Portrait of a Swede in

by Rita Leydon ©1996
 

A close friend of mine recently celebrated his 75th birthday—being thirty years younger made the event seem all the more amazing and wonderful from my perspective. Since I have had the distinct pleasure of spending a good deal of quality time with him in recent months and being fully aware that he is well-known, loved and respected in the Swedish-American community I decided to interview my friend with the purpose of sharing his life in a small way with the readers of Nordstjernan. So one fine afternoon as we sat on the sunny porch of my Flemington, NJ home, he reminisced and I took notes.

Knut Torolf Ingemar Bergström was born on April 27, 1921 in Enköping, Uppland, Sweden, the youngest of six children born to Erick and Matilda Bergström. Times were bad in Sweden and when Ingemar (as he was called then) was just one year old his father and the two oldest boys emigrated to America. Matilda wasn’t interested in trading one difficult life for another difficult one so she stayed put with the two youngest children—two others had died of diphtheria previously. Matilda worked hard and Erick sent money and packages now and then to help out. Unfortunately, when Ingemar was ten years old his mother died of cancer; this resulted in the relocation of brother and sister Kristina to the big city. An aunt and uncle who lived on Strandvägen in Stockholm took in the children until arrangements could be made with Erick in America.

The children attended school “på Södern,” but what is most prominent in Thor’s memory of this pivotal period (Thor is the name he goes by now) is his impressions of slottsvakten—the royal palace guards. At noon every day slottsvakten marched—in fine military uniforms with shiny steel helmets, gold epaulets and buttons, black boots, some on horses, others on foot—to the delight of the neighborhood children. These kids, Thor among them, would march along on the sidewalk playing their snatte pinnar in rhythm with the royal drummers. Thor explains that snatte-pinnar were wooden clappers that the kids made from cigar boxes. The guards would acknowledge and encourage the children and their antics with smiles and winks.

It took a year to arrange for the children. Eleven-year-old Thor and seventeen year-old Kristina made the trip to America on board the ship Gripsholm in the company of only each other. Thor recalls that it was a particularly stormy crossing as the journey to New York took ten days instead of the normal seven. The year was 1932, and America was deep in economic depression.

 

A New Life in America

The reunited family made its home in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn which had a large Swedish community. Thor’s father was now a bricklayer. Times were very tough. Money was scarce. No one had time for Thor and he had to fend mostly for himself—not much in the way of nurturing occurred between the members of this family of strangers. It was a lonely period for young Thor. A strong memory of this time is very bad toothaches, weeks of terrible pain and finally having the offending teeth pulled out because there was no money for proper dental work.

During this period someone gave Thor his first harmonica. Music allowed the boy some joy. He augmented the harmonica’s melodies with the percussion rhythms of his snatte-pinnar—these now made of rib bones from a cow donated by a friendly butcher. Thus we see the origins of the “Depression Orchestra” as Thor now refers to his musical alter ego.

Childhood ended in 1938 when at the age of seventeen Thor was encouraged by his father to quit high school to become a wage earner. Erick himself had become a laborer at the tender age of nine and didn’t see much value in the continuation of his son’s schooling. This is something that Thor speaks of with sad regret today.

So Thor became a seaman and joined the National Maritime Union. In 1940 he found himself in Baltimore working tugboats. There he encountered discontent among non-union workers on barges and tugs. Feeling that union membership would benefit this group, he spent a few months handing out pledge cards and talking up the benefits of unity and better conditions for workers. The transition to union membership went smoothly and without resistance. This was Thor’s first taste of labor organization, a theme which would become one of the prime focuses of his life.

As a seafarer, Thor experienced many places around the globe: The Caribbean, British Guinea (for bauxite, an ore full of aluminum), the Virgin Islands (a transfer point for goods), the Panama Canal, the Suez Canal, Egypt, the Persian Gulf, Iraq (he thinks about the meticulously tailored suit with many pockets that he bought in Basra, “best quality in the world”), Persia (he recalls boxes of dates with white worms in every box—five hatches of wormy dates bound for New York), Africa, Asia, Russia, Germany, England (where he spent a few weeks in jail with a shipmate when they were caught as stowaways after missing their own ship), Scandinavia, Ireland, Scotland, Italy, South America, the Far East, the Mediterranean, France, Australia, New Guinea. As the years passed, his position both on board ship and ashore was that of “ship’s delegate” or “shop steward,” meaning that he was a grievance negotiator and organizer; a representative of the workers. On board ship he worked in the engine room.

 

World War II

Then came World War II. Thor was in the Merchant Marines the day it started and also the day it ended. This makes him a WWII veteran, fair and square, although it was not until 1987 that the US Congress recognized this detail. Not until that time were seamen like Thor eligible for veteran’s benefits.

The Merchant Marines were vital to the war effort as they “delivered the goods, the guns, all supplies for the military and food for civilian populations as well.” To be in the Merchant Marines during the war was, in fact, more dangerous than to be in the armed forces. The large number of torpedoed and sunk Merchant Marine vessels (not to mention lives lost) off the eastern US coast by German submarines was a military secret at the time. Thor was torpedoed and sunk several times and rescued by other ships—he doesn’t want to dwell on these experiences. Medals, citations, combat bars and campaign ribbons were awarded. As Thor talks about all this he seems detached and far away. “You just keep sailing, it’s a job, war or no war.”

