Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Dodo, Chapter Six, Not Far From the Tree
My father's trouble started before he was born.
His father, Amwolf, was of a generation that failed to recognize the brain's dependency on specific chemical arrangements in order to function properly. In those days, sufferers of acute depression were diagnosed as “melancholics”, treated as moody or sickly, prescribed mostly useless remedies like iron pills or fresh air. Being a man of intense pride and self-conviction, my grandfather's every outburst, and subsequent retreat from the company of others, was viewed as a simple characteristic of his difficult personality, as were the beatings he inflicted upon his first wife, Katharina, my father's mother.
Amwolf Peter Vogel was a short man.
Carrying himself about on bowed legs, like some angry, horseless cowboy, he met everyone with a forceful handshake. His face, as I recall it from my youth in Germany, was a knotted mass of lines and furrows, all converging on a nose that looked much like a beet. His eyes, wounded, hard portals, vicious gaps revealing a shipwrecked soul, were yellowed with age, as were his nails and fingertips. He smoked furiously, one cigar after breakfast, another after lunch, a pipe in the evenings, a regular diet of tobacco religiously observed.
When inclined, he was a busy, boastful talker, his conversation wholly self-absorbed.
Catching Helmut and I at some boyish task, crushing worms on the pavement or pursuing a rat under father's shed, he'd instruct us to “deposit our behinds and listen”, wetting his cigar in his mouth, searching his pockets for a match, cursing under his breath. He'd then proceed to inform us of all he'd accomplished in his life, working through the details with the impatient tone of an overworked pedagogue. “You take pride in your grandfather,” he'd insist, scanning us with those waxy eyes. “Your grandfather was a semi-professional tennis player in his day – a good one.” He always spoke in the second person, as if he were his own biographer. “Your grandfather played men half his age and twice his size and he beat them – and don't you boys forget it.” His larger-than-life stories usually involved some such competitor or villain, down on his knees, pleading with the almighty to spare him from the superior Amwolf Vogel. One day it would be as a semi-professional tennis player, another he was a semi-professional golfer, yet another he would be an opera singer, courted by the great tenor Caruso, leaving beautiful women to faint in their seats, even though a local newspaper reviewer had once written that he possessed “the voice of an angel, but the face of a clown”.
He was, in fact, a little bit and nothing of these things.
As a young man, he'd enjoyed some renown for his tennis and golfing skills, but nothing more than a weekend of glory on the clay courts at the village health club, a minor celebrity to which he'd long ago ascribed the “semi-professional” title. According to father, he had a punch “as quick and final as a cobra snake” and was well known for taking arguments outside, where he'd “thrash grown men, leave them wet with their own piss, lying on the cobbles”. But father's stories were just as suspect as grandfather's, both men acquiring the nickname “Munchausen”, after the famous book by Rudolf Raspe about the infamous yarn-spinning baron. “One day your grandfather's going to tell a tale so tall he won't be able to climb down from it,” I can recall mother once remarking, rolling her eyes, as we heard grandfather's walking stick striking the front gate, trying to undo the latch. “Better make way for old Munchausen,” she'd sigh, retreating into the kitchen, leaving Helmut and I to rush out and spare the gate from its thrashing.
Of all the things grandfather boasted, one was perhaps almost true.
He did indeed have a powerful voice, a rich baritone that filled the eaves of churches and local concert halls alike, a tenor so rich it sent him all the way to Blackpool, England, to sing with an American military troupe during the second world war, a performance that led to an invitation to study at Enrico Caruso's school in Italy.
Having no money for such a venture, he took it upon himself to educate Helmut and I in “the mysteries and majesty of the operatic voice”, hoping to secure himself a prodigy.
Helmut proved an all but impossible student, grandfather's attempts often resulting in fierce fits of screaming and toppled furniture. I, being that much younger, proved more pliable. He often used to catch me by the collar and hold me, his body shaking as he instructed me to follow him in his daily vocal exercises. “MAR – LARE – IN – O,” he'd bellow, his mouth open wide, brown spittle hanging from his false teeth. “MAR –LARE – IN – O, MAR-LARE-IN-O, MAR-LARE-IN-O, MARLAREINO, MARLAREINO!” he'd continue, steadily increasing the pitch until it sounded like an alarm.
One of the last times I ever saw Grandfather Vogel was from high in one of the towering pines that lined our back garden.
I was holding a baby starling in a tea cup, grandfather and father at the base of the tree, imploring me to “climb higher, boy, climb higher!”
Mother had discovered the newborn lying in her rhubarb, not far from the tree line. “Pushed from its nest by another bird, I suppose, the dear thing,” she'd explained, as Helmut and I jostled for a closer look at its heart, a throbbing, purple, pea-sized smudge, just visible under translucent skin. “We should save him,” she added, setting the undeniably ugly little creature atop an old dish rag she'd spread on the kitchen table. “He's too young to feed himself.”
