The Frying Finn
We have in Finnish a word, sisu, that—very roughly translated—means extreme fortitude in the face of insurmountable odds. It is more than mere hartia pannki, physical courage. Inner strength is required, and optimism, and stamina, and a great deal of pigheaded obstinacy of the sort that enables a man diagnosed with an acutely fatal illness to outlive his physicians. Or emboldens lemmings as they jump into icy waves. We may not always win, says sisu, but we most assuredly will never lose. In America, of course, winning has grown so easy and the odds so increasingly favorable that I am uncertain whether my children and grandchildren, raised with every good fortune, still share the sisu that helped their forbears to endure five-hour winter days and our forty-two wars against the Russians. And I am not sure whether this loss of sisu is good or bad. Maybe it just is. What I do know is that sisu has kept me going through my own darkest hours, through sixty-six years in this big country I have adopted as my own. If you cannot understand this, you cannot understand the story I will tell. It is a sad thing, that. I have only this one story, the story of my life, but to most Americans it is a foreign tongue. In their own words, yes, but not in their language.
I came to New York with a family. Lylli and I had been married on her sixteenth birthday, in the Vanha Kirkko in Espoo, and we had already had one child for each of our years together: two boys, Teemu and Juuso, and the baby twins, Kristiina and Eveliina. What shall I say about our marriage? My mother, God rest her soul, often warned that love closes your eyes, but marriage opens them wide. I am not sure if this is fair. Closeness without conflict, as they say, exists only in the cemetery. Yet I think I stand on solid earth in admitting that our first years together were not entirely happy ones. Lylli was beautiful, of course—stunningly so. At lunchtime, laboring men would come into my uncle Valentin’s restaurant on Avenue D, where my wife waited tables and I worked as a cook, and they would order saltwater sausage or fish pies just for the privilege of looking at her during their meals. But full lips and high breasts, I learned all too late, are poor reasons to wed. Everything is beautiful, after all, once the man likes the view. Of course, I was married, and although I had been quicker to stomp my foot after the first slice of wedding cake had been served, which by tradition suggested I would be boss of the household, the reality was that Lylli exercised authority like a czarina. She had ambitions, complex expectations. Every last dollar, she accounted for. Each pipe I smoked, each glass of Christmas glögg, was money not secured in the vaults at the credit union. And her worst fear in life was that her children—our children—might grow up to know something about their heritage. If she caught me speaking Finnish in front of them, I paid hell. Her secret dream, I suspect, was that after a few years in New York, I would wake up one morning as American as Gary Cooper or Colonel Lindbergh.
Then the war began. In our fatherland that meant dinners of bark bread and poisoning Karelian bear dogs to keep them out of the hands of the Russians. For me, it meant mustering into the Quartermaster’s Corps as Corporal Esko Virtanen and shipping out for service to MacDill Field in Tampa, Florida. This base was where the Army Air Corps trained its B-26 pilots. The “Marauders” had short wings and high landing speeds, making them extremely difficult to fly. Speedboats known as J’s coasted the Gulf of Mexico continuously, picking up downed flyers and bailed-out air crews, and one night an unknown party painted “One a Day in Tampa Bay” across the corrugated tin siding of the mess hall. I did not do any flying, obviously. My job was to serve up three hot meals a day, three shifts a meal, to some number of the fifteen thousand men, two thousand WACS, and four hundred German POWs who messed at MacDill during any given month. In a matter of forty-eight hours, I went from preparing blini and egg cheese with cloudberry jam to flapjacks with bacon and strawberry jello. The other cooks were a mixed lot of Poles and Italians, Irish and Greeks, even a Seminole Indian from Immokalee—everyone except for Yankees and blacks. Some of the best men you would ever meet. I have lost most of their names by now, but I do remember a Jewish kid from Avenue B who everyone called “Ham and Cheese,” and also an overweight Hungarian from Cincinnati who answered to “Ketchup.” At that time, there was a champion Olympic runner, Paavo Nurmi, known throughout the world as “The Flying Finn”; at MacDill, maybe as a tribute to my talents with the skillet, I soon earned the nickname “The Frying Finn.” It was not a heroic name, but it was intended affectionately.
