During the winter of 1984 my father lost his legs while working as a railroad switchtender. For the pleasure of donating limbs in service to the military-industrial complex he received a largeish chunk of change which elevated him from his position as one of 5 billion serfs, to one of a few hundred million people of means, or, lesser nobility if you like. He was less happy about it than you might believe. He had no idea what to do with all that money, in spite of the fact that out from under the world’s never ending supply of woodwork there crawled a never ending supply of termites that knew exactly what he could do with it. But he did have one idea right away.
He would buy vacations for all! My siblings and I were people of modest status and seldom took vacations of the kind that plantation owners might take. I do remember my youngest sister taking her husband and children to Disneyland for a week or so; that’s the sort of vacation he had in mind.
As for me, I was in the process of divorcing and what few friends I’d had to that point were generally driven away by my incessant caterwauling about my many miseries. So while I thought the trip idea was lovely for my sisters and their children, and my brother and his cruise loving wife, I really couldn’t imagine anywhere I’d want to go; at least anywhere where I’d not simply wallow in my black hole of despair oblivious to my surroundings. Until one day….
I have always had this curse; I like to call it “romanticized unrealism”. I chose the non-word unrealism because the goofy ideas that spring forth from my psychotically overactive imagination are mostly doable, so they don’t qualify as actual fantasy, and I chose romanticized because when these ideas hit, I see only the sugar plums adorning the lovely rolled marshmallow fondant iced petits fours, and not the dog poop the little cakes are made of.
I would spend my father’s gift by taking him to the place of his father’s and his mother’s mother’s births, to Scandinavia, where little rosemalled toy horses roam the countryside and trolls wait under bridges for children… at lunchtime…
It was brilliant really. I could be kind of sideways-ly benevolent, like I was receiving but then giving back sort of, so I didn’t have to feel as I did whenever anyone did something nice for me, embarrassed and debt ridden and a little like a loser. Lucky for both of us, when I have a really cool idea like this one I just can’t wait to tell people so they can see what a genius I am. Certainly, as you’re thinking, it usually backfires. But this time, I was a hit! The trip was on, and I was in charge! I was in charge. I was….
It took about an hour before it hit me. I was now taking my father to a foreign country and was responsible for his having an excellent adventure in spite of his post-traumatic stress, his generally negative attitude, his moderate judgmentalism and his new found neediness that having no legs had created. Yea, I was a genius alright.
Almost everything about the relationship between my father and I was written in code. In some ways we were a lot alike, but in many of the most important, we were opposites.
He was a man that always finished everything he started, who could concentrate on one item for hours at a time. He was industrious, untiring, dedicated. He was a man who loved order, not to an OCD extreme but he liked his life planned out as best it could be. He hated the fact that I took revolving door “entertainment” jobs rather than simply commit myself to some large corporation, the government, or a trade union, and have my path charted for me.
He tried once to be a salesman, a man in charge of his own destiny. He paid to take a course and then accepted a job selling Kirby vacuum cleaners, after being forced to buy one of his own of course. On his first call he was faced with a woman who was obviously in poverty if not on a government stipend. Bucking up, he did his pitch perfectly and the client was immediately in his pocket. She was ready to sign a check for the down payment on a 600 dollar vacuum cleaner, money which could likely have fed her kids for six months. He couldn’t do it. He looked into her eyes as she held her pen and he explained to her how sorry he was, that she’d be far better off with “x” competitor’s 40 dollar model, even if it didn’t have ice crusher and meat grinder attachments. And then he went back to what he knew he could do without question, unionized labor.
I was a guy that started far more than I ever finished, that was a producer of nothing and a lover of less. I took jobs that held promise as something I'd "enjoy" without worry about what it would or would not pay. As a result I ate a lot of spaghetti noodles covered in ketchup or cream of mushroom soup. I was a man that had little esteem for so called "superiors"; for governments, for corporations… and I had exactly zero belief in their promises. I was indifferent to clubs, confabs, organizations or associations. I had nothing against unions; in fact I truly believe that at least in America, without them we’d all be making 6 dollars an hour, but I was always a realist about the widespread corruption in the unions' collective history, and my considering them imperfect at best sometimes turned my father against me. I’d been a member a few times though I did operate as a “scab” once, a picket line breaker, but it was out of desperation and smothered in shame on my part. So while he hated the fact that I had committed a mortal sin against his beliefs, he never brought it up in anger.
