Stories of Denmark: Tales of a Copenhagen Street Urchin – Part 2

Stories of Denmark

Tales of a Copenhagen Street Urchin – Part 2


A not so short story by Finn Sander

Did I mention that my father had a long career racing motorcycles, which largely determined most of my family’s Sunday activities during summer months?

Instead of going to church on the Holy Day, we would join other members of Copenhagen’s Motorcycle Club gathering next to Slangerupbane Station in Noerrebro and venture out onto the hilly country-side where my father competed in “dirt trial” races on his robust Ariel bike.

Other times, he would compete on Gentofte Stadion’s cinder track on his lightweight “Jap” motorcycle  He won many races during his career, but he also had some very nasty spills. Consequently, in 1949, my mother put down her foot and forced him to retire.

So it was as a civilian spectator that my father drove his Ariel bike to the annual Danish national dirt bike championship that summer. But then fate reared its ugly head, for it transpired that his best mate, who was scheduled to compete in the event, had a nasty spill during warm ups, and had to withdraw from the race.

Now, for the really bad part: He also persuaded my father to borrow his helmet and take his place in the race on his own dependable Ariel. My father’s hormones beat out his common sense, and he accepted the offer and competed in the race.

“Now for the good part: He won the race and was crowned national champion. Back to the bad part: My mother saw his smiley face in the morning newspaper the next day – and there was hell to pay for my old man.”

Start of next chapter; incidentally, there were some extremely harsh winters in Denmark following the war, so motorcycle races on studded, spiked, or chained tires (can’t recall which) on frozen lakes became quite popular.

During such events, cars were often parked on the ice close to shore. This was an open invitation for irascible little Copenhagen street urchins like me to mount the roof tops of said cars for a more “elevated” view of the races.

There we all sat on the roofs with our legs dangling over windshields and feet resting on the hoods. And so it was on one such occasion, while firmly ensconced on this elevated seating on a car during a race, that I heard a very loud, cracking noise below me, and, within a few seconds, an entire group of cars parked closely together on the ice suddenly all plunged below this thin, protective veneer.

The water quickly covered the car hoods and most of the windshields.  So, if you had your wits about you, you pulled up your legs in a real hurry and escaped getting your feet wet. Slow pokes like me got a good soaking almost to our knees.  Much screaming and yelling ensued.

And then began the concerted task of extricating all us stranded, little people. Did I mention how freezing cold the water was? VERY cold. The cars’ turn came much later.  I have no recollection of that, but it couldn’t have been easy. And the motors all got a good soaking, so the local towing company must have made hay on the occasion.

But daily life mostly revolved around school six days a week. That’s right, for Saturday was also a school day. But school life wasn’t much different to what I encountered when my family emigrated to Montreal five years later – except for the much harsher corporal punishment handed out in my school in Bagsvaerd, compared to what I later encountered in Canada. In my school in Montreal, corporal punishment, confined to the boys only, was rarely handed out, and if so it was with a leather strap on the open hand, administered by the Principal in the privacy of his office.

Big deal! Sure, it hurt, but most of us considered a swollen, red hand a badge of courage to show off and demonstrate how tough we were.

In my school in Denmark, punishment included both pain AND shame as it was administered on the spot in the class-room. Pain, because it really hurt when a teacher slapped our faces hard with his open hand or with his clenched knuckles on top of our heads. Or yanked our ears. Shame, because it was also administered in front of the girls in our mixed classes. The shame factor was especially brutal when the teacher had us bending over in front of the class, and then beating the heck out of our backsides with a bamboo stick. Try that in front of your girlfriend two feet away in the front row.

The shame definitely hurt more than the physical pain on such occasions.  So fear of punishment was real. And if you went home that evening and complained to your father about it, he either ignored your complaints or gave you a slap on the face for good measure. If you’re a young Canadian reader in this age of “correctness”, you’ll probably question the veracity of this last statement, but not if you are a fellow, old Dane of my generation.

My greatest fear of punishment occurred in the gym one winter day while a snow storm was raging outside. It involved the gym teacher, “Mr. Meanie”, let’s call him, a nasty piece of work who liked to torment us with all manner of physical punishment to urge us through his harsh, physical exercise regime. If we didn’t perform to his satisfaction, he took great delight in “boxing us on the ears” (a misnomer), resulting in occasional nosebleeds, or making us all take cold showers – ice cold in the winter.

