53. Hey wait, I'm not Finnish!

Published on 19 October 2023 at 15:09

© 2023 Robert Sickles

Maybe I haven’t seen Erkki in years, but as far as I know, he’s alive and well!

I’ll start at the beginning. It was the during the first weeks of school in Mrs. Stewarts’s 3rd grade room. I remember she had finished reading Charlotte’s Web to us, and was starting on Stuart Little. But I was beside myself because I forgot my milk money! What a calamity! How much was it back then, 20¢ per week or something? The quiet boy sitting next to me offered a couple of dimes he had in his desk, and I was so relieved.  I hadn’t even spoken to him yet, and I supposed he was a new kid. I made sure to have money ready to pay him back the next day. But he was absent for the longest time. I kept that 20¢ for him in my desk, wondering if he'd ever come back to school.

After weeks, there he was one day, walking in the classroom door. I reached out to him with 20¢ in my hand and told him I’d been waiting to return his money for a long time.

The boy was surprised. He said he hadn’t even remembered lending it, but smiled at the gesture. He told me about his asthma and severe skin condition, and how he’d missed a lot of school before. Mrs. Stewart asked me to take him to the back of the room for a time every day and help him catch up with our class work. We had fun doodling and fooling around while going over the math and reading work. He caught on quickly and showed he was a very good student. His explained patiently that his Finnish name, Erkki, was not Eric, and I had to roll the r. His parents had come from Finland before he was born in New York. We hit it off and stayed close friends from that time all the way through high school graduation.

Almost every day, we walked the few blocks to his house after school. On sunny days, we played on the riverbank in his backyard. Indoors, we entertained ourselves with comic books, daydreams, and games. Ricky and Danny and others lived around the corner, and we had enough guys to form a hangin’ out club.

A shrubby tract near the school was the perfect field for wild boy adventures. A shallow pond there froze over in winter and we had very bumpy ice for what we loosely called hockey. Nearby, we found some big kids’ very cool secret hideaway. It was a dugout pit covered with boards and sod—there was even a real fireplace carved into the earth and a chimney disguised as a tree stump. Oh, and the important part, we found their girly magazines! It was dangerous business, we’d invaded a secret clubhouse; sure enough, the big kids caught us snooping. We were threatened with slow death and dismemberment if we ever returned.  Actually, I think we called their bluff and dared to go back several times, hoping those magazines were still there!

I told my parents about my new friend, “…and he’s a Finn!” They looked at me like “What do you mean by that?”  I told them what I'd learned about his family and their customs. Their home was furnished in Scandinavian Modern and I’d never seen chairs and lamps like that. Finnish Christmas stood out as an unusual time; after the family sauna, Joulupukki (Santa) knocks on the front door and leaves presents only for the good girls and boys!

Erkki's father was with the Finnish consulate in New York City, mom was a homemaker, and his very cool brother Ari was off to college. I liked his mom; she was usually around the house but she left us to our own creative play. I didn’t understand why, but we needed to avoid Erkki’s father after his long day at work. Papa wanted his home quiet and orderly; either we tidied up and played quietly upstairs or, more frequently, I’d have to go home. The man’s mood changed unpredictably, but I never witnessed anything of him worse than grumpiness. I was told he was a big fan of happy hour—I didn’t know what that meant.

Since his family usually spoke Finnish at home, young Erkki’s English had a trace of an accent.  I noticed he was missing a few common English expressions, for which he made up alternates when he was younger. For example, since one opens or closes a door, he’d say “open” or “close” the lights when he flipped the switch. I thought that was kind of clever.  He used “to put” as a multi-purpose verb, subbing it for other words—put (set) the table, put (carry) the backpack, put (deal) the cards.  This faded as he grew up, or possibly as I got used to him.

Erkki tried to convince me that my life was boringly American; he joked that I was all white-bread and baloney. Such a friend, huh? But to prove his point, he asked his mom to make me a Finnish ham sandwich with dark rye, sharp cheese, and spicy mustard. At first defensive about my American taste buds, I had to admit that Erkki was right! I didn’t know food could have flavor!

For even more flavor, his mother had something fishy going on in a bucket around the side of the house. Erkki said it was made out of brined herring—a traditional delicacy that ranks as one of the most awful things one can do to seafood. Its putrid smell and flavor came from fermenting in a bucket for months. They actually call the process “rotting.” Fortunately, his mom’s batch wasn’t ready to sample. Erkki said I would have to come back in a few weeks when they open the bucket.  Nah, I wasn’t ready to become that Finnish.

