|Letter from Svein - Bréf frá Sveini
(Letter to Laura Gunnlaugsdottir (his half sister) and Osk Stefansdottir (his sister)From Swan S.
typed for ease of reading, from an original, ‘hand-written’
belonging to Joan and Tim Spencer)
(Íslensk þýðing er fyrir neðan en er ekki kláruð)
Portland Dec. 4, 1951
Dear sister Laura
Today we are having a stormy weather and more or less rain all day long. Such weather, of course, is now in season here in Oregon, and is a whole lot better than a freezing snow storm which now rages in many Eastern sections. Ranka is serving as a sitter for the Nelson children all day. They are busy with Christmas orders. Mrs. Nelson's mother mostly does stay with them; but for some reason she asked Ranka to come over today,
For this reason I have a lot of time on my hands, which I always have, these days. We have a game or two of canasta most any afternoon; but not being able to do so today, I thought it well to pen you a few lines.
I was just thinking away back; a way, way back, when I was a mere youngster home in Iceland, about the time our father died, and after. I was around 13-14. To lose' him then hurt me a great deal; not only to sorrow, but rather my chances for the future. Only a few months before he took his life, he had asked if I did wish to go to the Latin school in Reykjavik. (The Latin School was the equivalent of High School and College.) No, I was not really interested; I wanted much more to go east and be a sailor, to see the world. Father was not a well man then, and he did not ask me again. I wish he hack Had he been well, his natural self~ I am sure he would have talked with me in earnest, and then convinced me of my folly-and I would have been on my way to Reykjavik the next fall.
But that was not to be; and he died early that year. A year or 2 later, when I noticed how something was happen/ng between mother and Gunnl. (Your father) I did not like it a bit. And not long thereafter I began to realize that mother Would be having another man-another husband. It made me angry; and I was miserable, and worst of all, mother didn't say anything to me about it. It did not make any difference if it was Gunnl or anyone else. I had nothing against him; and we were good friends.
And so, before long I made my mind up that I was not going to stay. But I stayed on another 2-3 years. They were married, and I stayed at least a year and a half after that.
Then several years passed, and I was sailing out of Norway. And, it was on a Norwegian tram steamer that I came to N.Y.C. (New York City) in 1903 (I was bom 1878). By that time Mother and Gunnl. had gone to Winnipeg. I sailed out of N.Y.C. till 1907, when I went back to Iceland, and was around there for a year and a half. I came back to N.Y.C. early in 1909 and later that year came to Seattle to see and be near you folks, for a while.
Well, you were a big girl then, and you probably do remember more or less what went on in those days. I still liked your father; and never had anything against him. As you know I went to work on the street cars. We were then paid 25 cents an hour. I worked long hours, and after finishing work after 1 o'clock at night, I often got up again between 6-7 in the morning in order to work 2-3 hours more on what was called 'morning trippers', which meant more cars to take the workers into town. (There also were trippers during the eve. rush hour.)
I guess that you remember how only gold was used then instead of paper money, and, money really was worth a lot in them early days. Time passed, and in a couple of years I had earned some money.., some gold! Then one day Gunnl. Spoke to me about lending your next door neighbor Johnson (was not his first name Frank?) some money. As I remember it, I soon said that I was willing to do so (I have never understood since, why I was so utterly foolish!) Ofcourse, Gunnl. told me that Johnson would pay me back as he had promised-without any doubt. All in all I forked over to Johnson $ 400 dollars in gold! And, I never saw a cent of it again! I seemingly was a good boy in them days. For the fun of it I am going to figure out now just about how long it took me to earn the $ 400. Let us see how nice it looks on the next page. 10 hours work pr. day... 25 cents an hour = $ 2.50 a day. 6 days a week = $ 15.00 pr. week. How many weeks to make $ 400? Can you figure that out? This is just fun your answer: Over 26 weeks, or 6 months! And that is not all, either. I had to live and have shelter during that period. True, my partner, Mr. Stannaslic also lived cheaply. Let us say 70 cents pr. day. That comes to $ 126.00. In other words, 2 months more to earn. That brings to 8 months that I actually worked for Mr. Johnson. As you know this took place between 1909 and 1914, when I went to Oakland, Cailf. After Gunnl. got me to make the said loan to M. Johnson, he also asked me for a loan; and all in all I loaned him between 2-300 dollars. I did not feel too bad about that hoping that Mother would benefit by that. During those same years I guess Osk got about $ 100. And sister Gudny, in Winnipeg, I gave her over $ 120.00 which was supposed to go for dental work on her teeth...
