My memories about Uncle Väinö

Väinö moves to Järvenpää

During the war in the 1940s, my uncle had to work at Miinapaja (mine factory) in Katajanokka, Helsinki, serving his home country. He had moved to Helsinki in 1931 after his army service, and at first he lived in my father’s home. He often used to ride a bike to work in the summertime.

After the war in 1945, Väinö bought a small house in Satukallio (Järvenpää) (60o 27' 39,89'' N;  25o 07' 16,80'' E). He renovated and expanded it with the help of a handyman, Mr. Salonen. He lived in the house with his mother. The street address of the house at that time was Itäinen Satukalliontie, but after Järvenpää became a town, the address was changed to Leinikkitie 4 (today the street is known as Leinikkikatu). In addition to the house, a combination sauna-storehouse was built, and later Väinö also built a henhouse on an adjacent lot. He had altogether about 3500 m2 (35,000 square feet) of space on these two lots.

There was a huge stone on the second lot – its diameter was about 3 meters (9.5 feet). Because the house was located far from the center of Järvenpää, there was no running water or indoor plumbing in the house. The lot was surrounded by a thick, tall fir hedge on the side of the road. The hedge gave excellent privacy and protection from curious people who wanted to see a glimpse of Väinö. The same fir hedge is still there, as well as a couple of apple trees that Väinö planted. The house where Väinö used to live no longer stands. It was torn down and new houses have been built in its place. The henhouse no longer exists either.

When my father got a job in Järvenpää, my parents also moved to Järvenpää and lived in Väinö’s house with Väinö and his mother for a while. I was born during that time.

My home in Satukallio

I was baptized at home. When the pastor Väinö Mutru came and saw my uncle Väinö, he was scared and nearly turned around and left (he had not heard anything about Väinö in advance). Nonetheless, I received my first and middle names Kalervo Väinö Johannes from my uncles. Kalervo derives from Vilho Kalervo, my father’s youngest brother and Väinö Johannes from his oldest brother Väinö Johannes. Now we all (my parents, my brother, Väinö, his mother and I) lived in Väinö’s house. My brother Kullervo went to school at Kinnari (only two kilometres from our home) and later at the centre of Järvenpää (about two kilometres from home).

My grand mama's home

About after one year we moved to the centre of the area, Oikotie (nowadays Oikokuja), the house of sweeper Niemi. My parents had their jobs nearby. After moving, we visited Väinö and his mother every week, because my father went to help his brother with henhouse keeping. I sat on the back seat of my father’s bicycle, and in winter, on a sled. When I learned to ride a bicycle, I was able to visit Väinö by bicycle more often. I will always remember when I and Väinö had competitions to eat lunch (mostly some soup). I always lost those contests. I suppose I did not have a good appetite, at least by comparison.

Väinö bred hens to supplement his and his mother’s income.  He had a henhouse with about 300 chickens and almost every one of them laid an egg every day. In autumn, he sold apples from his apple trees. Local retailers and neighbours went to buy them from Väinö’s home. As a result, there was no need to transport the eggs anywhere. Many buyers seemed more interested in seeing Väinö than in buying eggs.
Väinö’s friend Emil Westerlund was interested in grafting apple trees and he infected Väinö with that hobby. Väinö had about fifteen apple trees and numerous berry bushes. The biggest of the apple trees yielded about 100 kg (220 pounds) of fruit each year.

We went often to Väinö’s sauna, especially in summer. His sauna was built to accommodate his height, as opposed to his house. The house had standard ceilings 2.5 meters (8 feet 2.5 inches) high, so that Väinö just was able to stand up straight inside.  The sauna was over one half meter (18 inches) higher than standard ceiling height. In the sauna building there was also a very tall section for log storage. However, we didn’t need a ladder when we needed to retrieve an object from the top part of the storage area. Väinö just straightened his arm, and I stepped on his palm and was lifted up.  The henhouse was also new construction,  and was designed to be high enough for Väinö.

Väinö’s friends

I remember from the time around 1955 some of the distinctive friends of my uncle, who sometimes visited Väinö when I was present at my uncle’s home. The first one was Emil Westerlund, Olympic wrestler (1920). He was normally chauffeured by his brother Kalle, also an Olympic wrestler and medallist (1924). Kalle was the chauffeur of the president of Finland. The third of the Westerlund brothers was Edward, also an Olympic wrestler and medallist (1924 and 1928), though I was never present when Edward visited Väinö. Arvo Niemelä was also a wrestler (medallist in European Championships in 1933) who came to visit. He worked as a doorman of restaurant Mikado in Helsinki. I remember his excellent Rover 75.

