The sub-title of Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is “A Savage Journey To The Heart of The American Dream.”
I was thinking about this yesterday for two reasons. First, I was wearing my “Fear and Loathing” t-shirt which, in an addition to the famous Ralph Steadman drawing has the sub title blazed across the front. All I need do is look in the mirror and be reminded.
But that was of intention. I had put the t-shirt on because I was flying to Hawaii. You may say, that makes sense. Going to Hawaii “American Dream” etc. But Hunter Thompson covered that in “The Curse of Lono.” No, the reason I had put the t-shirt on was because the purpose of this trip was to live out the last part of my best friend’s savage American dream and toss his ashes, along with his sons, into the depths off of his Hawaii.
Richard has been dead over a year now. His son, Patrick, a little less than a year. I cannot say with any honesty that I have managed to move beyond the grief over their deaths. I doubt that I will ever be over their loss as both left unfillable voids in me and the desire to speak with them happens daily and occasionally hourly. What I can say, is the time since their deaths have given me enough time to imagine what how they would like their life celebrated.
In passing, and certainly not in any maudlin way, Rich and I talked about what kind of funeral he would want. He told me wanted to be eulogized with people spouting all of his faults and telling stories horrible horrible stories about him. It would forces you to be less sentimental. You say, ‘That guy was a rat,’ and I’m a rat too, and I’d better do something about it rather than weep my life away.”
My buddy Rich was not a perfect person. In fact like most of us he had glaring flaws. If I were giving the eulogy for him he wanted, what would I say? The first thing I would mention is that he was way too charming, and he knew it. No doubt his charisma was rooted in his Irish heritage and perhaps a pinch from the time we kissed the Blarney Stone. He would use his charm to his advantage despite the consequences to the person he was charming. Such as the night he convinced me to steal an industrial size jar of pickled onions from my employer, the Beacon Hill Club, because he liked eating them so much. The end result of this episode was that I got fired and he got the pickled onions he wanted. (Although to be completely forthcoming the jar eventually broke in the back seat of his father’s car which caused problems for both of us.)
Please do not get me wrong. I have free will. I could have said no, and over time it was something that I became adept at with him. But I mention it because there is not a single person I know who loved Rich who hasn’t felt the backside of his charm. Where they have done something that should not have done because Rich convinced them that it would be a good idea to head down that path.
The amazing part of his gift, if amazing is the correct word, was even when RP had used his charm and lied to us or betrayed us in some way, we most often forgave him. So complete is that gift that now a little more than a year after his death I struggle to remember any of the bullshit that he managed to foist on me or on others.
Far easier to remember, are the good times we had together. Suffice it to say, that wherever Rich was a party or a good time was to follow. As a disciple of the great Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson he insisted on it. For years, whether it be in Stockholm where he got a party started by telling a group of Swedes gathered for a wedding how fucked up their country was or in Key West the night Ronald Regan was elected President and he kept pouring “Hurricanes” down my throat to ease the pain brought about by that victory, he insisted on calling himself the Dr. (as in Hunter S.) and me his attorney based on characters from Rich’s favorite books Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. .
I never asked Rich why he loved the Dr. so much. I did not have to because I knew. It was the Gonzo writers code for life. He believed that “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body , but rather skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What A Ride!” And, “the happier man, he who has braved the storm of life and lived rather or he who who has stayed securely on shore and merely existed.”
Richard would have wanted a funeral like Thompson’s. His carbonized remains were shot from a canon placed upon a 150 foot tower accompanied by red, white, blue and green fireworks while accompanied by Norman Greenbaum’s” Spirit in the Sky” and Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” I believe that is the type of finale my buddy would have loved only he probably would have substituted Bruce Springsteen’s “Growing Up” for Tamborine Man. Unfortunately, Thompson’s funeral cost an estimated $3M and that was just not in our budget. Which is why we will let his carbonized remains will be placed in the placid Pacific from a boat in the middle of the Pacific. Not quite as spectacular but I have no doubt that Rich would have approved.
I do not want to leave you with the impression my buddy was a complete hedonist. He wasn’t. That was only the part that showed above the surface. For as long as I knew him Rich was a seeker of a bigger truth. Whether that was embracing transcendental meditation and the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi when we were in high school or reading the poetry of Kahlil Gibran (his high school year book quote was “In on drop of water were found the secrets of the oceans.” To becoming “born again” and his embrace of evangelical Christianity he sought deeper meaning for his purpose on earth.
The bigger meaning and what came next was very much on his mind after he received his diagnosis. Shortly after he began his first round of chemo, I flew out to Manhattan Beach to hang out with him. To cheer him up I took to Blue Star Donuts because while donuts are not a cure all I have found that while eating them you often forget your problems. Sitting out in the SoCal sunshine, chowing down on Blueberry Bourbon and Meyer Lemon and Key Lime donuts, he confessed to me while he was saying to everyone else that he was going to lick this thing “even that had to give him a new brain”, he knew the score. The clock was ticking down and getting louder by the second. He was staring into the abyss we all will face and he was scared about what came next. He asked me if I thought there was something that came after our life here was done.
I told him that I was the last person in the world he should be asking that question. I was a heathen: a non-practicing Jew. But he insisted. After a moment’s hesitation I shared with him that since my mother’s death the previous month I had spent a good amount of time thinking about what came next. I told him that it made no sense to me that the essence of who we are would not be preserved in some form. Didn’t Newton’s law of the conservation of energy state “ energy can neither be created nor destroyed; rather, it can only be transformed or transferred from one form to another.” Aren’t we, or the parts that make us, us, energy?
I said that, unremarkably, I spent a lot of time seeking solace in books because that is something Mom and I both loved. The book that made the biggest impression was the Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham, a book he and I had read in a Humanities class we had taken in high school. It was about a man’s search for the purpose and meaning of life after living through the slaughter of the first World War as told by an urbane and witty British dilettante. I told him the protagonist in the book reminded me of him at least in the sense he was an American whose experiences in life had made him go in search of a higher truth.
I shared there was one passage in the book that had resonated with me. “Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it. … “
I told him none of us knew when we would die. For all we knew I could pass away before he did. Our sacred obligation to ourselves and to those around us is to delight in our life while we have it. That he, had the greatest capacity for delight in life of anyone I knew. He should not abandon that just because of a cancer diagnosis.
I am not sure what effect my words had on Rich that day. I know that when his son and daughter in law took over as his primary care givers, he found joy every day because they were there every day for him. Perhaps it was in the comfort of his care that he found the true meaning of his existence. To paraphrase Maugham
“The man I am speaking about is not famous. He never will be. When his life came to a close, he left no more trace of his sojourn on earth than a stone thrown into a river leaves on the surface of the water. But it may be that the way of life that he has chosen for himself and the peculiar strength and sweetness of his character may have an ever-growing influence over those who knew and loved him so that, long after his death perhaps, it may be realized that there lived in this age a very remarkable creature.”
Rich you were a remarkable creature. You left your mark on everyone who knew you and loved you. And even though your time with us has ended, who you were and what you shared with us, carries on.
We were quiet for a few moments and he said “Lets go for a walk. “
Crossing the street we headed down Weyprechtstrasse and after a block or so we paused and he said “This used to be a park where me and my friends would play football.”
I asked “Was it grass?”
“No, gravel. It used to cut it us pretty good.”
“I can imagine.”
We resumed our walk after a short walk my father paused and pointed to a plaque on the side of a building. It read “Hier stand eine um 1885/86 nach planen des archiiteten Ludwig Tischler Erbautes Synaggoge. Zerstort in der Reichskristallnacht am 10.November 1938” (Translation: Here was a synagogue building built around 1885/86 after the plan of the architect Ludwig Tischler. Destroyed in the Reichskristallnacht on 10 November 1938.)
My father says, in a voice that is supposed to convey nonchalance but sends the exact opposite message “This is where my synagogue was before the bastards burned it down.” He paused and said something to me that he had said many times before “I didn’t even get a fountain pen” referring to a once traditional present for a young Jewish boy when he became Bar Mitzvah. This time, though, it struck me full force how hard he must have studied to become a bar mitzvah, how heartbroken, horrified, disappointed and devastated to see his temple be burn to the ground by a mob just weeks before fulfilling that dream. How that night changed his life forever. That every time he mentioned not getting that fountain pen, it meant more than not getting a gift, it meant the death of a dream and the end of whole period in his life.
It broke me and I started to weep and noticed my father was doing the same. I swore to myself there and then that I would get him his fountain pen and kept that promise later that year as a present for his 81st birthday. It must have meant something to him because after his death I found the card and the pen in his top desk drawer. The card read: “To Zaki ben Mordecai: Abba…a little late, but better late than never…Love Daniel Ben Zaki.”
We turned the corner and after a few more blocks came across another belle epoque building but this one had a huge gold coat of arms, a shield boarded by angels on its sides and a bust of Hermes above, on its façade. He pointed and said “That is where Litzi, Aunt Leni and Uncle Benno lived.”
“Litzi emigrated (alone) to Belgium, how or why I don’t remember, where a family named Weening became her foster parents. When the Germans invaded she fled with them to unoccupied France. They then made their way (on foot) across the Pyrenees, and then somehow Mrs. Weening, Lizzi, and her foster sister got themselves to Jamaica, where they were interned. Mr. Weening was gravely wounded while serving with Dutch Forces in the Normandy Invasion.
“Yes. In fact Litzi says the woman who was taking care of things walked over the Pyranees wearing high heels”
“What about Benno and Lenni?”
“He was arrested in 1938 and sent first to Dachau and then transferred to Weimar-Buchenwald. Sometime in mid-1939 he was released on the condition that he leave Germany within 72 hours. He got a visa to Italy (Milan) where we saw him as we passed through in November 1939. Because his visa was no longer valid, he managed our meeting by leaping on our train while it was in the switching yard and then rode into the Milan station with us, where he managed to disappear immediately on the platform. The Italians finally interned him in a camp in Southern Italy (Alberobello and Ferramonte in Bari) . The British liberated the camp and he attached himself to the Jewish Brigade, whom he served as a laundry worker and later worked for American troops in Naples.
“Wow. The guy always scared me a little but he must have been some tough son of a bitch to survive all that. And Linni?”
“She stayed in Vienna, living underground what they called a u-boater.” One of her life savers was her gentile sister’s baptismal certificate. She never left. She hid with people all over the city. I think a good part of it in the red light district. “
“Unbelievable story. I can’t even imagine what they must have gone through” I replied and then mentally chastised myself because for years I had remembered them as the horrible couple who had babysat my brother and who hadn’t allowed me to have potato chips when I wanted them.
We walked a little farther down the road until we came across a white multiple story building with Schule Der Stadt Wien or School of the City of Vienna in red letters across the front of the building. He said “this is where I went to primary school.”
Deciding that we had been too serious for too long, I tried a little humor on him. I said “Is there a plaque somewhere.”
He smiled and replied “Smart ass.” And we walked on until we reached a very imposing, very federal looking building that said “Bundesfaschule fur wirschatliche Frauberlufe” which I in my very bad German roughly translated as “Federal School for Women.” Pops said “This is where I would have gone to High School.”
“But it says that it’s a woman school.”
“It wasn’t then.”
Then something occurred to me. “What do you mean would have gone to high school. I thought you started high school here.”
“No. I was about to but after Krystalnacht Jews weren’t allowed to attend secondary school.”
“Krystalnacht was in November of 1938 and you didn’t immigrate until a year later….What did you do with your days.”
His reply, slow coming as if he didn’t want to open up a can of worms said “I hung out with my friends. Lets get a cab. Were late.”
What we were late for was a visit my father’s boyhood friend Paul Gross. For the last several years he had been suffering with Parkinson’s disease. Recently, his symptoms of body tremors and stiffness, confusion, and an inability to communicate clearly had forced a hospitalization. His wife Henni had invited us to their home and we would take her to the Hospital where we would all have a visit with Pop’s oldest friend.
Despite being named for him, and being my father’s oldest if not best friend, I had only Paul twice in my life. The first time was on my only previous trip to Vienna when I was seven. My memories of that trip are few but I have a vivid memory of visiting the Furrier shop Paul owned. He gave me a mouse that was made out of mink that I adored. That is until I lost him. The other memory I had of him was when he had visited the United States shortly after I had become a Bar Mitzvah. He had given me a beautiful Seiko chronograph with an orange face that I wore for years and still cherish. Other than those two meetings, that he had been the leader of the Jewish Community in Vienna for decades, and the rare stories from my father’s childhood, I knew little.
As the cab maneuvered in traffic I asked, “When you returned to Vienna did you look for Paul?”
“How did you find him.”
“I went to the grocery store his mother owned. But it had closed so I went to the apartment they used to live in and was told they had moved but the folks there had a forwarding address. I made my way over there and I found his mother. Paul was not there but she, in the best Viennese tradition and despite the shortages the war, invited me in for coffee and cake. While we were having coffee with her Paul arrived. ”
“That must have been one hell of a reunion? I mean you had done it. Survived. And then to just show up on his doorstep wearing the uniform of an officer in the American Army? That is a whole new definition of the term shock in awe!”
He paused and replied. “He just acted, as did I, like we had just seen other the week before. Hi Paul. Hi Sam” He grinned, a self-satisfied smile and said “We didn’t need to say anything more. We knew what it meant.”
“What did it mean?”
He took a beat before answering. As if there was a lot to unpack. Then said, “We survived.”
I nodded, knowing that while I understood the words, I had no comprehension of how that moment must have felt for them. I don’t think anyone who is not a survivor can understand the jumbled emotions that go along with that status. I asked, “Why didn’t they leave?”
“That is complicated.”
“It wasn’t that easy. You had to get permission to leave. And for a variety of reasons Paul couldn’t”
“How did they manage to make it through?”
“Paul’s mother’s family hid them and I think they spent some time living in the sewers. U-boaters.”
We fell into silence. I knew from a life of living with my father and how he told stories of those years during and surrounding the war that what happened was more complicated than the responses my father was giving me . I knew, for example, that at the beginning of the war nearly 200,000 Jews were living in Vienna and that many, up to 130,000 had managed to find other places to live including places like Singapore. But those who left, left almost all their wealth and belongings. Where ever they went they had to begin their new life with little but the sentimental items like photographs and other family ephemera they managed to carry with them.
Of the 60,000 Jews left in Vienna when they closed the border only 2,000 survived the war. Paul had managed to win one of the most horrific lotteries of all time.
When we walk up the front steps, to Paul’s home we are met by Henni. She greets my father with hugs and kisses on both cheeks. I get the same treatment even though I have not seen her since I was a small boy. She then steps back and taking us both in while commenting on how much we looked alike. We were ushered into her parlor because in proper Viennese fashion as she has prepared us a little cake and coffee so we would not go to the hospital with any hunger.
Over the coffee and cake she explains that Paul had been admitted to the hospital because his Parkinson’s had progressed to the point where he was no longer able to take care of himself, that his ability to speak had become limited and that the Dr’s had thought that a change in medication would help him with his tremors and communication. This had been going on for the past two weeks. She is , in the gentlest of ways, trying to prepare my father to see his oldest friend now altered by this horrible disease.
Vienna’s General Hospital is different than any hospital I had ever visited. It is a high rise. Twenty-two stories tall with a motor lobby for cabs and cars drop offs and a mini mall that contains everything from flower shops to McDonalds. It was more like visiting an apartment complex in Miami Beach than a hospital that had originally been established in 17th century.
A high-speed elevator takes us to the 21st floor where Paul’s room is located. Hennie leads the way to Paul’s room with my father and me in her wake. He is not there. She suggests that my father go to the nurse’s station and see if they have seen Paul. Apparently, despite his currently being confined to a wheelchair and troubles speaking, he liked to socialize. While Henny and I remained guard outside Paul’s room my father makes his way down the hall. We see an old man in a wheelchair emerge from a room. It is Paul. Pop walks up to him and when Paul recognizes him, he slowly extricates himself from the wheelchair and despite tremors stands at attention for my father and salutes him. My father returns the tribute with a crisp salute of his own. No words are spoken. 70 years of friendship encapsulated without a word. The silence a part of their code. Why speak of things that are not capable of being understood or where words are inadequate.
We decide that all of us trying to sit in Paul’s hospital room would be too uncomfortable and an inconvenience to his roommate. Instead, after straightening Paul up a little bit and gathering up his caregiver, we ahead downstairs to the Hospitals coffee house. I should have known that in this city that invented the coffee house, where patisseries and pastries were part of their birthright, a hospital coffee shop would be far superior to its American counterpart. It was decorated in browns and brasses, the tables of real wood, no Formica. The menu had everything from Schnitzel to Sachertorte. And apparently smoking was on the menu as well because everyone in the restaurant seemed to be smoking and a blue haze hangs just below the ceiling.
We arranged ourselves around a square table. My father and Henny on side. Paul and I on the other with the caretaker sitting on the end closest to Paul. Dad could tell that this was a difficult situation for Paul. His verbal skills had deteriorated to the point where getting a word out was painfully labored. This was made even more tortuous by the fact he wanted to speak English so that I would feel a part of the conversation. As a consequence, a pattern emerged pretty quickly at our table. I would ask a question and Paul would try to answer. If he got hung up or frustrated in finding the words my father would help him complete his thoughts. Paul would react and try to expand a little a to me.
After we had ordered coffee and some Austrian pastries my father told Paul that the reason, we had come to visit was because I was interested in writing a story about what it must have been like for him, to return to the Vienna at the end of the War… a Jewish boy forced to flee his homeland only to return a few later, a man and an officer in the conquering army.
This embarrassed me a bit. I am not a professional writer, and I didn’t know if I could even write something worth reading. Leaning into my discomfiture , I ask Paul “What was your reaction, when you saw your old friend in your mother’s living room, wearing an US Army officer’s uniform?”
Paul glanced over at my father, and then back at me, his large eyes gleaming with a sense mischief and says in a halting voice. “It was good to see him.”
“Were you surprised?”
“No. I was pretty sure that he would turn up sometime.”
I could tell that he was going to be every bit as difficult to get information out him as my father so I decided to change tack a bit. I had heard stories for years of how my father had a group of friends who roamed the streets of Vienna after the I said to Paul “Who was the leader of the gang you two were in.” I knew that as close as my father and Paul were that part of what defined their relationship was a fierce competitiveness and I was not above tossing a grenade to see if I could some details beyond single sentences from them.
