My father, Eino Matias Kuokkanen passed away unexpectedly and untimely late July. He was born during the evacuation on August 6, 1945 – on the same day the atomic bomb was dropped in Hiroshima – in Kalajoki, central Finland. When the war was over, he and his family returned to their home in Viitaranta, Savukoski in northeastern Finland. When he was a child, he was afraid of war and planes. He was a quiet and withdrawn man and I sometimes wonder if his ominous date of birth had something to do with it.
His own father died of a heart attack when Dad was only 15. Soon after that, their house was seized by the state. His mother remarried and the family moved to nearby Lunkkaus. While Viitaranta was by the beautiful Kemijoki River, Lunkkaus was beside a main road, halfway between Savukoski and Pelkosenniemi, a desolate nondescript scattering of a few houses, a post office and a school. As a child, I spent quite a few weekends in the Lunkkaus house, especially in the fall, picking mushrooms and berries: blueberries, cloudberries and cranberries. The cloudberry picking trips were particularly special because the cloudberry marshes were always quite a walk away. Sometimes my younger brother and I grumbled and whined (there were always millions of mosquitoes), sometimes we napped on the path while the adults were picking berries. The best part of the trip was always making coffee and frying sausages in the bonfire. Dad also taught me to swim in the Kemijoki River, not far from his old home place. He also taught me to ride a bike – I never had training wheels!
When I was young, Dad was into revolution and politics. He drove a Moskvitch and was away a lot, travelling around Northern Finland to various meetings. We joined him for May Day Parades in small towns around Lapland where he gave speeches in chilly community halls. At the end of October for several years there was a Peace Rally in the name of the nuclear-free Nordic countries. In the early 1980s, he was one of the main organizers of the Vapaa Ounasjoki (Free Ounasjoki) movement that sought to keep the Ounasjoki River free of hydroelectric dams. His family had seen the salmon disappear in the other major Lapland river, Kemijoki, due to several dams built in it after the war. In one midsummer, there was a massive row-in along Ounasjoki and we all went along with him; mom, my brother, myself and even my cat which came with me wherever we went. I was too young to pick up the details of the politics but what this period instilled in me was a deep and lifelong sense of social justice and world peace.
In the 1980s, Dad also taught me to build. We built a summer cottage near my mother’s home place and as we couldn’t afford builders, we were all engaged in the project. After the cottage, we built a sauna by which stage I considered myself an expert in building houses. The last thing Dad built (on his own) was a wood shed and an extension to the back of it to store the snow mobile and other sundry items. It is built entirely of young, thin pine trees, including the doors. (I never made doors but I know that they are the trickiest things to make.)
For over two decades and during his involvement in politics, he worked as a journalist in a leftie newspaper. For years, he wrote a column under a pen name Pohjanpoika. He sure had a way with words on paper – he also wrote occasional poems and later, over a six-hundred page novel about his troubled time in the military service (which he did not finish and for what he got into a trouble). The publishers were interested in it but wanted it shortened. I’m not sure if he didn’t want to do it or he got busy with other things.
In the 80s, Dad had also taken up studying the Sami language, first on his own, then taking occasional courses at the university. After years of studying, he became fluent in it and eventually he and mom switched from speaking Finnish to Sami. He translated my mother’s three novels into Finnish, taught Sami in school for several years and finally started working at the Sami Radio, first as the online news editor and later, as the news producer and reader. His single-mindedness and meticulous attention to detail showed in many ways, not least in his buildings and his aptitude for the complex Sami grammar and orthography. He liked things to be in order and his thriftiness sometimes went to extremes. I also picked much of that – though in more moderation.
After Dad had left the politics, he became passionate about salmon fishing in the Deatnu River by our summer place. When he was not building, he spent his time in his boat on the river. Some summers were very good and he caught tens and tens of salmon, big and small.
It has been grueling to lose him so suddenly and unexpectedly. He was a strong man who exercised regularly and his healthy eating habits put most people to shame. He had quit smoking his pipe decades ago and only drank occasionally and in moderation. It is hard to believe or understand that cancer can take such a strong and healthy person away in such a short time. Last I spent time with him was last Christmas time when I was at my parents’ for both Christmas and the New Year’s. Back then, none of us knew there was something wrong with him. He was taken away from us way too soon and without any warning – something he didn’t believe or think himself to the very end. There were still so many things I wanted to ask from him and talk about. He himself had many plans for the future. His untimely death has left us all baffled, grappling to understand what happened, how it could happen to him and trying to come to terms with it all.