Escape From East Berlin

Hans: Escape From East Berlin (color pencil)

Alapocas Friends Meeting, 1986

Hans sat back in his chair and answered a question from a friend: “Oh, I haven’t been here for the last two weeks because I had stents inserted into two cardiac arteries. I felt tired all the time and noticed that I got winded even when walking up a little hill. The doctors told me that I had blockages, and the next day I went to the hospital.”

A gray haired woman queried, “Why didn’t you let us know?”

Hans said, “Well, it happened so fast, and I didn’t think that anyone here could help. And my housekeeper brought me food after I got out of the hospital. I was fine.”

Weeks later Hans told us a bit about his history: “I grew up in Germany and lived in Berlin near the end of the war. Oh, yah, I was a Hitler Youth. We all were in the Hitler Youth. No one gave us a choice, and we knew better than to question our orders…We hid in cellars and had nothing to eat or drink when the Russians came. I got work after the fall of Berlin with a mechanic who beat me when he felt like it. Sometimes I worked too slowly, and sometimes I made mistakes. Sometimes he got drunk and wanted to hit someone, and I was the nearest. We could travel from East Berlin to West on the commuter trains, and one day I heard that they were starting to build a wall to keep East Germans from escaping to the West. I decided that I had to go but didn’t tell anyone. I packed a school bag with a book and an apple and got onto a train. I had a few marks in my pocket. I told the conductor a story about why I planned to visit West Berlin, and border agents went through the cars to check identification cards when we neared the outskirts of West Berlin. My heart thumped in my chest, and I was sure that they would pull me off the train. The secret police could make people disappear. The agent studied my cards and gave me a hard look, but then he handed them back and passed down the aisle.”

“I came to the United States in the mid sixties. A Quaker couple sponsored me. They advised me on colleges and helped me win a scholarship to MIT. I did well enough to graduate and found a job here in Wilmington working for Dupont. So here I am.”

Hans crossed his long legs and gave us a weary smile.

Advertisements

The In-Betweens

Ohio leans hard enough against Pennsylvania to feel like a way station between the East Coast and the Midwestern corn belt. It’s rural and industrial (or used to be), progressive in urban centers and conservative in farm towns. Either/or, neither/nor.

When I return to Dayton I often get the feeling that I’m caught in the in-betweens. No one and no place is definitely one thing or another. As soon as I start making assumptions, I’m surprised to find their contradictions.

And I’m reminded of how it felt to be an adolescent, of hoping for and dreading the future, of knowing the things I wanted from life without knowing how to get them. I couldn’t stay a child when everything around and within pushed me into adulthood, but resented having no clear map for the journey forward.

I once became acutely depressed in my early twenties. I’d been trying out a semi-bohemian lifestyle of working at a grunt job while painting late at night. I burned the candle at both ends to see how that felt, but discovered that I had no enduring desire to drive myself into an early grave for the sake of ART. I decided to move back home and finish college, but the prospect of making the transition to a more normal life gave me a sense that old dreams had drifted away before new ones had arrived. Numbness set in as I began to close my studio and pack, and I remember that my lowest point came when I found myself watching back to back re-runs of “The Love Boat”. I couldn’t tear myself away from the reassuring spectacle of ordinary folks finding happy endings.

I suffered through another “in-between” during my first wife’s pregnancy. We’d agreed that I would stay home and take care of the baby while Judy pursued her career as a biological researcher. I’d never even babysat before and felt overwhelmed by the looming responsibilities. Judy gave me books to read, but I never picked them up. I told myself that I’d figure things out as I went along, but avoidance was my real disincentive. Annie, of course, came along anyway, and I did manage to learn how to care for her. And while I struggled with new mental and physical challenges (lack of sleep, out of balance back from walking with baby on one shoulder, bewilderment from the realization that my life no longer belonged to me), I still felt more comfortable with the actual struggle than with waiting for its arrival.