They held each other’s gaze for a few seconds and then my father replied, “He was.” but in such a way to make sure the listener knew he was just being gracious. And Paul smiled back and said in a halting way but with the same inflection as my father, “He was.” And then they both laughed knowing that had both outsmarted me.
Frustrated, but somewhat undaunted I persisted. I asked Paul “What was the name of you “gang.” He smiled and responded stuttering a little bit “The Wolf…wolf pack “and smiled eyes gleaming as if the thought of this band of miscreants brought back every good childhood memories from schools.
“How many people were in this gang.”
Paul held up his hand and said “Four.”
“Who were the other two?”
Paul began “Walter…” and seemed to get hung up and my father added “Eduard…Eddie.”
There was a pause as if the thoughts of these childhood gang blocked out the present for these old friends. As if their friends were now seated at the table with us. Enjoying a smoke and a coffee with their old comrades. I knew how special this gang was to my father. He had been telling us about them since we were small children asking for bedtime stories. He would tell of the adventures of Tad and Huge and their desire to escape Vienna in a makeshift submarine they were creating in a fishing shack on the flood plain of the Danube and the adventures they had along the way.
Wondering whether these bedtime stories were based in fact I asked “What this gang of your do?”
Again, my father exchanged a look with Paul and said “Mostly, we tried to find a way to get out of Vienna. There was always some rumor of Singapore, Palestine or some other country opening up for visas’ or a Kindertransport to England or anywhere safe. We tracked these down and let our friends know. Or when people needed someone for an odd job. We needed the money. It cost money to leave and we…..”
Paul nudged my elbow and signaled that he wanted to have something to write with him. My father obliged him by handing him the pen that was perennially in his pocket. Paul then took a napkin on it drew what appeared to be a stick with five branches growing out of its top. He said “The wolfs paw.” He then drew a line through the second branch sticking up from the stick and said “Me.”
My father jumped in and said “That is how we used to leave messages to each other. If we had been some place and wanted to tell the other we had been there we would draw the wolf’s paw and depending on what digit was crossed we could tell who it was. I was the first, Paul was the second and so on. “
“But what kind of messages would you leave each other.”
Exchanging a glance with Paul he said “Nothing really important. Just kid stuff.”
I asked, reluctantly “What happened to them…the other members of the Wolfpack?”
Paul replied “Walter I used to see around for a while and then he disappeared one day. One day he was there and the next gone and no record as to what happens I thought he had managed to escape. After the war I found out he died at Mauthausen.”
My father replied “Eddie….” and sighed and then said “He got out before all of us. A Kindertransport to England where he lived with in Lancashire with two school teachers. When he turned 18 he enlisted in the RAF and on the very last day of the war his plane crashed and he was killed. Poor bastard.” A silence fell over the table. I didn’t realize it at the time but my Dad had been in touch with Eddie from the time he left Europe until shortly before he was drafted. After my father’s death we discovered he had saved the letters for over 70 years and had even written a short story about being in England and searching for some trace of his old friend and Wolfpack member.
There was a pause in the conversation. The memory of Eddie and Walter of the memory of the adventures of the Wolfpack hovering over the table like the cigarette smoke at the tables adjacent to us. It made me realize that the salute Paul had given my father by getting out of his wheelchair and standing like a soldier at parade rest was more than courtesy afforded to any old friend. It was a salute to their old comrades and friends. Paul’s and my Dad’s survival and a tribute to Edi and Walter there fallen comrades.
Paul looked at my father and said in his halting way “Does he know about Tomahawk?
Pops gave a half shake of his head but before he could answer I said incredulously “The Hugi and Tad stories are true?”
Dad looking extremely uncomfortable replied. Well let’s just say there was some fact in the fiction.”
The stories of Tomahawk were my favorite bedtime stories, but I thought them the gifts of Pop’s vivid imagination to his children. Stunned and curious I decided I need to pull this thread. I asked “What is the real story?”
“Its too long a story to tell.”
I rollmy eyes. This whole trip I had been trying to find out more about his life and what happened to him before and after the war only to run into brick walls like “its too complicated” or “Can we talk about something else” or him just changing the subject.
Paul must have sensed my frustration. Directing his gaze at Dad he said, and considering his condition a very insistent tone “You need to tell him the story.”
My father’s response was a raised eyebrow and a shake of the head.
The conversation proved exhausting to Paul. His nurse signaled that it was time to leave, and our coffee klatch broke up. We said our goodbyes in the lobby They were more matter of fact than emotional. Sometimes silence says more than words. Kisses on the cheek for Hennie, a shoulder squeeze for Paul and we were out the door on our way to cab stand. We were silent as we waited for a cab. Each of us lost in the dissection of the day and adrift in our memories. I, for one, was wondering what Paul meant when he said “You need to tell him the story.” What story? And why was the old man so reluctant to tell me. I was confused. I thought he wanted me to write a story and this whole trip getting information out of him was tougher than finding the truth at a liars convention. A cab finally arrived and as the it pulled away from the hospital Pops says “I need a drink.”
I heartily concur. His reasons for imbibing are no doubt different than mine. Watching your best friend slowly fade away is not for the feint of heart. It is what he told me when my best friend was dying of brain cancer the year before. He was right. It forces you to think about things that are best left in the dark recesses of your consciousness most of your life. Dark questions. Questions without answers combined with deep sorrow and now bittersweet memories often requires a distiller’s skill to allow you to muddle through.
My reasons are, in part, a reflection of his. I love my old man. He is my friend and my hero. He has been, and always will be, my great protector but now I have taken on that role for him. It is what sons do for aging parents. Seeing him in so much pain is painful for me and I do not know what I can do to mitigate his pain, and this frustrates me. But this is not the only thing that is frustrating me. Dad has always chosen his own way in life often to the confoundment and exasperation of others. Once he adopted a point of view it was almost impossible to get him to change his mind. Clearly, there was a story he was hiding. A story that I traveled all this way to find and for reasons that I could not understand he was keeping it to himself.
The cab ride back to the Sacher was in silence. Both of us lost in our own thoughts. When we arrive at the Hotel we go directly to the bar and finding a table in the corner promptly order drinks. Doubles. Scotch for him. Bourbon for me. Please don’t think us drunks. Doubles in Europe is a light pour at home and we need extra strength medicine after the experiences of the day. When the waitress returns with our drinks and a few peanuts we silently toast each other and maintain our silence. Neither of us are being rude. It is a comfortable silence. We are old travel companions. We can sense when the other needs time to be with our own thoughts. This just happens to be one of these times.
Finally, when we have finished our first drink and have ordered our second, Dad still grim faced asks “Do you remember the coin I gave your brother, sister and you during the Holidays last year?”
I am surprised by his question because it seems so out of context to our conversation and because the gift of the coin had confounded my siblings and I. They had arrived by mail, unaccompanied by a note of explanation, and were it not for the return address on the package we would not have known who had sent them to us. That was not even the strange part. The gold coin wasn’t really a coin at all it was more of a religious medal. A Catholic religious medal with an image a crown with a cross tilted at an angle at its peak and the word “Stephanskrone” underneath. On the flip side was an image a medieval man king wearing that crown underneath which was written “St. Stephan.”
I reply to my old man “Sure.” And, then pull out my wallet and from a compartment inside it I pull out the gold medallion and place it on the table between us. He looks surprised. I say “You said it was for luck. So I carry it around with me.”
Getting over his surprise he asks “Can I trust you to keep a secret? I can sense the seriousness of his question and for some reason it activates the snark in me and I reply “Well, I have managed to keep the world from knowing what a good guy you are?”
He doesn’t smile and says “Don’t be an asshole. I am being serious.”
I smile. In our family being called an asshole is often an honorific but not in this case. “Sure Dad. What is up.”
“I am serious. What I am thinking about telling you is classified and I am breaking about a dozen laws just thinking about telling you about it.”
“Is this about the war?” thinking back to Paul’s veiled references.
“Then how can it still be classified. The war ended nearly seventy years ago.”
“It is. I checked.”
“But that makes no sense.”
Frustrated he responds “Trust me. What I am going to tell you could still ruin people’s lives. Hurt reputations and worse.”
“If you say so.”
“I say so.”
He pauses and after taking a sip of scotch he begins “There was a man named Anton Skoda who worked at Winter’s department store…”
Five years after our visit to Vienna. Pops passed away. He died like he lived. On his own terms. Unable to walk at the end, and faced with three time a week dialysis, that involved lengthy ambulance rides and being stretchered in and out of his home, he chose to end his treatment and slip quietly into the goodnight. It was not easy to see him go but I would like to think for him it was just a transition to the next great adventure. He made that easy to believe because even as uremia took him away from this reality. His positive outlook never wavered. Even blessing us from time to time with recitations of Kubla Khan by Coleridge, “ In Xanadu did Kubla Khan. A stately pleasure-dome decree,Where Alph, the sacred river, ran, Through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea.”
Just weeks after Pops died the Federal Government, in an effort to streamline and codify how we classify documents ordered the declassification of millions of top secret documents. Among the documents released were those on the Crown of Stephan and how it came into American hands at the end of the 2nd World War.
In the end, it had not been difficult to convince my father to go to Austria with me. While I am sure that my desire to understand his war experience and write a story about it was a part of the decision-making process, I am pretty sure that it not take a lot unction to get him to go. One factor was no doubt to see his oldest friend in the world, my namesake, Paul Gross. He had been suffering from Parkinson disease and the chances were if my father didn’t visit him soon, he would miss the chance to have one last talk with him.
Another reason it had been relatively easy to convince to embark on this trip with me was that despite all the pain and suffering he had experienced in Vienna as a child, and the heartbreak he discovered on his return as a young man, he still loved the city. It contained the memories of his childhood. Those memories most of us hold most fondly. And knowing my father’s optimistic attitude and perhaps sharing some of the same brain chemistry, I know that the tough times had faded to the background while the memories of families, of his friends, and the good times had been burnished over time and visiting the city added to the polish the remembrances of a long ago childhood.
What made this trip even remotely possible is that he and I were good travel companions. Over the course of my adult life we had been on a number of adventures together. In 1988 he and I spent 10 days in Israel exploring the country and both living out childhood dreams of visiting the Jewish homeland. In 2001 we had gone to Alaska, another bucket list trip for both of us, in celebration of my father’s recovery from Lymphoma. We knew how to be together. When to chat and when to be silent and when to give each other room to be by ourselves. We saw humor in many of the same things and could point out things to each other that we would relish. He knew, as did I, that no matter what happened on our journey, it would be enjoyable because we would be together.
A little more than two months later on a crisp and sunny May afternoon, we arrived in Vienna. I had arranged for a driver to meet us at baggage claim and were soon speeding our way into Vienna in his spotless Mercedes. The cab was warm, so I cracked the window and gazed out, mesmerized. Not because the scenery was spectacular, mainly open fields intermingled with a few industrial parks that had a far neater, more elegant look than their American counterparts. But because that is what I always did when taking a cab from the airport into a new city. It was a city’s overture I wanted to hear it.
I looked over at my father. He was wearing an outfit so common for him it should have been trademarked. He wore khaki pants with a light blue shirt, safari jacket and Ray-Ban Outdoorsman aviator style sunglasses. He was lost in thought and I wondered if he was remembering what this part of Vienna looked like before and when he had returned at the beginning of the occupation.
I asked, “When you returned to Vienna at the end of the War what time of year was it?”
He looked thoughtful, like he was thinking about what he should say, and replied “I really can’t remember.”
“What do you mean you can’t remember? You remember everything!”
“I just don’t remember.”
“Well, can you remember what the weather was like.”
“No, not really except it was not too cold nor hot.”
“So, it was likely Spring or Fall?”
At this point I was getting pretty frustrated with my father’s non-response responses. I asked, no doubt in an irritated tone, “Can you remember what year it was?”
“I think it was 1946.”
“But you were in Europe since early 1945. Why did it take you so long to go the 300 miles from where you were stationed in Italy to here?”
“It was not that simple.”
“But you can’t remember when that was.”
“No. Now will shut up so I can enjoy the ride into the city?”
I shut up. I did not think it strange for him to ask me to shut up. I tend to chat and ask questions when I am in new situations. I think his asking me to pipe down had more to do with the fact that we were on the outskirts of the city proper and the “real Vienna” was revealing itself. No doubt he was caught up in the thoughts we all get when we return to a place that is full of memories. What I did think strange is my father’s equivocation on the details of his return to Vienna. How could he not remember the time of year? Not only had he had the months in which we had planned the trip to contemplate that but I didn’t think it was a detail that I was likely to forget and his memory was every bit as good, if not better, than mine. But instead of questioning this further I too got lost in the sights and sounds of Vienna.
My father insisted that we stay at the Hotel Sacher. When he had told me of this request, I was more than just a little surprised. In the past when we traveled, the hotels we stayed in were more of the three star or, on a good day, four-star hotels. For him to insist on a five star, let alone an iconic was completely out of character. But I did not challenge him. If that is where he wanted to stay, it is where we were staying but I sensed there was a deeper meaning that perhaps I some point I could coax out of him. If you have ever been to the Hotel Sacher you know the lobby is impressive. All dark woods, velvet couches and overstuffed chintz chairs. It is an echo to the past when Vienna was a capital of empire. Dad seemed to breathe in the history of the place as we entered and was transformed from Sam Floessel, American to the Viennese Hugi Floessel. (How I discovered his birth name is another story) This was reinforced as he lapsed into Viennese German (there were many ah-so and naturlichs) when speaking to the front desk clerk and securing our room.
Our room was not ready which was just as well. We were both anxious to go for a walkabout. My father wanted to rekindle old memories and I wanted to get a sense of city that I had not seen since I was seven. After dumping our bags at the bell desk, left the hotel and headed down Kartner Strasse towards St. Stephen’s Cathedral.. As we walked Dad’s morphing into a Viennese continued. Instead of walking with hands by his side, as most Americans do, his hands were clasped behind his back. His chin tilted just a little higher. We strolled rather than walked.
At the time, I didn’t question the reason my father wanted to walk to St. Stephens. It is the city’s landmark and seemed a natural destination. It was one of the few clear memories I had from my only trip to the city over forty years before. But later I would wonder whether these first steps in Vienna were really a pilgrimage, of a sort, for him. Eventually, we found our way to a café and ordered an afternoon pick me up, which in Vienna is an exquisite pastry accompanied by an espresso. As my father ordered for us, I remember thinking natural it was for me to hear him speaking German. This was the language he learned to think in. I wondered how speaking the language of his childhood would stir ancient memories.
When the coffee arrived I asked “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about your Army career. I want to make sure that I have the timeline correct.”
“Sure. If you must.”
“Well if I am going to write this story, I would love to get the facts straight.”
“You entered the army in the summer of 1944.”
“Yes, my draft board had issued me a deferment so that I could complete my sophomore year.”
“How long was basic training.”
“I don’t remember.”
“Two months, 3 months?”
“Probably closer to 3 months.”
“So, if you entered the Army in the Summer of 1944 you probably finished basic training in September or October.”
“I guess so.”
“And you went to basic in Texas.”
“Yes. Fort Wolters.”
“So, did you go to OCS immediately after you finished basic”
“Did you have to take a test to be any officer, or did they have some other way of selecting you?”
“No, you had to submit a request and then the Army decided whether you were selected. And I didn’t know whether I wanted to become an officer or not.”
“Didn’t you want to become an officer?”
“I don’t know. I had a friend in basic and he thought it was a good deal. So, I applied and was accepted.”
“Is that why you became a citizen in Texas…so you could go to OCS?”
“Where was OCS?”
“Fort Sill, Oklahoma.”
“When did get there…. I mean what month.”
“I don’t remember.”
“Was it right after basic?”
“So, if you finished basic in October. Then November would have been the earliest you entered OCS.”
“I guess so.”
“And OCS took 8 weeks, right? That is why 2nd Lieutenants were called 8-week wonders.”
“I think the Artillery school took a little longer. Probably 12 weeks or so but I really can’t remember.”
“Well if it took 12 weeks the earliest you could have been shipped overseas would have been February. Right.”
“Then if you were in theatre before the end of the War then you probably got there sometime in late February or early March of 1945, right?”
“I guess. To be honest Paul the dates I really do not remember. I just remember thinking it was cold. But can we end for this right now and head back to the hotel.”
The next morning is when my father took me to the Danube and gave me his little speech. It was another beautiful mild spring day but we decided to take a cab as the walk would have been a little too far for my eighty-one year old father. We didn’t dawdle there. It was too windy and there was a distinct chill coming off the Danube We grabbed another cab headed to the Kunsthistoriches Museum which contains the amazing art collection of the Hapsburgs and was the one place my mother insisted I visited.
Arriving at the museum Pops chose to sit on a bench opposite the statue of Empress Marie Theresa while I gave the museum the once over. It was not that he did not like the museum, but the standing and the stairs would be a challenge for him. And moreover, despite the sophisticate he was, he had a low tolerance for museums. 30 minutes to an hour and he was done. Add to that the fact he had been there before, sitting in a garden, soaking in the Viennese spring seemed ideal choice for Dad.
The collection of paintings and antiques were amazing in their depth and scope. But what struck me most of all was the realization that this had been an Empire, for five centuries a leading power in Europe and Vienna its capital. And for a time, it was the center of the Universe. And then, after World War 1 they were suddenly an insignificant capital, in an insignificant country. It helped me understand the Anschluss and why most Austrians accepted annexation by Germany and becoming part of the Reich. They wanted their empire back.
Gaining an understanding of Austria’s vainglory did not diminish my contempt and anger at what they had done in their misguided attempt to reclaim empire. It was said while Germans were successful anti Semites, Austrian’s were pros. Worse, the Austrians had never fully accepted their role in the Holocaust.
My tour did not take long as, like my old man, I have a limited tolerance for museums. I love the art. I love the history but if I take any longer than an hour in a museum, I get cranky. I found my father sitting on his bench, enjoying the spring sunshine and it looked as if he might have even managed to slip a quick nap in while he waited for me. I asked him if he was tired and told him if he wanted, we go back to the hotel. What was to come next would require a huge reservoir of emotional energy that would be a challenge for anyone let alone an octogenarian. He told me, in no uncertain terms, to stop coddling him. To prove himself ready, he set off at a brisk pace to the Karlsplatz, a light rail station, a few blocks away. When we arrived my father without seeking guidance from anyone picked the #44 trolley and jumped on board.
