Hans Georg Zwierzina
changed name 1958 to Felix George Game
|Born:||28 April 1930, Budapest, Hungary|
|Parents:||Emil Anton Karl Maria Zwierzina, Captain (Artillery),
Katalin Farsang, Master Tailor (Ladies' Fashions), Budapest
|Given names at Birth:||Bódog Farsang|
|Given names at Baptism:||Felix Hans Georg (illegitimate)|
|Name 1938 to 1958:||Felix Hans Georg Zwierzina|
|Name after 3 July 1958:||Felix George Game|
|Wives:|| (1) Adrienne Jeanne Lanthier -
m. 1954, Sudbury
(2) Jean Clare Heffernan (née Lemke) - m. 1985, Ottawa
|Children|| From 1st Marriage:
1. Mark Anthony Game * 1 July 1955, Sudbury
2. Vance Clayton Game * 25 Dec 1959, Willowdale
3. Todd Allan Game * 28 Aug 1962, Willowdale
Childhood in Hungary
As mentioned in Chapter Six, I was born on 28 April 1930, in Budapest's Szent István General Hospital, the illegitimate son of Katalin Farsang. The relevant extract from the Birth Register shows that my mother lived at Angyal u. 64 in Pesterzsébet, a suburb of Budapest. Other interesting tidbits I learned from my Birth Certificatefggdoc2 and my Baptism Certificatefggdoc3 were that the birth took place at 1 Gyáli út in the 9th district of Budapest, and I must assume that this is the address of the Szent István General Hospital. My mother had a "Certificate of Poverty" issued to her by the first district of Budapest, which can only mean that she was unemployed, and probably receiving social assistance.
The extract from the register of births is dated 25 August 1938, and was obtained when requesting my first passport in preparation for our trip to Austria where my mother was to be reunited with my father. This document also reveals that at birth I had been given the ridiculous name of Bódog which, mercifully, was superseded by the three given names Felix Hans Georg which were used when I was baptized. I still suspect that Bódog may have been some priest's idea of translating Felix into Hungarian.
These are bewildering documents. My mother's age is recorded as 24 when she had in fact just turned 21.fggdoc002 My certificate of Baptism is dated 5 May 1930, seven days after my birth. Although it again shows me as illegitimate, it names two important-sounding sponsors: my Godparents were Róbert Talmajer, Graduate Engineer, of Vienna, and the wife of Dr. János Vaczek, born Baroness Henriette Waldstetter. I actually met Róbert Talmajer (as Robert Thalmayer) nine years later in Vienna, so I must assume that the friendship between him and my father was not a short-lived one. I have no idea who Henriette Waldstetter was, or how she fits into the picture. I also think her name may have been misspelled because I have not been able to find any trace of a family by that name, whereas I did find in the 1870 City Directory of Vienna a Colonel Johann Freiherr von Waldstätten, a professor at the Kriegsschule, residing at Ungargasse 18 in Vienna's 3rd district. I believe that this may have been Henrietta's father, and that a connection somehow existed through the military background.
It is very interesting, and says much about the priorities of the Catholic Church, that although much importance was accorded to the sponsors, there is no mention of the father's identity despite the fact that he was almost surely present at the baptism and would have provided my given names, and the correct names of the sponsors, who were his friends. It is however possible, that he probably made it a point to tell the priest that he had left the Catholic church in 1919, and as such he just did not merit mention in the parish register.
I am not sure of my age when my memories begin, but the remembered fragments seem to indicate that I do remember things from the time I would have been three or four years old. I base this on my physical size which can be related to some of the experiences and associated implements that I do remember.
In an age of cold-water flats in Budapest most people had a round, enameled wash basin. White enamel, with a blue line around the top edge. These were used to catch the water which came out of the lone tap. In them people washed their hands, their faces, their feet, the dishes, delicate blouses and underwear, and their babies, and the lettuce - although not necessarily in that order. The Hungarian word for this vessel was lavór (no doubt from the French lavoir), and although these basins came in various sizes, I would say ours was usually about 18 inches across at the top. I remember sitting in such a lavór, which is why I think that I could not have been much more than 4 years old, or I would not have fit.
We lived in a multilevel apartment building with an external corridor, something like a continuous balcony which runs the whole length of the building at every level. The individual apartments open onto this external corridor, which is the only way to get in and out of each flat. Nowadays in Canada the Fire Marshall would have a fit over the lack of a second exit. In Budapest, the buildings were made of solid masonry, and the walls were plastered. I do not remember hearing of a single fire breaking out in all the years we lived there. There seems to have been no need to have a second exit.
One warm summer day, the sun moved into a position which cast a few yards of sunlight in front of our door. My mother probably wanted to give me a special treat, and filled the lavor with cold water into which she sat me stark naked outside our door onto this common balcony. I sat there obediently, even though I neither liked cold water nor the abundance of sun, and then the other kids appeared from nowhere, as kids always do. They just stood around me and stared. They not only blocked the sunlight, but made me feel very self-conscious about my nudity. Luckily my mother had given me a face cloth to play with, and I became very busy trying to cover my privates - such as they were at that age sitting in ice-cold tap water.
In that story, the size of the wash basin is a more reliable indicator of age than the fact that I had been put outside stark naked. Nudity was considered quite appropriate for children even as old as six (and sometimes older) when they were in the proximity of water.
At any rate, my memories probably start somewhere after my 3rd year. Another memory of the same episode deals with the visit of a couple who had a small daughter about my age. Probably for lack of money, there was a completely empty room in our apartment. While the adults did their visiting, we two children were sent into this empty room to play. I don't think there were any toys, and all I can remember is that we were sitting on the gleaming but bare hardwood floor facing each other. With nothing else to do, and naturally curious, I suggested that we should show each other what we had. "I will show you mine if you show me yours". The girl was not against it, but wanted me to show her first, which I did. When her turn came, I was most disappointed because I came to the conclusion that she had nothing to show. I think I felt cheated.
My parents must have thought that these rather high-density areas in the city were not a good place for me to grow up, or for them to live in. My next memories center around a house on the Gugerhegy (one of the hills on the Buda side of Budapest, not far from Rózsadomb - elevation 376 meters). The house came with several acres of abandoned orchard. It could not have been too well suited for winter occupancy because the plumbing seems to have been permanently frozen. My father instituted a methodology for going to the bathroom whereby you had to equip yourself with a supply of old newspapers, then go to a part of the house which was a long, glassed-in corridor with marble tiles. Here, and only here, you would spread the paper on the floor and do what had to be done. Emo would then pick up the four corners of the paper, twist it into a missile, and propel it out the window. I strongly suspect that it was something he had learned in the trenches of the Italian front during the first World War. Here, however, were several majestic Walnut trees, and some of these missiles got hung up in the branches, and kept hanging there well into the early summer by which time rains, winds and foliage would finally rid us of the reminders of a cold winter. "Cold" is not what you would understand by cold in Canada. There was snow, and it looked like winter, but it did not last as long, and was seldom severe. At least I do not think it was, because no one had thought to buy me long pants until after we had moved to Vienna in 1938.
To me Gugerhegy was probably as near to a little boy's paradise as you can find. I had complete freedom on those sloped acres and the high pile of stones which ran the whole length of the property's boundary. It must have taken generations of backbreaking work to remove all those stones from the land and to carry them to that long pile. For me it was one of the most fascinating places to play. Every stone was different in shape and size, and the spaces between them were alive with lizards, mice, and all sorts of snails, and insects. There were various animal bones, horns from cows, skulls of rabbits and mice, and claws from birds. I was only about five years old but knew exactly how the inside of a cow's horn smelled, and could not understand my family doctor twenty years later in Sudbury, who became completely frustrated when I asked him to tell me what was wrong with me that made my urine smell exactly like the inside of a cow's horn.
The orchard may have been abandoned but nobody had told the trees. In the spring they were a beautiful mass of varicolored blossoms. Then came the cherry season. Oh, the cherries! I climbed into a tree and ate cherries until I could no longer reach any, then I would climb into the next tree. Gorging myself on cherries had a predictable result, I would usually develop a tummy ache rather suddenly and be forced to make a quick descent. At least on one occasion I remember being taken by surprise and could not make it off the tree in time. Since the house was a fair distance away, it took a lot of shouting before my mother finally heard me, and was able to bring some toilet paper to hand to me up in the tree.
Not too far from our home there was a great big ditch, which was partially lined in concrete, and wide open at the top. It ended in a culvert in which I could walk almost upright. It was probably intended to be a storm sewer, but judging by the smell, other sewage probably found its way into this system also. I used to like to play down there. There was always some water in which to push pieces of wood around that had, in my little-boy's mind, magically become battleships. But the most important aspect of this storm sewer was that if I climbed inside the culvert, I could continue underground for a little stretch, and then surface inside the Ludovika, the military academy for officers of the Hungarian army. Once inside, there was much to see and to explore. They had real field artillery pieces standing around, and lots of beautiful horses that smelled really neat. I used to walk right into the stable and stroke them. Nobody gave me a second look. They were either too busy, or felt it was not their business, or probably thought that if a 5 year-old kid walked around loose on the grounds then he must belong to someone who had a right to let him roam around. Once one soldier asked me, not at all threateningly, who I was, and I told him my name was Felix, and that my father was captain Zwierzina. He smiled, nodded, and went on his way. My father had never been inside the Ludovika, of course, he had done his stint in Austria. I still wonder how come I could think fast on my feet then but today I cannot remember where I had put my hearing aid.
Wherever we moved, ditches and gullies and shrubbery were my favorite hangouts. When you are small, you can get through thick brush easier than adults, and you can get to go places that are reasonably untouched by adult feet. Sometimes you find things, sometimes you see things. That is how boys learn. What you do find frequently when exploring like this is other boys who are doing the same thing. Then you move around in packs. One time, one of our pack found a discarded condom. Well, everybody had to say all they knew about it, all of which amounted to nothing considering that the average age of our group must have been 5 years or less. It was however the first time I had seen one of those things. Looking back, I find it interesting how different people's instincts can be when it comes to touching something unknown. I would not have touched that condom unless forced to do so, yet some of the other boys were handing it around for closer inspection. Could I have learned already the concept of germs by that age? It is possible because my mother was a fanatic in that department. She was forever worried that someone would get too close to her food, and spray some of their spittle into it as they spoke. (At 81 years old in Vienna, she had already caused some friction in the nursing home when she insisted on holding up a piece of cardboard protecting her soup bowl from the person sitting across from her. The leopard can't change its spots.)
One of the discoveries I made as I prowled around in the neighborhood bushes was a family crypt complete with bones and skulls. It was not in a cemetery, but seemed to be just a few feet from the road, and it was all below the ground. There was a square hole in the ground about eight feet by eight feet, and perhaps six feet deep. It was made of concrete and had two big iron doors, but one of the hinges had rusted off, and the door was hanging into the tomb. Actually a dangerous set up, which could have killed or badly hurt someone accidentally stepped into it. I found it on a bright summer day and squatted down to peer into the inside. There was no question about it, there were human bones down there - I could tell by the skull that guarded them. For some reason I was neither startled nor the least bit ill at ease being so close to these remains, and so alone with them. Now that I knew where they were, I periodically went and looked into the hole, more or less checking that they were still there. I suppose it would be stretching the truth to imply that this may have been the beginning of my interest in genealogy.
Later we again lived in the city in an upstairs apartment. From this apartment stems one of my more unpleasant, and most enduring memories, which may have had deep psychological consequences. I was too small yet to tell the time. So when my mother slipped out one day to go to the store, she left me alone, but took me to the clock and told me exactly where the large hand would be when she returned. Well, I kept staring at the minute hand of that clock as it went past the magic spot without my mother returning. Anyone who has done it knows that those hands move very slowly when stared at. I became worried, then panicky and started to cry. I have obviously never forgotten the episode and am to this day a stickler insisting that people keep their promises.
My father smoked cigarettes, and one day he sent me to the corner store to get him a few. (Cigarettes were sold singly out of open boxes). This must have been in 1935, the year the Italians invaded Ethiopia. The adults must have talked about it because the word Abesszínia (Hungarian for Ethiopia) was not unfamiliar to me. When a boy, about the same age as I, whom I met on my way to the corner store, suggested that we should take off and go to Abesszínia, it seemed like a very sensible idea, and I immediately agreed. Trusting that he knew where it was, I did not pay any attention to where we were going, and became lost in the streets of Budapest. I cannot remember the details too well, but assume that I started bawling, because all I remember is a lot of people standing around looking down at me, and that one of them was wearing a uniform. Then somehow my mother appeared, and we went home. I doubt that my father got his cigarettes that time.
Much of the time there seems to have been only my mother around. I am not sure why this was so. Perhaps my parents had separated. My father did at one time go back to Austria, probably hoping that it would be easier there for him to find something he could make a living at. As an Austrian artillery officer without a war and without an army he was like a fish out of water and had a bad time of it.
My mother's mother lived on the other side of the Danube in Pest. She had been a widow for twenty years by then and still had a grown daughter, my aunt Mariska, living with her in a small cold-water flat in a proletarian neighborhood. Mariska did not seem to be doing anything, but my grandmother worked for the Budapest Street Car Company (Beszkárt) for many years. Her job was to paste advertising posters on that board which ran the whole length of the car above the seats. We called her Mama, and she was a solid woman who grew up in a small village. She used to buy live chickens on the market, and then at home she cut their throats above the sink, and then plucked them. I have no doubt that my grandmother was very poor, yet it was she who made the best donuts at Easter, and the most sinfully delicious Strudel and many other varieties of pastry. It was also she who arranged the most memorable Christmas Eve that I can remember.
That Christmas Eve, when I was about four or five years old, my mother and I visited my grandmother, and as always, we all hung around in the kitchen. My mother, her sister Mariska, and my grandmother kept me occupied and primed with Christmas talk. There are differences between the way Canadians celebrate Christmas and the way I grew up celebrating it. In Europe we did not have a Santa Claus or reindeer, or stockings or chimneys. We believed that the Christ Child was coming in person, and that it was he who brought the gifts. His means of getting around were wings, and he was of course accompanied by angels, who also had wings. So there was no need for chimneys to slide down in, or for reindeer to pull the entourage around. Our holies were self-propelled. The most significant difference was, however, that it all happened on Christmas Eve (December 24).
On that particular Christmas Eve, about an hour after dark, the adults really got into the spirit of it, and started to speak in whispered tones, and practically tiptoed around. The suspense was a work of art. Then all of a sudden my nose snapped to attention and I was sniffing the air in great drags - incense and frankincense! I knew the smell from some forgotten exposure to the interior of a church, and immediately made the connection between the churchly smells and the expected heavenly visitors. Judging by the smells, they must have arrived. Now even the whispering had stopped, and except for the fact that humans breathe instinctively rather than deliberately, we would have stopped that too. We were waiting for the other important manifestation that the heavenly entourage had arrived and was ready to have us enter their sanctum sanctorum: the faint tinkling of silver bells. And then I heard it. And the adults heard it too, and now they broke the silence and encouraged me to open the door to the room which had been declared taboo all day.
Rather awed by the tension, the scents, and the sound of the silver bells, I walked slowly, my hesitancy fighting with my eagerness, and opened the door to that other room. There stood the most beautifully decorated floor-to-ceiling Christmas tree full of angel's hair, tinsel, candies, shiny glass balls, and many, many burning candles - real ones made of wax with a flame on top. It was breathtaking. And of course there was still the strong hint of those special scents. And I was convinced that if one listened hard enough, the bell could be heard somewhere in the neighborhood, because Jézuska, as Hungarians call the Christ child, would still be making the rounds to visit the other children.
To this day I cannot figure out how they were able to set up and decorate the tree, and then light the candles, and burn the incense, and tinkle the bells without anyone's absence from the kitchen being noticed. It must have been a real labor of love, and it was flawlessly orchestrated - and I am very touched after all these years that it had all been done just for me.
Being an only child, I spent a lot of time in my own company and kept myself busy with little boy fantasies. Usually I was quiet and content with what I was doing, and I must not have been too much trouble for my parents. The odd mishap was bound to occur, though, and then their adrenaline would flow. Two such incidents come to mind. In the first one I was merely trying to kick-start a radio, like I have seen someone do with a motorcycle. The toggle switch of the old radio was not built for that, and broke off on the first kick. In the second one I probably came close to giving my parents a simultaneous heart attack when I held up two blood-drenched arms from behind an upholstered chair where I had been playing with my father's scalpel. He used to bathe his feet, and had this special pedicure knife which was like a scalpel, but folded into a handle. When opened up, a ring would slide over the short end inside the handle to keep it from accidentally closing. I knew that I had no business playing with it, which is why I had moved it to my hide-out behind the big chair. Here I opened it, but when I wanted to slide the ring into place, it was stopped by a rivet. Thinking that it should go over the rivet I tried to force it, slipped, and quite deeply cut my thumb. Now I had a real problem. If I reported immediately and asked for help, I would get chewed out by my father, and possibly worse. If I dripped any of that blood on the floor I would get the same treatment, but with my mother leading the assault. So without a sound, I tried to prevent dripping on the floor, and kept wiping the cut hand with the good hand with the result that both my arms up to my elbows looked like I had just retrieved them from a meat-grinder. Still hoping to get out of this dilemma discretely, I tried to attract my mother's attention ('kst, kst') until she finally turned my way and I could hold up both bloody arms to show her I had a problem. There is only one standard Hungarian outcry in such circumstances: "Jézus Mária!!" my mother cried out with total abandon. Which prompted my father to stand up in his foot bath and start yelling "kötszer! kötszer!" which probably also dated back to his days on the battle field. The word is the Hungarian equivalent for first aid kit. He yelled it twice for emphasis - perhaps something that was spelled out in the military "how to" manuals to avoid misunderstanding of an order given. When the blood was cleaned off me, and the bleeding thumb bandaged, they were so worn out, they even forgot to scold me.
Later on, when my father had gone to Austria to try and reestablish himself, my mother started sewing for other people, usually in their homes, which left me alone a good deal of the time - although I was less than eight years old. We moved around a few times, and occasionally were living quite far out of the way. One time we rented a room from a family who had a house about an hour's walk up a hill. I still remember walking up there one day in about two feet of snow. In typical Budapest tradition I only had short pants, but long stockings.
It was in that house that I had another memorable Christmas. Probably for lack of money, stamina, and opportunity, my mother did not manage to get a tree. She came home from her sewing job on Christmas Eve rather tired, and proceeded to explain to me that the Christ child does not always have time to go to all the outlying places, and that I should not feel bad if it should have been too busy to remember me. I said "of course not", and I meant it.
Later in the evening, alluding to her tiredness, my mother asked if I would turn down the bed so we could retire. As I started to get the bed ready for us to climb in, I kept finding gifts hidden between the blankets and the pillows. I was of course very happy, and found nothing at all unusual about not having a Christmas tree with candles and the customary scents that I had grown to associate with the occasion.
My mother was only in her twenties, and had lots of vigor. She would take me to places that intrigued her, and in the process I saw some places I would otherwise not have seen. One day she announced that we would visit the Margit Sziget (Marguerite Island), which lies in the Danube between Buda and Pest, and is connected to both by the Marguerite Bridge. I later learned that it was normal for women to take very long to get ready whenever they were going somewhere, and that it involved a lot of staring into the mirror and dabbing at their faces, and alternately pummeling and tearing their hair, and that it was best to stay away from them during that frustrating exercise. But back then I could only think that we would be late and they would have closed up the Danube by the time we got there. We did eventually get there and had a nice walk around the parks of the island. My mother somehow wound up with small snapshots of me all dressed up in a navy outfit, which seems to have been considered the only acceptable outfit for children. From these pictures, it is quite evident that I could not have been more than 4 years old, and that I had a fantastic head of hair. It is also clear that my mother either knew she was going to meet someone there, or made the acquaintance of someone, because we certainly did not own a camera, yet we have pictures.
One other time she took me to a public bath. I think what they did is fence off a piece of the Danube shore and the people would stand around in the water. I have a very bad memory of that episode. My mother wanted to mix with the people and stood me in a spot, asking that I stay put. What she did not know, was that she had stood me on a single, roundish timber, and since the water was already to my chin standing on it, slipping off seemed a sure way to drown. The motion of the water did not allow me to stand still without holding on to her. When she wanted to let go of me, I started to scream in panic, which probably annoyed her to no end, but my feet were coming off that timber and I knew that once off, the water would be higher than my mouth. I was quite frightened that time, but I can understand that she did not know of the danger I felt myself to be in.
Then there was an air show at Gödöllö. The feature, which had coaxed thousands of foot-weary folk out there, was to be a mass parachute jump. I was still very small and way down between this big herd of adults, I could hardly see the sky. I was rather bored, and tired from the heat and that walking. As I remember it, when some people finally did spot some parachutes, they were very disappointed because it was cargo, rather than people that floated down.
We must have been quite poor for a while, because I remember going to what must have been a soup kitchen. My mother was most likely embarrassed to go there, so I had to take a pot and go and get it filled up, and take it home. One day they served a delicacy, noodles all covered with ground poppy seeds and sugar. On the way home I put the pot down near a tree and played for a while with some children. When I finally got home, we were going to have a big feast of mákos nudli, but when I opened the lid, some of the poppy seeds seemed to be moving. On closer examination, it turned out that the sugar had attracted hundreds of small black ants.
I was not the only one who had an experience with a pot of food. My mother often brought home leftovers from the dinner at the places where she sewed. She came home one evening on the street car, carrying in a pot square noodles covered with browned cabbage (káposztás kocka). Covered with sugar, it is also a delicacy. After she had been sitting a few minutes in the street car, my mother started to give the man sitting beside her very evil, very outraged looks, and finally got up and moved to a different seat. It did not take long before she felt again offended by her new neighbor, and moved on again. She was just about to repeat this scenario for a third time when it suddenly dawned on her that the foul smell of dirty, sweaty feet for which she had been doling out poison-dart looks, came from her own pot of cabbage squares.
Street cars were the way to get around, unless you walked. We used to visit my grandmother via street car, and if you had to go to the hospital, you took the street car. One day I was playing with a boy in our yard, and since we had nothing else to play with, I unhooked the two parts of my scooter. This is the old- fashioned type, where you stand on a board with one foot and push with the other (now a modern metal variety is making a comeback at highly inflated prices). It is steered with a second, vertical board that ends in a handlebar. The two pieces snap together with the help of a piece of hardware. So now my visitor and I we both had a piece of my scooter which was made of good, solid hardwood. What can you do with half a scooter? You can see how far you can throw it, that's what you can do. So we tossed our pieces around with a vengeance. One time I had run after my half, and was just bending down to pick it up, when all of a sudden I could only see stars. The other boy's half of my scooter had come flying through the air and hit me right on the head. He disappeared, I wailed, and when my mother came to see what this was all about, she almost fainted because I was bleeding profusely from a head wound.
