By Hans B. Berggren
Spring was always welcome since it broke the winter’s cold grip. Easter was an enjoyable holiday. All the local candy stores had the windows decorated with large chocolate Easter bunnies and pastel colored baskets full of various delicious candies. Easter was when you got your new suit, shoes etc. All the boys on our block made certain they met to compare their new outfits and, of course, no coats since it was practically summer. Spring also meant a new pair of sneakers, which made you fly and jump higher than anyone. These magical shoes were also an integral part of the beginning of the stick-ball season.
Summer was special for me. My family had a bungalow in Staten Island. There was no electricity (lights and cooking were provide by kerosene lamps and stove), a big portable RCA radio with a large battery which lasted one month. Running water was across the street. We shared the cost with another Scandinavian family. My job was to carry the water, two pails at a time, for cooking, drinking and clothes washing. In the backyard of our lot was, of course, the outhouse. This bungalow community in Huguenot was primarily Scandinavian and made for a comfortable neighborhood. It was very rural, even by standards of those days. The iceman brought ice two or three times a week. The milkman sold milk, butter and eggs and the bakery man sold breads and cakes. Most of the staples needed were brought to your door including a vegetable truck once a week. So even though it was rural in some respects there was personalized delivery that might be appreciated today.
A good deal of my time was occupied in the acres of woods near the house and at Wolfe’s Pond Park, at the beach and picnic grounds. The woods were fascinating- frogs, snakes and turtles to watch or catch. Tree houses were built far away from everything. It was a wonderful place to spend summers. Nearby was Anderson’s Beach. Mr. Anderson rented summer bungalows to city residents by the week (all Scandinavians) and rowboats for fishing. In those days fishing was always good in certain areas out near the lighthouse.
One of the reasons Anderson’s Beach holds such pleasant memories is that when I was grown, I met this city girl staying with a Norwegian girlfriend and her family one summer. We will be celebrating our 47th anniversary in July. So even though the beach was filled with Scandinavians, I was fortunate to find the right “American”.
One of my most vivid memories was how I found out about the beginning of World War II. My parents and I had gone to a local movie Sunday evening when suddenly the house lights went on and a newsboy ran up the aisles showing a front page that read, “Japan Bombs Pearl Harbor”. The theater emptied quickly so that people could go home and listen to President Roosevelt on the radio and find where Pearl Harbor was on the map. During the German occupation, the mail we received from Norway was heavily censored. The envelopes had swastika stamps front and back. It was a strange feeling to realize that even innocent letters were being censored and stamped by the invading country. Word of mouth gave us information that some of our relatives were in the underground. To a boy of nine, that was very adventuresome.
The war dragged on, with some of our neighborhood men missing or killed. The star flags in the window told some sad stories. A gold star meant a family member had been killed in action. When the war finally ended, everyone who had relatives in Norway sent whatever they could to help. My aunt told my father that one of them she and the other relatives appreciated most was a large 50 lb. burlap bag of raw coffee. The coffee was roasted; hand ground and was a great treat for coffee-loving Norwegians who had done without through the Nazi occupation years.
Soon Norwegians started coming to the U.S. to stay with relatives. My cousin, Asbjørn, was among those immigrants. Through various associations, arrangements were made to pick up these immigrants at dockside and get them to their destination by taxi. I was one of those that was picked for this venture, since I knew Brooklyn well, spoke Norwegian and would make certain the taxis were giving an honest meter count in locating the addresses. Once these immigrants were delivered and signed for, it was back to the ship to pick up another group. I remember doing this job for quite a while and was very proud to be involved at age 12 easing the burden for Norwegian immigrants coming to New York City. They in turn were very grateful to be helped through the first traumatic hours in a very large, busy city in what must have been an overwhelming situation.
All in all, looking back on those years, I realize that I got one heck of an education that served me well when I became an adult.
Hans B. Berggren
August 12, 1999