The train rambled steadily northward in the late afternoon hours of Dec. 24, 1967 – Christmas Eve.
Though it was only 4 o’clock, the sun had already disappeared. Afternoon darkness was a new experience for the young American traveler.
The voyage had begun before Midnight on Dec. 23 in Nuremberg, Germany, where the young man was stationed and working as sports editor of the Fourth Armored Division “Rolling Review,” a twice-monthly Army division newspaper.
He was headed to Insjon, Sweden, a small village near the southern tip of Lake Siljan to spend the holidays with relatives there. His grandfather had left Sweden in 1901 to start a new life in America – settling in Stratford – and the young man would stay with his own father’s cousin for the holiday period. He’d traveled there just the previous September to meet his relatives for the first time and they asked – demanded almost – that he return to spend Christmas and New Years with them.
Sometimes getting leave time approved around the holiday period is difficult; fortunately, no one had stood in his way.
Already, he’d been on a train for nearly 20 hours, falling in and out of consciousness lulled there by the steady rocking of the coach and click-clack of the wheels on the track.
Finally, the train pulled into the station at Karlstad, the northernmost city on Lake Vanarn, the largest inland lake in Sweden. In Karlstad he would change trains for the last leg of his journey.
Grabbing his travel bag, he stepped out into the frigid night air and pulled his coat collar around his face with his free left hand.
Inside the station, he looked at the train schedule to make sure he hadn’t missed his northbound ride.
Not seeing a train on that schedule, he approached a station employee only to be told that there was no train on Christmas Eve. The only trains leaving Karlstad that night were two going to Stockholm; one of those was the train he’d just left.
A local policeman overheard the conversation and, noting angst in the voice of the young American traveler, offered his assistance.
“Well, you can stay with us until the next train goes north,” he offered.
But, that train wasn’t scheduled until December 26 – the day after Christmas.
Resigned to his fate, the young man accepted the kind offer. At least he’d be warm and be fed and wouldn’t have to sit on a hard train station bench for more than a day.
“We’ll call your relatives to tell them where you are,” the policeman said.
So, the American told the officer that he was traveling to spend the holidays with his grandfather’s niece. Her name was Karin Haglund and was married to Georg Andersson.
Although he spoke some Swedish, he couldn’t make out all of the conversation between the policeman and his relatives on the other end of the phone. After a couple of minutes, the officer handed the young man the phone and he spoke to his second cousin, Birgitta, who was fluent in English.
“It’s settled. You shall come here tonight by car,” she said.
With that, a taxi was hailed and the young man son found himself leaving Karlstad for the 125-mile trip to Insjon. He felt great gratitude to be heading to his destination, but also felt a little sorry for the taxi driver, who was giving up his own family Christmas Eve celebration to make the trip.
The travelers arrived in Insjon just before Midnight. The young man found out later the cab fare had been about $125 – quite a large sum in 1967.
The young serviceman was grateful for a late night snack and was also very happy to engage in conversation. They all wanted to know every detail of his journey, wanted to know about his Army life, wanted to know how Christmas was celebrated in America.
Much of that would have to wait, though.
It was a very short night of sleep before everyone rose to attend the 5 a.m. Christmas service at the same church in which his grandfather was baptized and confirmed, the church that overlooked a yard filled with headstones, some of them marking the final resting place of ancestors he would know only by what was inscribed on those stones.
Sitting in the crowded “Als Kirke” that Christmas morning remains one of the young man’s most memorable moments in life, certainly one of the most cherished of all Christmases.
He thinks of that special Christmas every year as a new celebration nears. And he recalls Georg’s booming choir voice, louder than anyone else’s, filling the small church with Christmas joy.
(Bill Haglund is a writer with Stephens Media.)