Friday, November 11, 2005

Chapter Two - Introducing Michael and Scott, part 1

When Dad got back from Vietnam in 1969, he was stationed at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina. They lived there very briefly, only about a year or so. It was during this time that I was conceived. I was not the first try for kids. Mom had miscarried earlier, which must have been difficult for her, though it seems to be much more common than many people realize.

Soon, Dad got his orders for his first tour in West Germany. The young couple, pregnant with their first child, would board a Trans-Caribbean DC-8 to Germany. One might ask why a Caribbean airline would be flying to Germany. At the time, the U.S. government was chartering airlines for overseas tours like these. Dad had flown Flying Tigers (a cargo airline) to Vietnam, and this time it was a Caribbean airline to Germany.

During this first three year tour in Germany, Dad would work at Miessau, and my folks would eventually find a home off the U.S. Army Kaserne (German for ‘barracks’). They would take a small apartment in a German home in Vogelbach. The landlords, Peter Karl-Vitas and Elisabeth Büsser, lived in the rest of the house, setting so close on Kaiserstraße that there was only a sidewalk separating the front wall of the house from the road.

Peter, a native Latvian, was in World War II, and fought with the Russian allies. However, as the Russians began to occupy Eastern Europe at the end of the war, his circumstances quickly worsened. His wife, parents, and all immediate family were sent to Siberia. Through circumstances I will never know, Peter was forced to flee Latvia, leaving behind his wife and family. It must have been excruciatingly hard to do so, but these types of sacrifices must sometimes be made in wartime, and it is not for me to judge or even understand the meaning behind them.

Meanwhile, Elisabeth’s husband, who also fought in the war, for the Germans, of course, was listed as missing in action in the Battle of Stalingrad. Both Peter and Elisabeth found themselves together through the misfortunes of war.

Peter could never go back to Latvia or Russia without being arrested. So Peter settled in Vogelbach with Elisabeth. They became a de-facto couple and obviously shared an affectionate and loving relationship. But they would never marry. Since Elisabeth’s husband was never listed as deceased, and Peter’s wife remained alive in Siberia (he would write to her, and she would write back), I believe Elisabeth, who was devoutly Catholic, would never allow a second marriage. They would also never have children, which is perhaps why they adopted our family as their own.

Peter, as long as I ever knew him, was a white haired, somewhat short and broad, grandfatherly sort of fellow. Elisabeth had graying dark curly hair, a large figure common among many older German women. They were like Grandparents to us, surrogates for the time we lived in Germany. Though they started out as only landlords to our family, they embraced our family with enormous hospitality. Whenever we could in years later, we would always pay Peter and Elisabeth a visit.

A few years back, we received a letter from Germany that announced that Peter had passed away. It was one of those letters that comes as a surprise even though we knew Peter was very old. I believe he must have been in his eighties when he died. Elisabeth must have lived on for several years after him, though we never heard of her fate. It’s possible that she moved into an assisted living home and lost touch with us. Or perhaps she died without our knowing. For years after the letter about Peter, we sent Christmas cards and letters to Elisabeth with no answer. I can only hope that she was able to read them and knew that we remained fond of her always.

After I was born, I was raised up in the house in Vogelbach. The house was a contemporary house, modern in its façade and in its styling. In Germany, it seems, there are two kinds of houses: those that are traditional in the Bavarian sort of way, quaint with window flower boxes full of geraniums and petunias, and houses that are contemporary, sleek and modern. (Even in the seventies.)

Peter and Elisabeth’s house was a three level home, and the basement level opened to the patio on the back side. Peter and Elisabeth lived on the top two floors, and we lived in the basement apartment.

I have no memory of the basement apartment; I was much too young. By the time I formed memories of Peter and Elisabeth, we were always visiting guests, welcome in the main parts of their home. We typically visited in their basement, which was finished with a dining room (for Germans are very fond of eating), a wet bar and a pair of my baby shoes dangling from a pipe in the ceiling. Those shoes of mine remained until the very last time we ever saw them.

Back in the very early seventies, when Mom was pregnant with me, there were no methods to determine the sex of the unborn children. People simply guessed or accepted whatever God had given them. Mom swore she had some special sixth sense, however, and swore from the early days in her pregnancy that I would be a boy. She could just tell it, somehow. And lo and behold, Scott Edward was born a healthy baby boy. All of her friends and family were amazed with Mom’s prescience.

When I was two-and-a-half, Mom would again give birth. This time, she swore that it would be a girl. Again, she just knew it. All of her friends and family this time, not doubting her judgment, would purchase many pink and purple outfits, blankets, and toys, sure of the girl to come. And it was to everybody’s great surprise, especially my mother’s, when Michelle had to be quickly renamed to Michael. I have always viewed it as significant that Michael was defying my mother’s wishes even upon taking his first breath.

The night Mom went into labor with Mike, Dad took her to the hospital at Lanstuhl and left me in the care of Peter and Elisabeth. Since Peter and Elisabeth never had kids of their own, they probably hand their hands full. I was a hyperactive two-year old, and quite a lot to handle.

