The Last Day of School. First Day of Summer. George Washington Elmo and Tony Soprano

The Last Day of School. First Day of Summer.
George Washington, Elmo, and Tony Soprano

Well we made it. Here it is: the last day of school and coincidentally, the first day of summer.

I’ve found living in New England, summers are important. If we’re lucky, we have 50-60 days of fun, leisure, and time, maybe under the sun. Maybe, but it’s this time spent together as a family.

As a parent though, summers are confounding because you must have some schedule, course of action, activities for your children. The price is daunting but outweighs the cost to your soul and the silent sanctity to work productively.

See since I work at home, summer can really be challenging because you want to work but the kids are loitering about the house. They’re lazily unproductive when not tasked a routine. It’s chicken and egg. We must work to earn, so as to afford the expensive schedules that separate them from the television, computer and couch.

Due to these challenges – juggling work with child care, I’m thankful that today is also the first day of summer. From here to the new school year, the days will wind down one minute less each day until that first day back. Yep, all down hill from here… I wish. But it’s a positive perspective.

Look I understand a minute a day is not fast enough since I’m burning more money than I’m making and sweating more calories than building muscle. I’m aware I’m a domestic bitch serving the kids, house and yard instead of working my business and body.

Out of the frying pan and into the fryer… no, literally. I found the trick this school year. Each and every morning I started making a hot breakfast for these two girls. They were mopey dopes, dragging themselves out of bed twenty minutes late– usually after that ritualistic final “get up NOW” parental threat – miserable, moaning. They proclaimed recurring phantom symptoms of various influenza, tummy and head aches. Every morning the belly aching; that is, until I turned into Johnny Fry cook.

I’ve found my wrists are skillfull instruments of fry cook magic. My spatula is my wizardly wand flipping eggs over easy thrown on toasted sweet honey bread. Whipping egg white battered cinnamon French toast. And much like that gay biker, New Hampshire fry cook character that Vito Spatafore feel for in The Sopranos one season, I make Johnny Cakes – my little one’s favorite, although she always wants chocolate chips in them.

The morning aroma of hash browns, eggs and turkey bacon waffle through the air, drawing these two lethargic porcelain dolls down the staircase. They float to the table like Bugs Bunny levitating on the scent of a steamed carrot. These hot breakfasts provided a catalyst that cured the common morning nausea, faux fever, what have you. They were ready to devour the menu and get out the door to conqueror fifth and second grades, respectively. It got them to the school finish line when it seemed it could extend into summer.

Now it’s all over. My spatula retired for a summer of challenge at the barbeque or surrender to the clam shack during the humid, tiresome days of distracted work and keeping the kids engaged in library, books, beach, and slip and slides.

However I’m not sad that we move on. The morning multi-task routine preparing such a delicatessen of delight while simultaneously packing lunches, grabbing homework and pressing a carafe of coffee for the Missus and me is a lotta flipping work.

I am wistfully mournful though that these girls are getting older, reaching new paradigms of sophistication in an accelerated, technological world in which kids can lose so much, so quickly in so many ways.

Gone are those days that my first born giggled gleefully at Elmo, Oscar, Bert and Ernie every morning, while I did my work. She loved those characters so much we had every Elmo DVD in the world. She watched them on a loop.

But as Violette grew out of that stage, the new paradigm became curious, less wholesome, even dubious. Suddenly, this transition prominently blaredg in High Def – Peek-A-choo and Avitars, “Tweenie” sitcoms of fresh talking anti-children. “Myth Busters” and Turtle Man replaced Sesame Street and PBSkids.

Unwittingly from the kitchen radio, she was introduced to metal and glam rock, like Alice Cooper. I catch her on YouTube watching Cooper videos. She divulged an idea she had. She asked her music teacher this week if on the last day of music class, can we play “School’s Out”? She’s turned her eleven year old friends – why are they all boys? – on it as well as Korn and Smashing Pumpkins.

Alice Cooper, my mother’s scourge. I pinned a life-size, make-up smeared, sweaty Speedo, python wrapped poster of him on my bedroom wall, prominent, in your face as you walked in the door of my bedroom. Henceforth it stopped mom in her tracks. Now my girl and her friends wanted to rock that anthem as we did in the 70s and probably every kid every decade thereafter… until Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

Oh yeah. You know… “school’s been blown to pieces”. Mr. Music teacher – a cool Gen Y guy who, it seems, owns only one suit, says to my daughter that he thinks it’s probably not a good idea. Translation: he likes it but he likes his job more.

Violette understands and accepts it; that, it’s all right. She commiserates with me over the rejection without really knowing the shock, the carnage of that watershed moment; it’s affect on our entire educational landscape. The scope incalculable, hard to imagine if you haven’t been buzzed into a grade school. Still I’m stunned, never thought of it till now it’s knocked at my door in our hideaway on Buzzards Bay.

The collateral damage of subsequent events, even if random and a far, they hit you in the gut… hard because it takes opportunity away for joy and happiness, a childhood.

My wonderful daughter understands at new levels. She’s processing this societal arch – a harshly real cold shoulder, rude comments in the suburbs; an adolescent anger spawning violence in our city schools and on streets. It’s grown from harmlessly bad behavior to bullying to obliterating young lives with automatic weapons and bombs. It’s almost likewise disturbing how comfortable these children can evaluate the misanthropic actions of peers.

And what of the youngest? The more innocent little brothers and sisters of these Tweenies pushing teen age? The initial collateral damage on the younger ones, like my little girl, Lily was that they lost out on the beauty and simplicity of terrestrial children’s programming. Clifford the Big Red Dog. Curious George. The fun, educational and erstwhile value-building shows.

The Count declaring the number of the day, Bert doing pigeon shtick or Ernie singing a bubble bath full of a reggae rendition of Rubber Ducky. Hell I would even put up with Barney again for Lily just to have the same early educational development that Violette experienced. But it’s a fait accompli trying to retard the process before we talk Harris and Klebold, Alice and Ozzy, Tupac and Tony Soprano.

Nope. At six or seven years old Lily was all ready exposed to big sister’s annoying “Tweenie” and reality shows. Her development accelerated beyond my wishes or want. I share blame. I thrust her into ballet, kung fu and ice hockey, taken her to Europe several times. Confidence building. And she’s physically fit – 95th percentile her entire brief life. She knows way too much but, she has a strong center as well to balance it. So what’s to worry?