Coming to Oakland, in 1914 I was broke! Because I lost some on the damn Shingle Mill I bought in Richmond. Yes, I even owed my batching partner, M Stamraslie, some money, which I paid later. I was 4 years in Oakland, and as usual worked almost everyday in the year.
While in Oakland, our sister Johanna died. As you know, she lived in Iceland and had, I think, 6 children. Her husband, Herman Thorsteinsson, was not any too well off, and sometime after Johanna's death I learned about Maria (Ranka's sister) coming home from Denmark, and was going to live with the Hermann family. I was very glad at learning this; thinking that perhaps Maria and Hermann might marry, and Maria thus would stay to help raise the young children, Johannas children. I had been fond (friend or fond) of her, especially after my stay home in 1908-9, when she did a lot for me... with a loving hand and heart. So, about the time Maria moved there, Hermann (who wrote me now and then) sent me a letter. (This was about 1917-8) and made me understand that things were not going so well with him, financially. This made me feel pretty bad, mostly because he had made me understand before.., that he was doing rather well.
And this got me to thinking over the situation. Hermann getting older; three or four young children, Johanna's children, no mother and but little to keep the home going. And with Maria finding this out, yes seeing it; would be enough to make her loose interest. How was I, out here in the U.S.A going to help these conditions? There was one answer.
I had been saving my hard earned money, again, those 3 years I had been in Oakland. So the only solution was to dig down, and send it! --I sent Hermann l,000 Kroner. At that time $ 1.00 was worth 3.80 Kroner. This meant that I sent him, (with 400 Kroner some months later) $ 368.00. Ofcourse, this was supposed to be just a loan, to be repaid in full, as my other loans were supposed to be paid. But, never a penny was paid.
However, that was not the worst of it. Maria and Hermann did not marry; and some months later, maybe a year or so, Maria pulled out. So, not only did I loose my money, but also my hope that she might mother Johanna's children till they grew up.
Part 2) Earlier in this letter I told you of my going home to Iceland in 1907. I did not tell that the winter 1907-8 I went to Norway and learned navigation. It took 6 months. Navigation is what ship officers must learn in order to become mates and captains. I went then into partnership with Hermann Thorsteinsson, Johanna's husband, in a fishing business. I bought a fishing ship in Norway (a rather small one) and all fishing gear, and hired 6 fisherman and a cook, and set sail for Iceland in the late spring of 1908.
To make a long story short, we struck a bad summer; and instead of making money we lost some. In the fall I said to Hermann; "I am passing over to you my half of the fishing boat and all lines and tackle. It is all yours!" (I just gave it all to him.) Now ...... I had just enough cash on hand to take me to Copenhagen, Denmark. I had to stay there for almost a month, because there were very few 'liners' sailing to America in the black of winter, them days. O yes, I was heading for the U.S.A. again. Not knowing about this I was short of cash. But luckily I had a fine gold watch that I had bought in N.Y. before going home. I went to the pawn shop, which was operated by the city and got enough money to carry me over till the liner sailed. And, of course, I had to hire out as a fireman.., because I had no money.
There was a fine hitch to this; namely this: They hire the crew for a 'round trip'! But, I most certainly had no intention to make the return trip. The first night in New York, they began to "coal up" the liner for the return trip. Well, I got to see the coal barge man, and he gave me permission to go to his cabin (in the coal barge, that is) and stay there till he got back to his coal pier.