She wrapped a towel around my head, and we hurried to the street car, and went to the hospital emergency. I was not in big pain, and behaved like a hero. What else could I do? You can definitely not be carrying on when riding the street car with all those strangers on it. In the hospital it was nice and clean smelling, and would have been all right if some smart-ass intern had not wanted to entertain my mother with stories about how they would have to amputate my head with a straight razor. I knew he was "joking", but this was a hospital, and he was a doctor, and they did cut things off people, and he did have a straight razor with which he had shaved around my wound. The evidence was stacked against me and I became very frightened, which started me wailing. That scene should have been filmed, and shown in all the medical schools, as an example of what not to do. The only good that came of it, was that by the time he stapled my scalp together, I did not even feel it. I can still feel the scar though.
One summer I was sent off to a summer camp. It was in a place called Zalaegerszeg, and was in the middle of nowhere. Just a bunch of barracks, and hundreds of city kids. There certainly was a lot of space to run around in, but of the entire three week stay I can only remember two things. One was the daily procession through all the dormitories of boys with their bed sheets draped over their backs. These were the boys who had wet their beds the night before. This was the pedagogically approved method to deal with it. Supposedly all you had to do was to shame the victim so much, that he would never again wet a bed. Back then I felt sorry for those boys, today I wonder about the system that allowed such treatment of children. But today I am also convinced that they had statistics proving that this really worked and stopped bed wetting.
The other thing I remember has to do with how early in life people become prejudiced, in this case anti-Semitic. About midmorning every day our chasing around on all that expanse was interrupted by the ritual of a snack being handed out. It was very, very simple, but we were small boys, and food was food was food. This memorable morning, the playground supervisor came with a basket full of sliced brown bread, and a jar of honey. Each kid got a slice of bread and on it a table spoon of honey. When the teacher had finished, he still had the end piece of the loaf (which has more bread in it and is more crusty), and about a half inch of honey left in the jar, and he kept wondering who had not been around to collect his snack. Then came a little boy, who indicated that he had just arrived and that he did not get his bread yet. The supervisor looked at what he held and gave him the big end piece of the bread and the jar with the remaining honey. I have no idea who he was, but in no time all the other boys were telling each other that the Jew boy had staged his late arrival on purpose to make sure he got the biggest piece of bread and much more honey than anyone else had received. To me this is a frightening experience, because these were small boys of six and seven years old. Nobody questioned the story, and everyone was ready and willing to believe that it was true. We had all been outsmarted, and the one who had outsmarted us, of course, had to be a Jew.
That other boy probably would never find himself in the predicament I got into quite innocently one day. We were living somewhere along the Hidegkuti street in Buda, and as always, I was alone all day and went to meet my mother who would be arriving by street car at a prearranged time (give or take half an hour). So I stood around at the street car stop, and waited. A group of boys were involved in the favorite past time of some street kids, the riding on the bumpers of street cars. Those metal beams that stick out at each end and allow more than one car to be connected. Conveniently enough, there was a thick black rubber hose fastened to the outside of the car (it must be connected for the air brakes to work), and provided a good handhold to the illegal rider.
I had never done that before, and had no desire to do it now. So I just stood there and waited for my mother. In came a street car, and just as I had concluded that she was not on it, and it was ready to continue, the conductor, with a triumphant gleam in his eye, jumped at me, grabbed my arm and propelled me onto the street car, which by now was moving out of my neighborhood. Got you did I! I'll teach you to hike on those bumpers! I kept telling him that I was merely waiting for my mother, who would now be looking for me, that I never rode the bumpers in my life, but to no avail. The people standing around me in the street car all had very stern, hard expressions on their faces. I was clearly a street urchin caught at something bad, and whatever else was involved, the point in their mind was that I should not have done it. I had been judged without a trial. Here was another lynch mob. It was already dark outside, I had no idea where the street car was taking me, I knew my mother must have arrived by now, and I had no money with which to buy my fare back. I started to cry, told him that I was about to wet my pants, and to let me off. Well he took me two stops, then let me out. I broke into a trot, and ran all the way back to "our" stop. I can't remember how my mother and I met up. It was an unpleasant experience, and I think here today it would be called kidnapping, and the conductor might find himself in some great unpleasantness.
It cannot be a good sign that I hardly remember the two-and-half years I went to primary school in Budapest. There is only one teacher I remember by name, probably because it is like a mnemonic: Zölddioné. The -né suffix means Mrs., her name translates into Greennut. I also remember that for a while I was given a noon meal in the principal's apartment. My mother must have arranged for this, and no doubt had to pay. Again, the only thing I can remember was that one day the principal had a dessert which looked simply wonderful, but which only he received, and proceeded to eat in front of me. I had never seen the sub stance before, and it was only after seeing puffed rice in Canada some twenty years later that I was able to identify it. I think he ate it with whipped cream.
They must have taught well enough though, because by the time I left, half way through grade three, when we moved to Austria, I already knew the multiplication tables, and could write coherent stories, and read without difficulty. They also taught me a mnemonic for deciding whether the moon was increasing or decreasing. To this day, if I want to know whether the moon is on the increase or decrease, I have to revert to Hungarian: if the sliver is convex to the left, as the belly of a lower case "a", that is apad, meaning, it is decreasing in size. If the sliver curves the other way, like the belly of an upper case "D", that is dagad which is the word for swelling. We also learned a little verse for remembering the four cardinal points of the compass, which was for a long time the only sure way for me to know where East and West were. I still remember the verse: Elöttem van észak, hátam mögött dél; balra a nap nyugszik, jobbra a nap kél. (Before me is North, behind me is South; to the left the sun goes to rest, to the right it rises). Today as an experienced analyst and veteran cynic I do not find this verse all that safe. First of all it can only be applied if North is known, because you have to face it for the recital. Secondly, only the last word in each line rhymes, which does not prevent you from mixing up the right left sequence. It would be a pity to have someone learn it the wrong way around, and then remember it for the rest of his life.
One day a new boy arrived at school. He was a Viennese Jew whose parents erroneously thought that they would be safe in Hungary. The boy could not speak Hungarian, so we all tried to communicate somehow, because he not only looked like a decent chap, he had tremendous novelty value. I was of course, entirely unaware of the world's political happenings, nor would I have understood them. One of the kids seemed to speak some German, and interpreted some of the things being said. I caught two words that I had heard before: Vienna, and Hitler. I knew my father was in Vienna, and that Hitler was the boss man on the other side of the border. With that childish desire to impress by saying something - anything, I informed the newcomer that Hitler was my father. After this revelation had been translated for him, he gave me a funny look. Looking back, I can see that being the same age as I was, he probably did not fully understand the implications of his family's move to Budapest, and since he could not understand my nonsensical comment, I hope he thought nothing of it.
1938 passport picture
The day we went to board our train for Vienna, there was a little excitement at the Budapest railway station. There were red carpets rolled out, and just as we passed, there was a man dressed in bright scarlet clerical garb. I assume he was a cardinal. The next thing I knew, we were on the train to Austria, and after passing through the border at Hegyeshalom, we arrived at Vienna.
I was now eight years old and had been issued my first passport, which has unfortunately disappeared, or most likely been deliberately destroyed by my mother as irrelevant, or because it was a tangible proof of my illegitimacy. She did, however, tear out the photograph from it and thus saved the most important part, the best picture of me at that age. Saving the picture also saved the official notation on its back which identifies the person pictured as Bódog, born at Budapest on 28 April 1930, of Roman Catholic faith, student at a primary school, single, resident since 6 September 1937 at Galgóczi út 8 in the 1st district of Budapest. His father's name: Zwierzina Emil, his mother's name: Farsang Katalin. These details were provided by Sergeant Eröss György at the 81st precinct office, and was given the sequence number 133/938. It was dated 19 November 1938 (I must note here that the round official stamp which shows the date as ..38 XI 19 must have been set wrong. I am saying this because for paragraphs further down I am saying that we saw "Christallnacht" happening in Vienna, and it is historically said to have taken place on November 9th, which means we were already in Vienna and not having my passport picture dated in Budapest. I suspect the Hungarian police sergeant was not too solid with Roman numerals and had turned the date one month too far.
Growing up in Austria
My memories of Vienna are very threadbare. There was the Christmas at the Birman residence. I was either very tired, or not interested, or could not understand anyone. I can't remember speaking, or being spoken to by anyone. I do remember the tree, and a little girl, somewhat older than myself, who was my "niece" Dorli. I thought I had been given a violin that Christmas, but it may have been not part of the festivities. (I was given a Mathias Thier violin built in 1794 inside an alligator skin case. I never did learn how to play it, and finally sold it in the 1960s through the house of Geo. Heinl in Toronto. I think they cheated me, when after deducting their 20% commission they sent me $250 without even a word of an explanation. I don't think the case alone could be bought for that!).
My mother went to the main post office with its polished brass revolving doors to write letters there. I think she had left a lover behind in Budapest, a fellow we called "izmos Vilmos" (muscular Willy), and she found it safe to write to him from the post office lobby. While she wrote I amused myself with opening the big brass doors for people. Some of the people started to tip me, and I finished up with a variety of coins.
We visited Gretl, who was my father's sister Margarete Hablé, wife of Robert Hablé a graduate engineer. She was a plump, unattractive woman who owned the ugliest dog I have ever seen. I think it was a bulldog. My mother was very upset when Gretl fed cookies to the dog, but did not offer any to me. We did not know then that there were biscuits made especially for dogs.
One evening I was walking the streets of Vienna with my mother, and on the Kärntnerstraße we heard a commotion, and approaching closer to see better, we found ourselves walking on several inches of shattered glass. The windows of some big stores were all broken, and some people were helping themselves to the merchandise out of a jewelry store window. It was 40 or 50 years later that I happened to read something which mentioned the Kristallnacht incident staged by the Nazis, and I finally made the connection and realized that this had been the infamous Kristallnacht of November 9 1938 when Hitlerites smashed the windows of all stores believed to be owned by Jews. Imagine, Kristallnacht, and I had been an eye-witness.
For a while we stayed in a Vienna hotel, where I seem to have insulted several chambermaids by calling them Tepp the only German word I knew because my father had been using it on me. It turned out to mean "dunce", a word usually reserved for one's younger brother, or a school chum who is not bigger. Not recommended for eight-year-old boys when talking to chambermaids.
There were few other experiences during our short stay in Vienna which left a lasting impression, but there were a couple. It was here that I was treated to my first banana, which my mother had bought and triumphantly peeled for me. I was not too impressed but it was a first, and I have liked bananas all my life despite this lukewarm introduction.
One other time my mother and I went prowling around in the Vienna parliament building which had two remarkable attributes: it had two real live Nazi honor guards standing outside the main entrance in their SA uniforms and swastika armbands. It was incredible how live humans could stand still like statues. Right behind them started a red carpet which continued inside the building and then down a seemingly endless corridor. I have no idea what was inside the parliament building in 1938/39 but we obviously did not have any difficulty gaining entrance and wandering about unescorted. A bit later into the season, all I remember is having been very cold in my short pants walking around on Vienna's windy streets in the middle of winter.
The next thing I remember is living in a room in a Gasthaus in Schwanenstadt. I was enrolled in the third grade of primary school and expected to carry on where I had left off in Budapest. Problem was that the language was different. Oh was it different! So, at every break (five minutes after every 45 minute lesson), all my classmates gathered around me and just stood there and gawked. This was before the big migrations caused by WW-II, and a foreigner who could not speak a word, was a genuine attraction. The only thing I could follow was arithmetic. When the teacher wrote it on the blackboard, it looked like the Hungarian version. I remember one classmate, a boy with big, beautiful blue eyes. I really liked him, and used to seek him out, and walk with him. I guess I considered him a friend, or was simply attracted to his blue eyes, the kind I was not used to seeing in Hungary.
Then it was moving day. My father must have arranged with a trucker to move us after his regular hours, because it was dark. We headed for an empty house which was beautifully situated among the trees in a rather hilly area of Gschwandt not too far from Gmunden. It snowed that night, and the truck could not make it up the hill. They were able to reach my sleigh, and took it down from the truck, and I amused myself for hours while my father tried to feed burlap bags under the spinning wheels. Somehow we got there, and woke up the next morning in a winter wonderland. The house had very definite gingerbread characteristics. Snow was up to my waist, so I went out with a pair of old skies I found somewhere, and tried to walk in the snow. Good luck! There was deep powder snow, and when I fell on my behind, it took a long time to get myself back on my feet for a few seconds. In the middle of all this, which was mercifully very private amongst the trees, there was a sudden apparition: a boy on skies appeared from nowhere. Stopped, stared at me, then without saying a word, jumped up, and around between his poles and disappeared. I really needed that while I was trying to dig myself out of the powder. Someone must have tipped him off that the new people had a boy, and he wanted to check out the boy for play mate potential. It took him about 20 seconds to formulate an opinion: That guy can't even ski! He disappeared as smoothly as he had come, and I never saw him again.
Gmunden - The view I saw for the next 12 years
1939 - Gmunden - Felix watching Herr Jüngling strumming the chords
Because my father's title was "chick-breeding consultant", he felt he knew more about it than anyone else, and he must have thought he had inside knowledge which should be exploited to make a fast fortune. So he got several hundred chicks, and brooders, and rented a few abandoned greenhouses, and set up a chick-breeding operation in them. The chicks were cute enough, but my father was on the road a lot, and much of the chores of tending to the chicks fell to me at the tender age of 9 years old. Between the lack of knowledge and the lack of manpower to do the husbanding of our feathered children, we kept doing things wrong, and the chicks, seeking warmth near the brooders as they would under the wings of the mother hen died when they brooders were maladjusted and too hot. Perhaps the brooders were not even properly constructed, and could not be adjusted, they certainly were not a success. The chicks could have been dying of hunger, or whatever chicks die of. At any rate, there were a lot of dead ones around every morning. I was expected to do things for them and spent a lot of time mixing their feed, or just squatted there and talked to them.
My mother sewed most of my clothes, but she didn't quite know how to make a fly for boys' pants. These were the years when zippered flies on men's pants would not be known for another 15 years or so. My shorts usually wound up with a small semicircular trapdoor which may, or may not have a snap-fastener. Often this invention of hers didn't stay closed. Squatting down one day to feed these chicks, I almost jumped out of my skin when one of them pecked at my pecker which was peeking out through the trap door. The insult of having been mistaken for a worm!
There was one redeeming feature to the chick-raising era. These abandoned greenhouses had two-thirds of their height below ground level. This is where my father gave me my first lessons in gun handling and target shooting. I had been given a 22 caliber single-shot bolt action (Flobert) rifle for my ninth birth day. But no ammunition. That was a sensible precaution, and everyone would have agreed that it was quite safe for a little boy to be playing with a real rifle for which he had no ammunition. Everyone that is, except the ladies in the neighbor hood who had this real gun aimed at them. By the time the lesson was taught that one never aims a gun at a person, there had been several cases of hysterics in the neighborhood. But the lessons were good, and lasted a lifetime, as did the rather good shooting skills that I developed (good enough to place third in the provincial competitions a few years later even though the regulation rifles were so heavy I could hardly hold them up to my shoulder).
World War II broke out, and my father saw his chance to get back into uniform, and do what he did best: play at soldiering. Since this also put him firmly on somebody's payroll, he could not resist the opportunity. He moved about for a while, and I never knew for sure where he was, nor did I seem to be too concerned about his whereabouts. At one point he was stationed in Wels, which is not very far from Gmunden, and I saw him more often. I was allowed to spend my summer holidays with him in Wels, and although I never got to like that town, I had many adventures there.
One day in Wels my father decided
that his son should become a horseman. He had a horse saddled by one of the
soldiers assigned to stable duty, and the horse was taken on the 'longe'
(about a 25 foot long tether). I was a small boy, and my legs were barely long
enough to hang down each side of the horse's broad back. To make matters worse,
my father was going to do it with class, and teach me to ride according to the
methods used in the Spanische Reitschule
(the Spanish Riding Academy of Lippizaner fame), i.e. without the use
of stirrups. The whole idea is that the trainee is forced from day one to get
used to good Knieschluß
(knee contact). That is easier said then done even if one has full-length legs.
In the meantime the horse is going around in circles on the longe, and I am trying to hang on to something - anything. Then Papa Emo does or says something which makes the horse switch into a trot. To me it seemed that I was being tossed so high out of the saddle with each step, that when I came back down again the horse would be gone. But I must not look afraid. Not in front of the handler. Papa Emo in the meantime is giving his own horse a workout, and ignores the eyes popping out of his ten-year-old son's head. He finally noticed that this whole exercise was a bit premature. The horse is stopped, Felix is lifted off its back, and the torture is over. There was no conversation about it, nor were there any further attempts to turn me into a Lippizaner tamer.
My father may have been disappointed since he was himself a competent horseman as I was able to witness one day when I happened to see him on horse back wanting to go through a narrow street in which a steam-driven pavement roller was puffing away. The horse was frightened by these puffs and started to dance on its hind legs. Emo remained glued to the saddle and alternated between talking gently to the horse, and telling - not so gently - some infantry soldiers, who felt obligated to come to an officer's aid, that they should stay out of the way for their own safety. He quickly had the horse calmed down and back on all fours, then he continued on his way past the steam engine.
Felix with first bike
It was also in Wels in 1940 that my father bought me a bicycle when I was 10 years old. That provided a means for enlarging the sphere of my explorations, and also kept me out of his hair. I could easily have gotten into trouble with all the freedom I was given. But I was either lucky, or perhaps by then knew how to take care of myself. There were exceptions.
At the time, I didn't know the concept of "woman driver", but I did make the acquaintance of a representative sample. Out on my new bike every day, I seldom wore more than swim trunks. One foot path that I liked to explore, wound its way along a gully about 12 feet deep - all full of four-foot-high Brennessel (stinging nettles). A big country girl on her bike came the opposite way one day, and would of course not yield to a ten-year-old boy. The foot path was about 18 inches wide. Playing chicken up to the very last second, I lost the path, lost the right of way, lost my balance and sailed with all that bare skin into the gully of stinging nettles. The young cow on the bike kept right on going. If you have not experienced the sensation of stinging nettles, there is not much point in having it explained. Just think of having your underwear full of very angry ants. The burning of the skin is unbelievable. Then your skin starts to look red and blotchy, but looks are by now the least of the victim's concern. I guess this is how boys get to be tough. Out there all alone one can only get back on the bike and keep on going - there really is no other choice.
Since there were no other children around to play with, I spent all my time on my own with my bike for company. Some times this freedom went to my head, and I would venture rather far afield. I must have had a good sense of direction, because I always found my way home, and I do not remember ever asking for directions. One such occasion when I really got carried away, was the day in Wels when I decided to cycle to Linz (the Provincial capital of Upper Austria) for a Schnitzel dinner. I must have had some money on me, even though I was wearing nothing more than swim trunks. I pedaled to Linz, found a restaurant, ordered and ate a nice Wienerschnitzel, then climbed on the bicycle and started back for Wels. It was getting dark, and I had no lights, but I got home. I must have been pedaling on automatic pilot like a zombie, because I was so exhausted that I never got out of bed for two days. Well, it was almost a 40 Km round trip, and I was just a scrawny little 10 or 11 year-old boy.
|1941 Gmunden - with Albert Rueprecht (left)|
1941 Gmunden, Miesweg with Albert Rueprecht (right)
1941 Gmunden, Lenaufall
with Albert (left)
1941 Gmunden with Gertrud Rueprecht
Schneerosen by Gertrude Rueprecht 1941
As far as I can reconstruct the sequence of events I would have entered 1 year Gymnasium (classical high school) in the fall of 1941. So the class picture below would be of that vintage. I can still remember some of the faces and names. The teacher was Herr Professor Lang, a short man with an even shorter fuse who would go ballistic on the slightest provocation and go into a tantrum. One day he threw his bundle of keys so hard against the wall that the ring busted into several pieces and his large collection of keys flew all over the place. He was in other words an idiot. He also taught English, and he was also the home room teacher of our class.
1st year Gymnasium. Felix 3rd from left in last row (white sleeves)
Next I was sent to Breitensee, a suburb of Vienna, where my father supposedly spent four years as a cadet. This time it was not a school for cadets but a NAPOLA, (Nazionalpolitische Erziehungsanstalt). A NAPOLA was an elite secondary school where above average boys were raised to become the future backbone of the Third Reich. I am convinced that my father merely wanted me to experience the same buildings and grounds, and the same regimentation that he had been subjected to as a boy. He was not a Nazi and kept pointing out that a soldier was non-political; he served his country no matter who was running it. It was actually a good thought. I would have been under control, would have learned the spit and polish, would have had above average teachers, and as things looked in those days, would have finished up by being part of the inner circle. As it turned out, the Third Reich finished up becoming extinct anyhow.
Breitensee, former Cadet School, where Emo
spent4 years, and where I almost finished up
too. Image courtesy Roman Schneider
This leader of my dormitory was a smallish boy, about like I was, had straight blond hair and blue eyes. He had a very confident demeanor without being arrogant. I could have liked him. He thought perhaps that the best way to integrate me, while at the same time making sure I knew my place, was to assign me some task. He told me that tonight I would be the one to shine his shoes. Trying to mimic his posture, I replied that tonight, I would be shining my own shoes, and why would he need somebody to do his, when everyone else was doing his own?! He was a cool guy, which is more than I can say for some of the other residents. Those other guys were ready to tear me limb from limb because each one seemed to take this as a personal affront. The little blond Führer must have signaled to let it go, because no one touched me, although one thrust his face within about four inches of mine and demanded whether I had any idea who that boy was. And then answered his own question by informing me that he was the senior of this dormitory, and that I had to obey him. In return I pointed out that he had to obey, but that I was not yet part of this circus, and therefore not bound by its rules. After such an undiplomatic beginning, I was probably fortunate to have been rejected after the final exams.
