Sunday, July 1, 2012

A Swede comes to America--A father's story

My dad's passport
When my dad was sixteen, he got on a boat in Sweden bound for America. He made the journey alone. The year was 1948. 

A few years ago, I crafted a fictional story, based on his actual trip to America, to enter into a short story contest. I didn't win a prize, but I sure enjoyed musing about what kinds of things my dad could have been thinking as he left his family in Sweden, bound for a new land. 

As I think about his desire to immigrate to America all by himself, I have simultaneous thoughts of admiration and shock. As a mom to young adults myself, I am shocked that his mother would let him go! I admire his courage and adventurous spirit. 

Several years prior to his immigration, his Uncle Carl had immigrated to Nebraska farm country. My dad was en route to help his uncle on the farm . Below, you will find my fictional story based on true events. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it!

The Swede

Karl’s little red house in the forest was the only home he had ever known. Now he was leaving it. He was preparing in his heart to say good bye. Not many words were spoken on the way to the dock. Much was left unspoken.

After hugging little brother Bertil until his arms ached, he squeezed sisters Marta and Inga. Mama and Papa were next. Mama cradled his face in her hands and looked deeply into his soft gray eyes. She could only whisper. 

“Karl, I know you will be fine. Joseph is eagerly awaiting your arrival and has good work there for you. We love you. Please don’t forget to write your Mama and Papa.” 

That was all she could say before emotion overtook her. Karl understood. He couldn’t talk much either. He struggled to hold back tears, just as his Papa did. A man should keep his emotions in check.

It was April 19, 1948. The Gothenberg loomed like an ominous gray mountain in the cool morning mist. Karl felt his heart flutter like a hummingbird as he approached the crisply uniformed purser hailing “All aboard!” to those with third class tickets. He shuffled along with  throngs of swarming passengers. Karl turned to wave good bye one last time. Yes, they were still there. Like statues, except each had an arm waving furiously. Karl couldn’t tell if his mama and sisters were still crying. Papa’s face was solemn, but peaceful. Karl knew his papa believed in him. One hot tear escaped Karl’s eye and ran down his cheek. Of course he would miss them! His little family. His little red home in the forest.

Just as Karl turned his gaze from his family, the ship’s thunderous horn blew and Karl thought he would jump right out of his skin. He boarded the ship with his small weathered suitcase in hand and his tweed cap firmly pressed on his wavy blond hair. He would be fine. Those were Mama’s parting words.

His third class cabin was plain. The sheets on his bunk were slightly worn, but neat and clean. A small sink stood alone in the corner, but there was room for nothing else. Not even a window, Karl thought. He gently set down his brown duffle and eased himself carefully onto the lower berth, his hand running over the wool blanket.  He let himself feel the sorrow of leaving his family behind, but was at the same time full of excitement. Come to think of it, he was hungry! The lunch Mama packed him could wait until later. It was coffee time, almost a religion in Sweden and he wanted to find the nearest place to get some. The key turned easily to lock the door of his cabin and he took off down the hallway.

The coffee room was already brimming with mostly Swedish travelers. Steaming cups of strong, black liquid littered all the table tops, with a Swede perched in front of each cup. Nervously, Karl searched the room for an empty chair. There was none. His hungry stomach and the little bit of Kronor in his pocket kept him standing there, looking. 

Suddenly, a young man behind a wooden counter was smiling and waving him over, “Hey….Boy…over here!” 

The next thing he knew, Karl was sitting in the last open spot at the counter with the telltale cup of coffee and a half sandwich.
“Name’s Rudolf Andersson, you can call me Rudy. What’s yours?”

“Karl Aberg”, he said above the chatter of other coffee drinking Swedes.

“Where ya headed…..I mean after ya get to New York? Are ya travlin’ alone?”

Karl spoke hesitantly, “I have an uncle in Nebraska. I’m taking the train there to stay with him. Yah, I’m travlin’ alone.”