The kid all ready tells me about MLK, Junior, segregated schools, Beethoven, butterflies and Presidents – her favorite George Washington. Zero to sixty child development in sleepy old New England town.

The girl brought home “How They croaked” last week. A detailed book how some of her favorite and history’s most famous people died… miserably, painfully, unnecessarily. She’s particularly fond of the agonizing death of George Washington (“I thought he was your favorite President?”) So you see why I do worry?

But school’s out. Summer’s on and every summer my wife carves out a week or two vacation, so that we can keep these kids, kids. We journey to those wholesome family destinations like Storyland, Clark’s Trading Post, and Santa’s Village.

When Violette was still formidable, into Elmo and Big Bird, we found Sesame Place in Pennsylvania. It’s a theme amusement park with a twist… many twists that run the lengths of water slides of all shapes, heights, and size, lazy lagoons, rollercoaster and evening parades.

Last summer, we scrubbed the usual July run to the North Country – a massive south-to-north thunderstorm sealed the idea that we should go south. It was my wife’s brilliant idea really. Let’s “drive through” that monster system for a day instead of it chasing us down to ruin many days of our summer rite.

I loved it. We could give little Lily her day at Sesame Place, even though she didn’t know their background like big sister. This is definitely the year because big sister is on the threshold of being an eye rolling, training bra breaking, everything’s boring of a teenager.

The Park setting is calculated for maximum tri-State access. A historical landscape in the founding of our country. I love driving down there – that big sign on the bridge over the Delaware River, TRENTON MAKES – THE WORLD TAKES. I don’t know if it’s true but I think of Lily’s favorite President and how this would make George Washington proud as he crossed this river in a dingy one frigid night.

Then as we cross into Pennsylvania the Sesame Place experience might have George yearning for that agonizing leech loaded, blood-letting gum infection of a death two centuries ago.

He may have stood stunned by mobs of triple wide, toe crushing strollers, pushed by next to naked, dripping wet parents. Bumper to bumper strollers of screaming, puking, pissing toddlers roasting in the sunshine.

What in the world happen to my people, this Republic. He might ponder further that I bravely led men into a seemingly dead-end death in this valley, escaping only with daring a do on the Hessians across the Delaware.

There was no starving here now and though there may be a certain Italian element involved in questionable enterprise across that river, there’s nary a Hessian in Jersey to fear today. All thanks to George Washington.

But my goodness, the amount of obesity on parade in this Valley Forge area water park is grotesque, sad, devastating. My children recognize it as we queue in lengthy lines – close, often too closely, pressed up against double D back fat and interstate stretch marks tracing the routes from bad tattoos into inappropriate bathing suits and back out down jelly rolled tattooed legs… and that’s just the men. My daughter says, “Dad, did you see that man’s…” yes. Yes I did, Violette. Now let’s try to forget about it”, as we finally reach the summit of the water slide after some time..

A pink flamingo shade of sunburned flesh radiates from under the body hair and black headed scarred shoulders. It screams sloth and excess as we float on inner tubes around the perimeter of the park, tubes bouncing off the bountiful. It’s all too much at times to absorb, so we retreat to an ice chest of brews and an inexpensive picnic lunch outside the gates. Thank god for “ins and outs” at Sesame Place.

We spent the evening and came back the next day because we had bought this two days for one price ticket as a final salute to our little girls passage of age. We had perhaps supressed our memories of these massive masses when we last visited seven years ago or have these numbers grown -insert pun – greater since our last visit?

Perhaps we were distracted. We had littler ones. We were relegated to sit a new baby in a puddle of pool water while big sister took her first solo inner tube rapids ride, as we held our breaths like all new parents.

Perhaps these young parents are likewise distracted by the new lives of their newborns. It’s another survey in societal collateral damage. The new parents who don’t recognize how an accelerated society leads them to live on pizza, burgers and fries, cold cut hoagies and faux chicken nuggets: a child’s menu, as they deal with the balance of work, obligations and family.

In our haste, collectively overwhelmed we commit a slow societal suicide with the lives that Valley Forge and Trenton won. Independence gone so badly awry. Yet, there are people now willing to defend our freedom for poor choses. The new Patriots. They’ll be out soon on the 4th of July to celebrate those ancestors, who sacrificed themselves, so that we have the right to make piss poor decisions, destroy ourselves, futures and family. Pass the kethup and mustard please.

Forgive me fry cook father for they know not what they do or the fate they tempt in this society. These young parents of old America must work into their lives new repetitions on an age old American iteration of courage, sacrifice and smaller dinner plates if we are to survive this century in this valley or any other valley.

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. George Washington taught it (by example). Elmo teaches it.

The tragedy of sudden cardiac arrest and premature death, leaving behind innocent offspring without memory of a parent should be startlingly. A reality they can not neglect. It should hit home this summer over that slice or the fatty remnants of a toddler’s leavings. No one, even tough guys from Jersey like Tony Soprano can see it until it’s too late. Inescapable. Tragic.

Yeah, school’s out and we’re at the end of another year of growth. There’s still innocence thankfully.

Violette just came home and said, “It still doesn’t feel like summer” while her little sister is near tears that “all my friends are gone now”, as the bus pulls away.

I assure them we that they’ll share my outlook that summer is all good. We will preserver with or without friends. We’ll ritualistically blow up Uncle Mike’s backyard on the 4th of July and grow wiser with a summer full of new experiences. Now no longer will we be subjected to a social dyslexia manifested in the microcosm of amusement parks in the land of plenty.

But what do I know; I got a stove top to clean and dinner to make.

Bastards of Young

Meeting Jutta in NYCI wrote this in June 2007. It has become the basis of a work in progress to be titled later… many friends know the story. They have provided such support and kindness after reading previous versions. It’s perhaps the foreward for subsequent chapters – some posted here on the WordPress such as “My Father’s Bible”. As I edit “Bastards of Young” again, I realize how quickly seven years have passed. Seven years of further discovery, I fought off however the urge to update or spoil this extraordinary life event with the knowledge that has since come over these years.

My wife had an Oracle Conference to attend in Orlando last month. Since her flight and the hotel tab was on her employer, she suggested the kids and I grab some tickets, tag along. We could enjoy some Disney World magic.  Since we had never been, I thought it a great idea.

