The three of us were holed up in a resort hotel in the middle of the winter, somewhere in Finland during the winter of 1979. We were on the shore of what must in summer be a beautiful lake. Now it was frozen and covered with snow. Ski trails traversed it for miles. It was beautiful. It was cold, but not forbiddingly so. And the dry air gave everything a crisp feeling.
We three were on a state department visit and tour of military facilities in Finland. We had flown in to Helsinki several days before and had toured several locations by van before being taken to the hotel for the weekend. Leader of the group was Colonel Spalding from Headquarters Department of the Army at the Pentagon. He was in the Quartermaster Corps, a REMF, but a pleasant man. The second of our trio was Major Waldenburger from Training Command Headquarters at Fort Monroe, Virginia. He was a German born, naturalized American. I immediately disliked his know everything attitude. I suspected both men were on a boondoggle.
As an infantry major, I was assigned to the Army in Alaska to write doctrine for fighting in winter. As such, I was the only one who qualified for the trip as having winter expertise. My mission was to discover how the Finnish Army fought in the snow. Oh yes, I was on a boondoggle, too.
We were to spend the weekend at what can only be describe as a posh hotel, catering to those who enjoyed water sports in summer and ice and snow activities in winter. As with most of the country, it was jam-packed with gorgeous women and old frost-bitten men.
While I was settling in, the phone rang. It was Colonel Spalding. “Want to join Major Waldenburger and me in the sauna at 1700?”
We finished every day with the sauna in one form or another. The previous day we had participated in a regimental sauna at lakeside. We plunged into a hole that was chopped through the twenty-four inches of ice on a lake. The experience was totally invigorating. We rolled in the snow, naked as jays, (though I must confess I’ve never seen a live jay bird with no feathers), and then taken a hot shower before participating in drinking vodka. I said, “Certainly, Sir. I’ll see you there.”
At the appointed hour, I found my way to the sauna which proved to be a private lounge with sauna room and shower overlooking an olympic sized pool. All was white marble and clean as a hospital. We seemed to have the place to ourselves. What a fine time we had. The attendant took our orders for appetizers in between or after sauna. As was customary, we first showered, then sat naked, sweating in the sauna as long as we could stand it. Then we showered again, and clad only in towels, like Romans, sat about in the lounge eating wurst and a kind of crumpet. When we were completely rested we again enjoyed the heat of the sauna. When I’d had enough I ran out of the sauna, completely naked and plunged into the pool.
When I surfaced I realized the pool was surrounded by several sauna suites, just like ours. Surrounding the pool I saw windows, behind which were Finns, men and women, all applauding my performance.
Abashed, I beat a hasty retreat, attempting to protect the family jewels from more exposure than they’d already endured.
Later, I visited the sumptuous bar. The bartender asked in faultless American English, “What’ll it be for you, sir?”
“I’d like a screwdriver, please.”
“I’m awfully sorry sir. I don’t know what a screwdriver is. Can you coach me?”
“You don’t know what a screwdriver is?” I started to tell him that it was the national drink of Ballard, but knowing he’d not know Ballard, I said, “Just throw a shot of Finlandia into a whiskey glass with ice and orange juice.”
As the bartender followed my instructions, I noticed several people in the bar, following these proceedings intently.
“Try this, sir and tell me if this is what you intended,” said the barkeep.
Noticing that I had an audience, I theatrically took a sip. Raising my hand, I closed my eyes and said, “Ah-h-h. Fantastic. Best screwdriver I’ve had all day!”
Immediately every one in the bar ordered a screwdriver. Thus it was that I lay claim as the American who introduced the screwdriver to Finland.
Next morning as we three Americans were enjoying a fine breakfast, our Finnish Army guide, Major Daljorrg, joined us and asked, “Gentlemen, do you know how to Ski-jor?”
Each of us answered, “yes, sure.”
I had ski-jored in Alaska and in the previous year while on winter maneuvers with the Norwegian Army. Ski-joring was a way of moving a group of soldiers across the snow, holding on to a rope and being pulled on skis behind a tracked vehicle. I was accustomed to speeds of up to fifteen miles per hour. The Norwegians could sustain this speed for up to four hours and eat their lunch on the move.
“Very good,” said Major Dahljorrg. “You’ll be picked up at lakeside this afternoon at 1500. From here you will ski-jor across the lake to an assembly area where you will join one of our units for a three-day exercise. You’ve been issued skis, boots, and poles. If you need anything else let me know now. Any questions?”
“Will we return here?” I asked.
“Yes, you may leave everything you won’t need for the exercise in your rooms. It will be safe, I assure you. Any other questions?”
When there were none, the major stood up and said, “Good. I’ll see you in three days.”
I spent the rest of the day relaxing in the luxury of the hotel and making notes for my report.