Väinö got once a guest from East Germany (DDR). He was Mauno Kujanpää, a big (over 2 m) wrestler, who had moved to DDR. I remember specially his words about his job: he worked in a sausage factory, which is why he always had enough food, compared to most others in that country.

Many journalists visited Väinö in those days, writing articles about him. Various show business promoters hoped to use him to their advantage for their own business.  Klaus Varvikko was one of them. “Little Kalle” Hyden, said to be the shortest man in Finland, was a member of Varvikko’s group. Kalle’s height was 116 cm, if I remember it correctly. There was some kind of friendship between my uncle and Varvikko, because Väinö allowed Varvikko to visit him many times. Lasse Pihlajamaa, famous Finnish accordion player, visited several times with Varvikko and played for my uncle and his mother. In those days, in the middle of 1950’s, Varvikko had a big, black Zim (a Russian luxury car). Pihlajamaa had on the contrary a big, wide and colorful American car. Both of these cars were so wide that it was impossible to drive them on the paths on Väinö’s property, so they had to be parked alongside the road nearby.

Tuominen, who was a merchant at the Hakaniemi marketplace in Helsinki, was one of Väinö’s best friends. Tuominen had a summer cottage on the property adjacent to Väinö’s house. Soon after each arrival from Helsinki, he would visit Väinö, smoke his cigarette, and tell Väinö what happened during the week. The other neighbours were not as close friends for Väinö as Tuominen, although they visited often and bought eggs.

The president of Kaso (Finnish stock company) had a  home on the other side of Tuominen’s property. A member of Finnish academy, Joonas Kokkonen (a famous composer), owned the house later

Väinö’s travels

Väinö had toured much of central Europe during the latter part of the 1930’s – for example, Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, Czechoslovakia and the United Kingdom. The most significant places were the World Exhibition in Paris 1937 and The Christmas Circus of Joe Gardiner 1938. He appeared at venues in Sweden, for example at Gröna Lund in Stockholm, for two years after the Second World War. After that his healthy became poorer. The last international stamps in his passport are Swedish ones.

Uncle Väinö told me much of his travels, but I have forgotten many stories. As a young boy, it seemed  unnecessary to write down them.  One story concerned his driving in Switzerland: a policeman stopped his car, Väinö opened the window and asked the reason for stopping. The policeman had said nothing, and just embarrassedly signalled Väinö to drive away quickly. When Väinö met Catholic monks and clergymen on the street, they noticeably sped up the handling of their rosaries. Väinö had signed a letter of interest in an American show tour just before the Second World War, but then the war cancelled the tour.

Väinö told me that they had once an idea to create a tour together with all of the tall men of that time, but the others had refused, apparently being afraid to be compared with Väinö. Väinö said himself that his height is 247 cm (8 feet 1.2 inches). This measure was some kind of average of his daily height. In many advertisements his height was said to be 248 cm (8 feet 1.6 inches), even 251 cm (8 feet 2.8 inches) or 254 cm (8 feet 4 inches). Uncle Väinö said that many giants used to appear with a top hat. Väinö had no reason to do that!

He had an American car, a Marmon.  The front driver’s seat had been removed, Väinö sat on the back seat, and drove from there. He came travelled through Finland by the car and visited relatives and friends. He had a Swiss driving licence. Väinö could speak German rather fluently because of his five years in show life, and spoke reasonably good Italian, English and Swedish.

Väinö was still able to cycle in the beginning of 1950’s, but it he did so very rarely. He had two bicycles; both of them were specially ordered from Crescent, a Swedish bicycle factory. One was black. It was for the working days and the other was an orange one for the other days. The orange bike is in the storage of the museum of Järvenpää, waiting for the opening of the museum. I remember that we (my father, Väinö and I) cycled once from Satukallio to the city of Kerava and back (about 25 km). I was about six years old and used a freight stand on my father’s bike.

When my brother bought a car, an Ifa F 9, in about 1957, he drove Väinö around Järvenpää. The front passenger and rear seats were removed, and Väinö sat on the floor of the car on some pillow. Väinö sat as if taking a bow in the little car, with his upper body curved forward as he tried to peek out from the window. Varvikko had a larger car and he drove Väinö to Helsinki (40 km from Järvenpää), where he visited Varvikko’s little restaurant “Rokka-bar” there.