I’m old school. I watched the magician himself, Walt Disney as he’d previewed his weekly show. As a nation, we all watched every Sunday night.

I even remember his big buy – some Florida swamp on the cheap. Before some shows, through the smoke of his filterless cigarettes, he’d display drawings, detailed plans for the bigger, better magic kingdom; that is, before the Big C caught up with him. It seems so long ago now.

Since I was raised in Southern California in the 1960s, I’m a part of a generation who “knew” the O.G. of the O.C. I’d been to Disneyland on a few occasions – once as a kid with my parents for the trip of our lifetime and once on Microdot and “mersh” for the anti-trip of a teenage life.  It was called “Grad Night” as in high school graduation night in which only graduating seniors can attend.

I may have gone twice more as a young adult when we’d conceal vodka in baby bottles, tuck the colored dreads up in a hat, bring a change of clothes, remove visible piercings, since in the 1980s Disney Park Management didn’t appreciate counter-cultures even if paying admission. It wasn’t wholesome; as if Grad Nights were Pat Boone and Debbie Reynolds running hand-in-hand, mouths open, eyes wide looking for the soda fountain.

Yep. This would be different; a different time. a different century. a different Disney; a different life in all respects. While my wife, Kim worked, I’d brave the parks with my two little girls. We’d rendezvous later.

Under a hot March sun we were in “Dinoland”.  My eldest daughter, Violette was complaining that “there are no bones, Dad” since she’d looked forward to dig for dinosaur bones. You see, she hopes to study science. Her seriousness is very familiar, not lost upon me. She was right. There were only slides, small water slides, a roped jungle gym and sand. But, with a nonverbal shrug, palms to the air, I intimated what are you gonna do?

On the other hand, my youngest, Lily had enough. She was hot, her clothes wet. She was in full throat, two-year old tantrum mode and she didn’t appreciate my obtuse indifference to her suffering. She flopped on the ground like a fish out of water. It’s moments like this that I question my idealistic image of fatherhood; if not the participation, my execution of the lofty ideal (boy, wish I had that vodka from 1986 now). Well, it’s not the first tantrum and won’t be the last, I thought.

At that moment my mobile phone rings. I glance at caller ID – 714 area code. Hmm, Orange County? Second ring. I dunno anyone behind “the Orange Curtain but”… third ring; a call from my Disneyland? A fourth ring. Oh I hate sales calls. (But anything will beat this scene so), I answered it with a smiley, helpful voice. Hell (it might mean money) O!

Nope. It’s a quivering, crying woman on the line. All right, you just had to answer it. She asks if I am who I am? So, I repeat “this is Max; how can I help you?”  Through sobs, she asks a question that halts all time and space. “Does Menges mean anything to you?”

Yeeeesss “that’s my German birth family name”, I told her. Quickly, turning on a dime, she transitions to, “Where were you born?” Okay, I’ll play this game. Upping the ante, in German I reply, “34 Gartner Strasse, Pirmasens, Deutschland”. Now she cries heavier as it becomes clear to me that after 30 some years of searching, a lifetime of wondering, it’s finally happening.

I felt a smile growing across my face. For no particular reason I looked into the sky as I listened to the sobs.  Could my life’s mystery ultimately be coming to a conclusion?

The crying voice awkwardly offers the cliché punch line – “I hate to tell you like this but”… time momentarily freezes as I reassure myself…  your parents are dead. my children are at my feet. my wife’s in a conference room. There’s nothing that bad but isn’t this how people tell yay about the death of a relative?”… “I think, I’m your sister”, she concludes.

I heaved a heavy breath (although she recalls I did after she asked the first question but it won’t be our last point of contention). I ask her name? Stuttering, “iiiit’s Juuudy, but I was born Jutta”. “Jutta,” I said.  She repeats it and so did I – several times. “Hello Jutta, I’ve been looking for you all my life.”

At this point in my life, I was resigned to the fact that my maternal mother would take our secret to her grave; that, it was impossible for her to tell those who came thereafter that she gave birth to a baby and had given him up. She had just turned 19 years old, had a lifetime ahead. A new man might not want to know more than what was evident – twin daughters whom she had at 16 years old.  Yes, it’s complicated but not that bad. They’re girls. But another – a third child… a boy?

Then, once you’re in it, you’re in it.  It’d be a tough act to say later one day, you know I’ve been meaning to tell you… before I met you…  What a terrible feeling it must be always wondering when a knock at the door might be that secret coming home to roost.

I wouldn’t ruin it, not me. Who would? I was given to salt of the earth people, an American Army Sergeant and his wife. You kidding? Coming out, I rolled 7/11. CRAPS! WINNER!! Better than any lotto. I won the Life Lotto.

As soon as I could understand (probably sooner) my mother shared the entire trauma of that evening… repeatedly. No fear of dysfunction, emotional scars, she loved reciting it. It was “the easiest childbirth” she’d had.

She would recall, “they brought you out from the bedroom holding you upside down by the ankles, naked, like a chunk of ham”. After reassurances from my prospective father, my mother confirmed through the interpreter, “if we’re to have a son, he’s the one…” In the din of crying (how’d Jutta sleep through that?), she remembered our mother saying one thing in English – “give him a chance in Amerika“. They walked out the door with me.

Since the only German my mother knew was “wieviel” – how much, I’m happy she didn’t ask because days after the handoff, a neighborhood “good German” reported to the authorities that there was a baby boy born in that house but he’s no longer there (implying I was sold).

From then on, except for silent bedtime hopes that she thought about me, I wished especially on her and my birthdays, she was happy. I accepted that my birth mother had moved on. Yet, perhaps in a German sense of duty, I always wanted to let her know how well it turned out, even if I was the forgotten boy.

I passively began to seek her out in the 1980s, became more aggressive in the 1990s – posting classified ads in local hometown newspapers. Finally a last shot in early 2000 with a day license on an Internet people search engine. This last try got me close but now, here in the Magic Kingdom, it was all finally coming to conclusion.

My sister, Jutta had discovered that Internet posting that I wrote on our hometown’s new website in 2000. She had recently got an Apple notebook and was new to the ether of the ‘Net. She found our mother’s brother, Helmut and a cousin, Petr.  When she found our hometown’s website… OH MY GOD! She “prayed on it for six days.” Her husband offered to hire a private investigator.

