Home - Tuesday 6.8.2002

At age 105, Aarne Arvonen still knows how to enjoy life

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By Perttu Kauppinen

"The world doesn't seem to be doing very well. There are plenty of things that people should give up. Cars pollute the air and nature. Music has gone bad, and there's too much sports. The army should be shut down. It costs too much money", Aarne Arvonen ponders.
"But people should explore outer space. That is where the future of mankind is. Even the Bible talks about the Kingdom of Heaven. They had the right idea, but it looks like they didn't know how to get there."

Arvonen believes that he has much
to share with younger people. The man has been alive during three centuries. He was around when the Russian Czar fell, and when Finland became independent. Something of a wanderer, he has travelled around Europe, and it has not always been easy for him to make ends meet.
Arvonen's mother died when the First World War broke out. His father - a left-wing journalist and agitator - remarried, and the boy had to go out and earn his own living. He found work in gardening, but fate and the loss of three and a half markka put him on the street.

"Once the boss gave me
some money and sent me out to buy some coal. I put the money on the wagon and rode the horse to the coal storage area. When I got there I noticed that the money had dropped off the wagon and I had to buy the coal on credit. I had heard that the boss would sometimes beat people, so I spent the night in the stable and fled."
"A friend of mine taught me how to beg. We spent our nights in a Salvation Army shelter. It was there that I met other abandoned children and plenty of other people."
In 1917 Arvonen was recruited to help build fortifications in St. Petersburg. He had a six-month contract, but he did not get a chance to work very long. At first the work was brought to a halt by the March Revolution. Then Arvonen's friend died of smallpox, and the whole team was quarantined.
"I was sent to Poland, but I became homesick, and with no money I went to Finland by train. The other passengers helped me hide from the conductor."

Back in Finland Arvonen
continued to live on the streets of Helsinki and was recruited by the Red Guards. During the Finnish Civil War he was taken prisoner by the Whites at the battle of Joutseno and was sent to the prison camp in Tammisaari for a year. One of the guards at the camp was his own uncle.
After his release he went back to street life. Once he slipped off the straight and narrow, and was sentenced to two and a half years for burglary. While in prison he studied decorative carpentry. After his release he met a woman, and the couple got two daughters.
"I got in trouble again in the 1930s. I had no place to live and no money with which to pay rent. At the trade union local they said they couldn't help because the (paramilitary right-wing) Lapua Movement confiscated their money. The pastor would not give any relief because we were not married. We went straight to the Kallio Church and got married."
Arvonen's wife died in 1938. The fresh widower moved to Järvenpää with his children. As a single parent he was not drafted, and he spent the war doing agricultural work.
"After the war I did not have any work and I dared not get into anything. Then I found out that some American Quakers were hiring people to go to Lapland to do reconstruction work, and so I went there. At that time I was almost 50 years old. The rest were just over 20."

"In Lapland I worked
at many construction sites. From there I went on to Norway, and from there to France. I had studied Spanish, and I was interested in going to Spain. I hitchhiked to Barcelona and back to Paris. By then I had run out of money and I wrote to my younger daughter who sent me some."
After returning to Finland Arvonen continued his work as a decorative carpenter all the way to the age of 80. Since then he has lived the life of a pensioner in Järvenpää with his 72-year-old daughter and her husband.
The vivacious 105-year-old keeps track of world events by radio. His eyesight is poor, so he cannot watch television any more. For the same reason he can no longer indulge in a hobby that is dear to him: astronomy. Arvonen used to enjoy calculating the orbits of the planets.
"I never had an academic education, but ever since I was a schoolboy I have been reading books. Isaac Newton is a good example to follow. Einstein's theories get so complicated that I wonder if they're of much use. Newton's laws - force and counterforce - apply to other parts of life too. There's always a counterforce. People have to know when to give in."
"I think that people have an in-built system. If you do something against it, you get punished. I am a pacifist, but before the First World War I played with a gun I made myself. It didn't fit my system and I lost my other eye playing that game."

Arvonen does not have an answer
to the question of what the secret of his long life might be. In spite of hard times he has rarely been ill. What is most important is that his mind has remained alert. Arvonen still goes regularly to his neighbourhood bar to have a beer and talk to his friends. He has actually been referred to as Finland's oldest young person.
A couple of years ago Arvonen's daughter and son-in-law took a holiday, and Arvonen himself checked into a home for the elderly for a couple of weeks. Even while he was there he would regularly visit his familiar Järvenpää pub.
"I have noticed that some people would be ready to pack me away. It would be better to live some more. There's still plenty of enthusiasm left in me."

Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 4.8.2002

PERTTU KAUPPINEN / Helsingin Sanomat

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