But the trick was to get my valise, and myself a board the barge, because they had watchmen on the look-out for just such things. Another fireman promised to help me, mostly to watch the watchmen. During the late evening we managed to make my getting over the side, sliding down on a rope and heaving the valise down on the barge. There was nothing in it that could break. And the next late morning I was back in N.Y.C. I have stayed here ever since. I knew a Norwegian boarding-house lady in Brooklyn, having stayed there a couple of times before, and she was very willing to take me in even
thougth I had money. I soon found a job in a harbor tugboat. And it was that fall, of 1909 that I went to Seattle... to see you folks.
It took days on the train, at that time. But time passed all too quickly; because there was an Irish girl, 21, going to relatives on the coast, also. And... we sat together.. all the way. I never saw her since. It was just one of many...
Part 3) This brings me back to Oakland again. After those 4 years there, I came back to Seattle in 1918 and went to work in the shipyards. It was the last year of W. W. I. And for 6 months I worked in 2 shipyards at the same time! 8 hours on each shift. The yards were close together, and I rented a room there, close by. I worked from 8-4 in one, and the other from 4-12 midnight. It was only about 7 min. walk between them. Nobody ever got wise to this; and I was not telling anyone.
The winter 1919-1920, I left Seattle for N.Y.C. I went on a steamer down the coast to Los Angeles and stayed with Beta (I (Carole) will clarify this by Saying that 'Beta' is my grandmother Elizabeth (Gisli: Beta is Svein’s sister)) and John that Christmas. From there I went to New Orleans; and from there to N.Y.C. In the fall of 1920 I wrote to Ranka, something like this: "If you like-want-or care to come over here to N.Y.; I will marry you the day you 1-a-n-d!" She came.., and I did...
Ranka came here in Jan. 1921, and in March 1923, she was about 7 month pregnant and we decided to take a trip to Iceland, where she would have the baby. We really intended to stay home in Iceland from then on. But, no, it was not to be that way. I only wish we had. General conditions were very bad during that period. Exchange and finance of the world was in an uproar, mostly on count of the previous war years. The value of Europe money went down; and down, and I became afraid that they were going to ruin the Scandinavian and Icelandic Kroner; so, once more I set sail for the U.S.A; I went in the fall of 1923; but Ranka stayed till next spring, with the baby, Johanna.
Then I went to work again in N.Y.C. on the streetcars, and worked steady for 6 years, till 1929. And that was when I made the mistake, or rather the terrible mistake of my life. I quit my then real good job.., and went to Wall Street, to gamble on the stock-market. And about 6 months later the market had that horrible 'Money-crash' which shook the whole world!!
Where did it leave me? Not only broke broke! But in addition, I owed Maria $ 3,000 .... It was money that she had sent me to take care of... Once more I had lost, not just my own savings, but, "our" savings. Yes, Ranka had done her share in helping me to save and save those 6 years. And the money we had left in a bank in Norway, when we came back here in 1923, had again gone up to full value on the World money exchange; and I had taken it over here. So, all in all, I lost over $ 20,000.00 that time, in Wall Street... This included the $ 3,000.00 that I now owed Maria.
From that time, the fall of 1929 till 1936 1 did not do a stroke of work. Just loafed! I was knocked out cold. As you well know, this brought on the so-called long "depression". Ranka knew that we three had to live. She knew too that I did not want to go on relief; or even the W.D. It was not just that I was too proud; rather was it that I was OUT. No, I didn't go exactly big-house.
So she went to work for Consolidated Edison Company (gas and electric ) for $ 13.00 per week. And thus supported us three for over 6 year! We paid $ 14 a month for
a small 2 room apt. on the-fourth floor.- She also had to pay gas and electricity bills. And the gas-bill was quite high in the wintertime, when the weather was always good and cold. Yes and for the first 3-4 years she gave me $ 1 a week for coffee and such downtown; because I still kept going down there to watch the market. O yes, I was dressed in my white Palm Beach suit during the summer months, with the decreasing change of my weekly dollar in my pocket Luckily, Ranka didn't actually know how much I suffered during those years. Though, I am sure she guessed something like that.