I asked Jutta of her twin, my other sister. “What’s her name? Where is she?” Jutta explained how Evi, our sister had tragically died in 2002 of a viral heart infection at 46 years old. “And our mother?” I asked. She had died in November 2005. I was batting .333 – a nice batting average but rotten when it comes to living blood relatives. But I had Jutta.

I asked “where are you with a 714 area code?” She says “Huntington Beach.” I spat, “HUNTINGTON BEACH! How long?” She replied, “for nearly 20 years on PCH.” I’ve walked past your house.  Oh my god, I’ve stayed at the Marriott next door. They were less than 45 minutes from my front door! I was that close!

In 2000, I’d confirmed from our hometown’s city hall that our mother left Pirmasens in 1965 with a “Sgt George”. She’d finally landed a G.I. free to marry, since whoever the G.Is were that fathered Jutta and I ditched our pregnant teenage mother for their wives and kids stateside. They were lucky they weren’t brought up on statutory rape. However, she finally got out of her mother’s house and had taken my sisters to America when they were almost 10 years old.

Apologetic for our mother, Jutta exclaimed “Max, there was no food”. She explained that they lived in a one bedroom house with “Oma” (German: grandmother) and her drunken second husband, Regal. Our mother worked two jobs with Oma, at the shoe factories – our hometown’s famed for shoes. Her stepfather, Regal, stole thier wages and went out drinking all night. He’d toss a loaf of bread and cheese on the table as he left.

The blessing of being given away 47 years ago were now confirmed in my left ear.

As Jutta described her stepfather – this third G.I in our mother’s life – as an abusive, torturing, neglectful, ugly man. Once they came to America, he demanded no German spoken in his house, even if it was the only language they knew. He changed their names – Jutta became Judy and Evi became Edith. He made them shovel coal into the basement boiler and even abandoned them for an entire year tour in Vietnam never sending money or a note.

The stature of my soldier dad grew greater. He quit his Army because he could not bring his dependents to Vietnam. At so many levels, how could these two American Army Sergants be so entirely different?

Upon his return, Jutta recalled his stares, molestation of our sister, they alternated sleep to guard against his entry to their bedroom. He threatened them with his revolver to their faces if they ever told our mother.  I apologized and swore never to call her by her “slave name.” You’re Jutta.

With the single ring of a phone, my life’s blessings, the answers to many questions, they all crashed down with such immediacy that the weight caused me to sit on a park bench. In fact these answers created more questions for my poor sister. The universe turned upside down.

As my wife approached, my face betrayed the hour long vortex whirling through my mind. My face was unlike she’d ever seen. “What was wrong?” she lipped silently to me.

My heart raced. My head spun. My anger swelled as memories of my simple life flashed and an unconditional love grew for my sister. This was my sister. I am her little brother. It felt right even though it was barely 60 minutes new.

Her grief continued to pour forth since our mother never mentioned my birth. “We were only 16 years apart, Max. We were more like friends than mother and daughter”, Jutta said. The time lost; that, these years could’ve been spent together. “I always wanted a little brother, she cried”. Her guilt to have not protected me as she had Avi and two other little sisters as they struggled for food, attention, love.

“I can’t believe this, Max”, she continued. Whoa, whoa, whoa, back up. What? There are “more sisters?” How naive. I never contemplated this possibility. Of course, our mother could’ve bore more children. What was I thinking; that, she’d stop at 19 with me? She had a husband. She made a family with him.

I asked about these other sisters. Nonchalantly Jutta says, “Charlene’s in Arkansas” and she didn’t know where “Diane” was: “she’s on drugs”. Oh! At least I have something to relate to one of them… other than a mother, of course. My god, I have two more half sisters. This is more than what I had ever assumed.

The vernacular was tricky enough, as I delineated between my mother from our mother. Now I have additional sisters in a three-dimensional, post-war dysfunctional life smorgasbord. There was however no term confusion with my father and “Chuck”, the stepfather from hell.

The conversation rambled until Jutta inquired “don’t you wanna know who our fathers are?”. “No!” I spat. Without conscious, I said “they were just dicks that got want they wanted and didn’t care to hang around”… Whoa.

I just speak frankly to my sister. I’d always held back with my mother’s two children, who were generations older than me, from another marriage. I felt oddly comfortable. I continued that “it doesn’t matter who they are.  They got what they wanted but wir sind blut” (German: we are blood), I said.  We are born of our mother, not our fathers, I concluded.

Surprisingly unoffended, she went on to explain that her husband had doubts about my authenticity, which is funny since that’s been an ongoing theme in my life.  However she knew that in a small city, there was “only one Erika Menges”. She spent days deliberating, no “prayed” on this news. How could he not only know her name but that she had twin daughters? “It must be true”, she told Kevin, her husband.

Thankfully I’ve carried my official papers and German passport throughout my life. I knew our mother’s name, her birthdate, the address of our house, where we were all born.

However, more important than paperwork, my mother’s intuition answered many questions that Jutta had wondered years.  Why our mother did not speak to Oma (grandmother) for nearly 30 years after immigrating to the States. Why our mother doted on her son, Eric’s best friend, Max when he visited. She asked, “Did she know you’re name was Max?” Why our mother wanted a computer after Jutta used one to find Unkel Helmut and Cousin Petr.

The epiphanies were many and hard for Jutta and for nearly a month after this first call, she called with new revelations, often repetitively and for hours. “It must’ve been Oma, Max! She made Mom give you up!”

I’d simply say, “I know, Jutta”.  “No! Max, it was her. Mom would’ve worked three jobs to keep you.” I assured her, “Jutta, I do not doubt it”.

My mother was keen to what was happening that first night. I’ve had my whole life to make peace with it. However, it’s all new, crashing upon schwester Jutti.  As hard as it is not to look back, we have to look forward (but “could you get a Verizon phone”, I asked “because you’re killing my minutes”).

Within three months we met in Manhattan. It was bittersweet. To meet in middle age certainly was regretful yet, it was really because of Evi’s absence. When I saw Jutta she was nervously posed on the lobby couch of The Lucerne Hotel. As she rose, I saw no visible resemblance except our broad shoulders, strong stature. We hugged for a considerable time. I whispered for her to feel Evi with us; feel her arms around us. I spoke Evi’s name out loud hoping to call her spirit into this overdue embrace.