We spent the first evening in Helsinki at the Hotel Intercontinental. Our guide told us it was his duty to introduce us to the ritual of the sauna. The hotel had an entire floor dedicated to sauna. We stripped down and took a shower. Then wrapping a towel around me to protect my modesty I entered the cedar sauna room. All was as I had experienced at home. Then, when we had perspired enough, Major Dahljorrg led us to a large swimming pool. After a short cooling swim, we repaired to a lounge where we enjoyed beer and wurst. After that we reentered the sauna for another sit-and-sweat. When we’d had enough, we showered once more and donned our clothes.
Later we all gathered in the dining room for dinner. There was a sizeable crowd, several people dancing to a big-band sounding orchestra. I said to our guide, “They seem to really enjoy the dancing. I notice that both the men and the women seem to choose dancing partners other than the persons they came with.”
“Oh yes,” said Major Dahljorrg. “We Finns enjoy our dancing. Every restaurant has its orchestra. And in this country the women are truly emancipated. They do as they like.”
Watching the dancing, I saw a foursome enter the dining room. One, a particularly stunning young woman, caught my eye. I watched the group as they were shown to a table. Without even sitting down, the young woman left her husband, escort, whatever, and walked over to another table and asked a man to dance. I related what I had seen to our guide. “If that had happened in the States, I’m afraid there’d be a fight.”
Major Dahljorrg smiled and said, “There are some things worth fighting over. Finns believe women is not one of them.”
We enjoyed a fine dinner. The menu was very meat-and-potatoes oriented. I was happy to find that to be common throughout Finland.
Our first stop the next morning was at the Finlandia distillery. Each of us was presented with a bottle of this very clean-tasting potato vodka.
From the distillery we went by van to the Finnish Army National Headquarters for a briefing on the national defense.
During our briefing, I was most impressed by the fact that Finland’s national defense strategy seemed not to have changed since World War II. It consisted primarily of a dependence on dismounted light infantry defending in the woods. I was also surprised to hear that Finland had a national conscription policy.
The general staff appeared proud of the fact that while Finland had considered itself in league with the Axis during the war, they were they only country in the pact not to declare war on the United States.
That Finland had a mutual defense pact with Soviet Russia was interesting, particularly during these latter days of the cold war. Their attitude about that was expressed dourly by one officer who said, “We don’t like to have our farmers work too close to the border for fear one might trip and fall. We expect the entire Soviet Army might rush across the border to help him up.”
Later in the day we visited the military academy and the home of General Mannerheim, Finland’s national hero and their version of our General Washington. Approaching the academy, I noticed an antique piece of artillery placed so as to point directly at the front door of the building. I said to our guide, “It’s very unusual to see a cannon pointed essentially to the rear.”
“Well,” said major Dahljorrg, “If we turn it about so it’s facing away from the building, it will point directly at Soviet Russia, a violation of our treaty which might well be considered provocative.”
The next day we traveled by van northward to the town of Lahti. I was impressed by the flatness of the terrain. There were no mountains in sight, just miles of forest and thousands of lakes. There was a firing range near Lahti where they were practicing firing at tank silhouettes. We were shown about by the local infantry battalion commander who was quite outspoken in his disdain for the Russians.
I said to him, “I notice that the silhouettes look a lot like Russian T-34s.”
“Indeed they do,” replied the Finnish light colonel, “but when the Russians are visiting we change the silhouettes to look like American M-48s.”
That evening, while enjoying cocktails at the regimental mess in Lahti, I continued the discussion I had begun earlier on the range with the Finnish colonel. “So I notice that many of you Finnish speak almost perfect American English. Do you also speak Russian?”
“I can only speak for myself,” he replied with a wry smile. “I only speak one word of Russian but I find that one word is all I need to get by.”
“Really. What word is that?”
“Rookyvaar!” he answered.
“Rookyvaar? What does that mean?”
“Hands up!” We had a good laugh together, but I’ve never been sure he was joking.
Later, after dinner, we three Americans attended a reception for the regimental commander and his wife in the room where Mannerheim had held meetings with Hitler and his cronies. I felt strange sitting in an overstuffed chair and looking up at a picture of the same grouping of furniture, seeing Hitler, Goering, Goebels, and others. Goebels had been sitting where I sat now. I remember thinking, I hope they’ve at least changed the upholstery covering.
After the formalities a young man appeared pushing a wheeled cart holding bottles of liquor. The colonel’s wife, with whom I was speaking at the time, smiled and said, “May I offer you a drink, Major?”
“What would you like?”
“Vodka with a little ice would be nice.”
Searching about the cart and finding no vodka, she immediately gave orders to the young man who sped away, returning with a bottle of Finlandia.
“Ah, my favorite kind,” I said.
“I must apologize, Major. We didn’t think you Americans drank vodka.”
