The last installment of this episodic journey into the technological bowels of Norskehuvea; join us for Chinese food on German submarines, hot dogs on Russian nuclear missile subs, and similarly eclectic adventures not at all resembling the classical Finnish epic tale known as THE KALEVALA. Only God himself knows what other mischief ensues herein, and since he doesn't really exist, you'll simply have to stay the course and plough through this to its inane and unspectacular ending.
Wartoys and Saunas:
A Modern Kalevala,
MOSQUITOES AND MIDSUMMER:
That evening and night was spent with these good people, who spoke no English but were very cordial and hospitable. Despite the language barrier, we all got along quite well and met the other relatives who were arriving to spend the traditional Finnish Mid-Summer Holiday with them. There was good food on the outdoor grill when we arrived and a lot of that excellent and strong Finnish coffee, as well.
Irene had had a great time seeing Finland with X’s wife, but she confessed to me that having to speak good English clearly and carefully all the time was finally a bit exhausting for her.. I reminded her that it was probably as difficult for X’s wife, speaking in a non-native language as she was, and this was a consciousness raising moment for both of us. Between us, we speak 5 different languages with more or less fluency, but nothing even faintly similar to the Finno-Ugric tongue whose most near linguistic relative is probably Estonian. Finnish, as a written and spoken language, has virtually nothing in common with the other Scandinavian languages, contrary to popular American misperceptions and Swedish political domination of Finland up until recent times.
The cabin was sited near a local lake so the mosquitoes were particularly thick. My wife was their especial target, seemingly, as they always zero in on her as a tastier morsel than my own wizened hide. Despite this fact, after dinner, we all walked to the lake, unhitched the family skiff and I demonstrated by old Boy Scout small craft handling skills to them by rowing us around the lake’s inlets. The skills and techniques were still there in my hands, as I successfully rediscovered all the strokes in the course of the next hour. There were several small islands in the lake which we visited and evidence of a number of small vacation cottages dotted around the lake’s perimeter: everyone was there for the mid-summer holiday. I found that by maintaining a fair rate of speed we could keep some of the mosquito squadrons at bay, and the tour was conducted at a fairly fast pace. Despite the pests, I enjoyed the chance to keep my muscles in tone since I hadn’t been doing any exercise since I left Riyadh, weeks before. The others were all to happy to let me provide the muscle work. I couldn’t help but think about how near idyllic Finland can be at such moments, and wondered what it would be like to be a citizen and be able to live here as a resident.
I mentioned this to X as the sun was setting, leaving a beautiful golden glow in the sky; after a moment, he replied that I might not feel as elated if I had to cope with the minus 40 degree winters, as well. To this I demurred, protesting my preference for truly cold-ass winters such as I had experienced in North Dakota, during my active duty with the US Air Force. X found that a bit hard to believe, as their preference runs towards the sun, it being such a rare and precious commodity in Finland.
All over the lake, as we headed back to the cottage, Finns were celebrating Mid-Summer Festival. Big bonfires were being stacked up on the beaches and the jovial, enthusiastic excitement generated was infectious. As a result, we hardly noticed the mosquitoes and the Finns themselves seem almost unaware of the them, so used to them have they become. I think if I lived in a natively beautiful a land as Finland is I’d be willing to endure a few flying pests in the bargain. Oddly enough, as an aviation-minded person, I found myself musing that even though they are a nuisance, they do have the natural ability to fly--unlike us poor, ground-bound creatures who have to settle for some decidedly unnatural and artificial techniques to defy gravity for a brief while.
By 10 PM I was ready for bed after a full day of activities. Unfortunately, since it is still quite light outside at this late hour-- especially in view of the fact that the Finns stay up virtually all night during the summer months--X suggested that we visit a good friend of his who runs a militaria business some 20 km from Lahti. The friend, formerly in the Finnish military, now operates a funeral home during the day and sells military items in his spare time. X described him as a renaissance man, in view of his many unique interests. Truly he was.
