Sunday, March 14, 2010

The book pictured above, “We Die Alone,” by David Howarth, is one I’ve not read yet. I learned about the book through a newspaper commentary article titled, “They make ‘em tough in Norway” by David Brooks in the Opinion & Analysis section of the Bangkok Post, dated March 3, 2010.

As many of you know, I purchase the Wednesday edition of the Bangkok Post mainly for the Database section, which has a lot of computer tips I find very valuable, and the Sunday edition for a recap of the week past and the week to come. The Sunday edition has many, many sections in it that I find interesting.

I almost skipped the commentary article in the Wednesday edition, but for some reason, “They make ‘em tough in Norway” caught my eye. The article was very well written, and is meant to be a synopsis of Norway’s cache of gold medals in the winter Olympics.

I’d like to post the article here for all of you to read, since it really struck me as one of the most fantastic stories I’ve ever digested. A true story, yet practically unbelievable…

There must be many reasons for Norway’s excellence, but some of them are probably imbedded in the story of Jan Baalsrud.

In 1943, Baalsrud was a young instrument maker who was asked to sneak back into Norway to help the anti-Nazi resistance.

His mission, described in the book “We Die Alone” by David Howarth, was betrayed. His boat was shelled by German troops. Baalsrud dove into the ice covered waters and swam, with bullets flying around him, toward an island off the Norwegian coast. The rest of his party was killed on the spot, or captured and eventually executed, but Baalsrud made it to the beach and started climbing an icy mountain. He was chased by Nazi’s and he killed one officer.

He was hunted by about 50 Germans and left a trail in the deep snow. He’d lost one boot and sock, and was bleeding from where his big toe had been shot off. He scrambled across the island and swam successfully across the icy sound to two other islands. On the second, he lay dying of cold and exhaustion on the beach.

Two girls found and led him to their home. And this is the core of the story. During the next months, dozens of Norwegians helped Baalsrud get across to Sweden. Flouting any sense of rational cost-benefit analysis, families and whole villages risked their lives to help one gravely ill man, who dropped into their midst.

Baalsrud was clothed and fed and rowed to another island. He showed up at other houses and was taken in. He began walking across the mountain ranges on that island in the general direction of the mainland, hikes of 24, 13, and 28 hours without break.

A 72-year-old man rowed him the final 10 miles to the mainland, past German positions, and gave him skis. Up in the mountains he skied through severe winter storms. One night, he started an avalanche. He fell at least 300 feet, smashed his skis, and suffered a severe concussion. His body was buried in snow, but his head was sticking out. He lost sense of time and self-possession. He was blind, the snow having scorched the retinas of his eyes.

He wandered aimlessly for four days, plagued by hallucinations. At one point he thought he had found a trail, but he was only following his own footsteps in a small circle.

Finally, he stumbled upon a cottage. A man named Marius Gronvold took him in. He treated Baalsrud’s frostbite and hid him in a remote shed across a lake to recover. He was alone for a week (a storm made it impossible for anyone to reach him). Gangrene invaded his legs. He stabbed them to drain the pus and blood. His eyesight recovered, but the pain was excruciating and he was starving.

Baalsrud could no longer walk, so Gronvold and friends built a sled. They carried the sled and him up a 3,000-foot mountain in the middle of a winter storm and across a frozen plateau to where another party was supposed to meet them. The other men weren’t there and Gronvold was compelled to leave Baalsrud in a hole in the ice under a boulder.

The other party missed the rendezvous because of a blizzard, and by the time they got there, days later, the tracks were covered and they could find no sign of him. A week later, Gronvold went up to retrieve Baalsrud’s body and was astonished to find him barely alive. Baalsrud spent the next 20 days in a sleeping bag immobilized in the snow, sporadically supplied by Gronvold and others.

Over the next weeks, groups of men tried to drag him to Sweden but were driven back, and they had to shelter him again in holes in the ice. Baalsrud cut off his remaining toes with a penknife to save his feet. Tired of risking more Norwegian lives, he also attempted suicide.

Finally he was awoken by the sound of snorting reindeer. A group of Laps had arrived, and under German fire, they dragged him to Sweden.

Author’s final comment:

This astonishing story could only take place in a country whose people are skilled on skis and in winter conditions. But there also is an interesting form of social capital on display. It’s a mixture of softness and hardness. Baalsrud was kept alive thanks to a serial outpouring of love and nurturing. At the same time, he and his rescuers displayed an unbelievable level of hardheaded toughness and resilience. That’s a cultural cocktail bound to produce achievement in many spheres.

Jeeem’s final comment:

Regarding the Olympics, I’m only a so-so fan. I like to watch odd sports events like fencing, curling, handball, weight lifting, pole vaulting, takraw, Jai alai, and other stuff like that, which you just don’t see every day. And winter sport usually just doesn’t do it for me.

But, after reading this story, no matter what its intent on being published, I am left with the feeling that no matter what kind of lousy day I have, nothing I’ve ever gone through could even come close to what ole Baalsrud had to go through. I think I’d have given up long before even reaching the first island. But, I think it is proof perfect of the very lengths a person will go through to survive.

Life is such a jewel.



radioguitar said...

That's pretty fuckin' hardcore. I love stories like this, even though they put my petty existence to shame.

Have you ever seen this site?

His language is entertainingly purple and blue, but the stories are the stuff of legend.

Jeeem said...

Hey Chris,

Normally I don't react so much to stories, but that one really hit me as almost unbelievable. I can't imagine someone going through what that guy did.

Nope, never been to the "Badass" site, but will give it a go and possibly link it later.

BTW, if you ever notice a dead link in here, please let me know so I can fix it or dump it.

Thanx as usual Chris. I really appreciate your comments!


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