Leif Karlsson, a young engineer from Sweden, has been sent to Redstone Arsenal in Alabama by the Swedish government to learn more about the anti-aircraft missile system the Swedish armed forces had purchased. Once there, he finds that his upbringing has not prepared him for what life is like in the American South of the 1960s. A product of a very idealistic, liberal, and homogenous society, Leif must find a way to safely navigate a racially charged South, where religious beliefs, moral values, prejudice, and history have created a dangerous place to live for anyone who is not white.
He's thrust into the eye of the storm when he witnesses a white man bullying Hailee, a beautiful, young black woman who works the line at the base cafeteria. Shocked, Leif can't understand the reasons behind the interaction-or his undeniable attraction to her. At first afraid to respond to his interest, Hailee soon finds herself stirred by the passion of this handsome and intriguing stranger, and she dares to dream as well.
Set against the overheated emotional ambiance of the South in the days of fundamentalist religious fervency, violent racial turmoil, and obsessive fear of racial integration, Ikon is the story of two people who risked everything to break the taboo on their love.
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By Ante Eklof
Abbott PressCopyright © 2014 Ante Eklof
All rights reserved.
I remember when l saw you: It was a summer day. The Southern sun stood blazing in -the sky. The languid breeze left lying the dust of rust-red day, that sultry, steamy noon in mid-July.
My heart was calm, my mind so clear, by passion yet untested. Then suddenly, right there you were: My love-dream manifested! I remember when l saw you; it was a summer day, the last time that my soul since then has rested.
—Ante Eklof, "Revelation"
Redstone Arsenal, outside Huntsville, Alabama, July 1961. Among the thirsting, olive-drab lawns and rust-colored patches of bare ground, the military school buildings looked square and bright as sugar cubes in the brilliant sun. It was oppressively hot and humid. Few people could be seen outside, and the traffic on the roads of the base was light, even though it was lunchtime. All looked calm and quiet.
A young man was crossing the parking lot in front of the cafeteria, where he was headed. His blond hair and blue eyes hinted at his Northern European origin, and his paleness indicated a recent arrival in the South. His gait was brisk and energetic, but he was unaccustomed to the tropical climate, and the walk from the classroom building to the cafeteria soon made him perspire.
He found it almost difficult to breathe in the steamy heat. The air was trembling over the still, somewhat tacky tarmac of the newly paved parking lot in front of the cafeteria, which was a half-barrel-shaped building made of corrugated, gray-painted sheet metal. It was a physical relief for the young man to enter the cafeteria, where large ducts in the ceiling gushed welcome cascades of cool, dehumidified air on the guests below.
The man's name was Leif Karlsson. He was one in a contingency of six young Swedish engineers sent to Redstone Arsenal by the Swedish government for the purpose of learning how to operate and maintain the American-made Hawk anti-aircraft missile system, which the Swedish armed forces had bought. The system would be an important part of the Swedish defense against the very real threat of the Soviet Union during this period of high Cold War tension. Its importance was reflected in the personnel accepted into the program at Redstone Arsenal: these engineers were among the cream of the latest crop from the excellent technical colleges in Sweden.
The venue and timeframe for their education on the missile system could hardly have been more exciting. Redstone Arsenal was a huge installation that contained the headquarters of the American space program, which had a fantastic, almost science-fiction-sounding goal: to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade!
The program was headed by the legendary genius Werner von Braun, mastermind of the German V1 and V2 rockets of World War II. The message was clear: after the shock of the Russian Sputnik in 1957, America was on the move. The new American president, John Kennedy, projected an inspiring image of youth, confidence, and energy. A spirit of vigor, optimism, and progressiveness seemed to have taken hold of the nation after the sleepy stagnation of the Eisenhower years. Just being in America at all at this time was exciting; to be on Redstone Arsenal was almost vertigo-inducing.
Leif entered the cafeteria and drew a deep breath of comforting coolness through his nose. He detected the unmistakable, faintly unpleasant smell of an inexpensive restaurant that contained the scents of both disinfectant cleaning agents and smoking vegetable oil.
He walked up to the line of customers at the nearest counter, took a tray from a stack, and pushed it along the steel rails on the customer side of the counter while he looked at the offerings of hot dishes. He decided to try the franks and beans. As he took a plate with two slices of toast and a piece of butter from the glass shelf, an angry male voice rose from further up the line. He did not distinguish the actual words, but both he and many others looked to see the man who had spoken.
He was a somewhat overweight, middle-aged man of average height. Like Leif, he was dressed in civilian clothes, but they were rather ill-fitting and in need of pressing. His dark-gray pants hung low in the front to accommodate a substantial beer belly, and in spite of the heat of the day, he wore a long-sleeved shirt, its hue more off-gray than off-white. His fleshy, large face, which Leif saw only in profile, was presently reddened with anger. Leif could not see much of the person against whom his ire was directed, because the glass shelves full of cold food items above the counters obstructed his view.
