Chapter 6 - There's no End to this Life
from Herman's Memoir
Heroes from the Attic:
A Gripping True Story of Traumas and Triumphs
On my high school graduation day, Fullo and I were sitting in his living room, when with great concern for his future, he casually asked me:
"Would you like to continue working here?"
I wanted to shout, "Are you full o’ it?"
"I guess so," I mumbled instead, while shrugging my shoulders. I was always so forlorn that I had never even thought about this very important subject for more than a minute or two at the most. I always just felt that had no choice but remain in the security of Fullo’s farm or secretly live in a barn somewhere, to feed with someone’s pigs or cows. I was still too intimidated to ask how much he would pay me or about anything else related to my future. For my two years of work for him, he had never paid me one cent, except twenty cents for school lunches and one dime for the church collection plate.
Siggi and I still did not know who had paid for our passage to America, and we would never be sure who did. It was very doubtful that it had been Pa or Ma. Many years later Maxo would tell Siggi that he had paid for it, but I also remember that Fullo supposedly had asked Maxo for me to reimburse him for my trip. This would have been akin to a plantation master requiring his slaves to pay for their voyage into forced servitude after their arrival there.
In some ways, Siggi and I were worse off than African slaves in America, because we were completely alone in a new land. We were isolated and could not draw emotional strength from companions in suffering. Like them, we were torn from our homeland, had to work hard without pay and could not escape to freedom. And we could not derive hope from an underground railroad or a war that might help liberate us.
We became slaves as a direct result of our Progenitors’ War. When our parents should have supported and taught us, they were fighting each other. And against Siggi and me. Pa had never paid any attention to us. Ma’s whip had paid too much attention to us. By the time our war would end with a bizarre peace in the mid-sixties, Siggi and I would be strafed in the crossfire of at least twenty lawsuits, involving at least two dozen lawyers and judges that I would someday identify by name in the letters our mother had sent to me. And since I had been mostly incommunicado, I am sure that there would have had to be least several more of such friends that I had never learned about.
Siggi and I completely lacked the strength of family, love, friends, religion and hope. Such are as necessary to every individual as is the reinforcing steel is in concrete structures to prevent collapse during earth quakes. So far Siggi and I had endured almost continuous quakes. Would we some day collapse from aftershocks? Would we some day explode into "Everything Rage." And when we get caught will we justify our behavior by claiming "I had a bad childhood. I made a mistake. I did not have enough lawyers?"
When I graduated from high school, I still had no money, no car, no friends, no clue, no hope and no means or a place to which to escape. Fullo never mentioned wages and nothing more was said about this important subject, so my status quo was maintained for the time being. I did not know if Siggi had any plans or if someone had made them on his behalf. However, a few days after Fullo’s question to me, his brother Maxo visited us. He had reeled in Siggi and me, because he also needed somebody to work for him for as little as possible.
"Jiminy cricket, doesn’t anybody want to work anymore? The Communists are corrupting this country!" expressed political Maxo during his visit. He owned several thousand acres of tideland that his parents had bought long ago for pennies an acre from our distant relatives, the Bursmas.
Every day the tides covered his marshland as they had for eons. Maxo planned to farm some of it and the salty tidewater had to be stopped from flooding in. During the previous summer he had hired someone named Bud, to build a dike around several hundred acres with a dragline shovel, by digging clay out of the ground and in the process creating borrow pits on both sides of it. However, during the following winter, fierce storms and high tides had eroded this levee substantially and had completely destroyed a long section of it. Now Maxo wanted to re-build repair it and strengthen the dike along its entire length.
Siggi and I had graduated at the same time and he was already working on this project when I arrived there. For its duration, Maxo, he and I resided in a little old house on Freddy Bursma’s farm. I was sure that by coming here, we would increase our chances of gaining freedom. We had little money but were allowed to pump gas from Maxo’s fuel tank for Siggi’s car. At times, Maxo would even give us a few dollars so we could see a movie.
But now the two of us worked harder than ever, mostly with building a new bulwark of lumber on the outside of the dike to protect its clay from erosion. Bud drove pilings into the ground with a pile driver at regular intervals. In the areas where the dike was the lowest, Siggi and I pushed posts into the ground with a bulldozer. During high tides, which also occurred at night, the two of us floated truckloads of boards down the nearby river to various places along the dike. Floating was the best way to transport the great quantities needed to build this two-mile long revetment, because trucks would get stuck in the mud. We spent most of this summer nailing planks to posts and pilings. Afterwards, Bud filled in the resulting space behind this board wall with more clay from the adjacent borrow pits.