With our spouses, we went to their room. As she gave my daughters gifts, I suddenly thought – bubbly. We must toast the moment. Under the guise of feeding a parking meter, I excused myself and ran across West 79th Street to a package store.

I returned with the champagne surprise to find that she and Kevin “don’t really drink”.  Oh? There’s gonna be a lot to get used to, I guess, uh? Kindly they shared a glass, a toast for this special moment.

A moment that I never thought would happen. Then again as I hung up from that emotional, awkward first call, I considered where I was. The Magic Kingdom. It was a natural setting because… when you wish upon a star, it makes no difference who you are…

My Transcendental Moment

this is an excerpt of essays I’ve been compiling under the working name, “when you wish upon a star

In 2009, I thought the fiftieth anniversary of my birth would be a perfect time to return to my German “heimat“, my birthplace. It just seemed right . “Recht” or right has a significant connotation – a moral certitude. It holds importance in the language… or so I’m told. They say you can never go home. Well, I have a distinct character flaw whereby I often do the opposite of what I’m told – quite innocently at times, stubbornly overt at others.   The time seemed right now for that transcendental moment in my life.

Since I can remember, it had been a dream, a goal to return on my own volition. Somehow, maybe, vanquish those questions that continuously swirled in my head – questions of legitimacy, loss, meaning to an unwanted life.

I wanted my feet to touch the soil for where I could have belonged. I wanted my hands on the mortar and timber that first held me, even if it was for only 24 hours. I was like a foundling Douglas MacArthur. I promised myself that I would return no matter the circumstances. I’d show them, whoever they might be?

So though it was winter, I asked my wife and children to pursue this selfish dream. To reward them, I planned if you will, a wrap party – a Bavarian Christmas. My wife loves Christmas and Germans invented it. My little girls love Santa and after all Kris Kringel was German. However, my focus would be on my return to my heimstadt, Pirmasens, if only for one day. It’d be sufficient. Center me. Give me more perspective, less wondering. You know, a transcendental experience.

As the sun rose on July 21, 1959 I was born of statutory rape to an unwed teenager in her mother’s three-room house. My immediate future decided by my grandmother, who insisted I summarily be given away. Who could blame her since twenty-eight months earlier my teenage mother had given birth to twin daughters out of another statutory rape. For centuries conqueroring armies have had their way with the youngest, weakest, neediest female survivors of war. (Why do you think we project intercourse in male sexual parlance as “conquests”?)

So the story goes, as the sun rose the next day, I was gone without a trace, given in the night to new parents – an American career G.I and his wife. Within a month, my Father had orders for France. I was never to see my heimat again… until this moment.

To bring two little girls – 8 and 5 years old to Europe for several weeks was daring fate. However, I wanted my children to share this moment. If I was to have children, I wanted – please forgive me – my children, not adopted. (I’ll adopt later.) These girls are a piece of me. This is also where their, no, our journey begins. They are a part of many transcendental moments. They make it a victory lap.

To settle into this return we spent the first week near the Rhine River – Germania’s cradle. Fitting. Poetic. We could ease into this monumental moment (like intimate, lengthy foreplay – probably contrary to my conception). We rented a little villa in the quiet wine country, an hour drive to various cities with their renowned “Christmas Markets”. I could ease them into this trip with the sights, sounds and smells of the season. I was building a fitting crescendo.

Now it was Friday morning but my youngest, Lily, was already worn thin. I couldn’t blame her. She stayed awake during the overnight cross Atlantic flight. Then on the first morning in Cologne as the carton of warm Euro milk touched her lips, she puked all over her mother and the breakfast table. Later, we’d enjoy a Christmas Market or two a day, returning late each freezing night to the villa. But now, on my day, she wouldn’t get dressed.

Pirmasens is in southwest,  the furthest drive from our base camp villa. A two hour drive and we were all ready losing time. Finally we just put Lily’s boots, hat, and jacket over her pajamas.

My wife asked if she could try driving the Autobahn. She was giddy, shoulders rising to her head, a shy little smile. She didn’t realize this was quite a relief for me. I could sit; navigate without concentrating on Audis and BMWs doing 200 KMph. I could focus on this moment. Instead I grew anxious by the kilometer.  As we neared Pirmasens, I had full blown butterflies circling my stomach.

Why’s this happening? What am I doing here? Was this a good idea? I really didn’t quite know but it was hard to fight back the nerves as we crossed from the west to east over this long span bridge that strung over a deep valley.

It was a bright, cold cloudless day as we pulled onto Zweibrücken Straße. It looked like any Main Street, USA as we entered – two way narrow traffic lanes, crowded on either side by old, often vacant, beat up buildings.

Pirmasens lies on the steep slope of a mountain. Zweibrücken Straße cuts east-west across this steep north-south incline. That Cologne Innkeeper emphasized this steepness as he explained Pirmasens had been his first German home when he migrated from Croatia (for that coincidence all the beers, fries and snacks were free… although Lily gave hers back the very next morning at breakfast).

Due to the grade, streets run off Zweibrücken Straße in peculiar, steep angles. German towns aren’t grids… unless of course Allied bombers obliterated the town; even then many have been meticulously rebuilt precisely as they were. When my hometown was started in the 9th Century, no one had an eye for sensible urban planning. So, against my male instincts, I told my wife to pull into a gas station; I’d buy a city map.

FOUND IT ! There it was in the city’s center of whirling streets – Gärtner Straße. It’s the address on my yellowed adoption papers, which I’ve kept all these years. Gärtner Straße 34 – my birth house. I felt excitement or was it dread? (My blood sister, Jutta recently discovered she had a little brother after all these years. “How could mother not tell me? Anyway) when we met, Jutta referred to our neighborhood as “a slum”. I could not get that out of my head.

Gärtner Straße slid down the hill off Zweibrücken. Wait! Within a city block, it’s become a different street – Bismarck Straße. And there wasn’t a 34, not even close. We circled up and back down, over, down and back up and over Zweibrücken and down Gärtner Straße. No sign of it on my map and no sign of it pass Bismarck (and if you know German history, it’s hard to get pass Bismarck). It was a circular maze of anonymous attached three story brown stones.