Our destination was #48 Ottakringer Strasse, the apartment where my father was born and lived his entire life until he left Vienna in 1939. It was a central part of our family mythology about my father’s childhood. My grandparents were extremely poor. My grandfather worked in abattoir, cleaning hides and getting them ready to be tanned. A job that was brutal on the body and crushed the soul for little money. My grandmother worked as a seamstress making handmade ties at home. All they could afford was a two-room apartment that had a kitchen, where my father slept, and a living room where my grandparents slept. The bathrooms were shared privies at the end of the hallway and the refrigerator was, weather permitting, the ledge outside their window. It is this apartment that the Nazi’s invaded on Kristallnacht and arrested my grandfather and terrified my father.
I asked my father “We’re Jews allowed to take the trolley after Kristallnacht?”
He pursed his lips into a pucker, as if he was sucking on a sour memory, and said “No.” I wanted to ask him how he got around but I could tell he was far away and no doubt my questions would annoy him so I got lost in my own thoughts instead.
My father, who never talked to us about that night, wrote to us what he called a “minor memorandum” on the 50th Anniversary of that awful night.
A MINOR MEMORANDUM TO MY CHILDREN
ON THE FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY OF KRYSTALLNACHT,
NOVEMBER 9 AND 10, 1938
I don’t intend to make this a big deal literary effort or a weepy emotional debauch. I simply want to tell you what I remember about Krystallnacht. So, you should remember as well. And if there are to be others like us, so you can tell them. Nothing big! Just a small and portable lesson about the planet we live on and the hazards of being a little different.
Krystallnacht did not start for me until November 10, 1938. I knew that von Rath had been shot by Gruenspan, but I knew nothing about what was happening all over Germany during the night of the ninth. I was 12 years (12 10/12 ths) old and I was asleep.
I was still lying in my bed, at about seven on the morning of November 10, when there was loud knocking on our door. I heard my father and mother (your grandparents) talking to some people. Several stormtroopers (SA) had come to arrest Jewish men. The entrance to our apartment was through the kitchen and all this was taking place in the kitchen. After a few minutes I heard one of the Brownshirts ask whether there were any other male Jews in the apartment. Grandma said only my little boy. I dont think they believed her because they came into our main room, where my bed was. I closed my eyes and pretended I was asleep. They came to my bed and they looked at me and they must have decided either that I was too young, or that I looked too fierce to mess around with since there were only six of them. So, they took just grandpa with them and they left.
As we later found out, they took grandpa to the local police station. From there they marched him and others to the Rossauer Kaserne, a military barracks. He was lucky because he had a roof over his head. Many other Jewish men were taken to a large soccer stadium and did not have a roof over their head.
Grandpa had been fired from his regular job as a bristle processor a couple months before. He was earning some money by helping a carter hauling the furniture of Jews that had been kicked out of their apartments. The cart was pulled by one brown horse. Grandpa had a job scheduled for that morning.
Grandma sent me to help the carter in grandpa’s place. May- be grandma was a tough Hungarian cookie who did not want the Rothkopf’s reputation as men of their word sullied, or maybe we needed the money, or perhaps she wanted me out of her hair so that she and Aunt Mitzi ( who lived in the next apartment and whose son Walter and friend Albert were already on the way to Dachau) could weep in peace.
I don’t remember exactly where I met the carter but it was at his client’s apartment near the Jewish section of Vienna. We loaded the wagon with furniture. I sat next to the driver on the high bench behind the horse. Then the brown horse slowly pulled us through the streets towards the place where we had to make our delivery.
Groups of people were standing in front of the broken windows of Jewish stores, gawking while Brownshirts were putting their owners through their paces — handing over business papers, washing the sidewalk with lye, licking Aryan employees’ shoes clean. Anything that would keep the cultured Viennese crowds amused. We passed a narrow street that led to one of Vienna’s larger synagogue. The alley was jammed with jeering onlookers. Stormtroopers were throwing furniture and Torah scrolls through the big main door into the street. One side of the roof (I couldn’t see the other and you know what a sceptic I am) was afire. I remember very vividly the twists of whitish-yellow smoke that were curling up the slope of blue tiles.
Farther on we passed another synagogue that was fully ablaze. The police had made people stand back from it. I suppose they feared for their safety. A fire truck was parked down the street. The firemen were leaning against their equipment, talking and smoking cigarettes. Everywhere there were clusters of people, in a holiday mood, gathering around smashed Jewish stores. Little groups of Jews, both men and women, were being led along the sidewalk flanked by squads of SA men. The Jews were made to do all sorts of menial chores. Someone told me later, that one elderly Jew asked to go to the toilet. They made him go in a bucket and then forced him to eat his feces.
By now I was beginning to figure out what was going on. I sat high on my horsey throne (just like the Duke of Edinburgh when he drives his high-stepping pair, except that I didn’t wear an apron). Whenever we passed a sidewalk event or other happening, I pulled down the wings of my nostrils (I thought I looked more Christian that way), staring straight ahead, but watching the Nazi street theatre out of the corners of my eyes. The driver, who was also Jewish, was a hard-old soul. I don’t remember him saying a single word to me, all day, about what was going on. Maybe he thought I was too young to hear about such things.
I don’t remember much more detail. I got paid. The trolley I went home on was crowded. I kept staring out the window so that people wouldn’t notice the handsome Jewishness of my face. Beyond the rattling trolley panes, the peculiar happenings of November 10, 1938 were still in progress here and there, even as the day’s light was fading.
When I got home, grandma and Mitzi were still weeping. They had just come back from the police station, but grandpa and the other Jews were no longer there.
Grandpa came home ten days later. He had spent that time in a room with 500 other people and one water faucet. They did a lot of military drill (was this the beginning of the Hagganah ?) and exercises — push-ups, deep knee bends, and the like. Some who didn’t do so well got beaten up. He never told me whether they did anything to him. But then I wouldn’t tell you either. Grandpa was lucky. A lot of the Jewish men who were arrested on the 9th and 10th of November were sent to the concentration camp at Dachau.
Not one single synagogue was left intact in all of Vienna. That really screwed me up because I was nearly thirteen. You need to have a Torah to become a Bar Mitzvah and you need to have a table on which to lay the scroll while you read. And how was I to get a fountain pen now?
The dead, of course, are dead. They are mourned by those who remember. Tears dry. Bruises heal. Razed synagogues become parking lots. Injured dignity heals although slowly. What hurts most to this day is impotent compassion for those who were swept away.
In order to have faith in our quality as human beings, we need to remember! And that’s why I am writing you this note.
As the trolley made its way I recalled the words my father had written nearly 20 years before and I tried to imagine what it must have been like as a 12 year old boy to have to have your house broken into the middle of the night, have your father taken from you, perhaps never to return and then being forced to go and do your fathers job, while atrocities were happening all around you, because you needed the money so badly that you didn’t have a choice. What must have it been like to see your neighbors making your co-religionists lick their boots and clean their sidewalks with toothbrushes. To see your synagogue, burn to the ground just days before you were to become a bar mitzvah after studying for years to achieve this milestone rite of passage.
I could not imagine what he had gone through.
My father jostled my arm to get my attention and said, “We’re here.”
There, astride the corner of Ottakringer Strasse and Bergsteggasse was a 4 story V shaped Belle Epoque building, the color of ripe hay, with a mansard roof. The main entrance to the building was at the end of the V on Ottrakringrer Strasse above which a blue and white sign with “48” printed on it. Embracing the outside of the building was a small café with a blue awning that looked as if it was the place where the neighborhood sippeds its coffee and guzzled its beer.
Pops pointed at the building and said, “See the third floor, 2nd window over, that was our apartment.” A feeling of déjà vu rippled through me as I realized my father and I had this very same conversation over 40 years previously on my first and only trip to Vienna. It was so long ago that fragments of the trip are all that remain in my consciousness. My parents cutting me off after my third hot chocolate. Seeing a Tom and Jerry cartoon in German.
I had, when I thought about this moment in preparation for the trip, realized that coming back to his childhood must evoke powerful memories and emotions for my father. More than just the Holocaust and all it wrought. But of motherly hugs, and family gatherings. Of fatherly love and the complicated man Marcus had been both loving and angry and the occasional beatings these unexercised emotions would generate. A childhood of happiness and deprivation that would help create the man that would one day be the father that his children adored.
Now we were here at the site of those sweet and sour memories and for a moment was so overcome with the emotion of the moment I needed to turn my back on Dad so he would not see my tears. Eventually, the light changed, and I followed him across the street.
We walked up the front steps and into the dark foyer of the building. It took a second for my eyes to adjust to the lighting and when they did, I saw a set of broad stairs that led up into the building. I turned to my father and asked “What are you thinking about?”
He paused, reluctant to share his thoughts and replied “I was thinking about the wife of the superintendent of the building. She was a nasty piece of work. She hated having Jews in the building and would scream at us kids every chance she could get. She would say vile things and scared the shit out of us.”
“Didn’t your mother say anything to her.”
“What could she say without getting us thrown out of the building or worse.”
I decided to change the subject. “Really, no bathrooms in your apartments.”
He smiled and said “Yes. If you had to go the bathroom you had go down the hall. Except when I small and we kept a honey pot in the kitchen so I would not have to go outside…. The Super’s wife always yelled that we were fouling the bathrooms and making her life miserable.” He paused and said, “You should go up and look.”
I replied “No. I have seen enough, and I don’t want to have explain myself to the current tenants. Let’s go outside and get a beer.”
Once seated, and beer ordered. I asked “When you got to Vienna at the end of the War how did you find a place to stay.”
“You have to remember that Vienna, at the time was an occupied city. The Army found something for me. I seem to remember being put up with the Brits… and eventually assigned me a room that I had to share with another officer.”
“Did you two get along.”
“No. Not at all. My recollection is that he was a real asshole. But I met someone other folks there and they were thrilled that I spoke the language and knew the town. He took a long sip of beer and I could tell he was struggling with the idea of telling me something and said ‘Yeah, they even tried to recruit me. “
“Recruit you how.”
“He wanted me to stay in Vienna and help them with intelligence work. He thought that I might be an asset.”
“Really!” I said honestly surprised. “What unit was he in?”
“I can’t remember.”
“I remember that his shoulder patch had was gold and black and had a spear on it.”
“Why didn’t you do it?”
He smiled at me, into a benevolent way that suggested that there was no way that I would understand him and replied “I wanted to get back to school.”
He was right to think that I wouldn’t understand because to me it sounded like he could have been James Bond if he wanted. Even at 50 I could not understand giving that up. But thinking about this years later, knowing what I know now, I realize that my father had already lived too exciting a life. That what he craved was a less interesting, not more interesting, life. All things considered I could appreciate that.
I said “I didn’t mean to go down the sidetrack. What I wanted to get to is what was required of visiting officers.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean what did you wear. You didn’t wear fatigues or civilian clothes. You wore your class A’s right?”
“So did you come here when you came back looking for your relatives.”
“And did you see your landlady.”
“And did she recognize you despite the fact you were 4 years older and had grown a foot since last you seen her and were now an officer in the US Army?”
“How did she react?”
He looked away from me and I could see on his face that he was retrieving a very specific moment, likely in full 1040p resolution and Dolby sound and said “ She was scared.”
I smiled at his simple response and asked “How did that make you feel?”
He paused, as if a little ashamed of his emotion, and said “Great. ” I was not ashamed of the smile I had my face at the thought of a tormentor of my old man being scared shitless. The thought of it made my day.
“We learned in school that millions of years ago, the Vienna Woods, now stand was the shore of a vast ocean. The scene must have been fantastic, with monster waves crashing into the hills, and huge fish cruising the depths where I am standing now. On the shore, dinosaurs, hunting and grazing in jungles of gigantic conifers, ferns and palms. But a new ice age made the Ocean levels drop and the shores moved towards the East, leaving only fossils from all the weird animals that had been swimming in it. The Danube, a byproduct of the glacial age, ate a hole in the hills that used to be the shore and started flowing eastward, as if searching for the ancient mother sea that had given it life . Eventually came the time of the great wanderings and the place where the river spilled out into the great plain became a crossroads of cultures and civilization. Celtic salt traders stopped here. The Tenth Roman Legion and the Gemini, marched through. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius died in Vindobona of Malaria. The Amber Road passed through the plain with long blonde haired Germanic Theones peddling the fossilized remnant of the ancient jungle to the Romans. The hight cheek boned, fur clad, Asiatic warriors came next. Bow legged and reeking from a diet rich in mare’s milk the Alans, Penchenegs, and Hun camped in the delta their ponies drinking from the Danube. s. Dr. Braunschweiger said they were bow-legged and constantly stank of fermented mare’s milk. Norman knights came through here on the way to the Holy Land, pillaging, and killing, and maybe raping. My history teacher in the Realgymnasium didn’t say much about that, but he was a very devout Catholic. You probably know about all this anyway, and of course you know about the centuries when Christian and Turkish armies were chasing each other around here, killing and bleeding.”
It was the second day of our trip to Vienna and my old man, the Westfield J. Clark professor of Psychology at Columbia University, Sam Floessel was lecturing me from a sidewalk overlooking the flood plain of the Danube. “No Pops.” I said with a chuckle “ They didn’t teach much Viennese history in the New Jersey public schools. But it’s good to know.” We were here at my request. Here meaning Vienna, not looking at the Danube, that had been his choice. This trip was, in fact, a 50th birthday present that I requested from him. Over the last few years, I had become intrigued about what it must been like for a 13 year old to flee from Nazi, Austria only to return as an officer in the conquering Army. Part of my curiosity was that of a storyteller, I tell stories for a living and the story of the return of the prodigal son is ageless, but it was mostly driven by an oddity. Pops loved to tell stories, but he had never told us his family this one.
While my fascination with his return to Vienna was a recent, my interest in his Army service was not. I grew up at a time when World War 2 was a recent memory. I am a boomer. Born only 12 years after the last shots of the war was fought and America was still taking its victory lap for saving the world and the war was a part of the collective zeitgeist.
The war was real to me. Not in a history book sort of way. It was real because I could walk into my friends’ home and see souvenirs that their fathers and family proudly showed off. I recall a friend proudly showing me a German helmet with a bullet hole in the temple. Another buddy proudly showed the deactivated pineapple grenade his father used as a paperweight. Or the German luger that another’s father had liberated from a dead “kraut” and now kept in a locked trophy case. My beloved grandmother, Pop’s Mama proudly carried around a fragment from a hand grenade in her change purse that my father had sent her claiming that it had just missed him.
It was real when relatives told of their escape from the Nazi’s. They told tales of hiding, degradation and deprivation that were scary but so captivating I hung on every word. Relatives, including my grandparents would tell tales of lost parents, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, and cousins who were never heard from after the war. Their sadness and sense of loss was conveyed through spirit more than words for they rarely gave details of their experiences or showed their grief other than a sense of sadness even a child could perceive.
It was a part of my childhood library. My father had a book called “Up Front” a collection of cartoons drawn by Bill Mauldin for Stars and Stripes. It depicted two grizzled GI’s, Willie and Joe, citizen soldiers, as they made their way from Normandy to Germany and their experiences with battle, Army bureaucracy, and life in a war zone. We didn’t understand much of it on a deeper level than a puddle, but it made us laugh. One such cartoon, indelible to this day, depicted a US Calvary soldier next to his jeep whose axel is broken pointing his pistol at the Jeeps hood and covering his eyes as if he was putting down a horse. We earned that GIs spent a lot of time in mud, did not shave often, and the beverage of choice was something called Cognac.
We would beg Dad about his exploits during the war. He, like many of that greatest of generations, was reluctant to discuss his service. However, at bedtime when he asked what story we wanted him to tell us, he would, from time to time, share little blurbs of his life in the service. He would tell us about Cookie the pilot of the piper cub observation aircraft that was assigned to his artillery unit. Or was Cookie his driver? Time has a way of eroding childhood stories. In any case Cookie was always doing something interesting like placing sandbags underneath his seat in case they ran over a mine so should the run over a mine it would not blow his nuts off. (The word nuts would always make my brother and I giggle.) Or the story of my he told of crossing a bridge in a jeep to see if it could support the weight of 105 mm howitzers when the span collapsed and being saved from drowning when his trench coat, inflated with air due to the fall, had served as a life preserver.
Even our bedtime stories had to do with the war. The one I loved and asked for most often was of two boys who were walking along the banks of the Danube one afternoon when they happen upon a broken-down old rowboat. They are desperate to leave Vienna because of the Nazi’s, so they scheme to convert the rowboat into a submarine. They could then float past the Nazi’s patrols to the Black Sea and escape to Israel. The stories were episodic, recounting the adventures the boys had trying to get the materials they needed for their ship and avoiding detection by the Germans and those who wished them harm. Similar to old time movie serials they often left us hanging just before we would go to sleep.
As we grew older, more of my father’s life, the World War and his life in the service became known to us and incorporated in our family’s mythology.
My grandparents, through the intercession of my grandfather’s brother Max, has managed to get visas to enter the United States three months after the war began and a year after Kristallnacht. A night in which my grandfather was arrested and jailed for a week. The night the synagogue my father and his parents belonged was burned to the ground denying my father the opportunity to become a bar mitzvah. A sadness he carried with him for the rest of his life.
Part of the story of his arrival here was his first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty and how it made him feel like he was finally safe and how the darkness of the past years had been shed. He bestowed on her the honorific “ladily”, perhaps a bastardization of the little English he knew at the time, which he would call out to her whenever he saw her. Even 70 years later he could tell you the make and model of the car his Uncle had picked them up (1939 Buick Roadmaster) in and how on that first meal on American soil he ate a pound of butter because he was hungry and he thought it cheese. America was a land of plenty.
When I first heard this story as a child, I had no concept of hunger. What real deprivation was all about. We were not a rich family but I had never missed a meal or lacked anything I really needed. I had no real understanding of what it meant to escape and find safety; to know deprivation and hunger and suddenly have your fill. But what I knew was the emotion my father poured into these stories. I knew what they meant to him. I knew what it meant to him. Not because he was melodramatic or overtly sentimental about it but because of the joy in which he told this story. It was a hallmark of the optimistic spirit that defined my old man.
