The boy, finished with surveying his realm, walks over to the rail and scoops up a handful of small rocks that lay nearby and begins to toss them one by one into the rushing stream below. I stare at the boy not quite sure of what to make of this transformation. He is wearing a dark blue polo shirt with khaki shorts and brown ankle height shoes that laced all the way up. It is similar to what Dad was wearing this morning but dated, similar to what you would see in a black and white photograph whose edges were curled and worn.
I walk up to him and lean across the rail. Below the water is running rapidly over smooth rocks and the babble of the water is loud but soothing. I am hesitant to speak, as if by saying something aloud will make this apparition disappear. For a while the boy and I just stand, our faces warm in the spring sun, and watch the water disappear under the bridge. Finally, the desire to talk to this boy who will be my father is greater than my fear of his disappearance and I ask “What is the name of this river.”
He replies “It called the Triesting” and then points and says “Look over there by the rock in the center of the stream. Do you see the trout?” I look to where he is pointing and I see what appear to be two golden trout, nearly camouflaged by their background and the glint of the sun off the water. We watch as they make their way upstream and out of sight. Eventually I ask him “Do you ever go fishing here?”
He replies, in the torrent of words that 10 years old speak when they are particularly excited about something, “I don’t have a fishing pole and neither do my friends so we can’t really fish here but” he says pointing to place just beyond a field of tall grass and dandelions “over there is another smaller stream. My buddies and I sometimes go over there where the water doesn’t move so fast and you can straddle the brook, and we make a noose out of wire. We wait until we see a fish and then we dip the lasso in the water and just at the right moment we pull on the noose and we catch ourselves a fish.” He looks up at me his chin sticking in the air and proudly adds “You don’t think it can be done, but it can.”
I have no doubt that it can be done because if this little boy says it can, it can. Instead I think about how tempting those fish must of have been to him and his friends. I imagine the serious conversations and the plotting he and his buddies must have had to devise a plan to catch the fish and the arguments and eureka moments that must of occurred while they perfected their device and how to use it. I can only imagine how proud they must have been when they caught their first fish and I wonder who they showed first and what they said to them.
And then I too am struck by a memory. I am very young and my father, brother and I are going for a walk through the woods together. It is very green and the forest so lush that it blocks out most of the sunlight but the path is clear and we eventually make our way to a wide but very narrow stream. My father helps my brother and I take our shoes and socks off and we wade into the cold water. Picking up some stones my father begins to make a small U shaped structure with the open end in the direction of the oncoming water. He tells my brother and I that these are minnow traps. He tells us that the fish come with the flow of water and can’t make it back out due to the current.
I am broken out of my reverie by the ten year old asking “Do you want to go for a walk?” I nod and we begin down to walk a dirt path that I would have sworn was paved just a few minutes ago. He points ahead of us and says “That’s the canal.” And sure enough just a head of is a slow moving span of water that I don’t recall seeing on our drive into town. Nonetheless we walk along it for a short while until we reach a wooden dock. The boy takes off his shoes and unwraps a piece of cloth that is wrapped around his foot like a bandage and dips his feet into the water.
I ask, pointing to what was wrapped around his feet, “What are those?” He replies unabashedly that his Aunt Pepi made them for him. He didn’t have any socks, so this is what he put around his feet to protect them from rubbing against the leather of his shoes. I nod not quite comprehending what it must have been like to grow up without socks. When I was a kid they always seem to dissapear into my shoes.
I take my off my sneakers and we both dangle our feet in the cold water of the canal, and we bask in the sun like two turtles on a log. Accoss the canal the breeze slowly moves the grass in the meadow. I ask him “What do you all day?”
He tells me that sometimes he helps the local shepherd take the animals from the village up to the meadow. I must of looked confused because he explains that “Aunt Pepi has an arrangement with the shepherd to take him along when he would take the animals of the town up to the high pasture . In the morning the shepherd, picks him up along with each the livestock from other famileis and takes them up to a place where the cows and goats could graze and he could play. Then sometime in the late afternoon they would walk back into town with the animals and drop them off one by one at people’s houses.
What a practical solution this was for everyone. How folks around here are not farmers but they had livestock to supply the with basic necessities such as milk, meat and fabric but none of them had enough to warrant having a shepherd of they pooled their resources and hired one for the village. How practical too for my father’s aunt. She must of have been in her 60’s back then and having a 10 year old running around and underfoot must have been quite a challenge. Being resourceful she invented a day camp for him…very different from my day camp experience…but camp none the less.
Thinking about my own favorite experiences at camp I ask “What did you do for lunch.” He tells me that his Aunt would put together whatever she had in her larder for him. Perhaps a hunk of cheese, maybe a piece of salami and some bread and if he was really lucky a piece of hard candy. She would wrap it all in a handkerchief for him to carry. The idea of lunch wrapped in a handkerchief seems so foreign to me, back in my day it had brown paper bags. It makes me think about the mountain of little conveniences that separate the past from the present.