We also cleared away the biggest tree roots and trunks that had been deposited over the years and had gotten stuck in the mud. We sawed them apart and blasted them with dynamite to be able to bulldoze them into piles for burning. They could be set adrift and become like ramrods pounding the dike during future storms.
During some hot afternoons, Maxo brought us ice cream cones to boost our blood sugar in order to sustain our production. I did not mind working hard, because we were mostly without supervision and could smell the sea air and often bathe in sunshine. Mud was better than manure, and we could eat all we desired. Maxo was a good cook, compared to our mother, and fed us a lot.
After our dike work diminished, I did some yard work for Bud and his wife. She made a note in her cookbook that "Ami will make good someday." Years later, I would visit them again with my new bride, and Bud’s wife would show us this inscription to confirm that she had been right.
* * *
One evening we were having dinner in the unfinished basement of Freddy’s house, where Maxo always prepared our meals. We discussed our progress and what we had to do next. He had a sample of his cooking stuck to the corner of his mouth, where he often kept a specimen until it fell off. After this greasy dinner our talk became serious. Our bellies were full, and Maxo savored his usual coffee but should not have. It caused his blood flow to increase to the point that it roughly created a pink profile map of his tideland on his balding forehead, at a scale of twenty thousand to one.
He acted like a jet setter, leaning back in his chair, pensively drawing on his cigarette much like a plantation owner would enjoy a cigar. He talked importantly about politics and drew upon his experiences to observe that Washington D.C. was corrupt. There were goons who were interfering with his freedom to build a dike, to develop clam beds and also were stealing the fruits of his labors. There were mysterious events happening in the nation’s capitol. When we asked him for specifics he became nervous and vague. This indicated that there could be some basis for his claims, or he could be paranoid, since he never mentioned names but always referred to everyone as "they." He traveled to the East coast every winter but always was very secretive about what he did there. Therefore, I asked him directly, "What do you do in Washington, D.C.?"
"I work for the State Department."
"Oh, I travel to Eastern Europe and write reports for the Department," he answered, looking at the table as if it had asked him that question, while the map on his forehead became more defined.
He was always so nebulous about his employment that people teased him that he worked for the CIA. He never denied it, because he liked to play the spy role, as well as the professor role and implied by his demeanor that this might be the case. This image was reinforced in that for years to come, he would never smoke before he left but would always be nervous and smoking again upon returning from Washington. D.C.
* * *
That summer Siggi applied for admission to Washington State University and was accepted. I had no idea how he could pay for it, did not ask him, and gave little thought of attending college myself. The scores from my grade prediction test were too low, I never had much confidence in my academic abilities, and I had no money. In Germany only the elite attended the Gymnasium. We had been lucky in that respect, even though we had to struggle to meet its academic standards, and I more so than Siggi. I also thought that only the elite attended college in America and barnyard boys were not quite the elite. Even up to this stage in my life, I was still habitually keeping my mind in its cocoon and still did not even question anyone about how Siggi would manage to enroll in college. However, eventually my desire for freedom intensified, and I told Maxo that I would also like to get more education.
"What can I do for a living? Should I go to college?" I asked him, instead of "how much will you pay me?"
I watched Maxo’s face grow dark, while he gazed at the food that he was preparing. My intuition told me that I had said something unpleasant to him. He continued to fix his stare on his work, while the electro-chemical activities inside his skull increased dramatically. He appeared to be thinking:
"How can I tell him that I want him to work for me forever?"
Instead of answering my questions, he humanely told me that I was a little lazy and stood around a lot. He expected me to wrestle and pound more vigorously, and to emphasize his remarks he continued that our cousin Willem also had that opinion.
Then he cheered me: "Let me see your grade report."
Obediently I showed him my final high school grade card.
Then he landed his final punch, such as I had suffered before.
"You are not smart enough to go to college."