I’m dizzy and my wife patiently suggests we stop to look at the map closer. Uh!? A few blocks west, the map also has a Gartner Straße – no umlaut over the “a”. Are you kidding me!? I grabbed my yellowed official papers to reconcile such an oddity. As I flipped the pages… OH my GOD!!! The papers have the street with and without umlauts! You got to be kidding! How unusually careless for notarized government papers, I thought, especially official GERMAN papers! (What would I have told Gestapo back in the day? It’s your fault?)

We’re losing day. Let’s just double back west and try this Gartner Straße. Soon there, we dropped down this steep street. Hey there are numbers in the thirties. This could be it! I quickly spat, “let’s park”.

(Remember my wife, Kim’s driving the rental – an odd compact Opel family wagon as) we stopped on this steep hill. The parking design on our right was peculiar, perpendicular – front bumper to curb at an oblique upward angle – better suited for a car driving up the hill. However this was now a one way street down the hill. (By now my illusion of superior German attention to detail and design had been shot to hell.)

We stopped. Survey the situation. Agree. Kim tries the impossible, quasi-U 270 degree right turn for a park spot. We couldn’t make it. At best, this is going be a “three point” turn and now she has to put the Opel in reverse. It’s a manual stick and since I picked it up at the airport I’ve had trouble even finding reverse… just jamming it into gear if needed.

So, Kim tries jamming it several times unsuccessfully. With each try, we rolled forward closer, closer, and closer to an unoccupied parked car. The front bumper almost presses against that passenger door panel. We’re out of tries. Worse our rear end is also blocking this skinny one-way street.

Exasperation turns instantly into panic as I see the undercarriage of a black BMW appearing at the crest of the hill. It drops down the street slowly. We’re all stuck.

Seconds seemed like minutes then a burly, redheaded German version of Barney Rubble hops out of the passenger side and strode up to Kim’s driver window. Simultaneously waving her out, he asks in German if she needed help?

I lean over from the passenger seat to say in German “please, we’ve had problems with reverse…” and out of the corner of my eye, I catch his tall blonde female companion walking down the street, approaching Kim, speaking English. In mid-phrase I switch to English to ask if… before I can, he impatiently shakes his red head no, as if to answer the question of English. His smile is upside down and I’m on his time. He’s got better things to do with Fraulein Elegance than me.

Without a word, he pantomimes with right hand to the stick shift, pointing under the stick knob. Forking his fore and middle fingers – at first faking the motion – then pulling up on the rubber ring below the stick knob; effortlessly he slides it into reverse.

SCHEISSE! (“Shit”), I barked in my dumb-ass shock. Momentarily stunned, he stopped all these fluid, confident masculine movements and breaks out laughing. I laugh that nervous uncomfortable – “I’m such a pussy” – laugh, repeating it, as if begging to please pity me.

“Scheisse… scheisse”… Defensive, awkward, I try to salvage what manliness I may still possess with the stranger. I poorly repeat this broken, one way dialogue regarding reverse, as he parks the Opel, turns to ask in German, “why are you in Pirmasens? I reply, “I was born here.” His head cocked, face twisted. Pause. Rhetorically he asks, “In Pirmasens”? I say “yeah, perhaps on this street” as I point down.

With a “huh?” shrug, he got out. Meanwhile my mind hits warp speed, I reflect on a lifetime of mechanical ineptitude. Inferiority. My uselessness. A childhood of recoiling at my father’s disappointment at my lack of knowing a monkey from a socket wrench, closed-end, open-end, righty tighty, lefty loosey – “I swipped a tank engine into a ’51 Cadillac”, my G.I. Joe dad would proclaim as he railed about my sad deficiency. All revisited in a blink of an eye.

Was the stranger thinking the same of me? What a retard. How could he be from here?  Mentally exhausted, I’m confident that I could’ve easily been a moron here too.

As the trauma subsided I walked down the street looking for # 34. There were only odd numbers where we parked. The entire other side – the even side of this Gartner Straße was vacant. It looked bulldozed, wiped from the face of earth.

Lily joins me – 4 blocks down at the bottom of the hill, where I had found even numbered homes but all single digit as it conveniently dead-ends. I’m so disappointed but Lily is actually happy just to be out of the Opel. She says, “I’m hungry”.

I looked up the hill like an eviscerated Sisyphus as I started to climb back up the hill with Lily, who would soon become my latest boulder.

Hell, this life’s been a boulder. Nothing’s been easy. Damnit! I know it was a small house but I should be able to find it.Talking to myself with every step.

My no surrender, stubborn instinct compelled me to drive up the hill over Zweibrücken Straße with the faint hope the numbers might start again on the other side. Immediately it’s no longer Gartner Straße. I stopped the car in the middle of the street and dropped my head. My big fat, hard head like my spirit fell to the car floor board. (No wonder “Sarge”, our family name for my father, always called me a “hard headed kraut”… his G.I German translation for – you dummy.)

It was time for a Hail Mary. A desperate turn left. Maybe Gartner Straße swerved to the west – disjointed from the lower portion of the street but the road ended. It dead-ended in a cracked asphalt parking lot. There stood 4 detached – three-story dilapidated barracks. Abandoned for years, the windows – some boarded, most without glass with long brown weeds swaying in the breeze framing the vacated grounds of… HEY! Barracks? Barracks! These are skeletons of the Occupation.

Suddenly I realize that this fits my mother’s description perfectly. Somewhere in one of those barracks, my parents fixed a bureau drawer for my first “bed”. She said they walked me up the hill to Army Housing from my birth house on that warm July night.

It was so close that for days and weeks she recalled her sympathy to watch my mother walk home, twin toddlers – my sisters in each hand, ducking under my drying diapers, strung across the barracks. My new mother wondered what my teen mother was thinking, was feeling. They shared a mother’s pain. She watched her walk home nightly and till the end, my mother recanted her sadness of silently watching her pass.

As I stared at the barracks, it all started to come together: my devastated hometown, my devastated country, an Occupation. Abandoned. Abandoned women. Abandoned children. Rejected. Loss at so many levels for so many lives. We collectively surrendered to the happenstance of other’s empowerment; other’s history.

As I stared into that dark void of the blighted buildings, I saw ghosts actively going about their business of so so long ago. For a moment my spirit resuscitated, as I saw my new parents, their happiness as they held their new baby. In my left breast jacket pocket – over my heart, I brought a yellowed, black and white photo of them, arm-in-arm prior to their Valentine’s Day 1959 departure for Europe. I wanted to share this with them.

