Part 2 of this riveting narrative on life in the northern latitudes of Norskehuvea, in which the ferry Estonia sinks for our pleasure, we rediscover the under-rated pleasures of hypothermia, reexamine the subtle delights of chemical and biological warfare, and fly bareback on Finnish dragons. Really!
Saunas and Wartoys: A Modern Kalevala,
WHERE PRECISELY DID THE ESTONIA SINK?
Came the 16th of June and it was time to pack up. I attended last minute conferences and some steering committees for future conferences, and then we were on our way to the Viking Ferry terminal where we would catch the massive, ocean-going ship they euphemistically call a “ferry boat.” Our passage was to take us across the Gulf of Bothnia to the ancient Finnish city of Turku (called Åbo in Swedish, owing to the years of Sweden’s domination of Finland in that nation’s past history). The cost for this 10 hour) journey through the Swedish archipelago to Finland was about US$ 300 for two. It was, however, quite a unique trip and we had a private cabin much the same as one would have on a real ocean voyage, despite the relative brevity of the trip. The route is very heavily traveled by both Swedes and Finns, and many make the trip without booking a cabin; large numbers of softly padded reclining chairs on the inner promenade decks make this possible. Having had to live out of suitcases for well over a week already, my wife and I were both keen on having the chance to catch some quiet, undisturbed sleep, and the luxury of a shower was not lost on us either. After spending the first 4 hours of the trip on deck watching the silent islands glide by, I turned in and slept soundly until we were within an hour of landfall in Turku.
On board the ferry were almost all of the Finnish delegates, including those previously referenced, and one of their number found us not long after we had boarded and invited us to attend a midnight buffet with them. I was fairly well done in by all the activity of the previous week and so declined, preferring to invest in some solid sleep; still, it was a very nice gesture that set the tone for the rest of the week in Finland. As it turned out, I would need the extra hours of sleep later.
The ferry we were on, named the Amarello, was about the size of a small to medium off-shore cruise liner, averaging about 3000+ tons displacement. It was very similar to the ill-fated Estonia, formerly of the Siila Lines, which had sunk off the coast of Finland the previous winter. The Estonia was fitted with what are called roll-on/roll-off loading doors, meaning that it had automobile access doors both in the bow as well as the stern. Our ship, and most of the more recent Viking and Siila Lines ships, are now fitted either with stern-only doors or have their bow doors permanently welded shut. It was apparently a malfunctioning latch on the visor-like bow door of the Estonia which allowed the rough seas to enter the cargo deck, flooding it enough to allow a severe disturbance in balance to occur which caused the ship to sink. Since the loss of the Estonia, full safety revisions of the designs have been undertaken, and the rear-only door design such as that which we were on was considered quite safe. Of further significance was the fact that the seas in the Bothnian Gulf are quite serene in the summer, while they are often unusually rough during the winter months. All in all, our trip over was smooth and pleasant--a unique excursion that I would recommend to anyone considering a similar trip to Finland from Sweden.
The morning of arrival in Turku we followed some of the Finnish delegates off the ship and were met by my friend X and his wife. I had never met X, despite several years of close contact via phone, letter and fax. Despite our unfamiliarity with each other, X and his wife spotted us in the crowd of people off-loading (did we look that ‘un-Finnish’?) and took us in tow, driving us back to their modern flat in the suburbs of this most ancient of Finland’s cities. X and his wife are not actually married in any ordinary sense of the word, but live together as husband and wife might; this common law arrangement seems to be an unremarkable Finnish social convention. They are wonderfully hospitable people who welcomed us into their homes as if we were long lost cousins returning after a prolonged separation. X’s wife is a supervisor with one of the largest and most well-known of the Finnish candy manufacturing firms, the Leaf Company. As a result, we were continually supplied with every type of candy, gum, confection, and Xylitol-sweetened product one could imagine throughout the duration of our week in Finland. The Finns are particularly fond of Anise-flavored candies and consume great amounts of licorice. Unfortunately, licorice has the effect of being bad for those with blood pressure problems, but this doesn’t seem to deter consumption of it in that country. Some Finnish specialties, such as one called Salmiakki take a bit of getting used to, but most Finnish candies are excellent. It goes almost without saying that I managed to eat my way through most of these things without any difficulty during the week, and also brought back a quantity of them to Riyadh.
