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Here I come, America


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Most of the stories told by emigrants from Finland were alike. After the war, there were few prospects in Finland. The country was still an agricultural society. The small crofter could not support the large families of children that all the households had. But we all knew that in Sweden work could be found. That was where the largest number of youths went to earn a living. I was on this emigrant road. As a 16-year-old I was in Stockholm as part of a labor exchange. I was too young to have a job in a factory so I became a lumberjack. There I camped alone the entire winter. In the spring I had to return home to help with farm work. I did the same job for the next two years and saw no light in the future. I could not see myself straddled with one foot in Finland and the other in Sweden for the rest of my life. It was then that thoughts of America took hold. There were endless possibilities there where the streets were paved with gold. In order to have money for the trip I took a job in the construction industry in Jakobstad. I was there for two years. When I finally had the money for an airline ticket and a visa in my pocket, I was ready for a new life in America.

But I could not travel without first saying Goodbye. One Saturday evening we went to a hotel in the city to celebrate my departure. It is strange how one first notices and appreciates things only after one no longer has them. I had gone down this path hundreds of times but never noticed the surroundings. There in the evening I walked slowly and admired the yard in front of the house. It was silent and still - only some birds chirped before the sun went down. I had come to a pretty little gingerbread house. I stood there for a long time and admired the lovely house with a yard full of beautiful flowers. Suddenly a voice said “Aren’t they beautiful?” I had not noticed there was an older woman who was weeding the flower bed. I excused my curiosity. “Not at all,” she said and stood up. She was dressed in frayed trousers and a loose fitting blue wrinkled shirt. Over her blond hair she wore a red and white head scarf. I let my eyes wander and was surprised that for an older woman she was unbelievably nice looking. She was close to 30 years old. For me, a 20-year-old was old. She looked at me and said “Where are you going in such fine clothes?” I said, “To the hotel to celebrate. I shall go to America!” “Have a nice time,” she said with a smile. I continued on my way.

When the restaurant closed at midnight, I went to my lonely home. One can go out and fish but there is no guarantee that one will catch anything. One would think that I, God’s gift to women, would get a nip on the hook that night. But I had fun anyway. I stood again in front of the gingerbread house and admired the idyllic scenery. The air was cool and damp. A mist floated over the tree tops. On the horizon the midnight sun began to rise. Silence reigned everywhere. I stood there in the twilight and dreamed…?!. When morning dawned I was on my way home. I stopped at the café for a cup of strong coffee. I sat there and reflected. Yes, I sighed, she was beautiful when she slept.

I took the train to Helsingfors and wandered around and admired the monuments in the city. Småbonders, my home village, was a small memory. When it was time to have lunch I went back to the train station. The Eliel was large and stately. I had difficulty comprehending that such luxury existed. On one side of the large room was a cafeteria that was for ordinary people. On the other side stood a table with a fine white tablecloth. That side was reserved for fine people. There one must wear a jacket. I sat down on this side. After all, I must accustom myself to my new lifestyle in America!

When the waiter brought the menu I chose the most costly on the menu. It was chicken. With the meal I had a drink of “Koskenkorva Vina”. There I gorged and ate like a king. I had never had such a fine meal before. Suddenly I had a feeling that I was being observed. Slowly I turned my head. From the other side of the restaurant where the ordinary people sat, I met the glance of a woman. I knew about her. Her pet name was “Kokkolan Punainen Ruusa”. I had heard that she had taken her “business” to Helsingfors. I am sure she had many steady customers.

I took a taxi to the airport Sjöskog in Vanda because I wanted to be sure that I went to the right place. I put my little suitcase on the pavement while I paid the driver. When the taxi drove away, I panicked – my suitcase was gone! Vanished! My whole life was in that bag, everything that I owned. There was my visa, my passport, my plane ticket, a pair of underwear and my new white shirt.

Hysterically I ran into the airline terminal and called out “Where is my suitcase?, where is my suitcase?” There in the blink of an eye my dream of America was gone – dead. I sank down on a seat, wringing wet. Suddenly I sprang up. There at the check-in desk stood a man in uniform with my suitcase in one hand and with the other hand extended. I grabbed the suitcase out of his hand and said “That is my suitcase!” I thought to myself he was a robber. He wanted me to pay him for my suitcase that he had stolen!

Outside the terminal stood two airplanes parked beside each other. One was a large and stately Pan Am jet plane with its blue signature emblem on the back tail fin. Close by stood a little Finnair propellar plane – a milk train. When I saw it I was so glad that I flew under the American flag. I was sure that in a short time Finnair would go bankrupt. How could they compete with the Americans?

