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Three score and ten or more

Sunday, June 04, 2006

The New Adventures in Finland

As I mentioned, I have already told the story of my almost immediate introduction to the Finnish Sauna. When I arrived in Finland, I had never heard a Finnish word. That ended at the sauna. On that Saturday, after sauna, I got my trunk from the shipping company, went on a retki (hike) and, with the other elders, played softball, volleyball, and touch football and we all went to a movie that evening. I was bushed by sleep time, and hadn’t done anything I expected to do as a missionary.

The following day, which was Sunday, I had nine hours of meetings, gave my first sermon in Finnish (I wrote it in English, and it was translated by one of the local members. Thank goodness for a phonetically spelled language), sang Old Man River at a fireside (an evening meeting for the youth, which included ice cream) and realized what it is like to not understand anything that is said to you, or that happens around you.

The next day, I had a long interview with the Mission President, worked for a while in the office with an Elder Fuller who was mission clerk, and then one of the other early experiences was to be taken proselyting by one of the elders stationed in the Mission home. My first adventure was with Elder J. Neil Burch (or Birch, I am not sure which, I spelled it both ways in my journal), who was one of the kindest sweetest souls I have ever met. We went door to door for awhile then Elder Burch had two return meeting with people who had been “found” before. One meeting was a “second”, the other with an investigator who was obviously an “old hand” and had been taught many times before.

A number of things came to my attention at that time. I have always had an easy time speaking before audiences, acting, performing, etc., but meeting new people and interacting in small groups has been its own minor form of hell. I found that, when I didn’t speak the language, had no idea what was going on, and was more or less serving as a doorstop for the meetings, the fear was gone. I was also interested that the door approaches were obviously not the assertive type that we had been taught in the Mission Home. They were much more circumspect and the lesson was (I think) from an old teaching plan called the Anderson Plan. I asked Elder Burch about the new door approaches (“We are church representatives”) that we had been taught in the Mission home and he assured me that such would never work in Finland, that the Finns did not appreciate anything that seemed to be “high pressure”, and that the old plans would work best here.

Probably the silliest memory of the mission home derives from the fact that the word for brother, in Finnish, is Veli. Now the word for Elder is Vanhin, which also just means “old”, so most missionaries were called Veli, or brother, rather than Vanhin or “old” in everyday conversation. This was true whether one was speaking English or Finnish so Elder Burch was Veli Burch, Elder John Cushing who was also around in Helsinki was Veli Cushing, etc. After a full day of “Veli”s, which my untrained ear interpreted as the English name Billy, I asked Elder Cushing that evening if everyone named “Billy” had been transferred to Helsinki or if it was just a coincidence that every Elder I had met that day was named “Billy”. He turned blank for a second, and asked me to repeat myself. I mentioned “Billy” Burch, “Billy Gibbs”, Billy Cushing, and others. When he understood, he not only roared in laughter, but called all the other elders from the mission office to hear him explain the difference between Billy and Veli. Everyone had a fine old laugh at me.

During the next three days, I had two Finnish lessons from a sister Seija Patjas, who had to be one of the smartest people I have every met, I am not sure in how many languages she was fluent, but she was surrounded in texts that were in German, Russian, English, Swedish, and probably some others. I also met a couple of Elders from the Swedish district (Finland has two official languages, Finnish and Swedish, and several towns in the coastal area were primarily Swedish, so the Elders who were stationed there learned Swedish instead of Finnish) as well as a brother Manwaring and his friend who were soldiers stationed in Germany. They (or at least one of them) were returned missionaries from a stateside mission. I also got to go out with Elder Burch and have follow up visits to some of the people we had met while the previous day. On my last evening in Helsinki before being shipped to Turku (which is where I arrived in Finland at first) I went to NVK (MIA the youth Mutual Improvement Association) where some Finnish sisters did a play. It was very impressive. One of the roles was played by a Sister Irmeli Antsola, who was not only a good actress, but absolutely, strikingly, beautiful. I was a little in awe, and formed the first of several crushes on Finnish sisters, none of which had any long range effect.

I left the next morning for Turku, which was to be my new assignment. The soldiers from Germany, Manwaring and Russell traveled with me. The trip was quite an experience on the train. As a carry-over from the second world war, the Soviets retained a section of southern Finland and equipped it to be a naval base (somewhat like the American base at Guantanamo in Cuba). The railroad line apparently crosses the base, so when we got to the perimeter, the train stopped and soldiers came up to fasten metal shutters on all the windows so that you couldn’t see out. Then armed soldiers (I was not, at that time, sure whether they were Russian or Finnish) entered the train and stood at both ends of each car. I don’t remember how long we traveled across “Soviet” territory, but it was quite a while. At the other border, the guards stepped off the train, removed the shutters and we went on our merry way. The train cars were unfamiliar to Americans. There were no separate seats. All the seats were like poorly padded church pews that seated about three average people or two people if the people were a little bulky, like yours truly.

I was met at the train station by the missionaries with whom I was to serve, Elders Pollack and Morrow. Elder Pollock was the senior companion, and experienced missionary who had spent a lot of his mission as Mission Clerk. He was older than most missionaries. I am not sure, but I think he said he was thirty-three. He was a relatively recent convert to the church and was a CPA from North or South Carolina. He was not very tall, very dark complexioned, and dressed in a charcoal three piece suit with a black homburg hat. He looked very formal. Elder Morrow was a total contrast. He wore a tannish cloth raincoat, and his hat was narrow brimmed and flat on top. He had the face of a boxer who had been in several bouts with guys bigger than him. On the other hand, I doubt that there were an awful lot of guys around who were a lot bigger than him. He was about six two, but very compact and muscular. I would guess that he weighed close to two hundred pounds with no fat at all.. When I first saw them, I chuckled at the thought that they looked like a Mafia Don and his bodyguard. I was wearing my trenchcoat because it was too heavy to pack easily, and had my snap brim fedora on my head. I chuckled again when I saw the three of us reflected in a window. It looked like the Mafia guy had picked up another bodyguard.

Manwaring and Russell went to the dock where they were going to take the ferry back to Sweden. The “mafia don” and his “bodyguards” headed for the apartment which served both as a meeting place and a residence for the elders. Mormon missionaries usually travel twos, but this was right at the end of the Korean war. Most of the missionaries who were in the country at the time were either Canadian or were men who were otherwise not available to the service. The numbers were very small, and so, as they added new missionaries one “training elder” was frequently given two companions until one or the other could progress far enough in language etc. to break the number down to pairs. Elder Pollack was older, elder Morrow had just come home from Korea a few months ago.

To come: some of the experiences of naïve guys in a new culture and country.


At 1:19 PM, Blogger Norma said...

Well, what do you think "elder" means?

Nice account. We're going to Finland in July.

At 10:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am thoroughly enjoying reading your blog. My mother Lea Antsola Mahoney and her sister is Irmeli Antsola Morris.
Carina Mahoney


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