The brief outburst had attracted attention not just in the line at the counter, but also among the customers at the tables near it. Leif noticed that it had met general disapproval. The disapproval seemed to reach the level of shock and anger in some of the dark-skinned military men who were sitting right behind the angry man. For a moment, they stopped eating and looked first at the angry man and then at each other almost in disbelief, before shaking their heads and continuing their meals while making quiet comments among themselves. Leif drew the conclusion that something had been said that was particularly offensive to them. That angered him also, because he, like virtually all Swedes, was strongly supportive of the ongoing efforts by black Americans to obtain in practice the equal rights that the US Constitution had promised.
All across the South, the struggle by black citizens to gain in practice what the constitution promised them on paper was reaching a violent crescendo. The white backlash was strong and emotional and employed abuse, intimidation, beatings, and murder in attempts to "keep the niggers in their place." But military installations such as Redstone Arsenal were islands of racial calm and equal rights in a stormy sea of intensifying emotion and racial strife in the American South. Racially offensive language or bullying were not permitted on base, and a black soldier could feel safe there. On a hot July day such as this, his immediate concern may be the temperature and the scorching sun, not the discrimination and hazards he faced as soon as he left the base.
The customer line was moving, and soon Leif came to where the glass shelves on top of the counters ended. He faced the cafeteria worker who was ready to take his order. She was about his age. The contrast between her all-white work clothes and the darkness of her arms, hands, and face was striking. Her face, framed by jet-black hair, had a very African look, with a short, blunt nose and full lips, but her nose was not overly broad, and her mouth not overly large. Her large, dark eyes had long eyelashes and a shape that was faintly Oriental, an impression heightened by her high cheekbones. When he first faced her, she still bore a tense and pained look, presumably from having been insulted by the loud customer a few minutes earlier, but as she met Leif's gaze, it gave way to a questioning and somewhat impatient expression. She obviously was waiting for his order, which was slow in coming.
Oh, yes, his order! He had forgotten. His mind had been sidetracked by the sight of the young woman, drawn in by the dark eyes that met his, but now he scanned the food offerings behind the counter in panic, afraid to seem stupid. Relieved, he saw what he wanted.
"Uh ... I'll have the franks and beans," he said, and it did not come out as suave and confident as he wanted it to. He tried to smile at her, but she had taken her eyes off him and turned to the containers of food. When she placed the plate with his food on the counter in front of him, she did not look up.
"Thank you," Leif said, hoping to get her attention. The woman gave him a quick glance, nodded without expression, and turned to the next customer in line.
Leif took the plate of food, put it on his tray, and pushed it toward the cash register. He was embarrassed over the confused and awkward impression he may have made on the girl behind the counter. She is strikingly beautiful, he thought.
When he sat down at an empty table, his anger at the white man who had said something offensive to her returned. It now felt like a personal insult. The girl was so pretty! How dare that fat slob insult her!
He finished his food and placed his tray with the empty plate in a movable rack that was there to collect them. When he left the cafeteria again, he hardly noticed the heat outside and walked back to his classroom building in deep thoughts.
Before leaving Sweden, he and the other young engineers had gone through a briefing, where the present political and social problems of the American South were emphasized. They had been explicitly warned not to get involved in them, because it would be very dangerous. Almost daily, Swedish TV news coverage of the violent white reaction to sit-in demonstrations and Freedom Bus Rides had made the danger abundantly clear.
That evening, the incident would not leave his mind. He wondered how he ought to react to manifestations of racist bullying and oppression. He could not in good conscience avoid the issue of segregation by saying that it was not his business; that it was just a domestic problem that Americans themselves would have to worry about. If the plight of the Jews in Nazi Germany was not purely a domestic German issue, how could the plight of blacks in South Africa and the United States be of only domestic concern?
He could not rationalize cowardliness by saying that he was "just following orders" not to get involved. The incident in the cafeteria itself had lasted but a few seconds, but it left a residue of anger in Leif. He felt great sympathy for that girl. No, more than sympathy: he wanted to protect and defend her.CHAPTER 2
He returned to the same cafeteria the next day, but this time he was in the company of two of the other young Swedes. He had told them the cafeteria food was okay and a little cheaper than the NCO club where they had previously had lunch. He had not mentioned to them anything about what had transpired there the previous day, but he wanted to see their reaction to the woman who had been insulted. She was so beautiful in an exotic, intriguing way. He felt a peculiar pride in showing her to them, as if she was his discovery. Would they have any visible reaction? Would they comment spontaneously to him about her being attractive, or would he have to ask them about their opinions?