But what really annoyed him was that I hunted down and took jobs for the love of the experience rather than for the money, benefits and stability. By the time that we left on our trip I had worked at a bushel basket full of jobs, and none of them for over 13 months. Yet I was successful by monetary standards; not in any CEO way, but I made more money than he at my young age, and that was a never-ending grind to him.
Where it could have become a huge issue for us, had we taken this journey at any other time in our lives he would have wanted it planned out in at least average detail; not that he wasn’t spontaneous, but he wanted potential problems taken care of in advance. For Minnesotans trying to cover Sweden and Norway in a couple weeks, that would have taken a month of letters and phone calls, research, discussion, reservation making and assorted base covering; just the kind of thing that makes my head spin and would likely have seen me apologizing for my silly idea and instead offering to take him on a camping trip to Thunder Bay Ontario because I knew the territory.
As it was, he was far more intimidated by the concept than I, and uncharacteristically deferred to my judgment as to how, when, where and wheeeee! I have to admit, that notion intimidated me much more than the trip itself. I became a cruise coordinator, the ship’s fun captain and all around excursion leader. I would be responsible if anything went wrong, anything became difficult… or anything else I could imagine in my nightmares.
It was a fascinating study of human nature to me. I had to be positive, but not so positive that I made him feel I was condescending or lying to cover up my actual fear. I had to fend off any of his dissentions during the planning, or risk sinking into the hole of “let’s forget it, it’s impossible.” I needed to blow off all suggestions that his new found handicap would be a major issue, and perhaps even a ball and chain on my own experience, though I had no clue as to whether his being in a wheelchair would make our time hellish or simply aggravating. He probably asked me if I was sure about doing this every few hours for a few weeks.
I was nervous as hell in reality. I’d been to Mexico a few times, and while there, was directly involved in bribing customs police; but that act only made it seem easy to me to survive south of the border, so long as you could afford to grease a few palms. Europe seemed an entirely different fish. Don’t ask why, perceptions are based on too many variables. I suppose it had to do with being alone in Europe as opposed to always having a Mexican ground supplier within a phone call’s distance.
But I didn’t want to wait too long before we left, as the more time he had to ponder his problems, the more chance that he’d wave me off and tell me to go alone. There was little point in that happening. I am simply not extroverted enough to travel alone to a foreign country for a few weeks of self guided tour.
I don’t remember exactly, but I think it was a matter of weeks from my suggestion until we’d packed and ridden to the airport. In that time I had booked our first hotel for three days, thinking that would be long enough to orient ourselves to the new world, had booked a car though they couldn’t tell me what kind of car but only that it would easily fit two people, and had learned at least 50 words of both Swedish and Norwegian. I knew the language would be a stumbling block, but I wanted to show dad that I could explain to the nice police officer that “yes I might have been driving over the speed limit but I might actually be your long forgotten cousin from America so can’t you forgive me just this once and not cart me off to prison and my father to the institution?”… so he wouldn’t worry.
He’d bought a video recorder well before this time; one of the originals that weighed 20 pounds and came in a huge suitcase. He really wanted to take it along, and though I was already bringing 2 full bags of 35mm camera bodies and lenses, I added the VCR to the baggage, never thinking about what a pain in the butt it would be.
Clothing was a bit of a problem as we went in late April, before tourist season, when it could be lovely or cold and miserable. We decided to bring what we needed for temperature extremes and then just wash clothes often. That would have worked fine had I ever memorized the word for Laundromat instead of “I shall have an egg and ham if you please”, a phrase I can still recite to this day though I never actually said it “in country”.
The flight went very well everything considered. We’d needed to change planes at Kennedy in New York, and that transfer was a bit of excitement as we had too little time to get from one side of the port to the other as traffic was at a standstill, so I got to run/push his wheelchair about a mile between cars, across boulevards and up steps to make it just in time to hear there would be a sort of seating lottery because the flight was overbooked. I was just beginning to imagine sleeping on the concrete floor as my dad paced in his wheelchair muttering about how this was a stupid idea and we should just go home, when thank God our names were called and we boarded the flight to Arlanda airport in Stockholm, Sweden.