Today is Syttende Mai, the 105th anniversary of Norwegian independence, the day on which Norway, in Garrison Keillor’s words, “threw off the heavy yoke of Swedish oppression.”
In truth, the separation was peaceful. After the Norwegian storting (parliament) voted to adopt a constitution, declare independence and secede from Sweden, there was some ill feeling between Norwegians and Swedes, both in Scandinavia and among those who had immigrated to America. But today, except for a little good-natured kidding and rivalry, relations between Norwegians and Swedes are very cordial.
In some parts of this country, especially the upper Midwest, people will celebrate Norwegian Independence Day. That is part of my own heritage, as my great-grandfather Amund Eidsmoe emigrated from Norway in 1852. Traveling to Wisconsin, they endured a disaster on Lake Erie when another ship collided with theirs. About 300 people drowned, but as Amund wrote, “My wife and children and I were miraculously saved; although swept into the water as the ship sank, with much swimming around with my wife and children on my back, we were picked up by the other ship. When I discovered that my family was alive, I was full of joy, as if I had become the richest man in the world, despite the fact that we had lost all of our goods.” (Anthropologists say every society has a flood tradition in its history; I guess that’s ours.)
Instead of applying for a stimulus package, Amund went to work. At age 87 he wrote that a school was organized in Wisconsin.
“I was the first teacher and taught for four years. After I had been in America six years I was elected justice of the peace and held this office for 28 years. I was also in this time town treasurer for two years, town clerk for three years and ‘Norsk-lokker’ [reader of scripture in Lutheran church services], together with many other small offices, so I have had plenty of business. But farming has been my mainstay, and for my living, it paid best.” He wrote further, “I thank God earnestly for his care over me so far. If he has laid a burden on me he has also, fatherly, helped me to carry it. If I could prepare myself for a blessed departure from this world and my passing away be as my dear wife’s, my wish would be fulfilled. God help me. Amen.”
As a past president of the Sons of Norway chapter in Grand Forks, N.D., now living in Alabama, I will quietly celebrate Syttende Mai. I may even wear my lapel pin with the American and Norwegian flags crossed.
But I will not fly the Norwegian flag above the American flag, and I will not fly the American flag upside down.
I will not insist that people salute the Norwegian flag, and I will not demand that anyone who is so “insensitive” as to wear an American flag in my presence be sent home.
I will not demand that Norwegians be given immediate American citizenship (unlike my great-grandfather, Amund Eidsmoe, who acquired his citizenship in the usual painstaking way).
I will not demand that people learn to speak Norwegian so they can communicate with me. (Thankfully, Amund required his 10 children to learn English.)
I served in the United States Air Force for 23 years, and now, as then, Old Glory and Old Glory alone waves on the flagpole of our rural Alabama home.
I’m proud of my Norse heritage. But I will not even demand that the Norwegian and American flags be given equal status because I recognize something that many seem to have forgotten: This isn’t Norway. This isn’t Mexico. This is America.
And I thank God for allowing me to live in the greatest country on Earth.