We were told that we he entered the Danbury Ct school system at the age of 14 they initially placed him elementary school because of his lack of English skills. He found this humiliating so he focused on learning English. He claimed he learned much of his English by going to Ronald Coleman movies and reading a dictionary, facts borne out by a slight English accent when he spoke and the fact that he often used words so obscure that most native speakers would never have uttered them. And once the English hurdle was overcome he moved through the grades quickly because of his intelligence and excellent Viennese schooling. (This is even more impressive when you consider that he had not attended school since shortly after Kristallnacht as the Nazi’s were denying Jews access to a secondary education.) Remarkably, perhaps incredibly, he graduated at 17 and entered Syracuse University as a Freshman just three and half years after his first glimpse of “ladily.”
We were told that my father was desperate for an education and to get a college degree. As a consequence, instead of waiting until the fall semester and enter with the majority of the class of 1947 he matriculated that summer. So by the time he appeared before his draft board in December of 1943 he had already completed his Freshman year of college. Drafted into the US Army. He served basic at Ft. Wolters Texas where he was naturalized and went on to Ft. Sill Oklahoma for OCS and Artillery school. On completion of his training he was shipped to Italy where he became a member of the 88th Infantry Division, The Blue Devils, who fighting their way up the boot of and ultimately being stationed in Gorizia, north of Trieste, a little less than 300 miles from Vienna where his adventure began.
When I was in High School I had been given an assignment in my AP American History Class to research and write about some element of our family’s personal history. After a lot of consideration, I had decided to write about my father’s return to Vienna. I thought it was an interesting topic and was certain that Pops would be more than happy to share with me his recollections. I could not have been more mistaken. When I broached the idea to him one late night in his study his response had been “Why do you want to write about that? Its boring. Why don’t you talk to Grandma about what was like growing up in Sopron?” I don’t recall what I wrote about but my bafflement about Dad’s response never went away. It was like an injury that never healed properly and every so often would reassert itself.
In February of 2007 it did just that. I was at Syracuse University. My alma mater as well as the old mans. I had to come to the campus, as I had most winters since my graduation in 1979, to see a basketball game with a group of “boys” with whom I had attended the University. It was our annual trip into the way back machine where we could relive much of our college behavior such as eating slices of pizza at the Varsity or late night donut runs to satisfy the munchies brought about by other behavior we had enjoyed in college. Just previous to the trip, Pops had made a request of me. He told me that when he returned to Syracuse after the war he had a poem published in the campus literary magazine, The Tabard, and if I had time would I get a copy for him. It was an unusual request from him. He rarely asked favors of his children but one in which I was to do for him. So between slices of pizza, shots, and juvenile hijinks I went to Byrd Library and with the help of a librarian, I managed to track down the poem.
Bar Danubia by Sam Floessel
Their Streets are narrow, dark, and full of people.
Saying what I used to understand.
Their Virgin Prostitutes, their children dirty,
Full of strange deals, crying to me:
HEY JOE, CIGARETTES TO SELL, JOE?
And in the shadows of their great cathedral,
On the side streets , in the parks,
Their misery bears fruit for me.
In a night’s entertainment,
SEHR SCON GOOD JOE, SLEEP WITH ME.
The day is coming to a close.
The sentry watches
As soldiers streaming to the city
Pass by his lonely post,
The chilly, windswept road is endless.
And lined only with facades.
NOT AT ALL LIKE AMERICA
Where are going, Joe
The passing soldier hails me,
And, not knowing the reply, I answered “The Bar Danubia”
And so we joined in our Journey…
On the outskirts of the town is a tavern,
Full of lights and a band blaring.
The Cognac good
The women pretty
Not a bad place to forget,
Here on the edge.
Now out I look from the Tavern’s window
That the streets are filled with howling angry people,
Crying for what might bring
What they have not,
And hating all which is not them.
You, crowd, jamming the Main Street,
Austrians and Hungarians
You have tilled your poor, ungrateful soil.
Education is the privilege of your rich,
The burden of your Poor.
Your hunger and your cry for self-respect
And across the border they will say:
Comrade, let us be your guide.
All others hate you, dwell under our star and cry:
Plato and Aristotle lived on more fertile plains.
Ignorance is a horrible disease.
And yet without pain.
And through the ruins of the world are shivering
with memories and balconies,
Your own soil soaked with blood.
Vienna Youth in the Side Street,
Your hunger weaves a different, equally horrid pattern
You have a marble God that does no wrong,
A marble God, a State
Glorious regiments, Queens of Battle,
Colors bright and waving
The mutilated dead are but monuments,
The ruined villages, crossed swords on History-maps
DEATH TO BOLSHEVISM!
They meet on the corner,
Insult each other,
Lie, then shout, then stones hurl through the air,
Clubs, Tear-gars, Pain and Screams
The scene, familiar as a summer-storm approaching
Brings all the long-forgotten sorrows to my ear.
And behind THIS window the band plays,
When the Librarian found out why I was searching for this information she agreed happily to make copies for me. She returned after a rather long absence and told me that the University had extra copies of that issue of the Tabard and presented me with one to give Pops. I was more than grateful.
On my snowy, hungover, painfully slow drive home to New York City I could not get the poem out of my head. Unlike my father, who loves epic poetry and at the least provocation will recite “Kubla Khan” by Cooleridge (In Xandu, did Kubla Khan…) I do not like poetry. But that doesn’t mean I don’t understand and appreciate it. But Bar Danubia was undecipherable to me. It had no bearing on anything I knew of my father’s history and the emotions expressed were none that I had ever heard from him. Was this poem about his return to Vienna? Was it him trying to express the emotions he felt on returning to the city of his birth? that one of the things I had never done enough of with my father is ask him enough questions about his time in the army. The 2nd World War had been a central theme of my childhood. My father’s service and his history had been a source of pride and even wonder all my life yet other than a story or two I knew nothing deeper than a very few times, and places. I had no idea of his feelings and his emotions. For reasons I can’t explain except for perhaps the sense of storytelling that I possess I fixated on the return of my father to Vienna. I wondered what it must have been like for a boy of 14 who had fled his home fleeing from religious persecution, personal violence and war, to return a foot taller and officer in the conquering army. It was beyond anything that I could comprehend, and it was a story that I not only wanted to know but one that I would love to share.
It was a week before I could make it out to my parents’ home to give my father the items I had retrieved from Syracuse. Sitting in his office I watched as he unwrapped and stared in disbelief at the copy of the Tabard that I brought to him. I watched as the emotion streamed across his face like a creeper on at the bottom of all news channel. I could see pleasure on his face akin to finding a five-dollar bill in a pair of pants you have not worn in a while. I saw in his face the reflection of an 82 year old man looking back on 60 years…the roads taken, and the paths not followed. The opportunities lost and memories found. I wanted to tell him what the poem had meant to me but sensed that the timing was not right. The moment belonged to him, so I said nothing.
Eventually, he took my gift to him and replaced it in the envelope it had come and it one of the cubby holes on his desk. There were no words of thanks. I didn’t expect any. With my father, silence often said far more than words. Back downstairs in the kitchen, enjoying a cup of coffee with both parents the conversation turned to my upcoming 50th birthday. I told them that turning 50 was not necessarily a milestone that I wished to dwell on. However, there was something that I did wish for. I looked at my Dad and told him that I wanted to go to Vienna with him. He said “Why the fuck would you want to do that? “
I told him that his poem had made think about a lot of things. How despite what I knew of his army service I really knew little because he didn’t talk about it very much. That while I knew about his arrival in this country, I knew very little of his departure from Vienna nor his return 6 years later. That the poem had inspired in me the desire to understand what it was like to flee a city as a boy, a refugee from hate and terror, and then return a young man, and officer of the conquering army and that I didn’t think it was something that I could understand by just talking about it at the kitchen table or his office.For me to utterly understand what that experience must have been like I needed to go there with him.
His response was pretty typical for him. “So what? A lot of people experienced the same sort of thing. What I did was not that special.”
I said “We can agree to disagree on whether your experience is unique. No matter what it is unique to you and to our family. But are you asking what the point is?”
“Yes. What’s the purpose? What are you going to do with it other than have some kind voyeuristic understanding of what I went through?”
He was being difficult, but I knew what he was driving at. My father always wanted me to write. He thought that I had a gift and he thought I was wasting it by trying to earn a living in the advertising business. I replied “I want to write a story about it. I want to understand what it must have been like because I think it is more universal than just your experience. I think that what you went through and how it ended up for you is something that people not only can relate to and I do think it is special but I also think that is a story that is fading fast with time and deserves at least the chance to be told.“
He shook his head, a Mona Lisa like half smile on his face, untranslatable but I took as him feeling complimented by my desire and a wish to make my desire a reality but a reluctance to relive those experiences again. For a few moments he was silent and said, “Let me think about it.”
We arrived back at the Augsburg at a little past noon. Andrews had the farm boy GI’s take the Gasoline drum from the back of the truck and bring it to the conference room where the Crown’s trunk was held. Much to my surprise we were met there by Kubala and Granville who apparently had been tipped off by the guards at the gate of our arrival. Kubala was over moon. He gave Andrews a bear hug and me a two handed handshake. Granville was far less ebullient. He looked happy but was far more restrained and stood in the background giving me only a two-finger salute. They were accompanied by another Colonel who was not introduced and like Granville seemed to gravitate to the periphery of the room.
Kubala was like a kid on Christmas morning who was waiting for the go ahead from his parents to open his presents. He could not wait to get to his prize. As soon as the drum was in place, directly adjacent to the trunk, he got down on his knees and opened it. He lifted the tattered leather covered the Crown and seeing that it was covered in dirt and grime ordered a tub of water brought to him “on the bounce.” When it arrived, he carefully unwrapped the Crown and as if washing a newborn baby gently washed the grime off the Crown. He then handed the now glistening object to Pajtas who lovingly dried and placed it in its proper spot in the leather and velvet lined trunk. This process was repeated for the scepter and the orb and when all had been replaced in the trunk along side St.Stephens sword, Kubala called in a photographer. He proceeded to snap photos of the complete retinue by itself and then with Kubala alone, Kubala with Pajtas, and finally with Kubala and Andrews.
I have to admit I was a little put off by not being invited to be a part of this photo shoot. My ego was screaming wasn’t it my efforts that led to Anton Skoda? Wasn’t he the one that gave us the first solid lead on the locations of the keys. Hadn’t been my interrogation of Gombos that had gained us possession of the first key and the location of the next two. Wasn’t it my plan that allowed us to successfully retrieve the Crown from its “burial” site? I had certainly done far more than Andrews. My mind was fully marinating in these toxic thoughts when I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Granville who must have been reading my mind because he said “It isn’t fair. Sometimes you do all the work and get none of the glory. Sadly, that is the way things are in life and they are especially that way in our business. We stay in the shadows and let others stand in the spotlight.”
“Let me offer you some advice. The only person’s whose praise that really matters is your own. If you can walk away from anything knowing that what you did was the very best you could do, then that should be praise enough. On the other hand, getting praise for a job that you did that wasn’t your best effort can be corrosive and destructive.”
“And, getting praise from someone who really doesn’t know what you have done. The sacrifices you made. The hoops you jumped through…is nothing but words and worthless.”
“That being said, Sam. You did a great job. You are a very different man than the shavetail I met in Vienna weeks ago. You hit the ground running. You rolled with the blows and got the job done. I am proud of you.”
He offered me his hand and I took it and tilting his head his towards Kubala’s photo shoot said “Don’t ever be like that. He is in this thing for all the wrong reasons. One day, probably sooner than later, he will get knocked down and if he ever gets up again he will be limping. Understand.”
“Take your own mental picture of this moment. Steal it away in your memories. And if you ever have a moment in which you doubt yourself, whip it out and remember that you were once given an impossible task and you hit it out of the park. Verstehen?”
“Good. Now why do not you go get cleaned up. Grab some chow and get some shuteye. We will hook back up at 0800 tomorrow. You can give me a full debrief then. Suits?”
It suited me fine. I was dead on my feet and I was not sure that I was capable of our conversation beyond a nod and shake. I left the conference room and walked to my billet. I was far too tired to eat and didn’t have the strength to shower. Stripping down to my underwear I pulled my army blanket over my head and tried to let the world drift away. My last thoughts before I welcomed sleep were of my friend Paul and the salute he gave me when we had parted ways. When I was in OCS one of our teachers had given a brief history of the salute. I am not sure why. But according to him it had started in the middle ages when knights met, they raised their visors with their right hands to show respect to a comrade. Perhaps Paul knew this. Perhaps he didn’t. But it fit and the thought of it allowed me fall into a deep sleep.
The next morning when I returned to the conference room the Trunk which contained the Crown of St. Stephen and it’s retinue was gone. It had been replaced by a long table with matching chairs which no doubt had inhabited the room before it been become the room the Trunk was placed for safe keeping. Sitting at one end of the table was Colonel Granville, and the Colonel whom I had not been introduced to the previous day. He was about 45 years old with wavy black hair with patches of grey at the temple who I now noticed wore the distinctive black and gold shoulder patch that indicated he was an officer with the Office of Strategic Services. Neither man seemed to notice my presence as I entered the room as they seemed to be engaged in a rather intense conversation. If it had only been George waiting for me, I probably would have just gone and sat down but the presence of another officer especially one I did not know and from the OSS suggested a more formal approach. I said, snapping to attention, and throwing a crisp salute “Lieutenant Floessel, reporting as requested.”
Neither man stood up, but George replied with a smile. “Hi Sam. Glad, you could join us. Take a seat.” When I had taken a seat adjacent to Granville and opposite to the OSS colonel he said “Would you like a cup of coffee? There is some sitting over there on the sideboard.
I said “Thank you Colonel. I am already way of quota this morning.”
“Sam, no need to be so formal here. I am still George and my colleague here, is Colonel Klay but feel to call him Andor.”
Did colleague mean that George was a part of OSS? But before I could spend anytime untangling that one Andor said in a deep baritone voice with a distinct Hungarian accent said “Pleasure to meet you Sam. George here has told me a lot about you.”
Granville no doubt could see the look of confusion on my face and said “Sam, my guess is your probably a little confused right now so before you ask any questions let me try to clear things up. Okay?”
I nodded and he continued.
“When we met, I told you that I was in Counterintelligence Corps. I was not lying. I am. But I am also a member of the OSS. I know normally, you are in just one organization or another but with the end of the war here in Europe things have changed a bit. During the war we knew who our enemies were. They were the guys pointing their guns at us. Simple. It made for some pretty clear lines between intelligence and counterintelligence. Make sense.”
I didn’t say anything, just nodded my head and continued. “But these days we are not sure who our friends are and who are our enemies. We are fairly sure that the Russians are looking to expand their influence on the continent. They have wanted that for generations and never achieved it but they now have millions of troops throughout the continent and so that ambition has never been so close to being realized. Combine that with their Communist zeal to take down capitalism and that problem just grows.”
He paused and took a sip of coffee. “Obviously, we have our own ambitions. We have sent our boys over here to fight and die twice in a single generation. That cannot happen again. An unstable Europe is not an option for us either. When World War ended, we created a peace that virtually assured that their would be another war. Between the retribution payments and the lack of assistance in rebuilding their government institutions it created a vacuum and nature abhors a vacuum. Which is how Hitler and his friends manage to take over the continent.”
What George was saying was pretty common knowledge and being who I am I resisted a very strong desire to tell him that I knew all this, but common sense prevailed and I kept my mouth shut.
He continued. “In other words, we aren’t going to be leaving Europe any time soon. We have won the war and unlike the last time around we are determined to win the peace as well. And if we are to do that, there is no way around it, we are going to have to beat the Soviets. That is going to require a combination of Intelligence work, figuring out what they are up to, and counterintelligence work or undoing what they have done and or countering what they are about to do. Understand Sam. It is why some of us, like me, have feet in both organizations.
I nodded and he continued “But your next question is what does this have to do with me, right?”
George looked at Andor who took over the narrative “Sam, as you can probably tell from my accent I immigrated to the United States from Hungary and for the time being as far as the OSS is concerned I am responsible for the part of the world that used to be the Austro-Hungarian Empire. With the end of the war, this region has become of supreme importance to us and our allies. It is where east will meet west. It is the tip of the sword in our next conflict and its absolute point we figure will be Vienna.”
He looked at me to see if I were following his logic and then continued “At Yalta, Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt agreed that Vienna would be an open city. All the powers would occupy and control the city. However, as you know, the Soviets got there first and they have been damned reluctant to live up to their agreement. However, that is all going to change. An agreement that will separate the city into different zones: American, British, French and Soviet with the center of the city open to all. We take occupation of our zone week after next.”
As if rehearsed, George picked up the dialogue “Sam, we are going to need be on our absolute A game in Vienna. We are going to need people who are smart, can think on their feet, who speak the language and know the lay of the land.”
I remained silent. Not because I didn’t know where this was going. I certainly did. But, because I had not been asked anything yet. I didn’t want be presumptive and without details how could I answer?
“When I met you at the beginning of our mission with the Crown, I was not that impressed. No reason I should have been you were nothing more than a “hail Mary” play. A longshot chance to get a bead on the keys. You were so fresh that you practically had dew on you. I saw a nervous young man who didn’t seem to have a lot of confidence in himself or the mission.”
He paused for a second to let his first impressions of me soak in. Thinking back on it though, he was right. The person who met him at the Hotel Sacher all those weeks ago was not anyone who should have had any confidence in at all.”
“But what choice did I have but to use you. So I set you go. Nothing ventured nothing gained. But I teamed you with Cookie. I don’t know anyone better at sizing people up than that lazy son of bitch. It is probably why he is so successful at poker. After the first day, despite the fact that you two screwed up, he said he saw something in you. I didn’t see it but again what the hell. I had no other leads.”
Again, he paused. I knew what he was doing. The psychology courses at Syracuse and the command instruction at OCS were paying off. He was tearing me down, so he could build me up.
“It wasn’t until you got your ass captured by the Russians that I began to see what Cookie had seen. You didn’t loose your cool. You didn’t panic and managed to hold your own with a very experienced Russian interrogator. That impressed the hell out of me and I began to think that just maybe you might be worth something someday.”
“And I was right. You found your buddy Paul and realized what an asset he would be to us. That led us to Anton who proved to be the “key” to the keys. You handled Pichler in way not outlined in the Army manual but nonetheless effective. Despite your lack of experience your interrogation of Gombos was nearly perfect. Then, when we discovered that the SOB’s had pulled a fast one on us, it was you that devised a workable plan to retrieve the Crown.”
“Don’t let all this go to your head. I am not saying that we couldn’t have retrieved the Crown without you. We would have eventually I am sure. But you impressed me. Not only did you show me that you could grow into any situation I threw you into but you demonstrated courage and brains. That you could think on your feet.”