For a period during the 50’s he had the dubious honor of being among those effectively blacklisted by our overly protective government. He was feared as a radical, guilty by association with communists and union leaders. The FBI checked on him and invited him down to Washington to testify. Thor was guilty of promoting ideas such as “in unity there is strength.” During this time he couldn’t sail and had to work ashore. He had been “screened” by the government and was denied valid seaman’s papers—meaning that his union card was stamped “in pursuant of a court order . . . ” It was pure McCarthy era harassment; being denied the right to one’s occupation. In 1960 he was finally cleared and when his valid union card came through he took one last tour of sea duty, this time on a Tropicana orange juice tanker.

For the next 25 years he worked a variety of jobs, nothing particularly steady, in construction, on tug boats, building maintenance etc. The task of serving as shop steward gravitated naturally to Thor on virtually all jobs he undertook. He retired in 1986.

 

Speaking Out

Anyone who has spent more than two minutes in conversation with Thor knows that he is serious, circumspect, well-read and informed. “I am a soap-box agitator,” he says. He finds most folks woefully uninformed about the larger issues concerning our global community and is distressed that many Americans seem to be preoccupied with the well-being and advancement of only their own immediate family; caring little for the well-being and advancement of the community at large. He takes it upon himself to suffer for all the underdogs of the world—a heavy burden that he could use some help with. Thor is ever vigilant when it comes to noticing and calling attention to injustices; be they racial, economic, gender based, or any other variety. He is very concerned about the commonly accepted exploitations of the capitalist system; feeling that greed and selfishness are destructive traits in any society.

Thor loves to talk, especially to the young, hoping to make them think, to be aware, to be suspicious of elected officials, to demand accountability. He can get loud and passionate during a discussion; it is because he feels such urgency. “I don’t like to talk about the weather because you can’t do anything about it,” he says. In view of the serious issues he chooses to speak out about, it is understandable that his manner is at times gruff, impatient and intolerant—because of the ignorance of current events that he finds so prevalent everywhere. Our society needs more like him.

Protesting, picketing and letting others know his point of view is daily activity for this septuagenarian. Thor commonly has one or more opinion buttons pinned to himself or his ever present satchel. Some of his favorites:

We need smart kids, not smart weapons.

Policemen of the earth: the UN- not the USA

Black and White, Unite and Fight

Workers of the World, Unite

Save our Libraries

Animals should have equal rights to the Earth

 

Dance and Music

Dancing and music have been constants in Thor’s adult life. During his seafaring years he loved trying out local dance spots all over the globe. In 1953 he started going to international folkdancing classes in New York, both to learn the dances and to boost his social life. He joined the Swedish Folkdancers of New York in 1956; he is still a member although he doesn't perform with the group anymore. Folks remember Thor as the “guy in the black hat”—even this writer remembered him that way when she first met him 26 years ago. He bears the Rättvik costume when the occasion warrants it, being proud to look like the fighting Swedish peasant rebel that he is.

When Thor performed with the Swedish Folkdancers he would put gusto into the event, acting up and clowning around a bit. Who can ever forget Thor and Kjell Oscarsson performing Oxdansen—the two of them fighting and sparring according to the choreography of that traditional dance? (A picture of the two of them performing this dance even appeared on the front page of Nordstjernan once upon a time.) It was always a wonderful crowd pleaser.

Thor’s personal favorite dance is the Hambo—“You don’t have to smoke marijuana to get high, just dance the Hambo . . . ” He has very strong opinions about what a good Hambo should sound, look and feel like: “The best music is by Carl Jularbo and Walter Erikson.”—“Most guys lack good posture when they dance Hambo, dangling their right foot on the third beat. The feet have to hit the floor three times in the 360° turn.” What Thor means is that erect posture is terribly important and that the man’s right foot should firmly hit the ground on the third beat of the measure. This is good advise.

Thor never goes anywhere without at least two or three harmonicas and his beloved “bones.” For Thor it is perfectly normal to play music when you go for a walk. If you happen to be his walking companion you quickly get used to the astonished and bemused glances of passers-by and simply enjoy being in the presence of this unusual and wonderful human being.

Although he loves music of all sorts, he is especially moved by the traditional Swedish music forms and the dances that have evolved in response to this music which he loves to play on his harmonica for dancers.. His interest right now is in polses—a dance and music form that preceded the Hambo all over Sweden. Thor makes it a point to go to as many dances and events as he can, be they Scandinavian, Polish, German, Greek, Black Culture or Latino. He likes to be where the action is; to add color and texture to that action, to participate. He has a wonderful cowboy yell—“YeeeeeHaaaaw . . . aahha”—that he often lets fly when he’s feeling good.

I asked Thor if there was a last thought he might want me to include? Yes, he said “Make do with little, waste nothing, exercise imagination, be creative AND keep dancing!” So . . . dear reader, if you encounter my friend Thor at an event this summer, introduce yourself and ask him to play you a tune, you wont regret it.

Published in Nordstjernan, June 6, 1996.

 

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