He was disappointed when he did not see the woman who had been there the day before. He did not know her name and thought of her simply as "the Negress." The term did not have any pejorative, disrespectful meaning to him any more than the English term Negro, which was at the time the politically correct word to use in America. The word Negress was used in Swedish without having any negative connotations with respect to race and gender. Rather, to many Swedes like Leif, who had never personally met anyone with an African ethnic origin, it had a romantic, exotic ring to it, as had terms for women from, say, Japan or the South Pacific.
After lunch, he and the other Swedish engineers had the afternoon off to take care of personal business. The Swedish government had found furnished apartments for all of them on Starmount Circle in Huntsville, and it was time to move from the Holiday Inn by the airport, where they had been staying, and into these apartments. So far, a driver with a large military sedan had been taking them back and forth between the motel and the base. He would now help with the move into the apartments.
Judged by American standards, the apartments were relatively modest, but none of the young engineers had ever lived in an apartment of his own before. To do so felt like a step up in responsibility and maturity as well as standard of living, and the new residents explored them excitedly. The apartments seemed modern and clean, and all contained a TV.
They all had a very minimum of belongings to be moved, so the move to their apartments was quickly accomplished. Now an even more exciting task lay before them. To have individual freedom to move around, the Swedish government had given each one a generous allowance of $2,500 to buy his own individual car. Now they had their own apartments, each with its own driveway, and it was time to buy cars.
The apartments were located near a main road that led into the center of town, along which the majority of the town's car dealers had their lots. It was an easy walk from their new apartments down to the row of car dealerships, where they expected to find cars of their choice.
The five other young engineers were looking at this task in completely pragmatic terms. Their funds were limited, and they wanted to bring their cars back with them to Sweden when their time in the United States was over. To be practical in Sweden, the cars had to be reasonably sized and economical in their fuel requirements. The five bought brand-new, virtually identical, rather nondescript, compact cars.
Leif was not equally a fan of mediocrity. His inclination was always to go for something that was unique and different, something that stood out in some way. He wanted a car that was good-looking, fast, and exciting. He could not get a brand-new car of that description for $2,500, and it took him a few days before he found a used one that satisfied him. In the meantime, he got a ride from the other engineers to and from the Arsenal for their technical courses.
Leif's eventual choice was a 1958 Thunderbird with a tannish-yellow body and a bright-white roof. It was low mileage, very clean, and had an aftermarket, fairly loud exhaust system that produced a lionish roar when he flipped the throttle and a deep, resonant gurgle at idle. Leif grinned widely behind the wheel when he test-drove it. He was sold.
To himself, he immediately named the car "Yellow Bird" after a popular, wistfully romantic song with a Caribbean theme. The name invoked images of tropical islands in the sun.
After he bought the car, he drove around Huntsville to familiarize himself with the city and with Yellow Bird. He enjoyed riding along with the mighty engine growling as he accelerated away from traffic lights, with good music playing loudly on the radio. It was amazing that this was his car. Yellow Bird!
Life was so sweet—almost a fairy tale! He was in America, at the center of its space program! Living in his own nice apartment, driving his own, fabulous car. It was a life he had not even dreamed of a couple of years ago. A life out of the ordinary. Now he just had to find a girlfriend, and everything would be perfect.
He wished he could get to talk to the Negress at the cafeteria again. Wouldn't that be something if he could make her his girlfriend! He recalled her face, which was so dark and so incredibly beautiful, with skin that looked velvety smooth. The contrast between the darkness of her face and arms and the white uniform she wore was somehow intriguing.
But the situation in Alabama would not allow him to approach her; he realized that. Interracial dating was not socially accepted; it may even be illegal. It would, in any case, be extremely dangerous. If some of those Klan types saw the two of them together, they would be in big trouble.
The next day he drove Yellow Bird to Redstone Arsenal. Like so many of his friends, he was very car-interested. To own a car like Yellow Bird filled him with pride. The power was impressive, the comfort magnificent, the looks very attention-grabbing. It was everything he wanted in a car. Owning it made him feel that he could take on the world.
At lunchtime, he headed to the cafeteria, and there she was again. The Negress! His heart started beating fast. The line was short, and he had to decide quickly what he wanted to eat so he would not seem as confused and awkward as the previous time when he was in front of her. A chopped meat patty and French fries would be okay, and he wanted gravy on the meat patty.
He nodded and smiled at her when he was ready to give her his order, but she did not smile back. Her face bore an expression of routine activity: no particular interest in what she was doing, but paying attention. She wanted him to give his order. He did, and when she gave him his plate of food, he wanted to say something, anything, to maintain the connection.
Excerpted from Ikon by Ante Eklof. Copyright © 2014 Ante Eklof. Excerpted by permission of Abbott Press.
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