I ask him what he does when they get to the pasture and the little boy tells me proudly that a lot of the time he helps the shepherd take care of the animals. I imagine this little boy herding cows, sheep, and goats….running after them, keeping them from wandering off and from harm, watching for predators, making friends with the animals. I think about how different that this must have been from his life in a fourth floor walk up in Vienna, where he slept in the kitchen, and the bathroom was down the hall. How different it must have been walking the peaceful paths of Fahrafeld from the streets of Vienna ever more dangerous with burgeoning anti-Semitism. I know longer wondered why my father, the city kid, ever considered becoming a Zoologist, or is so kind to animals or when he is a jovial mood says in his retirement he would to raise goats.
I remark that even with all the things that he helps the shepherd with that there must be a lot time that there is nothing for him to do. What does he do then? He tells me that he goes off exploring in the woods. That he goes and finds new paths and new places to see in the forest. He goes looking for birds and animals and that sometimes if his friends had come with them, they play the cowboys and Indian, that he has read about in Karl May’s books about Winnetou and Old Shatterhand. I smile at him and ask “Do you ever get lost?” He replies with the confidence of every ten year old “Never!”
I think about the countless hours I have spent with my father in the woods. The hikes we have taken…the animals, birds and plants that he has pointed out for me. I remembered when I was ten and my father, brother and I were hiking in Humboldt National Forest. We had gone far from camp and I told my Dad that I thought we were lost and he had told me in absolute confidence not to worry. I believed him then but now know where that confidence has come from.
The boy says “You want to walk over to the train station.” I nod in agreement and walk down the dusty path our shoes dangling from our hands. I ask “ Do you come here by train.”
“Yes. When it gets warm in the city my mother brings me out. We sit in the back of the train, in third class and it is not so bad unless its really hot and gets really stuffy back there.”
“Can’t you open a window?”
“Muti won’t let me. She is frightened that the sparks from coal fire in the engine will light her hair on fire.”
I smile at him and say “Does she stay here all summer with you?”
He shakes his head and says “No. She has to work so she just comes sometimes for a few days. And you want to know a secret?” He pauses and his voice moves to a whisper and leaning forward says “ I think I may have some psychic abilities! Sometimes when I hear the train whistle blowing in the distance I try to concentrate really hard on whether or not she is on the train and if I think that she is I will run down to the station to greet her and I almost never wrong!”
I think about the first summer I spent at sleep away camp and how I missed my mother and have no trouble imagining how tender and sweet those reunions must have been. How it must have been pretty lonely for both mother and child to be without each other without phone or perhaps even mail to comfort them. I also wonder about this boy’s talk of psychic ability. My father, the scientist, has never talked this way yet I find it very believable.
It is February 1979 and I am in Syracuse, New York. I have just awoken from a dream and that has disturbed me. My grandmother has visited me in my sleep and has told me that the art deco garnet ring that was my grandfather’s and was given to me my dad and subsequently lost, is underneath the front seat of my car. In a stupor, still in my pajamas, I walk through the snow drifts to where my orange VW bug is parked and proceed to look where my grandmother has told me to. And, despite the fact that I have looked there before, the ring is exactly where she said it would be. I put it on and walk back into the house. As I enter the apartment, my phone is ringing. It is my brother. He tells me that sometime during the night my grandmother has passed away.
We stop just shy of the train station. It is a simple structure consisting of a platform of dark hewn wood with a small home next to it. I have no troubles imagining a steam engine pulling into the station nor the warm embraces of a mother and son.
We turn around and walk back the way we came and I ask the little boy what he does at night. He tells me that because of the mountains in the west it gets dark pretty early around here so that he usually just goes home and has a simple meal with Aunt Pepi and goes to sleep on a horsehair mattress that she has set up for him. Knowing the curiosity of the boy and of his love of books, I ask him if he reads before he goes to sleep. He says he sometimes does but it is hard because his Aunt’s house is without electricity and is lit by oil lamps.
In the distance, I hear the sound of bicycle bell ringing. “Tring Tring Tring Tring”. The ten year old looks up at me and says “It is the ice cream man! Aunt Pepi gave me a some money in case he came today. Would you hold these for me” and with that he hands me his shoes and goes tearing down the path and over the bridge to main road. I watch as a man riding a rickety bicycle with a brown wood case hanging in front of the handle bars comes to stop in front of the boy. They talk for a little bit and then the man opens up the case and after a few seconds his hand emerges with an ice cream cone that he hands to the boy. The boy walks slowly back constantly licking at the cone so by the time he reaches me it is almost gone. He offers me a bite and when I decline he pops the rest of the cone into his mouth and I hand him back his shoes.
We walk slowly towards the bridge. Along the way I stop and turn around. I want to take a photograph of the train station, as the light is hitting it well. I frame the picture in my lens when I hear from behind me “Bastards!” I spin and look and the ten-year-old is nowhere to be found. Instead my 81 year old father has returned. He points to a telephone poll and shuffles away. I approach where Dad was pointing, and see scrawled on the side of the pole a freshly drawn swastika.
We are back in the car and our way to Baden. We have not talked much in the 45 minutes since we left Fahrafeld, both of us lost in our thoughts and reflections. There are questions that I want to ask but when I go to vocalize them no words come out because I am pretty sure I know the answers but I want to know for sure. I finally manage to stammer out “What happened to Pepi?