We were tested for two solid weeks. Much of the time we sat in class rooms, and wrote exams. We were examined by doctors, and eyed by playground supervisors - for lack of a better word. We spent all our free time outdoors, and were encouraged to try all the physical training paraphernalia. There were not many we knew what to do with, so we tended to cluster around the shot-put site. Those big steel balls are heavy, and so as not to have to carry them back after a put, there was a v-shaped steel rail on which they could be rolled back. One of the boys had his middle finger quashed right in front of my face when he was in the process of lifting out a steel ball while another idiot slammed one down the rail with great force. I felt very sorry for him because I knew exactly how it felt. He had let out a bloodcurdling scream, then danced around holding the injured hand with the other. One of the residents was on the spot in an instant and led him to the first aid station. I was grateful that it had not happened to me.
After two weeks of this, the results were announced. Some had been accepted and stayed, others - I among them - went home. I was rather happy with the outcome because during the two weeks we had heard enough stories about the sort of hardening these guys considered appropriate. They would wake up an entire dormitory before dawn every morning and take them out for morning sport. The most harmless variety of this wake-up exercise was a brisk run around a few city blocks. The odd leader turned out to be a bit demented, and these types would occasionally lead their charges down to - and into - the water of the nearest river or lake. They would do this regardless of time of year. It is difficult for us civilized people to fathom this sort of lunacy, but the interesting thing was that the boys felt very special after such an ordeal, and felt immensely superior to those who had not had such torture imposed on them.
The school's administration was very diplomatic about the rejects. In my case the reason given was that I was physically too small. Which was true. I have photographs showing a black spot way down at the tail end of our Hitler Youth unit, where the short guys were. I was about the shortest, and definitely the one with the blackest hair. The rejection did not bother me in the least, since being small was at best a temporary affliction, and at any rate, it was not of my doing. Had they said that I was stupid, or a coward, or a liar, that would have bothered me very much, because I would have had to accept responsibility for it.
My father was in a military hospital on the Semmering recovering from the amputation above the knee of his left leg. During his stay he probably discussed the problem of trying to find a school for his son, and he must have received many suggestions. How else would I have wound up in a place called Waidhofen/Ybbs, of which none of us had ever heard? Here is what Fodor's Austria says on page 119 of its 1980 edition:
The most picturesque town in the lower Ybbs Valley is Waidhofen, with rows of 15th- and 16th-century gabled houses with bay windows and arcaded court yards; the parish church with winged main altar and several other interesting churches; the high and impressive castle tower; and massive "city tower" built 1542 in memory of the city's victorious repulsion of the Turks, with the clock dial still showing the hour of the Turkish defeat - 11.45 a.m. A landmark seen miles around is the majestic baroque pilgrimage church of Sonntagberg, crowning a 2,300-foot hill not far from Waidhofen.
A section of Waidhofen/Ybbs (photo: Roman Schneider)
There was a building called the "Konvikt" which, unlike its English meaning would imply, was "a place of communal habitat", such as an abbey. In the 1940s it was commonly referred to as the "KV" and was a boarding school for boys. There were about 300 boys in residence, and I spent almost four years of my life there. It was not all bad. We got up, got ready, had breakfast and walked to school which was about five minutes away, came home, played for a couple of hours, had to study for a few hours, were fed supper, played a bit more, and went to bed at 9 p.m.
The Opportunities for mischief were innumerable with new ones constantly created. There was always something going on, there were always fads. For a couple of weeks everybody would have slingshots for example, and would shoot thumb tacks into anybody's rear end who was careless enough to bend over.
|High school in Waidhofen/Ybbs (by: Roman Schneider)|
1942 - 3rd graders
with "Zit" (Dr. Preitensteiner).
We either ran out of empty bottles, or just got fed up with something that became very predictable. The next thing I knew, I was part of a conspiracy to buy 3 Kilograms of carbide for a special project. There was an 18"x 18" catch basin in our play area which was separated from the street by an old, out-of-commission bowling alley. This catch basin was for gathering the water from the down- spouts, and was always about half full of water, about four feet deep. The plan was to dump all 3 Kilograms of the carbide into the water, and then ignite the gases which should result in a nice big flame. Compared to a railroad lantern, this would be the Sun. The roles were all assigned. One boy would fetch the carbide, one boy would lift the grate of the catch basin and I would light the gases as soon as the bubbling started.
1942 - Dr. Schätz with some teacher's pets. Left to right: Haselsteiner, Katzelberger, Petz, Dr. Schätz, Felix, Freudl, Kalbfleisch, Gärtl.
The fact that he twice looked at me, but passed me up should have given me a hint about my appearance. A minute into this frenzied beating of bystanders got him slowed down a bit, and he grabbed a boy, thrust me at him and told him to take me to the doctor who lived around the corner. I wasn't at all sure why I needed a doctor, but it did get me out of the vicinity of that one-man beating machine. The boy grabbed a bike, sat me on the cross bar and away we went. The doctor was not home. His wife took one look at me and suggested we head straight for the hospital, which was a few kilometers down the road. We went there, and a nun immediately started to swab my face with aluminum acetate. By now I was having a fair bit of pain, especially in my lower arms which I held straight out so they would not touch anything. My face felt very hot too. And no matter how gently the nun did the swabbing, my skin was so sensitive I could have screamed. I was badly burned on my entire face, and my two hands half way up to my elbows. Second degree they said.
Another nun joined the party, and cut a mask out of a piece of white fabric. Two holes for the eyes, one for the mouth. They first put some greenish powder all over my face, then smeared some ointment onto the mask, and then ever so gently they glued the mask to my face which was really operating on some lower layer of the epidermis by now. Then they assigned me a bed and found an old pair of slippers, and a hospital gown of my size.
I had plenty of time to find a mirror and look at myself. The hair on my head was all curled really tight, and when I touched it, it felt hard like my fingernails. There were no eyebrows, and very few of my eyelashes had survived. Those that had, were little tight hooks, and worked like an efficient zipper. My eyes were zipped shut every morning and I had to literally pry them open a little at a time. Having admired these changes in my appearance, I thought nothing of sending my mother a proud postcard stating that I was in the hospital, and that I bet she wouldn't even recognize me. It was admittedly thoughtless. It was also very effective. My mother was there the next day, did recognize me, and was so happy that I was alive. She went to the head master of the boarding school and kept gushing at him about how happy she was that I was alive, etc. He kept a very stern face until she finished gushing, then advised her that I had been expelled.
Somehow she managed to have them reverse the judgment - after all, having her son alive was one thing, but having him live at home with her was quite another. I suppose she used the argument that "his father is away in the army and is in a military hospital at the moment, and not doing too well, and she has to be maintaining our home, and has to keep going to his hospital etc, and this would not be in the best interest of our family". Well, all right, we make one more exception.
June 1943 - After the explosion
My stay was educational too. I prowled all over the hospital, and one day found some patients forming a little queue. Although I hated lineups, I also knew that people did not line up because they were bored. There was always something at the end of the line. I joined the queue, and after a few minutes found myself inside a dark room and stepped up to a gadget only to hear a bored voice describe my innards. He liked everything he saw, and said so "liver normal, kidneys normal, lungs healthy, next". I wanted to see what he saw, so in the dark instead of leaving the room, I went around behind him, and stayed there about half an hour watching the skeletons march past. After a while even I could tell that the organs of some did not look like the others did. It was very interesting.
Whenever I hear about peer pressure these days I am more than just a little suspicious about the extent to which it can be blamed for the things young people do. I have done many things which were outside the behavior parameters that most parents and educators consider acceptable, yet I do not remember being pressured into doing them. My peers did not have to. I was more than eager to show off, and to do things others were reluctant to do. Perhaps the pressure was too subtle for me to be aware of, or perhaps I was exceptional in my desire to impress. I suspect that I was insecure, and this may have been one way in which the insecurity manifested itself. The truth may be buried deeper, but at any rate, I feel that blaming one's misdeeds on peer pressure is too convenient an excuse, and is most likely overused. It seems to shift the blame onto the peers, and I find that dishonest. One escapade will illustrate the point very nicely:
When holidays came around, most kids went home. I was never encouraged to do that for some reason. Probably the same reason why I was in a boarding school in the first place. No one ever told me not to come home, but no one ever sent me the train fare either, and there were those remarks about how far it was, how long it would take, and how expensive it was. I eventually took it for granted that I was one of the very few who stayed at the school when others went home.
So it was also for the Easter holidays when I was about 13 years old. We were about six who stayed, and we were determined to have a good time. I can not remember how it all started, but here we went out to a farmer to buy cider. We got a gallon or two, and marched into the kitchen, where we knew the agreeable ones among the girls, and sweet-talked them into providing the sugar we needed, and then boiling the cider for us. It was a bit like mulled wine, but with a cider base and only the sugar added. It was fantastic. My sweet tooth was very happy. One of the boys in our group was the headmaster's nephew and had access to his uncle's office, where there was a big box of Havana cigars. They were quite dark and fat, and about eight inches long. He stole a few of those cigars and when the cider was properly boiled and steaming, we retired to our dormitory and started the party. I think we got rather intoxicated with the hot, sweetened cider. Then the nephew passed out the cigars. Most of the boys just took a puff or two and quickly passed it on, pretending to share, but were already slightly green around the gills. To see the other guys so uncomfortable was all the encouragement I needed. What kind of dish rags are you guys? You mean you can't even smoke a cigar?! Give it to me! I immediately had one thrust into my hand, and I proceeded to smoke the whole thing all by myself. I don't remember exactly how the party ended, but I do remember staying in bed for two days with what I had diagnosed as nicotine poisoning. For months after I was so sensitive to tobacco smells, that when a teacher came too close to me in class with his cigarette-stained fingers, I just about threw up. We had for some time smoked anything we could get a hold of, but this incident caused me to quit smoking and I never touched a cigarette for the next five years, and no cigar until I was past forty. So where was the peer pressure?
My preoccupation with ammunition led to another incident which should have resulted in my final, and irrevocable expulsion from that school. The same teacher who was on yard duty when I caused the Big Bang that hospitalized me, was our regular music teacher, and one of the sternest disciplinarians. There was never a whisper during his lessons, and nothing but utmost concentration. For the music lessons we moved to the music room which housed a grand piano, and on an elevated platform were several rows of backless stools. We had been permanently assigned our spots depending on the kind of voice we had (or lacked) so that whenever there was a need to sing as a choir, we were already in the right place. There was not much singing that year, because we were learning the fundamentals of harmony, and other such boring topics.
On that memorable day the teacher tested us at random. Since I did not know any of the answers, I did not bother to be afraid of being tested because it did not matter what he would ask me, my score would be zero. Consequently the whole period bored me immensely, and I started to go through my pockets looking for something that I could occupy myself with. Ah, here was an empty bird-shot shell from a 22 caliber rifle. It was a miniature shotgun shell on which the paper part had been opened and the shot removed. Since the cartridge had not been fired, it contained a live cap, and I thought it could be salvaged, and made into a proper 22 shell if I could get rid of the paper from inside the casing and fit a regular lead ball into it. I required something small and sharp to work with, something like the lapel pin of the boy sitting beside me. I pulled it out of his lapel and began to work on my cartridge.
It was very delicate work, because if I slipped, the pin would go into the cap and fire the cartridge. Not exactly what I would want to do in the atmosphere of the music room, which was probably not too different from the one in the Pristine Chapel. I was very, very careful. But then somehow I slipped, and it did go off, and although some of the blast went into my right eye, I merely blinked it a few times, and rubbed it a bit. With ears still ringing, only two thoughts came to me: Whether the teacher was going to drop dead from an attack of his bad heart, and when the next train would be leaving for Gmunden. I was sure they would physically throw me out of school and that I would be home within the next twelve hours.
By this time the teacher had correctly identified the source of the blast, and was prying my eye open to see if it was damaged, but finding that God had not done the punishing, he grabbed me by the elbow and marched me, taking two stairs with each step, to the principal's office on the third floor of the school. The principal was also a war reject, and a rather tired looking gentleman. He listened to the complaint, then put on his sternest face (which did not look all that stern) and informed me that the next time I did anything like that, they would have to take some action. I actually felt sorry for the teacher who was visibly disappointed at this very mild rebuke. I wonder if it had turned out so mild because the principal was glad he did not have a blind kid on his hands. I don't remember my marks in music that year, but I do not think that I was ever tested.
All boys are at one time or other interested in martial arts. The only one we knew about was Jiu Jitsu, and one or two had little books about it with pictures of how to apply the various holds. We practiced a lot and tried not to hurt each other. There was never an element of surprise since the holds were intricate and both had to collaborate in applying them. An important part of this was to know how to fall, because the assumption was that sooner or later one would be tossed through the air by one's opponent. So we practiced falling. The idea was to roll on impact, rather than connect mother earth with a bone breaking thud. So first we just fell flat on our faces from a standing position, then climbed on things and would lean until we fell. The sign of an expert was not to use his hands, but just to tuck in his head and roll off one shoulder. I used to get a lot of head aches when I was practicing that. The ultimate dare was a six foot high stone wall from which a kid would have to dive off, head first. He was allowed to use his arms though. I did that quite a few times, and actually got so good at it that it no longer knocked the wind out of me. It was still dumb, just as it was dumb to eat dew worms fried in boot grease (supposedly Walrus fat).
I have never figured out how like-minded individuals sniff each other out, but I always found the guys who had similar interests to mine. One such fellow came from Südtirol, an area actually belonging to northern Italy since 1918, but still referred to by the name it had under the Habsburg Monarchy. He was a pleasant, inventive chap who did not look at all Italian, although he could speak the language. Coming from a mountainous, wooded part of the country, he was most comfortable when we climbed some of the surrounding hills, and wandered around amongst the trees. This in turn immediately put us into the hunting/poaching mode which goes hand in hand with mountains and forests - just read any Austrian novel and see if there isn't some contest between foresters and poachers, or border guards and smugglers. So we started to fabricate traps for small rodents, and then had to go back daily to survey our success. We gave up that hobby pretty soon because we could not remember exactly where we had hidden the traps.
Our Konvikt was large enough to have its own unit of the Hitler Youth. We had less than 100 boys in uniform, which was about right for a Fähnlein, the third level up in the hierarchy. Our unit was called 22a/518 and was lead by Hammer Willy, a pleasant, quite mature young man. We did our prescribed weekly drills on the soccer field until everyone could tell his left foot from his right foot, and even could march in a block of eight abreast while keeping the ranks from disintegrating. We marched in the streets and sang the popular, and prescribed marching songs. I am still not sure what came first, were they popular because they had been prescribed and we knew them all, or had they been prescribed because everyone liked them already. I think we liked to sing, and I cannot remember a song we did not like. It is a lot easier to march when one sings. It helps you keep in step, and you can concentrate on the words and the tune, and forget about how tired you are.
We also did sporty things like broad jumps, javelin throwing, shot put tossing, and playing hand ball. One time the leader of the entire District came by to inspect our outfit, and thereafter we were allowed to sew red piping around our collars. The story went that we were terrific, a real elite outfit. I had my doubts, but it did make a good story, so I used it later on when I went to a summer camp near home, and was challenged on this "frill" on a no-frills uniform. They backed off when I told them that it was simply the visible sign of the invisible grace which had made us into a crack outfit, and that it was bestowed on us from high up.
One day a teacher died, and everyone was told to don uniforms because we would be marching to the funeral. There was a quick inspection before we departed, and I was excused from going because I had holes in the pants of my winter uniform. I had very mixed feelings about this. First I was very embarrassed and ashamed, that of all the kids, I had the most ragged pants. Then I saw the good side of it, which was not having to march through town to the cemetery. But something in the back of my mind kept whispering that this should not be happening to any kid, least of all to one whose mother was constantly sewing for other people.
Somehow I eventually returned to Gmunden. I think it had to do with the approaching end of the war. Going home was going to be nice, I thought, then found to my extreme disgust that my mother had rented my room to five adult Hungarians! It was a family called Berger, who must have been of some substance, because they seemed to have class. Mr. and Mrs. Berger, their grown son, and their married daughter with her husband. The younger couple's name was Lunzer. They also had all their worldly goods with them. All in that one room. It must have been awful for them. No wonder they were forever walking the streets, visiting with other refugees, and spending a lot of time with the Hungarian military policemen who at the end of the war had set themselves up as interim keepers of the law, and who happened to have more provisions than they knew what to do with. We all owned about half a dozen vests made of lamb's fur, which were nice to sit around in, especially since we had considerable difficulty heating our homes.
I still do not know for sure what happened, but at the time I was convinced that my mother's avarice had gotten the better of her, and she just could not turn down the monetary offer she was made by these Hungarians. It is also possible that she just felt sorry for them because they had no place to stay, or that the local Party hierarchy was going around making sure no one had any unused rooms that they could make available to the poor people fleeing from the Russian hordes. The Bergers and the Lunzers were doing everything in their power to move on because those close quarters, without privacy must have been hell. They eventually emigrated to the U.S.A.
Once I had regained my room, I could live more normally. My mother probably felt the same way. I had many interests, and worked at them all. I alternated between feeding the birds right at my window, and shooting some of the bigger ones out of the trees with my 22 caliber. There was absolutely no conflict between those two activities. I liked animals and was kind to them. I also needed to develop and maintain good shooting skills. I also shot squirrels out of my window, then had my mother make squirrel goulash with lots of paprika. It was actually quite delicious, and we were always in need of a dietary supplement to our potatoes and noodles. One of the ultimate challenges was shooting pears off the trees without damaging them - by shooting off the stem only. I got to be a very accurate shot.
It was during that period that I became interested in electricity. I had a big work table made out of 2 inch thick pine boards. When I discovered that a resistor wire (the type which glows red in your clothes dryer) can be used as a transformer, I stretched it across the table anchored at each end with a big 4 inch nail and laid a bunch of upside-down china plates and saucers along under it to keep the table from going up in flames. Then I attached electric cord to it and plugged it into the standard 220 Volt circuit. The resistor wire got hot, then red, and sagged and laid down on the saucers. What you saw was 220 Volts. Then I dug up a box of a variety of bulbs, including some 12 Volt automotive bulbs, and started to experiment by moving one of the hot wires down towards the other end. About half way would be 110, half of that would be 50, etc. I actually was able to have the 12 Volt automotive bulbs glow, but not blow up by reducing the 220 Volts simply by reducing the length of the red-hot coil. Neat.
The nice, bright, blue light emitted by an arc welder also intrigued me. So I got a couple of carbon sticks I had saved when I had taken apart some flash light batteries. I wrapped the ends of my electric cord around the carbon sticks, then wrapped them in electrician's tape and clamped them at 45 degree angles into my vise. When I plugged in the cord, first nothing happened, then after I gently tapped them, I finally got the required gap between the tips and a bright blue arc sprang into life. One more successful experiment. Very neat.
Chemistry had not interested me very much in school, but at home I much preferred to learn by doing than by cramming symbols and formulas. I had a whole battery of test tubes, had a small microscope, an assortment of chemicals, and a bottle of sulfuric acid. I grew cultures of micro organisms and examined them under the microscope along with anything else I could find in our house hold. The sulfuric acid did a nice job cleaning things, except I found that some cleanables tended to disappear completely, while others enjoyed their pristine existence for only a very short while and then turned into clumps of rust. Copper coins were a particularly interesting item to try the acid on. The blackest, oldest copper coin would come a beautiful pinkish clean copper color, but often the design would disappear. The one problem I had with that bottle of sulfuric acid was that the stopper did not seem to be 100% tight. I had it sitting on the window sill, and I noticed that with time the window's hinges above the bottle turned into very rusty specimens. I have avoided storing sulfuric acid at home ever since, but years later found that muriatic acid has very similar characteristics.
One day I rummaged in some old stuff we had accumulated for some reason and came across photographic paper. This was the old, old kind which was called Gaslichtpapier, and I suspect that it either required gas lantern light, or was intended to convey that it was so sensitive that gas light would also be adequate to expose it. I had seen some big frames being set out into the sun to make copies of maps and such. To my delight I even found some frames into which to clamp the negatives and the paper for exposure as contact prints. I found some old negatives and tried my hand at this and came up with some very purplish images. So it did work, but I would have to learn more about it.
An elderly spinster ran a photographic studio on the Esplanade (I believe her name was Hernler) and somehow I got to know her and she was very supportive of my endeavor to learn about photography. She often just happened to have some paper that she could not use and gave it to me. She also needed to try out some negatives, to see if they were still any good and asked me to sit for portraits. The next thing I knew, I was building an enlarger out of plywood and an old camera. It worked remarkably well and I used it for years. My darkroom was set up in the toilet, and all my prints were washed in the toilet bowl. The love for photography stayed with me for most of my life, and I did eventually graduate to a store-bought enlarger and a fully equipped dark room in the 1950s.
Gmunden, Bahnhofstraße 4 - My home 1939 - 1951. We occupied the entire second floor except for 1 room.
This handy quality of mine brought about some funny situations. Because nothing could be bought, people were encouraged to make things. Right up my alley! There were courses given, for example, to learn how to make slippers. It was called the Patschenkurs. I went with a bag of remnants, and found myself the only male in a room of middle-aged women. I was 14 at that time. So for a day or so we were shown how to trace patterns and how to cut the material for the uppers and the insoles, and soles. Then the pieces had to be sewn together. The organization giving these courses was extremely well equipped. There was a battery of brand new, commercial class Singer sewing machines, and shelves and shelves of shoe lasts of any conceivable size.
So I sat down to one of the sewing machines and started sewing. We always had a sewing machine, and my mother had always tolerated my use of it. I never gave it a thought, but then I looked up and there were about four women standing there watching me, and one asked if I would be so kind as to show them how to thread the machine. Well I did, and I had to show them a few other things about sewing machines, but I felt a bit funny about this upside-down world I had stumbled into where young boys teach older women how to sew.
The shortage of men was most apparent on farms. The word was put out in school that we were to go and help the farmers. I guess somebody must have had a list, and assigned us boys. I went out to "my" farmer, and put in a very unpleasant two weeks. The biggest problem was that I had no decent foot wear. I was wearing what we called Klapperl because of the clip-clop noise they made. This was a wooden sole hinged in only one place - under the ball of the foot - with a band going across the top to hold the contraption to the toes, and a very feminine looking harness to hang on to the heel and ankle. The cheapest pair of thongs would have been preferable. I also had stepped on a nail just recently and had a painful hole in the bottom of my foot.
