection. The motor props dipped in and out the river. We tried to leave the channel and to beach the raft, but protected banks or nearby inlets were scarce blurs. Bob and Dick had frequently fiddled with the engine throttles and the gas and oil mixes when the raft needed thrust. Fearing an engine fire on the stern, they removed the outboard covers for cooled, wet air.  Burdened, a three-foot horizontal section of the transom then snapped with a loud crack and broke away from the port outboard. Now unattached from mounted brackets on the wood, that outboard dipped completely into the river and seized. Saving the motor was akin to rescuing a heavy, greased pig from the back of a runaway pickup truck. The rain, the slick stern deck, and the raft’s bucking instability all presented “man overboard” risks. Quick-thinking crew wrestlers saved the outboard but the one surviving motor became more joke than salvation. We turned and aimed the raft at distant eastern banks and the current swept us downriver past potential moorings. Hitting any southern spot meant factoring in the river’s speed. We had no idea how fast we were drifting but it was certainly more than five miles per hour.  Our targeting was hit or miss…mostly miss.

The upriver current worsened and broadened the futility of single outboard navigation. We adjusted, aimed and ultimately chugged to the opposite, western side of the river in a long slow arc…and then back in a shallower arc to the east. We continued to eye downriver banks. The slick sides of this chute, the result of a river that had jumped land to carve out its new channel, guaranteed swift runs with or without bad weather. Inlets were scarce in a chute. Given the weather and compromised navigational skills, we had to settle for shallow angle skims into or atop wooded, rocky riverbanks. The raft bucked erratically. We worried that we’d run into something or that something would run into us. The storm continued to ebb and peak.  Pocket squalls dumped heavy rain, moved on, reappeared. We eventually caught one longer view bull rush wave and surfed to a shallow indent on the eastern riverbank. Barely out of the current, anyway, we stopped at this spot where the banks were steep, stripped of most vegetation, and lousy for mooring. We lassoed small trees and bushes to stall the raft’s advance, and like late-arriving sand-baggers in the middle of a flood, we grabbed every available large log or rock on the banks to unsuccessfully attempt an improvised, diverting jetty wall in the water between the raft’s stern and the river.  We then double-roped the raft to larger uphill trees. Landfall, if you could call it that, was a slight improvement, but we were rattled and soaked. Had the life preservers been striped instead of solid bright orange, the scene could have resembled a jailbreak gone badly. It was already 7:00 pm at Mile 751.1 on the Mississippi. We had been at it for thirteen hours. Shaken and pissed, Cooper leaned against his cabin berth with his back to the bow and addressed the crew, now huddled and wet in the cabin. Still wearing the life jackets and not inclined to take them off, all were quietly wondering a variation of, “Whoa, what was that?” Cooper announced that he was quitting, that the motors were inadequate, that the raft wasn’t safe, that he was going to get off in Memphis, the next stop.  We had to have a better system. Someone had to really be in charge. The incident scared the crap out of the old pilot…and his crew.

When the air thinned, Cooper softened. Both took some time.  A fall off of the stern into the Chute current would have lead to a recovery mission. There hadn’t been physical casualties. We had survived.

Were larger outboards available in Memphis to upgrade the raft’s power? What would they cost?  How could we repair or replace the jinxed stern transom with stronger, reliable lumber? Could unknown friends at a marina on Mud Island in Memphis help us? How would we reach them when the radio battery was dead and we couldn’t call ahead? Though we eventually agreed to the Mud Island overhaul plan, the crew was subdued, anxious, processing. That whole scheme was a bunch of unknown places, people, and upgrades hinging completely on Cooper’s relationships.

In some denial, we played cards by lamplight into that night, and nobody slept well because all were on watch. Towboat wake bumped the raft and our mooring ropes needed constant re-tightening. Chris was sick. At best, we would be limping into Memphis, another low point only one week after leaving Paducah.  Brandywine Chute had warned us about this river and the speed with which everything could change. Frisbee at sunset with the Delta Queen on Marr’s Towhead was already a shaky benchmark. Looking back, there had been more challenges on the trip than days on easy street.  So far, learning hard seemed to be the way of this river and the Doolittle crew needed to get cracking anew for the next six hundred and fifty-six river miles.









The Babe Ruth Baseball

The Babe Ruth Baseball

The Babe Ruth Baseball

My father was born and raised in Pennington, New Jersey, and he lived there from 1923-1943.  As a kid, he was a big fan of horses and baseball.

