I was still in a fog of confusion when my mother emerged from the cell in which she was emptying my father’s lock box. When I saw her standing next to me I sputtered “Are you ready to go?” She told me she was so I gathered the papers I was looking at and placed them back in the manila envelope and escorted my mother from the bank.
The minute we were buckled into the car, I asked my mother “Was your impression that Dad was a lieutenant for most of his career in the Army?”
She replied simply “Yes.”
“So your understanding was basic training, OCS, deployed to Italy to the Blue Devils. Right.”
She cocked her head as if what I said was a little curious a bit and said “Yes.”
I said “Well, that is not what is not what his army papers say. It says that he was an enlisted man for almost a year.”
“Can’t be. Has to be a mistake.”
“It’s there in black and white.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. I am sure that your father can explain it. Why don’t you ask him when we get home.”
By the time I got home, the feeling of betrayal and confusion that I first felt at the bank had grown exponentially. I was beyond indignant no doubt fueled by not only the surprise I found in my fathers lock box but all of the emotions I was feeling about my father’s decision to end his treatment. So when we arrived home I bounded out of the car and took the three flights of stairs two steps at a time to my to my Dad’s room and found him sitting exactly where I had left him only now he was pecking away at his computer as opposed to devouring the newspaper. A little breathless from exertion and emotion I announce to him “Mission accomplished!”
“Yeah” he said half paying attention and half his focus remaining on the email he was writing.
“I may done something that will piss you off.”
Now I had his full attention he looked at me and said “What’s that.”
“I looked at your Army papers.”
“What the fuck did you do that for?” he growled at me, clearly angry.
“Mom, asked me” I said sounding a little like I was 10 “to review the documents in the box and I did.” I paused and added. “They say you were an enlisted man for 11 months. I always thought you went directly from basic to OCS. What is that all about?”
“The Army made a mistake.”
“Come on Pops. The Army does not make mistakes like that.”
“Sure they do all the time. “ he replied looking at me like I was the most naïve person ever.
“You are right they do. But if they had made this big a mistake. Why didn’t you have them correct it.” I countered. He doesn’t have an answer for that so he remains silent. “So?”
“It’s hard to explain.” He paused “Sometimes you can belong to two organizations at once. You can be one thing in one and another thing in another.”
I am now confused so I respond “I am not sure I understand what that means. Do you mean like being in the Navy and the Army at the same time?”
“No like being in two units of the same branch of the service at the same time.”
“I still don’t get it.”
He looks down and for a moment he says nothing as if contemplating what he wants to say and replies. “It has to do with the Crown of St. Stephens.”
I interrupt “You mean like the religious medal you gave us all Christmas?” He nods his assent. That past Holiday he given all of us…my brother, sister and mother a gold religious medal with the Crown of St. Stephens engraved on it. I was baffled at the time not only because we are Jewish but my father is not a religious person. At the time I had asked why he given it to us. His response at the time was simply “For luck” and would say nothing more. Through the magic of the holidays the conversation was soon forgotten and I had not thought of it since although the small medal was still in my wallet. “What about it?”
Again a pause with a sigh added. He was clearly reluctant to discuss the subject and was weighing what to say. Eventually he said “When I turned 18 (December 1943) I was required to appear before the draft board in Danbury. I really wanted to finish my sophomore year so I told them a story that I had heard about the Crown of St. Stephens in the hopes that it might grease the skids a little bit.”
“What was the story you told them?”
“I can’t tell you. ”
“Because it is classified.”
I lost my cool at this point and said, in what was certainly a too loud and too strident voice, “What the fuck do you mean you can’t tell me because its classified. It has been” doing the math in my head” 69 years since you told that story to your draft board. How can it still be classified?”
“Because it is.”
“I can’t believe that. I don’t even know what the fucking Crown of St. Stephens is and a story about it still classified.”
My father said nothing instead gave me a look that made me feel ignorant for not knowing anything about what this stupid crown thing was all about. Being a college professor and my father he was good at it so I took a deep breath to calm myself and said “What can you tell me about the story?”
He paused again, as if weighing carefully what he could say to me and replied “Your grandmother used to make ties for Winters department store and I would deliver them for her since I could no longer go to school. One night a man who worked at the store by the name of Skoda gave me a ride home. Maybe he felt compassion for me because I was wearing shorts (my father didn’t own long pants until he came to this country shortly before his 14th birthday) and it was cold out or perhaps he just felt protective of me because he knew I had money on me from the ties and Jews were getting beat up a lot back then. Whatever the reason he did give me a lift and on the ride home we were listening Radio Salzburg and something came on and he told me something about the Crown and that is what I told the draft board.”
I love stories. I love mysteries. I really wanted to know more about the story but I also knew my father was not going to budge in telling me. At least not yet. So I asked “What happened when you told the draft board.”
He replied “I got a deferment until the end of my Sophomore year.”
“So until June of 1944?”
“No in December of 1943 I had just finished my freshman year.”
“My first semester of Syracuse was summer of 1943. I finished my freshman year in December. I didn’t finish my sophomore year until the end of summer 1944.”
Well at least that explained some of the mystery of my father’s service record. I said “Did anything else happen with the Crown.”
Again a long pause to weigh the correct response. “ Well eventually some folks from Army counterintelligence came to speak to me about the story.”
“And then they went away.”
“Well eventually I had to do some work with them.”
“What kind of work?”
“I can’t tell you.”
I hadn’t felt this frustrated since I was a teenager so I said somewhat bitterly “You mean you won’t tell me.”
