We had no reason to go to Finland except to say we’d been in Finland. But a stay of less than twenty-four hours in a small northern town there led to what I suppose was the grand romantic gesture of my life.
It was April of 1974, and John the Mad Australian and I were riding the trains north from Stockholm, Sweden, heading to Narvik, Norway. Narvik was the end of the line, as far north as one could ride a train in Western Europe. Our plan was to travel overnight from Stockholm to the city of Boden, Sweden, where we would take a side trip, changing to a train that headed east to Finland, first to the border town of Tornio, and then on to the city of Kemi.
Why the detour? For me, it was just to be able to say that I’d been to Finland, I guess. I wasn’t looking for anything more adventurous than a moderate language barrier and a good beer. Nor was John, whom I’d met in Stockholm and who was tagging along companionably during my tour of the far north. “I’ve never been there, so I may as well go,” had pretty much been his attitude since we’d met over breakfast at the train station in Stockholm a couple days earlier.
So from Boden, we traveled on through Haparanda, Sweden (and the customs house where we’d be detained a day later, but that’s another story), across the Tornio River and into Finland, then through the city of Tornio and on to Kemi, maybe twenty miles further on. We found ourselves a room at a nearby hotel, stashed our backpacks and walked into Kemi’s downtown, looking for the local equivalent of a burger and a beer. The downtown area wasn’t large – Kemi has a population of 22,000 these days, and I imagine it was a little smaller then – but it was baffling, as neither John nor I spoke or read Finnish.
So we peered into windows as we walked among the shops, looking for a place that looked like a café. After some false starts, we found one, and at the counter, we each ordered the item on the menu that most closely resembled “hamburger” and we pointed at what appeared to be – and were – bottles of beer in the cooler. Thus armed with refreshment, we found an empty table, and over our dinner, John began to wonder if we could find a pair of young women to take dancing or at least to join for conversation.
He began to assess the potential of the several pairs of young women in the restaurant, and as he did, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. The two young women at the table next to us understood English well and were trying very hard not to laugh at us. I nodded at them, smiling a little sheepishly, and then I interrupted John in mid-soliloquy. “John,” I told him, “the young ladies at the next table understand English. They’re very amused.”
He looked at them and grinned, and moments later, we’d joined them at their table. The four of us finished our meals over introductions – they were Leena (pronounced Lay-na) and Ritva – and then we all went off to a nearby downstairs bar for further refreshment.
We never did dance. I spent those few hours talking mostly with Leena while John chatted with Ritva. We talked about school – she would soon complete the Finnish equivalent of high school – and about music and about life in Finland and in the United States. She’d been an exchange student in Michigan for a year, and I told her that parts of Michigan were very much like portions of Minnesota. We exchanged addresses and talked about families. Her birthday was approaching – she would be twenty – and she asked about mine. I told her the date – September 5 – and she asked, “So doesn’t that make you a virgin?”
It took me a stunned moment or two to realize she was talking about Virgo, my sign of the Zodiac. I stammered a response that was supposed to be witty and failed, and we shifted topics and talked on for another hour or so. Near the end of that hour, at about the time she said she and Ritva had to leave, I leaned over and kissed her. She kissed back, and a few minutes later, she and Ritva were gone.
John and I went back to our hotel, and the next morning, we returned to Sweden and eventually made our way north to Narvik and then south to Oslo, Norway, where we parted. He headed for the fjords at Bergen, and I went back to Denmark and – three weeks later – Minnesota. About two weeks after I got home, I got a letter from Finland. Leena apologized for asking me if I were a virgin, explaining that she simply got her English confused. I wrote back, telling her that after a moment of surprise, I’d known what she’d meant and that I took no offense.
A few weeks later, another letter arrived, and I answered, and for almost five years, letters went back and forth between St. Cloud and Kemi, between St. Cloud and Oulu – where Leena went to university – and Monticello and Oulu. Then a letter lay too long unanswered on one of our desks – probably mine – and the letters dwindled and then stopped.
Before they stopped, however, I startled her. As our friendship grew via the mail, we’d occasionally brought up the idea of meeting again and seeing if we cared about each other as much in person as it seemed we did through letters. Being in a slow spot in my life – lots of first dates but not much more than that – I tumbled that idea around in my head, polishing it like a jewel. And during the spring and summer of 1975, I slowly came to the conclusion that I should write a letter to Leena proposing marriage.
