My father wrote his memoirs in 2005 at the age of 85. He had never been a man of the pen, so I was quite surprised.
As I set out to read, I was captivated by the amusing and interesting story. Born in 1920 he grew up in Aalborg, Denmark. The family was large and poor. He married my mother, and after the war they emigrated to Canada. After their divorce she went back to Denmark with the children, and he stayed in Canada until his death in 2007.
This is his story with the pictures he selected. If you click on a small picture, a larger one will pop up in a new window.
December 8th 2007, Eric Bentzen
Sven Nielsen Biography
This is a picture of me when I was 16. Yes I did have hair then, but somehow most of it disappeared later in life. It all started when I was born, which was a mistake, although my father never admitted it. He had 10 children, and he couldn't even afford one. He was very clever, and an extremely good craftsman; he could make anything with his hands, but he had no ideas how to convert it into money, and the result was, that we were extremely poor.
My Childhood in Denmark
Our house had no indoor toilet, you had to go outside and use a privy, one of those things with a heart cut out in the door. For paper it had an old telephone book cut in half, conveniently hanging on a rusty nail. It was not a place you would look forward to visit, full of flies in the summer and freezing cold in the winter, not to mention the aroma, so when you were sleeping comfortable under the blanket during a snowstorm, it would have to be quite an emergency, before you would light a candle and venture out there.
The kitchen had a sink with cool running water; it was the only place to wash in the morning, no easy task with 12 persons getting up at the same time. We all shared the same towel; it was wet, when it reached the last person. We had no hot water at all in the house, but once a week we would go to the community bath house for a hot shower. Here a lady wearing a white smock would wash us, wearing nothing, on the back with harsh wood chippings and soap then hand us a white dry towel, what a luxury.
Breakfast made on an old wood burning stove consisted of hot oatmeal with milk and coffee. We never had orange juice. In the garden there was a fenced in area with a few chicken and a rooster that woke us up at dawn every morning. They produced an average of five eggs a day, which were traded at the local grocer to help paying for food. Once in a while my father would catch one of the chickens and chop the head off with an axe. I remember on one occasion, a chicken would run around the pen twice, headless, before it collapsed. My mother would then pluck the feathers by hand, it was an unpleasant job, but she never complained. With 12 persons sharing the poor chicken, I would be lucky to get a wing or half of the neck. My brother Erhard had some rabbits in the yard as pets, and occasionally one of them would end up on the dining table.
It was so cold where I slept upstairs, that on some mornings there would be a thick layer of ice on top of the blanket from my breathing. The temperature in the room at times would go well below zero degree Celsius, we would then heat up a large stone on the stove, wrap it in newspapers, and put it in bed an hour before retiring.
When we turned 6 we had to enrol in public school, and since we lived in the outskirts of town that was a two km walk. The hours were from 8 to 12, then home for lunch and back again from 2 to 5. It added up to 8 km a day, no school bus or crossing guards in those days. The reason for the two hour lunch is that in Denmark it is custom to have the largest meal in the middle of the day and a lighter one at dinner time. For lunch my mother would cook 10 pounds of potatoes, a piece of pork with mostly fat, and some gravy.
I had 7 brothers and 2 sisters; there was never any money for clothes, at school we were ridiculed by the other kids for our poor appearance. I had long black stockings with holes from wear and worn out shorts. We were the only ones in the whole school, who didn't have long trousers in the winter, I didn't get my first pair before I was 14, and that was a pair my brother Villy had worn for years. Soles on my shoes had big holes, so water and snow would leak in to what was left of my stockings. I newer had a jacket or windbreaker before I reached 16, only a worn out sweater with holes to keep me warm.
As kids we never got any allowance, like they do nowadays, so one day I figured out how to make money, I would go up to a stranger in my wooden shoes and look at him with sad eyes and say could you please give me some money for food? I am hungry! How can any one refuse a five year old child begging for food? It worked very well until one of them asked who I was and subsequently phoned and told my father, who got mad and told me: "how can you put the family to shame like that, don't ever do that again". That was the end of my first business adventure.
We Get a New Teacher
The teachers in school were very strict. Once we got a new teacher, he spent the whole first hour telling us how cruel he was, he showed us an ear he claimed to have pulled off a misbehaving boy, and he smashed a thin bamboo rod on his desk and screamed in a loud voice, promising he would use it on anyone who got out of line. We all sat very still and frightened, he got the respect he was looking for.
The Uses of an Old Ford T.
Out in the garden we had an old worn out Ford T. The motor was taken up to our summer cottage at the North Sea; it was used to charge a battery, so we could have electric light there. The rear axle was buried in the garden with one wheel sticking up, and my brother Erhard had mounted a heavy board on it with a chair in each end, it served as a homemade carrousel, much to the delight of the kids in the neighbourhood. The cabin from the car complete with seats and curtains was used as a romantic getaway and provided delightful privacy.
Also in the garden was a trapeze, on which we would spend many hours doing acrobatic exercises, and some of us became quite proficient at it. The radiator from the car was buried 6 feet down with a cable attached to it; I used that for ground wire for my homemade crystal radio set.
The garbage was buried in the garden, but we didn't have much of that, since any paper or cardboard would be burned in the stove, and organic matter would be feed to the chickens. My mother would keep the old used coffee ground, dry it, then roast in a hot pan, and use it again. As a child we could do just about anything we wanted, there was nobody to discipline us, with the result that we could stay out as long as we wanted, and we did. My father said:
"They will come home when they get hungry".
He was right, so we learned to set our own limits, occasionally we would go too far though, like when we used a long thin stick, put clay beat on the end, then swung it like a whip and sent the clay towards anything that moved, with high speed. One day we hit a conductor on the train, and shortly after two huge policemen came to our house and told us in no uncertain terms, we were not to do that again. The railroad was passing just next to our house. We had fun putting small objects on the track, like a penny or a small stone then watch the train ran over them. We were careful though not to send the train off the tracks. One winter morning we decided to go skiing, but were late getting to the station, so we flagged down the train just outside the house, and to our surprise they stopped and let us on.
I Try to Buy a Watch
One day at the age of 5 I went into town and walked around, in the window of a jeweller store I saw a lady's gold watch with a price attached that read 25. - I went in and said I would like to buy that watch in the window, the saleslady said ok but did I have the money? I said yes and handed her a quarter, she looked at me with a smile and said that it was 25 dollars, not 25 cents; the owner came over and asked what do you want the watch for? I said "my mother" he then said you can't buy it for 25 cents, I started to cry and they looked at each other. I could see they were touched, but I didn't get the watch.
Pranks and Activities
In Denmark there is one day a year "Halloween" where people customary do funny pranks, and one night we took the neighbours latrine pail and hoisted it up to the top of his flagpole, then watched him take it down the next morning, before he put the flag up. We all had a good laugh, as we were hiding behind the bushes. At night a man would walk along our street, with a long fishing pole with a hook at the end, and reach up to turn on the gas light on each pole and then come back in the morning to turn it off again.
At home we had a huge table in the dining room, where all sorts of activities would go on in between mealtimes. One person would be cutting wood with a coping saw, another sewing, one painting a picture, one making a model airplane. Carl Henry was into explosives, he would be grinding carbon powder and sulphur. I would be working building a radio, and someone else would be writing a letter, so if a visitor was dropping in he would be fascinated with all the enterprising going on. Once the carbon and sulphur exploded at the table, and my brother burned all the skin of his right hand.
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