My heart dropped into my dirty shorts, then bounced back into my dry throat. I believed him and had no reason to think otherwise. Often I hesitated before responding to others, to fill in the muffled indeterminate sounds. When you do not hear well, stupid people may conclude that you are stupid and some will also tell you so, and such false belief alone can actually subdue your creativity and success in life.
* * *
Maxo paid me intermittently only a few dollars in the spirit of making a gift, which it was not. We did not keep time sheets, and he was always vague about our work, our pay and our future. One day during late summer Maxo had another brilliant insight along that line:
"Why don’t you buy your brother’s car to help him with college?"
"Help with what?" I shot back at him.
"We’ll work it out," said Maxo.
"I don’t want to buy it. The tires are bald and the springs are sagging."
"You should help out your brother," Maxo insisted.
He had a strange sense of humor, had no clue about reality, knew too much about reality, wanted to exploit me, or a combination thereof. My net worth could not have been more than twenty dollars, he probably had more than a million, and Siggi worked for him and not for me. He did not explain how I was to help Siggi. His plan was to retain me permanently on his new farm. He did not tell me this at that time, but oddly enough, he would tell me this when he visited my wife and me long after I had left his tideland. To give Siggi and me hope in lieu of pay, he dangled virtual carrots before us with vague promises. He was single and often lonely and retained a few friends and relatives in contact with him by implying that some day they might inherit some of his wealth. His method worked quite well, because it attracted them like, ouch, I bit my tongue again, honey attracts flies.
As it had been on the dairy farms, Siggi and I did not know if we did or would ever get paid a fair wage, and we did not even know what a fair wage would be. I was still held captive with invisible chains, while Siggi was quickly loosening his. I worked without complaint and was ignorant of such basics as employment benefits and much more.
I had no means to help my brother with college. We never received any help from anybody and expected none. Our mother’s court battles with our father had always provided insufficient means for our living, and therefore, we knew how difficult it was to get money. Ma had fought for it like the devil, and our labors on the dairy farms earned us not even enough food. Now, as before, the one I lived with and worked for kept me intentionally isolated and ignorant.
That September I drove Siggi across the state with the old Ford to take him to college. The question of its ownership was not resolved, because it was still registered in Maxo’s name. Long after this, Siggi would tell me that I never paid him for it, and I insisted that I had not bought it. I did not pay him personally and Maxo apparently did not pay him enough on my behalf. At this time, I had signed no transfer papers for this car. The vague idea of its ownership was probably part of Maxo’s manipulation to keep me befuddled and tied to his land, while at the same time making me think that he was paying me a decent wage by implying that the Ford was part of my wages, because I was allowed to drive it while I kept working on his tideland.
I thought that the Ford had been part of Siggi’s pay for his work during the previous summer. Now it became my reward. Nevertheless, Siggi and I appreciated whatever little he paid us, because otherwise we would have continued to have nothing.
* * *
Before he left for his annual trip to the East, Maxo drove with me to the employment office in Everett to find a job for me. Or so he said.
"What kind of work would you like to do?" he asked me on the way.
I was dumbfounded, because I had not given this much consideration.
"I don’t know," I shrugged.
"Would you like to be a grocery clerk?"
"Maybe," I answered uncertainly.
I felt uneasy about having to work with the public. It meant having to smile politely, cluelessly, when someone asked me a question that I did not hear well enough. It meant being ignored when my slow movie star Peter Lorre-like speech put someone into a trance.
Maxo led our way into the employment office.
"Do you have a grocery clerk job?" he asked the officer.
The clerk searched his files.
"No, we don’t have anything around here, but there is an opening in Pasco."
"Is that in Texas?" I inquired hopefully, confusing it with El Paso from a Western song.
"No, it’s in Eastern Washington, one of the Tri-Cities."
I felt ignorant, I was ignorant. It was one of the worst traits in a human being, to be ignorant. But I did not know this, because I was ignorant.
Maxo did not ask about other types of jobs or what other openings there might be, and we filled out no papers. If he really wanted me to get one, he would have told me to apply for the Pasco job or for anything else that would be able to do regardless of location.
On the way back to the tideland, he informed me, "I have to fly to Washington D.C. next week. I want you to stay on the tideland and keep an eye on the dike."
"Also, I want you to take my mother from the nursing home twice a month and drive her to visit with Uncle Deepo."
