TAISTO LISKI: FROM WRECKS TO RICHES

REPORTER: TOMI HINKKANEN – LOS ANGELES
PHOTO CREDITS: JONNY KAHLEYN DIEB

Finnish-American Taisto Liski Taisto Liski, 72, epitomizes the term ‘American Dream’. A self-made man, who moved out of the economically uncertain Finland of  the 1960’s. It took a lot of guts, hard work, a bit of luck and a supportive wife, but Taisto succeeded in carving out a good living in the United States. He built a successful car mechanics business, raised two children with his wife Helka and was able to retire comfortably with plenty: a nice home in Signal Hill, California, a vacation house in the San Jacinto Mountains, a new car every year (usually a Mercedes or a BMW), and even a private plane which Taisto flies to the family’s mountain getaway.

It all began 44 years ago. Taisto Liski had been saving for a condo in Helsinki.

“Even back then it was difficult and expensive to get a home in Helsinki. The bank manager had said that if I could scrape together a third of the house payment (ten thousand Finnish markkaa), he would lend me the rest. Well, with the help of my father I was able to come up with the money, but then the Bank of Finland froze all new loans in fear of devaluation”, Taisto reminisces. He heard that ‘MS United States’ would be making its final voyage from Bremerhaven, Germany to New York that same Fall. So, Taisto along with wife Helka and children Marja and Mika boarded the ship on October 17th, 1967.

“It was a truly great experience for the children who were 2 and 4 years old at the time. The trip coincided with Halloween which was celebrated on board with parties and costumes. My daughter Marja even learned some English during the five-day crossing.”

They arrived inNew York, but did not stay long. “It was too cold, and the children were complaining. So we continued on to sunny California. Upon arriving here, the kids then complained that it was too hot!”, Taisto chuckles. “On Christmas Eve, we all went swimming in the Pacific Ocean. Funny that a year later when I brought the kids back to the very same beach, they said that it was awfully cold. I guess they had gotten acclimated to the California weather.”

In the beginning, he didn’t have a job or a green card.

“As soon as we got to California, I bought a car, drove to the state employment agency and registered as a job applicant.  On the opposite side of the street from the agency there was a car mechanic shop called

‘German Auto Parts’. I thought, what the hell, I’ll go in and ask for work. A burly man emerged from behind the counter. He asked me if I was a Finn. “Yep”, I replied, for I spoke hardly any English in those days. “How long does it take to fix a Volkswagen engine”, the man asked. “Five minutes”, I said. He looked at me and told me to report to work the next morning!”

A month later, the owner fired the two other mechanics at the shop. And after two years after that, the owner persuaded Taisto to buy the place for he was getting ready to retire.

“We negotiated the price and filled out the paperwork. Ever since that day, I made my money repairing cars in my own shop.”

Over the years German Auto Parts employed up to six men at a time. Helka handled the bookkeeping, billing and all other office work. As years went by, mechanic businesses were being taken over by big chains. However, Taisto remained in business by carving out a niche as a reputable mechanic.

“Finns are not as brand loyal as Americans. If an American buys a BMW, he wants to find a good mechanics shop, because to have the car serviced at a dealer’s is incredibly expensive and unreliable. For some reason I got a reputation as a trustworthy man,” he laughs.

Taisto with members of a film crew at Hemet-Ryan Airport, CA

“German Auto Parts fixed Mercedes, BMW’s, Volvos and Volkswagens. Every day 3 or 4 cars got repaired averaging a hundred a month. His clientele consisted mostly of wealthy businessmen, and many doctors and lawyers whose main concern was getting their vehicles back on time. Some would even leave blank checks in the glove compartment for Taisto to fill out.

“When my clients had extramarital affairs, their mistresses would bring their cars to us too”, Taisto giggles. Business remained equally busy throughout the year since Southern Californiadoes not have a peak Summer driving season like the cold climate states.

