A walk down memory lane: the Midwest's oldest Midsummer festival.
It was very early one Sunday morning in June and the weather was "iffy." Rain was predicted and the sky was threatening.
But, over the years it just seemed that Father's Day and rain were synonymous. I would be 18 at the end of the month. But that day I was behind the wheel of my restored '56 Chevrolet Bel-Air convertible. Beside me in the front seat was my grandpa, William "Bill" Johnson.
My sister, Barbara, all of 12 years old, was in the backseat. For a quick second I questioned the composition of this trio, but heck, it was going to be a beautiful day, because it was also Swedish Day at the IOGT Park in Geneva, Illinois.
The "Swedish Picnic" as it is known to us, is an institution in our family. Since I was a kid, when May turned to June, my older brother Larry and I were as excited as if a second Christmas night was to be observed. The pony rides, the bubbling creek, and the "wild" areas to be explored on the rim of the 35 acre park were just the beginning. But at 18, I would spend my day making certain my younger cousins had a chance to share some of the same excitement I experienced when I was their age.
However, I am getting ahead of my self.
It started days earlier...
There was a time, not that long ago, when Swedish Day was a huge undertaking. Starting days earlier and working through the night, my mother had food to prepare and all manner of kitchen and tableware to inventory and pack. There were few if any "disposables," including diapers. I cannot remember it all, but high on the list were potato salad, coleslaw, marinated herring, coffee, cream and sugar, hamburger patties and hot dogs that required chips, and jars of ketchup, mustard, relish and onions. Then there were plates, glasses, flatware, napkins and tablecloths, pitchers and buckets for water, soap and towels.
The way my dad packed the car that morning was akin to preparing for an extended vacation. And, we couldn't forget to stop on the road for bags of ice. The trip seemed to take forever. It was a full day, sunrise to sunset. But it was always very special.
The park itself was always well groomed and made ready for the thousands of visitors. The large green lawn just inside the entrance became a car park. And, each year Dad searched out Fred Gustafsson, the caretaker, to renew their acquaintance. We tried to arrive early enough to claim one or two of the enormously heavy picnic tables stacked behind the wood frame kitchen. Sparks flew from its chimney indicating the ovens inside were being well fed with dry oak logs whose burning smell mingled with brewing coffee, grilled 'pankaka', fried herring and bacon and boiling potatoes. Four men, each at a corner of a picnic table, hurried to claim a choice spot under one of the iconic oak trees.
Over the years a loose but successful routine got established. All ages were enlisted to pitch in, and we managed to empty the car of its picnic contents. At one time, it seemed easy to get lost in the car park as it appeared to be a sea of exclusively black cars. Occasionally you would bump into an old man partially hidden under the hood of his car, obviously making his umpteenth trip to sample the contents of a bottle concealed in a brown bag.
Ice cream and pop, bingo and dancing
The kids were given coins to buy tickets for ice cream and pop. The adults scheduled time for bingo under the pavilion, and speeches and folk music and dancing took place on the grandstand. We were always too late to watch the raising of the maypole, but it is well positioned so all could see the garlands of flowers and the blue and gold ribbons wrapped around it.
A program in the amphitheater attracted the older folks with much of the presentation in Swedish, and the afternoon was reserved for a soccer game against one of the other ethnic teams. Later Grandpa would bring his friends (people he knew back in Halmstad where he was born in 1892) to show off his grandchildren.
Every year each family was visited by a member of The Committee. My brother and I always thought each one looked like our grandmother Margaret. They were always about 60, had gray hair, rimless glasses, a flower print dress and a white handbag over one arm. And, a very thick accent. They sold "chances" for a car (top prize) or lesser prizes of cash. We never won. Anything.
So, here we are on another Father's Day Sunday morning. Swedish Day. Though I have never driven to the park before, I know the route—the one routinely taken by my father who hates expressways. Going west on Roosevelt Road I make a right turn. We are but minutes away. Beside me, my grandfather is in his suit, garters holding up the sleeves of his white shirt, his red tie decorated with polka dots and a straw boater covering his bald head.
Ahead of us the huge blue and gold Swedish flag is stretched tight in the wind. The U.S. and IOGT flags flank it on the left and right. I begin descending the steep hill. The area all around is golf course green. We pick up speed. My concern becomes panic. I apply the brake. I can't slow down. I press down with all my might.
Then, flash. I awake and sit up in bed. "Oh boy," I say to myself. "Wow, it was so real." I say out loud to an empty room. As I clear my head I realize the details of my dream and why it shocked me into awakening. There is no steep hill outside the entrance to Good Templar Park—that hill was the only thing that was not real, though. The personal memories and the photos that spawn remembrances of great and good times of the scores of Swedish Days our family attended began about 1925. Grandpa passed away in 1965.
My father's last visit was in 2005. He died two years later at age 90, and my mother a year later. His parents, aunts, uncles, brothers, their families, cousins, second cousins, in-laws and friends came together for a day that, despite early indicators, always, always turned picture perfect with deep blue skies with billowing white clouds peaking out from the umbrella of stately oaks.
Happy Anniversary to the IOGT and Swedish Day at Good Templar Park. One hundred years! I will be there.
By Robert L. Johnson, Chicago
For more info on Swedish Day 2011
Find a celebration near you: Midsummer Celebrations across America