15 January 2016

A Brief Telling of the Life and Times of Aimo Hourula on the 100th Anniversary of his Birth

Last night the television was on the Turner Classics Movie channel. They were airing a brief featurette on a long dead actor, his daughter was doing the narration. They air a lot of these, often with a descendant — usually a child — rhapsodizing about dad or mom.  As I heard this woman go on and on about her father I couldn’t help but think what I always do in such situations: “yeah, well my father was better.” Growing up I always thought I had the best father in the world. I still do.

My Dad would have turned 100 on Saturday and it seems a dirty rotten gyp that he’s not around for it. My Old Man was a tough SOB who fought for life up until his last second. His premature ending came about because, a few months after his 91st birthday, he’d gone on a salmon fishing trip in the Pacific Ocean (he caught the biggest fish of the day on the boat) while getting off the boat he slipped and hit his head on concrete. Dad hung in there for over ten months before succumbing. That fall was a fluke and if it hadn’t happened he’d be here yet.

His name was Aimo Johannes Hourula. He was born in Nivala, Finland, a small town in the north of the country. He was the first of seven children to Otto and Saimi Hourula. Many of my and previous generations grew up hearing from parents about having had to make long treks in the snow to get to school. In my case the speaker was not exaggerating. His was not an easy childhood, particularly in comparison to what he provided his own children, but basic needs were provided and Aimo never went to bed hungry. As a teenager my dad had to leave school and work in the mill, this was interrupted by a brief stint in the Air Force. Meanwhile he dreamed of seeing the world by way of the seas. Those dreams were put on hold when the Soviet Union invaded Finalnd in the winter of 1939. There was no hesitation, Aimo enlisted.

Finland won the hearts of the world with their brave stand against the Russians as their army killed almost five Soviets for ever Finn killed. But the Soviet Union's vast superiority in numbers could not be overcome and after three months of fighting a treaty was signed in which Finland was forced to cede some of their land. My dad never forgave the enemy and never used the word Soviet Union. “It’s Russia,” he would spit out whenever he heard the term USSR or Soviet Union spoken, even if on TV.

A few months after the war my dad stopped dreaming about seeing the world and just went out and saw it. He joined the merchant marines and spent much of World War II in dangerous seas. Twice he was on planes strafed by German planes and he was at the helm of a ship in the Arabian Sea that was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine. All hands survived and were soon picked up by a friendly tanker and brought to Iran.

Of course all this was the stuff of legends and is one reason why my father was a genuine hero to my older brother and I. He had stories to tell and he made a point not to embellish. One of my dad’s shipmates, on the ship that was sunk, Emil,  remained friends with my dad for years, but it always bothered my father that Emil would exaggerate the story of the attack claiming the loss of lives. My father’s stories were consistent (a sign of truth) and did not sound rehearsed (another sign).

As I grew older my father told me the adult version of his adventures. The reason he stayed in Buenos Aires for six months? He shacked up with a woman. An extended stay in Australia? Same thing, in that case he hightailed it out of the country when his flame’s parents started making noises about marriage. My father claimed to have bedded women in six continents. If only he'd made it to Antarctica.

My father’s favorite city was New York where he settled and met his future wife, my mother. Mom was born of Finnish parents in the San Francisco Bay Area. Dad and Gertrude Kurki had a whirlwind romance and married in December of 1945. By this time Aimo was in the US army, an opportunity he couldn’t pass up as it provided him US citizenship, a status he coveted.

Within a year the young couple moved to Berkeley and my father quickly became established as one of many successful Finnish born carpenters in the Bay Area. My dad was a carpenter for over 35 years and a very proud union member. He was also a very proud member of the Democratic party, unshakeable in his belief that a political party should protect the interests of the working man over those of corporations.

My big brother, Robert was born in 1947 and I arrived seven years later. Aimo was living the immigrant’s dream. He had a nuclear family, steady work, two cars, a house, was surrounded by friends and family and enjoyed vacations in Lake Tahoe as well as regular fishing and hunting trips and frequent visits to all manner of sports events. His health was always good and his marriage happy. Then the goddamned bottom fell out.