When I stepped into the plane I was met by beautiful American stewardesses. They were dressed in stylish blue Pan Am uniforms. They welcomed me with friendly smiles: Sir, Welcome to Pan Am! Can you imagine that a farmer’s son was called Sir? Now everything was clear in my mind. I was on my way to a country full of riches, dollars, beer and honey. To a country full of beautiful curvy women with large breasts! My future saw the light – dancing among the roses. When I stepped into the plane I wanted to see who my passengers were. To my surprise I was the only passenger. One could think to himself: My own airplane! Only in America!

After we were in the air a while a woman came and leaned over me. With a sexy voice and a soft smile she said something to me. My heart throbbed. I could not speak English. But I heard the word “drink.” I understood that. I stuck my finger up and said “American beer.” No more “Lapin Kulta” for me. When she came back with the bottle of beer, I was lost in her Pan Am blue eyes. I came to my senses when I heard her say “dollar or mark?” With dignity I took out my wallet. To my consternation it was empty! I could not believe my eyes. “Dear God,” I said, “I am broke!” During the rest of the journey I sat there alone, embarrassed and depressed. Was this an omen, my fate?

All the emigrants who leave their homeland for better opportunities do it with mixed emotions. It is not so easy to leave what is known and loved for an uncertain future in a new land. Many feelings ran through my head while I sat in the plane on my way to the promised land, leaving my motherland behind me.

When we neared New York in the evening, it was an incredible sight as I stared out the window of the plane. Arriving at Idlewild airport (now Kennedy airport), the plane went over Long Island. From a bird’s eye view I saw a dreamland. There below were thousands of tidy houses. The area was surrounded by street lights that shimmered like diamonds in the twilight. Large expressways wound through the landscape below, full of cars. We circled a long time before we could land. They took us out over Manhattan at a very low altitude. Down there stood impressive skyscrapers that I had read about. Large bridges crossed over the water separating areas of the city. It was an incredible sight to behold. What a country!

At last I was in America! Here I am! When we landed, I was met by my father’s brother Mika and his wife Aino. We stayed the first night in the Bronx with some of my uncle’s friends who were from Finland. They were very hospitable. The next day there was the obligatory visit to the Empire State building in Manhattan. The building was still the world’s tallest then. We took the Third Avenue subway from the Bronx to Manhattan. The train cars were old and nasty smelling with dirty wooden seats to sit on. In the Bronx the tracks were two stories above the road. When the train leaned around the curve it made such a noise. It jerked back and forth and swayed on the unsteady steel construction. I stood the entire time and took in the sights. There were dirty streets, ugly buildings with masses of people who rushed around outside the businesses. Cars tooted, people of all races and languages speaking. Dear me, what noise. I had difficulty grasping that anyone could live in such miserable circumstances. From the Empire State building we could not see the confusion down below.

By midafternoon we were on the way to Canterbury in Connecticut where my father’s brother was a chicken farmer. In those surroundings the people were more good-natured. It reminded me of my home village, Småbonders. This Finnish colony had lived there after the great depression for twenty years. I was surprised that most of them were chicken farmers. In this small commnity there was a Finn hall and a Finnish Lutheran church. The Finn hall was very active. Each month they had parties, dances, theater, card games, etc. Once Veikko Ahvenainen gave a concert with his accordion. Then he played for a dance. Both young and old danced the old known dances. For me rock and roll was a new experience. This colony had very little social contact with other Americans, which surprised me.

During the time I was staying with my uncle, I tried to find a job with no results. A bathroom business would have hired me if I had a car. I said I could ride a bicycle to the job. The personnel director laughed at me as if I had a hole in my head. “Only in under-developed countries do people ride bicycles,” he said. “In America we drive cars!”

I never knew I came from an underdeveloped country. All my life a bicycle had been my means of transport. After a month of searching at last I got work as a helper for a carpenter in New Rochelle, a suburb of New York City. One thing that struck me during the month I stayed with my uncle in Connecticut was how connected the Finnish people were. Despite that most of them had never been back to Finland, they were very in touch with their homeland. My uncle sat every Sunday afternoon in his easy chair with his feet on a footstool and read Norden newspaper. Aino sat on the sofa and read New Yorkin Uutiset. They were more knowledgeable than I was about what happened in Finland. When I was a young man the only thing that interested me in the newspaper was the announcement of the next Saturday dance.

During my entire time in America since 1961, I have read Norden newspaper. It has followed me to all the addresses I have had in the US. It was news from the motherland.

Norden, 20 March 2010

By Donald Widjeskog, about his 1961 trip to America

English translation by June Pelo

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