a tRUE STORY
AS TOLD BY PAUL NELSON
About two years ago, I took a class about folklore. During that class, I learned that folklore doesn’t just mean old fairy tales and urban legends, but also the stories we tell each other. That includes the time I got lost in the woods when I was four, the story of how my Grandpa met my Grandma, and, in this case, a story starring none other than my father, Paul Nelson, in one of his many adventures.
Set during the 1980’s at the height of the Cold War, this story follows a young American engineer as he takes a trip across Europe, alone. At a time when the threat of Russian incursions loomed large in the minds of Westerners, this fear only increased the closer one drew to the Russian Motherland.
Story and Interview Transcription
(Lightly edited for clarity)
When I first started working at Dow Corning, I worked a couple years in Michigan but then I had an opportunity to work in Holland, Europe. So while I was there, of course I had to explore the European continent. And knowing that my ancestors had come from Norway encouraged me to take a train ride from Holland to Denmark through Sweden to Norway. However, we’ll talk about the Norway visit another time (laughs).
But basically when you travel on a train and you’re a single person, I had my sleeping bag and a bag full of stuff slung over my shoulder, and that was what I took with me and I bought my train ticket and I would go stay in youth hostels and things like that. But I wanted to go explore this island in the Baltic and it’s called Gotland. In order to get there you have to take a ferry. So I left from Stockholm, took a ferry and it’s quite a few hours to get over there. When I got there I was like, “Well, what am I gonna do now?”
I rented a bicycle and I decided to ride up to this hostel which is some place on the island I didn’t really know because I didn’t know the island very well. And I rode my bicycle to the hostel and it’s this amazing old building made out of stone walls and the walls were something like 15 inches thick. And I got a room and in the night it began to rain and the wind began to blow. And I was right by the water in this place I was all alone. And there was a dock going out into the Baltic, and there were people going out on this dock in the middle of the night and I thought, “What’s going on?”
There were lights shining and everything. Then something came up to the dock, and I thought, “It’s a Russian Submarine!”
I’m convinced that the Russian submarine came to the dock in Gotland in the middle of the night. And I thought, “What could be happening? Spies could be exchanged. Or maybe Sweden is protecting the entire European continent from Russian nuclear ballistic missiles.” Well, I didn’t know. But in the morning, I had my toast and eggs, took my rented bicycle, rode it back to the train station, got on the ferry, and took my ferry ride back to Sweden and eventually took the train back to Holland. But I enjoyed the trip to Sweden, and have a special memory of Gotland, where to this day it’s not known how the Swedes saved the world from nuclear annihilation.
How old were you at this time?
What made you want to travel to that specific island?
I had a Swedish friend, and I think she encouraged me to go to the island, but mainly curiosity. I had time, and it was something [to do]. When you’re traveling by rail, it was kinda like buying a train ticket, only it was ferry. I thought “Oh, I’ll see what this island is like”. You know, in the middle of the Baltic sounded kinda interesting.
Was traveling like you did a common thing back then? What about today?
Yeah actually, if you would travel around Europe in the summer, a lot of young people in their 20’s would be traveling the trains. I remember meeting people from Hungary, people from Germany, the US, Britain, so yes, it was pretty typical for young people to be traveling by train back in the day.
And what about today?
That’s a really good question. I would assume it’s much the same, but I haven’t lived on the European continent for more than twenty years, so I would only be hazarding a guess. But I think it might not be as common today, if you think about back when I was traveling, the American dollar was pretty high, and so it made it fairly reasonably priced for Americans to travel to Europe, it’s not quite the same today. And I think there’s a lot more concerns about safety than there were back then.
Finally, what did you learn from the experience you had?
That common people in Sweden are absolutely beautiful. You walk down the street in Swedish town, and people that are just normal people look like fashion models.