I didn’t get out of the car. There wasn’t really anything to see. I had hoped to place my hand on the house that I was born, give my life some framing device, as cracked as it may be a foundation, a symbolic scintilla of certainty for all the lack of certainty that had followed. Expectation unraveled into a dead standstill of desolation on a windswept parking lot. This was my “home”. This was my “foundation”. My father would’ve laughed. My foundation was his only home – the United States Army. Sonofabitch. The irony; this was his transcendental moment. I smiled broadly.

The day was going nowhere and I had a hungry, tired family. My heart swung like a pendulum back to that sinking feeling. Mein Geburtshaus had most likely disappeared without trace like the forgotten baby boy. No sign we were ever here.

Don Quixote was wise not to bring along a family. It would’ve quickly halted his journey. So, who then is the mad one? I had deceived myself, chased an inanimate object, some ghosts. Then again, maybe I wasn’t so insane when I convinced myself, marriage and a family would add years to my life, even when I mistakenly tempted that fate with the occasional idiotic episode like this journey. Some may think it dangerous to take children on such gallivants. However this moment proved (again) to the contrary as it ended at the behest of their hunger. The journey was now for a late lunch.

Back to the east, this outdoor strip mall in the city center seemed inviting. It was oddly designed. A promenade that ran parallel to the street but sloped deep, deeply, deeper down the hill from Zweibruecken Straße, where I had parked. As we descended along the line of mom and pop shops, we came upon a sad little Christmas Market. An empty stage centered a line of booths on either side under the shadow of the grand New City Hall, which loomed over us several blocks above on the hill.

The market was sad in comparison to the large, well funded Christmas Markets that we had visited in prior days. Here, there were few lights, few vendors, and fewer revelers. The centuries old City Hall lay with vacant offices across this plaza, where also stood a statue of the first Palatine King who ordained Pirmasens. His sculpted face now obliterated by centuries of weather and neglect. A few steps further stood the statue of “die Schuhmacher” – the Shoemaker commemorating the industry of my hometown. The factories that provided a living for centuries between war. The place my forsaken grandmother and mother worked double shifts, double jobs to eke out food, clothes and shelter for their babies. Now the factories sustain new workers, immigrants from the Balkans and Russia. All of whom seek a better life.

The plaza design was very art deco. A faded Woolworth anchored it – a telling sign of the victors faded investment. It had been a capital landscape for which time and capital forgot. I found it appropriate that horseshit was scattered along the walk. It was sad, cold, and more importantly without a diner.

The days are short in December. This one was acceleratedas we lost the sun in this concaved, cold caldron of a promenade. Lily found some sad carousel in that sad Christmas Market appealing and though she’d been on every quaint, antique carousel at the many bustling, urban Christmas Markets, she was intent on riding this rust bucket. Now. No, please not now; not here, I pled. “Let’s go eat, Lily.”

But she’d been working up to this tantrum since morning. She shut down, bottom lip dropping like an anchor. We try walking away. She stands sobbing. My wife says, “keep going”. It doesn’t work. She’s had it and at the depths of an emotionally frustrating day, instead of simply giving in to the carousel or losing my composure, I abruptly spun around without a word and in one motion, threw Lily’s fifty plus pounds over my shoulder. Like a good soldier, I did an about face and started marching.

The promenade just kept sinking deeper down the hill with no end or lunch in sight. Kim asks loudly from a distance behind if we “should turn around” but I will not and do not turn around. I march on with Lily. They’ll catch up. I need to push this day up that hill and end this misery.

On my left I suddenly spy a steel girder staircase – 200-300 steps rising up to the street, where we had parked. I start to climb. Mumbling. Audibly bitching. I stop momentarily to rest. But I dare not put Lily down. I held her tightly against me as I continued the psycho-babble about my unmet expectations, how miserable the day had been. An insane man clutching a kindergartener marching in hopes of an end. Any type of end.

At that moment, a young woman hikes up alongside. She’s in her early 30s with light brown hair, glasses, pretty in a studious way. She shows concern. I’m embarrassed. She’s heard my grumbling. Who couldn’t? I was trying to reach the heavens to see if anyone gave a shit about my plight then or now. No one was home. There was no home.

In English and German I share small talk as we climbed. I tell her how impressed I am with Pirmasensiers hiking these hills. “You get used to it”, she says. I ask if she’s from Pirmasens. She bashfully smiles and says she’s not. She’s pleasant (even though she’s staring this happy, knowing smile without enough words to reduce the awkwardness).

As we reach the sidewalk, I put Lily, the boulder down. I turn to see that Kim and Violette panting are half way down the stairs. This young lady stands with me in the sunshine. Silent. Now it’s really awkward. Then, finally, a goodbye.

As Kim and Violette reach the summit, I startle to find the woman has crossed the street back toward us. In English she says, “I’m so rude” and apologized for not asking if we would like to come over to her home for tea, to warm up? Kim doesn’t know what to say.

I really don’t want to. I’m completely caught off guard by this kind gesture. As frustrated as I am, as a father, it’s about my kids, my family. They’re tired, hungry and cold. I need to say yes. (With a tired stare into my wife’s tired eyes telepathically we agree and) we just nod yes.

As we cross the street, Christina introduced herself. Pointing a block ahead of us, she says her husband is the pastor of this church. They live above it. “Uh oh”, I thought. Please. Christ, as miserable as I am, I do not need saved now. My adopted mother spent the last half of her life trying that one. The walk allowed me to fret over the worse possible evangelical, twisted scenarios. As we entered through an upstairs, private east entry, we found a modest, two bedroom flat with the sound of a little boy greeting us. She has a son, Joshua. He’s Lily’s age. No wonder she was sympathetic.

(To Kim’s surprise he was alone but the coincidence wasn’t lost on me. I was raised like that too. I was a latchkey kid.) The small living room had an ironing board piled with laundry with toys and puzzles strewn on the couch and floor. It was warm in many ways.

She brought out Lebenkuchen, traditional gingerbread Christmas cookies. She cut the tea with apple juice to make it go further. The girls were hungry and naturally tore through the cookies. She brought out more, though I told her, please, no (fearing these were her holiday stash for “Joshie”.)

