Friday, August 28, 2015

It's a Pieni Maailma After All

One day this week I was at the summer cabin we’ve been building about an hour east of Helsinki, trying to apply another coat of paint to the log walls before the last of the precious warm, summery weather completely evaporates.

It’s usually very quiet there on the shore of our sheltered bay, far from a paved road, surrounded by forest, with just the sound of birds, or an occasional boat or airplane passing by, or children playing on the opposite shore.

At one point, as I swiped the paintbrush back and forth over the wood, I noticed a faint, percussion-like sound in the distance behind me. At first, I took it for the sound of blasting, like someone dynamiting granite bedrock at some construction site. But this sound was sharper than that type of rumbling explosion. And it continued for a while, rhythmically, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.

I had a fleeting thought that it could have been a Finnish navy ship somewhere in the open Baltic to the south, firing its guns in some sort of war exercise. That would be extraordinary, to say the least. I have no idea if those kinds of exercises ever take place.

Then I realized it probably could have been Santahamina, the sprawling military base occupying an island just offshore from Helsinki.

A few years ago, during my son's compulsory army service, I undertook an almost weekly ritual of driving over a small drawbridge to the gates of Santahamina on Friday evenings to pick him up for his weekend leaves. It’s surely a place well known to many young men (and a few young women) in this part of Finland. As Santahamina is practically just another suburb, Helsinki residents can sometimes easily hear the boom of artillery practice on the island. And since it’s just a little under 25 kilometers (15 miles) from our cabin, as a seagull flies, I decided that this must be the origin of the dull, thumping sound I was hearing.

And with that thought, an old memory stirred, a reminder of how small the world can sometimes be.

In the early 1980s, I lived a couple of years in a basement apartment in an antebellum house in Athens, Georgia. “Antebellum” in this case meaning a house predating the American Civil War of the 1860s. In fact, it was a registered national landmark of some kind, although unlike the finer southern mansions elsewhere in Athens, this house was badly rundown, almost decrepit, in a relatively seedy part of town, behind the bus station. It was musty and infested with cockroaches, but was cheap – the monthly rent was a mere $75 – and it suited a certain bohemian lifestyle I envisioned for myself at the time.

As it happened, the person living in the (hopefully less decrepit) apartment above me was someone I was acquainted with from Young Harris, the junior college in north Georgia I had attended a few years earlier. That’s not so surprising, since many of my classmates from Young Harris had gravitated to the University of Georgia upon graduating, and Athens wasn’t such a big town. Still, it was a coincidence. 

Charles was older than me, and actually maybe more of an artist than a student. At Young Harris, he had been a director of one of the men’s dorms, more mature than us 18-year-old freshmen.  

When later, as fellow tenants in a crumbling Athens landmark, I introduced Charles to my future wife, he was intrigued to hear she was from Finland, and happy to share an unexpected memory with us.

It seems that as a young child, Charles had lived in Helsinki. What are the odds of that? It is a small world, after all.

This would have been in the late 50s, early 60s, a time when Finland was even further off the beaten path than when I arrived some twenty years later and was an even more unlikely a place for someone from Georgia to end up.

The explanation was that Charles’ father, an officer in the US military, had been stationed to Finland in some capacity, perhaps in connection with the American Embassy, no doubt a plum assignment at the time, as Helsinki lay only some 40 miles from the Soviet Union.

Whether or not Charles had any other early memories from Helsinki, the one thing he did mention was hearing the booms of artillery from his home there. 

My future wife knew immediately where that had come from, the only place it could have come from:  Santahamina, which even today occasionally emits – from the edge of a peaceful, even sleepy, capital city – war-like sounds that can be heard miles away by random, misplaced Georgians. 


  1. Sweet memories. I suppose you were in Athens roughly the same time as The B52s? REM was later, right?

    Two of my older brothers graduated from UGA. It was expected that I would follow them. Alas.

    1. I was there about six years, first as a student, then as a "townie" -- I didn't want to leave! I loved Athens, and back then the music scene was so dynamic. Can't recall ever seeing the B-52's live, but did see R.E.M. a couple of times in clubs. My basement apartment was just up the street from their office. Good times.

      Too bad you didn't make it to Athens at the time. It was in many ways a cool place.

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