As soon as we had arrived at X’s home, we were plied with the customary mid-afternoon groaning board of small snacks, sandwiches, cakes, biscuits and cheeses (the Finns eat well, and frequently; in the winter, it helps to keep them going through the severe cold). I had brought two bottles of costly spirits with me as a gift for X, knowing how expensive they are in Finland; imagine my chagrin when I discovered that neither X nor his wife drink alcohol--surely an exception to the rule in a country where drinking is usually considered a pleasant social custom. The bottle of 15 year old aged single malt (Laphroaig, from the Isle of Islay) and a bottle of Chateau Neuf Du Pape Rhône wine were politely put aside without much further ado. I guess you can’t get it right every time, can you?
The first day in Finland (native word: Suomi) was spent taking a closer look at X’s remarkable reference library and collection of chemical defense respirators. He has the only other collection as large as my own that I am aware of. Now, most people will hardly be expected to go into paroxysms of delight over a heap of old moldering rubber and canvas gasmasks, but to a specialist in this sort of thing some of his acquisitions are truly unique. He has an example of one of the earliest Russian WWI protective masks, known as the 1916 Selinski-Kummandt mask; this was a design that set the style for most succeeding Russian designs and featured a rubber over-the-head hood fitted with a charcoal canister on a connecting tube. I won’t bore those of you who could care less about historic developments in chemical warfare respirator design and further, but this is simply one example of some of his interesting and historic specimens. His reference library is also quite broad and comprehensive, dealing with many aspects of military history and chemical warfare. Before I was able to tear myself away from his study that first day, X had presented me with 5 or 6 somewhat rare and hard to get Finnish specimens of mask, which I had to have sent back to the US by post, in view of luggage limitations.
Early the next morning the small Toyota hatchback was loaded up with our luggage (X’s and mine) and we began a 250 km trip north to the seaport city of Vaasa (Vaasa in Swedish), where an invitation had been extended to us to take a tour through the Kemira Oy Safety Products factory. Director Y would meet us there, and after the tour of this historic old facility where modern Finnish Army chemical warfare respirators and civilian counterparts are produced, we would stay the night at accommodations paid for by the company.
My wife and X’s wife would spend the next few days traveling about Finland separately, seeing interesting sights, while X and I began our ‘military sight-seeing tour’ of some of Finland’s defense installations.
The drive to Vaasa was scenic and relaxing for someone such as myself, unfamiliar with Finland’s gently rolling, alternating hectares of forest and farmland. We stopped whenever the urge hit for coffee at one of the roadside ‘Kioski,’ which are the Finnish equivalent of the small roadside snack concession and café. Finns, I found out, have a passion for coffee that is strong and full-bodied, and as a life-long addict of the full-strength article this national trait endeared these people all the more to me. Here and there along the route to Vaasa we passed a few quaintly rustic little cafés with considerable ambience all their own. One in particular featured a wonderful old windmill and a millpond sheltered by trees in which lived a manic family of ducks. Sitting there in the shade and enjoying the cool breezes, I could have lingered there all day.
The weather was sunny overall as we traveled northwest, but high scattered clouds--typical I was told of the Finnish summer--were not usually far from the horizon, bringing rain and drizzle to keep the trees moist. The sights along the road were picturesque, with the archetypal Finnish country home seeming to consist of a small cottage that is invariably painted a dull red or bright golden yellow. So uniform was this alternating color scheme that you were hard pressed to find any other color employed as exterior paint on dwellings. To be sure it created a colorful backdrop, set amidst the green forested areas and small interspersed fields of wheat and grain products which characterise the Finnish landscape in the western part of the nation.
KEMIRA OY SAFETY PRODUCTS:
We took most of the morning to reach Vaasa, on the Bothnian Gulf coast. There we met the Director of the Kemira Oy Safety products, who is a blonde, rosy-cheeked fellow of small stature but immense presence. He brought us onto the grounds of the old Kemira Chemical Plant and gave us a tour of the historical buildings which have long occupied the site. The Safety Products division is part of the world-renown Kemira Chemical Company. The tour of the respirator and protective filter area was, of course, of special interest to us; the new Finnish Armed Forces M-95 respirator is now in production there, replacing the previous long-serving Finnish M-61/76 version of the American 1950s vintage M-9 mask. This new military respirator is a unique and innovative design, and one of the newest most advanced designs in use among military forces today.