Freddy’s house where we had stayed for the summer was located several miles from Maxos tideland. Now Maxo drove me to the abode that he was going to move there. I had learned long ago not to expect too much from my new homes. Rather than getting hyper again, I was disinterested. Unlike our homes in Rheinfelden, this one was not a mansion or a cozy attic. It was not a mobile home or a trailer house. It was a shack. I had never seen such a dilapidated hut in Germany, even though there had been severe poverty and a great housing shortage. This contraption was built of pressed wood fiberboard and had expired long ago.
Instead of becoming my American Dream, it intensified to my old nightmare. I felt severely homesick, because it was so similar like my sick old home in the attic. It had no telephone, no electricity, no water, no and sewer.
After we hauled my new nightmare to the tideland, we placed it behind the old dike on the neighbor’s field. We placed it exactly square with the world, so there would be a hint that an architect might have designed it. This location would also provide some protection from the frequent southwestern storms and serve as a scarecrow, or a target, for exuberant hunters. Maxo wanted me to keep an eye on his property, not only because of Mother Nature, but also because people were also destroying his property. Someone had once thrown dirt into the fuel tanks of the equipment and shot a hole into his boat.
After we protected my new mobile home estate with a sheet of fluttering plastic, I moved in. I would have to continue my struggle for survival. I still would not have the most basic implement for survival. I would not even have an outhouse. To go potty, I just had to let it all hang out and fall out on the muddy field, always cognizant of which way the cold wind was blowing. As in the good old days, I could not wash my hands or take showers. Although I had moved yet again, I still felt so much at home. Completely useless, homeless and hopeless.
All winter long, I brought in drinking water in an old milk can, timed between storms, when I could spin and slide the Ford all the way to my in-the-mud hut. My standard of living was now lower than ever, when I had been sure that this would have been impossible. Now I was a lonely, waterless, toilet-less stick stuck in the mud. I thought that I had reached the zenith of my life’s accomplishments, when I had belonged to the virtual Boys Club in high school before I grew facial fuzz. And as yet, I still did not have to shave even though I was almost twenty years old.
* * *
For some reason, I was getting a little desperate to begin my life. I now had a car that I could drive and a little money that Maxo occasionally "gave" me. This allowed me to expand my horizon somewhat.
After my eighteenth birthday, Fullo had taken me to a draft board to register me for the Selective Service. I could be selected to be drafted, because I was classified 1-A, the category to be called up first during man-made crises. From my perspective from the mud flats, I saw no other employment options, so I visited the Army recruiter who smiled from a poster. If I had to work, I might as well earn money and serve my new country as well. The recruiter wanted me to serve inside a tank. I knew that I would suffer severe claustrophobia inside a mobile bunker, but nevertheless I agreed to enlist.
I rode a bus with a group of draftees to the Seattle induction center for the required examinations. There we had to take written tests and fill out lots of papers and provide our health histories. The soldier in charge said that anybody who lived in the Seattle area should add "sinus trouble" as an existing ailment. Since coming to the Evergreen State, I had had a lot of bloody snot that continued to worry me a lot, because I had never had such before. I even had told my secret to Aunt Houwke, and she had assured me that this was normal.
I was not sure of all the diseases that I had had as a child, but there had been many. After completing our paperwork, we prospective servicemen were herded into a big room, where everyone had to shed their clothes and assemble in a queue to be inspected. Or to be admired. In this queue were thin ones, fat ones, tall ones, short ones, and some with short ones and some with long ones.
I stared at the floor.
"Bend over!" came from behind.
I snapped my butt to attention.
This was not worth fighting for. I squeezed shut, fearing to offend the inspector of the assembly line.
"Spread your cheeks," he ordered me.
A man I had never seen before ordered me. I was stark naked and yet he ordered me. Everyone always gave me orders, whether I was fully dressed or stark naked.
I straightened up again, blushing. Blood had rushed to my head from bending over. Down the line came another orifices inspector and stuck a funnel into my left ear. Shone a light through it.
"OK. Right ear."
He removed the funnel and replaced it with a clean one.
"You have a problem," he advised me as he made a note on his clipboard and continued his inspection down the line.
After our physical and written exams and a lengthy wait, someone called my name first.
"Neuman." That was I.
"Here," proudly I rose, waved my hand and stood at attention.