Mike was born during the night, and the next morning, Dad came home to check on me and get some things for the hospital. When he arrived, Peter and Elisabeth and I were all seated around the table eating breakfast. They had me dressed, but my diaper had no pins in it and was simply “stuffed” into my pants. They were feeding me a breakfast of Brötchen (small rolls), butter, sausages, and coffee.

Setting the tone for decades to come, my rivalry with Mike would immediately begin. Having been the only child for two and a half years, I was in no mood to accept this new kid into our family. Shortly after Mike came home, Mom caught me trying to wheel him out of the house in his carriage. She would catch me just before I rolled him into the street.

Mike and I, though two and a half years apart, would grow up almost as twins. I was small for my size, and since we both had white-blonde hair and fine fair German features, we were often mistaken for twins. Honestly, though, I never saw it myself and found it annoying when people would make the comparison.

“Really,” I would think, “I’m much handsomer.”

Actually, looking back at the old photos, we were really quite a lot alike. We looked like a pair of Hummels, cherry red cheeks, smiling and loving each other like brothers. In fact, we would spend much more time fighting than the pictures told.

As older kids, visiting Peter and Elisabeth was always a treat. We’d ring the doorbell and Elisabeth would answer, wearing an apron over her flowered dresses. She’d always be preparing some kind of enormous feast for us each time we visited.

First thing she’d do is escort Mike and I into her Keller (her downstairs pantry). This was a dark, cool room with shelves all around. The shelves were full of canned fruits, vegetables, and of course, our favorite, chocolate bars. In Germany, the chocolate bars are not like in the U.S. They are larger, sweeter, creamier, and come with a variety of nuts, fruit or even coffee flavors. Coffee chocolate was always my favorite, and Elisabeth would let Mike and I pick out a chocolate bar each every time we visited.

Then we would visit in their downstairs dining room, the parents talking for hours, while Mike and I played in the backyard. Their backyard was large and had a great old plum tree growing in it, but the plums which grew on it were yellow, not purple. The tree’s branches were broad and widely spaced, just perfect for climbing. I remember once being sent up the tree by Peter to collect plums, which we ate as a snack later that day.

The backyard also backed up onto a train track, and occasionally, we walk down the road across the tracks. A fenced meadow lie across the tracks, and we’d often take an apple or sugar cubes to feed the old mare that lived in that meadow.

Inevitably, we’d always have supper at Peter and Elisabeth’s. Elisabeth would make a fine German meal of Wienerschnitzel, Gulaschsuppe, potato salad, dumplings, and boiled vegetables. We’d eat and eat and eat, and Elisabeth wouldn’t be satisfied until we’d had at least three plates each. I was always happy to oblige, for I had inherited my appetite from my mother. Elisabeth always enjoyed feeding me, because I was a bottomless pit. Nothing is more flattering to a German than someone gluttonously devouring their food. This is just what I did. If I cleaned my plate, Elisabeth would fill it again, until after many rounds of this, I could clean it no more.

Then, stuffed to the gills, Peter would walk over to the bar and pull out the bottle of Boonekamp. Boonekamp is a regional liquor, called a Magenbitter, similar to Jaegermeister. However, Boonekamp has the unique addition of paregoric, which is an opium based digestive.

Peter would pour everybody, including us kids, a shot of Boonekamp. We’d all shout, “Bis Boden see,” which means, “Until you see the bottom!” (Of the glass, that is.)

The liquor was bitter and burnt going down, and we’d all screw up our faces from the flavor. But stuffed to the point of breaking from the dinner, the Boonekamp would soon spread like a warm wave over us, and our stomachs would feel lightened.

“It’s good for the digestive,” Elisabeth would always announce.

Then we’d have room for dessert, perhaps a strudel or a cake, always made from scratch by Elisabeth.

Once when we were visiting, I learned a bit more about foreign cultures, though in a very clumsy way. I was perhaps eight years old, and Mike five or six. I told my father that I needed to go to the bathroom.

“Number two,” I suggested.

Mike had to go too. So we went together to Elisabeth’s private bathroom upstairs. We weren’t often in their upstairs areas. It was always clean and nice and decorated in exactly the way a place is that never sees children, like a hotel lobby or a museum.

We went into Elisabeth’s bathroom, ready to fight over who went first, when we noticed there were two commodes sitting side by side. Except one looked a little funny, it had no tank on it. However, we found this cool and interesting that a house should have a bathroom with two toilets, so Mike settled himself upon the ordinary one, and I took the exotic new toilet.

In fact, what I quickly learned was that I had pooped in the bidet. I had never seen a bidet before, and didn’t even know what such a thing was for. But there it was, a mess that wouldn’t flush down. Embarrassed, but unable to do anything about it, I was forced to go back to the room full of adults and announce that I couldn’t get the toilet to flush.

Exasperated, but not quite yet knowing what lay in store for him, my father parted company with Peter at the bar, and walked back with me to the bathroom. What he found there horrified him. He knew, then and there, that he would have to clean up this mess, and there’s no easy way to do that except manually. Moments like these are what give our parents reserved seats in heaven. My father cleaned up the mess, and I learned what a bidet was really used for.

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