By seven every morning we were out in the wet grass cutting a wagon load of it for the stabled animals. Then we would go out and make hay. For the next two weeks every goddamned cut stubble of grass found its way into my wound, which by now was bleeding almost constantly. Also, since this was in Austria, the terrain was far from level, and working on a slope in the summer with wooden soles is not that different from working in the winter on an icy slope. A lot of my energy had to go into just surviving. There was enough to eat, and that was a welcome, and adequate compensation. The farmers probably tolerated the kids they were sent, suspecting all the while that this was just another city slicker trick to get some food out of them. Although some farmers got lucky, and drew big, strong boys. My friend Peter Dornhofer told different stories when he came back from "his" farmer. He was very muscular, and worked as hard as the regular hands. He also happened to like farming, and they also happened to have a couple of daughters about the right size. The whole family was sorry to see him leave when his stint was up, but Peter came away very motivated and went to an agricultural school the following year.
The very few good memories of my stay at that farm had to do with eating. Keep in mind that we had very, very little food in the city in those days. Coupons were needed for everything, but often there was nothing in the store and you had to go home with your coupons still in your pocket. On the farm I went looking for eggs in the hay loft. I found some every time, and making a hole in each end, I sucked them out raw. Next I found myself a small tin cup which I carried on my belt, and I would, at every opportunity, sneak into the barn and molest a cow until I finally figured out how to fill my cup with milk, which I would then drink warm. At 14 I needed lots of this kind of nourishment. I might as well mention the Russian slave laborer they had. Propaganda is a very ugly thing, and very powerful. People cannot be blamed for falling victim to it. I have read many articles about how Germans have used people from occupied territories as slave labor. Perhaps there were some unpleasant situations. The foreigners I saw in Gmunden during the war all had a job to go to, were very much in demand, and needed, and consequently were quite well treated to keep them healthy and content, and useful. The Russian on this farm was a constantly happy, mischievous rascal, who gave a days work, was well fed, was like one of the family, and bantered along all day with the women who seemed to enjoy it. I would not be a bit surprised to find that lots of these people stayed in Austria after the war.
A similar kind of "help them out" scenario happened in town too. Businesses were looking for help. What they wanted was free labor. There was a firm selling motor cycles and bicycles. The owner's name was Busch, also on the Esplanade practically next door to my benevolent photographer lady. I went there to work. They had no Motorcycles of course, and no bicycles, and I really wonder why they even stayed open, or what sort of income they had. I sorted through a messy arrangement of parts bins and put order into it, then for lack of anything else to do I wandered into the office and started to look at the book keeping. It was a mess. So I asked the owner if he would like me to try and do something with it. He was delighted. He gave me complete carte blanche, and although I had never laid eyes on a set of books, I did put considerable order into his affairs while I was there. I was not paid anything, but later, after the war, after I lost my bike to a fellow making his way homeward from a concentration camp, and I needed parts for a bike I got for nothing after an American ran over it with a jeep, I was able to go to Mr. Busch and ask him for the replacement parts I needed, and got them.
Once, though, I had a very embarrassing moment in that store. There was another push on to flush out bicycles that could be commandeered for the Army, and they brought one in, still wrapped in oily paper, followed by its completely dejected owner - my biology teacher Dr. Professor Alfred Manussi Edler Ritter von Montezola. He was the sternest professor we had, but I liked his subject, was not nearly as afraid of him as I should have been, and he in turn took a bit of a liking to me, contrary to his habit of favoring sons of doctors or lawyers. I later found out that he had this bicycle in the attic for years, and would oil it and wipe it, but never use it. It was his most beloved possession. When he saw me in that store and realized I belonged there, he immediately assumed that I had something to do with this shameful robbery in the name of the fatherland. He never again even so much as looked at me, and my mother told me that years later, when I was already in Canada, he stopped one day to tell her on the street how hurt he had been by what I had done to him, when he always tried to be so fair with me. I really felt sorry for the old bachelor, and did not enjoy his mistaken idea that I had blown the whistle on him - I could not have, because I did not even know he owned a bicycle. And I certainly did not know he had a bike in the attic. Also, I did not believe in giving good useful things to the fatherland, because I always wondered if they would ever get to where they were needed the most.
When there are very few opportunities for doing something unusual, they must not be missed. The magic of the word opportunity is very well known to today's advertisers and all those who are peddling something. They make you feel that only creatures very low on the food chain would consider not taking advantage of an opportunity. The approach might have been different, but the psychology was the same when I heard of an opportunity to spend two weeks on a glacier to receive pre-military alpine training. It was not only pre-military, it was paramilitary, and the glacier was on the Dachstein (3004m), highest mountain of our province of Upper Austria.
Interestingly enough the decision to go was quite voluntary and very informal. Nobody seemed to care all that much whether you went or not, and at the other end, no one questioned why a boy would show up, they just assumed that he had good authority to be there. The prerequisites were simply to know how to ski, and bring everything in a rucksack that one would need during a two week stay. I took the train to Hallstatt, at the foot of the Dachstein. It seems almost impossible that I would have gone all alone, but I cannot remember being with a friend, or being with anyone.
Hallstatt. A school friend's father was minister of the Protestant church with the pointed steeple, and we used to climb up into the belfry.
It was almost 3 in the afternoon when we finally set out to climb to the chalet up somewhere on the Dachstein. Two week's worth of stuff on your back, oversized, wet, extremely heavy boots, and to them strapped those overlong heavy army skis with the skins. I took one look at this getup and was too worried to be scared. So I just plodded along as best as I could, trying not to look too clumsy, or worse, actually fall in my own tracks - going uphill.
There were about forty boys, all about 14-15 years old. The troupe was lead by a sergeant, and the rear was taken up by a corporal. Both were seasoned mountaineers, and had been going up and down this mountain for months. They were in shape, had fitting boots and skis, and did not carry any rucksacks because their stuff was already up on the mountain. Plod, plod, plod. Just move one foot in front of the other, and keep telling yourself that you can do it.
A couple of hours later we reached an elevation where it was colder, and the snow was all powder. Several feet of it. Now the skins became a liability, or so it seemed. The alternative, of not having any skins did not look good either, because now the skis would really slide backwards with each step. Actually, one wanted to take the skis right off and carry them, but the snow was so soft and powdery that we were already sinking in up to our knees with each step, and there was no way one could walk without skis.
The fatigue was an agony. One step at a time. It was starting to get dark. The sergeant tried to keep up a good pace, from the rear came the gentle encouragement to keep moving. Some of the boys sat down in the powder and cried. I did not despise them for it because it was only my extreme stubbornness that kept me from doing the same. It got to be so bad, that the only thing I wanted to do was lie down in the powder snow and go to sleep - which would have taken about five seconds, and which would have been my last sleep, because it would have lasted forever.
It was pitch dark when we arrived at the chalet, which I believe to have been the Wiesberghaus. We actually walked right in with our skis still on our feet because we did not have the strength to take them off. Then we collapsed for a few minutes until we were told to take care of our equipment, and get the blankets and grab a berth. I don't remember whether we had supper or anything else that may have happened that evening.
Chalet 7000' on the Dachstein c.1944 - home for 2 weeks
All day long we enjoyed the most beautiful sunshine one could wish for. Up in the mountains the sun is, however, something to be treated with respect, just like in the Caribbean. At high altitude, the air tends to be a bit thinner and the ultraviolet rays can get at you better. They are also multiplied when reflected by the snow. Several of the less careful boys had painful sunburns and were moaning in their bunks that night.
The next day we had to get supplies from the Gjald Alm in a different part of the mountain range where there was a cable car for transporting supplies. We went with empty rucksacks, and were each loaded up with 10 Kg of bread, sugar, flour, potatoes, etc. I got ten big, round loaves of rye bread. It did not feel all that heavy until I started falling off my skis because of the unfamiliar weight distribution. As every skier knows, you must lean back a bit when hitting a rise in terrain after having come down a slope. That slight bit of backward motion was too much with 20 pounds of bread in the packsack. I fell back on my rear end, and then could not get up with the bag pulling me down. While it was nothing like the original climb from Hallstatt, we were exhausted and very grateful to arrive back at our chalet.
In the evening we would have theoretical lessons, mostly by way of anecdotes. How you saved the day when working on the ropes, trying to scale a rock face in the winter, and your fingers were numb from the cold. You rope yourself alongside your partner, and then start pounding the hell out of each other. Usually someone hits harder than anticipated and the other guy gets mad. Ten minutes later both are quite warm and can continue. Or why you must keep warnings very brief. If the upper climber warns of a falling rock, he is to use only one word: Rock (or Stone). One anecdote tells of the time when there was an overhang between the upper and the lower climber, the upper one yelled "Watch out there is loose rock on the way down." Whereupon the guy below him stuck his head out from under the overhang and yelled back :"What did you say?" He got his answer from the rock that hit him on the shoulder and almost knocked him off the rock face.
We were taught how to survive in the snow and ice of the Alps. How to bivouac, how to dig into a snow drift (lowest point is the entrance, that way the warm air stays in - and fart all you can. Lots of people froze to death, but nobody stank to death), and contrary to everyone's expectations, you don't put all your clothes on to keep warm, you take off as much as you can spare and stick it to the wall of your cave, thereby creating some insulation against the snow which allows the interior air to warm up better. We were also shown how to climb out of a fissure in the ice if you fell in, how to fabricate a makeshift sleigh out of skis for transporting a wounded or dead comrade, and many more practical, and very interesting things that we would rather never have to try.
Some of it we had to try. We spent half a day hollowing out big snow drifts until we could all fit into it. Then we climbed a mountain on skis with three guys roped together. Going up was OK, but coming down was a riot. I thought I was clever by picking the center position on the rope. We slalomed down and then I was yanked back on my bum. The guy behind me had wiped out while I was still going. I did not even have time start cursing when the rope jerked me forward very roughly. The front man did not know that his two rope-mates were down and kept on skiing. I have seen this done, and it looked pretty and easy, but the performers knew what they were doing, and they never fell. By the end of that lesson I was quite prepared to ski solo and take my chances on falling into a crevasse instead of being roped to a couple of camels on skis.
Then came the day we went skiing on the glacier. It was a long haul just to get there, then we got to schuss it. It is the most unbelievable sensation. Here I was standing reasonably erect, with a slight forward slant and soft in the knees, and I could only see whiteness. Then I wanted to push a bit with the poles because I thought I was going so slow. As soon as my poles touched the snow they flew up and almost out of my hands, and then I realized that I was skiing at a speed like I had never skied before. My mitts were frozen into a fist around my poles from the wind, and my face wanted to fall off. I started to get worried about how to end this ride. This was a new experience to me, and all I knew was that I had to be very, very careful.
The snow was all powder and there was so much of it, that falling at any speed would not be dangerous. It would however have some very unpleasant consequences, such as having snow all over inside one's shirt and underwear. Not nice in -25C temperatures. A big wipe out could stick you headfirst into the powder so deep that you would require help to get back out (ski harnesses in those days were not expected to come off when you wiped out, and with skis still attached to be upside down in many feet of powder is not my idea of recreation). Then there was the practical problem of finding your way home if you became separated from your group. It was much better not to wipe out. So I gently changed my stance into just a suspicion of a snow plow to slow things down a bit. That did seem to work, and then I spotted our group assembling off to the side. I somehow willed my skis over and slowed down enough to be able to pull up and stop where they were - with an attitude of "nothing to it".
When the two weeks were up, I was in better shape, was a better skier, had gotten more used to my army skis and boots, and had a lovely dark brown tan that you can only get at high altitudes. I was however not quite ready for the trip down. That is a big mountain. It is also wilderness. If you take all of the best skiers off a groomed slope and make them come down the Dachstein with the equipment we had, half of them would probably have to finish the trip in a toboggan or a helicopter. Most of my skiing life I have complained that the runs are too short, and that the down part is over so fast. Not that trip down the Dachstein. It kept on going down, and down and when my knees were rattling and I no longer had any strength in my legs or ankles, it was still going down and going down. I wished that I had my own light 170cm skis. These long army skis I could not maneuver around tight turns, and on the straight parts they picked up so much speed I could barely control them.
Then it was over. We had reached the bottom, were back in town and changed back into our own clothes, and took the train home. I had learned much about mountaineering on skis. I had also learned the meaning of the word exhaustion, and by default the meaning of endurance. Ever since that trip on the Dachstein I tend to get impatient with people who flop themselves into a fauteuil and exclaim that they are exhausted. It was a tough experience, but one I am glad that I had. Many years later (in 1994) my friend Gagerl told me that he had been through the same course, and that he had developed a kidney infection there, as a result of which one of his kidneys had shut down and shriveled for the rest of his life.
The period immediately before the collapse of the Third Reich, and the long-awaited end of the war found us boys in somewhat of a dual role. On the one hand we no longer needed to attend regular classes because the school had somehow fizzled out. This allowed us to roam around all day and do what teenage boys do best - nothing. On the other hand we were old enough to understand that times were very, very tough, that we needed to somehow contribute to the family larder, such as it was, and we were also big enough to be expected to do some rather heavy work towards family maintenance. I remember how my friend Peter Dörnhöfer, who weighed about 150 lb, and was solid muscle, carried big bags of coal on his back to the third floor apartment of his grandmother. I am convinced that many fully grown men would not have been able to do what he did. If anyone wants to try it, the building still stands in Gmunden. It was called the Kammerhof, and a hardware store, I believe it was Höller, was at street level. Peter's grandmother, Mrs. Bartowsky, lived right up there under the roof, as a matter of fact, the only other thing that was up there was attic. I will come back to that attic later.
It was early in 1945 when I brought my father home to live with me. He was a refugee with only one leg and no place to go, so this was an instinctive reaction on my part.
It would be difficult to forget the actual day that the war ended for us. It is very likely that I was less up-to-date with current affairs than others, but I frankly believe that nobody was really clued-in on the exact state of affairs. Radios, such as they were in those days, would have been the only reliable way to know the news. But since public broadcasts were very much part of the propaganda machinery, any news heard would not have necessarily told us where things were at. Alas, the radio stations sort of fizzled out too. Not that we had an operational radio at the time, if I remember correctly. I remember that for days the vehicles of the German (6th Army I had been told) drove past our house for points north. This was one of the elite units that had fought under Rommel in Africa, and had been fighting its way all along the Italian boot. These were popular troops, and I had the opportunity to see our neighbors in a different light when they continued to carry drinking of water and cigarettes out to the passing trucks. I remember seeing the soldiers in the back of those trucks being completely covered by white dust from the many hundreds of kilometers of traveling. I was fifteen less one month, and all I could do was gawk.
One morning I woke up and looked down from the balcony where I liked to sleep in the summer and saw an abandoned German troop carrier parked against our fence. The neighbor's son was just finishing his job of removing all the wheels. I also spotted some discarded equipment inside the fence of the adjoining property, which was part of the Gmunden Post Office. I quickly ran down and vaulted the fence to see if anything useful could be found. There were some kit bags and a few such items strewn about, obviously heaved across the fence as the occupants discarded everything they did not want to be found with. Some members of the Sixth Army obviously had arrived home, and were not going any further.
Later on that morning I was barely surprised to see an American Jeep tear up the street, then turn around and tear back down it again. It is very indicative of the times that we were not easily surprised. Somehow, in a matter of hours, the olive colored American jeeps with long aerials and big, mounted machine guns seemed as natural on my street as the trucks of the 6th German Army had seemed the day before. I don't think I went home for the rest of the day, there was too much to see. The Post Office, being a public building, and the nerve center of telecommunications, was one of the first to be occupied by the American troops. Such occupation consisted simply of parking an armored vehicle in its driveway. It sat there with the turret open, two very long aerials swaying, and a soldier sitting on top chewing gum.
Apart from being fascinated by the abundant food these American troops seemed to have, we were also very preoccupied by all the weapons that needed rescuing. The German soldiers did not want to be found with a rifle in their hands when they first encountered their captors, so they discarded their weapons singly and in groups. They were trying to be discreet about it and usually marched into the woods, and came out the other side without any of their arms. Teenage boys must have some method of communicating like ants do. I can only remember that we walked many miles every day simply to check out all the reported sites of disarmament. My friend Peter and I, in particular we had always loved weapons, but now we became instant experts. We could take a quick look at a pile of discarded weapons and immediately assess the potential of finding anything useful in that pile. We also had a very good idea of what we wanted. We had no use for heavy army rifles, or machine guns or Schmeissers (German submachine guns). We had no use for hand grenades or bazookas. What we were looking for were pistols, and well preserved sabers or bayonets. Things that we could hope to transport without getting caught.
Peter and I were soon the proud owners of pistols. Peter had a 9mm Lüger and I had a 7.65mm Walther. Those pistols were dismantled and cleaned so often, that they shone and smelled like they had just been manufactured. Good hiding places were an absolute necessity. Not only did some of our parents not share our love for these weapons, but there was absolutely nothing to stop any American soldier, or provisional policeman from just walking in and poking around in our homes. Peter found the perfect spot way up there in the attic beside his grand mother's apartment. Right beside one of the structural timbers there was a small opening that seemed to be bottomless. Peter lovingly wrapped his Lüger in a bunch of oily rags, tied it all up into a tight bundle, then let it down on a strong string about five feet into the black cavity. The string was invisible when tied to the timber unless one knew where to look,.Just owning pistols is of course not quite enough. They have to be fired some time. Long live the Wetterfleck. This is the Austrian equivalent of a Mexican poncho. Basically a wool blanket with a hole in the middle for the head. It is surprisingly effective against rain and cold. So we waited for a rainy day and then armed ourselves with the pistols safely hidden under our ponchos. But the town was just teeming with American soldiers. Gmunden is a beautiful place and this was a favorite recreational area, as well the headquarters for the Rainbow Division, and had a big PX, car park, and a whole fleet of captured German Army assault boats with big, long-shafted outboard motors that were years ahead in speed of anything the Americans had at home on their lakes. So we could not just shoot anywhere.
On this rainy day we went to the swampy bay on the town side of Schloß Orth and crawled into the shrubbery. We could see American soldiers but were pretty sure they could not see us. And if they heard a shot, they would hopefully think it was one of their comrades acting up - which they did frequently. I was looking toward the water at some ducks when my head just about flew apart. Peter, standing behind me could not hold back any longer, raised his arm and squeezed off a shot with his pistol about a foot from my ear. I think it rang for two days, and could very well have contributed to my present severe hearing loss. No one was paying any attention, so we walked home, and once again cleaned our pistols before returning them to their respective hiding places.
There is no question that the end of the war had upset whatever little structure there had been to my life. I can, for example, not remember for the life of me what, if any, schooling I had received in 1945. Whatever there was, it had not made the slightest impression on my mind, and I lived most of my life believing that I had not gone back to school after the end of World War II in April 1945. Only when I started sorting out my documents in support of this book did I realize that I had finished the fifth year of Gymnasium in July 1947.
1947 - Traunsee frozen over. They said it only happens every 30 years
We still had to bring our own container when buying milk. My mother asked me to go and get some from the milk store. It was a bitter cold day. It was not necessary but I made a little detour just so I could walk on the ice, and was close to the wooden structure that the tour boats tie up to in summer. The ice looked different near the pylon, and there was even some water visible. This I had to go and see up close. When I got to within three feet of it, my left leg went through the ice its entire length. Even while it was happening I threw myself down and spread out as much as I could to prevent all of me going through the ice, then I pulled my leg out and rolled away to thick ice, got up and retrieved my milk can which had escaped my grip and had slid a far distance away. Then I ran home as fast as I could so to get out of the shoe and ski pants. It was not terribly far but it was all up hill and it was very cold. I could only think of running to keep warm and to keep the pants from freezing solid. My mother was more annoyed at not getting any milk than happy over the fact that I did not drown in the lake.
Kurhotel (Gmunden 1947-48)
The idea was that I should have an occupation. In Austria the tourist business is one of the largest industries, and hotel work is popular. It has been given the reputable name of Hotelfach (hotel profession) and it covers everything from waiting at tables, being a chamber maid to being the guy who carries luggage in and out, i.e. a porter. It also includes the manager, the desk clerk, the chef, the kitchen manager, and the gardener.
The recommended way to learn the hotel business was to attend a specialized school, aptly called the Hotelfachschule (hotel trade school). There are not too many around, and it costs money to attend. There wasn't one in Gmunden, and besides who would have paid? So there was only one other way, and that was a regular "apprenticeship".
My father and I walked over (he on crutches) to the Kurhotel which was just a few minutes from the house we lived in. We sat down with Frau Doppler, the owner and laid out our intentions. She agreed to take me on, and we went home again. My father had a tuxedo from the days he worked in the casino at Baden/Wien, and I tried on the black pants. They fit. The white jackets would be supplied by the hotel. I owned one pair of shoes which were hand-me-downs from the Lutheran church which received used clothing from the US. Alas the shoes were brown. So I gave them a good treatment of black shoe polish, and all was ready for my new career. I thought.
1947/48 - Gmunden
There was one more fellow, Ernst Schiebl, who used to be a baker before he was called up for service and became driver of a Panzer (tank). He had a younger brother who once had been a classmate of mine. I think his name was Eddy. Ernst had been through the war, and wanted to re-establish himself in civilian life, but not as a baker if he could help it. His ideas were similar to mine. He wanted to work himself into the position of porter. That is the guy with the green apron who gets to carry your suitcases up to your room, and who gets to shine your shoes if you put them in front of your door at night. The porter is said to get a lot of tips for these jobs, and Ernst wanted to corner that job. Since I was going to go the waiter route, I was no threat to him. We got along fine, and we both got sucked in by Herr und Frau Doppler. We were cheap labor. There was always next season to look forward to, but for now there was wood to be chopped and carried up to the rooms, each of which had a stove. There were miles and miles of rusty pipes in the huge basement to be cleaned with steel brushes and then painted with red lead paint. By today's standards not very healthy jobs when considering that no one even thought of dust masks or safety glasses, or lead-free paint - but then the tooth paste you bought at the store came in lead tubes..
We were young, and we adapted. The good news was that we were being fed, and had occasional access to other goodies such as we could reach through the slats which separated the taboo part of the giant refrigerator from the one we did have access to, or that which we could reach in the bottom drawers of the bar by removing the upper drawers. I had a sweet tooth and used to go after the chocolate, and egg liqueurs. Always in moderation of course so that the loss would not be noticeable, or my breath would not be a giveaway.
Ernst and I shared a room, so we could answer the night bell. Ernst had a lovely girl friend named Anni, for whom I had a teen-age version of puppy love, and since they lacked opportunities to be together, and I just lived a few minutes away, I almost always went home at the end of the day leaving them the room. That way Ernst also got all the night calls and the tips that went with it. But he had to jump out of bed and run a couple of long halls to the front door, which of course had to be preceded by jumping into some clothes. He was welcome to that routine.
