Remembering Johan, Brownspur’s own Viking

Published 11:00 pm Saturday, February 4, 2012

I did a speaking and book-signing event last month in a community whose local newspaper has run my weekly syndicated column for most of these 25 years. A lady buying a book complimented as I was autographing it, “I think your best column was about your foreign exchange student’s comment about the bump in the road.”

That was maybe 20 years ago.

Others asked me to relate that story, so I reiterated that Johan, our personal Viking, had noted a highway sign on one of our trips, which proclaimed the warning, “Bump Ahead.” Sure enough, we then hit the bump before I had slowed down enough. Rubbing the top of his head, Johan observed in a puzzled tone, “In America, you haff a bomp in de road, you put op a sign dat say, ‘Bomp?’”

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“That’s right,” I replied as we gained speed again. “What do y’all do in Norway?”

“Vell,” he declared vehemently, “In Norvay, ve fix de bomp!”

We all got a laugh — and maybe a lesson? — as I then recalled that our Viking had been volunteered as one of the South’s earliest high school soccer-style kickers, playing in the first football game he had ever seen. That team won the state championship, and he probably still holds some of the kicking records there. He only missed one — his first extra point — because no one had told him that the other team would surge forward to try to block his kick. He had only practiced with a center and holder before the game, and Washington School scored first. He had gotten permission to play from his parents after assuring his mother by long distance that “no one will try to kill” him, in just his role as kicker.

Johan actually learned to drive on a tractor. He had been too young to drive in Norway when he came to Mississippi for a full year, and it was in his contract that if someone reported that he had even sat behind the steering wheel of a car or truck, he was gone back to Scandinavia pronto. Yet there was no mention of a farm vehicle, so I put him on an International 1066 pulling a harrow on a land-planned 200-acre field, once I’d taught him the essentials of driving it. He still holds the Brownspur record for hitting the left lock-brake and spinning around at full speed, without flipping the tractor. That was before I attached the harrow.

That was back in 1984-85. Once we got e-mail out here at Brownspur, I struck up a fairly regular correspondence with our personal Viking, who has only come back to visit once. After graduation from high school in Mississippi, he went on to college, a year as a Norway ski-paratrooper, then on to medical school in Germany, marriage to a Swedish girl, two kids, and a doctor’s career.

About three years ago he wrote me that his foreign exchange student experience had been so good that he wanted his whole family to have that same opportunity, so he had volunteered for one of those “Doctors without borders” organizations. He and his wife, with a 10-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter, were assigned to a medical practice in the Australian outback for a full year. They all enjoyed it so much that he extended for six months, when the year was up.

It was nice to know that he had enjoyed Mississippi so much. During that year he not only played football (that was before Southern schools had soccer teams; that sport was still suspected as being vaguely communistic then) and drove a tractor, but he hunted doves, ducks, deer, and turkeys; handled the family’s wild pets, such as screech owls, raccoons, possums, and a full-grown great horned owl; enjoyed our swimming hole in the pasture; and discovered Southern Belles, three of which tried to go back to Norway with him when the year was up.

Johan affected us for life, too: I still get my Vs and Ws mixed up, as in “Wolwo” or “Wolksvagen” or “VereVolf” or “Wampire.” In return, his letters still include an occasional “Y’all” or “Ain’t.” Betsy still hangs out the Norvay wreath at Christmas on our door, saying “Velcomen.”

Having our own personal Viking here at Brownspur was a great experience, for both families, even with a few “Bomps in de road” along the way.

Robert Hitt Neill is an outdoors writer. He lives in Leland, Miss.