By Hans B. Berggren
Growing up in Bay Ridge in the late 30s and 49s, as I look back, was a unique experience. I, as many youngsters did, took things for granted. In my case, my father’s program, “Scandinavian Echoes” was broadcast each Saturday morning. The records played and the announcements made by my father could be heard in the alleys and hallways throughout the neighborhood. It was almost a type of stereo. I accepted it as a part of life in the Bay Ridge community, not realizing he put together a weekly one-hour show. For his contribution to Norwegian culture through “Scandinavian Echoes”, my father was awarded the St. Olav’s Medal in 1961.
As a youngster, I frequently went with my father to the radio station, WEVD in Manhattan. I was allowed to “chime in” on a miniature xylophone, the signal that designated the hour or half hour. WVED broadcast almost exclusively ethnic programs, one of which was the International Ladies Garment Workers Union Hour. The program followed my father’s with a full orchestra and Italian operatic singers. The orchestra and featured singers always dressed formally, even though it was radio. It was impressive to watch this program from the engineer’s booth.
Bay Ridge in those years had definite rituals designated by each season. Fall was a time for gathering leaves in Sunset Park, making tall piles and prior to the bonfire, each boy raided his mother’s food bin for 2 or 3 potatoes and salt in order “mickeys” (burned potatoes) after the fires died down. For some reason these burned potatoes were a cherished delicacy. Of course, fall had its drawbacks, one of which was going back to school. I never forget first grade since I could not speak English and the teacher was not very sympathetic to my problem.
There were also pluses such as Halloween, which was very upsetting to the adults in the community. That evening we waxed windows, overturned garbage cans, chalked doors etc. Saturday was spent at the movies, usually at the Ritz on 8th Avenue and 45th Street, because it was cheaper and had, in addition to a double feature, 2 hours of cartoons and a weekly serial. Late fall brought Thanksgiving and even though this was not a Norwegian holiday, American traditions that were taught in school were beginning to invade the various ethnic families. That holiday was highlighted by the neighborhood children dressing like hobos, blackening faces and going to each vicinity with a pillow case begging “anything for Thanksgiving”. We got mostly candy, and some loose change. Bringing home the loot was the best part, making certain that only you knew where the candy and money was hidden. The reason was that you did not want your parents to find out you had been “begging”. I recall that all the children with Scandinavian parents had that problem in common.
Winter season changed all outdoor activities. The first snow made Sunset Park the place to go. Some of the hills were excellent for sledding. The sled of choice was, of course, the “Flexible Flyer”. We ignored the cold, wet conditions in order to get our full quota of sledding in each day. The best hill was on 40th Street between 5th and 6th Avenue. Naturally my mother gave me the devil for the distinct possibility of catching cold even with the preventative of a tablespoon of cod liver oil each morning and oatmeal with butter, cinnamon and sugar for breakfast.
Christmas was a delight. The local churches and Norwegian clubs had the traditional Christmas parties with a very large tree completely decorated. We children sang carols as we circled the beautiful tree and of course afterwards we were given gifts by our Norwegian Santa Claus, “Julenissen”. Christmas meant not only gifts, but also the baked goods my mother made. My favorite was fattigman and I was always raiding the large tins for as many as I felt could be taken without notice (or so I thought). The holidays always meant plenty of company and good food. I remember neighbors Hambo dancing to an old fashioned record player (78s – one at a time). One of our visitors once or twice a year was Olav Moen, a captain with a Norwegian shipping line. I considered him to be sort of an uncle. He always brought interesting gifts from all over the world – shells from the South Pacific, whale/walrus tusk and, of course wonderful tales of his travels.
Hans B. Bergren
August 5, 1999