As I sat on the couch looking around, my mind wandered. I stood up to gaze out the windows onto the red roofs of my hometown. As I sat back down, I looked at the cramped quarters. It was a stranger’s home but this could’ve been my home, my life in here and out there along the roofs and inclined streets of the village.

Olav, the pastor walked in. He was also 30ish, tall, bespectacled, a handsome guy, who unlike Christina spoke fluent English. I tell him the Cliff Notes to my story. Is he from here? He said no with a quiet laugh. He’s from Berlin. The Church has tasked him to rejuvenate parishes across Germany. Temporarily he’s here now. His mobile phone rang in his hand. Whew! I was wrong (again). He had not uttered a proselytizing word. Thank god, I exhale silently.

Joshie & Lily play on the floor nicely; neither understanding one another except in the universal “language” of kids play. Dusk has started to set. We’ve been here almost two hours. We’re warm again. Blood sugar ready. We need to excuse ourselves before I’m lost to another daydream.

As he hung up his phone, Olav simply said “God bless you” as he shook my hand (what a relief!). We exchange business cards. His card said Pastor Olav Schmidt, Methodistische Church Alleestraße. Alley Street? I hadn’t seen an alley.

To steer us in the direction of our car, Christina showed us out the opposite – Westside – door. It opened into a large vacant lot, where, at the lot’s end, stone stairs led into – OH! An alley. She said to walk out the alley and we’d be on Zweibrücken Straße.

As we descended the steps entering the alley, on the wall to my left, I notice a withering floral wreath. There was a plaque above it. As I read it, I began to seethe. I realize it’s a month old wreath commemorating the 70th anniversary of Kristalnacht. The night Jews were run out of numerous German cities and towns, their synagogues burned.

There had been a Synagogue in that scarred, vacant lot; that is, until November 9, 1939 when it was burned to the ground. Suddenly the warmth that Olav and Christina’s hospitality created was lost in the dimming light and cold of this alley. Before me stood another scarred lot of my scarred hometown, a scarred nation, all my scars returned.

After I translated the plaque for my wife, we walked silently out of the alley. I wondered how many more layers of scars are there in a lifetime. Like me, what had these people done to suffer eviction from the town they called home? Eviction from a belief that gave them comfort? Guilty by an arbitrary nature of birth and the antecedents with which we have no control.

I could be forgotten, but this, this could never be forgotten. Nor can this ever be forgiven and every year the town tries to absolve themselves of those sins of our grandfathers.

But isn’t that what I’m doing here? An attempt to absolve a complex childhood beyond my control: the bastard son shame; which is further compounded by a shame I can’t explain whenever also mentioning being German, from Germany. It’s a German shame. It’s a family shame. It’s a legacy shame. It’s my shame and no sugar coated declaration on my “Papers” of being “legitimately illegitimate” can soothe the reality.

At least I can honestly say that I’m not a German foundling. I might be better off if I was but I can certainly delineate between bastards. Real bastards – Brown Shirts violated all sanctity of civilization. They did it within blocks of where my grandmother lived, where on that very awful night she held my mother, a 4 month old baby girl,  in her arms, and where I was later born.

How naive. The entire day had revealed such an embarrassing naiveté. I had hoped the best; that, my birth home would still stand. My town spared the trauma from mad men, spared the destruction they wrought. My life defined by a past that I thought needed exercised of the dishonor. I wondered if we could ever roll this “boulder” to the top of that hill. At least I knew now I wasn’t alone.

As we strolled silently back down Zweibruecken Straße, uncharacteristically my daughters each grabbed a hand. Like never before, I suddenly felt sanctified. I was finally walking in the very footsteps of my ancestors, my mother, my sisters in hand and I held my head high. I had returned. We were stopped by a traffic light. I gazed to the sky. A snow flurry began.  I sensed renewal.

We all have our personal boulders to push to the top of some hills. Some hills are steeper than others. Some people make it, others do not. Have I made my hilltop? Certainly not. I just had darkness call the day to an end. But I found comfort to find I have a tremendous amount of company to share in that struggle and even better I have the tenacity to preserver, even if I slip.

I asked my wife if she’d still like to eat somewhere here. She quickly answered, “Let’s put some miles between us and here.” I agreed as I thought “I all ready have. I really have”.

“Youth ends when egotism does; maturity begins when one lives for others.” Hesse

For whom do I really write: me or you?

As the story continues to unfold, I’ve been told for years you should write a book… a blog… a journal and so forth. However, until yesterday when a friend wrote, “you need to write”, did it occur to me that perhaps, I do need to write.

I’ve come half a century, half a world. With all the experiences and baggage I’ve lived ten lives, maybe more. Perhaps it would do me better to write than do a mental thorzen shuffle in my mind or oratate on and on, irritating my poor wife.

I have been writing privately to my children, each in individual books. A memoir to them about them, about us. Provide insight to my motivations and my observations of them as we grow old through their lives’ milestones and experiences. Something to leave them, if they care one day.

But then again, perhaps my friend said I need to write because I am purely, poorly, pathetically bad at it. In need of practice. Of content and prose. In process. In all practical organization of thought and execution.

Oh! There I go again. Doubt. We all suffer from it. However when you are given away at birth, as I was, doubt follows you like the ugly mongrel dog that no one wanted but couldn’t kill; that, which you can’t shake no matter how you try to escape or confront it (but wait, my friend wrote, “you’re good, Max”… but wasn’t he fired – maybe he was just laid off?).

Though my youth and those antecedents have long since passed to ease the trauma of it all, perhaps this lingering doubt translates simply to – do I have the chops? Specifically, do I have the chops for others that they routinely wish to enter my mind, see the world from a different persepctive, ease their angst, anger and frustration in their live’s projectory? their struggle with modern life – isolated as they live socially.

Through life’s contradiction, it’s all an exercise in maturity in the end then… but for whom, me or you? Can it be mutually carthartic? An exercise from the futility, an expression, outreach, life lessons, or simply a mutual love. A love for words, if not able to have the audasity to say, a love for craft.

Then I realize it has all come full circle. My epitath of ego. My youthful fantasy of one last clever, everlasting gift that I dreamt etched on my ficitious grave stone – “was it good for you?”

Somehow I’ve roundly supported Hesse’s thesis, even, perhaps, solved my shyful, literary confusion. It is for you… even though we live in a world of it being all about me.