The Kemira grounds are built on what was once the old Finnish Army Chemical Depot, a facility that goes back to days when it served as a conventional arsenal (late 1800s). Until recent years, the Kemira Company was a fully state-owned concern. In 1983 they went public and are now a 40% private stock owned corporation, as is the case with many of Finland’s formerly nationalised industries. Interestingly, Finland is a sparsely populated nation with a total population of only about 5 million persons. The nation itself comprises a considerable geographic area aligned north and south, similar to Sweden and Norway in their shapes. Surprisingly, everyone seems to know everyone else, or so it would seem as the nation is a very close-knit one. In school the Finns are required to learn at least one foreign language in addition to their native language and Swedish. This usually turns out to be English, although German is the usual alternative in view of historic ties to Germany in past decades. Finland was for centuries a Swedish territory, and during the first part of the Second World War it aligned itself with Nazi Germany against the Soviets; Russia was, apparently, the worst of two distasteful alternatives at the time, and Finns still harbor a lingering traditional animosity towards the Russians.
Most young Finns in their 20s speak excellent English, and most of those in their 30s and 40s speak it adequately, if not perfectly. Thus, getting along in Finland’s major urban areas is not challenging at all for English speaking visitors. This is not the case at all in many of the more isolated rural areas, such as Lappland in the north.
That afternoon, after finishing the tour of Kemira Oy’s facilities, their director took us to a charming little seaside restaurant he frequents for a sumptuous afternoon supper; then, at the nearby marina, he took us to his small covered power cruiser’s dock for a two kilometer trip to his private island. His cottage sits on the island commanding a panoramic vista, and nearby the main building is his sauna. I knew that sooner or later I would be introduced to this most characteristic of Finnish customs, and sure enough it wasn’t long before we were enjoying the first of many such sessions throughout the week.
THE ESSENTIAL FINNISH EXPERIENCE...SAUNA:
The Finnish sauna comes in several varieties. There is the conventional sauna, known to most westerners, in which one sits in a birch or redwood lined room, splashing water on an electric or gas-fired stone hearth. Each dipperful of water creates clouds of very hot steam which increases the heat in the small enclosure until you are forced to momentarily seek relief by exiting and diving into the nearest body of cold water. In the case of the Kemira director’s sauna, this was the Gulf of Bothnia itself and take it from me--it was COLD! Then there is what is known as the smoke sauna. This is a special type of sauna in which both heat and smoke figure into the equation. Sessions in this variety of sauna include a further embellishment--the use of swatches of birch leaves to slap your skin (no, we’re not talking some unusual form of Finnish S&M, here--it’s actually quite refreshing).
Cold beer and small snacks are taken intermittently, sometimes afterwards, and as we sat around and swatted the king-sized Finnish mosquitoes, I learned some of the Lore of Finnish Sauna. One very important misunderstanding by many westerners is that saunas are used occasionally for sexual liaisons. Nothing could be further from the truth: sex and saunas are mutually incompatible. This was explained to me in this manner: “You can used a sauna to give birth to a baby, but it is against the custom to make them there.” The fact is that saunas have been used for ages by Finnish women to deliver infants, but it would be a severe transgression of the tradition to use them for coital hanky-panky. I explained to our friend the Kemira director how this would be puzzling to the average Californian, who through fuzzy misconception associates hot tub sex encounters with anything remotely resembling a sauna, and doubtless fueled with vast quantities of alcohol at that. Our Kemira director friend was clearly aghast at the very idea of the California custom!
At any rate, the sauna took place quite late, but since it is still very light at 10PM in the north that was not a problem. What was a problem was that first dive into the freezing cold water of the Gulf after having heated ourselves up to nearly 100 degrees centigrade by exposure to all that steam. The other two had no hesitation and dived straight off the floating dock into the frigid water, but I used the ladder and eased down into the icy fluid. This was clearly the wrong way to do it, as I found out later, but I was concerned that I would end up experiencing the equivalent of a hypothermically induced orchiotomy. Amazingly, my voice did not rise two octaves as the water reached the critical perineal plimsol line. I finally was able to ease all the way down into the bay and made a brave effort to swim a few strokes to a nearby buoy and back. I am sure the others could hear my teeth chattering each foot of the way, and it was quite a relief to get out of the water after that bit of buck-nekked frivolity, I can assure you.
One of the wonderful things about the traditional Finnish sauna is the sense of equality that obtains while taking this steaming ritual. All men are considered equal in the sauna; when you enter that steaming room together you are all brothers, after a fashion. It wouldn’t matter if you were in there with the President of the nation and the local town drunk; while enjoying this ancient, honorable custom, all are equals in the sight of whatever Norse gods still inhabit the frigid forests of the northlands. Although unrelated men and women don’t usually take mixed saunas in groups anymore, married couples and close friends still enjoy saunas together, and only the poorest, most wretchedly impoverished Finns lack a sauna adjacent to their homes. Corporations provide them for their workers, cooperative and apartment complexes maintain them for renters, and even Finnish military forces have them in their barrack areas. Sauna is the quintessential Finnish experience.