Not only was he mean, but he also looked very menacing to us, given his dark hair, a small scar on his upper lip, swarthy features, and piercing, dark eyes, magnified by his Coke bottle-thick glasses. (Still better looking than I ever was at his age.) Ironically, it all happened just before Christmas, when we were excused from the usual robust regime of push-ups, climbing ropes, etc. Instead, we were allowed to play handball (slightly smaller than a soccer ball), a popular European game rarely played in North America.

“And so it transpired that I possessed the ball and was in the act of throwing it with all my might against the net of the opposing goal, when it accidentally slipped off my hand and landed smack in the face of a surprised “Mr. Meanie” – with the result that his glasses popped off, fell to the floor, and broke into pieces.”

This, predictably, made his blood boil, and he let off an enormously loud howl, which sent a cold chill down my spine.

I was frozen to the spot – but not for long. Half blind with rage, and for lack of his thick glasses, he charged wildly at me with his hands reaching out for me. Even a village idiot could deduce that this was no time for reasoning, and, accordingly, I took off with great alacrity and Mr. Meanie breathing down my neck.

And so we tore around the gym for half a minute or so as I used the other students to great advantage for a while. As such, my enemy kept crashing into them, thus deterring his progress. But, shortly, all the other boys gravitated against the walls, and then there were just he and I facing each other. That’s when I decided to cut my losses and get the hell out of there. Accordingly, I soon found myself negotiating steps and hallways with the teacher in close pursuit. Next, I was in the school yard, and a quick glance over my shoulder confirmed that the devil was still trying to take the hindmost, so I decided to depart the premises altogether.

I was soon heading down the main street, clad only in shorts (we never wore shoes or shirts in the gym) on a snowy, winter day. Huffing and puffing, mean “Mr.Meanie” followed me a short distance down the street, then probably realized how inappropriate this scene played out in front of local folks and returned to the school. I never stopped, and when I barged through the front door at home, I gave my mother a real fright, which soon changed to outrage when she got the full story.

Later, when he heard about the incident, my father was equally upset, and the next day accompanied me to the Principal’s office and lodged a complaint demanding an apology from Mr. Meanie. An apology was duly received from the latter, but my father still had to buy him a new pair of glasses….. !#$*! It’s safe to say that it would have ended differently these days.

Still, childhood in a working class family in Copenhagen in the late 40s/early 50s could be very pleasant, not least when school was out during summers, for it was then that many students descended on camps and farms in the countryside to escape asphalt jungles in the inner city, especially.

This was facilitated by the Greater Copenhagen School Board, and the parents were charged affordable fees according to their incomes. It thus transpired that I spent parts of four summers in various camps, all ideally located around the country. I could have chosen to go to a farm, but my mother had experienced the worst summer of her life on a farm in Jutland as a young school girl and had been worked to the bone. So, for her 7-year-old son, a camp it was in the summer of 1947.

This first camp I was sent to was ideally located near Lemvig on a stretch of isolated, pristine beach on Limfjorden, a salt water fjord cut-ting straight through northern Jutland, thus connecting the Kattegat Sea with the North Sea. The camp, three wooden barracks, including a kitchen, dining hall for circa 100 boys, and three (take note) “non-flush” out-houses, was surrounded by undulating hills covered in wild heather. The only downside to all this bliss was that this stretch of heath harboured a multitude of snakes – a non-poisonous, black and white “Sno” and a motley brown, highly poisonous, potentially lethal “Hugorm” (I was told), the scourge of picnickers and naturalist in Denmark. But my brush with death was with neither of these two beasts. It was with being immersed in a heap of slimy, stinky cod fish.

And here’s how that happened. It started off being my lucky day, for I was chosen with two other boys to go on a fishing trip on a small North Sea fishing cutter with an open wheel house and operated by a captain and his one-man crew. It was also a bright sunny day, and all indications were that it was going to be a real hoot for us three city slickers.

We thus steamed out of Lemvig harbour, and soon were on the high seas catching loads of codfish. And how high the waves were, but we were assured that this was normal for the North Sea – if not for us. A piece of cake – until two hours later huge ominous clouds filled the horizon, and soon we were engulfed in a driving rain storm.  Visibility diminished in a matter of minutes, and quickly the coast line disappeared from view. Coincident with these conditions, the waves swelled to mountainous proportions, and the boat quickly responded to the turbulence by rising and dropping precipitously with each wave. Three frightened campers were thus dispatched to the only place in the boat where we were not likely to be swept overboard as monster waves broke over the bow and drenched the entire deck.

Tales of a Copenhagen Street Urchin - Part 3