One thing I did during those years, I tought Johanna how to read and write, and so on. You know, she was born in May 1923. Johanna, on count of her somewhat deformed back got tired if she sat for any length of time. After 2-3 years I went to a doctor and had him certify the fact that she was unable to sit in school-class, with suffering pain in her back. So, at the age of 12, at the beginning of the fall term in school, (her back was getting stronger by that time) I went with her to the principal of the nearest junior high school, and told her Johanna's story; and asked her to place Johanna in the grade 8 class, which was to graduate that class at the end of the term.
This was done; but I noticed that the principal looked quite skeptical, because Johanna was only 12 years old, and very small for that age; (on count of her back) and by far the smallest in that class of 43 girls. It was a girl's high school. Well, she graduated 3rd from the top! And was the old principal lady surprised!! They all were surprised. In their words she was qualified for High School when she started that term. I like you to remember, as you read this, that I never for a single hour was on English school-room bench. And as a child, home in Iceland, we went to school for the period of about 5 winters, and only 5-6 months each winter. (I think he probably meant only 5-6 weeks each winter.)
Johanna graduated from High School at the age of 16 and at 18, after having completed 2 years of college she had to die ..... and leave us with broken hearts.
Part 4) Then came the year 1937, when Ranka managed to drag me from the 4th fl. apt. where I had had complete privacy, during those idle years. She rented a 4 room, ground floor apt. and we agreed to act as janitors for that building. We got the rent free, and $ 10 pr. month. Hum, I thought to myself, here is where I go to work, again! In another couple of months I was one day scrubbing the marble threshold on the front door, when a man walking by saw me and stopped. He said, "Hallo. I have a small renovated building around the comer; it is up-to-date with oil-steam heating. Only 6 apt. and I will pay you $ 25.00 a month." I took it. By 1940 1 had taken over 6 buildings. 2 of them large ones 24 apt. each. And they paid $ 50 each. Well, I thought to myself, "You are really beginning to make money again!" In my mature age. I was 62 then.
Then came World War 2nd. And by the end of 1942, I was superint. Of 10 buildings. Ranka was then on her last year with the Elec. Co., because she would be 60 in 1943; and they retired all employees at that age. This was really good for us, because I now needed her help very much; and would pay her just as much, or more than the company.
During 1943 we served 12 buildings! But in 1944 1 began to give up one, and then another. You see, the work was terrific for the two of us. By 1945 we had given up all but 4 in June, 1946, we had only the one we lived in, the good old 542 E. 11 st.
I was 68 in 1946, and Ranka 63. We had worked harder those 4-5 years than any other family in these United States; I am sure of that. We had to. I had so completely ruined my work-a-day life. Although I had worked and Saved, I have shown you in this story, how beautifully I always managed to ruin myself.., and truly, the two of us. Because, Ranka did suffer plenty by my rotten mistakes; which was crowned by losing more than everything in the Wall Street Crash...
I will now wind up this tale by giving you an outline of the mount of work I did, especially the 4 years... 1941-45. I worked 7 days a week. Every day in the year, not only those 4 years, but actually over 6 years. And each day I got up 6:00 A.M., and I went to bed about 11:00 P.M. This meant 17 hours of walking and working-every day! And, here is an important item I would like you to understand. All the buildings were 4 stories and over. 3 were 5 and 2 were 6 stories. Each staircase had an average of 17 steps. Often I had to climb to the top floor in every building during any one day. This meant that I regularily did climb as much as 150 staircases in one day.., and 17 steps in each staircase+2550 steps.
They say it is hard on the heart of elderly folks to climb stairs, but I could not let that stop me!