The sense of mutual bonding you experience in the sauna is a cathartically primal one--verging somewhere along the lines of Robert Bly Male Consciousness Session and an ancient post-hunt tribal ritual. This first sauna was for me such an experience and the Finns seem to delight in introducing newcomers to their ancient practice. Fortunately, these days visitors are politely asked if they care to share the experience, rather than simply being hauled off to the sauna as was frequently the case years ago. The Finns take their sauna seriously, and fortunately I am an adventurous person by inclination and rarely turn down an opportunity to experience something unique for the first time. By the time my week in Finland was concluded, I had developed quite a profound and genuine appreciation for this time-honored Finnish custom.
The Finns also have a very healthy regard for their bodies and are not seemingly burdened with all the latent Christian guilt associated with nakedness that is frequently a product of Western religious (read: Christian) tradition. It is sometimes hard for them to understand the sort of excessive modesty or obsessive lewdity that are frequently component by-products of religious guilt in North America. In this bodily sense of self they are very healthy people, even if their national diet is high in saturated fats and full of unhealthy cholesterols.
It had been a full day in the Vaasa area, and we turned in somewhat late that night. The Finns are (as are all Northern peoples) used to staying up well past midnight in the summer months, due to the perpetual light--something that was to prove to be a distinct irritation for me, since I need a solid 8 hours of sleep every night regardless of whether it is still light outside or not. We were well fed, scourged, and I for one was so ready for sleep that not even the legions of bird-sized mosquitoes could keep me awake. Speaking of these pests, although they are an omnipresent feature in Finland’s lower regions, around the lakes and plentiful water bodies, they seemed to be fairly slow and lumbering things compared to their common North American relatives (even their Canadian behemoth counterparts). It was easy to swat them and score strikes against them due to their deficit airspeed and maneuvering ability, but their sheer numbers make any sort of effective air defense against them effort intensive. To be sure, the variety found in northern Finland (Lapland) are a whole different breed, and are not only large and plentiful, but fast and ravenous as well. They compare, I think, to those found in Alaska and the Canadian Northwest Territories, which any canoe-portaging traveler will tell you are downright nasty little buggers.
INTRODUCTION TO A FINNISH DRAGON:
Next day we traveled back to the Vaasa marina by boat and loaded up X’s small Toyota hatch-back, saying good-bye to the Kemira director and thanking him for his excellent hospitality. Our next objective lay southwards towards the Central Finland Regional Air Defense Center, and the Satakunta Air Wing which operated at Tampere Air Base. We reached the Wing’s perimeter just in time to meet the base’s Deputy Commander who was to be our host for this segment of the tour. Although we had been told that it was possible that we would be given orientation flights in one of the Wing’s new BAE Mk.51 Hawk jet trainers, we were surprised to learn that something a bit more exotic had been provided for this introduction to the Finnish Air Force. The Deputy Commander took us to the operations building at the base and from there we went directly into a pre-flight emergency procedure orientation & training session for the Swedish built, two seat version of the SAAB J-35 Draken fighter. The J-35 Draken (Dragon) is a Mach 1.5 capable, delta-winged air defense fighter that the Finns have built under license (from SAAB) and used for nearly 30 years. Despite its age (the design is more than 40 years old, and squadrons of them have been in use in Sweden for 4 decades now), it is still something of a marvelous aircraft to fly, sharing many common characteristics with the Mach 2 Convair F106A Delta Dart that we used to fly out of Minot AFB in North Dakota, back in the 60s. I was, as we used to say in the California surfing culture of my youth, “stoked, dude!” The two-seat tandem version of the Draken is used for transition training and flight proficiency checks, and as with the two-seat tandem version of the Convair F106A, the two seat Draken could operate with virtually the same level of offensive capability as the single-seat version. The Satakunta Air Wing, responsible for all air defense operations for central Finland, flew a squadron of these beautiful old (but highly capable) birds, and a further squadron of the newer (subsonic) Hawk trainers.