While I thought Peanuts was a funny comic strip, Erkki argued that Charlie Brown was a wishy-washy sap. “A typical American kid,” he’d say while glancing at me insinuatingly. He goaded me instead to read Pogo and learn to appreciate its satire and social commentary.  Was he a moody bossy-boss? Well, yeah, sometimes. And a creative kid, an influential thinker, and a loyal friend. The arts, sports, science, history—I was always being introduced to something new, having my values and beliefs challenged.  Not bad at all.

Our creative play got crazy sometimes. When he came over with several packages of large ladyfinger firecrackers, the only obvious thing to do was empty all the gunpowder out and make a tiny bomb.  We dammed a small stream in my backyard and created a sizeable pond. Below the dam, we arranged all our plastic soldiers and vehicles in a stockade made of twigs. Our bomb (code name “D-Day”) was detonated in a tunnel under the dam, and the effect was utterly cinematic. Erkki hollered, “Oh, the humanity!” The force of that water rushing down the channel washed away the fort and all our toys in mere seconds. The reservoir continued to drain for nearly a half hour, carrying silt and leaves through the culvert under Succow’s driveway, and on to the next yard, where it ended as a giant mess in the center of Dodson’s front lawn. There was no way to shift the blame when Old Mr. Dodson showed up at our door, quite flummoxed and holding our muddy toys. Later, Mom said with a wink, “You boys have outdone yourselves. Better go help clean it up.”

By about age 14, Erkki developed an admiration for “he-man” characters in movies and comics, the tough but good-hearted S.O.B. types. He invented a secret club for us where we could emulate his heroes. We were The Soldiers of Fortune, or SOF, and we called each other Tovarich, “comrade” in Russian.  I think he was playing with the idea that there were worthy causes we’d fight for and worlds to see and conquer… women, whiskey and gold! I went along with the fantasy, but I didn’t really want to be a marauder. It seemed to involve risking it all in a dusty desert or humid jungle. Well… the women and whiskey part, I was willing to try for that.

Of course, Erkki’s family had a sauna in the home. I’d never heard of such a thing but became a fan after getting used to everyone sitting buck-naked in the little hot room. Erkki insisted on doing it right, with heat turned all the way up. He tossed ladles of water onto the lava rocks so a scalding blast of steam burned your breath and boiled the eyeballs. One time he used vodka instead of water—oh my God! He’d say, “The Finns have learned the importance of being a tough people. They live in a tough climate; they have to be tough fighters. Sauna makes them tougher!” And, “The pain of sauna is not the point, it’s how good it feels when it’s over!” I don’t know about sauna making me tough; in fact, I felt pretty limp. We stayed in that hot sauna as long as we could bear it, then ran whooping out the back yard to leap into the Rockaway River or roll in the snow. I was reminded by our friend Rick, who apparently learned the hard way, “The snow had to be the fluffy stuff; ice-crusted snow is unforgiving in the unkindest way to males who go face-down to cool their bellies.”

Erkki and I went to opposite corners of America for college. We wrote letters for a while. His were getting weird and infrequent, and I feared he was going through a dark time. Then his letters just stopped. Soldiers of Fortune were we I shrugged, off to find our own ways and not look back. This could have been the end of the story.

In fact, were it not for a mutual friend, Erkki and I would probably never have seen or heard from each other again. I’m grateful to Jack for bringing us together for a reunion one remarkable day in the mid ’80’s. My long-lost friend and I learned about the challenging and nutty lives we’d led, and how it came to be that we dropped out of each other’s lives. I was right in my assumption that he’d gone through some difficulties. After 20 years, it was so satisfying to see him happy in a career, married to a wonderful woman, newly a father and settled in a community. After taking such divergent paths, it looked like we had actually landed on common ground. And, I’m thankful, not as swashbuckling, mercenary superheroes, tearing up the countryside for the lust of wine, women and song!

Hey, Erkki, I don't mean to be a pest. It’s been over 30 years. Bygones, Tovarich. Give me a call and you can tell me what you think of my version of our story! (360) 359-6650.

Add comment


9 months ago

Love the "“open” or “close” the lights. My German grannie used to say "make a light" to which we would reply - Thomas Edison already did that. She always laughed.

Carol Christiansen
9 months ago

Found out through DNA testing that an ancestor or two crossed into northern Finland for some 'fun' and I have finnish blood in these veins! Look forward to going one of these days.

9 months ago

Another very interesting page in your story. Again, thanks for sharing your remarkable life. Dave

9 months ago

Now I see why you so profusely objected when I referred to you as Charlie Brown. Your story reminded me how wonderful it is to have a memory of a friendship beginning in grade school. My dear Kathy is such a friend and still is in my life albeit some 1500 miles away. Your stories always make your readers think of their own life experiences. Thank you my love.

9 months ago

Love the boyhood friendship stories and adventures. Why do boys like to blow things up? Timely question, right?!