Time to Quit?

THE most solemn moment of my life was spent awaiting the birth of this twentieth century. On the last day of 1899 word quietly passed through the city of Helsingfors for its inhabitants to assemble at midnight to offer silent prayer to God that the new century would bring to Finland the peace and happiness so long denied a sorely tried, patient people. The streets were full of folk in dark clothes, furs, and fur caps, all moving silently toward one point — the Senate Square in Helsingsfors.

I was only thirteen years old then, yet the scene is so clear that if I were an artist I could paint a picture of it in all detail, even to the serious countenances of thousands around me.

There was scarcely a word spoken; to friends one merely tipped the cap and bowed. Suddenly the big bells of the white church began to toll, proclaiming the passing of a century of subjection, the arrival of a century in which, if these prayers were answered, Finland might go free. Fur caps and hats were instantly doffed by the men, while the multitude stood in silent prayer as the bells pealed into the crisp silence of the midwinter night the rhythms that were to carry our prayers to Heaven.

Suddenly silence was restored, sweeping upon us as abruptly as it had been broken. Heads were covered, and all began trudging home again, the dark figures silhouetted against the snow.

All this is by way of explaining what a repressed childhood and youth the young people of Finland lived through in those days. We were all members of secret political societies organized by our elders in protest against the Russian oppression. On dark nights I would sneak out to push under doors a publication called Fria Ord (Free Words), which was our only means of spreading uncensored information. Free Words was printed in Sweden on light Bible stock and smuggled to Finland by travelers in peril of their lives.

I recollect a two-year period when all school dances were canceled to demonstrate that Finland was in mourning. These were the times that inspired Jean Sibelius to compose ‘Finlandia,’ that soul-stirring tone poem written to reach the ears of Tsar Nicholas and impress him with our plight. Intimate friends of our family disappeared to Siberia. My eldest brother escaped to Germany to go to college there and avoid compulsory military service under Russian command. The Russian language was forced into all schools to be on a par with the country’s own languages, Finnish and Swedish.

Our country then offered such scant opportunity to its youth that many migrated to the fairyland of opportunity, the United States. I persuaded my father to finance a one-way ticket to this promised land, and on the first day of May, 1907, I left Finland.

I spoke no English on arrival, but this was not a major worry, for I soon learned enough to get along. After drifting in and out of several jobs, I encountered an obstacle bad enough for Americans to hurdle, but almost hopeless for a green foreigner to surmount — the depression of 1907. Well, even that ordeal was eventually water over the dam. Memories of a cold winter with the only overcoat in a pawnshop, a job at an East Side druggist’s soda fountain, and two or three days without food, soon faded and lost their sting as I found myself at last a steady job as a draftsman.

A year at this convinced me that no great future was in store for me until I completed my half-finished engineering education. Outside of working hours I studied. My boss, a splendid man, had a small engineering office with hardly enough to keep one draftsman, myself, at work. With too little work for a regular typist, our correspondence was done by a public stenographer. I thought: Why not also a public draftsman for those who had only occasional need for such work? Securing my employer’s permission, I distributed during my lunch hours cards announcing that I would handle such work. A few jobs began to come in, which I did nights and week-ends. Before long I was making more money from these than from my regular work.

In my home correspondence I mentioned my hope of working this plan into a little business of my own. Father was so delighted with my progress that he cabled five hundred dollars, which, added to my own savings, put me, psychologically, in the ‘ big business ’ class. With the blessings of my employer, and his thoughtful loan of a drafting board and a pair of wooden ‘horses,’ I opened a small office.

Three-in-one was the motto of this new firm — salesman, clerk, and draftsman all in one person; but it went pretty well. Soon I found need to double the staff, so a likely-looking boy was hired. Before long he was on the way to becoming a productive draftsman under my tutelage. As the years rolled by, more boys were added, and the older ones became husbands and fathers.

To-day we arc large, as small businesses go, employ on the average more than seventy-five people, furnish direct outside employment to about one hundred and fifty more, know the wisdom of carefully hiring and seldom firing, and appreciate the necessity of treating our fellow workers well.

The first fifteen years we piled up little cash, for cash was a very scarce commodity. We were laying the foundation so necessary for every new business. There was no trifling with quality of materials going into this foundation, and we had willing hands to put it together. My table was the hindmost in the drafting room, so I could not only work but see to it that all others did the same. It is surprisingly easy to lead men to effort if you start them off right — and pay them well.

Soon we began to benefit by that good foundation; cash began to accumulate, and I began to take stock of what the future might have in store for us. Our business has grown into one of unusually specialized nature and is dependent on practically two clients. That sort of alignment is usually bad business, but if at the same time it was good business while it lasted the only sensible thing to do was to prepare for all consequences by setting up reserves for that major emergency. So we have been accumulating enough to carry us through a ‘rainy day’ of reasonable duration without having to lose our most valuable assets — our carefully trained employees. How long would it take me to rebuild my business if we lost one or both of our accounts? Perhaps two years. So I began funding earnings for a two years’ haul for all of us — without layoffs for anyone.

The reserves have not yet reached their goal, but we were well on the way when suddenly our thrifty programme was knocked into the well-known cocked hat. Our reserves were to be raided by Washington, to the confusion of my long-range programme, at last in sight of completion.

None of us enjoys paying taxes, but most of us realize that certain benefits and necessities we all enjoy must be paid for in that way. More than native Americans I know what the privilege of living in a free and happy country is worth. I am glad to pay my share of supporting our government in return for the freedom and happiness it gives us.

When I speak of freedom I mean freedom for independent and individual action and development, with due respect for one’s fellow beings and for a government essential in the coördination of regional efforts arising in a country as vast as ours. I say ‘ours’ with deep concern lest I be unable to say that forever, for I fear this ‘planned economy’ we hear so much about has no place for men of my type.

The value of insurance against the hazards of business and employment is recognized. By amassing a surplus, we have been ensuring the continuation of our business and the support of our staff during a period of readjustment, to meet a latent danger peculiar to our situation. The sum is not so large as to be considered, by any sane person, a surreptitious amassing of powerful wealth, because ours is still a relatively small business. Shall I now sit back and watch the government first take a third or a half of this sum as penalty for my prudence in maintaining reasonable insurance, and then continue to take liberal slices of our annual profits to be spent as ‘the planners’ dictate? No, I shall not!

Back to Finland? Those prayers we voiced at the moment of birth of this century have been answered. Finland is free, freer to-day than the United States of America. Back to Finland? I try to see the problems from all sides. I came here without any invitation. America has been good to me and I owe it a debt of gratitude. Then, too, I have a family to consider. My wife is as American as she can be; my two sons are Americans. They say they would like to go to Finland with me, but of course they do not realize how difficult it is to transplant a human being. I do.

The chief drawback to my departure is the force of loyal people who have helped me build my business. Those I hired as boys are now middle-aged men with families. A fond farewell, with thanks and blessings, would do them no substantial good. Paying them a fat bonus out of the salvage of the business would be of small advantage to men who must find new places after being ousted from a rather specialized business in which they have worked all their fives.

On the other hand, they may come to no better end if the tax hounds go on digging up and scattering corporate bones. Suppose the government insists on penalizing our prudence, and then we reach that rainy day which our prudence has foreseen. We may all be worse off than if we called it a day now, divided what is left, and quit.

Is it time to quit?