If you are thinking that I missed my young family during those first months at MacDill, you would be mistaking yourself. Please do not judge me too harshly. I would never have left Lylli and the children, you understand, not of my own choosing. But having been called upon to serve my country, what was wrong with enjoying some time away from our cramped apartment above the Armenian mortuary that stank, morning, noon, and night, of soiled diapers? A war for freedom, I understood. Never in my life have I known the liberty I experienced upon stepping onto the railway platform in Tampa and taking in the warm, salty air of Florida. I was alone among strangers—rushing, indifferent strangers—with nobody to bother me. The coconut palms worked their magic and I was temporarily unwed, unparented. Of all the adjustments to my new life in the tropics—the relentless night sounds that kept a city boy from sleep, the bed-bug welts, the humidity that steamed you like a pressure cooker—leaving Lylli behind was the easiest. I was, as they say, ripe for a bit of adventure.
I had been on the post for three months when I received an order to report to the deputy quartermaster’s house. I do not know today if the man is alive or dead—but under the circumstances, I will not use his real name. The DQ, you see, did not live on base in the row of wood-framed officers’ cabins, but with his wife and father-in-law, the former governor, in a Georgian mansion more than a mile outside the gates. He had joined the Q-Corps, everyone said, to avoid service away from home. Maybe work did not scare him, but he could lay down near it and sleep—which was exactly what he was doing, dozing on the open-air veranda, when I answered his summons. On the table at his side sat an empty bourbon glass, a smoldering cigar, and a rumpled copy of the morning Tampa Tribune. He heard my shoes on the stairs and looked up.
“Virtanen, sir,” I said.
“Virtanen,” he repeated thoughtfully. “Ah, Virtanen. Very good, very good.”
He rubbed his eyes with the bottoms of his palms, then puffed life into his cigar. A major’s oak leaf flared above his breast pocket, but I realized he was within a few years of my own age. “Virtanen,” he said.
“You’re a Finn, right?”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “From Finland.”
“My wife’s uncle was ambassador to Finland. Under Harding. You do know Harding, don’t you?”
I thought back to my citizenship examination. “Warren Gamaliel Harding. Twenty-ninth president of the United States, sir,” I said. When the DQ frowned, I decided that I might have misinterpreted the question, so I added, “I have never met him, sir.”
“Very good,” said the DQ. “You’re not talkers, you Finns. My wife’s uncle said that talking to a Finn was like making love to a boulder.” The DQ flashed his teeth. “How’d you like to go on a special mission, Virtanen?”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
The DQ removed his watch from his pocket. “My regular driver, you understand, he’s a good fellow,” he said. “But from his lips to my wife’s ears, I tell you.” He returned his watch to the folds of his jacket. “It’s noon. Let’s get ourselves some fish.”
I drove the DQ through Ybor City, past the shotgun houses where the Cuban immigrants rolled cigars, past the citrus-canning factories and the Dutch Boy paint plant, across the all-black Scrub with its whitewashed churches and its segregated USO hall, down to the water’s edge at the far end of the harbor. All around us, shirtless stevedores winched barrels and hoisted crates. The DQ spoke briefly to a bearded stump of a man who was supervising a team of leathery fishermen as they pulled their nets from the water. The DQ and the foreman laughed. They argued. They shook hands.
“So much for the snapper,” said the DQ, grinning, on our walk back to the jeep. “Now for the fish.”
On the return trip, he offered directions like lightning strikes. Left here. Right at that corner. Keep going straight until I say otherwise. Between commands, the DQ whistled a tune I did not recognize. We finally pulled onto a wide, palm-lined street of tidy, one-story dwellings and the DQ ordered me to stop. I opened the jeep door for him and then followed him up the path.
“This is a solo mission, Virtanen,” he said. “I’m visiting a personal friend, you understand. A lady.”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “Should I wait out front?”
The DQ winced. “God, no, Virtanen. Anywhere you want, but not here.”
I stared at him blankly, waiting for further instructions.
“I don’t know, Virtanen,” he added. “Why don’t you go to the public library?”
And that is how, on April 16, 1943, I came to meet Sue Ellen.
