William R. Copeland:

Laughing Pills
Personal snapmemories of the Pearl-of-the Baltic

Kuva © William R. Copeland
• William R. Copeland palasi Suomeen ensimmäisen kerran 19-vuotiaana. Hän valokuvasi näkymiä Helsingistä 35-millisellä Voigtland-kamerallaan. Vielä v. 1955 viljelijät toivat tuotteitaan myytäväksi torille hevosrattailla.
William R. Copeland återvände till Finland då han var 19 år. Med sin Voigtlander 35 mm kamera fotograferade han Helsingforsvyer. År 1955 körde bönderna fortfarande sina varor till marknaden med häst.
William R. Copeland returned to Finland for the first time at the age of 19. With his Voigtlander 35 mm camera he photographed the sights of Helsinki. In 1955 farmers still brought their wares to the market on horse-drawn wagons.
In response to a specific request, I am recording here impressions of five experiences I had in Helsinki. Although these impressions have a long lifetime – one of them is more than 55 years old – most were generated by experiences that occurred in only a few minutes.

Late January, 1944
I am seven years old. The air-raid sirens are wailing. "The Russians are bombing us again. Grab your coat; we'll pull on our coats as we go," my mother says. We run from our apartment into the cold January air. The Russians seem to bomb us almost every day.

We half-walk and half-run the one hundred meters from our apartment on Tarkk'ampujankatu to the nearest bomb shelter, which is under Johanneksen kirkko. At the entrance to the shelter people are bumping into each other and pushing as they try to fit themselves two and three at a time through the door.

Suddenly, I can't find my mother. Realizing that I am alone, I decide not to go into the shelter, but to stay outside to watch the excitement around me and see what has been happening all those times I have been inside the shelter. I don't understand how dangerous this is or how much it will upset my mother. From behind me, a strong hand grabs my arm and jerks me into the doorway. My mother has found me.

Shortly after this incident, my mother sends me to live with her parents in Kannus where I am safer. From there, I am sent to Sweden where I live on a farm in northern Gotland until July, 1946, when I return to Finland. I speak only Swedish and can not communicate with my parents. To this day, in the year 2000, when I hear a certain kind of siren or smell a particular kind of concrete, images of the crowded bomb shelter under Johanneksen kirkko rush into my consciousness.

FACTOID: Several hundred Russian bombers rained destruction down on Helsinki in late January 1944. Several hundreds of civilians perished in these raids. Sweden cared for more than 70,000 Finnish children during 1940–1946.

November 27, 1949
My Odyssey to America began on this day. The first leg was by air from Helsinki to Gothenburg, Sweden, and the second was aboard the MS Stockholm to New York. I was 13 years old, travelling unaccompanied, and I spoke no English. In order to ward off tears at the moment of my departure from Malmi Airport, my mother had located some "laughing pills" which, I was assured, would keep all of us in a good mood and prevent us from weeping at the moment of separation. The pills worked! Homesickness did not hit me until I had arrived in Lake Worth, Florida. My mother, I later learned, had a hard time dealing with grief and remorse after the pills had worn off.

In my august years, as I reflect back on certain perplexing episodes of my life, I find it difficult to understand what possessed me to emigrate to America at 13, to leave my parents and strike out for a strange land I knew nothing about. However, that's another story.

FACTOID: About 300,000 Finns emigrated to the United States. One-third returned to Finland. As far as I know, I was the first Finn to emigrate directly from Finland to Lake Worth, Florida. In 1949 Lake Worth, in Palm Beach County, was just evolving into one of the "Finntowns" of the U. S. But, its Finnish population had migrated from the cold northern states such as New York, Ohio, Massachusetts, and others, to spend retirement in the warm Florida winters. My Odyssey took me directly there from Finland. In fact, the plan was originally for me to go live with my great aunt and uncle in Peekskill, New York. But they moved to Lake Worth before my plans were complete, and I ended up travelling to Florida instead of New York.