Now I’ve entered another transitional period involving religion. I became allergic to traditional Christianity in my teens when a nun assured me that “my soul would be lost” if I didn’t attend the local Catholic high school. I realized that her concern centered less upon my spiritual welfare and more upon exerting control over one of her minions. I’ve recently begun attending a Presbyterian church, and the kind influence of the pastor has moved me in the direction of renewing my faith. This sounds positive, but I’m left with that same old in-between feeling. Cynicism has become comfortable and confirmed in news reports about the Catholic Church. But I’ve discovered a group of people making a sincere effort to live in faith and feel drawn to join them. This feels odd after all these years…

I’d ask you to pray for me, but that sounds hypocritical. Maybe folks could meditate in my general direction, and we’ll see how this works out.

Quaker Meeting: “I feel the presence of God descending.”

Alapocas Friends Meeting, graphite.

Judy and I sat on padded, upright chairs in a school library. We had joined six other people to form a circle in the dimly lit room. Some stared at the floor; others closed their eyes and frowned; one older man gently snored. The grandfather clock on a near wall ticked, and branches occasionally scraped against the windows.

A fellow next to me said, “I feel the presence of God descending upon us.” I felt nothing but boredom and an urge to massage my neck. I saw that his face had settled into a look of peace as if his mind had become immersed in a field of joy.

I envied the man and wondered if going to a Quaker meeting had been a mistake. My spiritual life hadn’t advanced far enough to give me a sense God in any form. Was I qualified to worship with them? Then I decided that the man’s declaration was evidence of a self-induced delusion.

I went back the next week, however, and sat in the circle. I stared at a rhombus of light on the carpet in front of me. Dick snored and the clock ticked. A sparrow chirped in the bushes outside the window. I started to nod off.

Then a sensation of falling deeper into the silence made me close my eyes. A loving, still, peaceful presence filled my mind. I could recall nothing like this from my short time of practicing meditation. I wondered, “Is this God?”

Ducklings at the Dam

My wife and I moved to Wilmington, Delaware six months after our wedding. Judy worked at Dupont’s Experimental Station. Armed guards at the entrance only raised the gate after closely inspecting employee IDs. They also conducted spot searches of cars leaving the grounds. A tall fence topped by barbed wire surrounded the compound of brick buildings. White precipitates billowed out of tall chimneys and fell in soft flakes like snow. The company posted “No Smoking” signs everywhere–flammable and explosive experiments were underway.

Angry, status obsessed and pointlessly aggressive people dominated the city, and hostile encounters while driving, shopping, and dealing with service desk clerks became part of our weekly routine. Judy and I escaped whenever possible to a nature preserve or park.

We drove one day to a strip of woods on the outskirts of town. The Brandywine River divided the park in half, and we found a spot to rest along a bank near the edge of a low dam. A flock of ducks escorted a small group of ducklings as they floated down the stream toward us. They came to a stop at the edge of the dam.

The ducks and drakes dipped over one by one, fell two feet, disappeared underwater, and popped up four feet downstream. They turned to the ducklings, flapped their wings and quacked. “Follow us!” they seemed to say.

Four out of the five ducklings complied. They hesitated, swam back and forth along the edge, but soon took the plunge. But one couldn’t muster enough courage. He swam in circles near the edge, came close to taking the dive, but backed off at the last second each time.

The flock squawked, quacked and flapped at the lone duckling, but Junior wanted no part. One duck flew back, demonstrated the task once more, but the stubborn duckling refused to budge.

The ducks and drakes resorted to tough love: they turned their backs on the last duckling and swam downriver. Junior swam in faster and faster circles as the flock drew farther and farther away. When fear of abandonment exceeded fear of drowning, he finally tipped over the edge.

When he resurfaced, he found himself once again in good company. The flock rushed back to greet him with quacks and wing flaps, and the little guy swam along with his head held high as they resumed their journey down the Brandywine River.

