I went looking for interesting Quakers with interesting lives and stories for the new book Passing the Torch, which is now out.
Barbara Bernsten certainly qualifies. She has lived in Norway for many years. But she’s American born, and I first heard of and from her more than ten years ago, in an email to Quaker House, where I was then Director:
Subject: Quaker House alumni checking in
I was only 18 years old when I married a young GI stationed at Fort Bragg and we spent a lot of time at Quaker House back in the day! Quaker House changed the course of both of our lives. . . .
. . . In about May of 1972 we were living at Quaker House. I think Kenn and Ellen [Arning], a young Quaker couple from New Jersey, were running the place then. I was about as sick as I ever have been in my life with genuine influensa, in bed in the back bedroom.
In the middle of the night, there were literally rifle butts thumping at the front door. My husband answered the door and there were armed, masked men there, asking questions about me. I had heard about the bodies [of dead U.S. soldiers in Vietnam] being stuffed with heroin [before being shipped back to Bragg] from a GI and had said so right in the middle of my on-base Psychology Class at Bragg only days before. The masked men told my husband to get control over his wife’s mouth.
(NOTE: Although disputed and unproven, the heroin-smuggled-in-dead-solders’ bodies story has had a long life around Fayetteville, and even figured in the plot of the 2007 feature film, American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington. What is beyond doubt is that the illicit drug trade thrived in those years and has not disappeared since.)
Barbara: I am now 55 years old, with streaks of white in my hair and my three kids are all grown ups. I have lived in Norway for more than 30 years. I am a historian at The National Archives of Norway and have taught archival science at the University of Oslo .
I was in Palestine during the 2006 war, and returned from Cairo 10 days ago, where people are being murdered in bread lines and most of the candidates and their lawyers were in jail for the recent elections.
No doubt about it, Quaker House alumni most definitely had the course of their lives changed! If the garage is still there, you will find my PX ID tucked under one of the shingles. My name back then was Barbara Black. Bet I look a LOT younger on the picture!
(NOTE alas, no such ID has turned up.)
But as soon as I read this email, I wanted to know more. Passing the Torch was finally the chance.
In the book, Barbara added: I had never been inside homes like those Quakers lived in. Bookcases full, grandfather clocks, four-post beds, inherited furniture, hardwood floors and Chinese rugs seemed like out of this world — desirable, but unattainable, unless there was some secret to it. I decided I ought to look into that.
She got to Fort Bragg (and then eventually to Norway) from Montana, where she was raised in, to put it mildly, spartan conditions:
When I was eight months old my parents sold all their furniture and bought an eight-by-ten camping trailer. I don’t think they thought they’d live in trailers for the next twenty years. In 1953 not many people lived with a baby in a camping trailer with no running water and no bathroom.
My father got sent to the Korean war, and Mom and I tried to live by ourselves in that trailer, across the alley from newly widowed grandpa Ben and the not yet grown uncles. Nobody told her she could shop at the base PX or go to the doctor at the nearest military base, even if that was forty miles away. It wasn’t like she could legally drive or anything like that, of course.
My first memories are of moving out of that trailer into a bigger one after my father came home from Korea in August of 1955, when I was almost three. Until that khaki-dressed stranger that smelled like cinnamon bears turned up, I had ruled the roost. I could hold my breath until I fainted and Mom, Grandpa and the uncles all fell in line. My father was not impressed and told Mom she had a brat. The next time I held my breath I got whacked good. When I recovered my dignity, I told him to go back to Korea.
My mother’s people were of the religious sort, having come to Puritan America in 1632. The Puritan streak — or at least the tendency to go for the extreme — seemed to have survived right up to my Grandmother’s generation. From my observation post under the kitchen table I would hear stories of how Grandma’s Christian Science sisters — who wouldn’t take medicines — had died horrible screaming deaths, firmly believing their faith would eventually alleviate the pains and heal them.
I was pretty sure that kind of faith had died with them, but in 2013 I learned from the then grown grandchildren themselves that there had been several children in the extended family that were denied antibiotics when they had rheumatic fever, due to the religious convictions of their mothers.
In the 1950s Mom was of a mind to find a suitable church to attend, so the little family went church-shopping. It didn’t go well at the Lutheran Sunday school when I cussed like my father always did and got sent to the naughty corner. I did much better at the Baptist Sunday school, and we were settling in nicely, when one Sunday the Baptist preacher yelled out loud, “Pray for segregation!”
I was napping nicely on the floor under Mom’s chair when she just got up, told me to get out from under that chair right now and then with baby David in her arms, grabbed my little sister Nancy by the hand and walked out right in the middle of services.
Strange as it may seem, little kids in Montana might never have actually seen a Black person in those days. Grandpa Ben had a TV but that was only for watching ‘Fight of the Week’ on Friday night. I knew very well what Indians and Hutterites were, but wondered to myself ‘What is this segregation?’
When we got home the shit hit the fan. Something really serious was obviously happening. Mom called Dad a hillbilly, and she didn’t mean it nice. They both grew up in Montana, but in different worlds. After the mines stopped paying their workers during the great depression, Mom’s family had to survive as best they could, and Grandpa took work with The Bureau of Indian Affairs. So, Mom had actually sat in the back seat of her Dad’s car with an Elder with braids and stuff that had calmly reassured her by saying, ‘Little girl, don’t be afraid. I am not going to hurt you. We don’t scalp people anymore.’
She had visited many homes out on “the Res”, and she had eaten puppy stew, so I figured Mom was the one to trust on these issues . . . .
How did Barbara Berntsen get from a trailer in Montana, through Fort Bragg, to Norway and Quakerism (and live to tell about it)? The answers are in these pages.
And don’t forget our Book Launch Party on Saturday Nov. 23, at Providence Friends Meeting, 105 N. Providence Rd. in Media PA, noon to 3PM. Free, with food, readings, authors to mingle with, and music from and about our generation.
You’re invited; more details here.