There is actually this romantic legend about the way my mother found out in late 1945 that her husband was still alive. As the story goes, he managed to write a brief note with a gnawed pencil stub on a torn piece of paper: “Alive. In France. All’s well. Hans”. This piece of paper, with it’s smudged message and simple address – just her name and town – was passed on from person to person across regions, battlefields, and borders, until it reached my mother’s hands many months later. Her child was about to be born and the faint scribbles gave her hope of a future.
Eighteen years ago today, my father died. A fact I had actually forgotten until my baby brother called me tonight. As I sit here and write about my father, I am also thinking about his brother in Marietta, Ohio, himself now 85 years old, who is having dinner with one of his daughters tonight, and about my mother, widowed these many years, sleeping peacefully in Hamburg, Germany, I hope. We are dispersed across the globe, yet interconnect in remembering.
Most years over these past eighteen yahrzeits I sent an email, some kind of little ‘thinking of Pahpie’ note to my family, but this year I was preoccupied with my personal troubles and thus had to be reminded.
I had been in a foul mood all day because I found out yesterday that my United States citizenship application is going to drag on well beyond the time I was scheduled to leave the country again. This delay is causing some considerable scrambling and rearranging of schedules, but mostly I’m deeply disappointed that my 34 years of paying my taxes so faithfully don’t mean diddlysquat in the larger scheme of things. We all like to feel special, don’t we …
Having to be reminded that we lost our father on this date is not exactly improving my grumpy disposition. But, since this also qualifies as self-pity, I’ve decided to remember him to the world at large, instead of continuing this self-indulgence.
As a young teen, my father Hans carried a test tube with nitroglycerin, which he and a buddy had stolen from the chemistry lab of their school, by public transportation (!) to an area with sand dunes outside the city for a fun explosion experiment. Not surprisingly, his favorite movie was Yves Montand and Charles Aznavour’s 1953 epic “Le Salaire de la Peur”. A gut-wrenching, nail-biting nightmare of nitro, transported by desperate men in old trucks on washed out mountain roads (watch it, it’s a classic cult movie!).
Pahpie’s stern sense of unfailing responsibility developed later, after deserting Hitler’s navy and spending over three years as a prisoner of war in assorted French dungeons.
These are my parents in 1948, shortly after his return, with my older sister Diana. She didn’t much like this stranger, who appeared out of no-where and moved in with her and her mother. You can’t blame the girl, really, because the concept of a father was totally foreign to her, she had never met one before.
Nitroglycerin Hans had desired to become an Ingenieur and Submariner, but his father saw the writing on the wall and secretly signed him up as a medical student to assure the marginally safer medic duty for his son in the soon to explode world war. Eventually, this resulted in an ophthalmologist, who used his talented fingers to reconstruct shredded faces after industrial accidents and who was possibly the first consistent seatbelt user in the universe because he was so fed up with repairing the damage caused to human faces crashing through windshields.
Indulging his engineering dream, he constructed a multi-track electric train set, which was mounted on the surface of a board, attached to the wall like a Murphy bed. It was folded up and hidden behind a curtain, when not in use. Mostly during the Winter months, he’d lower the 6’x15′ (2x5m) or so, tabletop with its simple block and tackle pulley system and we’d play with the trains. Naturally, every single item on the board, except the actual trains, had to be glued or screwed to the board. There was a quarry with miniature workers on scaffolding made of matches and toothpicks, a refinery built from former shampoo bottles, forested mountain ranges with crystal clear lakes made of frosted glass, actual water pumped in a closed loop, running down narrow creek beds and splashing down waterfalls lined with putty. Everything built lovingly from scratch. The most amazing part, almost, was the thousands and thousands of crisscrossing multi-colored wire system underneath the table!
He taught me anatomy – my earliest instructions remembered were the skinning and dismembering of a hare for dinner. He explained joint function, the way muscles stretch across joints, and with a probe, he demonstrated the pathway of lead shot through the tissues. He also taught me how to sail and how to drive a car, including parallel parking uphill and how to shift down and accelerate through a curve. Along the way, I learned how to eat fermented herring without flinching and how to wash it down with aquavit. When I started my first year at university, he opened an account for me at a local store for textbooks and other scientific volumes, a store where he had bought during his own studies. Any text I needed, no questions asked, I could buy it. By the same token, he was very demanding, always pushing against my intellectual inertia: “What, you haven’t read that yet? Shouldn’t you know this?”.
Sometimes, all you can do is blow a raspberry!!