“Yah? What will ya do there?”

“My uncle has a farm. I will help my uncle with work there.” said Karl timidly.  

“Ah…how old are ya? Ya don’t seem old enough to be travlin’ alone.”

“Sixteen and one half. I just made the cut off for travlin' alone.“

“Twenty one here. I took this job on the Gothenberg to earn my way to America. Been workin’ ‘bout four months. A couple more and I’ll be on my way to the land of milk ‘n honey!”

Karl realized that his hands had been gripping his coffee cup as if it were his life preserver. He loosened his grip and took a bite of his sandwich as he thought about how kind Rudy was, and how these days at sea might not be so lonely after all.

“Ahh, yah. Where ya from, I mean what part of Sweden?”

“Ljungby, in south central Sweden. You?”

“Uppsala, near Stockholm.”  Rudy spoke briskly with a thoughtful and inquisitive look on his face. “You happen to know Goran Nuvall? He's from around Ljungby and worked on my cousin's tree farm.”

Karl warmed to the young Swede's friendliness and his eyes brightened as if someone lit a match behind them. “Yes! My oldest sister went to school with him, but I haven't seen him in some time!” 

Rudy shook his head in disbelief and amazement and refilled coffee for a Swede at the counter. The conversation between these two young men continued on for days like they had been old friends.  Karl was indeed grateful for someone to talk to on this long voyage. Someone who reminded him of home.

The next ten days on the Gothenberg seemed to go by quickly, especially with Rudy's companionship. Fear, anticipation and relief swirled around inside of Karl as the boat neared its destination. He certainly was not sad to leave it! The suffocating cabin, crowds of people, and nausea…others’ and his own had almost gotten the best of him. 

Karl had his small brown bag in hand and his tweed hat was again pressed firmly on his head. He was ready. His hand went to his breast pocket to feel for his passport. It was there. As he fell in line with the other passengers ready to disembark, he could see the captain and the first mate on deck in their stark white jackets dismissing passengers. Another officer stood beside them, with a starched blue uniform. Karl wondered who he might be.

“Son, may I see your passport?”

My dad's passport stamp
Karl was not sure what he said, and a wave of fear washed over him. The serious faced officer repeated himself. 

“Son, may I see your passport?”. 

By his hand gestures, Karl finally understood what the man meant and took his passport out of his pocket and handed it over. The officer asked Karl a few more questions, but of course, Karl did not understand. That is all he could say in English, “I do not understand.”

The line was backed up behind Karl and he was getting more anxious. He finally understood that the officials were not going to allow him off the ship because he did not know English. His heart sank as if to the bottom of the harbor. Had he come all this way….all the way from Sweden, only to be sent back home? More waves of panic and nausea swept over him as he stood there with his shoulders slumped and his face to the ground.

“Hey….over here!” It was Rudy! “Is there a problem here?”, he spoke in English to the official.  The blue uniformed man repeated himself. 
“I’ll vouch for him!” cried Rudy. “I’ll make sure he gets to where he’s goin’.” 

After asking Rudy to confirm his identity, the official got an incredulous look on his face and said gruffly, “All right. Make sure he gets to the Port Terminal and through Immigrant Registration. It’s a matter of this boy’s safety on our shores.” 

Rudy looked at Karl with a knowing grin and translated the news to him. Karl smiled back, and without reservation walloped Rudy with a hug so hard, Rudy thought he would suffocate. 

“Tack so mycket!”, cried Karl with relief and gratitude. Rudy spoke with a calm brotherly voice, “You'll be fine.” He would be okay, Karl thought with an audible sigh. Those were mama’s parting words.


  1. I love this! Good job, my dear friend. I pictured everything unfolding as the story progressed. What a brave young man your dad was to come to America, and good job imagining a journey here for him. Love ya!

  2. Thank you, friend, for your kind words!

  3. This was good. Your dad was ya...Gloria


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