We arrived near midnight and spent the next three hours with T. of the InterArmy Company. T. has a most amazing collection of military items, about 78% of which is Russian in origin. Not the run-of-the-mill militaria that is flooding the US market right now but some truly exotic items that you don't find anywhere else: experimental Russian Titanium prototype battle helmets, depth gauges from Russian submarines, sensitive avionics from Russian fighter jets, Soviet Spetznast (Special Forces) equipment, antitank weapons, Russian fighter pilot helmets and personal equipment, etc., etc. The list is endless and all are for sale, except for the crème de la crème of the inventory, which ends up in his personal collection. I promised T. that I would put him in touch with some US collectors and entrepreneurs who might be interested in a retail partnership, and had a few more beers as I marveled over the breadth of these things. T. even had a full sized Russian troop transport truck out in front of the office which he had acquired and was interested in selling.
I was finally able to suggest that we depart and after thanking T. for his hospitality, we headed back to Lahti at about 0300 hours with plenty of twilight still in evidence. The Finns seldom sleep during the long summer months due to the constant sunlight, and this probably compensates somewhat for the equally long winter months in which there is little or any sun at all. For people used to a full 8 hours of sleep each night such as my wife and I, this was starting to become something of a burden.
Early next morning all four of us, X & his wife and I and my own, were up loading the small hatchback with our mutual luggage--not an easy task, given the small size of the car. It was a challenge, but with my years of experience serving as a loadmaster on a VW beetle we managed it. After a huge (typically Finnish) breakfast, we drove down towards Helsinki for one final of sightseeing in the “new” capitol (Turku was the original one, and Helsinki was selected as an expedient to heavy Russian pressure at the end of the war).
RUSSIAN SUBMARINES & HOT DOGS:
In Helsinki we arrived at the home of X’s sister who lives in a large flat in the city. From there we did the 24 hour concentrated tour of this very unusually modern Scandinavian city. The weather was still sunny, although it threatened rain later in the day, so we had a great dose of taking in all the sights that there are to see. Included in this tour was an inspection of a Russian Juliet-Class nuclear missile submarine, which is now anchored in Helsinki harbor as a temporary display on loan from Russia. X and I must have spent the better part of two hours combing the huge steel tube through from stem to stern in the now increasing drizzle; both of us found it endlessly fascinating, although the wives predictably ho-hummed and fretted over our boyish enthusiasms. This prowl through the multiple-levels of Russia’s U-484 (K-77) revealed many profound differences between their submarines and those of the United States. Their subs are a nightmare of tangled steel conduits and electrical junctions, combined with a nightmarish plumbing setup that would make an Ubanetsky modern painting look aesthetically understandable. It must be mentioned that the Juliet-class boats are the only type of submarine in the whole world that were designed and developed by a woman marine architect (with a NATO identifier of 'Juliet', who says NATO had no sense of humor during the worst days of the Cold War?). Strangely, despite this fact, there were no signs over the heads reminding the crew to put the seats down after use.....
The drizzle, which had just started when we reached the U-484, began to increase to the point where it was raining quite considerably so I was unable to get more than one or two poor photographs of it from the dock across from it. Some wag operating the submarine museum concession had run a bright red KOFF beer flag up the periscope shears, right under the old Soviet red naval ensign. It made for an amusing if somewhat unglamorous counter-note to the exhibit of this interesting old survivor of frigid deep-water intrigues. After buying some hot dogs by the gang-plank leading to the sub’s hatch, we were told that a gourmet dinner could be arranged by special request in the sub’s officer’s mess; catering for groups of less than 12 could be provided to constitute what has to be one of the world’s more unusual opportunities for an evening’s dining at a decidedly unconventional submersible restaurant. That would have to rank as an exotic experience on the short list of such things, considering not just the location of the dinner but the cramped space available aboard the boat. The U-484’s four nuclear tipped cruise-type guided missiles, carried in firing tubes hidden in the upper deck casing, had been removed, naturally enough, but it was sobering enough just to see the cavernous recesses in the launch area where they were stowed. Just before leaving, X and I got a few pictures of each other posing at the main periscope in true dramatic war-movie style. So much for grown up children and their fantasies, eh?
