Stories of Denmark: Tales of a Copenhagen Street Urchin – Part 3

Stories of Denmark

Tales of a Copenhagen
Street Urchin – Part 3  


A not so short story by Finn Sander​​

CONTINUED FROM PART TWO:  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.

Our “safe” haven turned out to be the hold, capped with a heavy lid, where the daily catch of slimy cod fish was usually stored – and it was half full already. It thus wreaked with the stench of fish, and diesel fumes had permeated the confined space from the belching engine in the adjoining compartment.

Quickly, we were overcome with acute seasickness and released our collective breakfasts to our immediate surroundings. For an hour or two, we were trapped in this hell hole where we were in total darkness, where we could hold on to nothing fixed, and thus were propelled about on top of the slimy load of cod and fresh puke against the walls – and each other – thereby collecting a host of painful bruises.

Did I mention that we all cried so much we almost drowned in our own tears. Just kidding, but we certainly did cry. It was undeniably the worst experience to that point in my young life, and I swore off all boats and oceans forever – at least until I grew up and became an oceanography professor. And, indeed, the gravity of the situation was confirmed to us by our camp leader, who was later told by the captain of the potentially calamitous outcome of the trip. Fishing boats going down during unexpected stormy seas on the North Sea was not exceptional, as many historical accounts confirm.

“As ridiculous as it may sound, one other event that summer that caused me great grief had to do with the enforced rationing of toilet paper in the camp.”


You laugh, but my transgression gave me a real pain in the butt – literally. So here goes: Because paper was a somewhat precious commodity in post-war Denmark (it was apparently made from wood imported from Finland), we were instructed by the camp leader to use only THREE pieces of segmented paper of a toilet roll per trip to an outhouse to do our business. And he meant it. For the record, I never mastered this feat of frugality, but I was secure in the knowledge that I had plenty of company in my futile attempts. Nevertheless, I became the first victim of this bizarre rule.

It happened one fine day when I exited one of the outhouses after doing a no. 2 job. So far so good. Unfortunately, it so happened that the next person in the line-up to follow me was the Camp director’s young daughter. You guessed it: this sharp-eyed little tattle-tale duly noted (upon close scrutiny, I expect) that I had surpassed the allowed limit of 3 pieces of toilet paper and promptly informed her father. He, in turn, just as promptly administered appropriate punishment by giving me a number (I didn’t count) of wacks to my backside with the traditional bamboo stick. I was only seven, so I cried loudly.

I also decided that I was going to complain to my parents about it by writing them a letter voicing my grief. That is until I remembered that the three self-addressed envelopes supplied by my mother, each with a stamp attached and containing a blank piece of paper, were all gone – out in the post my second day in camp. On each piece of paper, I had written not one word to my parents. Instead  I had drawn pictures of Danish and German soldiers shooting at each other (they kept those drawings). Many years later, I still doodle with German soldiers (see photo below). Guess you could call me a product of the war.

Incidentally, my greatest pleasure amongst all the activities in camp were wrestling lessons. I was fairly good at it. So much so that when I returned to the asphalt jungle in Noerrebro, I was no longer intimidated by some of the bullies on my street who owned me before camp.

The following year, I experienced yet another outhouse-related incident. This time, my camp was located near Roervig in northern Zealand next to another lovely beach. However, it also had a great soccer field where I spent many hours kicking a ball around. It was during an organized game, when the ball got kicked into the bushes near the outhouses, that I volunteered to retrieve the ball and barged through the scant undergrowth.

But wait! Suddenly, the ground under me gave way, and I disappeared into a deep pit – full of human excrement retrieved from the outhouses nearby. The cesspool was lightly covered with boards, most of which were half rotten and covered with dirt, so readily gave way when I stepped on them.

Ugh! It was a dreadful experience, and my woeful cries quickly alerted my mates, a few of whom reluctantly lent me a hand getting out of the stinky hole. After that, it was a quick race to the sea for rejuvenation of my dignity. Why the pit was dug so close to a soccer field, so lightly covered, and without a warning sign defy logic.

“If only that were my last unpleasant encounter with human waste! But it wasn’t to be, for two years later at yet another lovely school camp on the island of Mors in Limfjorden, I experienced one more “stinky” affair.”

This time, it concerned the fact that, unbelievably, someone had urinated in a large tub of peeled potatoes – the result of the laborious effort of four or five “volunteers” assigned daily to the task of peeling spuds meant to be part of the supper menu each evening (rice or spaghetti was never an option). It boggles the mind to think anyone could perpetrate such a dastardly act, but the familiar toilet bowl yellow and faint smell of urine were undeniable, and there was hell to pay. But who was/were the despicable perpetrator(s)?

To find that out, the camp leader lined up all of us 100 or so boys on the “parade” ground in front of the camp and demanded that the guilty party step forward. Yeah, right! This was never going to happen, and no-one stepped forward in the next couple of hours.

After that, we skipped supper and were confined to the barracks until the end of the next day, when it finally dawned on the leader that no-one was going to own up to the crime. It probably also occurred to him that two hundred irate parents were sure to make his life miserable once word got out that their little darlings were suffering collective punishment for an act committed by probably only one or two boys. And then we all got out of jail, and the matter was forgotten. So to speak.

The fourth camp I attended near Vejle in Jutland went swimmingly – no serious cuts, bruises, or foul attacks to my body or dignity. And I even learned a neat song. It started like this: “Og saa kommer linie et. Saa bruger man naeverne, og ogsaa kaeverne, og dem der staar i vejen, de faar paa taeverne. Der er en mand som graeder hoejt for han er ked, at vaere anbragt med hovedet nedaf etc.” So, there you have it. Growing up in Denmark in those days could be fun – or, sometimes, not so much fun.


Years later, in senior high school and as a university student, I worked summers at a YMCA camp (Otoreke) for young adults on an island in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal. I was “outdoorman” in charge of the tennis courts, rowboats, and canoes, and giving paddling lessons. Regrettably, I was also responsible for emptying the toilet cesspools (photo to the left). A real stinker! But I had to admit that with my dubious experience in such “matters”, I was well qualified for the job.

Regrettably, the next three summers all ended rather badly for me on Labour Day weekends, the end of the seasons. On the first, I got run over in the dark by a hit-and-run truck, lost consciousness, and woke up the next morning in hospital heavily bandaged with multiple broken ribs and bruised organs. Subsequently, I lost 20 pounds.

The next Labour Day weekend, I performed a perfect swan dive in front of some pretty girls on the camp wharf, forgetting that the water was only 3 feet deep in front of me – hormones, ach! I woke up in the same hospital as above with a fractured skull, severe concussion, 43 stitches, broken teeth, bouts of fainting for the next couple of weeks – and a shaven head. But I lost only 10 pounds.

The third labour Day weekend, I broke my left leg playing football and hobbled around for a month with a cast on it. My leg must have lost 5 pounds, at least. Enough already!

Actually, not enough, for I neglected to mention that it was on the fourth Labour Day weekend in camp, that I met a 17-year-old camper, crowned “Miss Camp Otoreke 1960”.

Her name was Gloria, and she was glorious. AND the lucky girl eventually became my dear wife. All’s well that ends well, eh?

Fascinating story from beginning to end. Many thanks Finn.

– jeh