Judy left Dupont a year later and took a post doc position at Penn State. I stayed in Delaware to finish my second year of grad school. We met on weekends and phoned every day. Our acquaintances warned us that our marriage would suffer from the separation, but we took the risk and did our best.

We faced many tough decisions in the next few years and sometimes hesitated before making a move. But we knew in the end that there are times when we had to take a plunge while hoping that we would pop up safe and sound on the other side.

Judy and I made difficult decisions over the next few years. We chose to spend nine months apart while I finished my degree. We began a family during uncertain financial times. We bought a house before Judy had qualified for tenure as a professor at Rollins College. We knew the risks and the

The Shirley Temple Effect

godzilla

My Dad looked and sounded tough.  Kids in the neighborhood stayed away from our house after he came home from work.  They knew that tempting his wrath was like pulling Godzilla’s tail.

Dad’s dark looks and growly demeanor scared me too, but not as much as they scared my compatriots.  I had an advantage.  I had carefully studied Dad as he watched Shirley Temple movies.

Shirley was a kid star in the thirties.  She had an adorable round face, curly hair, could sing and dance, sided with orphans and disabled children, and thawed the hearts of crusty old men.  You didn’t want to be cast as her birth mother as your part would last about thirty seconds.  (Your character might have good intentions, but rushing down the street to get a cake to your kid’s birthday party could get you run over by a speeding Studebaker.)  Miss Temple would wander the movie world as a homeless child until an arguing couple or a misanthropic hermit adopted her.  She would instill warmth and humanity in her new household and gradually coax her caretakers to take on more positive outlooks.  She achieved miracles and changed hearts with thoughtful gestures and chipper song and dance routines.  She relentlessly delivered the message that life is worth living if you make up your mind to greet each day with a smile.

But the sunny times only lasted so long.  A misguided social worker sporting thickly-rimmed glasses and spinster clothes would steal her away, or a cruel governess would lock her in a cold garret and deprive her of necessities.  These slashes in the tapestry of bliss usually occurred somewhere near the end of the second act.  Shirley would cry out in tears as she was torn from the arms of a loved one: “Grandfather!  Grandfather!” or “Captain, don’t let them take me away!  Please Captain!  Please!”

My father knew that Shirley would find a way in the third act to return to her improvised family.  But he would start shaking at the shoulders during the traumatic scenes.  He lowered his head, sniffled just a bit, and then retreated to the bathroom.  He returned just in time to witness Shirley put a clever plan into action.  He sat back and relaxed as Shirley rejoined Captain January or her Grandfather or her M.I.A. father in the last scene.  Folks would burst into song as the little mop-top led everyone in a tap dance extravaganza down main street to celebrate yet another happy ending!

Dad’s mouth would twitch in a flicker of a smile as the camera zoomed in on Shirley Temple’s twinkling eyes.  America’s sweetheart had ventured forward in time to win yet another victory, and Dad had given himself away.

Shirley TEMPLE005

The Kindly Sinner: Great Aunt Mary

Wayne Avenue runs downhill from Belmont to downtown Dayton.  Great Aunt Mary lived in a building halfway down the slope in a neighborhood that had once been pleasant.  We three kids climbed vinyl treaded stairs to her second floor apartment, knocked gingerly and waited.  She opened the door with a big smile and invited us in.  She had snow white hair, laugh lines, and a hoarse, rasping voice.  She returned to a large oak table in her dining room, picked up a kitchen knife and cut dough into thin strips.  I asked her what she was doing, and she said, “Making egg noodles”.  She finished quickly, wiped the table and washed her hands.

Time for a tour.  I saw a painting hanging in her living room, a winter scene of a snowy lane, a haloed moon, and frost covered trees.  Beside it hung a still life of roses in a vase.  Aunt Mary saw me looking at them and said, “Those were painted by a nun who used to teach at St. Mary’s parochial school.  She came from Germany and spoke with a thick accent.”