Again, he paused. This time to make sure that he was looking me in the eye. And said, “Which is why I want you to join our team in Vienna.”
Even though I knew where Granville was going with his speech I was surprised by my reaction to his offer. I blushed out of a combination of embarrassment for being complimented (I was not used to them) and pride and then flushed more for the shame I felt for having blushed to begin with. This odd response rendered me speechless. Meanwhile George prattled on with the monologue about what would be expected of me, what additional training I would receive and how the posting would help my career. Honestly, I was only half listening. Between my initial reaction to Granville’s offer and remembering Paul’s advice on living out your own dreams not others I could not focus on any thing he was saying until he said “Sam, I think you know about the new point system the Army has put in place to cycle people out of the Army. Those that have been in theater the longest will get out the fastest. It means that we are losing good capable people faster than replace them. It also means that if you were on a normal path that you would be out by the end of next year. So when you decide to join us we would need you to commit to a five year enlistment. We cannot keep replacing people and we need to plan for a long term. Okay?”
Ever since my last conversation with Paul I had been struggling with the decision that had just been placed in front of me. On the one hand, I knew that I was good at this type of work. I had proven that not just to George Granville but to myself. I also liked it. Part of that was the excitement of working in the shadows like all the hero’s in the “39 Steps” and “Kim” and part of that was it was the type of work that pushed me to be a little smarter, a little more clever than the other guy. It was a game I had been playing and winning at since my days on the streets of Vienna’s 16th district.”
“Vienna. That is where things started getting murky for me. Coming back to Vienna had reminded me, despite the destruction and despair, of my love for the city. It was the home of my boyhood memories, of my earliest adventures and triumphs. But it was also home to my greatest sorrows. It is the city that embraced Hitler and that love affair led to the murder of my grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. It is where I was beaten, bullied and eventually forced to flee from to save my life. I could never be in Vienna and not remember those things. What would feel like to live there again. I would be a part of the conquering Army and, remembering my former landlady, that would no doubt have moments of pleasure, but would those be worth living with the ghosts.
Then there was Paul. He had left little doubt that should I join the team he would be involved. The idea of the further adventures of Hugi and Tad reincarnated as Sam and Paul filled me with joy. The war had robbed me of so many I loved to be reunited with my brother in all but mother would be a perk.
But it was Paul who had challenged me to remember the dream I had for myself. The dreams that the Wolfpack, our gang of friends, Edie, Walter, Paul and myself would share with each other when we were terrorizing the neighborhood. Walter was gone. Edie was missing and Paul’s original dreams had died the moment they discovered the Tomahawk. Only I still had a chance to live out his dreams and that was a heavy burden but perhaps one I should carry to honor the memory of the others.
Five years. By the time I got out…if I got out…I would be twenty-four years old. Would I be too old to start up at school again or would I get wrapped up doing what I was doing. What had Granville called it. “Saving the world?” Would I get so wrapped up in that I would never leave. Never follow my original heart. My dream of being a Professor, of a life dedicated to scholarship and teaching?
Who knew? Who could ever know? But what had become clear to me the minute Granville had said that my joining his team would be a five year commitment is that taking him up on his offer might distract me from the dreams I had for myself. That I had gotten this far by always focusing on what the goal was and not allowing anything to stray me from that path.
I said “George, no one has ever paid me a better compliment than you just have by offering me the chance to be a part of your team permanently. I can’t think of a better way to repay my country for all that has given me than by helping it secure the peace. But I have to say no.”
George, remarkably, looked nonplussed as if my refusal of his offer came as no surprised at all. He said “Your buddy Paul predicted you would say that. But why not. It is a great opportunity for you. Literally the sky is the limit.”
Sighing I replied “I am not sure that I can fully explain it in a way that you will understand but I’ll try.”
“George, my being here at all is nothing but an attempt by me to try to delay my arm service by six months. If I hadn’t wanted to finish my sophomore year I wouldn’t have told my draft board about the Crown. I only here but because I am the best qualified. I got here by nothing more than a fluke.”
Granville replied “That may be true. But you proved yourself. Most of us get to where we are going by a combination of good luck and knowing what to do when it kicks us in the balls.”
I laughed. “Okay fair point but then there is s Pichler. I know why it was that we needed to recruit him, but I also know who he is. An unrepented Nazi who was responsible for the murders of hundreds of thousands of people. Yet we embraced him. We are going to give him a good life he doesn’t deserve because he can give us something that we need. It turned my stomach to be a part of it. I justified it, like you did, because it was for the greater good. But it ate at me. Still eats at me and I know if I accept your job there will be dozens of Pichlers to deal with. And each one of them will eat at me a little bit and I am frightened of the type of human being that will turn me into. It is like what happened before the war. Most Germans were not Nazi’s. Didn’t believe in all the bullshit they spouted. They cared about putting food on the table. They cared about was feeling good about themselves. They made compromises with what they believed in to accomplish those things. That did not work well for them. The compromises we are making don’t seem so big. But I worry what is going to happen when you heap one compromise on another what effect it will have on me and on the rest of us. I am not telling you anything you don’t know but I think you can appreciate that for me those little compromises have a far more personal meaning. I think you understand that.”
“I do. But you handled Pichler about as well as anyone could and I can tell you the first cut is the deepest.”
“That is exactly my point. I handled Pichler well because you asked me to do a job and I did it. It was tough but I did it. The next time it would be easier and the time after that easier still and pretty soon I would not be able to remember what I had found so objectionable in the past. I have seen how that works. I would have a hard time being a part of that.”
“What if I told you that you had my guarantee that I would put you in a situation where your dealing with people from the Reich. You would only work in helping to get a handle the Soviets. Would that allow to say yes.”
“It might. Although, I think it would be for you to keep your promise on that. But there is another reason I cannot say yes. Maybe the only real reason. When I was a little boy in Vienna, growing up in a one room flat with toilets down the hall I had an impossible dream. I loved school and learning. I thought that there would be nothing better that to be a college professor, a scholar, a teacher. But little Jewish boys who grow up in the 16th district did not become professors or teachers. They were lucky if they finished high school and became a clerk at a store. Then I got lucky. I got a chance to come to America where anything was possible. If you could dream it could come true. Five years ago, I didn’t speak English and was in the 4th grade. Now I am an officer in the army, a college junior just two years shy of my degree. I owe it to myself and to my friends who didn’t get a chance to live their dreams, to live mine.”
George said “I am not asking you to commit your life. Just five years. You have plenty of time to finish your education when you are done.”
Thinking of Paul I said “Dreams have a way getting detoured the longer you drift away from them. Eventually, if you wait to long, they are too far away to catch up with. I don’t want that to happen to me.”
George started to say something but was interrupted by Colonel Klay, who had been quietly listening to the dialogue between George and myself. “George, you mind if I jump in here?” George nodded. Klay continued. “I understand son. Before this nonsense started, I was a writer who thought one day I might have academic life. I understand the appeal. It seemed to me an ideal life. Someone paying me to think and speak. Being surrounded by people who could challenge you intellectually and engage you with their theories. Perhaps adding something to this world that makes it a better place.”
Klay took a deep breath and added “You talk about the lessons that this war taught us. One of the lessons we should have learned is while the cerebral approach has it merits sometimes it leads us down false paths. What if we had not tolerated Hitler from the beginning? Mustered an army and taken him down when he did not have the resources and the army needed to fight a war. Europe would not be destroyed. Millions would not be dead. The Soviet problem we have now doesn’t exist.”
He continued “I wanted to be an academic once. I understand that appeal of that kind of a life. I can see its appeal to you considering all you have been through. But we are giving you an opportunity to be at the tip of the spear. To help shape the world instead of think how nice it would be if things would be if they were just a little different.”
I said nothing. What could I say? There was a lot of truth to what he said and considering all that I had been through, all my family had endured, the chance to help prevent that from happening to someone else was seductive. But Paul had been right. This was their destiny. Not mine. There were others who could do the job I was being offered as well could. Probably even better. One of the lessons I had learned over time is that there is only one person in charge of my destiny and that and that was me.
Klay took my silence for what it was. The conversation had gone as far it could go. We would just be covering old territory. He said “I can see you have made up your mind. I understand. At nineteen I probably would have made the same decision. That being said, who knows what the future will bring for any of us. Maybe you will change your mind. Maybe at some point in the future we will need your help again. But for now, perhaps the best is we send you back to OCS.”
“But before I let you go let me add the Crown is going to be a hot potato for a long time. The Vatican has already reached out to us demanding we turn it over as a religious icon. The Hungarian government, the puppet one put in place by the Russians is claiming it is the property of the state. The anti-communists want us to give it to them so they can protect for the Magyar. Horthy, Pajtas, Gombos and others are frightened that if their role in our collection of the Crown were to come out it would destroy their reputation and put their family at risk. The point is, this whole operation is top secret. Need to know only and no one needs to know.
The next morning, bags packed and a sheath of newly cut orders in my pocket, I made my way to the motor pool from my billet. My hope was that I could hitch a ride to the Frankfurt Rhein Airbase where my orders said I was to be given the earliest available transportation back to the United States. It was a gift from Granville who while grumpy over my turning down his offer was still grateful enough to arrange first rate transportation home. But I was not in any hurry. It was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky, or at least none that I could see. The temperatures mild for this time of year and for the first time in weeks, maybe months, I was worry free. At least for the moment. When I got back to Ft.Sill, no doubt some wise senior officer would make a decision about my fate. In a months’ time, I could be right back here in Europe or on some atoll in Pacific. Didn’t matter. The decision I had made had liberated me and I was free to daydream. At least for now. In fact I was deep into pondering how different Europe smelled than Oklahoma when a Jeep pulled up next to me and honked its horn.
It was Cookie. Still looking more like a Bill Mauldin drawing that a real GI but with the same cynical smart-ass grin. He said “Trying to sneak out of Dodge without saying good bye.”
“Hell, Cookie I didn’t want break up any poker game you happen to be in or whatever bit of debauchery that had you in your grips.”
“Debauchery one of those words you learned in college? If it means what I think it means, I like it. I may even use the next time I am out debauching.”
“That’s great Cookie.”
“Anyway the Colonel sent me after you.”
I stopped in my tracks. Had Granville changed his mind? Cookie laughed “Hells bells boy. He just wanted me to give you a ride to Frankfurt. Thought you deserved a proper send off for some reason. So jump in we need make tracks.”
I threw my bags into the back of the Jeep and hopped into the passenger seat next to Cookie. The same seat in which I had started this journey.
As we cleared the gate, Cookie said “Did I ever tell you about the time I put sandbags under my seat …” Before he could finish the sentence, I was laughing.
“What’s so god darn funny.”
“Nothing Cookie. That is just how most of your stories start. Go on. I am sure it will be a story I will tell my children someday.”
The velvet lined case held clear indents of where the Crown, Scepter and Orb had been kept along with a few pieces of cloth and what I was told later was St. Stephen’s Sword. The latter looking the part of a primary weapon of a middle ages king with a medium length iron blade with blood grooves, a large curling hand guard, red rope wrapped grip and a massive pommel designed as much for bashing helmets than as a counterweight to the blade. As impressive find but considering what we were expecting a major let down if not an insult.
For a few seconds, after the trunk was opened the room was as silence as a tomb. Speaking for myself, I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach hard. I had been pulled from my OCS class, flown a third of the way around the world, spent weeks searching for the holders of the keys, watched a man murdered, all in anticipation of this moment only to see an empty case. No wonder one Gombos, Pajtas, and Horthy had not had so easily turned over the keys to us. They knew the keys would not provide us with the Crown. They were just another deception in a long series of deceptions. We had been played again and the realization that they must be laughing at us behind our back made my blood boil.
Considering the depth of my anger, I could not imagine the depth of Kubala’s and Granville’s fury. Kubala who had been burned badly by the presumptive telegram he had sent to SHAEF when the trunk was discovered was now going to have to report that the trunk had been empty the entire time. The personal embarrassment would be immense. The effect on his career catastrophic. This was a disaster beyond comprehension and must have him ready to spit acid.
I could tell that Granville was ready to murder Pajtas. From the moment they met the Hungarian Colonel had been playing him. First, insulting him then treating him as an inferior and then for months playing him for the fool all the while with a shit eating grin on his face. I knew George well enough to know that this final insult was the straw that would break the camel’s back. Any restraint that he had employed in his dealing with Pajtas was now out the window. Which is why I was in no way surprised that what followed our collective moment of stunned silence was Granville grabbing Pajtas by his tunic, throwing him up against the wall with his arm pressed across the Hungarian’s neck. What was surprising was Granville silence. He was just staring into the now bulging eyes of Captain of the Guards as the latter’s face went from red to blue with only choking and gasping sounds escaping his throat. It was only when it seemed that Pajtas about to pass out that Granville let him slip to the floor gasping and holding his throats.
Granville summoned the two MP’s who were standing by the door and said “Throw this piece shit in a cell. And don’t be gentle.”
When Pajtas had been dragged out of the room Kubala turned to Granville and said “This is the FUBAR to end all FUBAR. What the holy fuck am I going to tell Patch? Fuck what he going to tell Eisenhower. Shit Truman. That we still do not have the Crown. That some lowly fucking pissant motherfucking Hungarian Colonel has fooled us once again. This is not going to look good for either one of us George. We will be lucky if they do not pack us up and send us to some god forsaken malaria infected island in the Pacific or some piece of deserted piece of Tundra in the Aleutians where we can play patty cake with Tojo or piss ice cubes.. We are well and thoroughly fucked.”
Granville was still furious. You could practically see the steam coming out of his ears. I had learned over our time together that Granville was not the type to get overtly angry. He got even. The words that came out of his still clenched jaw were cold and emotionless. He said “He knows where the Crown is. And he is going to tell us. Whatever it takes. He will give us the truth this time.”
Kubala said “We don’t have time to let him marinate. We need to find out what he knows right now. Patch is expecting a phone call from me and I have no intention of letting him know that we got burned again by the Hungarians. It is an ass chewing we can do without. It will go much better for us if we tell him while the trunk was empty, we recovered the Crown anyway.”
Granville eyed Kubala and replied “I agree. Why don’t you and I pay him a visit a visit and remind Colonel Pajtas where his best interest lies.” Kubala nodded and as Granville and he headed towards the door said to Paul, Andrews and me “You three wait here.”
When they returned, about an hour later, they were bearing grim smiles and Kubala was rubbing the knuckles on his right hand. Granville was carrying a folded army map which he laid out in the table in front of us. Andrews who had been antsy during our wait and chain-smoking Pall Malls asked anxiously “How did it go Major?
“The son of a bitch acted as if butter could not melt in his mouth. He calmly told us that he had known all along that the Crown was not in the trunk. Two days before Granville arrested him, he and his men had buried the crown and its retinue near a lake in Mattsee Austria. He told us he would be happy to show us where they are buried. He gave a glance to Granville and added “That didn’t take any time at all, but we spent the next little while explaining to Pajtas in let’s say violent detail what would happen to him should this be another one his lies.”
Granville, clearly uncomfortable with Kubala’s description of events added “We merely told him with a little punctuation that should we fail to recover the Crown this time around what the consequences would be to him and his family. That our associate Colonel Himler would be delighted to spread rumors with his network of Hungarians that Pajtas had betrayed his confidences and sold the Crown to the Soviets for money and a position in the new government.”
“I have never seen the color drain out of their face any quicker” interjected Kubala.
Granville, ignoring Kubala’s remarks continued “But now we have another problem.” Paul, Andrews and I focused our attention on him, but it was Kubala who continued.
“Mattsee is in the Third Army’s territory. We cannot just go there and pick it up. That would violate at least a half dozen standing orders on transferring war bounty from one army’s area of control to another. We need to go through the chain of command. A former request to Patch, who would then have to bring it up with Patton, orders would have to be issued. It would take forever and presents a number of problems for us. First, it could take weeks before we received former permission if we received it. Patton may decide that he wants to dig it up himself being the glory hound that he is. Or worse in the time that it takes to get permission somehow someone else discovers the Crown before we can get too it. Second, we would have to admit to Patch that once again we have thought we had the Crown in our possession only to be embarassed by Pajtas. It is a conversation that Granville and I would prefer not to have.”
Kubala then made eye contact with Andrews and said “We need to figure out a way out to solve this problem.
Andrews was quick on the uptake. He drawled “Major, give me a truck a couple of boys who know how to use a shovel and I can get the crown one half faster than no time.”
Kubala asked “How are you going to get past Third Army sentries?”
Andrews grinned “Those boys. Ain’t no big thing. I do it…It ain’t no big thing.”
“What happens if it is a big thing, and they stop you.”
“I’ll just tell him the truth. That we are off hunting Nazi gold and when they are finished laughing at us. I’ll tell him that we heard there was a whorehouse in Salzburg that was hotter than honeymoon hotel and we are aiming on seeing if it were true.”
Even Granville laughed at that one. Kubala asked “What did you think George?”
Granville replied “It could work. And what do we have to lose? If he gets caught, he can claim he was just looking for a little companionship and won’t even get back to us. But what if some civilians see us digging. They could cause trouble for us. Either with the local police or MP’s. How is your German Andrews?”
“I can say hello, goodbye and swear a little.”
“Floessel and Gross, are you boys up to visiting a whorehouse in Salzburg? Maybe translate for Andrews if he gets in trouble with a Madam.”
It was asked as a question but both Paul and I knew it was an order. I replied “Funny you should mention it sir, Paul and I were just talking about how about how we had heard that the brothels of Salzburg were worth a visit.” Then pausing I added However, sir, if I may, I would like to suggest an alternative to Lt. Andrews ’s plan?”
Granville nodded while Worth shot daggers at me with his eyes. I said, “I think the plan as it stands is perfectly viable.” I glanced over at Andrews, he seemed a little mollified by my statement but was still hostile. “However, it has one major flaw. That is, Colonel Pajtas. If we are going to enjoy the pleasures of Salzburg why would we be bringing along a Hungarian officer? They discover him. Mission is over and were in hot water with the brass.”
Andrews interrupted “Hell that ain’t no problem. All we have to do is put him a one of our uniforms and no one will ever suspect a thing.”
I replied as tactfully as I could “You are right. Under ideal circumstances we could “hide him” in one of our uniforms and no one would be the wiser. But what if Pajtas decides that he wants to derail this whole operation. He has not demonstrated any great willingness to help us in the past. In fact, just the opposite. What happens when we get to a check point and he decides to yell out in Hungarian or identify himself as a prisoner of war. Game over. We are fucked.”