We had a fair bit of fun too. The subterranean parts of the hotel were enormous. Once down there we were reasonably safe from detection, and we would take there my beautifully tooled single shot 22 caliber target pistol with extra long barrel and hair trigger. We would stick a piece of wood into the pile of coals flush with the white wall, and lay a piece of coal on top. Voila, a bulls eye. Then one guy would hold the flashlight on the target while the other shot. Bad lighting and all, I shot very well. I can remember one time being laughed at because the target didn't budge after my shot. I walked up to it and the entire piece of coal had been driven into the plaster of the wall. Bull's eye for sure.
The hotel was converted into an army hospital during the war and the attic was full of leftover supplies which were not edible, but had other uses. By twisting a whole carton of bandages until they looked like strings, Anni converted them into something she could actually use to knit herself a sweater. A lot of work, but you could not just go and buy wool. There was no wool to be found in the stores. Or anything else for that matter.
Having done everything except the kind of work I had aimed for, it was a welcome change when I was entrusted with the wine bar for the New Year's Eve festivities, and then again for the Carnival season. What usually happens at occasions like these is that the whole town goes out, dances all night and drinks a lot of wine, because they get thirsty from dancing, and then the wine makes them even more thirsty. The hotel brought in some experienced waitresses for the occasion, and I had to keep them supplied with wine. There were only about two kinds of wine, both white, and I had my emporium set up in the corridor outside one of the big halls. It was cold out there, but I had dressed adequately, and applied myself. The waitresses were all old enough to be my mother but they knew their stuff. They carried big round trays of as many wine glasses as one sees guys carrying draft beer in one of the busy Canadian pubs. Except this was stem- ware! Never a drop was spilled, yet the people inside the hall were so thick it looked like an anthill. That is skill!
It did not take much imagination to figure out that with the volume of wine being doled out, I did not have to be obviously cheating and could finish up with plenty of wine for myself. My father that is. I was not that interested in alcohol in those days, but it was a matter of principle that I should wind up with some wine. The law requires in Austria all glasses to be marked where the liquid should finish up. The customers watch for this, and the waiters are the first to hear the complaints if someone should feel that he should have had a 16th of an inch more wine. So the waiters are also watching for this. Still, I was able to stay within about 1/32 of an inch within the mark, which kept everyone happy, and still finished up with about five liters of wine in the morning.
When I say morning, I mean about 7 a.m. The cleaners started to clean up the hall, and there were still some stragglers. There was a saying that the last ones had to be "swept" out. When not working, I had been among the last ones a number of times. And then, after a whole night of dancing, we still had to walk home. I had no trouble because I lived very close to the center of town where all the action was. But as things would go, sometimes I got sweet on a young lady, who then needed to be walked home. Some of them lived very far away - say 5 kilometers, and for this gallant young man it could mean the round trip of a 10 kilometer walk. Thinking back, I now realize that as a teenager I never seemed to be tired.
The exposure to the actual hotel work had a few interesting side-effects. I started to learn the trade without being aware that I was learning. Standing there all night in the cold corridor pouring wine, was an obviously super lesson. First I thought there was no teacher around, but then I realized that these seasoned waitresses were teaching me so subtly that I was not even aware. They worked hard for about 12 hours, but they never lost their composure, were all business all of the time, yet still managed to be polite to each other, and to me. Then in the morning I found out that it is the responsibility of the personnel that had served the wine to wash the glasses. I am talking about 300 stem ware wine glasses. I am also talking about big tubs of cold water out in the cold corridor. The waitresses and yours truly washed them, and dried them all. I was shown the proper way to hold the cloth: one corner in the left hand received the foot of the glass while the right hand stuffed some of the diagonally opposite corner of the towel into it. The glass got turned that way between two hands in a ratchet motion, and the glass was not once touched by the hand.
The "Herr Chef" came by a few times to check on the progress. Once as he came by I just had the misfortune to twist the stem off one of the wine glasses. He got rather ugly about it, and I was not in the mood to bite my tongue, so I just yelled right back at him that if he were to handle 300 glasses after having been standing all night in an ice-cold corridor, he would probably twist off a few glasses too. He never answered, just went on his way.
The other incident that came under the heading of "learning the trade" involved the "Frau Chefin", the owner herself. She seemed like a real lady, and was well enough liked, and definitely respected by the employees for her competence. It was after all her family who had owned the hotel for a long time, Herr Doppler being just a local boy who married money. After one of these dances, she asked me to go with her. She lead me to the men's wash rooms, and told me that there was usually some problem with the urinals after such a night, because people got sick into them, and they clogged up. She stopped in front of one that was clogged up all right and full to the very brim. These have to be put right, she told me. I had a whole bunch of conflicting thoughts racing through my mind. I was revolted by the sight, insulted by the insinuation that this was part of my job, and honestly stumped about how one would go about "putting this right". As if she could read my mind she calmly said, "here, I'll show you how" and with that she shifted her long silver cigarette holder into her other hand and thrust her bare arm into the overfilled urinal, and came up with a hand full of somebody's supper which is what had been plugging it. She never batted an eye, and after watching this lady perform the operation as if it was the most normal thing in the world, I would have been ashamed to be less than completely blasé about it myself. I saw a real leader in action that day.
In the hotel business, when it is closely linked with the tourist business as it was in Gmunden, there are the tourist seasons. They are just referred to as Saison and everybody knows what is meant. Gmunden only has a summer season, and Kitzbühel only a winter season. The staff arranges their employment one season in advance, so they will have a place to go to. It was exciting to speculate who the crew would be for the coming Saison. Not too far in advance, I was given some indications that I would be part of the crew. I was given some white serving jackets, and spent hours polishing the silver, and rearranging the tables in the various dining rooms.
The crew arrived one by one. The head waiter, a short black-haired handsome, muscular man in a tuxedo. The kitchen manager was an elderly woman with a derriere that stuck straight out back as if it had an invisible barstool standing under it (therefore the descriptive Austrian name Stockerlarsch). There was a very pleasant woman called Maria who was to wait at tables, and a recent graduate of a hotel-trade school named Ivan, who was tall, and seemed intelligent. And there was Felix, the junior member, would-be-apprentice, also known as Piccolo. The old hands showed me tricks for carrying things. Only two things mattered: don't ever spill anything, and when clearing the tables, carry as much as possible in one trip.
The dining room staff: Felix, Maria, Herr Ober, and Ivan.
1946 - Kurhotel - Piccolo Felix
Just visualize a 10-12 inch omelet folded in half and chuck full of little greasy cubes of Austrian ham. Got it visualized? Now visualize "transferring" that from the oval silver platter to the dinner plate - with one hand. You can't pick it up. It does not have enough body. You can't lift it in the middle because both ends will hang down and all the cubes of ham will fall out. I finally developed a method whereby I brought the silver platter close to the dinner plate, then grabbed one end of the omelet with the spoon and fork held in my right hand, and with a flourish slid the whole thing onto the plate. Voila ! Except that of all people, the chef's fiancee came in one day for a special treat from Mr. Schinkmann the chef, and ordered ham omelet. She wore her best Trachten suit for the occasion, and Felix dropped a greasy cube in her lap. There were no dry cleaning establishments in those days, and I don't know what she had to do to get the spot out, but I remember hearing about it from Schinkmann for the rest of the year.
We worked strange hours. We worked from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. but had 2-3 hours off in the afternoon. One such afternoon I felt rich enough to rent a sail boat and go out on the lake on my break. The scenario went something like this: I owned only one pair of well-worn shoes, only one pair of black pants, handed down from my father. So I took off my butterfly and my white jacket, and walked all the way to Altmünster, probably about 5 kilometers, to rent a boat. Then I sailed to Gmunden. In the bay of the Schloss Ort, the wind died down completely, and I figured I might as well catch a few winks. I laid down in the bottom of the boat with the main sheet wrapped around my wrist, so I would feel when the wind returned. When it did return, it was with a vengeance. I sat up quickly and realized that a storm was brewing, and that I had no time to head for shelter. I was only a marginally competent sailor in those days, but quickly realized that the wind had become so strong so fast, that I could not head up the boat any more.
I had seen this before. The boat runs before the wind for a while, and then the slightest change in direction will broach it unmercifully. I was a good swimmer, and not afraid of the water, but I did not look forward to the inevitable. So with one hand I fished around on the floor for my wallet which I always took out of my pocket when in a boat lest it would accidentally go overboard. I stuck it inside my shirt, so as not to loose it. All of a sudden the stern climbed out of the water and the whole boat just went headfirst over the starboard quarter. In the last instant I grabbed my shoes, and then started to worry about the boat, which was being driven by the wind onto a very rocky lee shore. I did not want to have a smashed boat on my hands for which I felt I would be financially responsible. So I did the one thing which violates one of the very first rules of survival: I swam away from the boat, in the middle of the storm, wearing long black pants, and holding my shoes in one hand. I wanted to get to shore before the boat did so I could alert the owner to the impending danger to it if it were washed up on the rocky shore.
Two of my friends, Peter Dörnhöfer and Walter Göttersdorfer had been out in a row boat, saw the storm coming and headed for shore. They had been watching me all through this episode, and were properly angry at me for leaving the boat. Peter still shook his head in a misgiving way 45 years later when we talked about old times. I did get to shore, and started running in my stocking feet back to Altmünster (5 kilometers, remember?). The fact that it was pouring rain did not bother me since I could not become any more wet. The guy who rented the boat to me did not seem too perturbed, but did take one of his flat bottomed motor boats, and went to retrieve his capsized property. There was no damage - to the boat that is. I had to go back into the dining room for another six hours with my wet pants. And wet shoes, and wet socks. It was an awful shift.
Looking back at it now, I am amazed that it had never occurred to me to pass on my problems. In the society we live in now, no one in his right mind would put in an hour, never mind a six hour shift wearing soaking wet shoes, socks, underwear and pants. He would go home to change if he had anything to change into, or would just go home and stay home. If that caused the owner of the hotel some difficulty, then that would be the owner's problem. I grew up differently. It was my problem, and it would not even occur to me to inconvenience someone else with it.
1948 Gmunden: Felix
with Peter Dörnhöfer
After the Kurhotel I went to work at the stationery store in the Kirchengasse. I forget whether it was Habacher or Schuster. Their staff consisted of the owner, a fellow who seems to have been a brother-in-law with an artificial leg, a guy and a girl who were both journeyman sales clerks. And then there was me. Most of my time was spent getting or taking stuff from or to the storage shed with a hand cart. It was not hard work, just silly. They had an off premises storage and when they ran out of some paper or boxes or something, I would take the cart and wander over to the storage and get some. I did learn a fair bit about the different kinds of paper, and a whole bunch of other useless trivia. Ernst Schiebl, with whom I had worked in the Kurhotel had also left, and was now working in the same building as I. He was the clay mixer for a small ceramic factory. His job was much harder than mine, because he had to lug the clay around in pails, and that is heavy work. He and Anni had been married in the meantime, and he wanted a better income than he got at the Kurhotel. I think we had both been used by the Dopplers.
About the only interesting episode I can re member from that period, is when one day some workmen started to work up on the roof. They had installed a rope and pulley to hoist bricks, mortar and such to the roof. The rope was as thick as my thumb and had at the bottom of it a circular iron platform and a vertical part of about 2 feet which was then attached to the rope. A worker would pile a few bricks on the platform, then start pulling down on the other rope, which gradually hoisted the bricks up, and up, and up.
I remember standing there one day studying this contraption. I was convinced that it should be possible to be both worker and brick at the same time, and pull myself up. But I wanted to think about it a bit more. Once I had it all sorted out in my head I stepped on the platform and began to haul down on the other rope. There had been a problem with my calculations. The brick did not have to do its own pulling, it sat nice and still, and the worker pulling on the rope was standing on solid ground. I got off the ground a few feet, then the platform swung out from under me and I fell down on the cement floor where I had started from. While falling I let go of the rope, and I had no sooner hit the concrete when the iron platform fell on top of me. I think that was the part they call "insult to injury". So I had a sore head and a sore back and returned to my work. The only silver lining was that no one had witnessed my asinine experiment.
I used to fall a lot in those days, and I am surprised that I am not crippled today. When I had a short reunion in November 1990 with my old friend Peter Dörnhöfer who had by then been living in Fresno, California for a good thirty years, he started telling stories about me falling. The two he remembered were the time when about three or four of us went for a walk and spotted in someone's garden a tree full of pears. We vaulted the fence and grabbed a few. As bad conscience will have it, we thought it quite possible that we were being chased when we heard a car a few minutes later. We were just passing behind the Pensionat (girls' high school) and it was already dark. When the sound of the car came near I wanted to disappear and leaped off the road into the bushes. When Peter heard the moaning, he came to investigate and found me about sixteen feet below street level in a space between the 16 foot stone wall and the back of the bicycle shed. I had first fallen on the edge of the roof that covered the bicycle shed, and from there continued falling to the ground. I had the wind knocked out of me twice on the way down. As usual, I picked myself up, and continued with the walk until I got home.
The other one he remembered was on the way home from the Strandbad (private beach). We had to pass an open-air boxing rink erected by the American occupation troops when they had their inter-regimental boxing championships. We climbed up, since neither of us had ever been inside a real professional boxing ring. It was about eight feet off the ground so that hundreds of GIs could all see no matter where they stood. Peter had climbed back down, but I was still up there doing some shadow boxing, and then pretending to be violently pursued by my opponent I ran backwards full tilt and threw myself into the ropes, thinking to bounce back as I seen them do it in real fights. I did not realize that between fights the ropes were slackened off to preserve them. The ropes opened like a window and I went sailing backward out into the field 8 feet below. I landed on the back of my neck and had some trouble getting my breathing going. Peter says he had to pump me to get me breathing. All I can remember is that he laid our wet swim trunks across my forehead because I complained of a head ache. However once more I picked myself up and walked the rest of the four kilometers to my home.
Shortly after the end of the war a chain-smoking lady by the name of Schödl opened a dancing school. She had an old gramophone and a few records, and she had two nieces who were part of the establishment and served as spare partners, and if required, tutors. This Schödl left her indelible mark on Gmunden's social life. Even 35 years later when I first visited my home town again, many of the people were still dancing à la Schödl and I got along just fine.
A boy needed a suit to go to dancing school, but I did not have one. What I did have was a complete American uniform which had belonged to a careless staff sergeant of the Rainbow division, who thought he could just leave his freshly cleaned wardrobe hanging in the jeep. After removing all the insignia and the buttons, we died the suit a dark brown and with new buttons sewn on, it fitted me well enough for the dancing school. It was really a horrible outfit, but most people were in the same boat, and the question was "do you have a jacket", rather than "what kind of jacket". Besides, there were the more serious problems of clutching girls, remembering steps, sweating profusely, and trying not to ruin any of the girls' shoes. We did not have any interest in being critical of what everybody was wearing. What came of the dancing lessons was a knowledge of a bunch of different rhythms, each of which had a different name. We also learned Figuren, which is the hardwood-floor counterpart of the figures in skating. We could do all kinds of things with a tango or a slow waltz, and of course the fox-trot. We were not at all smooth, and the school could not be faulted for it, because that takes more practice time than it could afford to offer. But we had learned all the different dances there were, recognized their beat, and could fall into a certain routine - as long as the partner had also gone through the same school.
Some of the more interesting impressions left with me from those days, which are in severe conflict with my latter day ideas, have to do with the state of my hormones at the ripe old age of 15 or 16. I considered the smell of a sweating girl sexy. And hairy legs were "racy". If this sounds very strange in today's context, it should be remembered that this was all before deodorants and dry cleaning were known to us, and at any rate, Austrian girls did not shave anywhere.
Felix at 17
There was a hotel in the Traungasse which catered to the American service men where "Béla" a Hungarian lawyer played saxophone and a friend of his the piano. Between the two of them, they put out music which is hard to match. These guys would arrive about six every day, and practice till eight, when the place opened officially. We were welcome to dance there during those two hours. I had the best music in town and the best dancing partner, and all for free.
About this time I ran into my childhood chum who had lived across the street, the one who had removed the wheels from the abandoned German army vehicle, and whose parents ran a shoe store. They were not my most favorite people, but as kids, we used to tolerate the parents of kids we spent time with. This boy, Hans Ratzenberger, showed many traits of a flea market tycoon even when he was only 12 years old. I remember when he taught me how to squeeze a bit of shoe paste out of a tube and then make it go back in. What I learned mostly from associating with this family was that storekeepers were a different breed of people, who managed to have enough to eat when other people did not, whose kids had the right size shoes, no matter how fast their feet grew, and other such enviable traits.
Mostly because she had rescued a Prussian from certain boredom, and had kept him as a pet, the Ratzenbergers parted company, and she with Jup and her two daughters and son Hans moved back to Bruck/Mur where her family had a couple of properties which she had inherited. The Prussian, whom I had only known as Jup (pronounced Youpp), was one of those low-key, quietly efficient types that I have disliked all my life. He never seemed to be saying anything, but he got Mrs. Ratzenberger, and the two properties. They left the house with the shoe store for Mr. Ratzenberger and moved on to bigger and better things in Bruck.
The day I ran into Hans he made me a pitch: Come with me to Bruck, and help me run the businesses there, and you can do your apprenticeship and become a Kaufmann. It was a good pitch for someone in my circumstances. I was looking for some direction to my life, yet there were very few opportunities because the economy was still in the postwar shock (of not having any merchandise to sell), and because there were literally millions of men returning from the war. It only took me minutes to decide that this was the best offer I have had in years. I agreed and went home to tell my father, who barely looked up from his game of solitaire as he nodded understanding and agreement.
My childhood friend turned out to be a superb businessman, and if I had been his father, I would have been very proud of him. But since I was only a friend, I was disgusted. What I found in Bruck were two very old, very solid three-story buildings with business establishments on the street level. The problem was that one of these two buildings had received a direct hit by a bomb. It was a pile of rubble. The other building housed the family and a general store with a strong leaning to shoes, dresses and groceries. The store was run by Mrs. Ratzenberger, her two daughters, and two apprentices, one a girl and one a boy my age. This was more staff than was needed, so it left us three "men" free to do what Hans had hired us for in the first place: to remove the rubble, one three ton truck load at a time, and without the benefit of a front-end loader! Anyone who has not seen an old European building turned to a pile of rubble probable cannot imagine the work that is involved. There is very little that can be shoveled because the structure was made essentially of big stones. Then there are all those marble stairs that used to go up three flights. To lift any one of those up onto the truck is a real challenge. I lost some fingernails solving one of those challenges.
We loaded the truck by hand as full as we dared without breaking the springs, then Hans drove us out to the dump where we unloaded the truck. It was not a dump truck, so unloading was almost as much work as loading it. Then Hans would drive us back, and we would start the next load. We did this for months. One day, probably yielding to my nagging, Hans allowed me to drive the truck back into town. I was in ecstasy. Never having had the opportunity to drive anything bigger than a motor cycle, I really felt important. In the middle of town I was required to make a 90 degree turn to the left. I was going a bit too fast, and there was a policeman standing there directing traffic. I cannot remember whether he had even signaled me to go ahead and make my turn, all I can remember is that when it came time to turn left, I turned the steering wheel for all I was worth. I must have been worth enough because the policeman jumped out of the way, and the truck made it around the corner, and we did get home to start work on the next load. I did not bug Hans any more to let me drive, nor did he offer.
One day I got sick. I still think it was something not quite fresh that we were fed, and I must have had a good case of indigestion. Someone was concerned enough to consult a doctor, who diagnosed typhoid. I was taken to the hospital and admitted to the quarantine wing where I shared a room with a young man who worked in the foundry at Kapfenberg. As it is proper for a foundry worker, he was a first class alcoholic. But at his age, which I guess at about 24, his organs were still working fine.
The idea of a quarantine is that the outside world is protected from people with communicable diseases. Ergo, no visitors, at least none that came into the room. But there was a five foot high picket fence about six feet from our window, and every day some member of his family would be at the fence and throw a full knapsack full of Schnapps bottles across the fence and the adjoining six feet. They never missed, nor did any of the cargo ever get damaged. My roommate was generous and we both had plenty to drink, and there were also nice chunks of smoked sausage in the knapsack. After three weeks of this the tests came back and I was found to have nothing wrong with me, while he was confirmed to actually have typhoid. I was released, and free to go home. I still do not understand how I could have lived, drank and eaten with that fellow without contracting his typhoid.
When I came out of the hospital, I had that this feeling that something should be done about my life. I made inquiries, and went to the authorities that administered the apprenticeship program. I laid it out for them, why I had come to Bruck, and what had happened since, and that I really did want to get on with it instead of being exploited as a cheap laborer who cleared rubble. They knew of a place where an apprentice was required. That is how I found myself on a train going out to a very small village with a big general store.
When I arrived at Roßmann's in Turnau, the widow who owned the place seemed to be impressed by the fact that I had spent five years in a Gymnasium (classical high school), and that my father had been a career officer. She hired me on the spot, and I went back to Bruck to tell Hans and his mother that I would be moving on because I had found a real place to apprentice in.
Felix as Don José
ready for the Carnival at Turnau c.1948
One of those trips turned out to be my first, and probably biggest drunk ever. It was really a simple matter of not having a glass. We had a third fellow with us, and the unavoidable task of getting rid of a .75 liter bottle of Slivovitz somewhere between the train and the school. We went a bit to the side, near the river, and marked two lines on the bottle, dividing the contents into 1/3, 1/3, 1/3, then passed the bottle to the first one. There was only one way to do it: each guy had to drink his one third in one gulp. That way there was no argument as to who may have gotten more or less. All I know is that the three of us were draped over a rail fence vomiting on each other's shoes. All afternoon. We never did go to school, but had enough instinct of self preservation to make our way to the train. To get from Bruck to Turnau you had to change trains at Kapfenberg. Somehow I managed that too. When you make the trip every week, people get to know your routine. When the train stopped in Turnau, people knew I should get off, and they made sure I got off. Then I had to walk two miles in the rain, and finally found myself banging on the big thick wooden doors of the Roßman building demanding entrance.
They had an old gal, Anna, who looked after everything in that giant household. She must have been close to sixty, if not over, weighed probably under 100 pounds and was the first one up every morning seeing to the chickens and the breakfast, etc. It was Anna who let me in. It was also Anna who the next morning, when I explained that I could not go to work because of a bad cold, came to my room with a big mug of hot tea, half of which was rum. I almost threw up all over the bed. I cannot be sure, but I still seem to remember a discreet half-grin on her wrinkled face. Even though she did not say a word I had the feeling that there was a message: You can be stupid, and then you can be sick, but don't try to fool me.