And then, during the long winter in N.Y.C. every building, of course, had hot water boilers; and 7 of them were steam heated (5 with coal steam). That was some running around to keep those 17 coal fires going from early morning till late evening. Each round trip was about 1 mile. And I made from 6-8 round-trips each day. I had no outside help. Ranka was the only one; and she quite often had to go to some building for me to check up on the fire - or something else. I did not do any repair work Had no time for it. But, every time there was some trouble in any apt. (and I served about 155 tenants all during the worst 4 years) I had to go up there to inspect the trouble, and (go)out and call up the mechanic which did such and such job. And after the job was done, I again had to go up there and see to it that the job was expertly done; and then make a record of it on my ledger.
And now a few words about the cleaning part of our work. That was surely something. And that is where poor Ranka came in for more than her share of the work. Yes it almost knocked her out, completely; and I had to marvel at the way she stuck to it. You cannot understand it, even if I explain it in some detail. All those staircases and halls (there was a long hall with each and every staircase) had to be cleaned down at least once, and often twice a week. This meant that Ranka had to carry a heavy cleaning bucket and a large mop up 4-5 flights of stairs in each building she cleaned.., each week. We would spread it out 2-3 days of the week; Thurs., Fri. and Saturday.
By this you can see what Ranka had to do 3 days out of 7.., every blessed week of these years. Somehow, we survived it all and when we began to take stock of what money we had saved during those 6 years, 39 to 45 included, and after we had paid Maria the $ 3,000.00, and after we had to pay the government every 5th dollar of our income. The _____ _____ we paid Uncle Sam over $ 500.00 ____
And while we worked, we surely did something for our country during the shortage of, ________, those terrific war years. Yes besides these pay offs we came out here with about $ 16,000.00. And we earned it the hard way. And, another little and nice
benefit-that We now are-getting fro those hard working years, is the Social Security checks that we now receive each month! That really gives us a fine satisfaction.
Maria was darn lucky too, that we earned this money.., and paid her all by 1944. The old boy. Stephens, used that money to buy 2 houses here in Portland while they were still cheap. Ofcourse they were older houses. And from these 2 houses Maria now receives $ 55.00 every month of the year. And that is only small part of her income. Her income is about $ 280.00 dollar every month. She gets $ 130.00 in the place where she lives-for the 2 offices. And now, since she is 65, she gets $ 13.00 every month from Social Security. Not bad!! I call this a story well told. You better read it over in leisure 2-3 times; for it was quite some job to write it all. Ranka gives you both her love.
Your Brother, Swan S.
Bréf til Láru Gunnlaugsdóttir (hálfsystir Sveins) og Óskar Stefánsdóttur (systir Sveins) frá Sveini Stefánssyni vélritað eftir handriti í eigu Joan og Tim Spencer.
Portland 4 desember, 1951
Kæru systur Lára og Ósk,
Í dag er rigningar veður og hefur rignt af og til í allan dag. En þetta er rigningar tíminn hér í Oregon, en það er þó betra en snjó bylurinn sem geysar nú í nokkrum af austur fylkjunum. Ranka er að passa börn Nelson hjónanna í dag. Þau eru upptekin við jóla undirbúning. Móðir frú Nelson er að mestu hjá þeim, en að einhverjum ástæðum þá bað hún Rönku að vera hjá þeim í dag.
Vegna þessa þá hef ég nógan tíma á höndum mér í dag, sem ég nú reyndar hef alltaf nú orðið. Við spilum nokkra slagi af canasta nærri á hverjum degi eftir hádegið, en fyrst við gátum ekki spilað í dag, þá datt mér í huga að skjóta níður penna og hripa niður nokkrar línur til ykkar.