He replies “By the time we left in 1939, Pepi was too old to take care of herself anymore so she moved to an old age home in Vienna” his voice trails off a little bit and finishes with “We had to leave her there. We went to see her before we left. Saying good bye to her was very hard.” His voice trails off and I can see from the corner of my eye he has turned his head away from me. I say nothing more. I know what the Nazi’s did to old and infirm Jews. I They were the first to go into the ovens. I know that has search countless databases trying to find out what happened to her to no avail.
As the car speeds to Baden, I imagine what it would have been like for him to say goodbye to his grandmother at age 13. He knew he would never see her again. He could probably imagine at the time what her ultimate fate would be as the Nazi’s had already begun their elimination of the Jews. I cannot even imagine what it meant for him to come back at the end of the war and understand the horror his beloved Grandmother must have experienced and still have the courage and hope to look for her.
At that moment I wish that I could ask him about those feelings…the frustration, anger and horror he must have felt but I can’t bring myself to ask those questions. I fear they will open wounds that are better left sutured. Instead I hide behind my sunglasses hoping he does not see the tears streaming down my face. .
The Oompah band has taken a break and the park is quiet except for the occasional peel of laughter from children playing along the paths. The fountains and flowers are backlit by the setting sun and seem to glow in the early dusk. I am about to go and search for my father when he appears as if psychically called. He looks relaxed and at peace after his massage and says lets go to dinner. We agree to go to the Baden Casino which is just across the park from our hotel and from the outside looks like European buildings that have undergone a modern renovation. In this case the main body of the hotel looks like it was designed for a Hapsburg Prince and the dining area, a semi-circle jutting out from the casino, with floor to ceiling glass as a façade.
The restaurant itself is strictly white table cloth, elegant stem ware and place settings. The service is formal and the food a “modern take” on classic Austrian dishes. When our waiter comes I ask him for a Vodka Martini and my father for a scotch. When our drinks arrive I make a conscious decision to move away from the conversations we were having earlier in the day about dead relatives and ask him more about his Army service. It is, after all, the inspiration for this trip. I say to him “Can I ask you more about your military service.”
He looks at me in way that suggests that this is not the most exciting topic for him but graciously replies “Sure.”
“So you turned 18 in December of 1943. Is that when you were drafted.”
“No, I ask them for a deferment so I could finish my year at Syracuse.”
“Was that hard. Getting the deferment I mean.”
Pause. “Not that hard. It was for only a few month.”
“Okay. So that means that you entered the Army in like June of 1944.”
“I guess. I know it was sometime in the summer.”
“Okay. So where did you go to basic….”
“Ft. Wolter’s, Texas. Just outside of Ft. Worth. “
“And basic lasted 8 weeks?’
“Something like that.”
“So by the end of summer 1944 you had finished basic training. How did you get to OCS.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, did they select you because you were a college kid? Or did they have other criteria or did you have to apply.”
“You had to apply.” He replied and my father said something that surprised me “I was pretty content being an enlisted guy. I wasn’t going to apply.”
“Then why did you?”
“A couple of guys from my unit convinced me. They thought it would be a good way for me to go.” Not earth shattering news but a bit of shock to me as in my naïve view of the army I always considered being an officer better than and enlisted man. Wasn’t one of the reasons that my maternal grandfather had considered my father suitable for my mother was because he was an officer. And wasn’t my mother inordinately proud that my father had been the youngest 2nd Lt. in his division.
The waiter came and took our order and I continued my interrogation of my dad. I asked “Is Fort Sill where you went to OCS?”
I took a sip of my drink, paused and then said “You know trying to get information out of you is like pulling teeth.”
“Well I don’t know what you want to know.”
“Yeah but it would be a lot easier if perhaps you expanded on what I asked.”
“How about we change the subject?”
“At least get me to Italy.”
“So after Ft. Sill you went…”
“You know you are real pain the ass. How long were you there.”
He was smiling now. Clearly enjoying torturing me “I can’t remember. Maybe a couple of months.”
“And what do you think of it.”
“Muddy and hot.”
“Great. Thanks for the detail. And after Bragg”
“We went to Italy.”
“Oy. Where did you sail from?”
“Hoboken…where you used to live…Now can we change the subject.”
So we did.
Later, I am in bed trying to read myself to sleep. Pops is in the twin bed next to me, the light above his bed already out He is on his side not yet snoring. Outside our hotel windows we hear the sounds of a group of people walking along the street. They are a little drunk and speaking too loudly and although I cannot understand a word they are saying I can tell that they have had a good time this evening. I roll over and turn off the light and for a while just lay back and listen to revelers recede into the distance and stillness.
I turn out my light and try to fall asleep. It is difficult. Farafeld has left a mark. But it is also Dad’s reluctance to talk about his military service. Why is it so hard to pull facts from him. I am just about sleep when the silence is broken. I hear tossing and turning from the other bed and Pops says as much to the darkness as to me ““You know, it really got to me today at Fahrafeld. It is gone for good….never to come back.” I can think of nothing to say to comfort him or the ten year old boy I had met early that day so I just rub his back until we both fall asleep.