Granville says “Okay Sam. What is your solution.”
I took a deep breath and turning to Kubala asked “Major, do you need anyone else’s authority to transfer a prisoner from your custody to another’s.”
I could tell from Kubala’s look that he saw where I was going with all of this. He said “No I don’t. special orders to transfer prisoners. I can do that on my own authority. Go on.”
“Then why don’t you issue orders transferring Pajtas to Camp Orr. It is a legitimate cover. If Pajtas complains then we just tell the guards it is the normal prisoner mouthing off. We can justify the guards who are accompanying us security needed to the high value nature of the prisoner. Then once we clear the Third Army checkpoints, we can make our way to Mattsee and if we can stop by a patrol on the way there, we can always say we got lost.”
For a moment, no one said anything then Granville turned to Kubala “What do you think, Paul?”
Hesitantly, as if were actively trying to find flaws in the plan while speaking said “Well I guess it could work.”
When he was interrupted by Lt. Andrews “What are we going to say about him.” pointing at Paul. He is clearly not Army.”
Andrews clearly did not like to be shown up. But what choice did I have. Our goal was to develop a working plan to recover the Crown and its retinue. I couldn’t let personalities get in the way, but I also did not need to make an enemy of him either. I replied “Good point. I think the plan I proposed might have an advantage there as well as Paul’s presence can be explained away factually. If anyone bothers to ask, we just tell them the truth. He is a special liaison between us and the Austrian Underground who is hitching a ride with us.”
Andrews looked pissed that I had managed to dodge his bullet. Meanwhile, Granville had just a hint of a prideful smirk that his protégé had developed a workable plan. Kubala said “Lets go with Floessel’ s plan.” Then laying out the map he had been carrying on the table added “Lets figure out the best way to get to Mattsee.”
Orders needed to be cut. Vehicles requisitioned and troops recruited. As a consequence, our mini convoy of a deuce and half and Jeep did not get underway until early afternoon. Andrews, who been placed in operation control of our adventure was in the Jeep along with the driver. I thought that this was smart. While more of a blunt object than a refined instrument he had a gift with words that we hoped would get us through any rough spots. Moreover, he was Kubala’s boy, and it was clear that the Major wanted to make sure that he was in control. That put Paul, Pajtas, me and a squad of farm raised GIs in the truck. The troops in the back with Pajtas and a driver, Paul and I in the cab of the truck.
We had decided to take one of Hitler’s super roads, the Autobahn to Munich as it should get us there far faster than the secondary roads. They had been built for speed and I could remember how the Austrian press hailing them as one of the marvels of the age with one driver setting a speed record of nearly five hundred kilometers an hour on one of these roads. Unfortunately, for us the Autobahn to Munich had apparently been considered a primary target of our air force and artillery. It was heavily cratered and made for a much slower go than we had anticipated, and we didn’t get to Munich until nearly dusk.
We encountered the first checkpoint for Patton’s Third Army right outside of Munich. You could tell they were Patton’s men as their kit was exactly as army specification. Not a button, insignia or medal out of place. Ties perfectly knotted. They were also humorless and completely resistant to Andrew’s charm. They wanted to know who we were, where we were going, and who told us we could do so. Even after our orders were presented to them, they seemed to read every word twice and then radioed their HQ to make sure that we could proceed. When they finally let us through the checkpoint with a smart salute darkness had fallen completely.
As we drove away Paul lit a cigarette and said to me in German “Don’t be so proud of yourself. Your plan was not that smart.”
“It didn’t need to be that smart. Just smart enough to get us into Third Army territory. Which considering what we just saw, Andrews never would have. Besides, I didn’t hear you offering up any plans.”
“Do you really think that Kubala would have listened to me?”
“Well, there is that.” I said laughing. “I was surprised he even listened to me.”
Paul laughed along with me and then said “Imagine that. Someone actually listening to something little Hugi said.” Then changing gears he added “Actually, don’t sell yourself short Sam. You have always had that gift. When you believe in something you can always convince people to trust your idea. Do not know why that is. It certainly isn’t your looks. People believe in you. They trust you. The only thing lacking sometimes is you believing in yourself.”
“I believe in myself.” I said a little defensively.
“Of course, you do. But not always. Sometimes you let a little doubt creep in. You need to work on that. I won’t always be around to boost up your ego.”
“Since when do you spend any time at all boosting up my ego.”
I could only see the part of his face that was illuminated by the glow of the ember at the end of his cigarette, but he seemed to be smirking when he said “More than you know my old friend. More than you know.” He paused and then added in a very serious tone “I need to tell you something Sam.”
Concerned I responded “Sure, what’s up.”
“After we finish our little fun in Mattsee I am going to head back to Vienna.”
“Why, I thought Granville and his friends have plans for you.”
“Then why are you heading back to Vienna?”
“Sam. Sam. Sam. Do I really have to spell it out for you?”
He did not. I knew. But I wanted to hear it from his own lips anyway. I said, with only a hint of belligerence. “Yeah, spell it out for me.”
“It is not overly complicated. Your friends seem to think that I can help them with a few things there. And I have agreed to help them.”
“But hell. There is nothing left for you in there. The city is destroyed. It will be years before it is back to anything approaching normal. You can’t build a life on that. I can write Max. I am sure he can figure out a way to come to the States. You could go back to school. Build a life there.”
“Sam, I can’t leave Mama and go to, what did Edie call it, Fairyland. She is old. There is no one to take care of her except me. You would not abandon you mother. I can not either.”
“Maybe Max could find a way for her to come as well” I said grasping at straws.
“Come on Sam. You know that really is a fantasy. The line of refugees trying to go the United States from Europe is going to be endless. Unless you have a special skill, like Pichler, or an incredibly special friend you are going to be on that line for a very long time. Besides, you are forgetting something.”
“What is that?”
“That what your friends are asking me to do I am exceptionally good at. I have been doing it for years and would not have survived unless I had certain talents. Even better I like it.” He chuckled and added “In a lot of ways it’s just the adult version of the games of cowboys and Indians we played as kids.”
“Yeah, except Winnetou will be in one place and Old Shatterhand somewhere else.”
“Well, there is that. But think of another way. Vienna is going to be the place where east meets west, and I am going to have a front road seat. Who knows what opportunities will fall into my lap? And instead of having to hustle for money like the rest of the city your Uncle Sam will be paying me…” and then, completely out the blue he began to cackle with laughter.
“What is so god damn funny.”
Catching his breath between chortles he said “You!”
“What about me?”
“You are Uncle Sam!” and then broke down again in laughter.
When he recovered sufficiently from his laughing spell he continued “Seriously, Sam. I know you want for me what you have. The future we both dreamed about years ago. But that ship sailed for me a long time ago. I do not mind. We all have our destinies. And I will make the best of mine. Just like you will make the best of yours.”
“But you are still caught up in the could have, should have and would have with Tomahawk, right?”
I nodded. He said “You need to get over that. You weren’t responsible then. You certainly are not now. But Sam, you are responsible for my new life. Your friends have given me a lifeline that I can live on, better than most, until something else comes long. Stop beating yourself up about the past and take a little credit for the future.”
He then said “And, as your elder, can I offer you one additional piece of advice.”
“You are five months older than me…”
He persisted “As your elder my advice is don’t get caught up the glamorous. Live the life you have imagined for yourself, not the one others have imagined for you.”
“So says the brave and wise Winnetou?”
“So says the brave and wise Winnetou!”
When we got Salzburg we transferred Pajtas to the Jeep. Andrews wanted him front and center when as we approached Mattsee. While he had marked on a map where were going it was dark and as Andrews told us “trying to find someplace in the dark could go cattywampus faster than a duck on a June bug.” Something he wanted to avoid considering the longer we spent here the more likely our activities would be discovered. We also had one other advantage in our search, a near full moon that had just peaked over the horizon as we entered the town of Mattsee. It case just enough light for us to make out road signs without us having to use flashlights to illuminate them.
We headed north out of the town and following the shore road. About 6 kilometers out of town the road branched, and we followed the lesser of the two. Another three kilometers on we made a left onto a rutted dirt road that made a hard right turn when it reached the lakeside. A half mile after that the road dead ended at low stone wall that ran parallel to the shore. Here Pajtas got out of the jeep and walked twenty paces down the wall and then eight out from it (I would learn later that the paces corresponded to St. Stephens day in Hungary) and proudly pronounced. “Here we dig.”
The farm raised GI’s, all over six foot and broad, began attacking the spot with their entrenching tools while the rest of us illuminated the spot with our flashlights. There had been a conversation about bringing along real picks and shovels along with us, but it had been abandoned when it was decided that they would seem suspicious if our truck was searched. The lack of proper tools along with summer hardened ground made for slow going. The lack of progress also made us question whether or not Pajtas was telling us the truth. According to him, they had buried the Crown and the rest in early May. How could the earth be so tough when it was only disturbed a few months ago? Even if they had firmly tamped the ground down when the buried the items the ground should not be this tough.
After an hour of digging and where we had only gone down about eighteen inches, Andrews let his doubts get the better of him. He grabbed Pajtas by the collar and lifted him up so that he was standing on his tip toes and said “Pissant, if we don’t find anything at the bottom of this hole the next people to dig it up will find you.”
Pajtas clearly unnerved by Andrew’s anger said “This is the spot. I know it. But we dug it deep so it would not be uncovered. Have a little more patience.”
The digging continued another hour and several feet before we heard the clang of metal against metal. This was good news but it slowed the digging down even further. Pajtas had told us that when they had removed the Crown, Orb, and scepter from the trunk that had wrapped them in leather and placed them in an emptied and halved fifty-five-gallon gasoline drum. The drum had then been resealed before being placed in the ground. This meant our diggers needed to carefully find the corners of the container and the slowly excavate around it so it could be lifted out of the hole.
This was painfully slow. Our goal had been to get in and get out under the cover of darkness. Our late start and the slow going with the dig were conspiring against us time wise. According to my watch it was nearly 1:30 and with sunrise only 4 hours away if we did not get a move on our activities would be exposed to the light of day. It was just after 2am when Andrews called to the diggers “Boys, you think you can lift that can out of there now.” They put their entrenching tools downs and then the dug their fingers under the drum and tried to lift it up. At first it would not budge but they began wiggling it from side to side until it finally broke free from the earth and it was lifted out of the pit.
Andrews reached down and pulled out a large Bowie knife that he had strapped to his calf. Using the blade with the deftness of a surgeon he cut the rope that held the tattered canvas that encased the barrel. Once the wrapping was removed, he placed the blade of his knife in the seam that bifurcated the barrel and pried it open. Under the dim illumination of our flashlights, we could see that the leather in which the Crown and its retinue had been wrapped had suffered from its time underground. It was in tatters, the holes exposing glints of gold and the scattered refractions of gemstones. I think we were all holding our breaths as Andrews reached down and pulled out of the barrel the object that was clearly the Crown. Carefully, he removed the ruined leather that clung to it revealing a gemstone and pearl encrusted gold crown with dangling gold chains with rubies and emeralds at their ends. At its top was a gold cross bent at 45-degree angle. It glittered in the combined light of our flashlights and the headlights of the jeep and truck.
Andrews said, “Holy shit” and then pointing to the cross added “The goddamn thing is broken.”
Pajtas, who had the look of a true believer looking at a holy object said “No. It is not broken. That is the way it has always been. It is beautiful, yes?”
Andrew’s relieved to know that the Crown was as it should be rewrapped it cin its tattered leather wrapped and went on to the remove the other objects from the barrel: The orb, a gilded sphere globe about three inches in diameter with a small heraldic shield on its front topped with a double patriarchal cross and two coats of arms engraved it sides. I had read somewhere that these orbs were symbols of kingly authority as supreme justice on earth. It was an interesting piece of hardware but not as impressive as the crown or even the coronation scepter, which was pulled out of the container next. It was a cloisonne and gold handle topped by a rock crystal ball and ten dangling gold chains with small gold balls at their ends. Anton Skoda, in that long ago car ride, had told us that that the crystal was from the ancient Magyar homeland and that many believe that it had magic powers. The scepter both confirmed the Kings ties to past and helped him rule in the present. As a group we were mesmerized by the objects. They were beautiful in the way that ancient artifacts often are. Not because they glittered and were made of precious stones and metals, but they radiated history. Their age and the reverence in which they had been held for a millennium provided them with a magic that could only be felt when gazing at them.
We could have gazed at them indefinitely. They were that captivating. Andrews is the one who broke the Crown’s spell on us. He said looking at his watch, a Rolex, which struck me as being slightly out of place on his wrist and said “We need to put a little giddy up in our get along if we are going to be back in Seventh Army territory by dawn.” Suddenly, everyone seemed to have something to do. Andrews and Pajtas began carefully re wrapping the Crown, the scepter and orb back in the tattered leather coverings in which we had found them and placing them back in them gently back into gasoline drum. The farm boy GI’s began back filling the hole they had dug. No doubt anyone who came along this way would know that someone had been digging here but that evidence would fade with time which was the goal.
I should have said that everyone seemed to have something to do with the exception of Paul and me. While the privates backfilled and Andrews and Pajtas gave their tender loving care to St. Stephen’s crown and glory we were left with nothing to do but stand in awkward silence on the periphery. Both of us knew that the latest chapter in our friendship was about to conclude yet neither of us had the courage or the words to address it. There was a raft of emotions I could have expressed. How relieved I was at finding him alive and in his way thriving. That his expungement of the guilt I felt for his “death”, leaving him behind and his life underground was a gift I could never properly repay. How much I appreciated his ability to hold up a mirror to me and my thoughts and force me to look into until I saw who was really there. I wanted to tell him that he was my brother and that I loved him. That the bond between us would never die.
But I said nothing. Not because what I felt was not important but because long ago Paul had figured out how the other thought. He knew what I was thinking, and I knew he felt much the same. Words were not necessary because they were inadequate. Silence gave more understanding than words ever could.
Which is why we stood in silence until everyone had completed their tasks and were climbing back aboard our vehicles. Andrews, who had just placed in the gasoline drum containing the Crown and its retinue in the back of the deuce and a half approached us and said. “I am putting Pajtas in the front of the truck with the driver. I am going to sit in the back and guard the prize. You take the lead in the Jeep. Gross can sit in the back.
Andrews clearly did not know that Paul would not be making the return trip to Augsburg. I guess he did not need to know. I turned to my friends and instead all the things I had been thinking and said “Can I give you a lift to Salzburg.”
He replied with a grin “Thank you that would be very helpful.”
The trip to Salzburg took far less time than it had in the opposite direction. Before we knew it we were driving through the city made famous by Mozart. On the drive down from Matssee there had been little conversation between mostly because talking in an open Jeep was nearly impossible. As we passed through the center of town, I felt a tap on my shoulder and Paul pointed to sign that indicated that the train station was only a few blocks away. I was about to tell the driver to head to the station but my childhood friend shook his head and indicated he would get out here. I gave our driver a signal to pull over. When we came to a stop my Paul jumped out of the back of the Jeep. We looked at each other and I began to say something, but he shook his head. Silence said more than words. Then he did something unexpected. He saluted me. More out of reflex than understanding, I saluted back. Then, he pulled his ruck sack over the shoulder and disappeared into the night.
Colonel Pajtas and Granville had a history. Granville had been assigned to take Pajtas and his men into custody. Pajtas and his men had treated him with arrogance and disrespect. Granville had to remind them that they were prisoners and had done so with the skill of a surgeon working without anesthesia: Quickly, with minimal amount brutality but left a mark painfully. Granville had thought that had put an end to their cat and mouse game. However, he had been fooled and embarassed when they had reached Augsburg to learn that Pajtas had kept the fact he did not have the keys to the trunk from him. He had taken that omission personally. It had been the recall of that embarrassment thah powered his investigation up to and including recruiting a shave tale from OCS, and flying him halfway around the world, in the remote hope that it might help him find the keys.
Pajtas had been lying to them all along. His denying that he knew where they were was just Pajtas yanking Granville’s chain. Again. Just as in their first meeting the Hungarians were laughing at him and the US Army behind their backs. It made that white hot fire that was burning in Granville’s gut now burn with the intensity of an acetylene torch. He wanted to light Pajtas up.
Granville told me as much. After we had arrived at Augsburg, he had sent Paul and Cookie off to find us billets while we proceeded to Kubala’s office. I got parked in the Major’s outer office while Granville went to meet with his commanding officer. I was not alone. Sitting with me a tall First Lieutenant in a slightly disheveled uniform who had been hustled out of Kubala’s office when Granville entered. He had sat down directly opposite me and after pulling a toothpick from his shirt pocket began to simultaneously pick his teeth and stare at me simultaneously. It was a little unnerving, but I also knew it was a game. The person who spoke first loses. I do not like losing games especially when I don’t know what the consequences of that loss will be. As a consequence, I spent my time inspecting the shine on my shoes (they needed work,) the state of my nails (clean, well clipped) and trying to remember all the verses of Kubla Khan by Coleridge. The first verse was easy:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
It was always the second verse that gave me trouble. I could never remember if it began “But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted” or “A damsel with a dulcimer in a vision once I saw.” I was trying to figure this out when I heard “Worth B.Andrews, Ft. Worth Texas and you are?”
I looked up and saw that he had crossed the room and was standing directly in front of me, with his hand out. I stood up and shook his hand and said “Sam Floessel, I am from Ft. Worth, Texas too.” I think it was my Viennese accent that probably made him look at me with a surprised look so I added “ I just tell people I am from Ft. Worth because that is where I became a citizen” hoping that my little joke would help lighten up the mood.
Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect, Andrews replied “Son, we Texans don’t like to joke about where we are from.” I was about to tell him that I meant no offense when Granville and Kubala walked out of the office. Eyeing up the situation Granville said “Floessel, you are with me” and headed towards the door. When we had reached the outside George said, “I see you that you met Kubala’s lap dog.”
“Yeah, Andrews is Kubala’s pet. Whenever he wants to get something done but doesn’t want to get his hands dirty, he tells Andrews to do it.” Pausing to consider how to phrase his next sentence he then added “Watch out for him. He is a snake, he bites and he and Kubala are into some seriously questionable shit. He will sell you out in a second to protect themselves so the order of the day with them is CYA. Understand.”
I said “Yes, sir.”
