He was a Friend of mine - (Bob Dylan)
20 July, 2017
Human life may be described by a metaphor: we are seated in little boats, alone, travelling downstream from an unknown start to an even more mysterious destination. The current is violent and many of us never go very far but are stuck in backwaters, hit snags or rocks and founder. No guarantees were given, wether we enjoy the voyage or fear it is immaterial, we are carried along all the same. With this metaphor in mind it is tempting to look back in time at those whom we saw travelling downstream in parallel with us. Where did they go? How did they manage? And what happened to those who foundered?
In the summer of 1967, fifty years ago, I was a freshman student at Lund University in the south of Sweden. During my first term (January to June), I had sub-rented a room in a flat on the outskirts of town, along with three other students (and their occasional girl friends). But late that summer a relative of mine arranged for me to rent a room in the very centre of town, a students’ lodgings built into a private house. The owners had renovated this large property but knew from the outset that they could not afford to live in all of it, so they had furnished four rooms on the attic floor, and one room on the ground floor, as rooms for rent. My room was the one on the ground floor; it had two windows facint the street and its own lavatory, but I had to share the pentry and the shower with the four others. Standards were lower in those years, and students did not really expect very much comfort. The rent was pretty high, though.
One of the men who moved in on the attic floor planned to study law. He was known as Hakke, a nickname for Harald, and belonged to one of the riches families of the south Swedish province of Skåne - they owned a chemical industry with products found in every Swedish kitchen. Hakke was about a year older than I, but had not only done his compulsory national service but added a year to be an officer in the army reserve. He was the proud owner of an English sports car, an MGB or a Triumph (I saw it only once) and also had a fiancée who had just started her final year in senior high school (in their provincial home town). In other words, he belonged to the Golden Youth (La jeunesse dorée), whereas I, having a much less affluent background, had hung on to existence by doing summer stand-in work at a mental hospital.
Hakke’s future was more or less determined from the outset: studies of Law, a junior position in the family business, and eventually a glimmering executive career. My prospects were dim, but they did not bother me much as I blithely assumed I would find a teaching position or a librarianship at some distant point in the future.
We did have one significant thing in common, a love of American folk music as sung by Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, Sonny Terry (and Bob Dylan); I played the guitar and mouth harp badly, he played the banjo extremely well, but somehow we managed to play together and were reaching towards creating a duo or even a band (of course, we would have to find a mandolin and a violin).
There was to be no happy sequel.
One of the first week ends of the autumn term - I remember that it was a in September - Hakke and a buddy mounted the English vehicle and set off for home, saluting their departure with a rumbling exaust. Hakke wanted to fetch his fiancée at school and move on to a party. The sports car was a cabriolet, of course, no safety belts, no airbags.
Skåne is a province where they grow sugar beets, which are harvested in the late summer, and in those days were loaded onto giant trailers drawn by tractors (or horses) along all the winding country roads to some collecting point or other. A slow process, and since the carts were overloaded, beets often fell off, hitting the tarmac roadway and creating a sticky goo that makes the road extremely slippery, like black ice or a slick of oil.
Hakke was probably trying out the latest invention in Swedish traffic rules - our recent transition from driving on the left to driving on the right side of the road. Anyway, he was driving fast along one of those winding roads that led to his home, but in a bend hit a spot where a fallen sugar beet had created a slick. The car skidded on the slimy spot, whirled off the road, Hakke was thrown out and killed on the spot. The pal was severely hurt but survived.
At our lodgings at Stora Algatan we had no idea - Hakke did not appear in the pentry on Monday morning, but that meant nothing to a group of students who enjoyed their freedom and came and went as the wished. A few days into the week we were visited by his family: father, mother, brother and fiancée. While the men packed up his belongings and loaded their cars, the women sat in our pentry and told us what had happened. The fiancée, a minute blonde with her face all red with teats, told us how she had waited outside school until she gave up hope, went home, and was told the news. The mother kept a stony face and drily said that Hakke would never have survived causing his pal’s death because of his reckless driving, so maybe …
One single sugar beet: that’s what is required for the elimination of a promising youth. In Sweden, a body buried in a churchyard is normally exhumed after twenty-five years and re-buried in a collective grave. If the family pays for the upkeep of the grave or has a family site, the body may stay. When visiting graveyards I look for stones with 1967 as the year of death. They are very worn by harsh weather, sometimes covered with moss. I have never seen Hakke’s grave - I don’t even know the name of the parish churchyard.
These are the facts as I remember them. Memory is not very realiable so the details may be a bit wrong. But the fact is clear: Hakke died in 1967. I never saw any of his family again. I assume that the fiancée - whose name I never learned - finished school, got herself an education, and married someone else. I trust that someone in Hakke’s family remembers him, but we are all growing old. I don’t think the chemical company is quite so dominating any longer.
Hakke’s career ended there and then. Mine went on and turned out much better than I had ever dreamed, but it was not created by my family’s business or money but by a good deal of luck, helped by my own stubborn labour and love of the subject I eventually chose (in the autumn term of 1967 I was still studying ancient Greek; Latin came only in 1969, and the realisation that I could do PhD studies in Latin finally occurred to me in the summer of 1973).
But in August 1967, Hakke seemed destined for commercial success while my prospects were dim. It seems trite to state that life cannot be predicted, but it is true, nonetheless. All our grandiose plans may be crushed by a sugar beet falling off a cart.
My life, too, has had its metaphorical sugar beets, when only fractions of an inch saved me from instant termination, but those fractions were on the right side, and the sugar beet goo was not so slippery as Hakke’s, so here I still am. But I cannot stop thinking of that mossy grave …
The Roman poet Horace brilliantly expressed this haphazard equality (Carmen 2,3):
Omnes eodem cogimur, omnium
versatur urna serius ocius
sors exitura et nos in aeternum
exilium impositura cumbae.
We are all driven the same way, our separate lots
revolve in the urn, sooner or later
to fall out and put us into eternal
exile in Charon’s boat. (My translation)