Knowing I wasn’t going to get anything out of him this way I made him a proposition. I said “Listen, if I can guess at some of this will you tell me if I am on the correct track.”
I sighed out of utter frustration and said “You’re a pain in the ass.”
He just smiled and I went down stairs to see if I could dig up some information using my mother’s computer. The first thing I did was a Google search on the Crown of St. Stephens. I clicked on the Wikipedia and much to my surprise found a very lengthy entry. I would learn much more about it later but what caught my eye that day was this part of the entry.
“At the end of the Second World War the crown jewels were recovered in Mattsee, Austria, on 4 May 1945 by the U.S. 86th Infantry Division. The crown jewels were transported to Western Europe and eventually given to the United States Army by the Hungarian Crown Guard for safekeeping from the Soviet Union. For much of the Cold War the crown was held at the United States Bullion Depository (Fort Knox, Kentucky) alongside the bulk of America’s gold reserves and other priceless historical items. After undergoing extensive historical research to verify the crown as genuine, it was returned to the people of Hungary by order of U.S. President Jimmy Carter on 6 January 1978. Most current academic knowledge about Hungarian royal garments originates from this modern research. Following substantial U.S. political debate, the agreement to return the jewels contained many conditions to ensure the people of Hungary, rather than its Communist government, took possession of the jewels.”
I didn’t know where Matsee Austria was so I clicked on the hyperlink in the story and it revealed that it was in the Salzburg district of Austria. That fit the story so I ran back up the stairs and sat in the same chair I had been sitting moments before and asked “Did this have to do with the recovery of the Crown of St. Stephens?”
“Okay stupid question. But were in Europe or did you have to get to Europe.”
“I had to go. “
“How did you go”
“We flew the Southern Route.”
“What is this that”
“Planes flew south from Florida through the Caribbean to Brazil to that island I was talking about with your girlfriend.”
“Fernando De Naronha?”
“Yes. That one. We stopped there. And then on to Dakar and North Africa.”
“And from there on to Europe.” He just nodded his head.
I should have asked him a lot of questions at that point. Things like was this trip the first time on airplane or more to the point why did you go the Southern Route as opposed to the Northern route. But I was so caught up in the moment and the emotion of finding out a secret part of my father’s life that asking those questions didn’t even occur to me to much later. And besides at that point we were interrupted by the nurse aid, who was helping take care of my Dad, bringing him his lunch.
Leaving him to eat in peace I returned to my mother’s computer and began to ask it questions about the name Skoda. Despite throwing in variables like Hungary and WW2 along with Skoda all I was getting were listing having to do with Skoda automobile and their manufacturing of armaments for the Nazi’s during the war. So I went back up the stairs, where my father was in the middle of his lunch, and said “What do the Skoda works have to do with your story?”
He finished chewing the bite that he had just taken from his Headcheese on Pumpernickel sandwich and said “Nothing.”
I replied “Come on you got to give me something. A hint. Anything that helps.”
He considered it for a moment, clearly weighing how much he could say without breaking the bogus, in my eyes, classified protocol. Finally, after two more bites of his sandwich he said “The driver’s first name was Paul” clearly thinking that wouldn’t help me much. I thanked him and dashed down the stairs the computer and entered “Paul Skoda.” The number one search result was for a Wikipedia biography for a man by the name of Paul Badura-Skoda. A gleaning of the entry showed that this Skoda had been born in Vienna in 1928 which at that time I thought was a pretty big finding so back up the stairs I went.
My father at this point had finished his lunch and his nurse was helping him get ready for a nap. I said “Have you ever heard of a man by the name of Paul Badura-Skoda?” He shook his head and replied “No.”
“Are you sure?”
“He grew up in Vienna. He was just about your age. Perhaps you went to school with him.”
“No. It doesn’t ring a bell.”
Now I shook my head. A possible lead dead ended. But I couldn’t ask my father anymore questions. He was going to take a nap and I needed to return to the city and my job. So I gave him a shoulder hug and a kiss on the head and said “Have a great nap Pops. I will see you tomorrow.”
On my drive back to the city I thought about the mystery that had been presented to me today. How my view of my father had been altered. I knew that I wanted answers to my questions. Why had he told us one story for so long that was not even close to being true? Why was he so reluctant to talk about whatever his involvement was with this Crown of St. Stephens. I mean for Christ sakes the man was in the process of ending his life. Didn’t that give him a break from the fucking official secrets act. And why had he not told me about any of this…we had spent 10 days in Europe trying to put together his service history and talking about these things and never once did the Holy Fucking Crown of Hungary come up. That hurt. It felt like a betrayal.
I calmed myself by saying I would have some more time with my Dad. That he had not called me the nudgiator for nothing. I figured if I pestered him enough I could get the answers I now so desperately wanted. That he would tell me the secrets of his involvement with the crown.
The next day was another glorious June day. The temperature was more mild than the day before but the sun no less brilliant. When I arrived at my parents’ home my mother told me that my sister, her husband, and their two children, Cate and Oliver, were coming over to cheer up my Dad and to give the kids perhaps a last chance they had to spend time with their “Opa.” It turned out to be a glorious day for my Dad. We got him down from his third floor digs and had him sit in the sun on his beloved deck soaking in the outdoors he so loved. My sister pampered him with food that she had made and by massaging his hands with cream that smelled of lilacs. Oliver and Cate drew pictures for him and he told them stories. Late in the day we all watched British Premier League soccer a sport he loved.
The next day he went into coma from uremic poisoning.
Three weeks later died having never fully recovering consciousness having never revealed the secrets of the Crown nor his involvement with it.