I had never been inside a library before, not in Espoo or New York, and I had always imagined them to be bustling, chaotic places where hordes of nearsighted men scurried about like Pullman porters delivering books. I have since been to the public library on Fifth Avenue, where the main reading room fulfills my childhood expectations. But Tampa was still a small city, and there was a war being fought, so I entered the main library on Howard Avenue to find myself its only patron. The long mahogany tables sat empty like the remnants of an abandoned cafeteria. The electric ceiling fans cooled an audience of none. I walked tentatively toward the first row of shelves, half suspecting that the building might be closed, when I caught sight of Sue Ellen reading behind the front counter. Only she was not reading. She was watching me, pretending to read. If I looked at her, she buried her head in the book. If I browsed the nearby shelves, out of the corner of my eye, I could see her examining me. At some point, we both became aware that we were watching each other. Red blotches appeared on Sue Ellen’s flour-white cheeks.
“May I help you, officer?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “Yes. Well, maybe.”
She approached on small, almost hopping steps. She was only as tall as my shoulders, but her long red hair trailed down to the top of her skirt. A girl halfway between pretty and unpretty.
“You’re not American?” she said.
“Yes,” I said, “I am, yes, American.” I fished into my pockets and produced my naturalization papers. For the first time in this country, I felt self-conscious about my English.
Sue Ellen carefully examined the pale blue sheets that I had given her. “From Finland you are,” she said. “How lucky for you.”
I glowed with pride. “Finland is a hard place,” I said. “Always fighting. Always starving. Life is so uncertain you eat your dessert first.”
Expecting Sue Ellen to make small talk, as did all the other Americans that I knew, I was very pleased that she did not say anything for a strip of time. We stood in silence, while she pondered what I had said. “There’s more than one way to starve,” she said.
“How do you mean?”
“I wish I could go someplace like Finland,” she said. “Nothing ever happens here in Florida.”
She smiled. I smiled. And somehow, without motive or intention, I was explaining to her the traditions of the Fatherland. I told her about my sister in Turku who had mastered the kantele and had played the instrument before Sibelius and General Mannerheim. I recited my favorite cantos from the Kalevala that I still remembered from grammar school, the ones in which Marjatta conceives a child from a whortleberry and Lemminkäinen’s mother rakes the pieces of her son’s lifeless body out of the river. And of course I spoke of sisu, of our endurance. Nothing helps you understand your own heritage, I discovered, as much as explaining it to a foreigner. Matters of great national pride, such as paying off our war debts, interested her little. But she had me explain for hours the most basic aspects of the sauna, the selection of the birch branches for the koivuvastat whisks and the way you produce löyly, that perfect steam, by ladling water over the scalding stones. Sue Ellen wished to be an anthropologist, like Miss Margaret Mead, although she doubted that this would ever happen.
Every Tuesday and Friday, while the DQ visited his lady friend under the pretext of procuring fish for the base, I sat beside Sue Ellen beneath the high ceilings of the central room at the Howard Avenue library. Sometimes we spoke—rarely of our present lives, usually about where I had come from or where she wished to go—but, as often as not, we enjoyed each other in silence. Sue Ellen was the only American I have ever encountered, before or since, fully comfortable without speech. Her parents, who had run a boarding house before their deaths, had both been deaf-mutes. Small talk was no more her pleasure than mine. If happiness, as they say, is the place between too little and too much, then I have never been as happy as I was during those precious hours. One day, Sue Ellen treated me to tea on a silver service she’d inherited from her mother. Later, I showed her a photograph of my own parents, still back in Finland—I had not heard from them in many months—and she admired my father’s mustache.
“Father’s goodness is higher than the mountains,” I said, quoting the proverb. “Mother’s goodness is deeper than the sea.”
“Yes,” she said—and she pressed her small, warm fingers against my wrist.
I had still mentioned nothing of Lylli and the children. We began to take long strolls in the afternoon—Sue Ellen closed the library, posted “Gone to Lunch” on the door—and she taught me her own heritage: the names for bayberries and cat brier, the different varieties of gulls and terns and shore birds. She pointed out the lodging house where she had been raised, the residential hotel where she now rented a small room. We came upon a cozy little café across the street from an elementary school; we would sit in the garden, smoking tailor-made Buckingham cigarettes and listening to the children’s shouts from across the mossy wall. Soon we were meeting on my leave days as well. One afternoon, the skies broke open and spattered us with hail. Miniature flecks, like packaging. I held my jacket over Sue Ellen as we ran toward the shelter of a nearby strangler fig, and I suddenly knew that I had fallen in love—the sort of love where you feel the sun from both sides. We stood under the broad dripping leaves, listening to the sky fragment into pieces, our bodies embraced. But hugging does not cure desire. When the weather cleared—which it did in minutes, one of south Florida’s many miracles—we walked through the refreshed sunlight to her small room in a timeworn but respectable quarter of the city.