Helmut and I had been all too eager to search the front path for worms, something we were busy doing when father and Grandfather Vogel arrived, pulling up in father's sputtering Heinkel. “We're getting worms!” declared Helmut excitedly, stuffing his pockets with mud, as he ran to unlatch the gate. “Mother found a baby starling and you can see its heart! We're going to feed it!”
Father looked to grandfather, a grave and silent exchange. “Take the worms from your pockets, Helmut Vogel,” he said. “And see your brother does the same. No one in this family is feeding a bird.”
Helmut knew better than to argue. Turning his muddy pockets inside out, he reluctantly let half a dozen large, pink earthworms wriggle free. I did the same, fearful to even look father's way.
A few moments later, “we four men” were gathered at the foot of the pine, where mother had found the fallen nestling. Father had tied one of his shoelaces about the handle of a tea cup, into which he'd put the starling. He did all of this, not saying a word, silently following grandfather's orders. When he'd encircled my head with the loop of the lace, he stepped back, letting grandfather come towards me.
I stood breathless, terrified by the grave ceremony of the affair, wondering why Helmut was left to simply watch.
Taking me by the arms, squeezing hard enough to make me wince, grandfather looked me in the eye. “We're counting on you, Totty Vogel, we're counting on you to be a man,” he intoned, his breath reeking of cigar. “Can you be a man for us? Can you be a man and climb to the nest?” I nodded quickly, avoiding his jaundiced stare, focusing instead on the heaving chest of the baby bird slumped at the bottom of the cup. “Let me hear your voice, boy.”
“YES, GRAN'FATHER AMWOLF!” I proclaimed, in my best approximation of a baritone tenor, my eyes shut tight.
“Make us proud, Totty.”
I turned to the trunk of the old pine.
I knew the tree well. Helmut and I had, over the years, broken the lower branches, fashioning a relatively easy climb to about nine or ten feet. Reaching the nest, which we'd spotted a good ten feet higher, was going to require navigating branches grandfather determined only I, the smallest and lightest, could safely manage. “We're all counting on you, Totty, don't let us down,” I heard him say, his deep voice seeming to race up the tree, challenging me to follow.
More fearful of failing than falling, I hurried up through the lower branches.
Soon I was standing on the limb directly beneath the nest. The only problem was it was too far out for me to reach. I had to inch my way along the branch under my feet, which tapered dramatically and began to sag. Going as far as I dared, I held onto the higher branch, reaching into the cup with my free hand. “Put it in the nest, boy – we're watching!” came grandfather's booming voice. Feeling the limb beneath me drop a few inches more, I stretched my arm, the baby cradled in my fist. Opening my fingers, I gave a little push forward. The bird rolled onto the lip of the nest, but quickly tumbled backwards. Hitting the branch, it then plummeted all the way to the ground.
“WHAT HAPPENED?” father called out.
“He DROPPED the bird!” proclaimed Helmut, gleeful at my error.
“Get back, Helmut, you'll step on it!” I heard father cry.
“Come back down, Totty, it's still alive, you can try again,” grandfather's voice commanded.
I wanted to protest, wanted to tell him I couldn't, that I was afraid of dropping it again, but I was just a boy, barely eight years old, I had to do what I was told.
So, again I scaled the tree, the battered, dirty bird slumped at the bottom of the tea cup. Again I dared my way out across the withering limb, feeling my feet sinking, the branch swaying dangerously, creaking under my weight. Again I reached out, catching the edge of the nest.
Unfurling my hand, I forced the newborn forward, only to have it roll backwards for a second time, striking the branch, quickly falling, hitting the ground with a soft thwump.
“NO, Totty, you're not doing it RIGHT,” grandfather called out impatiently. “Come down and we'll try it over!”
As I made way down, I could hear Helmut snickering.
I held out the cup, my hand shaking terribly, as grandfather dropped the seemingly lifeless starling back in. “A Vogel never gives up, Totty,” he breathed, giving my shoulder a sharp squeeze. “Your grandfather didn't make it to Blackpool by surrendering. You get up there and you try again.” I started to sob, but knew to turn my head and hide the tears.
Again I scaled the tree, the air becoming tight about my chest, my cheeks hot, my legs feeling rubbery and weak. For the third time I made it out as far as I could dare, taking the now quite cold bird from the cup, not even looking to see if its chest was still rising.
“THIS TIME YOU'LL MAKE US PROUD, TOTTY, WE KNOW YOU WILL!” grandfather sang out.
I bit my lip, all but throwing my tiny charge at the twig and straw target. Closing my eyes, afraid to watch, I opened them a moment later to see an empty nest.
“Come on back down, Totty,” I heard father sigh. “I suppose we'll have to tell your mother what you've done.”