From Iceland — The Base As A Bridge Built On Good Intentions

The Base As A Bridge Built On Good Intentions

The Base As A Bridge Built On Good Intentions

Published March 4, 2016

York Underwood
Photo by
Art Bicnick

In the 1940s, the most common way for a young man to see the world was to join the army. For young women, it was nursing. I mean this from a North American perspective. It’s strange to look at all the young tourists flooding Iceland, looking to find themselves in these economically uncertain times in a world advertised as always on the brink of war, and not think of my grandfather’s generation attempting to do the same thing. Both my and my grandfather’s generations were looking for the same thing: perspective, adventure, sex, excitement. My generation does this while hiding behind the self-righteous pursuit of culture and a desire to become worldly. My grandfather’s generation did this while hiding behind the self-righteous pursuit of being heroes, fighters, soldiers. At the individual level, we are all the same, while economics, politics, friends and enemies change—as do reasons.

My grandfather arrived in Iceland in July of 1940, with the 1st Battalion of The Cameron Highlanders Of Ottawa. He was part of the Canadian “Z” Force. He was to help with training and keep troops on the base disciplined in case of an attack by German forces. Iceland was considered a very strategic location in the North Atlantic, being roughly midway between North America and Europe.

Soldiers were well-dressed and listened to jazz music, attracting the attention of young women in Iceland (probably men, too, but that wasn’t written about in those times). It was exciting to see new people and the response wasn’t much different from the behaviour and sights we see on Laugavegur every weekend nowadays: palpable lust and intrigue alongside revulsion and fear. Though, I don’t think it was as on display or accessible. There was a lot more sneaking around back then.

Historically that time is called “The Situation” and women who got involved with foreign soldiers were disgustingly—though, sadly, not unexpectedly—ostracized. I wonder if I’m related to anyone here in Iceland? My grandfather was one of those strange, uncommon humans who enjoyed drinking and sex.

My grandfather’s time in Iceland ended in April 1941, when he was moved to England and Scotland, eventually joining the Allied Forces in Normandy in June 1944. He served in the Canadian military a few more years after the war, living in military bases around Europe, but he never returned to Iceland, though he never forgot it. It was the first place he’d ever been outside of Canada. Iceland was, like it is for many North Americans today, an interesting anecdote, a cool story, something exotic, a string of memories consisting of long nights. He would never have considered himself part of an invasion, but historically and factually that’s exactly what he participated in.

My girlfriend’s aunt met her husband Marty, an American soldier, at the base in Keflavík. For her, it was love, but she also got to live all around the world—something not easily achieved, for a young Icelandic woman in the 1950s. Before she met Marty, she worked as a stewardess, hosting and entertaining the likes of Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope (Bob called her his “little Eskimo”). She had tasted freedom, but the logistics of really leaving Iceland were not very likely. Now she lives part-time in Iceland and part-time in Florida. Similar to my grandfather, she lived on military bases throughout Europe.

It looks today like the American Navy is planning to return to the former NATO base in Keflavík. This invasion seems like archaic imperialism to some of us. We prefer imperialism to be cultural. If people are going to invade, they should be doing it in civilian clothing, with a camera in one hand and a to-go cup in the other. I agree that this is probably better (although the economic benefits of the NATO base are for a different article).

My grandfather is dead. The first place I have lived outside of Canada is Iceland. I wonder if he felt the same sense of belonging here that I do. Did the salty air excite him? Did the sulfurous water smooth his skin? Did the landscape become part of his psychology? Maybe, maybe not. I’m not even sure what it means for a landscape to join with your psychology. That’s just something people say when they come here. My grandfather and I might not have agreed on anything about Iceland, but we both would have agreed that we didn’t feel like invaders.

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