The lobby of the hotel was furnished like a nineteenth-century Swedish parlor: armless chairs upholstered in purple velveteen, barometers hanging from the walls, a baby grand piano beached in one corner like a whale. Nobody gave us a second look as we mounted the stairs.
I stopped at the threshold of Sue Ellen’s apartment. “I have a wife and four children in New York,” I said.
Sue Ellen turned to me. She read my face, minute after minute, saying nothing. “Yes, okay,” she finally said. “I have a fiancé in the Pacific.”
She took both my hands in hers and pushed the door shut behind us.
Six months passed and we said nothing further of my wife or Sue Ellen’s fiancé. I continued to write to Lylli—at least twice each week; my feelings toward her actually softened with increasing time and distance. If I ever thought of Sue Ellen’s future husband—the future husband of my mistress—it was as a background figure, as much a part of my war as General Bradley or Prime Minister Churchill. Never once did I view Lieutenant Commander Benton as a rival. We have an expression in Finnish that says, War never determines who is right, only who is remaining, and I had remained while Benton had been shipped out to Guadalcanal. Maybe that explains my indignation when, relaxing in our café one afternoon, Sue Ellen handed me an onion-skin telegram announcing the naval officer’s return. He had been reassigned to intelligence headquarters in Virginia and had arranged for a two-week Christmas layover in Tampa. I did not resent Benton’s return—at least in theory. I resented his timing. If the war had been over, maybe matters would have been different. Or maybe not. I had previously decided not to think about what would happen between Sue Ellen and me at the end of hostilities.
“Christmas,” I said. “That is the day after tomorrow.”
“Yes,” said Sue Ellen. “It is.”
Children clamored joyfully behind the wall. A small gray bird—a catbird, I had learned—sang a lullaby atop a nearby bougainvillea bush. Sue Ellen held my large hand in her small ones and traced the thick blue veins with her index finger. “It’s no good anymore between me and Jimmy,” she said. “It’s all done.”
I looked up at her with concern.
“It’s not just you,” she said. “Or it is, but it isn’t. Even if things don’t work out—I mean even if you leave—it’s done with Jimmy. I want a man who can tell me stories about his ancestors, who has a past and not just a present. Jimmy only has a present. He’s always planning. He’s brave, all right, but in the wrong way. You would say he has lots of courage, in the moment, but no sisu.”
I nodded and closed my hand around hers.
Three days later, the Friday after Christmas, I arrived at the Howard Avenue library to find a lanky, fair-haired naval officer seated behind the front counter. He was wearing his dress uniform. Every medal— and there were many—gleamed. Despite his rank and the thick spectacles perched atop his nose, he could not have been older than thirty. I was about to ask after Sue Ellen when I saw the officer’s service revolver balanced casually atop a stack of books. That was when I realized the man’s identity. I was standing face-to-face with Lieutenant Commander Jimmy Benton.
“You’re looking for Sue Ellen,” said Benton. His voice sounded friendly. “I’m afraid she won’t be in this afternoon. I hope you’re not disappointed.”
He looked me straight in the eyes when he spoke—as you might if you were trying to train a dog or lecture a child. His own eyes were bloodshot.
Benton slammed his fist on the wooden countertop and picked up the revolver. “Answer an officer when he speaks to you, dammit.”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “I should go now, sir.”
“You’ll go goddam nowhere,” ordered Benton. He no longer sounded friendly; he had sweated his navy blue collar to black. “I’m off fighting the Japs, getting fucking strafed by Zeroes, and you’re filling my girl’s head with a bunch of bull about shit-su. Because you have shit-su, and all the fucking Finns in Finland have shit-su, but us sops out there in the Pacific are a bunch of cowards. That’s the gist of it, isn’t it?”
