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In the Name of the Father

As the Games come to Lillehammer, the author comes to terms with his Nordic roots

For reasons I trust will become abundantly clear, I am grievously disappointed that the Winter Olympics will be held in Lillehammer, Norway. Not that I have anything against that presumably splendid community. From all I've heard, the people there have done a bang-up job of preparing for the onslaught of offensive tourists that will soon descend upon them. And I certainly don't disapprove of holding the Games in Norway, land of Ibsen and Sonja Henie. People ski, skate, luge and bobsled there the way we take cabs here, I'm told. And Norway has already "won" six Winter Olympics, beginning with the first, in 1924. In fact, had anybody on the International Olympic Committee bothered to consult me beforehand, I would have come out foursquare for that country. It's just that I would have moved the Games about a hundred miles west of Lillehammer. To the village of Fimreite.

Fimreite (opposite), in the county of Sogn og Fjordane, is beautifully situated on the Sogne Fjord, Norway's longest, at 136 miles. There is even a mountain nearby, though officials at the Norwegian consulate in San Francisco tell me it's really more of a hill. Still, it would be a good spot for the downhill events. But this, of course, is not why I would prefer staging the Games there. No, my reasons are personal. You see, I was born with the name Fimreite—even though my father was born with the name Thompson. There is obviously a story here.

About 90 years ago my grandfather, one Thomas Thompson, immigrated to the United States from somewhere near Fimreite, Norway, although I hear he preferred identifying himself as hailing from the somewhat more substantial city of Bergen. Like so many of his countrymen, he settled finally in the town of Minot, N.Dak. My father, who was never especially proud of his Scandinavian heritage, preferred to think of this mass migration from one of the coldest spots in Europe to one of the coldest in North America as simply another manifestation of his forebears' predilection for self-immolation.

At any rate, my grandfather quickly discovered that he was not the only Thomas Thompson in Minot. In fact, with the exception of the men in my mother's family, which bore the Scottish name of Ransom, just about every man in town was named Thomas Thompson. It was perhaps for this reason that my grandfather had his three sons christened Lester (my father), Marvin and Denver and his daughters Ardith, Fern and Donna, names that could never be confused with Thomas. But this didn't prevent the old man from receiving mail and phone calls meant for other Thomas Thompsons. To extricate himself from this intolerable muddle, he decided he would legally change his surname to something so exotic it would never again be confused with anyone else's. Why not, he thought, henceforward adopt the name of the village he knew so well: Fimreite!

And so, when my father was 15 and in his first year at Minot High School, he found himself transformed from being just plain Lester Thompson to—horrors—Lester Fimreite. He would blame every calamity that befell him afterward on this singular event. He was doomed, he knew, to spend the rest of his life scrupulously spelling out his preposterous new name to uncomprehending listeners. To make matters worse, the man who bequeathed him this dreadful moniker promptly disappeared. One day my grandfather informed my grandmother, Donna, that he, an inventor by trade, would be leaving Minot for a few days to do some work on a bridge somewhere near Fargo. He never returned.

My father was understandably disturbed by this defection. It wasn't so much the family's sudden impoverishment that agitated him or the fact that he, as the oldest of six children, would now assume the unwanted role of paterfamilias. No, what really drove him up the wall was that his father had left him with what he forever after referred to as "this damned name," which no one seemed able to pronounce or spell. When he married my mother, Mildred, in 1930, he would have gladly assumed her maiden name had it not been considered unmanly to do so in those less enlightened times. So now my mother had the damned name too. And quite soon thereafter, so would I.

My father quickly put Minot behind him and moved to northern California, where I was born and where, my father presumed, many people had names fully as unusual as Fimreite. He was wrong; no one had a name remotely like that. And since, initially, our family settled in the California wine country, where Italian was pretty much the first language, we became, for the most part, the Fimerettis. Fimreeti was also popular, though, and Fermanente was not uncommon. To those neighbors not of Mediterranean descent, we were often known as Fermette or Frimert. Nobody ever seemed to get it right.

We kept moving around northern California, but it was always the same. At junior high school in Berkeley, I sat in homeroom next to two girls with the improbable names of Caliroy Hadjopoulis and Dema Karajanis. The teacher proudly breezed through those tongue twisters at roll call without a glitch. Then it came my turn. "Ronald...Ronald" "Here," I'd reply. Later, at Berkeley High, I was identified in the school newspaper as "another halfback prospect, Bob Fimeretti."

My father, whose patience, like his father's, had limitations, had had enough. He would change the damned name yet again, only this time with greater subtlety. Studying at some length the jumble of letters, he concluded that by simply dropping the intrusive e after the r he could restore sanity. "What could be easier," he would say hopefully, "than Fim-rite?" Altered in that way, the name would, of course, lose its Viking character, as it might not have had my father chosen to drop the final e instead. But Eric Sevareid was not yet that famous. And who cared where such a name came from, anyway? My lawyer uncle, Ed Ransom, was employed to make the change official in court.

The revision came, I thought, at a propitious time for me, since I soon again changed schools, transferring from Berkeley to San Leandro High, on the other side of Oakland. I felt almost as if I'd been reborn. Fimrite! Who could get that wrong? On my first day out for football practice at the new school, I was introduced to the team by coach Joe (Tip) O'Neill: "I'd like you to meet the new candidate at fullback—Rod Firmite."

That was only the beginning of yet a new wave of off-the-mark variations on a familiar theme. Frimite. Fremit. Fimrot. Funrite. Even Dimlight. In the Army, I was awakened for guard duty by a corporal who inquired if I was indeed "Private Fitmire." I said I was. Fimrite inspired even more bad jokes than Fimreite, mainly because most people at least got the "rite" part right. "There's a right way of doing things," went one familiar refrain, "and a Fimrite way." Needless to say, "Fimwrong" became part of the vernacular.

My father, meanwhile, never gave up hope of finding the villain who had stuck us with that odious handle. He scanned telephone directories in every town he passed through, hoping to find a Fimreite somewhere. He met, quite naturally, with abject failure, until one day a friend informed him that, strange as it seemed, there was a Thomas Fimreite living in Seattle. My father got there as quickly as he could, with my grandmother dutifully in tow. Neither had seen the deserter in more than 30 years. They found him with a new wife—though he'd never divorced the old one—and a new batch of Fimreites. The lingering bitterness soon dissolved when my. father saw that his father was now decrepit and partially blind. The old man himself seemed vague about the whole episode. But when he ventured out to the car to see his first wife, he smiled familiarly. "Tom," my grandmother said, "you never did get that tooth fixed, did you?"

Still searching for his roots, my father next traveled to Norway and—where else?—the village of Fimreite. Just seeing this quaint little whistle-stop on the fjord somehow lessened the terrible burden of bearing that name for so long. And in Bergen, to the south, he found entire pages of the telephone directory filled with Fimreites. I wondered if anyone living there could pronounce the name, not that dropping the extraneous e had done us much good. (Just the other day, I received correspondence that began "Dear Mr. Fumglot...I hope I got that spelling right..." Close enough.)

Somehow, though, I've gotten used to the damned name, something my father never did to his dying day. I think it beats Ron Thompson all hollow. And I just wish the IOC had seen fit to move the Winter Games to Mount Fimreite and make all of us Fimrites and Fimreites famous. Come on, now, what kind of a name is Lillehammer, anyway?