Aunt Mary sat us down on a sofa and asked us questions:  how do you like school?  what do you like to watch on TV? what position do you play on your baseball team? She smiled and listened as we answered and never glanced sideways as if hoping we’d stop talking.  (My grandmother, Aunt Mary’s older sister, had limited patience for me and my brother.  We learned to keep our thoughts to ourselves in Grandma’s presence.)

Aunt Mary fed us supper, and we sat down in front of her black and white television after we finished.  She asked for suggestions and turned the dial to Channel 7.  The Sonny and Cher Show came on.  Aunt Mary seemed bewildered by the odd commotion of the program, but she beamed at us as we pointed at the screen and laughed.  She pretended to like it too.

We knew that Grandma carried a grudge against her sister, but no one explained how it started and why it was so one sided.  Aunt Mary shrugged off Grandma’s snubs and pointed remarks and never struck back.  I asked Aunt Mary one day if she felt hurt by that treatment.  I had been on the receiving end of my grandmother’s spite on a few occasions and feared doing anything that would make her wrath permanent.  But Aunt Mary said, “Oh, your grandmother doesn’t bother me.  She’s always been that way.”

Mom and Dad took us to our grandparents on Sunday nights to visit.  Talk inevitably turned to family history and gossip.  Aunt Mary became the main topic one night.  I heard that she had had an affair with a married man for years and years.  My great aunt and the man were Catholics, and the man refused to get a divorce even though his marriage had long grown cold.  Aunt Mary never made any demands.  She understood that she and “Bill” would get married if the estranged wife died.

Bill suffered a heart attack and exited this world well before his wife.  Aunt Mary never took up with another man, and years later remarked, “To hell with the Church.  I should have married him while I could.”

Homecoming

 

 

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Homecoming, graphite and colored pencil (in progress).

 

1989

I took a trip to visit a gallery in Wilmington, Delaware to show my dealer new work and discuss an upcoming show.  I sidetracked to visit a grad school friend and didn’t return home until sunset.  My wife Judy and daughter Annie happened to be outside when I pulled in.  Annie was about 18 months old.

She had fine golden brown hair, and the setting sun crowned her with a shimmering halo as she ran to greet me.  I knelt down, swept her into my arms and carried her back to Judy.

Judy always said that our girl was happy when she was with either of her parents, but loved having all three of us together.  Then all was well in her world.

Alan came along in 1990.  He was a happy baby who smiled and cooed when he woke up from a nap.  He began to explore as soon as he could crawl.  We would put him on the carpet in the living room while we ate supper, and after five or ten minutes I’d get up to find him in the bathroom.  He liked to lay under the sink and stare up at the shiny pipes.

1992

We bought a house in Winter Park in a working class neighborhood.  We’d been living in a tiny rental house in an iffy neighborhood on the south side of Orlando.  Judy and I gave the kids a tour, showed them their bedroom and an addition at the back designated as their play room.  They both looked excited as if they had discovered possibilities for new adventures, and Alan began to run from one end of the house to the other.  He had so much more space now and wanted to extend himself back and forth across it.

A few years later we took Annie and Alan out for a treat. Annie had recently turned six and had just performed in her first dance recital.  A drug store near an Italian ice stand sold toys, so we bought the kids ice cream and little stuffed animals.  Alan chose a panda bear,  and that night he held it tightly in his hand as he fell asleep.

1991

Judy and I slumped exhausted after a long day.  Annie chattered and chased fire flies. Alan, who was teething at the time, sat on a blanket on our front lawn.  He kept crawling to the edge to search for something to stick in his mouth, and I kept vigilant watch to prevent him from gnawing on a twig or a stray piece of gravel.

A fiftyish woman and her husband passed by on their evening stroll. We didn’t know them and exchanged perfunctory greetings.  Folks in the neighborhood held back from getting acquainted as the four of us lived in a rental in a college town–we wouldn’t be there for long.  The couple nearly reached the next yard, but the woman turned back to study our little family.  Her expression turned rueful, perhaps bitter, and she said, “Some day you’re going to look back and realize that these are the best days of your lives.”