“No apologies needed, Ma’am. Americans drink most anything,” I said raising my glass to her.
I woke suddenly, not realizing I’d dropped off. The clock showed twenty minutes before we were to leave. I dressed hurriedly, grabbed my skis and poles, and went outside. Waiting at lakeside were three snow mobiles. I went over to shake hands with the drivers and introduce myself. Only one of them spoke English. My two American partners showed up and after introductions, we each paired up with a snow mobiler.
Colonel Spalding led off, followed by Major Waldenburger (I’d taken to calling him
Shicklegruber, the rumored real name of Adolf Hitler. He didn’t appreciate it, but the Finns saw humor in it). I brought up the rear, hanging on for dear life and limb, as the machines were traveling at top speed, better than thirty miles per hour. Fortunately the lake surface was very smooth. We were wearing Finnish Army issue skis. They had no metal edges, so we couldn’t steer them on the frequent bare patches of ice. The driver looked back frequently to see how I was doing. Each time he did, I’d give the water-ski signal to slow down. He read this as a signal to go faster.
Soon we passed Major Schicklegruber who had taken a tumble. I worried that he might be hurt. A little farther on we passed Colonel Spalding attempting to get to his feet. Now I was in the lead and determined to keep my footing. We sped on across the lake, stopping only after we had reached the wood line on the opposite shore. I’d been saving my bottle of Finlandia for an occasion. That it was still in its original condition seemed as good an occasion as any, so I broke it out and passed it to my driver. We shared several snorts before the others arrived.
Two soldiers appeared, skiing out of the trees, to guide us to the assembly area. They set a fairly fast pace as we set out. The snow was hard-packed at two or three feet deep with about two inches of new powder on top. There was no wind, overcast skies, temperature in the twenties; ideal for touring.
The secret to traveling comfortably on foot over the snow, is the layering of clothing so it can be donned or doffed so as to regulate body temperature and prevent over-heating and resulting perspiration. If you get overheated, when you stop and the sweat turns cold, you risk becoming a cold casualty. At best you’ll be very uncomfortable.
I was wearing woolen long-johns with a woolen sweater and a nylon windbreaker over all. In a day-pack, I carried another woolen sweater and a heavy canvas parka. I waited for a rest stop to remove my windbreaker. When I realized that, like the Norwegians, the Finns weren’t much for rest stops, I doffed my jacket on the move.
We skied for about two hours over level ground through deciduous forest. The going was fairly easy on foot, but I began to understand how tanks and other tracked vehicles could be canalized by cutting abatis. Defending thusly, the tanks would be forced into single file and could be defeated one a time.
At length we arrived in an assembly area where the battalion had established a defensive line and pitched yurt-like tents. Unlike Americans who, when they stop, are always digging in, the soldiers had taken up positions behind rocks and trees. Also, unlike Americans, they built fires for cooking and warmth. They had a way of building a fire using three logs staked on top of each other to maximize heat while minimizing light. I have tried to emulate this method on several occasions, but failed, probably because I had no access to the hard woods of the Finnish forest.
We enjoyed wurst cooked over the fire and vodka, another difference from the American Army which never drinks alcohol in the field. A highlight of the evening occurred when the battalion commander called a private soldier over to the fire from his position behind a nearby rock outcropping. The soldier dropped to one knee by the fire, pulled a paper from his jacket pocket, and began to read a poem in Finnish. the battalion commander translated. The colonel told us the soldier’s grandfather had written the poem while occupying that same position during the Russian War (their name for the Russo-Finnish war in 1940).
That night we slept in the relative comfort of a heated tent with a soldier on fire-watch.
The next morning we moved out through the quiet of the forest, the only noise was the swish of our skis through the snow. I had no idea what our mission was. Where we were going or what we were going to do when we got there, remained a mystery. We skied for three days and nights without a single stop. The only remarkable thing about the whole experience was the unchanging aspect of the wooded terrain. At the end of our trek we found ourselves back near the hotel. We enjoyed a sauna, after which we dressed and were driven to the headquarters of the unit with which we had maneuvered, for a fine dinner.
The next morning we loaded up in the van and headed back to Helsinki and the Hotel Intercontinental. After checking in I walked to the elevator and stood among a group of strangely silent men and women. I was joined by Major Dahljorgg. The elevator arrived and the crowd of silent guests crowded into the car. There was barely room for Dahljorgg and me. As we were boarding I asked him, “What was that Russian word the colonel taught me?”
Dahljorgg whispered in my ear, “Rookyvaar.”
“Oh yeah,” I said. “Rookyvaar.”
Suddenly, the silent occupants of the elevator backed away from us, squeezing toward the back wall of the car. “What’s the matter with them?” I asked.
Major Dahljorgg said, “They’re all Russians.”