A “Renaissance Man” in the Finnish Forest, 1964
For three long weeks the Seven Countries survey labored without a break in the forests of Karelia in fall 1964. A devoted field team, we were nevertheless becoming groggy with routine, examining some 40 men a day, six and seven days a week. Everyone was pleased, therefore, to learn we had been invited for an evening to the home of the local pharmacist, Pentti Turunen. From Ilomantsi, a small logging and farming village of 1,200 inhabitants, his pharmacy served a large area of eastern Finland. Turunen had been mayor of the town in the past and remained its leading citizen. And since the Seven Countries survey was surely the town’s major social event of the year, it was appropriate that he acknowledge the study and honor its crew with a soirée in his home.
The Finnish staff were particularly serious, hard-working, and effective and in three weeks had examined some 600 men. After this grueling schedule, with little social life in the evenings at the rude country inn of Martta Mikkilä, the team was ripe for “R and R.” All were lively and happy as we walked through woods to the home of our host.
We were soon comfortably sipping sherry in the Turunens’ bourgeois home. At dinner, all 12 members of the survey team were accommodated around an oval table in the formal dining room where we were cheerily served by Mrs. Turunen herself, with her best china and silver set. The conversation was animated through the several courses starting with hors d’oeuvres of smoked reindeer tongue. This evoked speculation about the radioactive Cesium concentration in the tissues of reindeer that had grazed on Lapland pastures contaminated by fall-out form Russian nuclear testing. But the splendid meal progressed happily to the concluding modest tea ceremony.
Our host offered tea selections from five large tins, Mr. Turunen taking orders, filling a silver ball of each tea requested, steeping it individually while expounding the special gustatory or pharmacological properties of each brew. It was a learned and quietly pleasant formality.
After tea with mints, we were again offered a profusion of choices, this time of homemade liqueurs, accompanied by a colorful lecture on each. First our host explained his legal access to neutral spirits in his pharmacy, and then his hobby of collecting local herbs and berries. This seemed a logical avocation for a pharmacist in an isolated country village 50 miles from the nearest liquor store. He held up each handsome flacon, with its colorful herb or berry floating in clear spirits, and described the preparation and unique qualities of each homemade eau de vie. According to our curiosity he then served each of us the concoction we had selected in another delightful and educational experience.
While the women helped our hostess clear the table and chatted in the kitchen, the men were invited to carry their brandy snifters to an anteroom where we were offered a choice of imported Havanas from a fragrant wood humidor. As the conversation lapsed into Finnish, I occupied myself by inspecting myriad photographs mounted on the wall of the library. In each was our host beaming and holding up an impressive string of Lapland salmon. As I studied the pictures, I was soon amazed to identify his fishing companions. In one photograph, Turunen was fishing with President Kekkonen of Finland, in another, Chairman Bulganin of the Soviet Union, in another, Prime Minister Churchill, and in another, could it be — President Roosevelt? Each of his companions wore a delighted smile, most having a cigarette or cigar at a jaunty angle in his mouth, and each holding one end of a string of champion-sized fish as our host held the other! All were immensely pleased at a successful catch.
I reinserted conversation in English, wondering whether our host was a master spy or else the more sought-after fishing guides anywhere. Turunen admitted to the latter.
After liqueurs were drained, and cigars savored, our host rose and invited us to another salon where we were joined by the women-folk in standing clusters for Finnish conversation while I resumed my lone inspection of displays around the walls. Framed and under glass were dozens of colorful mounted trout and salmon flies, presumably assembled by an expert fly-tie— our host. It all seemed to fit. Long winter nights brewing exotic liqueurs and tying flies to send as gifts to his prestigious summer fishing companions from around the world.
Once again we were led to a new room down a hallway, a mahogany-paneled library where we were invited to examine bookcases filled with a new wonderment, albums of an international stamp collection. Our amazing host was bon vivant, fisherman, companion of the great, and philatelist to boot! We were simply amazed, curious about what marvel might come next.
Harking back to my adolescent experience collecting stamps, in which I specialized in United States postage including first issues, I focused on our host’s American album, turning the elegant pages in wonderment. Every issue was there, each series complete, displayed in both mint and canceled form, missing only the rarest issues, such as the upside-down airmail issue and the misprinted Pony Express. Otherwise, this collection, deep in the Finnish woods, was one of the finest of United States stamps in the world, in impeccable condition and beautifully mounted. One could only assume that the rest of his vast international collection was equally choice and well cared for.
The female members of our team were by now beginning to yawn and talk about how long a day and what a lovely evening it had been. Mrs. Turunen suggested that she accompany the women the short distance back to the inn, leaving the men to whatever masculine pursuits. When our lady colleagues and hostess had filed out, Turunen turned to us men with a twinkle in his eye, offered renewed glasses, now of French cognac, and invited us to what he called his pièce de resistance, leading us down the hall to still another library.
In an exhibit quite beyond the ken of any of our team, our host brought out immense, handsome, leather-bound volumes which he opened to onion-skin paper protected and elegant lithographs. We stood before a collection of classical erotica of untold richness, dating back centuries. and were invited to the enchanting pages at leisure. In stunned silence we gazed, each page more beautiful than the last. Nothing was offensive to the eye, rather full of wondrous beauty. Then our host passed us different objets d’art: including amber in voluptuous shapes pleasing to the touch, and ivory tusks carved with gracefully entwined, engaged bodies. The collection sharply defined for us the essential difference between classic, timeless erotica, the rich portrayal of the art and meaning of love-making as a central human activity, and the offense of pornography.
Finally, after profusely thanking our host for the remarkable evening and bidding him goodnight, we took the trail back to the inn, from time to time shaking our heads and clucking our tongues in wonderment over the adventure with this quiet, rotund, balding, kind, small-town pharmacist this bon vivant, gourmet, companion of world leaders, expert fisherman and fly-tier, philatelist non-pareil, connoisseur and collector of erotic art!
Many years later, at a social evening arranged for the Paavo Nurmi Symposium in Helsinki in 1976, our host, Martti Karvonen, skillfully arranged a visit of conferees with Finland’s President Kekkonen in the main salon of a country fishing lodge. The vigorous old man had recently lost his wife. And just the month before, he had presided over the remarkable Helsinki Conference on Human Rights.
Kekkonen was full of himself that evening, exhilarated over the successful signing of the Helsinki Human Rights Accords, enthusiastic about the significant role that a small country can play in human affairs by sticking to principles, addressing central human issues, and showing imagination and enterprise. The aging diplomat-soldier, near retirement, seemed happy to spend the evening with us physicians and scientists from around the world. He was in fine story-telling fettle.
Karvonen had arranged that we guests would each move forward unostentatiously around the president’s table at intervals of some minutes, so that small groups of two or three people would have nearly private conversations with the president. As my small group approached the grand figure, I had a moment of panic about what we would talk about. I thought about mentioning Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey, recently dead, a friend of so many great leaders and long a friend of Finland and its people. But suddenly it dawned on me to recount the story of Mr. Turunen, the “Renaissance Man” in the forest.
I introduced myself and said, “We may have a mutual friend in Ilomantsi. A gentleman, whose name escapes me, invited our research team to his home some years ago . . .” and then I went on to the story of that evening in Karelia. I had not yet gotten to the fishing photographs when the president laughed, slapped his knee and said, “Oh, you are talking about my dear friend, Pentti Turunen, of course.”
President Kekkonen went on to finish the story for the others, telling about his friend’s mastery of cuisine, brewing of tea, confection of liqueurs, salmon fishing with the world’s great leaders, fly-tying, stamp-collecting and, yes, about his loving collection of classical erotica. (Henry Blackburn)