The distaff element of our group were starting to mumble about a possible mutiny, so X and I reluctantly left this great big, 3000 ton plaything for some more mutually agreeable sightseeing. At present, word has it that Helsinki is negotiating with the Russian Navy for loan of a Typhoon-class nuclear submarine. The U-484 has a displacement of 3500 tons; the Typhoon-class subs, which are nuclear powered and carried as many as 16 intercontinental nuclear missiles, weigh in at over 12,500 tons! This compared to a German World War Two Atlantic U-boat, such as the Type VIIC, which weighed a mere 750 tons. The old saying has it that the only difference between the men and the boys is the cost of their toys. I would amend that to ‘the size of their toys,' as well. How about something like that in your bath-tub?
ARABIAN TOILETS IN HELSINKI:
Helsinki has quite a lot to see, obviously. The sights were many, the markets and waterfront vendors plentiful and colorful, and we would be exhausted by the time the day was at an end. Among the places visited was the famous Arabia ceramics and porcelain factory with all its exquisite glass and art objects. The factory showroom, where all their samples and seconds are sold, must have been to our wives what the Juliette-class was for X and I. I had to admit that their products are beautiful, well known throughout the world for artful style and craftsmanship. I was vastly amused to find that every toilet in Finland (they seem all to be manufactured by the Arabia Company) has the word 'ARABIA' scribed on its flushing knob. This was a note of irony I particularly enjoyed, considering how frequently I have used excremental terms to describe my feelings on how it is to have to live with the Arabs.
Our wandering took us from the Arabia factory to the downtown center where we had lunch in the Happy Days bar and restaurant in the waterfront’s nearby park-square. A strange mixture of American 60s bizarre style and Finnish pop eclecticism, it was strangely appealing in an otherwise urban sylvan setting where drunks sat propped up against tree trunks in a harmless but sad manner that seemed perfectly normal. X remarked that Finnish alcoholism is still a major problem, but not as bad as it once used to be.
GERMAN SUBMARINES & CHINESE FOOD:
The final act of this last day was to visit the Island Fortress of Suomelinen which contains all sorts of interesting sights. Among these are the very old fortifications of the original island defense works, established many, many years ago to protect the harbor, a number of maritime displays, and what for X and I was the major draw: the submarine Vesikko.
Vesikko, is a very interesting old submarine which began its life as a prototype of Germany’s new Kriegsmarine, designed and ordered by Germany before the war (in the 1930s). It was built by Finnish industries and was then purchased by the Finnish Navy as the first of 5 similar craft to be operated during the war. The Vesikko was very similar to the so-called German Coastal U-boat (Type IIB) in size and displacement (about 350 tons), but bears remarkable resemblance to the famous Atlantic U-boat Type VIIC which was responsible for most of the allied shipping losses during the war. It was, practically speaking, an advance product of Germany’s cover gearing up for what became the Second World War, in contravention of the terms of the First World War’s armistice.
Another submarine to explore! Boy, were X and I happy! The girls, as could be predicted, were far from happy crewmates on this sub-crawl and once again the smell of a mutiny brewed up after we had had only a brief time to inspect this latest bath-tub super-toy. Reluctantly, X and I left the Vesikko where she rests, high and dry on a pedestal near the water, and resumed our exploration of some of the rest of the island.
This brought the total number of submarine explored to three for this trip, since we had found another one in Stockholm Harbor tied up to a dock near the Vaasa Museum. That one had been a conventional electric/diesel boat of the Russian Whiskey-class, designated the U-194. It had been in active use by the Russian Navy since 1957 to prowl Swedish coastal waters, and was kept in service until about 1991, amazingly. The Juliet-class nuclear cruise missile sub in Helsinki Harbor (U-484 or K-77) had been in use by Russia until 1994!
Finally, late in the evening, my wife and I hosted X and his wife at a fairly good Chinese restaurant in the old port area of the Helsinki waterfront. While nothing to write the relatives back in Hong Kong about, it wasn’t too bad and X and his wife enjoyed the chance to experience a cuisine which Finns rarely partake of. Arriving back at X’s sister’s flat quite late, we were really tired, having seen far more than we really had the energy to in this lightning tour of a city that has much to see and experience. Included were the Finnish Modern Art Museum, the very old (second oldest to Turku) city of Pouro with its ancient wooden buildings and the magnificent cathedral, the Helsinki Marimeko Store, the Helsinki University Hospital, the old Helsinki maritime district, and the Finnish Museum of Traditional and Modern arts & Crafts.
