We send greetings to all our readers, hoping that you have had wonderful Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations and that you will have a happy and peaceful New Year 2017. This year’s celebration has been a cozy one for us, though Ian’s health is fragile, necessitating a lot of sleeping, sometimes into late afternoons. He has to be cajoled (Gayle’s task) to get dressed and participate in some of our celebrations though he didn’t get out for church services, Gayle’s choir concert or the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s glorious performance of Nutcracker. We did host his Winnipeg family of daughter, son-in-law, two grandchildren and their spouses, plus five great-grandchildren on Christmas Eve, though. Thirteen of us in our small penthouse floor apartment made the choice of the description “cozy” a true reality, but our gathering was nonetheless enjoyable. Chinese takeout and frozen pies made for a festive but easy supper. The adults and one teenager huddled in around our large dining table while the four younger kids enjoyed kneeling around their own festive coffee table. With city lights twinkling below us through our decorated windows on our 17th floor apartment, candlelight inside, festive decorations, goodie bags for all, new pjs for the kids to don, some early presents to exchange and some Christmas carol singing and dancing, we all had a great time. As a long-time percussionist, Gayle has a collection of rhythm instruments that she brought out to enhance the music from our Christmas CDs, so we could all participate in singing and making music.
How enjoyable we find reading through many short stories in a favourite Christmas present: the 2016 “Chicken Soup for the Soul” anthology: The Joy of Christmas: 101 Holiday Tales of Inspiration, Love, and Wonder, compiled by Amy Newmark with a foreword by “Mrs. Nicholas Claus” and highly recommend it for your holiday enrichment. We also love to re-read and recall holiday stories of our own.
In past years we have shared several holiday stories from Ian on this blog: (Dec. 10, 2012) “Unusual Holiday Flavoured Passages from My Memoir” (including “My Non-Event Christmases of Childhood” and the New Year’s Eve story of his youngest daughter’s premature birth and how her life was saved by a bottle of Scotch whisky) and (Dec. 31, 2012) “Happy Hogmanay! Happy New Year” an excerpt from our yet-to-be-published autobiographical book “Mexican Follies.” Below pictures Ian, Gayle and our poodle Peppy in our motorhome patio in Mexico in December 2004.
In December 2014 we blogged a spontaneous play that Gayle and her then-4-year-old daughter had originated “The Christmas Story According to Gwynne” complete with Gwynne’s original illustrations.
This year Gayle wants to share her story of a unique holiday trip she and her late husband Gus Johannesson made in December 1972 from their home in Germany to visit Gayle’s family in North Dakota. She calls it “The Snowmobile to Strassenbahn Saga.” For those who don’t know German, Strassenbahn means “streetcar” or “tram.” Those who read her story will understand why Gayle is reluctant to consider any more extensive travel during the wintertime. Pictured below are Gayle’s family at the time: back row: husband Gus, Gayle, sister Barbara, niece Danelle, mother Grandma Mil, sister Doreen, nephew Todd and brother-in-law Bill; front row: nieces Billi, Lisa and Lori. Missing is brother-in-law Danny who presumably took the photo.
The Snowmobile to Strassenbahn Saga
Gus and I had moved to Germany in summer 1965 where he began to pursue a doctorate in systematic theology at the University of Heidelberg and work part time as a civilian chaplain with the US military and I worked as a secretary for the Judge Advocate, U. S. Army, Europe and Seventh Army. By 1972, we had already spent seven Christmas/New Year’s holiday seasons in Europe, either with Gus’ aunts, uncles and cousins in Norway or with our friends in Heidelberg and were excited to finally be flying home to the States to spend the holidays with my family members.
In many ways, 1972 had been a disastrous year for us–mostly because of Gus’ health. He had lost over 30 pounds due to an illness which was finally discovered in July and had already taken four bouts of rectal surgery for abscesses and fistulas, leaving him with a lot of pain and sapped strength, all of which grossly interred with continuing work on his doctoral dissertation. In addition, I had shattered nerves after terrorist bombs had killed three people in the barracks where I worked and our headquarters were plagued with continuing bomb scares and security precautions. Despite Gus not really feeling well, we had been able to get away to Spain in June for a few weeks’ respite touring the Moorish treasures in Grenada and then relaxing at the home of friends on the Mediterranean island of Minorca, sunning, swimming, snorkelling, exploring ocean-side caves and touring quaint fishing villages with Gus doing a lot of napping. However, returning to Germany and our daily routines led to more stress and, for Gus, the string of surgeries. We were really anxious to get away from it all and back to family and a traditional holiday at “home.”
In December, after several days with friends and attending to business in Chicago and Minneapolis, we flew on to North Dakota, spent some time with each of my two sisters and their families and then finally took a bus from Fargo to my mother’s home in New Rockford (middle of the state). We had a few relaxing days alone with Mom before the rest of the family arrived for Christmas. Here’s Mom (Grandma Mil) and Gus on one of our walks.
It was wonderful for me to bask in the smells and flavours of the traditional Swedish-American Christmas of my childhood. Picking out and decorating the live Christmas tree, stringing coloured lights, putting up the manger scene we had sent Mom from Germany,
singing melodious carols in English, Swedish and Norwegian, helping Mom to bake spritz cookies, sandbakelse, krumkake, Julekake, pepparkakor, and Swedish almond bars (from my grandmother’s recipe brought from Sweden), buying and wrapping gifts, preparing turkey, ham, Swedish meatballs and even Lutefisk (though I still didn’t like it, but good-old-Gus sure did!).