The single most important lesson I learned from my father was one he taught by example — whatever happens keep going. Do the next thing in front of you and don’t complain. If you’re supposed to get up and go to work you do it. If you have an appointment, go to it. Family obligations? Take care of them. A chore awaits you? Deal with it. Whenever life knocks you on your ass just get the hell up.

When the shitstorm hit, my father was devastated. He couldn’t make sense of it — not at all. But he took care of business just the same.

My mother suffered from what was likely bipolar disorder. She managed to keep her aberrant behavior under wraps — with I the the lone witness — for many years. Then it all came out. The paranoid ramblings, the angry screaming, the disassociation from family and the mad spending sprees. She moved out of the master bedroom and took to drinking which further fueled her madness.  My father’s dream American home was suddenly a nightmare.

But dad had an indefatigable spirit. He loved life and unconditionally loved his sons and — particularly in the case of me as younger and more vulnerable — was very protective. Laziness and irresponsibility were twin bete noires to Aimo Hourula. While unsuccessfully struggling with how to help his wife, his ineluctable spirit did not flag, he continued to be a parent, a worker, a friend, a brother and anything else that was required. This was a man bowed but not broken.

My father would come home from a long day at work and before having a beer or a shower or a bite to eat might shoot some hoops with me or toss the football or take me to the local field and hit me some fly balls. When I started my soccer career he came, not only to all my games, but to all my practices as well. As a player, coach and parent I've seen nothing to rival my Dad's dedication to watching and supporting me play. His love of sports had proved infectious to me and he delighted in taking me to baseball, basketball, football, soccer, ice hockey, track and field and boxing. We loved going to games together. Or anyplace else for that matter. He was a respected parent and a good and loyal friend.

We also talked a lot and no subject was taboo. After my mother’s growing insanity was far too obvious a problem to ignore, he consulted with the family doctor and took me along. When the doctor offered that this was perhaps not a topic for my young ears my father waved the suggestion off and said, “that’s okay.” It is difficult to describe how that made me feel and what an influence it has had in my life. I was trusted — at 12 years old, mind you — to hear the truth. There would be no pretending, no matter how ugly reality was, it had to be faced. You trust yourself and your progeny with the truth, to do anything else is wrong. My father wrapped in love and truth.

There’s a moment in the film Bull Durham in which the young phenom pitcher admits to nervousness because his father is in the stands. The wise old catcher tells him, “He's just your father, man - he's as full of shit as anybody.”  It's a line that always makes me think fondly of my father who was as full of crap as the next guy. Indeed Aimo Hourula would eschew idolatry. He was proud but modest and felt a certain discomfort in being praised. As one who knew him so well I can attest to the fact that the man had his share of flaws. He loved life and people and activity but there was a seemingly endless string of little things that bugged the hell out of him and he’d let anyone in hearing distance know it. Dad was a good driver and never got a ticket but to sit in the passenger seat next to him was to hear non stop critiques of seemingly everyone else on the road, often laced with profanity. Watching TV, especially sports, with him was also a trial. Again he made with a stream of vitriol directed in all directions at people, places, things and ideas of which he disapproved. While he was a loyal man he was also a chauvinistic one and the architecture of his brain walled off the notion that any other place to live was better than the Bay Area or any other team was better than the one he supported and viewpoints other than his own on any topic he held dear had no merit. He was not one to yield a point, as I learned during my rebellious teen years. Later in life he was prone to unintentionally hurtful remarks, some of which sting me to this day. Still I cherish his foibles as the recognition of them just adds to the man’s humanity.

Aimo was a man who loved good food and drink and while parsimonious in some areas, spent freely at restaurants leaving bounteous tips that would endear waiters to him. Plus he would talk to people. He made friends easily and was totally democratic in social relations. He considered no one either his superior or inferior nor would he so much as brook such notions. As he grew older my father loved to talk and happily told and re-told stories. But he could not abide idle chatter. Aimo was well mannered gracious and while faithful to both his wives (the caveat here being that once his marriage with Mom was in name only all bets were off and I for one could not blame him) he always admired women. He spoke fondly of sex but was never crass. I learned from my father that while it was perfectly okay to discreetly peak at a comely figure, women were to be treated with respect. The sexism of his generation had no grip on Dad.