Writing of Anna brings back other memories. The boss' sister lived in the building also, and was by any standard, the most decrepit of the old women. She was also pretty chummy with old Anna, and she used to visit across the street at the post master's residence. With her many responsibilities, and early hours, Anna usually went to bed right after supper. The boss' sister came back one evening from the post master's, and had something to tell Anna, so she banged at her window, and yelled "Anna, are you asleep already?!", and she banged and she yelled "Anna, are you asleep already?!" until finally she had woken Anna, and Anna's window opened, whereupon the boss' sister unburdened herself of the earthshaking news that "..the postmaster's wife said that it was going to rain tomorrow". I never forgot the scene. I guess those were peaceful times - no war, no threat of war, no stock market crash, no plague or cholera, just the postmaster's wife predicting rain.
1951 Felix sailing O-Yolle
It was a rotten time for long-range planning. There was nothing to look forward to. I had journeyman's papers for working in any store, was a certified lathe operator, had learned enough at the Kurhotel to hold my own in the best of dining rooms but there was no future for me because we knew nothing of how the fabric of society hung together. My father could not even get himself informed about what to do about getting some money from the government either for being a cripple, or for having some sort of pension entitlement. My mother knew mostly women, and they always had their waistlines or new lovers to gossip about, so there was no information coming from that quarter either. I was not plugged into the local scheme of things either, but knew that most of the boys I grew up with had stayed in school longer than I had, that they had families who had connections at their own places of employment or knew someone who knew someone from their various associations, be it political, or naturalist, or trade, or union. We knew no one who could, or would help in any way. We did not even know what questions to ask. Everyone knew someone who could tell him what they had heard, where there was something coming up, who to ask, and what to say. Everyone except our non-family, which had failed not only at being a family but had also failed to integrate as citizens of a small town after living in it for twelve years. Most of this I understood at the gut level without ever making the effort to reason it all out. Interestingly, even amongst boys we never talked about the future, only about the here and now, and perhaps about the past. A couple of my friends had an idea about their future. Walter was learning to be a glazier and was stepping into the family business. Which he did for a while until a family feud caused him to branch out on his own. He had the name and the know-how, and he became a successful businessman, and also dabbled in politics.
Georg Hinterhöller (left) & Felix
on the Feuerkogl
Felix and Georg 1949
at Frauscher's boat works
I had heard about the possibility of emigrating to Canada and went to Salzburg to speak to the Canadian embassy. I was accepted immediately, and asked where in Canada I wanted to go. This was another one of those uninformed actions I am not at all proud of. Most people would probably have tried to find something to read about the country they were going to emigrate to, and would have had an idea where it was cold or where it was hot, and where there were farms and where there were factories. Felix? He didn't know what was important, so it never occurred to him to inform himself. He was simply focused on going somewhere. So when asked for a destination he looked at the map, saw the concentration of cities on the shore of Lake Ontario and jabbed his finger at Hamilton. "Ah, nice city Hamilton, I know it well", said the Canadian. In this way Hamilton became my official destination and personal obsession, as we shall see. After running around to get all the papers for the passport, packing a big sea chest, and saying good bye to my father and my girl Elsa who had been a good friend, I left Austria on September 22, 1951.
My Voyage to Canada
There were no big emotional scenes, although my father must have considered the possibility of never seeing me again. We just were not the men-hugging types. The train ride to Hannover was uneventful. There were others heading for the same point of embarkation, and somehow we recognized each other and became a group. Both the Austrian, and then the German customs officers frightened me a bit. The Austrian wanted to know what I was taking with me, and got very alert when I mentioned my coin collection. He relaxed when I explained that there was no precious metal involved, also asked if I had Dollars on me, to which I replied with a no. The Germans also asked about Dollars and got the same answer. These customs types had me brainwashed into believing that it might be illegal for emigrants to have Dollars, and that it was best to deny having any money at all.
We had to change trains in Hannover, and had some time to explore the town. On the street car we felt like foreigners, and could barely understand the conductor It was true what they had told us, they did speak with a "spitzen Stein" where the "S" is pronounced like in the English word spit, whereas in Austria the sound would be like the "sh" in shine. They probably had a worse time understanding the Austrians, some of whom could not, or did not want to even try to switch to high German although they would have been required to use it in school.
We checked into, what seemed to be barracks in Bremerhaven, but had the rest of the evening to ourselves, so a few of us decided to go and see a real harbor bar. We found one and it was interesting just to sit there and watch the sailors picking up the girls. Some of those sailors were big and quite mean-looking.
Somehow I found myself beside MS Nelly (MS=motor ship). With her 12,000 tons she was not very big compared to some of the ones tied up nearby. The others were all full of American servicemen on their way home. They were a noisy bunch. Once on board, there were a couple of hours to be killed before departure. While the ship was still tied up, some of the emigrants started to get sea sick. I was all macho bravado and sneered at such weakness. I was determined that I was not going to be sea sick. We left Bremerhaven on 22 September 1951.
Two days later we stopped at LeHavre and took on about 1500 additional emigrants of various nationalities. That was twice our number. Many of the new group were Hungarians who had lived in France, and there was a large contingent of Italians. Some of the young women among this group were multilingual and quickly offered their linguistic skills for making the continuous announcements over the public address system. It was really something to have one of them start of with "Attention, Attention," and make an announcement in English which nobody could understand, then repeat the same in French, then German, then Hungarian, then Italian. All of it by the same person.
The ship's management hired some of the passengers at a $1 per day to clean up the lavatories. The volunteers were given coveralls and brooms. The wash rooms were a disaster from LeHavre on. We found out that some cultures prefer to stand on the toilet seat rather than sit down. The extra height, and the constant motion of the ship caused many a bomb to miss its target. There were times when one could not find a dry spot on the floor large enough to put down a foot. Two days out of LeHavre the weather was still fine, and most of us were in great spirits. There was plenty of food, for those well enough to eat, and there were some surprises. We had never seen celery stalks. There were lots of them and a bunch of Austrian guys were making rather impolite remarks about a nice young French woman who was munching-crunching away at these stalks with obvious gusto. They commented in the Austrian dialect "look at that girl there eating that green stuff like a cow" to which she replied with a big smile and in flawless German "aber es schmeckt so gut" (but it tastes so good). It was a good idea to be careful about what one said in any language.
One day I was sitting in the lee on a bench reading a German magazine and a bunch of Hungarians settled down beside me to poker away their remaining French Francs. Seeing my German magazine, they pegged me to be German. They had a couple of chairs and a blanket over their knees for a table. Soon others joined and they wanted my seat. Since they did not bother to ask me, I pretended to be unaware of their desires. Then they started to hatch some strategies in Hungarian. "Start scratching so he'll think you have lice", "move in real close, sit in his lap", etc. Although my space got smaller and smaller, I did not budge until I was ready. Then I stood up and told them in fluent Hungarian that I would have given up my seat long ago if they would have displayed good enough manners to ask me. They were embarrassed, and apologized.
The ship did move a lot. Those waves were big! Each one was like a small mountain. The ship would climb up one side and slide down the other. Or so it looked. Shaving got to be difficult, and I always had to hold onto something with one hand. There was a dance every night, complete with a live band. There was rope strung around the dance floor making it look like boxing rink. I soon found out why. While dancing, the ship tilted, and all the couples found themselves pressed into the same corner of the floor. I did not like it very much, and spent a lot of time on deck. I kept losing my appetite. One could get oranges in the canteen. That is where I met Helmuth Pacchiaffo from Graz who later changed his name to Frank Packard, and in 1954 became my Best Man. He got himself a job in the canteen, and I usually got extra oranges from him.
Then I became nauseated. I started to get sick, and I took to my bunk, which was in the bow compartment, and therefore had more up and down motion then other parts of the ship. I was very sick for a whole day and required all of the next day to recover. Then it was over, but I still did not feel like eating much else beside oranges, and I preferred to stay on deck where I could see the horizon, and feel the wind in my face. So much then for my macho resolve not become sea sick.
Immigrant's Life in Canada
As the M.S.Nelly approached the Canadian mainland, we were boarded by a team of Canadian immigration officers. They wore dark blue uniforms, and kept out of sight until we were all told to go to the big hall and line up at tables very much like one sees today at any airport which is an entry point to a foreign country.
When my turn came to be asked, what seemed to be the standard questions "Where are you going, do you have any money, do you have a job, do you have any friends?", I had a feeling that they wanted specific answers, but did not know what they were looking for. The customs officers in Austria and Germany wanted to make sure no valuable foreign currency left the country, so we had to pretend we did not have any money. So when asked if I had any money I said no. I said I was going to Hamilton, that I did not have any friends, and that I did not have any work (naively hoping that they would provide me with employment right there and then). In reply the officer chanted "no friends, no money; go to Ajax", and handed me what I took to be a train ticket for Ajax.
Ajax had the sound of a camp, which is exactly what it was, as I later found out. The Canadians were wise and humanitarian to want to keep these have-not immigrants off the cold streets. But to my postwar European mind the very idea of being sent to a camp had a very bad connotation. I figured out that these people wanted us to have money, and jobs and friends, so we would not be a burden. At any rate, my destination was Hamilton, which had become a very ingrained concept by this time, and I was not going to be detoured so easily.
I lined up at another table, and when the questions came, I put on my most positive face and said I had $40 (thinking it to be an outrageously large amount), and that, yes, I did have friends in a place called Simcoe (Max Pany had mentioned the place to me and it stuck in my mind). The officer gave me a ticket to Hamilton and I surreptitiously tore up and threw away the train ticket to Ajax. Some time during this interaction with the Immigration officers, I was handed the all-important "Landing Card". I was now officially a "landed immigrant".
We landed in Quebec City on 3 October 1951, and found ourselves hanging around, for what seemed like hours, in a large hall, waiting for the stevedores to carry all our luggage from the ship's innards. I finally did find my sea chest, and stood beside it waiting for the customs inspector. When he did come, it was an anticlimax. We had no language in common, and at any rate he had a whole boat load of immigrants, all bringing their personal belongings, so he just wrote OK with chalk on my luggage, and I was ready to climb into one of the waiting trains.
By European standards these trains were luxurious. Leather upholstery, and enough seats for all. We later found out that the top of the compartments dropped down, providing berths. I don't remember much of the trip, except that it was long, and that during the few daylight hours when I could see out the window, I saw very few signs of human habitation. This seemed to be an incredibly large, and sparsely populated country!
The train stopped somewhere east of Toronto, and all the people holding tickets to Ajax were ushered out. The train was now half empty. The next stop was Toronto, and no one asked where you were going, they just went along the train yelling "everybody gets off here". Those that wanted to keep on, were simply told there were no jobs beyond this point. Everybody off. This was a real challenge. I had come this far, and I was determined to go to Hamilton, my chosen destination. I approached one of the officers and tried to communicate to him that I had money and friends in Simcoe. He took my passport and scribbled something into it, then waved me back into the train. It finally moved out of Toronto, and the next stop was Hamilton. There were about a dozen of us left - out of 1500 or so. The rest were either in a camp in Ajax, or were being processed by the Toronto immigration authorities.
When the train stopped in Hamilton, there was one lonely immigration officer there, and even he did not seem to be expecting anyone to get off the train. When a few of us did, and immediately spotted him, and crowded around him, he just looked at our papers, and smiled and nodded. He looked at the note in my passport, and said "you have friends in Simcoe, OK." He gave me back my passport and was no longer interested in me. I had arrived in Canada, and was on my own. I had $8 (eight) in my pocket, bought on the black market in Gmunden.
Thne first thing I had to do was take possession of my luggage, and then find a place to store it. Once I had given it to the check room, I left the railway station and started to walk toward the center of town. Slowly. Looking at every window on the way. It is a long walk, but I was used to walking. Two or three of us stayed together for mutual support, and as we walked, we discussed our situation, and realized that we had better find some agency or official who would find us jobs.
None of us had more than a few dollars, no idea how to go about finding a job or even a place to sleep. Then we spotted a group of guys off the same boat coming the other way. They had been walking faster, and had already scouted out the scene down town. They told us where the immigration offices were, so we headed there. The situation was just like a union hall in a movie. Wall to wall bodies all waiting, and periodically an officer would come out and call out some jobs. Some arms would go up, and a couple of guys would get directions to the prospective employer.
I had this useless trade of being a journeyman vendor, which here was not even considered a trade, but I also had restaurant experience. Apart from that I was willing to do almost anything. I found, and went to the Employment Office where I was interviewed and classified a waiter, and sent to a spaghetti place in the harbor area. A couple of my buddies came along out of curiosity when I went to look it over. It may have been a busy place around supper time, but at 3 in the afternoon, it was empty, and a guy was going around spraying the place with something that smelled like a mixture of disinfectant and insect repellent. We had a Coke, and then I signaled to get out. I did not want to work in a place that smelled like that.
The next job opportunity was for a bricklayer helper. That job has about the worst reputation in Austria. According to Austrian folklore brick layers are the laziest people, and there are plenty of bricklayer jokes around like the one about the bricklayer who fell down the chimney of a butcher shop. There were all sorts of nice smelling sausages and hams hanging in the chimney, but when the brick layer was finally found after a three day week-end, he was near death from starvation. When asked how come he was near starvation with all that food hanging above him, he made big surprised eyes and asked how anyone imagined the food could have gotten to him when he did not have his helper with him. No, I did not want to be a bricklayer's helper and carry bricks, mortar, tools, and anything else his majesty the bricklayer wanted. So I did not even raise my hand to signal interest.
Then it was time to worry about a place to sleep. Some people suggested the YMCA. They were full, but recognizing the problem, suggested the Salvation Army. I went there, and was looked over, and turned down. I tried to explain that I had just come off the boat, had no job, and only about $6 left. No dice. The guy actually looked hostile. I have had a bad feeling against the Salvation Army ever since, and to this day I continue to send their canvassers away empty-handed.
I had teamed up with a fellow by the name of Karl, who had followed some technical course which also qualified him a bricklayer, and we finally found a cheap room in the St. George Hotel. I think it was $3.00 for the room, and we split it, and shared the bed. Food was not yet a problem because we still had some in our luggage, and also because we could get hot dogs and such for pennies.
This went on for a couple more days. Once, about five of us made our way to the home of a contractor who was looking for laborers. This was the first time I saw a television, and I was not the least impressed with the little round screen, and so much snow, and lines, that one could hardly make out the picture.
Then one morning I realized that I had only $1.50 left to my name. I was ready to accept any job that day. Karl was still tagging around with me, and we met a group of three who were in good spirits. During those few days in Hamilton, we had changed our customary greeting. Instead of "Hi, how are you", we now said "You got a job?". These three said they did. Well, tell us all about it! Where? With whom? How did you get it? They had been sent to the offices of ROLMAC Construction Company at 7 Hughson Street, and had been hired, and given train tickets to go to Sudbury, where the company was building houses for employees of INCO. How were they able to talk to these people? Well there was this Jew who spoke enough German. They gave me his name, and Karl and I went to see ROLMAC.
We found the guy, and told him that we had been sent over from the Immigration ration office for him to give us jobs. He had a real outburst at that, something to the effect that he had told those idiots that he had no more jobs and not to send any more people. I looked rather depressed, and explained to him that it was not our fault, but that we really needed a job badly. He finally told his secretary to take us on, but his first assignment to us was to have us go back, and tell the immigration people not to send any more. Just before he got away from us, I indicated that we had no money for train fare. So he barked once more at his secretary and she gave us train tickets for an overnight train to Sudbury. We were elated by this good luck, and went to retrieve our luggage and got ready for a train ride. This time there were five of us. Karl, and Paki, and Rudy Schneider and I, and another guy, who was a rotten apple, and whose name I don't remember .
We rode the train all night and arrived in Sudbury the next morning. Used to being transported in trucks, we kept looking for a truck with ROLMAC painted on it, but there was no truck. So here we sat with our luggage and sea chests and waited, although not sure for what. All this time there is only one other person in the waiting room. After about half an hour of this, that one person came over and asked "You boys for ROLMAC?" he got a chorus of enthusiastic yesses.
He was the project manager come to pick us up in his huge Hudson sedan which, in all fairness, did have neat little 1 inch gold letters on its door proclaiming ROLMAC, but of course we had been looking for a truck and never noticed. The Hudson was a big car but not big enough for the trunks, so they went into storage again, and all of us piled into the car. This fellow obviously had a head on his shoulders and a heart in the right place. He started off by asking if we had breakfast. No, we had not. He took us to a restaurant and bought us all ham and eggs and toast. Even after all these years I keep hoping that he had an expense account. He quickly recognized that we had no idea what we were getting into, and that we fully expected him to look after all our needs. Let's face it, we did.
1951 Waters Township - from left: Frank, Felix, Rudi, Karl
On the way to the site, about ten miles west of Sudbury stood a small but quite new hotel which was called Waters Hotel because it was sitting in Waters Township. It had been built in what appeared to be the most illogical place, and some ways off the highway. We later learned that the principals had reliable information about where the Trans Canada Highway would eventually be built, and they built the hotel so that it would be right at its edge.
1951 Thanksgiving weekend - Felix with a 22 cal rifle loaned by Charlie Jacobson for entertainment.
Charlie Jacobson, another partner in the hotel, had a country general store a few hundred feet from the hotel, so we wandered in and looked it over. Charlie could see these young men from Austria knowing no one, and having nothing to do, so he handed us a 22 caliber rifle and a box of shells to play around with on the weekend (we had arrived just before Thanksgiving weekend, and did not have to report for work for two more days). It was a nice gesture from Charlie.
1952 - Waters Township - Felix (left), Paki, and a local boy who used to hang around there
We had been very fortunate to land in a place where most people were second or third generation Canadians, and where the plight of immigrants just off the boat was well understood. It was also fortunate that it was the project engineer who took it upon himself to arrange all this for us, for he not only knew the customs and the language, and had a good feel for what was a reasonable expectation, he was also about the only one who could at that moment verify our employment and earning potential. I do not know what we would have done otherwise since between the five of us we had probably no more than $20, and we would not be paid for about two weeks.
As it became quickly evident, most of Waters Township was full of Finns. The hotel was owned by three Finns, Esko Rauhala, Charlie Jacobson, and Olavi Laine (known as Oliver in English). The beer parlor was full every day with Finns, and one could hear more Finnish spoken than English. Those that we got to know were without exception nice people who I remember fondly.
1952 - Waters Township - Clara Mikkelsen
Next door to Mick lived another single parent with her two daughters. The Ericsons were Finnish, and their little house seemed to be about half the size of the Mikkelsen place, but it accommodated the mother, her two daughters and one other girl who lived with them. The two Ericson girls were poised and pleasant, and their personalities not the least bit affected by their humble living conditions. The older girl, Esme, was a quiet beauty, while her younger sister Evelyn was more effervescent, pretty and personable. Years later I had the privilege of attending Esme's wedding in Lockerby to a prominent young Sudbury Finn.
Needless to say I picked up a few of Finnish expressions in those days. Interestingly, although all the linguists maintain that Finnish and Hungarian are related (from a Finno-Ugrian ancestry) I was unable to detect any similarities with Hungarian which I spoke fluently. There are similarities of sound in that both languages have a soft sound with broad vowels that are often doubled in the Finnish spelling. I found the sound of Finnish pleasant to the ear, and liked to listen to people speak English with their slight Finnish accents. And there were plenty of those around, as well as older Finns who had never learned to speak English. This may not have been the recommended way to assimilate into Canadian society, but had the positive consequence that many of the younger people were quite comfortable speaking the language of their parents. Most of the Finns were blonde and a nice looking people. Oliver later explained to me that these were not "real Finns" but had a lot of Swedish blood in them from many generations of intermarrying. He said the original Finns are short and dark-haired with features that hint at Eskimo-like ancestry. I can only remember one in our neighborhood who would have come close to this description, a school mate of Clara Mikkelsen, who visited her quite often.
The work we did for ROLMAC was not exciting nor hard. The company town of Lively was being expanded, and about 300 houses had to be built. It was our job to deliver precut lumber to the individual lots where cement foundations had already been poured, and where carpenter crews would then erect the framing we delivered. Just about all the lumber was precut single handedly by one ancient Finnlander, who must have had all the measurements in his head and never made a mistake. All the rafters had their angles cut perfectly. This is even more remarkable when considering that neither the old Finn nor his young helpers spoke much English. Half the time I wondered how we managed to deliver the right thing to the right place when we didn't even know the difference between studs and rafters. But somehow we managed.
A few weeks after our arrival a white landscape greeted us in the morning. It had snowed about two inches during the night. To my amazement, the foreman told us to go back home, that there would be no work today. All my instincts of self-preservation woke up with a start. It was evident that this was only the beginning, and that soon, when winter really settled in, there would be no more work - period. Construction was a seasonal industry. Once again I knew nothing about what people did who made their living through, with, around or in spite of the vagaries of seasonal employment. All I knew was that I had only been here a few weeks, and did not have any savings to fall back on. I was living from payday to payday, and did not even have enough to buy winter clothes for outdoor work.
I had been to Sudbury a few times and had seen long lineups of men at the offices of INCO where the International Nickel Company hired the men they needed in their various plants and mines. After being sent home, I told my friends to tell the foreman the next day that I was sick. I told them I was going to Sudbury to stand in line for a job. I did just that, and eventually my turn came to step on the scale, and since I weighed almost ten pounds more than the required minimum of 145 Lbs, I was allowed to go on to the next stage, which involved a basic physical examination by a short Swiss doctor. He finished up by handing me a pink card with only one word on it: "tonsils". I could tell that he spoke German, so I asked him what tonsils meant and he told me. It all made sense then; I had large tonsils, and anyone in the past who ever looked down my throat had been astonished and usually made weird clucking sounds. I asked just exactly what his pink card meant in terms of my attempt to get hired. He said the tonsils would have to come out or I would not be hired. He was not impressed with the fact that I had gotten along with my tonsils for 21 years, and that they were healthy, nor with the fact that I was about to become unemployed at the start of the winter and needed to secure work to survive. When I had shot all my bullets at the doctor but had gotten no where, I buttonholed one of the personnel types and tried to communicate the question to him whether I would be guaranteed a job if I took out my tonsils. He said "sure, take them out and you get a job". For lack of an alternative I took him at his word.
