Sweden Stood For Freedom
ACCORDING to the old military map I had of that part of the world, Carin and I would have been separated by dots and crosses along the mountains in the north anyway.... I had spent the evening in America not making the effort to introduce myself. A friend had dragged me to an annual slide show of a local sculptor whose work I considered profitable desecration of the countryside. ``Come on,'' he said, ``we have to keep up.''
The show was actually quite interesting, if only for fine photography of the United States and the sculptor's honest obsession with constructing shapes out of huge poles. But the show didn't come until the end of the evening, and Carin being part of the retinue of artistic helpers, I figured she was just a hanger-on or a groupie for new-wave outdoor sculpture, Art-is-a-Political Statement-About-Art, and you can get away with anything as long as it is clever or has a sense of humor.
I warmed up in the dark when I saw an illuminated beauty of a run-down miner's mill, wonderful in its practical eccentricity, in a deserted Nevada valley, and the artist said it had been the inspiration for ``my year.''
I still wasn't ready to cross over but I was intrigued with the rhetoric going on around me. The lights went on and in the buzz of the house, Carin was standing not far from her mentor and had got me into her stare. I should have recognized a fellow Scandinavian, for as soon as she spoke I knew she had been raised on those funny a's with circles on them, and o's with umlauts I knew from my father's speech.
The light embroidery on Carin's dark dress reminded me immediately of the simple pattern +.+.+.+.+.+.+ on a map I found in my father's house, a souvenir from World War II, of the boundary between Norway and Sweden. For Carin said she was Swedish.
``I know your country,'' I said. I really didn't. I had a child's impression of the high white peaks beyond the waterfall'd ranges of Norway, shimmering like sea gulls. I told Carin the story: As a boy, my father had taken us, his new American family after the war, back to his birthplace, a farm called Stromholt, inland from Narvik, north of the Arctic Circle.
I learned strom was the current of a raging trout river and holt was the birched hill on which the homestead stood. I also learned the word Sweden. One day walking up the dirt road to fields, happy as a boy in a Russian peasant tale (for Russia was not far either), I found Enar, bestefar, my grandfather, sitting by the side of the road in his workboots and suspenders, his blue eyes with a look of the Lapps, distances.
Behind Enar was a rockpile on the red-needled forest floor where a few wildflowers poked through. He didn't speak English. But children and the elderly have ways, we must have found some language, for I asked what all the stones were for.
A boy, he said, had deserted from the German army. He brought food to Enar's family in the cave where they lived above the farm the Germans had confiscated for a headquarters. They say he had a crush on one of the plaited-haired sisters, one of 10 children in the cave. My father, the oldest, gone for a soldier, was sabotaging the German air base at Bardufoss during this time.
When the Germans found out about the boy's sympathies, they imprisoned him in a barracks on an island in the river. He escaped and just down this road where the rocks are they shot him. Enar, whose farm this was, buried him there in the woods. See, five stones I put on his grave each year for the boy. He might have become part of our family.
``Where was he going when they shot him?'' I asked. There, he pointed, just where the road turned and you could see them above the pines, the peaks. ``There?'' I pointed. ``Ja, Sverige.'' Sweden. ``That's Sweden there?''
I told Carin that was my image of Sweden. A place where if you can climb you won't have to get shot and you'd be free to come back and marry the one you loved, after the war. I've held onto the image of Enar pointing there with his ragged sleeve and thick wrist and looking in the distance to a memory a boy could not know.
``But it's not so true,'' said Carin. Then, in the midst of others at the soiree babbling about art and theories of this woman's work, was it or wasn't it, Carin began to tell me why her country politically was not a good symbol of freedom during the war. Right from those mountains you saw, she said, they were shipping iron ore to the Nazis.
She explained that Hitler then needed Norway's ice-free port of Narvik to ship out his deal with the Swedes. Part of the reason he blitzed Norway that fateful early spring day in 1940. He needed that iron ore badly. We were not so clean-handed, she said.
I knew this history of politics from school, and from Churchill. As I knew something about art. Neither politics or art, said James Joyce. I had my image, my canvas-in-preparation, to paint about what Sweden looked like. I had had it straight from a living story from an old man, who with lonely ceremony marked the grave of a boy who had tried to make a dash for freedom. That way, up there - Sweden - if you were a boy with courage, there was an invisible place you could try to cross and your life would be different.
Carin thanked me for this news of her country.