IMMIGRANTS

Posted Jul 27, 2007
Last Updated Mar 19, 2008
IMMIGRANTS

Spokane
    For 20 years I lived in Spokane, Washington, and became very fond of it.  The climate there is a lot drier than in western Washington, but nonetheless moist enough that the native vegetation was coniferous forest and fescue prairie.  In Spokane, yards thrive (with occasional watering), summers are sunny, big storms uncommon in all seasons, and a goodly river flows through the city in a gorge boasting two significant waterfalls within the city limits.  The hills and mountains roundabout are forested, Mount Spokane (and other mountains less nearby) provide skiing, and in every direction lie natural lakes for boating and fishing.  The city is large enough (metro population about half a million) for interesting sports teams— minor league baseball, tier 1-A junior hockey, the top-flight Gonzaga University Bulldogs NCAA basketball team, a presentable symphony orchestra, a very fine park system, and a reasonably neutral newspaper with a paid daily circulation of 95,000.  It is the largest city, in the border states, between Seattle and Minneapolis.
    Yet small enough that from downtown, you can drive west or south and be out of town in 10 minutes —15 minutes north, 30 minutes east — into interspersed coniferous forest, grasslands and farms.
    But I digress.  In the late 1980s, numerous Hmong refugees, rescued from psychotic genocidal governments, settled in Spokane, and in the '90s and later, many Russians and Ukrainians. 
    Some native Spokanites were bent out of shape by that.  In one of the angry letters published in the Spokesman Review, the writer claimed to have lived all his life in Spokane, except when he was away in the army during WW II (which means he was born in 1928 at the latest, because the war ended in 1945).  And, he wrote, Spokane never used to have all those foreigners.
    Which tells us far more about the writer than about the city.  The first time I ever heard of Spokane was in June 1951, while training as a smokejumper near Nine-Mile, Montana.  My first day there, I walked into the bunkhouse, and heard Swedish coming from a radio.  A local was lying on a bunk there, and I asked him where the program was from.  "Spokane," he said.  "It's on every day at noon."
    Who do you suppose listened?  Daughters of the American Revolution?  Or...could it be immigrants?
Thirty-four years later, when I moved to Spokane, I learned that a Swedish weekly newspaper had been published there as late as the 1950s.  Even today, Norwegian-Americans still maintain a large lodge building there, and German Americans another. (The  Swedish lodge meets in a church.)
    All of which reminds us that letters to the editor are often a product of ignorance.  (As, of course, blogs can be.)
    A century ago, Spokane was a young city on the Spokane River and the Northern Pacific Railway, in a region rich in coniferous forest; a natural stopping place for Scandinavian immigrants drawn by hopes of employment.  In 1930, Spokane County had nearly 7 thousand people born in Sweden or with both parents born in Sweden (Hur Amerikafällan: Anton Swansons dagbok, ÖLA, Sweden, 1989). There were also many Norwegians and Germans, and more than a few Finns and Danes.
    Today there are many Scandinavian and German names in the Spokane phone book, but very few who who wear those names can speak the languages of their immigrant grandparents.  The great American smältdegeln (melting pot) has done its work, via time, the public schools, and intermarriage.  Even in the Scandinavian and German lodges, most members cannot speak the languages that 70-80 years ago were used for the lodge proceedings.

Rock, Michigan
    In 1949, I spent most of the Great Lakes shipping season firing on a Great Lakes ore carrier, the John W. Davin, of the Midland Steamship Company.  Then we had a beef with the skipper, and in early October went on strike.  So the company tied her up in Toledo for the remainder of the season, and laid us off.  
    My best friend aboard was a Finnish-American, Leo Ruotsala, born on an immigrant farm near Rock, Michigan.  So Leo decided to go home to the family farm, to help his brother Sulo load his pulpwood harvest onto rail cars.  And invited me to go with him, also to help, on my way to Minnesota to spend the winter in the Minnesota logging woods.
    I'd never seen anything like Rock.  Virtually the entire population was Finnish.  Signs were in Finnish.  Business was carried out in Finnish.  The conversations you heard were in Finnish. 
    Sulo's son, "Piiku Maiki" (Little Mikey), a toddler in rubber pants, was running around the yard chasing his pet jänis (hare, or in that case maybe rabbit), or playing with an upsidedown wash basin (his "kinnikunni," Finnish babytalk for kilpikonna, turtle).  His grandmother spoke no English, and his grandfather little enough that he spoke to me through Leo or Sulo as interpretors.  To me, being in Rock was like being in Finland (where at that time I'd never been).
    In 1986 or 87, nearly 40 years after my week at Rock, I would meet "little Mikey" again, as Colonel Michael Ruotsala, USAF, at Fairchild AFB near Spokane.  I told him how much I'd enjoyed Rock, and wondered if it had survived the decline of small rural midwestern villages.  He told me it had greatly changed, starting with many of its young men going off to college on the World War Two GI Bill of Rights.  Many brought home a non-Finnish bride, and Finnish is an Asian tongue, quite difficult for Americans to learn.  It didn't take long— a dozen years? Twenty?— for English to replace Finnish as the local vernacular.  And the Finnish Mike heard when visiting home was primarily his Aunt Eila (herself a retired Air Force colonel) talking on the phone to his Uncle Leo in Florida.
_______
 
    Twenty years ago I read a book describing life in a Mexican-American farming community in Washington state, and an immigrant grandmother lamenting that her grandchildren couldn't carry on a conversation in Spanish.
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    In the late 1940s I'd worked awhile in a heavily Norwegian-American community in northern Minnesota, where Norwegian was still often heard.  A few years later, 1953, I was firing on the steamer Hollaway, when she hauled a cargo (10,000 tons) of sand to the Ford Motor Co. foundry on Michigan's River Rouge.  While steaming up the river, our Norwegian-American deck watch, Fridtjhof Martinusen, spotted an elderly Norwegian freighter at dock.  So while the Hollaway was unloading sand, Fridtjhof and I bought a case of beer and took a cab to the Norwegian ship.  (The beer was to ensure we'd be allowed aboard.)  We spent an interesting hour aboard her, and I had an epiphany: the immigrant "Norwegians" I'd known in Minnesota were not Norwegians anymore.  They were Americans who occasionally spoke Norwegian (and told great stories, as did the Finns in Rock),  and quite different from the crew of the Norwegian freighter.
    America!  Den stora smältdegeln!  The great melting pot.

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