When I got back to the hotel I went to see Mick, and explained to her the situation, and asked how I would go about having my tonsils removed when I did not know a doctor, and when I had no money for the operation. She was impressed that I was actually willing to have my tonsils removed just to get a job, but once it sunk in, she simply called her family doctor, told him what I needed and got a commitment on the spot along with instructions for me to check in at the St. Joseph's hospital where he would leave word what to do with me. It was that simple. I admitted myself to the hospital, and the next morning had my tonsils removed, and went home again.
A few days later I went back to INCO and was hired on as a surface worker at Number Six Shaft in Creighton Mine where I unloaded boxcars of British Columbia Fir which was needed underground for support timbers. It was healthy, invigorating work if one did not freeze to death. I remember one morning it was minus 47 degrees on the Fahrenheit scale!
About three weeks later all four of my buddies were laid off permanently, and by that time it was virtually impossible to find work of any kind. INCO had finished hiring weeks before, and the only place left where one could find work was in the bush, which meant in the lumber camps in some far northern Ontario places like Devon, and Chapleau. I don't know how the others fared, but I know that my friend Paki was in such a lumber camp cutting firewood all winter, and was probably the only person who ever finished the season having earned less than his room and board had cost with the catering firm of Crawley McCracken. It is not surprising because lumbering is a trade that one sort of grows into. You have to know what you are doing, have to have good equipment of your own, and preferably work in teams. Guys like Paki who had no experience, nor even decent clothing, and walked into the camp with oxfords, didn't stand a chance of making money, but at least they had food and a place to get out of the cold.
Judging by a letter I wrote to my father on 26 December 1951 my first Christmas in Canada was not a merry, fulfilling event. As I told it then, it was not the absence of necessities, but rather the fact that stuck out there, ten miles from the city of Sudbury, I found little to do, and lacked meaningful human contact. I had worked all day on December 24th , and then went over to Mick's where a bit of a celebration was on the way. It consisted mostly of a serious effort by those already present to drink two cases (48 bottles) of beer. Since I was not a beer drinker, I drank only four bottles, more or less just to be polite.
At half past seven the next morning there was a knock on my door, and one of the young fellows who often hung out at Mick's stood there looking for a place in which to hide out for the rest of the day. He did this periodically when he did not want to go to work but could not stay home, and all who knew him knew about his habit. He had tried Mick's but they were not up yet after the previous night's partying. When it became obvious that this fellow was here to stay, I got up, showered, got dressed and left. By this time he had laid down in my bed and went to sleep.
I ran into the neighborhood storekeeper who invited me for a glass of wine, and I stayed and chatted away the entire morning. After that I went around visiting. First, I went to the Ericsons where they must have just gotten up because the two girls quickly disappeared to get dressed when I appeared. I chatted there, too, for a while then went next door to Mick's and was just in time for a turkey and risotto dinner. I found it too boring to just sit around and finally went home to bed by eight o'clock.
I had not bought myself anything, and had, in fact, not spent any money at all because I was saving for New Years when my friend Helmuth Hollnsteiner would come to visit from Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. I was really looking forward to that. Reading my own letter 45 years later, it is obvious that I had felt lonely. I had no family, no close friends, and not even a girl of my own.
Helmuth did arrive and brought with him the memories of home, and for a few days I had the company of someone who had been part of my earlier life. The Ericson girls provided two blind dates for the New Year's Eve dance at the Sampo Hall, and that evening I learned to dance the Schottische, a polka-like dance that is played without a pause over and over again until one is totally sweat- drenched. At 21 years old I did not easily run out of breath, but I think I was puffing pretty hard that time. My date was a pleasant, attractive, Finnish girl whose name I forget. Helmuth was matched with a nice girl who seems to have been part of the Ericson household but not of their family. She was, unfortunately, not very attractive, and Helmuth declined to even get out of the car at the dance hall. He just sat in the car and drank a whole bottle of something. I was quite embarrassed by his totally callous and ignorant behavior and really felt sorry for the girl. Although I had known Helmuth for years, it was always in the context of of a group of guys. I had no idea he could be such an unpleasant individual and after all these years I have not forgiven him for this arrogant display of callous selfishness. He was very intelligent, but being very short he probably had an oversized inferiority complex which then in turn made him overreact.
1952 - Waters Township
Hemuth Hollnsteiner (left) and Felix
1952 - Waters Township
Clara Mikkelsen with visiting Helmut Hollnsteiner
Helmuth came once more during the summer, and Clara showed us a swimming hole near the Waters Hotel.
1952 - Waters Township
Felix posing with someone's Chev.
While the pay at INCO was above average, I must have thought that it cost too much to stay at the hotel. I cannot remember what exactly made me decide, but I moved to Sudbury into one of the rooming houses on Drinkwater Street, a half block from a boarding house where I went for meals. It may have been that I missed the options one had in town. There was not much, but there was a little something to do. The price one had to pay was arranging a ride to and from work. That was not a big problem because there were a number of men who had rigged panel trucks with seats inside for up to 8 passengers. I really got to know what was on the hit parade because I had to listen to it twice a day.
In the spring, after all that terrible cold was over, I was offered a chance to go underground. I took it, and wound up working about a mile and a half under the surface of our mother Earth at number three shaft in Creighton Mine pushing ore cars. Again, it was not hard, backbreaking work, just a bit demoralizing. The connection between the mind and the rest of the World was a little lamp attached to the hard hat; it, in turn, was kept alive by a battery attached to your belt. One or the other could malfunction on occasion, and that was the end of the mind-to- world connection. The part that was the most depressing was climbing into dirty work clothes at the beginning of the shift. Mines are not known for being dry places. One becomes quite wet and muddy during an eight hour shift. That wet, filthy clothing is hung up to dry in a place aptly called "the Dry". The body goes and has a communal shower, than puts on street clothes to go home in, but the next day, the filthy, although dry work clothes have to be put on again.
Soon I had been in Canada for about a year, and had found out much about how things worked here, had sniffed at the social life, and had done a fairly good job of integrating. About this time I remembered a promise I had made to Professor Erich Zdenek, a teacher I had liked back in Gmunden. I had told him that I would write and tell him what it was like in Canada.
Below the text of this German letter transcribed from a shorthand copy in two different sessions - the first in 1970, and the second in Oct 1990 - then translated by the author).
You have probably written me off in the meantime as one of those who make promises easily without the slightest intention of ever keeping one of them. In fact, however, I have been systematically gathering material in order to provide you with a reasonably accurate overview of my impressions. As I have learned from friends, one can now read a fair bit in Austrian newspapers about Canada. It is possible therefore that some things I say will be in conflict with your newspaper articles, and I want to assure right now that everything I write reflects what I have personally seen and experienced.
I consider my arrival on Canadian soil to be a logical beginning for my story. I arrived in Québec City on 2 October (1951). Even before I was able to see land, the immigration commission came on board to get the formalities under way. Distinctly different from Austrian officials, these men were very friendly, and made me think that they might actually consider their role to be one of helping people. This thought was later confirmed to be true in my dealings with Canadian officials who did not think the public existed for their pleasure, but to be served.
When I was finally allowed on shore, I fell into the hands of some ladies from the Catholic Women's League who made a heroic effort to save souls. They also were very friendly and tried in a touching way to do something for my spiritual welfare. As I had it later explained to me, Québec is a French Province and strictly Catholic.
Seeing the many immigrants, I was worried about the train trip, but I was made to realize once again that I was no longer in Austria when I spotted three, seemingly endless special trains in the station. While each window is surrounded by a compartment designed for four people, only two people were assigned to each so that they could convert their seats to berths and lie down comfortably. This train was by Austrian standards a deluxe model. Apart from the leather upholstery (there are no trains with wooden bench seats in Canada), there were separate toilets for men and women. These were equipped with hot and cold water, soap and towels. Each car also had a fountain dispensing ice-cold drinking water.
We traveled all night so that I did not see much of the Province of Québec. After a 14 hour train ride we arrived in Toronto and I had a new opportunity to be astounded. The rail way station is a beautiful building of marble. But even more astounding was the discipline of the travelers. Along the main hall are the gates to the various platforms. These are only opened when the train is ready to take on passengers. This means that when a train arrives, the passengers can debark and leave the platform in peace, and only after that are the embarking passengers allowed onto the platform. At the gate one hands over half of the ticket, and then proceeds past a few railway employees who distribute the passengers so cleverly that you arrive practically all alone at your car.
The next stop, and my actual destination, was Hamilton. Again a wonderful station, except this one was strictly for the use of the CNR (Canadian National Railways), while the station in Toronto was intended for both the CNR and the CPR (P=Pacific). I checked my luggage and stepped out into the street. Now, for the first time, I had the feeling of having arrived in Canada. I walked through the streets and gawked, and gawked. Not that it was all that different from Austria. But somehow one felt the difference. The columns of automobiles, the store windows, where really nothing was missing, the neon signs, and the entire street scene were all different. Then I started to take a closer look at things. I observed that people were on the average better dressed than at home. The men, for example, wear long- sleeved shirts and a tie, even when they walk around without a jacket. The women, regardless of age, wear makeup. School girls of 12 are just as made up as the 60-year-olds. There is no discernible difference in the way different age groups dress. Older women wear bright dresses, and older men can be seen wearing extremely colorful neckties and socks. But all are immaculately shaved, and wear spotless shirts. You can see men in working clothes also, but they move about every bit as self- confident, and no one thinks of looking at them sideways.
As a humble Austrian pedestrian I stood patiently at intersections allowing the vehicles their right of way until I noticed that cars always waited till the pedestrians had crossed. Regardless of who had the right of way. The main reason for this lies in the stiff penalties for drivers who run down pedestrians. But there is an other aspect involved here: because automobiles are so common, drivers are not looked upon as the masters of the road. What really perplexed me was that in spite of the heavy traffic you do not hear a horn all day. I have to say that traffic is conducted all together in a very disciplined manner.It was quite a surprise to see a freight train cross the main street in the middle of town. This may be a result of the rapid expansion of cities. It is not unusual to see crooked, wooden utility poles in the middle of a modern city. Trains clang their bells incessantly when in a populated area, whereas out in the country they only blow their whistle when nearing a level crossing. There are no gates at rail crossings, instead there is a combination of flashing, and swinging red lights and bells that clang when ever a train approaches the intersection. To make sure that drivers also do their part of watching out for trains, there are signs affixed to these contraptions ordering them to "Look and Listen". Despite all this we read frequently about level crossing accidents.
After a few days in Hamilton I went a good 300 miles north to the Nickel City of Sudbury. Because I worked several weeks for a construction company there, I had an opportunity to get to know the Canadian way of building. I have to say that these one-family homes are pretty miserable affairs. The only part which is really solid is the foundation (if there is one). Everything above that is imitation. Every 40cm they place a soft- wood piece of 5x10 cm thickness, and then nail to it inside and out sheets of Gyproc. These sheets are about 2cm thick and consist of two layers of cardboard with a mixture of sawdust and cement sandwiched between them. The space between the inner and the outer sheets accommodates glass-wool for insulation. The outside then receives two layers of tar paper, the outer of which is made to look like brick or shingles - if you are far enough away. The entire house is made of soft wood and Gyproc. Only the chimney is masonry. On the other hand each house has its own central heating system, and all the plumbing is made of pure copper pipe. Wardrobes, cupboards, sink and bath rooms are built in. Even the polishing of hardwood floors falls to the building contractor. When the house is finished it looks very nice, and probably does justice to the requirements of this country. But I will no longer be surprised when I next see in the newsreel that an entire town was flattened by a tornado.
Once I had found employment and came in contact with people, I could study their ways. And here I found some of the weak spots of Canada. As a married man you are just as badly off here as anywhere else in the World, because the name of the game is to earn money, lots of money to maintain a family. As to the unmarried men, a frighteningly high percentage among them are drunkards. There exist here, however, some rather strict laws relative to alcoholic beverages. You cannot get beer or wine with your meal in just any restaurant because the sale of alcoholic beverages is limited to certain establishments. Here, there are only beer parlors, the larger cities probably have bars also. The beer parlors are always full. But since minors under the age of 21 are not allowed in these places, and because all establishments are closed on Sundays, an opportunity for good, although illegal, earnings exists for those willing to take some risks. And there are a lot of those risk takers; they are called bootleggers. In German we would call them alcohol black-marketers. They sell beer, liquor and wine without a license. This kind of business is rather popular and one often hears how some prominent businessman got his initial capital through bootlegging. What is odd about these beer parlors, is that men and women have to sit in separate rooms. This permits the women to go out alone, and they do take advantage of this opportunity. The habits of men and women are not all that different here since most women smoke, and many also drink.The more decent variety of men spend their leisure time in pool halls or bowling alleys, which here are beautifully modern halls. Apart from this leisure time activity there are the movies, dancing and sports. Movies run nonstop from one in the after noon till midnight. There are always two feature films, a newsreel and cartoons. You sit in there for about three hours. You can pick out your own seat, and are allowed to smoke in the back rows.
At dances there is always a shortage of women, which is the reason why they are admitted free until 9 p.m. The dancing is pretty much the same as in Austria, except that here they also have the square dance, (a sort of quadrille) which always involves four couples forming a group, and one member of the band calling the figures. This dance is quite popular but it is danced so wildly that I always find a sheltered corner from which to listen to the occasional scream of pain. An attempt is made here to protect the property-rights of young married men, and those that are headed that way, by only allowing patrons to attend as couples on Saturdays. Besides, one has to be come a member to gain entry into most of the establishments. If one seeks to be admitted as a nonmember, one has to pay more. I have already made a humble attempt, and have taken out membership in four different clubs.
Sports are very popular here. Every time something is scheduled to happen at the Arena, there are long lineups for tickets. Now, in the winter, it is hockey, wrestling or boxing. In the summer there will be baseball, and football (similar to rugby).
Bingo is also played frequently. Those that are a little better off also have parties in their homes and enjoy themselves in a circle of friends. This is the type of entertainment I personally prefer, it is however difficult to be admitted to the right kind of circle. It took me a long time to meet a young lady. Once you have that behind you, the rest takes care of itself.
I almost forgot a very important aspect of leisure time activity, which is hunting and fishing. A real Canadian is also an ardent hunter. But that is quite different here from Europe. Anyone can purchase a rifle. Anyone can also purchase a license. When the hunting season starts, people drive singly, or in groups into the woods and sit down somewhere while fellow hunters walk through the bush to move out the deer. Not surprisingly, you can then read in the Monday papers the names of hunters that had been shot. First of all these hunters protect themselves against the cold with whisky, and then - lets face it - they paid $5 for the license, and are bound and determined to get to fire their rifles, and then last but not least, they are excited. So, if something moves in the woods, then they must grasp the opportunity and fire off a shot. It is because of the many accidents that regulations require hunters to wear red caps and jackets. I have read in the newspaper that a fellow got off, after shooting another to death, because his lawyer could prove that the victim had been wearing a green and white - that is to say, a hard-to-see jacket.
That is all I can say about the living habits of Canadians. I do not consider these to be very good ways to make one's life pleasant. People seem insensitive to outside influences. Thus I found Christmas to be difficult to notice although people are quite religious. I had to think back to Austria, the tense anticipation in the air, the way you could actually smell Christmas, and compare it to here where it passed for a normal Sunday. They made much more noise about New Year's Eve because then you could drink and dance. Lucky for me my friend Hollnsteiner came for New Year's Eve. Had I been alone, I would have been as morose as I was at Christmas.My efforts to meet a nice young lady have paid off, and now I can go around with her visiting people on my days off, and I can chat with Canadians. That is important because it is during these visits that one can really learn English. One also meets new people, which is a main factor in wanting to feel at home. These close acquaintances are also the only people who not only converse with me but actually take the trouble to correct errors of language. With all the others it would be easy to think that one is already speaking a flawless English because it does not occur to them to point out errors. To their shame I must say that many of these people speak a very poor quality of English. I do not believe that one can find any where else such linguistic aberrations. There are in fact some native-born Canadians who speak broken English. That is the result of settlements where ethnic groups live together and speak only their own language. The children do learn English in school, but at home they do not use it, which leaves them with a limited vocabulary. I lived for a while in a Finnish settlement but moved out quickly when I realized that I was learning more Finnish words than English ones.
The French are another story. They are actually French-Canadians, but are generally referred to as "the French". Québec is a purely French province, and as I have been told, English is the official language, but is not taught in most schools. There are many of these French people here in Ontario who can count their English vocabulary on their fingers. I have noticed, however, that those French people who do speak both languages, speak a better English than the other Canadians. I have been very surprised by the question whether I came from England. Some people commented that I had an English accent. I am in fact trying very hard not to pick up any slang.my translation
Professor Zdenek never acknowledged my letter, but when he learned that Hollnsteiner was going to see me in Canada he asked to explain that he did not reply for fear that, because of his political orientation, receiving correspondence from him could turn into an embarrassment for me. I had never given this a thought, although I had heard that he had been considered a Communist.
One evening I was walking with my friend Paki down Sudbury's Durham Street and stopped in front of a used car lot where polished cars were lined up, gleaming under the artificial lights. Neither of us knew anything about cars, but I had managed to acquire a driver's license by then with the kind help of Jimmy (Imre) Kiss, a Hungarian acquaintance who had bought himself a big black Buick which he let me use for the test.
One car caught our eye, or to be perfectly truthful, it was its price tag of $495 which had caught our eye. We liked the looks of the car also, clean as it was in its chrome-shining glory. The price seemed reasonable and we pulled out our savings account passbooks to see how much we could scrape up between us. Satisfied, and emboldened by the result of this review, we entered the sales shack and probably came close to giving the salesman a premature heart attack when we announced our intention to buy that car.
He must have been very skilled because he made us feel clever and important so that when he let it slip that the $495 down payment would certainly swing the purchase of the $1495 car, we did not bolt like we should have but kept perfectly straight faces as if we knew exactly what we were doing. Since I had the driver's license, I acted as the purchaser, and somewhere along the line I found out what exactly I had purchased: a 1949 Studebaker. The one thing it had going for it was that it actually ran, which at that point in my development seemed to be the only thing that mattered. I had no idea of the mileage, nor even if it had a spare tire.
So now I had burdened myself with car payments that I did not need, and in fact had not intended to take on. This was totally incompatible with my lifestyle, but since I felt totally responsible for this idiotic episode, I was determined to work my way out of it, and consequently jumped at the opportunity to transfer the ownership of the car along with the balance owing against it to a Croatian immigrant who was obsessed with the idea of getting a car. He marched with me to the offices of Traders Finance where I paid the $10 transfer fee and got off the hook. I later found out that this was the last money Traders Finance ever got. The Croatian managed to wreck the car in a matter of days and then disappeared. I remember accidentally meeting him two days after the transfer and being deafened by the noise. There no longer was a muffler on the car and to get rid of the annoying exhaust noise, he had conned some garage into installing a radio and was playing it full blast. A couple of the fenders were already bent, and the general state of the poor vehicle was a sad sight.
1953 - Sudbury - Martin Motors - Felix 3rd from left
About a year later I left Martin Motors, and accepted an invitation from Oliver Laine, to whom I had referred to earlier as one of the partners of the Waters Hotel, to join his firm as a real estate agent
Although it was a nice gesture on his part, it was a totally ludicrous idea. I knew nothing about selling property, had no savings to live on, and worst of all, I did not have a car. Friend Paki was back in town and helped me out with a few dollars here and there to tide me over this period. My daily diet consisted of a pint of chocolate milk and a half dozen jelly-donuts. Not at all bad if you have a sweet tooth. Somehow I managed to sell a summer cottage in October. I think, however, that Oliver actually made the sale but somehow made it look like I had done it, and he paid me the commission. A very sensitive gesture allowing me to save face and accept the money. He was that kind of a fellow.
1953 - Sudbury
Felix at Ramsay Lake Beach
1954 - Sudbury - an integrated Felix
By this time I owned a tailor-made suit, and dressed up in my finest, I marched into the larger of the two HFC offices and asked to see the manager, who at the time was Don Purdon, an excellent operator. When I was ushered into his office where he sat behind a completely empty desk, I introduced myself by bending across the desk and offering my hand and looking him straight in the eye. I said, "I want a job here". He could not help but smile, and asked that I tell him something about myself. So I did. Then he asked when I could start, and I said right this very minute. I was hired, and in less than three years was promoted to assistant manager, and in the fourth year was promoted to branch manager of a brand new branch to be opened in Richmond Hill, north of Toronto.
Back in 1954 I received a starting salary of $200 a month, which was $200 more than I had been earning before I was hired. I learned a terrific amount about Canadian business etiquette, about the finance business, about all sorts of other businesses and jobs since people from almost all walks of life came to us for cash loans, and we asked detailed questions about their employment, earnings, indebtedness, etc. The early years at HFC in Sudbury left a lasting impression on me, and I still remember very fondly most people I worked with. I had been extremely fortunate, not only because I had this opportunity to work on a genuine career with a good future, but because I had quite accidentally walked into the crème de la crème of finance companies. Household was the standard by which all others were measured. Any other company would snap up an employee of Household at the top salary they were able to pay. It was a lot like IBM of yesteryear. The preferred attire for men was a dark blue suit with white shirt and tie.
Everyone in the office addressed each other as Mr. or Mrs. or Miss followed by the last name. Fraternizing even after hours was frowned upon, especially when one was an assistant manager, although I remember Al Servant, an Assistant Manager marrying Chloe Canapini, the best cashier/receptionist we ever had. Managers never ever fraternized, but they did attend Christmas parties which saw everyone come with their spouses or spouse-candidates.
I had absolutely no problem with what was considered a somewhat stuffy approach. I had come from Austria where a formal manner of address was commonplace. What it did achieve as a natural byproduct, was a general, mutual respect among all the people that worked as a team in an office. Pretty hard to beat that.
There is no question that HFC was at least indirectly responsible for my change of name. Although I do not remember anyone approaching me personally, it had been suggested to my friend Paki that he should consider changing his name from Pacchiaffo to something more English-sounding. The supervisor who made the suggestion, very obligingly even suggested the possible alternate name of Packard. In this way my friend Helmuth Pacchiaffo became Frank Packard. Since I did not consider Pacchiaffo nearly as difficult for Canadians to pronounce or spell as my name Zwierzina, I felt that the message applied at least equally strongly to me, and that in fact it would be a good idea to think in terms of a Canadian name that was easy to say, and easy to spell, and would look good on an HFC business card which branch managers were given. Career and integration were our principal objectives, and it seemed a small matter. So I changed my name to Game, a reasonable translation of Zwierzina, both having to do with game as in "fish and game".
