But you know that when the truth is told…
That you can get what you want or you can just get old
You’re gonna kick off before you even
Get halfway through
When will you realize, Vienna waits for you?
Billy Joel “Vienna”
European Airports always remind me Richard Scarry’s childrens books. Perhaps this is because I had just learned to read when I first went to Europe or the illustrations had a very European look that I couldn’t place until I went there. Or perhaps it was the color palette. I don’t really know but I do know that when I arrive at a European airport I am always disappointed that the ground crews are not humanized foxes, pigs, cats, or rabbits. And so it was when my Father and I landed at Vienna International Airport in May of 2006.
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 Grosz. He had been suffering from Parkinson disease for many years 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.
When we had made the decision to go, we agreed that I would “cover” the airfare by using the mileage. My work had me on the road constantly and I had collected enough miles on American Airline’s to procure us two business class tickets to Vienna. He would be responsible for the hotels and meals. Using mileage meant that instead of flying nonstop to Vienna we would have to change planes at Heathrow and go to the British Airways terminal from Terminal 5 where American Airlines planes operated. At the time, I didn’t think this was a big deal because I had nearly 2M airmiles under my belt and changing terminals was just what one did.
What I had not thought of at the time I booked the ticket was that my father was 81 and due neuropathy, a lack of sensation in his feet, he had difficulty walking. I never thought of him having difficulty doing anything. There were times where I saw him frail. When he was suffering from Lymphoma and going through chemo. Or, once when we were in Alaska, I saw him stumble getting into the water and had wondered about him growing old but I never thought of him having difficult walking. For a large part of my life he had walked two miles to work each day even though we lived in the suburbs. The man who always wanted to go on hikes. His hair may have been grey in places but even at 81 there was still a hint of color. He still worked every day and several times a week he would drive himself to Columbia University to teach, with students or supervise experiments. He went to the gym three times a week. But old and have trouble walking? Not my Pops. I never thought of him that way. That is until we got to Heathrow.
Heathrow, in addition to be one of the busiest airports in the world, is an endless warren of terminals and walkways. You literally have to walk kilometers to get to your aircraft. It was apparent from the start that Dad’s neuropathy and perhaps a long flight made it difficult for him to walk. My father had for years been suffering from a gradually increasing neuropathy of his feet. It meant that for the most part he could not feel the bottom of his feet which, of course, made walking quite difficult. As a consequence it was a challenge to him walking the long corridors of Heathrow’s terminals which was observable by his style of walking. He had to set himself in motion by throwing his arms forward and then conduct a march on a short stride on the balls of his feet, arms moving in sync with his feet. At the time, and perhaps a bit too romantically, I thought of it as the march of an old soldier.
As we walked along, I wanted to help him. Perhaps stop and call for a wheel chair or some other form of transport that would make the navigation of the corridors of Heathrow less of a challenge to my Dad. Or maybe I should offer to take his carryon bag or slow the pace or even take frequent breaks. But I knew from long experience that this type of offer would be denied. It would offend his sense of independence and strength. It would be an impeachment of his role as father and protector. It would deny him his manliness.
Walking with him, watching him suffer silently, made me feel dreadful. Had I been more thoughtful I would have arranged for some type of transport acceptable to him that would allowed him to walk less. I had been insensitive and less than thoughtful and the result was an impossible situation where because of my father’s manly code I could not interfere. I could only watch him suffer. I swore an oath that I would try to be more cognizant of my father’s age and challenges. I would try to be a better son.
Many long corridor, a customs check , a security check and two bus rides later we finally arrived at the British Airways terminal. Like many international terminals this one resembled more an upscale mall than it did a transportation hub. Neither my father or I are shoppers so we sought refuge in the British Airways club. While not exactly posh, it was terribly British with understated elegance of faux antique furniture. It’s breakfast buffet included baked beans and grilled tomatoes which personified along with marmalade and toast British breakfast cuisine to me. In short, it was a lovely place for us to rest before we made our way to our connecting aircraft. When we left to go to our gate I grabbed Dad’s bag before he could object.
The flight to Vienna is short but long enough for a nap which I happily took. I fell asleep before take of and only woke on landing. As we taxied to the gate, I smiled. It still looked like a Richard Scarry illustration.
Outside the airport we picked up a Mercedes cab and headed into Vienna. It was a beautiful May day with blue skies, puffy white clouds and mild temperatures. 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 probably 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. So 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.”
“Because I was stationed in the Mediterranean theatre of war and Vienna was in the European theatre. And that made it harder to get permission because you had to deal with two commands.”
“But, weren’t they even a bit sensitive to your special circumstances?”
“No. Not really. My commander was a real son of a bitch and kept turning down my requests.”
“So what did you do.”
“I went above his head.”
“At some point I had to take some papers over to the commanding general and I took the opportunity to plead my case. And I think it go my Captain’s ass in hot water because I got permission to go pretty soon after that.”
“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 didn’t 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 elusiveness 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.
After checking in to our hotel, The Schlosshotel Romischer Kaiser we decided that going to sleep, despite the fatigue and jet lag of travel, would be the wrong thing to do. Not only would a nap do more harm than good to our sleeping patterns but we were both anxious to get about. For my father, to rekindle old memories and for me to get a sense of city that the last time I had last visited when I was 7. After dumping our bags in our room, a large one bedroom with full size bed for my dad and a sleeping nook with single for me, we walked a block to the Kartner Strasse, a pedestrian street that runs from the Opera to St. Stephens cathedral. My father wanted to walk the few blocks to the cathedral and as we walked I saw him morph into the Viennese he was. Instead of walking with hands by his side, his hands were clasped behind his back. His chin was 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 nearly 50 years before. But years 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 a lmid afternoon pick me up which in Vienna is an exquisite pastry accompanied by an espresso. As my father ordered for us I remember thinking how easily he slipped into Viennese German with all the “ahso’s.” This was the language he learned to think in. I wondered how speaking the language of his childhood along how being here must effect him.
That evening my father decided that we should go to the Drei Husaren an ultra-traditional Viennese Restaurant. Located near our hotel, it had been open since the early ‘30s. As we walked in the door we were welcomed by golden yellow décor, a tuxedoed matre di and a pianist playing a classical piece. The tables were immaculately dressed with white linen table cloths. peaked napkins and more glassware I had in my first apartment. It was as if you had entered a time portal and time stood still. I wondered whether this comforted my father in remembering the halcyon days before the war or was it triumph or sorts for him. Being able to afford this restaurant, which was beyond comprehension for his family when they lived her, a symbol of all that he had accomplished since.
I was probably over thinking this. Knowing my father, and his lusty relationship with food, he came for the cuisine and it did not disappoint. The Leberknoweelsuppe ( liver filled dumpling in a chicken broth ) was outstanding. The Wiener Schnitzel the best I had ever eaten outside my grandmother kitchen, and their dessert cart that would make grown men weep. The two excellent bourbons I had enjoyed with my meal aided my digestion wonderfully and made my tongue loose enough to push my father a bit on his history. The whole reason for this trip after all was for me to get a better understanding of what it must have been like for him, fleeing for his life only to return as an officer in the conquering army.
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 don’t remember. I just remember thinking it was cold. But can we end for this right now and head back to the hotel.”