Taisto also had some regular celebrity customers: “Olympic runner Arto Bryggare was like my adopted son some 20 years ago. We also had Edwin Moses and Jamaican runner Don Quarry. And we fixed the Finnish born actor Albert Salmi’s car regularly until he committed suicide. We also had Hollywood starlets, but nothing to write home about.” he shrugs.

Taisto Liski's cabin on the San Jacinto Mountains in California

One time a pal played a practical joke on Taisto: “he brought in his Porsche because he said he had heard a loud bang while driving, but had managed to idle to the shop on his own. To my astonishment, there was no engine at all when I opened the hood! But as he saw my amazed look, he burst into laughter!”

Taisto and his airplabe at the Hamet Airport in California

Taisto sold the business to his trusted mechanic David Jones and retired on September 1st, 2004. But he was not content on resting on his laurels. His two passions had always been antique cars and flying, and he was then able to pursue them with gusto having a lot more time to spare. Taisto has been a licensed pilot and owned airplanes since 1975. His current airplane is a Rockwell Air Commander which he keeps in a hangar at Long Beach Airport(he maintains and fixes it himself). At the same hangar, Taisto keeps his three most priced possessions: a 1915 Ford T Roaster, a 1939 Buick Century and a 1972 BMW 2000 TII. The hangar also houses a Jeep he uses to drive up to his vacation house in the San Jacinto Mountains named ‘Vuorenkulma’ (a corner of the mountain).  Taisto bought the retreat in 1972 and added a wing and a deck three years later. The cabin is located in Pine Cove, CA, some 7000 feet above sea level bordering the picturesque Idyllwild Village. The place is surrounded by majestic pine trees that nest innumerous Bluejays as well as squirrels and offers spectacular mountain views.

Bluejay by Taisto's cabin on the mountains

Taisto’s cabin used to be rented in 60’s by movie star legend Gloria Swanson. “She would only come out at night, camouflaged in a large-rimmed ‘Garbo’ hat, walk around for a half an hour and then return to the cabin. Other than that she was never seen in public. She even had even her groceries delivered by Village Market”, he adds.

Soon after buying the cabin, the Liskis also found out that it was haunted: “I had asked my neighbor, a retired sheriff, to occasionally look after the place while I was gone. He said he often heard footsteps and that lights went on and off by themselves in the cabin. The ex-sheriff would enter with a gun in hand, but there was never anybody there”.

One night the ghost made himself known to Taisto’s wife Helka: “We had been dining at a local restaurant with friends in Idyllwild when Helka deviced to leave early and returned to the cabin. When I arrived a short while later, I found Helka in huddled in our bedroom scared out of her mind. She said she heard the door open, and saw someone coming in and entering the second bedroom. When they went to investigate the other bedroom, there was nobody there.

The haunting finally culminated in 2003: “I was working with a Finnish friend paneling the bedrooms. I went to sleep around 11 o’clock. I suddenly woke up at 1.05 am. An old, thin-faced man with bare, veined arms was standing in the bedroom. He was dressed as an old time miner with a cowboy hat and a vest. He was just staring at me as I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Then the man slowly faded away. Suddenly, a strange but calming sensation filled me to the core. I was no longer afraid”, Taisto recalls. “After that the ghost never reappeared or any other strange occurrences took place in the mountain house. I was later told by a man named Jesse, who had originally built the cabin in 1965, that as they were digging in the lot to build the foundation, they had uncovered bones in the ground.

These days Taisto enjoys his retirement. He just returned from EAA’s (Experimental Aircraft Association) Air Show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. He frequents local Finnish events and travels extensively around the world. In the Fall of 2010 he cruised down the Nile in Egypt: “It was very hot and muggy there. We flew to Luxorand took a river boat hotel to different ports of call. We visited the impressive Aswan Dam and the Valley of the Dead.”

Every Spring, without fail, he travels to one of the most important events of the year: a reunion of his childhood friends in his old hometown Helsinki.

Life has been good to Taisto Liski in America. With a big smile on his face he says, “I can’t complain. Everything has gone pretty damn well!.”

 

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