My father died in 1956, and my mother wrote a very kind letter in Hungarian informing me of the event. She probably chose to write in Hungarian because she wanted to express herself carefully and precisely, which she managed very well, so well in fact that this letter, despite its sad message, became my favorite letter from my mother.
In my reply on 25 March 1956 I mentioned to her that I may have felt something telepathic because I had mailed some money to my father precisely on the date of his death - February 28th, and had also sent him a letter two days later. He obviously did not get to see either. I also expressed my regret that he did not get an opportunity to hold his grandson, or to meet his daughter-in-law, and I thanked my mother for arranging a decent burial for him. In the same letter I reported on how much delight we were getting from Mark who now had six teeth and was crawling. Speaking of my ambitions at the time, I seem to have wanted to save enough for a "real" (brand new) car, and later, possibly for a visit to Europe.
My life as a branch manager of Household Finance was hectic, but because I was young and energetic, and had achieved the career goal I had set for myself, I coped very well. The problem with opening a new office is that all the other offices in the country are immediately entitled to send their bad accounts that fall into the territory of the new office. This causes an abnormal burden of collection work for the staff of the new office, yet the staff is never numerous, nor very experienced. The manager then has to take on the role of trainer, and do much of the collection work himself. Further more, the finance business was becoming more and more competitive with new companies springing up, and the banks also finally realized that they could not ignore the realities of the personal loans market. We also tried to break into the acceptance business by financing purchases from vacuum cleaners to automobiles. The relevant businesses already had some arrangement with a financial institution, and did not line up at our door for the privilege of dealing with us. We had to go out and "solicit" new business. Another job for the manager. All these duties were over and above the basic raison d'être of making loans in the office.
A fair amount of construction was going on in Aurora, a ten minute drive from the office, and I had people come in for loans for down-payments on homes. So one day, after figuring out my own finances, and proving that I could not afford it, I went to the bank and borrowed $1,000 for a down-payment on a house in Aurora. A four bedroom house of solid masonry construction (brick on block) with a big lot cost $14,000. The NHA mortgage was at 5.5% and the mortgage payments were $220 per month. It was located at 62 Seaton Drive, Aurora, Ontario, and it was a good house, and we were comfortable.
One of the annoying things about being a Branch Manager was the quarterly inspection by a "supervisor" from head office. It was his job to review a sampling of all aspects of the branch's operation and to write a report - after discussing his findings with the manager. There had been progressive changes to HFC's staffing policy with the result that I found myself running the branch practically single-handed. Having only one body to devote to all the tasks, some of them inevitably were not receiving as much attention as they, in theory, should have been receiving. Depending on the supervisor's approach, I would often object to the repeated nagging which he would feel necessary to indulge in. "Why was this bad debt not worked?" I did not have time to work bad debts, I have piles of open accounts that are overdue. "Should bad debts not be worked?" Yes, they should be worked. "Then why were they not worked?" Because, as I said before, I did not have the time. "Should they not have been worked?", and so it went until during one of the visits I told the supervisor that I hated his guts, laid my office keys on the desk in front of him and walked out of HFC for good.
The year was 1962, and I was 32 years old. It was a very significant year, and a real milestone in my life. Apart from leaving this wonderful career, I also quit smoking - just stopped cold after 14 years of smoking a pack a day. The motivation was a deal I had made with fate: We were expecting our third child, and it was the year of Thalidomide, the tranquilizer for pregnant women, which produced deformed babies. Among my acquaintances who were expecting babies, most were sitting on pins and needles. I did not know where we stood, and definitely did not want to aggravate the fears my wife could be assumed to have, with unnecessary probing. So I kept quiet but offered fate a sacrifice: I stopped smoking. It all turned out well, and Todd was born a perfect baby.
Either the absence of nicotine or the absence of the HFC stresses, or most likely the combination of both caused me to gain an unprecedented 20 pounds on top of my usual 155 Lbs. There was an obvious change in my metabolism, and my weight never settled down to 155 Lbs again. Be that as it may, I also had to find another job. Because HFC was such a highly respected company, its employees were in demand. There were several options, but some looked better than others. First of all the salaries offered were not all the same, and the reputations of the other companies were not all equally good either, although most of that was in our elitist minds, and often based on our knowledge of the competition's local manager.
I decided to go with Associates Finance, probably because a number of senior HFC managers had gravitated to them. For a few months I had to commute to Toronto, but then I was assigned to open an office in Brampton which was within commuting distance from my home in Aurora. I somehow never felt comfortable with Associates. They were essentially an acceptance company, and used to wheeling and dealing with automobile dealers and other businesses. The same approach was expected from the manager of a finance office. Consequently I made some deals that I considered not very solid, but I wrote a lot of new business, and all went well for a while. I actually cannot remember what caused me to leave them, but I do know that I never felt comfortable working for Associates.
I went back to Richmond Hill to take over the branch of Atlantic Finance. Atlantic also had a large number of former HFC managers and supervisors, and it was like going home. Ken Sommers, the man in charge of the Finance arm of Atlantic Acceptance, was a likable man who always treated me with respect, and I had no reservations about going to work for him.
It was time to change location, and Atlantic Finance moved from a first floor location to a street-level location two blocks south, and on the opposite side of the street. There had been an old building and a ramshackle electrical store where Hermann Pleschberger, whose mother later became my live-in housekeeper and nanny, had tried his hand at being a businessman. The building burnt down one day, and the owner put up a brick store set back from the sidewalk. It was a pleasant and reputable-looking location.
This went on for a while, then for some reason which I cannot remember too well, I was offered the larger, more prestigious office on Main street in Hamilton, Ontario. I sold the house in Aurora and bought one in a nice area of Oakville, which was a half hour drive from Hamilton. I also found a German woman next door to the Hamilton office who kept pre-school-aged children. So little Todd and I took off every morning for the trip to Hamilton along the Queen Elizabeth Highway.
Things went along quite normally, except I was sharing floor space with the automobile wheeler-dealers of the acceptance half of our company and they sort of treated me like a poor cousin. That was not a problem because I knew they had things to worry about I did not need to be concerned with. Their junior employees used to go out at night and actually steal their cars out of people's driveways when the account was in default. I got a bit turned off one day when one of their victims came to the office the next day to negotiate the return of his automobile, and in the process turned blue and collapsed in the office's public area with a heart attack. They were hard-nosed types and I could not identify with that.
Not being an avid reader of newspapers nor following TV news too religiously, I was taken by surprise one morning when Ken Sommers, the Vice President called me to tell me not to panic if I heard that Atlantic's stock was dropping rapidly. Being an extremely loyal employee, and if not particularly dumb, certainly very naive in matters of high finance, I assured Ken I would not think of panicking, as a matter of fact, I would be inclined to buy more stock if it was going down. Ken sort of swallowed then said "No, Felix, I would not do that, as a matter of fact, if you are holding stock now, try to sell it quickly". Well, naive or not, when my VP phones me and tells me to sell, I turn into an instant believer. I just depressed the button instead of hanging up and called my stock broker and told him to sell all Atlantic Finance stock I held. By 10:30 that morning I had sold all my holdings at a loss of only $2 per share. By three that afternoon there was no way to sell any AFC stock at any price, and many of my colleagues wound up papering their basements with the stock certificates. Luckily I had stock in one other company, and it had increased by exactly the same amount as I had lost on AFC, so I sold it also, and broke even, and stayed out of the stock market for the next 30 years.
Atlantic Finance was taken over by General Acceptance Corporation of Allentown, Pennsylvania, and life went on. The market became very competitive, and we were now wooing the people we would not have talked to a few years ago. Staff was kept at a minimum, and I, the manager, who could still remember the manager who had hired me in 1954 sitting there like God surrounded by a large, busy staff requiring him only to put his initials on loan papers, was now not only the manager but also the busy staff, the public relations department, the collector, the one who authorized the loan, trained the few people we did have, and the one who had to worry about knowing at least three cashiers at any one time whom we could reach with a phone call if the regular one dropped out for some reason.
It did not seem right that I would have worked hard for 15 years at a career only to arrive at this juncture, nor did it seem sensible that I would stay for the duration. A brother-in-law had been working for the Income Tax Department for several years as an auditor, and he must have mentioned to me that they are always short of their quota for recruiting fresh auditors. So one day I walked up to the Income Tax office in Hamilton, and asked to see the chief of audit. I gave him my smile and my handshake, and told him I wanted to be an auditor. When they found out what my present position was, they were in a real hurry to get me on their payroll. It requires a "competition" to be posted before one can talk to a government department about a job. There was no competition, no more than there had been in 1954 when I walked into Household Finance asking for a job. So the Department quickly arranged one, just for me, and two days later I was hired.
It was a bit difficult for me to just turn the channel and become the new recruit at about the lowest level of rank in that office, and I ruffled a few feathers when I went places, and asked questions that a good civil servant just would not dare ask. There was enough of this to make me want to move on to something else inside this giant organization, something a bit less like the structured existence of a zombie, and yet with enough to stimulate me for the rest of my life. Yes, I realized that I was nearing 40 and I could not afford any more major career changes.
There is a large bulletin board in the corridor in all government offices and the competitions are posted there. You sort of do your catalog-shopping, and if something looks appetizing, you apply for the opening. A poster popped up one day, that got a few people excited. The Department, at its Head Office in Ottawa, was looking for people who wanted to be trained as Computer Systems Analysts. No one knew for sure what that was, but the word computer certainly made this sound like a select group of people. And the idea of working at Head Office also had a nice ring to it. The starting salary was $8,200 per annum, which was $1,500 more than I was getting at the job I had just started a little while ago.
There were something like 184 applicants, and about half passed the initial screening. Next there was an IQ test and about 52 passed that. These were interviewed, and about 30 were hired and sent to Ottawa for a three week training course. At the end of the course 18 were selected and offered jobs in Ottawa. These 18 were ranked in this final exercise, and I must state here for all posterity, that Felix Game ranked number one. So that makes it "first" out of the original 184 applicants! Sorry, but there is no point in being humble about this.
In the meantime, while living in Oakville, I finally acquired my first, very own sailboat. My friend Georg Hinterhöller, the boat builder whom I had known back in Austria, lived not too far from Oakville in Niagara on the Lake, and I asked him for advice on what to buy. One breed of boats he mentioned as being suitable for fun sailing as well as perhaps camping out with a family, was the Wayfarer. I am not sure whether it had been Georg who knew of one for sale, or whether I stumbled into it myself, but the next thing I knew I had bought a Wayfarer from a fellow in Simcoe. The boat had been damaged by a storm, but having been insured, it was professionally refitted with a new deck which shone like a piano. I hauled it home, then looking for a place to moor it, joined the Bronte Harbour Yacht Club, and did a fair bit of good sailing on Lake Ontario.
Perhaps the most memorable of those events was the Canadian Wayfarer Championship which happened to be hosted by the BHYC. I participated in the championships without any idea of how much knowledge I lacked. I knew how to sail, and being naive, I thought it was a question of sailing your boat better than the next guy which would determine the winner. I had some surprises waiting for me since I neither knew what was in the rule book, nor what sort of dirty tricks the experts would pull on their fellow sailors. It really didn't matter much one way or the other, because half way through the race a storm blew up and from then on it was a matter of survival with every person for himself. My son Mark was about 10 at the time and he was my crew. When the storm hit, visibility sank to about zero. Most smaller boats had been blown on shore, and the keel boats still out on the water were out of control. A couple of times one of them nearly ran us down when it emerged, only feet away, out of the dense mist, healing over so hard that the sails were dragging in the water. My concern was to not capsize under any condition. We had clawed down the main sail, but I had kept the jib so that I could keep the boat pointed into the wind. It rained very hard, and we had about a foot of water in the boat - all from the rain. We rode it out nicely. Mark behaved very well, and had himself one memorable experience. Then it was over, and visibility returned, and we could see what I had suspected: there was no one else out on the water. I was sort of proud, thinking all the time that this was the real test of a sailor: to ride out the storm and be in good shape at the end. After all, out on the Ocean one could not run for shore every time a storm came up. We bailed out, hoisted the main and sailed home.
The other thing I had started, in the meantime, was a printing business. On 14 December 1965 the business name of Adix was properly registered in the county of Halton as a publisher and supplier. I had bought this old Multilith offset printing press that the manager at Multilith must have taken in as a trade-in, and wanted to get rid of. He offered me a nice side deal, which allowed me free use of his plate-making facilities including free supplies. The printer was set up in the family room, and I had burnt-in 550 metal plates of images that were printed onto 8 1/2 x 11 four-ply white stock, and produced a set of flash-cards for use by teachers of "French as a Second Language". Today these would be considered ancestors of presentation graphics, but were really more related to today's clip-art. The sets were wrapped, and each set was bundled with a custom- made steel box container. The whole thing was marketed under the name Le Mot Illustré for $70 a set to teachers. A copyright had been registered on the set for the cost of $3, and was worth about as much. It was a tremendous amount of work, and it barely paid for the materials, and definitely not for my time. When I knew that the move to Ottawa was confirmed, I was lucky enough to find a buyer for the printing press, and then on 31 Oct 1967 sold the rights to Le Mot Illustré to Moyer, a Division of Vilas Industries Limited, and a specialty house for school supplies of all sorts. Their sales never turned out good enough for them to pay royalty on even one single set (which at any rate, would have amounted to a mere $3.50 a set). Actually, there had been some unpleasant complications arising from some innocent copying from the very text book these flash-cards were intended to make more popular. The author of the book and her publisher (Longman's) saw this as flagrant plagiarism and were dropping hints about legal action, and had Moyer afraid to launch into the marketing with gusto; or at least so they said. I was quite ignorant about the legal implications, and could not afford to hire a lawyer to explain it all. Consequently I had to deal with pressure from both Moyer and Longman, and I even imagined them at times chuckling over a cocktail about how they could scare me just a bit more. As it turned out, it was good that I could not afford a lawyer because he would have surely made a mountain out of this mole hill. It all blew over, and I was just as happy to never again hear from anyone about it. The last contact I had with Moyer was a letter from E. F. Flegg, the General Manager with whom the deal was initially made. In this letter of 8 May 1970 Mr. Flegg explains that sales had been so bad that they still have about a year's supply of the sets in stock. He did not offer much hope for any future riches.In the fall of 1967 the Ottawa segment of my life started. I was now a computer systems analyst with the federal government's income tax department, an occupation that seemed to suit my personality. I had always considered myself a logical thinker, and much of the work consisted of grappling with "what if" questions. The result of such thinking was then incorporated into flowcharts and given to programmers who wrote the code. The programs had to be tested for the occurrence of every possible combination of conditions before they were pronounced "clean" and put into production. Inasmuch as the programs handled 15 Million income tax returns every year, the political implications of even a small error were very unpleasant to contemplate. The public is not inclined to be forgiving when dealing with the income tax department, and I can remember one old lady having several levels of politicians jump through hoops because our algorithm could not handle surnames with an embedded apostrophe such as in O'Rourke. By and large we succeeded, year after year, to have the programs do exactly what we and the law wanted them to do. Eventually I was promoted to section chief and at one point had something like 40 Programmers and analysts under me. My third house was located on Beaver Ridge in Ottawa's suburb of Nepean. It was a brand new, substantial house of five bed rooms and three bath rooms in a good neighborhood. The boys all went to school by now and the parents both worked and made above average salaries.It should have been a wonderful life, but it seemed that everyone was doing his/her own thing. There did not seem be the happy family life one would have expected.
Every year there was a drive for blood donors and under the influence of the group's spirit, and the promise of free coffee and donuts, I went a few times. These were little fun outings during working hours, and often gave cause for laughs and friendly teasing of some of our guys who were squeamish about blood. One of my colleagues kept saying "they can take my blood, but they can't make me watch it running out of my arm". My biggest benefit from this exercise was that I found out what blood group I belonged to (A Positive).
My boat had to be towed to Ottawa of course, and since it had its own trailer, this was not a problem. What was difficult was to find a place to moor it. Having quickly looked around I found a Wayfarer fleet in existence at BYC (the Britannia Yacht Club), and that seemed the place to go, but surely not in October, where I would have to pay the year's membership fee for a matter of two months. I finally was offered a buoy in Crystal Bay to tie up to for the rest of that fall of 1967. There was a nice fellow a few hundred feet down the alley who also owned a small sailboat that looked like a baby Y-Flyer. He looked out for my boat, told me where his oars were hidden, and which was his dinghy that I could use to get out to the mooring. One very windy, and chilly day he phoned me to say that my shrouds seemed very loose and that the mast looked as if it wanted to come down. I jumped in the car and just as I arrived at the boat, the mooring line separated before my eyes and the boat went down wind in a hurry. I launched the dinghy as fast as I could and caught up with the boat, fastened a rope to it and then tried to pull it back to its mooring against the strong wind. It took forever, and with each stroke of the oar, the dinghy acted like it had been tied to something. Well, it had been tied to the boat, and the boat was supposed to follow, but it didn't know that. I was utterly exhausted when I had somehow muscled the Wayfarer back to its mooring and tied up. Bill, the fellow who had called me, was right about the shrouds too. One of the turnbuckles had come undone, and I learned another important lesson of sailing.
Felix at the helm of Quo Vadis, an HR28 class fin keel boat
designed and built by my old friend George Hinterhöller
A large sailboat needs a competent crew, and that became such a problem that I thought it would be easier to move to a powerboat. After driving around looking at boats for sale, I found one in the Merrickville Marina which definitely needed to be rescued. It was a wood hull, clinker-built convertible with a 180 HP engine. It had nice lines, a good power source but had been shamefully neglected. The previous owner even had bright green plastic mosquito screening stapled over the windows without much regard for how the pieces were cut, or where the staples went. The fellow was so obviously not a boater, that I am sure he was glad to accept any offer, and I bought it for a song. Then I worked on it all summer, and it turned out to be a sweet little boat. I invited the previous owner to come down and have a look at her. When he did, he walked right past her. He could not believe his eyes. I should have kept that boat because it was sound. Unfortunately I had difficulty controlling a boat with one screw in the confines of the harbor, and felt very uncomfortable leaving or approaching my mooring. The obvious answer seemed to be a boat with twin engines. So I sold her for better than double of what I had paid, and started shopping around for twin screws.
A fellow had died of a stroke and his boat was in the shed at Merrickville, and the widow was in Dartmouth, NS. I bought the boat from her and this part of my boating life is not a very pleasant one. Now I was into a big, 31-foot heavy steel-hull ship that although comfortable required a qualified mechanic to keep her happy. I learned a lot, and spent a lot of money on valve jobs etc. The engines were standard GM blocks but I had great difficulty buying such parts as valve lifters etc. She was an elegant looking boat and for some time while disabled and waiting for mechanical work, she graced the pier right in front of the BYC clubhouse.
The few trips I took with her are not worth mentioning, but the funniest story was one day when she was anchored out in Constance Bay, about 1/4 mile from shore. As we sat down for dinner in the house a storm came up. I watched her take off, driven by the wind. There was nothing I could do except keep on having dinner until the storm abated and I could go looking to see on which sandy beach she would become the rusting landmark for the next fifty years. As luck would have it, she had aimed straight for the long 200-foot aluminum dock of a neighbor. The dock used to be L-shaped but my amphibian tank had removed the L and was now sitting beside the long part between two expensive boats that she had never touched. After heaving and shoving, and commandeering a few bystanders into the water to help, we got her free of the sandy bottom and I fumbled a lot and dropped one of the keys into the open engine compartment, but eventually got one engine going and moved her out of that predicament back to deeper water and dropped anchor. The open engine compartment is an important clue: I was having engine trouble of a serious kind. Within a day or two I moved her back to BYC at a very slow pace and hired a fellow to do the valve job. But I was fed up with engine problems and started to look for a buyer, and soon sold her, and got my money back. And that was about the end of my association with BYC. Never having been much for socializing, once I no longer owned a boat, I no longer had any reason to be a member.
Before the motor boats happened, a few other things changed in my life. There was my education, unfinished due to such interruptions as the end of the war and the necessity of earning a living. Leaving out all other differences in levels and quality of education, if one simply counted on his fingers, I had a grade nine education. Yet at the same time most of the people who reported to me in my Section were university graduates. I was forever editing and correcting their written work, and it disturbed me that I, not a university graduate, and an immigrant who learned English in Canada, should be correcting the English writing of these universuity graduates. For my own peace of mind, I registered in a degree program for mature students at Ottawa's Carleton University, and over a period of nine years, taking evening courses, I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in political science, and a Certificate of Public Service Studies (an additional six credit course).
I wish I could feel that the effort was worth it, but quite the contrary, I begrudge all the wasted hours, the wasted evenings and the wasted money it had cost me. I honestly feel that I learned nothing from any of those courses, and merely finished with considerable contempt for university learning in general. Perhaps there is a subliminal lesson being taught: to learn how to please the one who is rating you. Teaching seems to be a bad word and the profs would not be caught dead trying their hand at it. They just talk and talk and never explain. If you want to discuss a point you have to go to a workshop run by teaching assistants and monopolized by fellow students with big egos and bigger mouths. Some days I was so angry at how I was forced to waste my time that I could have screamed.
Only after my early retirement in 1991, after I had become a full-time genealogist, did I finally have occasion to visit my alma mater with a feeling of purpose and satisfaction: I used her library for my own research and found it very helpful, although I could never understand why the university squanders so much money on thousands of books in exotic languages that cannot possibly relate to any course offered. As a genealogist specializing in Austro-Hungarian ancestry I was glad to find a complete set of Nagy Iván's volumes on the Hungarian nobility, and was intrigued by the complete set of the Domesday Book, but I wonder how the library administration can justify allocating funds to such books.
It is obvious even to myself that I have failed to restrict the contents of this last chapter to the intended style of a family history. I may have failed, but I was trying very hard not to have it turn into a book of memoirs. My memoirs, if ever written, will be five times as voluminous, but they may never happen. On the other hand, I have purposely left out much of the dry vital information on the basis that it is all of public record, and can easily be looked up by anyone who is sufficiently interested. My principal aim was to provide information of the years before Canada, and of the immigrant experience, because that would be more difficult, or impossible for any future researcher to acquire. I really do hope that there will be at least one such researcher among my descendants - even if it takes two or three hundred years.
1998 Oct - Felix enjoying Indian Summer.
Photo by Marg Sheremata (Rollei-35).
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