Woodworking again: Finlandia!

By Dave Wood
Posted 2/28/24

When I was a wee lad in 1939, I listened to WEAU radio and kept hearing the name Paavo Nurmi. Finally I asked my well-informed father who Nurmi was. Answer: “Paavo Nurmi (1897-1973) was the …

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Woodworking again: Finlandia!


When I was a wee lad in 1939, I listened to WEAU radio and kept hearing the name Paavo Nurmi. Finally I asked my well-informed father who Nurmi was. Answer: “Paavo Nurmi (1897-1973) was the “Flying Finn from Turku, the fastest runner in the world!”

That was enough information for my pea brain. But some years later I arrived at Illinois State University where professor Karen Halvorsen regaled me with stories about the Finns in her hometown of New York Mills (with names like Toivo Pukenen and Soile Isokosko), Minn., celebrated the fictional Saint Urho on March 16 by jumping into saunas, sweating mightily, flailing themselves with pine boughs ripped off tree trunks, and rolling in snowdrifts.  

Then I was off to Bowling Green University in Ohio, where the college anthem was sung to the tune of “Finlandia” by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. There were no Finns for hundreds of miles except graduate assistant John Watenen, a towering Finn who went on to teach in Northern Michigan U and was immediately elected to the Michigan State Legislature. Why? Because he was a Finn.

Despite that, my respect for Finland grew when I took a course in European history and learned that in the Russo-Finnish War (1939) the intrepid Finns almost beat the Russkis. Of course, we’d be a happier world today if the Feisty Finns had won.

But history gets lost in the political arena. Witness the Trump Tweet of a few years ago when he wrote that he wished the U.S. would admit fewer Hispanics and Asians and welcome more progressive and wealthy folks from Normay. He didn’t request more emigres from Sweden, Denmark or Iceland. But I guess that’s how the diplomatic Krumkake crumbled.

In 1969 I arrived at Augsburg College in Minneapolis where I learned more than I taught. Though the school had a Norwegian background, the enlightened administration recognized ancestors beyond those from Normay. The college was swarming with Finns, including the head librarian.

In 1970, I married Ruth in a ceremony performed by Augsburg’s religion prof, Doug Ollila. Notice that his name ends in a vowel, he hailed from the Upper Peninsula (just like John Watenen) and he was, of course, a Finn.

In that same time period, the U.S. was beseeched to embrace communist principles by another oversized Finn, Gus Hall (1910-2000), General Secretary of the U.S. Communist Party and its candidate for president in four consecutive election years. When he made an appearance at Augsburg, the hippy students were disappointed to discover a mild-mannered man clad in a three-piece pinstripe suit, who looked like the typical Lutheran Brotherhood salesperson.

In 1985 I left Augsburg to become a reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune. My first assignment was to go to New York Mills, home of basketball star Janet Karvonen and America’s last Finnish language newspaper. While there I discovered a bakery where the baker let bread dough rise, then sat on it, making a memorably shaped loaf, which I christened “Bumpa Bread.” And a remarkable piece of the town’s history: It was the site of the Communist Dance and Recreation Hall, a few miles out of town. While we were examining that place, a bachelor Finn and his very ancient mother came out of their nearby house to see what we were up to. Our crew’s photographer immediately saw the old woman as a great photo subject. When Kent asked permission to take a picture, she said “NO!” and covered her face with her apron. When Kent persisted, she tore the apron away from her face and shouted “Hysta Napa!” Despite our pleading, the son refused to translate, and we didn’t find out what curse she laid upon us until back at home; our editor chuckled and said “Dave! You know the Norwegian expression ‘Ches Ma Rava’ don’t you? It means ‘Kiss my hinder’.” I conceded that I’d heard that before. “Well, Hysta Napa is pretty much the same, only it means “Kiss your own belly button.”

I encountered the phrase much later when my friend Dave Spear presented me with a retirement gift: A black and white plaque with that very phrase embossed on it. Ever the joker, Spear added: “And don’t forget to celebrate December 7, 1941, not as Pearl Harbor Day, but as the day that Pearl Pukenen went to Two Harbors and got bombed!”

Finlandia, Finnish, Woodworking again, Dave Wood, column