I stood my ground and said nothing.
“Answer me, dammit,” said Benton.
“It’s sisu, sir,” I said. “I am sure you have much of it.”
“A goddam mess cook,” he shouted—as much to himself as to me. “A nut-sucking Finn. You know I spent all last night trying to think up a slur for Finns, one measly fucking name to call you, but I couldn’t think of one. Because there aren’t any. Because you’re not important enough to have your own goddam slur.”
I calculated the distance to the door, but decided against fleeing. I imagined that Benton was a strong shot.
“Let’s go for a drive,” said Benton. “You and me.”
With the lieutenant commander’s pistol pressed to my gut, I drove the jeep in circles around the city. Up to the cracker shanties that bordered the swamp, navigating between chickens and barefoot children. Down past the stately homes on Davis Island and the waterfront mansions along Flager Boulevard. Pleasure-driving was illegal on account of the fuel rationing, but no one would stop an officer’s jeep. At some point, I realized that the DQ must be waiting for me after his meeting with his lady friend—but I dared not tell Benton. He clearly did not want his rant interrupted. Besides, I genuinely felt bad for him. It had not been my intention, but I had done him a wrong. Of course, shooting me would not have helped him any. If you cannot find peace within yourself, it is useless to look elsewhere. But Benton did not know this. He continued to call me all the slurs he could think of, and an assortment of other names that I will not repeat, until twilight found us at the waterfront.
The docks stood nearly empty. Pelicans roosted on the support posts of several collapsed jetties; a brisk winter breeze blew in off the Gulf. Across the bay, you could see the hazy orange glow of St. Petersburg. I feared that Benton might order me off the pier—like a pirate making me walk the plank. Instead he directed me up the gangway of a speedboat. The watchman, a chubby warrant officer, looked puzzled at first. But when Benton announced that he and I were taking the J out on the water—“to practice maneuvers”—the sufficiently outranked officer took the hint. I imagine he suspected that Benton and I had the same sort of arrangement as the DQ and his lady friend.
We were soon out on the open sea, at least three miles from shore. Tampa receded behind us like a setting sun. “Cut the engine,” Benton shouted. I killed the gas. We came to a drifting halt in an ocean-bound channel.
“How’s your swimming, Finnback?” demanded Benton.
“I cannot, sir,” I said. “I never learned, sir.”
“No time like the present,” he said.
I considered charging him—fighting for the gun. Benton stepped back to increase the space between us. “Let’s see how much shit-su you’ve got now, Finnback,” he said. He tossed a coil of rope into my hands; it took me several seconds to realize that the other end was moored to a bulkhead on the deck. “Jump,” ordered Benton. “Jump or I fucking shoot.”
I had barely entered the water when the line started to go taut. Top speed on the J’s is close to seventy knots, I have since learned. I imagine we hit full throttle. Everywhere was ocean and rope and more ocean. To describe my experience as water-skiing without skis in no way conveys the agony. My body slammed the water like a hammer against an anvil. The rope nearly wrenched my arms from their sockets. Several times I considered releasing my grip—drowning painlessly— but I held tight. Back and forth we swerved, farther and farther from shore, hour after hour, until dawn broke over the distant coastline. My last memory is of several other J’s converging upon us at high speed. One of them was nearly alongside us when my hands finally slipped from the rope.
I woke up three weeks later in a military hospital in New Jersey. My hands were wrapped in gauze and a full body cast protected my fourteen broken ribs; I had also fractured my pelvis and both of my femurs. But I was alive. And Lylli and our children were at my bedside, smiling, laughing, celebrating my survival. They knew nothing of my ordeal, of course. And I told them nothing. Simply that I had been involved in a boating accident and that was all I remembered.
I never spoke to Sue Ellen again. I have thought of her nearly every day for the last six decades—through three more children and nine grandchildren and painful years of chemotherapy, through bitter nights when I hated Lylli more than the darkness of an endless winter—but I have not made any attempt to contact Sue Ellen. To this day, I do not know if she became an anthropologist. Or whom she married. Or whether she is dead or alive. That is the other half of sisu: the hardjawed courage that keeps you from doing what you want, that lets you forsake your own happiness. That is the part of sisu, the part of my story, that native-born Americans never seem to understand.