When it came to women he made but one error and that was his hasty second marriage. I reckon him to have been happy in it but not to the extent he could have been and should have been had he been more patient before taking the plunge again. The less said about my step mother the better.

Dad was a force of nature and reveled in putting in a hard day's work even while grumbling about his labors. Retirement did not sit well with my father but he was not one to wallow in self pitying dormancy. There was too much to do like gardening, fishing, working for the Democratic party and fawning over his grandchildren (he had six). My father was unabashed in his love for my brother and I and spoke of us (as I was told again and again) with great pride. The only people he loved as much as his children were our children. My father was probably as great a grandfather as he was a father, which is saying a lot. Then again he was a very good big brother to his six siblings one of whom followed Dad to the Bay Area as did a cousin and several others from Finland. Aimo took great pride in having inspired other Finns to take advantage of California's bounty. One thing my father could not abide was those Finns who migrated to the US and didn't learn the language and I mean proficiently. Despite his lack of formal education my father became fluent. His pronunciation of many words was abysmal, though easily understood. I remember well once as a child commenting to my father about his accent. It was one of those rare occasions when he barked at me, "I don't have an accent," he growled. (Ironically today I am an ESL teacher and in addition to general english classes I teach pronunciation.)

My father listened. He was my greatest confidant. I could rattle on about day's events or discuss matters of the heart and he would acknowledge me and offer advise as needed. There were no topics off limits. He was especially helpful during my late teens and early twenties when I shared stories or asked for consul about the women I was dating. I've come to understand that very few children have similarly benefitted from a parent's dating advice.

Aimo was afforded great respect in the Bay Area's surprisingly large Finnish community. At large gatherings it was not unusual for some old Finn to sidle up to me with assurances he had known my father for many years and they were close friends. They were proud to know him as most people were. He was a proud but humble man with energy to burn. He once was asked to give advice at the end of a short film that was made about him. He advocated one thing above all else: kindness. Well that was Dad.

I occasionally have the privilege at family gatherings of regaling the younger generation with stories about my father (my brother shuffled off this mortal coil a few years ago well before his time, something I can't help but think my father would have disapproved of). I never tire of sharing remembrances nor will I ever. As a daily habit I often, and usually unthinkingly, repeat phrases my father would customarily say, often rendering him in his accent. Wife and daughters are well used to these. I'm sure many more will come to mind on Saturday when there will be an assemblage honoring the 100th anniversary of Aimo Hourula's birth. No one who was invited had any hesitation about coming and some in other parts of the globe are sorry indeed not to be able to join us. Here is the testament to a man's life, to still be so loved nearly eight years after passing. To still be quoted, to still be talked about, to still be admired, to still be a presence.

A baby born on a cold Winter day while the Great War rages, a Tsar is in Russia and a Kaiser in Germany
A little boy helping mother look after baby sister
A young man leaping out of the hot sauna into the snow laughing, loving life
A soldier walking through deep snow, wary, knowing the enemy is near, not recognizing his own fear
A sailor marveling at the wide expanse of an ocean, breathing in the salty air, feeling fully free
An immigrant confused but determined, wondrous at the skyscrapers, excited to see more
A father holding one son in his lap listening to the older boy recount his day, content
A carpenter momentarily admiring his work before moving on to the next task, so much to do
A fan leaping to the air celebrating a touchdown reveling in the perfect moment on a perfect Autumn day
A relation, a friend, eating barbecued salmon and quaffing beers, sharing a story, sharing laughs
A heart broken man, fighting tears, bewildered, fearing, incredibly sad
A grandfather surrounded by six grandchildren, his heart swelling with pride and amazement
A dying man not going gently, fighting to sit up, wanting all of life that he can get
A memory swirling and dancing and flitting about as if a living creature warming our hearts nourishing our minds living on and on

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