His mother was originally from Boston, where he spent his summers and went to Red Sox games at Fenway Park. His father, my grandfather, was a tough New Jersey native who owned ponies and had vague connections to the New York Yankees.

Dad’s baseball mitt was one of those flat, pocket-less, dried leather things that looked like it had been left out in the field or stepped on too many times.  It was squashed, brown, moldy, a starfish-like relic… more of a ball-stop than a catching aid. It’s hard to say if its condition was from use or neglect.

During one baseball season in the late 1920’s, his father announced that they were going together to an upcoming ballgame at Yankee Stadium.

Too quickly, or too close to the game, he reneged on their plans and “Uncle Gus” ended up with Dad’s ticket. Since Dad was missing out on the game, his father promised to bring home as recompense a baseball signed by Babe Ruth.  At the time, Ruth was a Yankee and probably baseball’s biggest attraction.

The morning after the missed game, Dad’s father handed him the promised baseball, signed by Ruth. It was a beautiful  “Official American League” ball, with tight red and blue stitching. The autograph was a bold, clear flourish in black pen ink… the real deal.  Over time, the ball leather aged to the color of light honey and the stitches to magenta and cyan.

The ball accompanied my dad into his adulthood, and by the time he was a father himself (with 9 kids, a “team in process”), it was displayed modestly with some books and an elephant bell in the shadows of a closed, windowed, shelf in the family’s living room. It was taken for granted, ignored, really just gathering dust like the books around it.  His children can’t remember or admit to any early discussions about the ball.

Fast-forwarding to the late 1950’s, neighborhood kids played pick-up baseball games in a vacant, dirt and grass lot across the street from the family home in Virginia. As a centerfield “fence”, tall boxwood hedges turned lost baseballs into heavy, leather-peeling lumps.  Right field was lined with dense thorn bushes. Balls hit long to right were rarely retrieved. Paved Tyler Street paralleled the third base line and a chunk of left field.  Home “plate” was a stick across a dirt dent between two large pine trees. Too frequently, the players were short a baseball when they gathered for games after school or on most summer days. On one weekday afternoon in 1959, the kids were all jabbering and smacking small fists into their baseball mitts, but nobody had brought a ball to the field. No ball. No game.

Home sick from school and noticing this development from his second story bedroom window across the street, nine year old brother Philip descended to the family’s living room bookshelf, took the Ruth ball, went back upstairs, and threw it out his window into the front yard grass… to be “found”.

I “discovered” it, raised it triumphantly to our gang of 10, 11, and 12-year-old players, and then we all started a game of catch on Tyler street, between our house and the field. Only one boy, Charlie Fletcher, seemed impressed by the ball and its autograph. The rest of us just wanted to play ball. As usual, the 10 year olds were weak fielders in the street.

The Ruth ball took a beating even before it was used in the field that day. The signature was really scuffed.  In fact, as hard as it is to acknowledge this now, it was scuffed off, though you might have been able to identify it with a magnifying glass if you knew what you were looking for…. or if you even cared.

We don’t remember how and when the ball was returned to Dad, but we do remember that he was more sad than angry.  Maybe he was reminded of Uncle Gus, the missed game, the “settlement”, the trophy ball, its link to a famous Yankee and his own childhood, his father. He put the Ruth ball into his dresser sock drawer, and it stayed there in the dark for forty-one years.  It was sometimes mentioned carefully at family dinners, but dessert never included absolution.

We hoped to make up for our decision as kids in 1959, so Philip and I bought a baseball signed by all of the living major league sluggers who had hit more than five hundred career home runs.  Dad was at least a Red Sox fan, and Ted Williams was one of the signers. We also bought a blank, modern American League baseball and added only our own autographs to the new ball.

We gave both balls to Dad in 2000 on his 77th birthday. He went to his bedroom, retrieved the Ruth ball from his dresser, returned, and gave it to Philip. Phil had started everything, after all. Then he gave me the ball that Philip and I had both signed and he presented the 500 home run ball to Benji, my son, his 13 year-old grandson.

This photo captured the transfer of memories, baseballs, and responsibilities across three generations. Benji was grateful and understandably cautious. My dad, who passed three years later, confirmed perfectly and typically in his expression that almost all had been forgiven, well before the picture was snapped.

The story was always about this man, and not the ball. He handled much with grace, and we learned that from him.

I recently asked Phil for a chance to photograph the ball.  He e-mailed back that the ball sitting on his shelf at home since 2000 was not the Ruth ball, after all, and he now doesn’t know where it is.

Dad would have said “Yikes!” (or worse)…at this news.

I would say that his sons still tend to learn lessons the hard way.