September, 1955
I returned to Finland in September, 1955, for the first time since emigrating to America in late 1949. I was an Airman 3rd class (A/3C) serving in the U. S. Air Force and stationed at Laon Air Force Base, north of Paris. I had just turned 19 and was the proud owner of a Voigtlander 35mm camera. I did not realize it then, but this was the beginning of my lifelong hobby of photography. The sight in Helsinki that fascinated me most was the outdoor market, adjacent to the Olympic ("South") Harbor. I spent hours photographing and observing the incessant activity of this place. I returned often. No matter how early I arrived, a steady flow of humanity was already there to buy the fresh flowers, vegetables, fish, and fruit and then relish a cup of freshly brewed coffee and a munkkipossu – the deep-fried, sugary round pastry stuffed with apple jelly. Farmers from nearby brought their wares in horse-drawn wagons to the market, and hardy fishermen sailed their boats, laden with large assortments of freshly caught fish, directly to the market square and sold their catch directly from their boats. This picturesque market was a photographer's delight already half a century ago. Then, and now, it is deservedly one of the most popular of Helsinki's many tourist attractions.

FACTOID: The Helsinki City Tourist Bureau estimates that several hundred thousand visitors enjoyed the colorful sights of the market square in 1999.

December, 1957
Few Finns comprehend how enormous is the experience of the first sauna for a foreigner. In December, 1957, I had an opportunity to observe this event first-hand when I accompanied an American basketball team to Finland and helped initiate them to the finer points of the sauna in the Palace Hotel in Helsinki. The Ramstein Air Force Base basketball team from West Germany, where I was stationed at the time, played the Finnish national team twice in December, 1957.

Jim Fields, the gifted guard on the Ramstein team, had never heard of, much less set foot into, a Finnish sauna. But, he very much wanted to experience this uniquely Finnish custom. A Finnish lad learns very early in life not to breathe through his nose when löyly (hot steam) envelopes the sauna-taker. However, no one had thought of telling Jim to breathe through his mouth. As an intensely hot wave of steam hit us, Jim found it impossible to breathe, and began to panic. Finally realizing his predicament, I rushed him out of the sauna – reviving him under an ice-cold shower. For him, this was "Whammy number two"!

Jim was, of course, the innocent victim of a communication lapse. But he was also the victim of the age-old tradition of young Finnish men showing off their sisu (toughness) by their ability to withstand unbearably hot löyly. It did not surprise me, but it did send me into hardy laughter when Jim asked "How often does somebody die in the sauna?" One of the Finnish basketball players answered with a twinkle in his eye: "Not often, they usually make it to the door and then kick the bucket."

FACTOID: Finns have an uninterrupted history of bathing in the sauna for more than 2,000 years. The Finnish countryside has more than 400,000 saunas.

February, 1968
Professor Lauri Hyvämäki was an advisor on my doctoral thesis and became a very good friend. On our occasional walks around the University of Helsinki, he shared with me many experiences from the postwar period when some people engaged in a fierce struggle in Helsinki to retard the growing communist influence. Hyvämäki in 1954 documented this struggle in a book called The Dangerous Years (Vaaran vuodet).

One day in early 1968, Lauri suggested that we walk to the main railroad station because he wanted to share an interesting experience that occurred there. He showed me the place and related an event that had occurred there twenty years earlier – in late February, 1948. Hyvämäki and an old friend happened to pass the railroad station where a massive communist-organized demonstration was in progress. Hertta Kuusinen, the daughter of Otto Ville Kuusinen, a high-ranking leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, was haranguing the crowd. She demanded that Finland must "follow the Czechoslovak example"; Finnish communists should seize power! A few weeks earlier the Czechoslovak communist party carried out a coup d'etat with the support of the Soviet Army. The crowd listened with subdued interest, clearly in no mood to take to the streets to overthrow the legal government. As Hyvämäki and his friend watched and listened, Hyvämäki's friend turned to him with tears in his eyes and whispered: "Thank God the Finns are temperamentally like buttermilk. Not even the communists can be stampeded into stupidity."

FACTOID: Hertta Kuusinen, a brilliant, charismatic speaker, is said to have regretted making this speech. Calling for the Finnish communists to overthrow the legal government was her biggest political blunder. It gave the Social Democrats the propaganda ammunition to defeat communists in the 1948 parliamentary elections.

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William R. Copeland
was born in Kannus, Finland. He emigrated to America in 1949. He changed his name from Veikko Vilhelmi Kopra to William R. Copeland when he became a naturalized U. S. citizen in 1955. He studied at the University of Maryland, Georgetown University, and the University of Helsinki, where he took his doctorate in political history. Copeland served as the director of the ASLA / Fulbright Commission before returning to teaching Russian and Chinese history. He is a docent of history at the universities of Helsinki and Joensuu.