Never mind the countless practical details. I knew they were there, but I figured there was no point in examining them unless there were a reason to do so. I mentioned the idea to a few carefully selected friends, and they were supportive, noting that I should be prepared for disappointment. I understood; I knew that there was little likelihood of her accepting my offer. But I also knew that I didn’t want to wake up some morning in 2010, look at the life around me and wonder what might have been if I’d been brave and foolish back in 1975. So in September and October, I spent several evenings in the quiet snack bar at Atwood Center, drafting and redrafting my letter. Finally satisfied, I mailed it sometime in late October; the “thunk” as the mailbox closed was one of the loudest sounds in my life.
She said “No,” of course. I wasn’t surprised. Had she said “Yes,” I would have had to reorder my life, and I would have done so gladly. But the chances of that had been slender, and I passed the news to my friends and then to my family. (None of my family had any idea I’d proposed to Leena until I received her reply.) And I moved on.
So why bring this up now? Because one evening in the spring of 1975, as my grand romantic gesture was in its formative stages, I mentioned it to a young ladyfriend, asking her thoughts. She went to her stereo, put Fleetwood Mac’s Bare Trees on the turntable and played me the second track on side two:
And I heard, as my friend intended, “That’s why I’ve traveled far, ’cause I come so together where you are.” And it’s appropriate I connect my tale with the record, with the Fleetwood Mac hit that might have been but never was. It was issued as a single by Reprise, but went nowhere although writer Bob Welch got a No. 8 hit out of an inferior remake in 1978. But in another universe, the original version of “Sentimental Lady” was a hit. And in another universe . . . well, I’m happy with the universe I’m in. I’m glad I wrote the letter I wrote. I’m glad I got the response I expected. And I don’t have to wake up tomorrow morning and wonder what might have happened.
A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 35
“Dancing in the Street” by Martha & the Vandellas, Gordy 7033 
“Bernadette” by the Four Tops, Motown 1104 
“California Soul” by Marlena Shaw from The Spice of Life 
“God, Love and Rock & Roll by Teegarden & Van Winkle, Westbound 170 
“Sentimental Lady” by Fleetwood Mac from Bare Trees 
“The Promised Land” by Bruce Springsteen from Darkness on the Edge of Town 
The riches of Motown continually astound me, and I imagine I’m not alone in that. I mean, Martha & the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5 and the young Michael Jackson, and that’s just the very top of the mountain. Great songs, great performers, great studio musicians and great production all leave not much more to be said, except that “Dancing in the Street” went to No. 2 in autumn of 1964, and “Bernadette” went to No. 4 in the spring of 1967.
I wrote about “California Soul” once before, using Marlena Shaw’s version as a take-off point, and a few readers chimed into a discussion of the merits of their favorite versions of the song. I’ve not heard a bad version of the tune – although I’m certain there is at least one out there if I were bent on finding it – but I return to Shaw’s for a couple of reasons. First, I think it’s the first version I heard of the tune, and first versions tend to stay in my head longer – not always, but frequently. And second, I’m pulled in by the dry wit in her voice as she sings of the glories of the Golden State, which gives her vocal a sense of, oh, amusement at the folks who’ve come looking for that soul she sings about. Or maybe that’s just the way she sings. Either way, it sticks with me.
Listen to Teegarden & Van Winkle now:
Cheer the light
Still the fires
Raise your voice for
God, love, and rock and roll
We that fear
The way is clear
The day has come for
God, love, and rock and roll
Sing your song
We all belong
Now’s the time for
God, love, and rock and roll
’Nuff said, I think, except to note that Teegarden & Van Winkle took “God, Love And Rock & Roll” to No. 22 in the autumn of 1970.
“The Promised Land” is the third and final record by Bruce Springsteen in the Ultimate Jukebox, and that’s one more than anyone else has. Does that mean that Springsteen has taken over the top spot in my all-time rankings of performers and bands? I’m not at all sure. When I started sifting through more than 40,000 mp3s – and paging through reference books to make sure I hadn’t overlooked any essential tunes that weren’t in the RealPlayer – I would have made bets that Bob Dylan or the Beatles or The Band would have had more tracks than anyone else. That it was Springsteen, and that his three tracks came from two of his early albums – the other tracks were “Born to Run” and “Badlands” – tells me only that at the moment I was sifting through the tunes from 1975 and 1978, those three jumped out at me. I imagine that if I were to start over, my 228 tunes for this project would look very different. Would those three Springsteen titles still be there? Probably. As I trimmed and trimmed songs from the list, I kept finding that I could not trim off any of those three Springsteen tunes, for different reasons: “Born to Run” for its place in history and its ambition, “Badlands” because it was the first Springsteen record I ever knowingly heard, and “The Promised Land” for its harmonica and for the words: “Mister, I ain’t a poet, I’m a man, and I believe in a promised land.”
The original isn’t available on YouTube, and I can’t embed what I found there this morning, but here’s a link to a kick-ass performance of the song in Barcelona, Spain, in 2002.