Mér varð hugsað aftur í tímann, langt langt aftur, þegar ég var ungur drengur heima á Íslandi, um það leiti sem pabbi dó. Ég var þá um 13 til 14 ára gamall. Að missa föður minn var á margan hátt mjög erfitt fyrir mig, ekki aðeins að ég saknaði hans heldur setti þessi atburður stórt strik í framtíðar möguleika mína. Aðeins nokkrum mánuðum áður en hann svifti sig lífi, hafði hann spurt mig hvort ég mundi hafa áhuga á að fara í latínu skólann í Reykjavík. En ég hafði ekki áhuga á því en langaði miklu frekar að fara austur og verða sjómaður og sigla um heiminn. Pabbi var ekki frískur þá og spurði mig ekki aftur. Ég vildi óska að hann hefði verið frískur, og með sjálfum sér, því ég er vissum að hann hefði ábyggilega talað um fyrir mér og ég mundi hafa farið til Reykjavíkur næsta haust.
En þannig fór nú ekki og hann dó snemma þetta ár (8 jan, 1895 GH) Einu til tveim árum seinna tók ég eftir að mamma og Gunnlaugur (faðir þinn) voru að draga sig saman, en það líkaði mér alls ekki vel. Og upp úr því varð mér ljóst að mamma mundu vera að ná sér í mann – eiginmann. Þetta olli mér mikilli reiði, og mér leið illa út af þessu, og það sem mér sárnaði mest var að mamma talaði ekkert um þetta við mig.
Það hefði svo sem ekki skipt neinu máli hvort hún tók saman við Gunnlaug eða einhver annan, mér hafði liðið alveg eins. Ég hafði ekkert á móti honum persónulega, og höfum við alltaf verið góðir vinir. Uppúr þessu gerði ég hug minn upp og ákvað að ég mundi ekki stjast að þarna. En ég var þó um kyrrt í um 2-3 ár. Og var ég þar í um eitt og hálft ár eftir að þau gyftu sig (19 júlí, 1896).
Nú líða nokkur ár og var ég nú í siglingum á norskum eimskipi. Það var á þessu skipi sem ég kom til New York City árið 1903 (ég var fæddur 1878). Þá höfðu mamma og Gunnlaugur fluttst til Winnipeg. Ég var í siglinum frá New York City þar til 1907 en þá fór ég til Íslands og var þar í um eitt og hálft ár. Ég kom aftur til New York City 1909 og seinna það ár þá flutti ég til Seattle til að vera hjá ykkur um nokkurn tíma.
Þið voruð nú orðar stálpaðar þá og sennilega munið þið hvað var um að vera á þessum árum. Mér enn vel til föður ykkar, og hafði ekkert á móti honum. Eins og þú veist þá fór ég að vinna á sporvögnunum. Kaupið var þá 25 cent á tímann. Vinnutíminn var langur og var ég oft ekki búinn fyrr en eftir klukkan 1 eftir miðnætti, og fór svo oft á fætur milli 6 og 7 morguninn eftir til að vinna 2-3 aukatíma á aukavögnum á morgunana (morning trippers), til að flytja verkafólkið til vinnu í borginni (það var líka bætt við aukavögnum á kvöldin þegar verkafólkið var að fara heim).
Ég bíst við að þið munið að það var ekki notaðir seðlar á þessum árum heldur aðeins gull og peningarnir voru miklu meira virði í þá daga. Tíminn líður og á tveim árum þá var ég búinn að eingnast svolíðið af pening..gulli! Þá kom Gunnlaugur að tali við mig og spyr hvort ég muni geta lánað Johnson nágranna ykkar (hét hann ekki Frank að fyrranafni?) peninga. Eftir því sem mig minnir þá jánkaðist ég fljótlega við þessu (Ég hef aldrei skilið hvers konar heimskingi ég var!) Að sjálfsögðu sagði Gunnlaugur mér að Johnson mundi borga skuldina eins og hann hafði lofað. Samtals þá lét ég Johnson fá 400 dollara í gulli! Og sá aldrei eitt einasta cent af því aftur! Ég var auðsjáanlega góður og einfaldur drengur á þessum dögum. Til gamans þá ætla