Our family moved back to Satukallio

By 1957, my grandmother was physically unable to manage a household, much less do any shopping at the Borodulin or Lintula shops, which were at a distance of a one half kilometre (one third of a mile). Because of this situation, our extended family decided that my grandmother must go to live with her daughter Aino in Merikarvia, while we moved back to Väinö’s house. They agreed that Uncle Väinö would sell his house to my parents and that he would live with us until his death. Also, the henhouse duties passed to my parents.

Väinö helped us with his best skills: he cut grass for chickens and warmed up the sauna on Saturdays. We only carried water and wood for Väinö’s sauna warming.  He clipped the grass with garden shears by sitting on the ground. He moved forward by pushing a very big wooden sled. My uncle was still rather strong in those days, so pushing a sled was not a problem, even in summer on sandy paths in the yard.

Väinö and my brother were very good singers and they always sang together in the sauna. Sometimes, but not always, they drank a bottle of beer after sauna bath.
Uncle Väinö read a lot to pass the time, and played cards with me. Often he spoke about his travels, but I didn’t write them down, which irritates me now. I remember only a few stories nowadays

My mother sewed some Väinö’s underwear herself, but most of Väinö’s clothes had to be ordered from a seamstress. The local shoe factory Esko made his boots and slippers. Väinö had still his show clothing (suit, shoes, coat and top-hat) in the attic of the house at the time of his death. Today  they are with the bike in the storage of Järvenpää’s museum, waiting for the opening of the museum.

Väinö’s bed was an ordinary one with an extension part of one meter (3 feet 3 inches). The volume of his coffee mug was about 0,5 l (16 ounces), but was intended for ordinary people, so the handle was too small for Väinö.  He used to handle the cup with fingers around it.  The spoons, knives and forks were normal sized. He drank two such cups of coffee at a time, and ate perhaps twice as much food as an ordinary man. 

Väinö’s healthy went worse

The joints of Väinö’s feet were worn, and he had also diabetes, but still he hoped to improve his health. Romanian Anna Aslan had developed Gerovital, some kind of youth medicine. Väinö heard about that and decided to test it. It was impossible to buy the medicine in Finland, but Väinö’s sister Alli, living in Sweden, acquired Gerovital for Väinö. Väinö took the medicine for many weeks, but it was not helpful. Väinö felt more refreshed, but nothing else. 

In autumn of 1962, Väinö fell flat on the front stairs outside the house while going out, and could no longer walk. Doctor Laine-Ylijoki tried to treat him at home, but after about two weeks, Väinö had to be driven to Töölö hospital in Helsinki. Väinö’s hip was fractured. The surgeons nailed the fracture together, but Väinö did not heal. He was carried from one hospital to another. He died at Sädehoitolaitos, a hospital mainly for patients who had cancer, on 13 April 1963. Väinö received radiation to his pituitary gland, apparently for an adenoma of that gland. My father either never learned never  told us the reason for Väinö’s death. I tried to find get the answer from the hospital in 2006, but they would not tell it even to the closest relatives.

When Väinö was at hospital, many people who had never met him previously visited him, and some tried to take advantage of him. Because Väinö was very kind, he did not forbid the visits, but he later told my father about the visit and the purported reasons for these visits. My father visited Väinö every weekend, and my mother and I visited about once a month.

My father arranged the funeral and ordered a coffin for a man of 250 cm (8 feet 2.4 inches). The coffin was too short and Väinö’s feet had to be bent to fit. Whether the coffin was built to an incorrect measurement, or whether Väinö was actually taller than 250 cm, remains a mystery. Väinö was buried on 4 April 1963 near the chapel of Järvenpää cemetery (area number 10). I was given the honor of photographing the funeral with the Leica camera of my brother’s employer.

My remembrance about Väinö

I will always remember Väinö as a kind, nice man, who was never in a bad mood or said malicious things about anyone, either young or adults. He had suffered with his enormous height on his days of youth, but later on, he was obviously rather satisfied with his life in his years of show business. The touring life brought him in contact with pleasant people, and the wealth it earned made possible other comforts. Väinö was not a very thrifty man, but he was not a spendthrift, either.

When he had to discontinue his show life due to health, he wanted live in peace and stay out of the public eye. He agreed to reports of magazine Seura a couple of times, but refused two offers to appear on TV shows.

Väinö never complained or felt sorry about his destiny. He hoped for better health for himself, of course. He did not smoke or regularly use alcohol, but he was not an teetotaller, either. I remember that Väinö used alcohol only a few times: on his birthday in 1959 and a couple of times at Christmas. One bottle of alcohol did not effect on him.

3 November 2007

Kalervo Myllyrinne
Väinö’s nephew