The Draken in 1995 was just celebrating its 40th year of continuous service as an operational aircraft, the design having been first developed back in the 1950s. In fact, while at the FOA symposium the week before, I just missed being able to attend the annual Swedish Air Force air show, at which the 4th decade of Draken service was being celebrated. At any rate, X and I spent the better part of the early afternoon being instructed and briefed on the finer points of emergency egress from a stricken Draken, using the excellent SAAB designed J-35 ejection seat the Draken is fitted with. The Finnish Air Force flies, in addition to the Draken and the Hawk, Russian built MiG-21F bis fighters, although these operate at the Karelian Air Wing base in the east of the country and not at Satakunta. This complicates the task of Finnish Air Force life-support technicians in that they must set up and maintain technical support services for at least 3 to 4 different types of egress systems (Russian, Swedish, British and American). The Hawks and the new US designed McDonnell-Douglas F/A-18 Hornets (which are being introduced to replace the Draken) both use the English Martin-Baker Mk.10L aircrew escape systems. The Draken uses an earlier but quite substantially developed Swedish escape system, and the MiGs use a completely altogether different Russian ejection system (the KK-1 & 2 seat) and matching personal equipment. Not an easy task when you consider that most Air Forces standardise on a single uniform system and only have to worry about servicing one type of egress equipment and component escape technology.
The Swedes, incidentally, were among the first to develop emergency ejection seat systems for military aircraft, and for many years it was thought that a Swedish pilot was the first to actually use such a system to leave his crippled aircraft in the early 50s, until never-before-released information surfaced about German World War Two efforts. The revelations indicated that a German pilot had in fact successfully made an emergency ejection at a far earlier date (in the 1940s), and until the Allies brought Germany to its knees in 1945 the Germans were actually the world’s leaders in pioneering such escape technology. With the collapse of Germany’s aviation industry, Sweden and England assumed the lead in this relatively new field of survival technology.
SAAB, known to most Americans for their automobiles, was originally founded to build aircraft and SAAB ejection systems are excellent. The Deputy Commander of the Satakunta Air Wing confided to me during our tour that in over 30 years of operational use of the Draken, the SAAB seat had never had to be used; ironically, several months after I left Finland, the Finnish Air Force sustained its first crash of a Draken jet fighter in an accident. Unfortunately, the pilot did not survive the crash, but it was not the SAAB ejection seat that had failed, since the crash had not been a survivable one. This compares to a number of the Mig-21F bis fighters which have been lost regularly over the years (although the Russian ejection seats are generally excellent). Apparently, the Drakens, despite their age, are well built and are undoubtedly superbly maintained for having served so long with so few problems. X and I were heartened to hear of the excellent safety record of the Finnish license-produced Draken, needless to say.
The egress briefing consisted of several hours of instruction, lecture and drill in emergency escape procedures. Instructor pilot: “If something happens that requires emergency ejection you will hear me say in a loud, clear voice EJECT, EJECT, EJECT! Don’t hesitate to pull the D-ring located between your knees as soon as you hear that warning or you’ll be flying a crippled jet aircraft to the ground all by yourself!” Actually, this wasn’t entirely true as the instructor pilot would likely initiate automatic ejection sequence before we could react, and before we knew what was happening the canopy would be gone and we would be reaching for the sky with a Roman Candle flaming out under our rear-ends. It was explained that the passenger in back (us) would be ejected first so that the pilot could eject safely without frying the rear-seater with the rocket charge on his seat (thoughtful guys, really!). This is similar to most US ejection systems for tandem seating arrangements, and the protocol works much the same way. Only if the pilot in command were disabled would we be expected to initiate manual ejection for escape.
The Draken cockpit is, by the way, substantially cozier than the larger, more spacious cockpits of US fighters. Of course, the Draken is somewhat smaller in overall dimensions than comparable air defense aircraft in the US, but it is still a considerably potent adversary in air combat and a good point interceptor. The Draken ejection seat is also slightly reclined in the same manner as the General Dynamics F16’s ACES II seat, a fact which was surprising since the use of a reclining seat to lessen the effects of G on aircrew in aerial combat maneuvers (ACM) was thought to be a relatively recent development. The Draken’s J-35 seat design precedes the Falcon’s by some 35 years!
After concluding the escape drills and egress system instruction, we were sent to the personal equipment section and were fitted with the necessary gear for our upcoming flight on the next day: helmet, oxygen mask, survival and life vest, anti-G chaps, and other accessories required by the well-turned-out aircrewman. Following this, orientation to the actual Draken two-seater aircraft we were assigned to was carried out in the hanger area. Again, the Draken cockpit’s relatively small size was readily apparent as we squeezed down into the SAAB aft ejection seats, being instructed in connections, fittings and so forth.
Next: Part 3, naturally.