Gus and I got away a few times for walks alone. The photo above shows us posing on the frozen James River, not far from Mom’s two-bedroom apartment in a four-plex right across from the church where I had spent so much of my childhood. (I had been shocked when we first moved to Heidelberg to find out that the Neckar River there usually stayed open all winter long, only having frozen up once during the Twentieth Century, right after World War II.)
Once my sisters and their husbands and children had arrived, we were a family of 12. One sister had married a local boy so those five could overnight at his parents’ house just a few blocks away. However, my other sister’s family of four stayed at Mom’s, as did we. She and her husband slept in the living room on the couch bed but their two little ones got to sleep with Grandma Mil. Gus and I, as the “honoured guests from across the Atlantic,” got the guest room. This was fortunate as I had to be the nurse who cleaned his open (rectal) wound several times a day. (Surgery in that area has to heal from the inside out without any stitching.) It was a bit difficult to maintain much privacy, however, especially with five little ones underfoot. We got the biggest laugh of the holiday one evening when our two-year-old niece came out of the bathroom wearing two long “q-tips” (that I’d previously used to probe the wound and thought I had disposed of discreetly), one in each ear!!! (Even now in her late forties, she doesn’t appreciate the humour when reminded of the situation.)
Other laughter was more pleasant, while unwrapping gifts, joyously sharing the Christmas story, telling the little ones of Jesus’ birth, singing, eating, going to church, playing games, taking walks in the snow, shopping and loving being together. Billi, Lori and Todd even got in some ice skating time. How wonderful for me to be at worship services in our home church again, sitting with my sisters and singing all those beautiful carols in three-part harmony as we had always done in the past. We revelled in a sunny, snowy North Dakota winter (coming back to a gray, rainy Heidelberg winter seemed a bit of a drag). With five small grandchildren, three daughters and three sons-in-law under foot for a week, Mom (“Grandma Mil” was then in her late 60s) stood up surprisingly well. Here’s Uncle Gus taking nieces Lisa and Lori for a walk. Our church, First Lutheran Church of New Rockford, is in the background at the left and part of the school I attended through Grade 12 is in the background at right centre.
After our week together my sisters and their families drove back to their homes further east and we had another couple of days resting at Mom’s. Then came the start of our return trip, which I’ve named the “Snowmobile to Strassenbahn Saga.” The trip started with a wild bus ride in a near-blizzard to Fargo. This is usually a three-hour drive and took about twice that long. We were met by my sister Doreen and driven to her house in Fargo’s twin city of Moorhead, Minnesota.
Instead of flying out the next day we had a day’s delay caused by full-blown blizzard conditions which closed down the airport, plus everything else in the twin towns. We were to have flown from Fargo to Minneapolis and then on to Chicago where we were catching our international flight (a military charter airline from Chicago via New York to Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany). Listening to the radio, we learned that there was still a possibility of our getting out of town to meet our plane. The Great Northern railroad had a train plowing its way from Montana and across North Dakota, due in at 1 a.m. The only problem was that we couldn’t get to the depot (in Fargo, about five miles away from my sister’s house in Moorhead). My sister’s car was buried under layers of snow and, anyway, the roads were not passable. Fooling around in the snow in front of their house was about all we could do.
Absolutely nothing was moving … but snowmobiles. Gus had heard on the radio that emergency snowmobiles were evacuating people. He figured that we qualified for an emergency since we had to meet a “military flight” in Chicago the next day. He called, explained our situation and we were granted clearance from the city police. To my two little nieces’ delight and my terror, we were picked up by two snowmobilers at midnight. Gus and I rode behind one snowmobiler; the other one carried all our luggage. There we went, over the (Red) river, through the woods and over 18 inches of snow, not to mention four to five feet of snowdrifts to Fargo’s train station. I hung on for dear life and had visions of falling off all the way; but we made it, only to have a long delay. The train arrived three hours late, struggling across North Dakota with a snowplow on the engine. I was too flustered by the whole situation to get any photos at the time.
So at 4:00 a.m. we boarded the train. Delay continued to be the motto of the trip, however. We missed our first plane connection from Minneapolis to Chicago and barely squeezed onto the last possible one, making connections at the Chicago Airport five minutes before we were to report in for our charter flight. Luckily, we had friends in Chicago that met us at the airport and got us from the domestic to the international departure area in record time. Had we been on our own, we never would have made it in time. We were delayed an hour getting out of Chicago, had to circle New York for two hours because of fog, were delayed in New York because of waiting for other passengers who were late in coming in from connecting flights, made an unscheduled landing in Shannon, Ireland (we never did hear why) and finally landed in Frankfurt six hours later than scheduled.
Once at the Frankfurt airport, we had to take the subway into the city’s train station, then take the train from Frankfurt to Heidelberg (an hour away) and then the Strassenbahn (streetcar) to our stop on Rohrbacherstrasse and walk a block to our apartment on Turnerstrasse. So – bus to car to snowmobile to train to airplane to another airplane to subway to train to streetcar to foot – and we were finally home. (I think we had just about every mode of transportation but ship and dog sled.) It was time for a long winter’s nap – well, at least two day’s worth – before I had to get back to work and Gus to start cracking the books again … then surgery again. He had 16 surgeries in all over a five-year period before the problem finally resolved itself. I ended my Christmas/New Year’s letter that year with the following: “Neither of us has ever had a great deal of patience, but we’ve had to develop it lately. Once one gets through the inevitable periods of despair and self-pity and gets back to the basic trust in God’s presence and strength, things look better. So, we’re hoping for a year of fulfillment and health – and wish you all the blessings of our Lord for the New Year.”