He smiled “Enough with the smart-ass shit. Let me tell you what Kubala and I have agreed on how to handle to Pajtas.” He then told me that Kubala had been “supremely pissed” that he had been deceived by the Hungarian and his initial instinct had been to use strong arm techniques to get the whereabouts of the keys from him. But Granville had talked him out of it pointing out that may be counterproductive and just strengthen his resolve. Instead, we were going to play mind games with him. As we spoke Pajtas was being taken to an interrogation room. He would not be told why. He would be left alone there until we interrogated him sometime in the small hours of the morning. It was hoped that the combination of the silent treatment, being alone with his own imagination, and the timing of the interview would help loosen his tongue. In the meantime, we were going to grab some chow and catch a few hours’ sleep so that we could be in top form when it came time to interrogate Pajtas.
Man plans and God laughs. We didn’t interrogate Pajtas in the middle of the night as we had planned. Our original plan to interview him in the middle of the night when Granville said most people are disoriented had been overwritten by our own biological needs. A heavy meal of Army chow and days of sleep deprivation and travel had caught up with us. It was decided if we were to be at our best, a full night’s sleep was in order. As a consequence, our batteries were full loaded when we entered the interrogation room with Pajtas. You could not say the same for him. His eyes had heavy bags underneath them and there was a hollow look about them that I knew all too well from all night study sessions at Syracuse and OCS. And, whether it was my imagination, a projection of how I hoped he felt, or reality, I had a sense that he was fearful of what was about to happen to him.
Granville asked “Good morning, Colonel Pajtas. Do you remember who I am.?”
Pajtas responded contemptuously, in good but heavily accented English “Yes, you are Granville.”
“That is correct. My colleague here is Lt. Floessel. He will be assisting me in our interrogation this morning. You may recall from that our last conversation was in Hungarian but the Lieutenant here does not speak that language but he is originally from Vienna so we are going to give you a choice on whether you would prefer our conversation to be in English or German. Which language would make you feel the most comfortable?”
Pajtas nodded at me and said “German I think. My English is getting better, but with the German I am more fluent.”
Granville switched to German and asked “Do you remember our last conversation? When I asked you about the whereabouts to the keys to the trunk?”
“At the time you told me that you had no knowledge of where the keys might be. That you had handed them over to someone else. Do you remember saying that to me?”
“Do you remember at the time, I told you that if you were lying to me that I would find out and that there would be consequences to you misleading me?”
Pajtas pulled himself up in his chair a little and with his chin jutting out said “Yes. I remember that conversation very well.”
Granville fixed his eyes on Pajtas and said in an utterly flat voice “Why did you lie to me then?”
Pajtas looked as if he had been slapped in the face. “I did not lie to you.”
Granville, looked down at the table, sighed, and looking back up again. “Cut the bullshit. You certainly did. Floessel and I have just had a talk with your associate Captain Gombos, and he tells us that he gave you two of the keys to the trunks. Did he lie to us?”
Pajtas’ s countenance changed from looking insulted to that of being relieved. As if what Granville had just said was of no particular consequence. He replied “ No. the Captain did not lie to you. He did give me two of the keys to the trunk. But I did not lie to you either.”
Granville said nothing knowing that his silence would force Pajtas into providing a fuller explanation. The Colonel continued “When you interrogated me I had no idea of where the keys were. As I told you then I had handed them off to another for safe keeping.”
“Anton Skoda.” I interjected.
“Yes. Anton Skoda. As far as knew when we spoke, he still had the keys. It was not until a few weeks later when they brought Captain Gombos to the camp that I discovered he had retrieved the keys.”
Granville held up his hand “Cut the bullshit. You pulled a fast one on us. You gave Skoda the keys so that you could tell us that you had no idea where they were and at the same time ordered Gombos to retrieve them. It gave you both plausible deniability and at the same made sure the keys would be in the possession of people you know.”
Pajtas shrugged his shoulders but said nothing so Granville continued “But your scheme did not work out as planned. Gombos get caught. Right.”
Pajtas remained silent.
“When you saw him here you demanded he turn over the keys. And he gave them to you. What I want to know, is where are they now?”
Pajtas nodded, as if to acknowledge the facts, and reached under his tunic and pulled out a leather thong which had hanging it from an ornate iron key, identical in design to the one which we had been given by Gombos. He placed them on the table in front of him and slid them across to Granville.
I said, “Where is the other key?”
Pajtas said “This is the only one I have.”
Granville hissed “No more games Colonel. We know Gombos gave you two keys. Where is the other one?”
Pajtas only hesitated for a second before answering “I gave the other key to His Serene Highness Admiral Horthy.”
Minutes later we were making our way towards Major Kubala’s office to update him on the interrogation. I said “George, do you mind if I asked you a question?”
He stopped and said, “Shoot?”
“You know I have absolutely no experience in interrogating people.”
“Well, I thought trying to get the key off this guy was going to be more difficult. After all they had gone through a lot of trouble to keep them hidden….to deceive us about them? Yet when we asked him about the keys, he gave up his lickety split and then told us where we could find the remaining one without any hesitation at all. It just seemed a little too easy.”
Granville nodded and replied, “I was thinking the same thing.”
We had been under the impression when we left Pajtas that retrieving the last key from Horthy would be as simple as having one of the guards retrieve him from where he was being detained at SAIC. We had assumed that he was still here where Granville had interviewed him only a few weeks before. We were wrong. While we had been tracking Anton Skoda, the Yugoslav government had leveled war crimes charges against the Crown Regent. They believed he had approved of and had direct knowledge of what they called the “Novi Sad” massacre. This was an operation where Hungarian troops had rounded up 4000 Serb, Jewish, Romani citizens and murdered them. According to Kubala, Tito had demanded Horthy’s arrest and the Allies were keen to keep him happy due to Yugoslavia’s unique geo-political position. Horthy had been arrested and sent to prison where other high ranking war criminals were being detained. A place in Luxembourg that Kubala called “Ashcan.”
This presented a major problem for us. Ashcan was our most secure interrogation center. It was where the remnants of the Nazi government including Albert Speer, Herman Goring and Karl Donitz to name just a few were being held. Access to the facility and the prisoners were tightly controlled. It was, as Cookie later described it, kept “Tighter than a frog ass.” An expression that I did not quite understand but found amusing and highly descriptive. It meant that for us to get permission to interview Horthy had to come directly from SHAEF and Eisenhower. This took time and for over a week we were left cooling our heels.
This was both a blessing and a curse. I had been on the bounce for more than a month. I was sleep deprived and road weary and to have no place to go and nothing to do but to eat and sleep for a few days seemed pretty much ideal. However, the novelty of three squares and all the sleep I could want soon wore off. While the infantry credo “Walk when you don’t have to run, sit when you don’t have to stand…” had been driven into consciousness in basic that had never been my way. I was always doing something. Hell, I had polished off two years of college in a year while working 20 hours a week. I went looking for Paul in the hopes that he and I go find some mischief to get into, but he was nowhere to be found. From what I could gather he was off having conversations with some of Granville’s associates. Cookie, when I finally found him, had discovered a perpetual poker game that was being held in the NCO’s quarters and could not be shaken from it. As he put it “These boys just want to give me their money and who I am to disappoint them.” As a consequence, for most of those days we spent waiting I spent by myself with little to do but focus on the conversation that Paul and I had in the car on the road to Salzburg.
I had no doubt that he was right when he told me that I was being recruited by Granville for intelligence work. His putting me in charge of Gombos interrogation sealed that for me. The real question was whether or not this was a path I wanted to walk down. On the pro side was there was the glamour and fantasy of this type of work that I had gleaned from reading novels such as “The Thirty Nine Steps,” “Kim” and “The Riddle of the Sands.” But if the past few weeks had taught me nothing at all it was that intelligence work was nothing like novels. It was both tedious and dangerous with a large amount of game play where you were required to outthink the other side. Failure to do so were catastrophic as had been hammered home by the Colonel Skoda’s murder. But I was good at game play and out thinking others. It was a skill I had refined long ago on the streets of Vienna’s 13th district.
It became clear to me that it was not a question of whether I could do this type of work well. I could. The real question was whether I wanted to do it.
I had seen the way that this work compromised things that you held dear. While lying and deception were a part of life, everyone lies, everyone deceives, the consequences were different. When you lied to your parents or did not mention to your girlfriend the woman you were out with the night before, no one was injured or died. But even that did not bother me that much. You cannot make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.
What ate at me was Pichler. The man was a monster. He had dedicated his life and his career to making a gas that could kill millions. He had purposely murdered innocent men and women for the pleasures of others and to curry favors with those who could help him. He was an unrepentant Nazi who saw nothing wrong with their genocidal murders or their philosophy of racial purity. He was not only the most despicable being I had ever met but among the most loathsome creatures to ever walk the planet. Yet, Granville and I had been forced to mollycoddle him because our superiors thought that he had knowledge and skills that would help us achieve our goals. Intellectually, I could understand why this was done. Sacrificing your morals for the greater good was nothing new. Was not that the story of the original covenant when Abraham is willing to slay Isaac for the good of the Jewish people. But Pichler and men liked him had killed my grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. How could I be a part of letting him have good life when he robbed them of theirs. Wasn’t that making me as corrupt a human as Pichler. And didn’t people in Intelligence work have to make the same choice all the time.
I was saved from my conundrum when, finally, after nearly a week of waiting we received written permission from Eisenhower himself to go to Ashcan and interview Horthy. I learned later from Cookie that the delay in receiving permission to see the Crown Regent was due to SHAEF’s distrust of Kubala. Apparently, he had become very friendly with Goring during his stay at SAIC, the Field Marshall even giving him one of his Reich Marshall’s batons, and his request for one of his subordinates to visit Ashcan was viewed with suspicion. According to Cookie it required a personal request to Eisenhower from Patch to have permission granted.
Regardless, we were on our way. Well, most of us were. Paul was staying in Augsburg for the time being. He would not be welcome at Ashcan due to his technical status as a citizen of defeated alien and his traveling with us would serve no useful purpose. To be honest, I was wondering why I was going. Certainly, I had outlived my usefulness to the investigation long ago, but Granville insisted and only the sense I could make of it was that he wanted to see whether I would make a good recruit for OSS or CIC.
It is nearly 300 miles to Luxembourg from Augsburg and despite leaving right after reveille we did not arrive at Ashcan until nearly dusk. It was not what I expected. all. I had thought that a facility holding some of the most infamous members of Hitlers government who were to be on trial for war crimes would be an impressive looking prison or at least a lock up like Camp Orr. It was neither of things. Before the war it had been Luxembourg’s most luxurious hotel, The Palace. While the war had not been kind to the hotel, its five-story boomerang shaped edifice still maintained some of its grandeur. Had it not been for the fifteen-foot fence crowned by a double string curl of concertina wire, a secondary electrified fence and four guard towers equipped with machine guns and klieg lights along with a heavily secured guard post and a serious looking contingent of Army MP’s you might have been event tempted to stay there.
When we pulled up to the guard house, Cookie rolled down his window and said to the guard “Hi Sarge, we are here to interview one of the inmates.”
The guard, whose name tag identified him as “Sergeant of the Guard Robert Block” just stared at him and then turned his gaze to Granville and me. After an exceptionally long uncomfortable pause he said in a drawl equal to Cookie’s “To get in here, you need a pass from God.” And, then after a beat added “And then you have to have someone to verify the signature.” Cookie handed over our papers. Sergeant Block took them and retreated into the guard house where we saw making a phone call. After a brief conversation, he hung up the phone and the gate were raised. We entered Ashcan.
We were greeted in the still opulent lobby by the commander of the prison, a precisely dressed officer who, after throwing us a very military salute which we returned, introduced himself as Colonel Burton Andrus. He told us that he had been expecting our arrival and Regent Horthy would be made available to us in the morning. In the meantime, rooms had been set aside for us and we were free to roam about the facility as we liked but with only one caveat. Speaking to any of the prisoners was strictly forbidden. Granville, after thanking him for his hospitality, told him that we had no interest in speaking to any of the prisoners with the exception of Horthy and we would be out of his “hair” as quickly as possible.
I had not completely understood the restriction that Andrus had placed on us. I had thought that like most prisons the detainees would be confined to cells and only let out for meals, exercise and basic functions. That was not how it worked at Ashcan. Prisoners were allowed to move freely throughout the hotel. I was told later that this was by specific design. It was hoped that the prisoners would feel free to interact with each other and perhaps share secrets that they were unwilling to share with their captors all while their conversations were being monitored electronically. However, as we walked through the hotel on the way to our rooms the prisoner’s ability to move freely about the compound had another effect. It made me feel like I was a new exhibit at the zoo. Without exception everyone gave us a cold-eyed stair no doubt wondering what had brought us to this hotel and what it meant to them.
I realized immediately upon entering my room that that despite outward appearances this was no Hotel Sacher. Other than rather overdone wallpaper the room had been completely stripped of its former opulence. Fancy light fixtures had been replaced with bare bulbs. Plush furniture had made way for a folding table and chairs. Instead of plush bed with goose down comforter there was an army cot equipped with a rough drab olive blankets and sheets with all the tenderness of sandpaper. Surveying my surrounding I laughed at my own disappointment. After all, in Vienna I had it far worse. There my cot was in the same room as Mama and Papa. Here at least I had the room to myself.
That night sleep eluded me. This was partly due to my nerves over tomorrow. Would we get the final key, or would it be yet another dead in or Hungarian trick to keep us from the Crown? But my inability to fall asleep laid mainly with the fact that I was locked up here in Ashcan who just weeks before would have done everything in their power to murder men. Men who had murdered so many of those that I loved. Then something occurred to me and I began to laugh. The Nazis were now in Ashcan. They were Ashcan Nazis. We had turned the worst of the worst Nazis into European Jews.
I fell asleep smiling at my pun.
The next morning as we waited for the Hungarian Regent in a hotel room that was identical to mine minus the bed, I tried to share my witticism with Granville. He just nodded perfunctorily as he was clearly already focused on the interrogation. We had spent much of the drive from Augsburg talking about the importance of our conversation with Horthy. Failure here would result in either weeks if not months more investigation to find the last missing key or the destruction of the trunk. Both were undesirable to Granville, who underneath it all, was an extremely ambitious man. Success here meant success for his career after the war. Failure would be a mark on his record that would be hard to erase. For those reasons, he was going to be the primary interrogator this morning. My role, as he put it, was to “keep my mouth shut, listen, and only talk when spoken to.”
Horthy was escorted to the interrogation by Colonel Andrus himself. It was clear from their body language that both men disliked each other. Neither looked at each other and stood as far apart from each other as the confines would allow. Andrus further confirmed his disdain for his captive by his introduction to us. He said “Colonel Granville and Lt. Floessel let me introduce to you the prisoner Miklos Horthy” adroitly omitting Horthy’s military rank and title. This clearly rankled the Regent who flinched with the introduction.
Granville said formally “Your Serene Highness, Miklos Horthy de Nagybanya, Regent of Hungary it is an honor to meet you. Please take a seat.” The greeting clearly irritated Andrus as he bristled. However, it did have the desired effect on Horthy. He stood a little more erect, puffed out his chest, and tilted his chin upward with the introduction. This was exactly what Granville had been hoping for. He believed that a hostile interrogation with the Regent was a bad approach. At best it would delay him telling us where the key was and at worst prevent us from locating at all. However, an interview that stroked Horthy’s ego and provided him with all due deference might unlock the secret of the key.
Horthy settled into a seat opposite Granville and myself and it gave me an opportunity to really look at him for the first time. My first impression was that he reminded me of a former beauty queen whose days of glory lay in the past but they still tried to maintain what once was but would never come again. His suit, which no doubt had been custom made, was now slightly threadbare and hung on him like a sack. The dark eyes, that one point could stare right through you, now were furtive and would not hold your gaze.
Colonel Andrus interrupted my thoughts by saying “Gentleman, please let me know if you need anything” and began to walk towards the door.
Granville turned to Horthy and said solicitously “Your Serene Highness, is there anything that we can get for you?” You could see the look of pleasure grow on the Regent’s face while at the same time you could see Andrus’s back stiffen.
Horthy replied “It would be delightful to have a cup of tea. Perhaps with some honey and lemon?”
Andrus, scowling, replied “I will have someone bring it to you.” And then departed before anything more could be asked of him.
Granville turned to Horthy and began “Regent Horthy…” but was cut off by the Admiral who said “I do not like that man.”
Granville, taken back replied “Whom?”
“Colonel Andrus of course. He treats us like common criminals. This is not what I was led to expect when your Army transferred me here from Augsburg.”
“I am sorry, sir. Where were you told you were going?”
“I was told that I was going to a much nicer facility. The spa at the Palace Hotel in Mondorf, Luxemborg. I was led to believe that this was a reward for me being so cooperative with your government. A recompense if you will. A bit of vacation.”
He paused for a second as a private arrived with our tea. When he had left, he continued. “However, from the moment I arrived that man has been trying to get us under his thumb. His first act was to order my luggage to be searched and everything with which I could have hanged or injured myself.to be removed.”
I glanced at Horthy and noticed something that I had missed in my initial once over. He was wearing not wearing a belt.”
He continued “All my valuables were taken from me, in exchange for receipts. He ordered my valet of 24 years who had never been a soldier and has only served me well to be moved to the prison camp. I tried to protest but he would not listen. Then he escorted me to my “room” which was not fit for a human being. Not only was it small with no facilities of its own but the mattress was not even a proper mattress. It was made of straw. My horses had better bedding.”
Horthy was clearly blowing off steam and Granville was glad to let him as it suited our plan perfectly. He said “Thank you for sharing that with us, your highness. Lieutenant Floessel has taken note of your observations and will see what he can to about moving you to a better room and about having your valet released from the prison camp. Before we begin with my questions, is there anything else we can help you with?”
Horthy thought for a second and asked “Yes. Why am I here. Here there are only Nazis. I am no Nazi. I tried twice to make peace with the Allies and for my trouble Hitler had my son abducted, forced me to sign a worthless abdication and then imprisoned me. Now I am arrested by you. For what reason?”
Granville sighed. We knew this question was coming. It was a difficult question to answer but we also knew it could possibly open the door to finding the key. The Colonel said “My apologies. It was my understanding was that this had been explained to you. I will make sure that those who should have told you are properly disciplined. You are here sir because Marshal Tito and the Yugoslav government have accused you of war crimes in regards to the massacres at Novi Sad.”
