Gammal kärlek rostar aldrig, or those long-ago regrets one seldom mentions
“Old love never rusts.” – Swedish Proverb
Over time, I’ve learned that while everything we acknowledge we did probably impacted our lives forever, it’s best to say little or nothing about the other things that almost happened, because had they happened, we wouldn’t know the very people who sometimes ask to hear the story.
I seldom mention Sweden, not because I’ve ever been there, but because I almost went there during the Vietnam War. When I went to Europe about a year before the draft would catch up with me, my local draft board had to be convinced I was planning to return. I was when I filled out the paperwork for permission to leave the country. By the time the summer was over, I came very close to never coming back.
While on a summer church work project, the two Americans in our international group started dating the two Swedish girls in our group. Most people will say, “that figures” because dating a Swedish girl is supposed to be the epitome of dating. Frankly, I don’t know how it happened because even though you won’t believe this, I wasn’t paying much attention to the Swedish girls in our group because at the outset they stayed together and chattered in Swedish.
When it did happen, I was lost.
In time, she asked me what I would do when I went back to the States at the end of the summer. I said that I had another semester of college to finish and then I’be probably be drafted unless I joined, say, the navy (which I ended up doing) before the draft put me in the army.
This began multiple conversations about the Vietnam War, my distaste for it, the fact I couldn’t (not then) file as a conscientious objector if my church had no formal anti-war statement, and how military service was one of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune we all had to put up with.
One day A___ said, “You would be safe in Sweden.” I knew that already because the newspapers constant printed stories about people who dodged the draft by going to Canada or Sweden. I said I was pretty nearly broke and couldn’t afford to go to Sweden, and that even if I could, I’be put in jail if I ever went back to the States.
She said, “well, you know the government will teach you Swedish and help you get a job. Before that happens, you can stay at my house. ” “What?” “My parents are fine with it.” “You asked your parents?” “I thought it best to make sure before I brought an American home with me because you know what we say about dating Americans.” (She never did tell me what they say, but I figured it would be unflattering.)
My parents didn’t support my anti-war beliefs and, I believe, my not coming back home was something that might have occurred to them. If they had, I would have gone home with her and would probably be writing this post in Swedish. As it was, when I borrowed the work project’s truck to drive A___ to a nearby city at the end of the project where she would catch the ferry back to Sweden, I seriously considered leaving the truck in the parking lot there and going to Göteborg with her.
As the sages say, you have to be at least a little mad to take such a leap of faith. I guess I wasn’t mad enough in those days, though several of the people at the work project were surprised to see me return. “What the hell’s wrong with you?” they asked. “I couldn’t take a step that meant never seeing my family again.”* They had to admit that made sense.
Who knows how it would have ended up. Everything and everyone I’ve known since that day in August, 1967, would have been vastly different. As it turned out, my parents would have passed away before amnesty was offered to those who went to Sweden, though they did take a vacation trip over there after my dad retired. I was happy for them, I thought, seeing the life I almost had without ever knowing how close I came to seeing it before they got there.
I’m glad I came home. I wasn’t glad then. I had trouble keeping my grades up during that last semester of college. My folks wondered why. I thought it best to tell them I had no idea or that it was bad karma or evil spirits. That seemed better than saying that when I fell asleep at night, I dreamt of A___ whispering “Gammal kärlek rostar aldrig.”
It’s easy to see now, of course, that if the wind or the clouds had been slightly different and I’d gotten on that ferry, my cool daughter and my two wonderful granddaughters wouldn’t exist, that I wouldn’t now be married to the person who is my soul mate, and that I would have missed a lot of memorable moments with my parents and two brothers.
Sometimes the gods keep us from doing what we want to do for a reason we think is capricious at the time.
- Following up on an amnesty related comment, I actually would have been able to come home sooner than I expected. Gerald Ford offered conditional amnesty in 1974 with some legal strings attached that I wouldn’t have liked. Carter offered a pardon in 1977. My folks lived until 1986 and 1987. Knowing what I knew in 1967, I had to act on the assumption that amnesty would have never come or would come much later than it did.