The next day we were due to fly out for home, my wife for the US and I for Riyadh. X and his wife would continue their 6 week summer vacation with a trip by car across the Bothnian Gulf to Sweden and Norway, after our departure. We put my wife on her BA 737-400 flight to Heathrow in the early morning, and then X and his wife saw me off on my BA Airbus 300 flight back to Riyadh that afternoon.
My wife was glad to get back to the dogs, both of which she told me were terribly excited to see her after the absence of only a week [It is something else to watch two well-fed Siberian Huskies express their pent-up happiness to be reunited with their humans again after a period of separation.... we’re talking 'slurp-city.'], but she admitted to being somewhat burned out from the strains of having to communicate in such a constantly painstaking manner. I also was feeling the stress of the protracted communication requirement, but I had enjoyed myself thoroughly thanks to X’s excellent efforts to provide a visit worth remembering. I was begrudgingly ready for another long, hot, dry and boring as hell summer in Riyadh, but only barely, after having been overwhelmed by Finland’s vast green beauty and her wonderfully hospitable inhabitants.
The 3 hour leg of the flight back to Heathrow from Helsinki was uneventful, but the three-hour layover there was infinitely dull. The flight from Heathrow to King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh was also uneventful except for the fact that a small baby being carried to the plane’s toilet in its father’s arms chose to projectile vomit all over me everything it had eaten in the past several hours. Fortunately for me and the continued survival of the baby, it wasn’t a direct hit and I had only a few fleeting urges to strangle it by its little neck before I was able to relax after a bit of reflection on the little pooper’s apparent lack of finesse in choosing an appropriate target.
The unavoidable ordeal of clearing Saudi customs wasn’t half as bad as I had expected and shortly after the arrival of our flight at 0600 hours Riyadh time I was waved through and caught a taxi back to the hospital compound. I was carrying some 6 kilos of printed material, brochures, papers, magazines and what-have-you from the NBC conference in Stockholm and the weeks spent with the Finns. When the customs inspector saw all of this he simply gave up trying to inspect it all for illicit 'nasty' pictures. For my part, I couldn’t believe I had managed to lug all that stuff home with me; even the framed photo of the two Drakens in flight over Tampere had survived the flight, with glass intact.
The trip had been overall one of the best I have taken in recent years, and was certainly genuinely enjoyable and interesting. My wife was pleased with introduction to these two Scandinavian countries, despite the wearying pace and breadth of the trip.
X and his wife, by the way, are planning to spend several weeks with my wife and I in the coming year and we shall be returning the favor of hospitality. My wife will show X’s wife the sights and scenes of California while I take X on a tour of the defense establishments. He is looking forward to that as I am.
I expect X and I are an excellent illustration of the old saying about scratching the man and find the boy within. Well hell, X and I shall have a whole new set of war toys to play with shortly, when he arrives in the US. Watch out, Robert Bly; here we come, and don’t ever forget Rule Number One!
[Postscript: Since this defense technology version of 'Mr. Toad's Wild Ride' took place, much has happened. The Finns have retired all of their beautiful delta-winged Draken fighters and received on their new American F/A-18F Hornet replacements. My good friend X has left his wife for another woman he met on an archeology dig in Egypt (a regular Nefertiti, I understand). The panic inspired by Saddam Hussein's alleged possession of chemical and biological weapons has died completely away (just like Saddam himself) and no one seems to care about the very real threat posed by modern terrorists employing such terrible weapons--go figure! The Finnish women are all still as beautiful as ever. Last but not least, that Russian ex-nuclear Juliet Class (K-77, also known as 'Juliet 484') missile submarine we almost sank in Helsinki harbor was towed to Providence Rhode Island shortly after we visited it, where it became part of the USS Saratoga Museum. Regrettably, it managed to sink at its pier during a storm late last year (2007) and now lies on the bottom of the river, where efforts are ongoing to raise it. If you are interested in learning more about it, dial up the USS Saratoga Museum website for the latrest developments (see below). Clearly (at least to me), the poor old battle-weary relic was simply trying to do what it did best through most of its service life: to sink. I hope they manage to salvage it! Lastly, pardon me if this isn't anything like the original Finnish national epic, The Kalevala; that really wasn't my intention, you see.