Horthy face became flushed, spider veins on his cheeks from years of the good life standing out and said “That is preposterous. Our troops were far too disciplined to do anything like that and even if they did how can I be held responsible for what a few troops did in the fog of war.”
Granville held up his hand and said “Your highness, we understand. General Patch and I had a conversation about this before I left Augsburg. He wanted me to tell you that he knows, and these are the general’s words, the “charges are complete and utter bullshit.” That they are a ploy by the communists to behead the legitimate Hungarian government so they could get their own people in place. He wanted you to know that he and General Eisenhower are doing everything within their power to have the charges dropped.”
Horthy antipathy seem to disparate like a balloon deflating. He nodded and said “General Patch is a fine soldier. He was quite kind to me and my family when we initially detained by the US Army. Please tell him thank you and that I am in his debt.”
“Which brings us to why we are here sir. Perhaps there is a way that you can help us and at the same time help yourself as well.”
“You are no doubt familiar that the Crown of St. Stephen’s and its retinue are in our possession in Augsburg.”
“Yes. Colonel Pajtas told me that he turned the trunk containing those items to you.”
Granville leaned forward in his chair and said “We know you are aware of it sir because Pajtas told us that he informed you and that you approved it. What you may not be aware of sir, is that we know that you arranged the whole transfer. That it was your plan since the beginning.”
“That is an outrageous claim.”
“Sir, we had a lengthy conversation with Anton Skoda. He told us the whole story. About how you arranged to have the Crown and its retinue smuggled out of Hungary should something untoward happen to you and how you had arranged with him and the Americans for the Crowns capture.”
“I can’t understand why Colonel Skoda would tell you such a story.”
“With all due respect sir. Of course, you can. Just like I can understand why you would not want to admit it. How would it be received if the Hungarian people found out that their regent arranged to have the symbol of their nation to be turned over to the United States. It would destroy your legacy.”
Horthy said nothing. He just his crossed his arms and glared at Granville as if he had been greatly insulted.
Granville continued “Here is our problem your highness. While we have the Trunk that contains the Crown, we don’t have the keys to open it. You and your men have managed to keep them away form us. You understand why this is big problem for us?
Horthy’s blank expression gave away nothing of what he was thinking so Granville continued. “We need to open that trunk. We need to verify what we have. What if we keep the trunk only to hand over to your government later only to find that there is something else in the trunk. The US government would be blamed, and we can’t have that.”
“We are left with two options. We could find the “lost” keys and open the trunk easily and allow us to inventory what is inside and ensure its safe keeping. Or we could open the trunk forcibly. We don’t want to do this. We know that the Trunk is a part of the tradition of the Crown and desecrating could be considered an insult to the Hungarian people. But rest assured one way or another we are going to get inside that trunk.”
Horthy responded “That is all very well and good but what does that have to do with me?”
“Because sir, you have one of the keys.”
Horthy began to object but Granville cut him off. “With all due respect, your highness don’ t even bother to deny it. We know you have the key. Pajtas told us he gave it to you before you left SAIC. And if you are even thinking about denying that fact understand that there is a lot riding on your answer. I would hate to have to report to General Patch that you were uncooperative. It might him far less willing to help you with this sticky problem with the Yugoslavs.”
You could have cut the tension in the room with a knife it was so palpable. Had they been bulls, both of them would have had their heads down, snorting, and pawing at the dirt, each waiting for the other to charge. Then Horthy broke. Reaching into his jacket he pulled out an ornate iron key, identical to the others we had collected.
Two days later and we here in the conference room awaiting the appearance of General Patch. Kubala paced while the rest of us inspected the shine on each other’s shoes. After about half hour of waiting, a private entered the conference room and whispered something in the Major’s ear. He nodded and dismissing the private said “It seems that General Patch has been unavoidably detained and has asked we proceed without him.”
He then retrieved the keys, which had been placed on a ring and left on a table adjacent to the trunk and handed them to Granville saying “I think the honor of opening the trunk should be yours as you tracked down the keys.”
As the colonel began the process of unlocking the trunk I look around the room. Everyone in the room had the same look of anticipation on their faces. Each person in there was heavily invested in finding the keys that allowed this moment to happen. Each was eager to see Crown Jewels of Hungary with their own eyes. A privilege not granted by many. All except Pajtas. Instead of anticipation written on his face there was anxiety. I guess I would have felt the same way. He had gone through extraordinary efforts to keep this moment from happening but despite his hard work he failed.
When Granville had opened each of the three locks securing the case and removed the metal bar that spanned the trunks top, he turned to Kubala and said “I think the honor to opening the case belongs to you.” Kubala nodded and approach the case and bending just a little lifted the lid as we all leaned forward to see its content. There was a collective gasp. The trunk was empty.
Nine years ago, after living in New York City for the better part of thirty years, I moved back to Summit New Jersey, the town in which I grew up. The primary motivator in that move was be closer to my newly widowed 83-year-old mother. She wanted to stay in her home of over fifty years but could not without occasional assistance. During my Dad’s decline I had tried to commute back and forth to my hometown when I was needed and found it a time suck as well as psychologically and physically draining. As a consequence, my fiancé Elaine and I decided to move to Summit. Not only was convenient to taking care of my mother (clearing a paper jam in her printer would not be a four minute, not four hour, commitment) but I knew it well enough that there would be no learning curve for finding the best bakery (Natale’s), sandwich (Towne Deli) or where to get my haircut (Zoku.)
Which is how I found myself, as I sped up the ramp to US 81 South, beginning a trip I had made countless times before and was as familiar to me as a daily commute. Admittedly their were a number of differences. For example, Winnetou is a far cry from 1970 Orange VW Super Beetle I owned in college. For example, the Grand Cherokee does not require a twenty-pound bag of kitty litter to keep her on the road in high winds. It has technology that we could not even imagine back in the day. Not the least of these is satellite radio where you can listen to the same station for the entirety of your trip as opposed to desperately looking for music every 50 miles or so. And if radio is not your thing and you wish to create your own playlist from your music collection it does not require hours of preparation to make the make the perfect cassette tape for the drive, you just plug in your iPhone and your entire music collection is at your voice command.
I think to share all of this with Elaine, but she is engaged in saving the world. My phone is a Wi-Fi hot spot, and she is using it to connect with her friends and colleagues back in Brazil. The Covid pandemic there is out of control and she along with her friends are doing what they can to motivate government and citizenry to act responsibly. As I loathe to stop anyone from saving the world, I do not disturb her with my reflections and reminiscences. I would have shared them with Rosie except she is doing her best imitation of a bagel and is curled up on my Grandfather Zeman’s 1920ish red and black wool sleeping bag I keep in the car for emergencies and her naps. But I am used to making this drive solo so keeping my thoughts to myself is nothing new.
Nor is the weather. The trips I remember most to and from Syracuse are those in which the weather was as awful as it is today. Snowstorms with white out conditions and snow ruts that locked you in like slot cars. Or rainstorms like today with owling winds and steady heavy rain that is only exacerbated by the spray flying off trucks and cars. It is the type of weather that requires you to focus on driving. I look down at my GPS and it indicates only 220 more miles and three hours thirty-seven minutes to go. It reminds me that the trip we have been on would have been much more difficult with out this nifty bit of technology. We tell it where we want to go and how we want to get there (fastest, least tolls, most scenic) and it guides us. Back in the day, I would have had to plan the trip carefully using maps and my best judgement and then handed over the task of navigation to my passenger whom would have had to be an active participant and tell me where and when to turn. I am not a luddite and my GPS is not only useful and a marriage saver as it prevents heated arguments over direction but I do miss maps. Knowing where you are and how you plan to get to where you want to go are good life skills that maps provide and the GPS lacks. I look in the rear-view mirror to mention this to Rosie, but she is not snoring gently with her feet up in the air.
While I have called this trip Rambles with Rosie, but it has never really been about her. It has been a celebration of being released from the bondage of Covid 19 and the ability to move freely, albeit with caution, in the world. It is about experiencing what is going on in the world as opposed to viewing what is going on in the world through screens.
This idea is struck home when we stop to get fuel in Pennsylvania. I go inside the store that most of these gas stations have these days to make sure their sanitary facilities are up to par and to buy a Coke and Combos, so I am properly fueled for the remainder of the trip. As I enter, there are large signs on the door that proclaim that masks are required but I barely notice them as the signs are ubiquitous these days. But I am reminded of it minutes later as I am purchasing my snacks. One of the store clerks is having a lengthy conversation with a trucker who must be a regular as they are clearly on familiar terms. When I look up from the credit card machine I see the trucker is not wearing a mask and the clerk mask only comes up to the bottom of his nose.
I beat a quick retreat to Winnetou and douse myself with alcohol gel but I spent the remainder of the journey home wondering about what I saw in that store. I don’t get it. There are 550,00 dead in this country and the one thing we can all do to prevent the deaths of more is wear a mask. I am fully vaccinated and the chance of me giving or getting the disease is extraordinarily small yet I wear a mask because the chance is not zero. When is it that this country and especially the conservative movement and religious right forgotten the golden rule: “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.”
My anger and annoyance over this is my co pilot for the rest of our trip home. I had no epiphanies as to what needs to be done so that we are kinder and more considerate to each other. That would have to wait for other journeys.
Shortly after I accepted Syracuse University’s offer to attend the school, they sent me a small booklet about what life would be like there. I remember nothing about what was in it except they had a lexicon of terms that were unique to the University. A “Wimpy Wagon” was a food truck that was found outside dorms in the evenings. “The Mount “was a Mount Olympus which was the tallest point on campus and where two large dormitories, Day and Flint Hall were located. However the thing I remember most about that lexicon was this phrase: “Syracuse is ten inches of partly cloudy on the ground.” I thought it was funny. I did not realize they were serious.
The joke in the lexicon morphed into another joke when you had been on Campus for a while. “When your parents said they were going to send you to a place where the sun don’t shine, they meant Syracuse.” The generally accepted truth being that Syracuse was the “2nd darkest city” in the United States. Only Portland, Oregon has more cloudy days. (BTW this is not true. I looked it up. Syracuse is not even the cloudiest city in the New York State. Binghamton is with 212, followed by Buffalo with 208. Syracuse manages only 185) Regardless, of rank, part of the SU experience is weather. Rainy, snowy, generally cold salt stains on your jeans cold.
Which is why I was so disappointed driving into Syracuse. Here in March where we should be experiencing a late season snow squall that dropped a foot of snow, it was sunny and nearly 70 degrees. How was I going to explain to Elaine what life on campus was really like when Syracuse decided to put on its best face. I need not have worried. I had forgotten another truism about Central New York. If you do not like the weather, wait fifteen minutes, it will change. When we woke in the morning Syracuse was in full foul weather mode with steady rain and chilly if not freezing weather.
It was into this weather that Rosie and I launched ourselves on our morning constitutional. The hotel we were staying at, the Sheraton Hotel is on campus, so we were immediately met by students on their way to the main campus. It was then that I realized I had made a serious mistake at Syracuse. I had not owned a dog. Had I owned one, my social life which was pretty pathetic would have been far better because virtually, every co ed I encountered either remarked on Rosie’s adorableness or asked if they could pet her. When we went to get coffee, both of the barista’s insisted on coming out from behind the counter to give Rosie a hug.
Sadly, I could not offer my wife a THB (toasted honey bun a specialty of the University while I was there) so we settled for a breakfast of blueberry muffins the size of large asteroids. Sufficiently fueled we headed out for the dime tour of campus. And were immediately driven by pelting to the Shine Student Center by the pelting rain. $75 later we were the owners of two Syracuse University golf umbrellas and re-embarked on our tour. There were a number of reasons I was excited to share the University with Elaine. Not the least of which was that in the nine years that I have known Elaine I have told her many stories of the misadventures I had here. I hoped that showing her the campus would provide a little context to my fables. Additionally, Elaine had never really been on the campus of big American University. Her school, The Federal University of Rio De Janiero were buildings located all over the city including her law school which resided in the old senate building.
Ridiculously, it filled me with joy to be able to point out to her the Hall of Languages, the oldest building on campus and is a symbol of the University. The mosaic of Sacco and Vanzetti on the wall of HSBC where I usually had a bagel and coffee every morning, Hendricks Chapel, Carnegie Library, The Mount, Carrier Dome, The Maxwell School, Law School, Crouse College, and the 104 steps I climbed each morning from my dorm Brewster Hall. And it filled me with amazement how much the University had grown since I attended. No wonder the tuitions for the University are 12x what they were when I was there because literally at every corner their were new building or modern additions to the old.
None of this was particularly surprising to me. It, even the rain, was what I expected.
What did surprise me were the ghosts.
There was my father who finished his freshman and sophomore years in a little over 14 months before going off to war then returning and finishing his last two years as fast. Or the lecture he gave my senior year which was attended by all my friends. Being here, it was easy to remember the young man he was when he attended the University, the father he was to me, and how I miss him every day.
There was my friend Tom Walker who passed away from a brain aneurysm a couple of years ago. He was a young man of many opinions which he could articulate brilliantly especially after we smoke a joint or two. I never saw him after college, but Facebook had allowed us to catch up. His passing had struck all of his friends, The Family Strange, hard but I was particularly sorry that I had never taken a drive to Ohio to visit it with him.
Then there were the ghosts of my memories.. The friends I had made who are still my friends now, like the Tribe, and those who had slipped away and whom I wonder what became of them. The coming-of-age time where angst, fear, and loneliness all conspire against your self confidence and the other times where the innocence of youth gave you the confidence to do things that you could not imagine doing now.
In other words, as Elaine was getting one tour of Syracuse, I was providing myself with another. Perhaps Elaine enjoyed hers more as there were no ghosts on her visit. But then again, she wasn’t used to the rain which is why we pulled up short of a full tour. She was getting wet and Rosie, poor pup, was beginning to look like I had just given her a bath. We retreated back to the hotel and packed up the car for the final leg of our journey. However, before we left town there were two stops that had to be made.
First, I had to buy Elaine Syracuse Law wear. While she looks good in anything, I thought that it would look far better than the Harvard Law school stuff she had been wearing. And then on to Danzer’s, a German style restaurant which had been a popular eatery back when Pops attended school here and was the site of my first dinner at Syracuse and had a sandwich found no where else: The Red Reuben. This is a footlong sandwich based on the classic but substituting Red Cabbage for sauerkraut.
It was a delicious ending to our trip to Syracuse.
Actually, to be fair he was not a lover of musical in general. Who goes around life singing at the top of their lungs. But he particularly hated the Sound of Music. He, as a person who escaped Austria two months after the war had begun, found their story, a family escaping over the alps so their father didn’t have to join the Reich, suspicious. Actually, that is not the word he would have used. He would have said it was bullshit. A story made up so that they could sell their music and their story. While I won’t go into the details right now as it would take too long, he was by and large right. The storyline you see in the Sound of Music is by and large bullshit..
That being said, I love the musical. I think it is Julie Andrews. Boys of my age had a crush on her. It started with Mary Poppins and move right onto to Maria Von Trapp. Even though I was a psychology major I am not going to unwrap that one. But yowser. My wife also loves the musical and will when asked happily singing you any number of songs from the movie.
Which is why we began our day with a mission to visit the Trapp family lodge in Stowe. I justified the trip, emotionally due to my fathers strong feeling on the subject by saying that they made syrup and this was after all sugar boiling time in Vermont. Our mission was immediately de railed by Rosie when she saw us pass the Ben and Jerry’s corporate HQ. She wanted some Rosie Patch frozen dog treats. We indulged her by going in. Sadly, they were closed. Rosie was a little indignant. After all didn’t they name a treat after her but we managed with a few portfolio shots and she showed her displeasure in a very dog like way.
The Trapp family lodge looks as if a bit of western Austria has been transplanted here in the US. It practically makes you want to yodel. And their names is all over the place. Several condo complexes, a brewery, a restaurant and bakery. They are living large on the American dream. Unfortunately, they were not making sugar that day so we moved on. I have no doubt that my father had a role in all of this.
Luckily, my ever sweet sister had sent me a list of syrup makers that morning and I we were quickly back on Task. Stowe Maple products was just a few miles away but we were greeted by an empty parking lot and a closed sign. We were just about to leave when a lovely older woman tapped on our window and asked if she could help. She turned out to be very helpful guiding us through the intricacies of maple syrup grading and packaging. I returned the favor by buying a ½ gallon jug for my sister the bakery, a quart for me, 2 packages of maple candy (childhood favorite), maple cream (just yummy)and some honey for my honey.
Syruped up, we were then forced to make a decision. How to get to Syracuse. We had three routes to choose from but decided to take the long slow way which would have cross Lake Champlain just south of the Canadian border and then take NY 11 south and west most of the way to Syracuse. It was the right decision as it was a lovely sunlit day with temperatures in the mid sixties which is August weather for these parts. In other words, a perfect day for a drive through rural Vermont and New York.
Lake Champlain, if you have never seen it is a wonder. It is a mini great lake and as I Elaine passed through we both agreed living on its shore would be ideal. At least in the summer. I doubt that my beautiful Brazilian wife has any idea what an upstate NY winter is really like. I still have scars from my experiences here 40 years ago.
As urban and suburbanites, and as people who have lived most of the year in the box, you don’t spend an awful amount of time thinking about how much of this country is devoted to agriculture. Your only thoughts on the matter are weather to buy organic or regular rutabaga. Driving Rt 11 gives you a chance to fully appreciate how we feed each other as you pass mile after mile of cultivated farms. It also gives you a deep impression of what the earliest settlers to this part of the world must have felt. They must have felt like they had died and gone to heaven seeing all this cultivatable land.
The sheer size and isolation of the place and the knowledge of the harshness of the 19th century winters (mini ice age) also helps you understand why so many religious movements in the United States started up here. Mormonism, the Burned-over district, the Second Awakening all took place around here. When I casually mention to Elaine bout how natural it would be to have pluralistic marriages on cold winters night she, understandably, does not speak to me for 50 miles
Eventually, our travels on Rt 11 come to a close. We are forced onto 381 and then 81 and make haste to Syracuse. As we speed along the highway I let Elaine know that this was not the weather I experienced at Syracuse. That more than once while traveling this same road in May I had to manage white out conditions in my 1970 Orange VW Super Beetles. It somehow didn’t seem fair not that I was driving Winnetou, a fully capable 4 wheel drive vehicle, that I should get ideal driving conditions. God is a jokester.