"Get your ugly face out of here," he announced to all. Even though these few words prevented my escape to freedom, the draftees cheered, because they hoped that they too would be ugly.
I traveled back to the womb of my fiberboard shack. Back to my homestead with dynamite under my bed. I was so devoid of hate and anger that I never even entertained the idea to use this dynamite to get people’s attention.
* * *
A few weeks after Maxo left for the East Coast, he wrote me the following:
"I can well imagine you cannot do anything with the Caterpillar (bulldozer), and it may be best to let it go until the weather clears up."
"However, if there is a chance to make some cedar fence posts, you could try and split a couple hundred. Only if you are out of work. I would like to have you clean up the tracks on the cat and paint them with used oil to keep them from becoming rusty…
"You mentioned what should be done with the dynamite. Ask my sister how much of the dynamite she wants and take it to her, and take a little extra down there in case we need some. If there is any left, let Mike have the rest. He can also get the black powder that is in Freddy’s shed. The powder is dangerous because it takes only a spark to ignite it. However, I am not aware that dynamite is that dangerous. Dynamite should not be thrown around…
Sincerely your Uncle Maxo"
Since Maxo H. H. Schitzma thought that dynamite was not that dangerous, I was not too concerned about it. It was stored under my bed, because that was the only place where there was room for it. However, this dynamite became so mushy that I could push a finger into it. I assumed that the persistent damp ocean air had rendered this dynamite harmless and that the watery pearls on the sticks was only condensation.
My hut had an oil stove next to its exit door. This stove had a three- or four-gallon tank attached to its back and was located about three feet from my mouse infested bed. But I rarely fired it up, because like my groceries and drinking water, I also would have to bring in the fuel oil. It was just too troublesome, especially when I had to carry it several hundred feet over slippery mud, when it was raining and that was practically all winter long.
In my constant struggle to become civilized, I mostly wore pajamas to bed instead of muddy clothes. One night I woke up freezing, so I attempted to light the stove. To do this, I opened a valve to drain some oil into its firebox. Since it was too dark I had to guess how far and for how long I had to keep this valve open. I kept dropping lighted matches and burning paper into this oil that was not very volatile, because it was so cold. Frustrated that it would not light, I stuffed a newspaper into the stove and lit it. After the fire finally started with a roar, I adjusted the oil flow control and returned to bed.
The stove and pipe began to thunder, pop and crackle. I jumped out of bed, shut off the oil valve and dove out of my hut. Outside, roaring, flickering shadows told me to keep running. When I turned around I saw that the rusty stub of a chimney was a giant torch lighting up the night. Barefoot and shivering at a great distance, I did not return to bed until the stove burned itself out.
Because of my warming experience in this cold night, I thought it to be a good idea to carry out Maxo’s request. To do so, I had to embrace the dynamite box to hold its soggy bottom together to carry it to the trunk of the jalopy. Then I also had to drive on a bumpy gravel road to deliver it. Only decades later would I learn from an article in my daily newspaper that this episode should have ended all of my agonies. It stated that a sheriff in Northern Idaho had discovered such mushy dynamite the barn of a farmer, and decided that it was too dangerous to remove it. Therefore, he wanted to blow up the barn and some of its contents to prevent somebody from getting killed.
Only after reading this article did I realize that I probably had been in great danger for many months. To confirm this, I described the condition of the dynamite, the box and how I had transported it, to a bomb disposal expert. He informed me that I should have exploded. I think he meant along with this dynamite and not from my ever-increasing internal pressure.
My guardian angels had protected me again, as they had so many times before. They had saved me from bombs, bullets, head-rot and Ma’s high altitude boiling. They had safeguarded me during serious illnesses and starvation, from my father and my second mother, from our home-made armaments and from years of eating semi-spoiled foods with grubby fingers. They had protected me during hurricanes on land and on the ocean and from raging bulls. But most importantly, they had prevented my thoughts of killing somebody, of killing myself.
But why had they blessed Siggi and me with such weird parents and so many lawyers?
Although I could not shower on the tideland, I did take a bath that also could have done me in. After it had been raining heavily all night, I drove to town. I crossed big hump in the road that was part of an old dike. My car splashed into an unexpected swirling sea of muddy brown water. Unbeknownst to me, the nearby river had risen over its banks. I backed up the car and waited to ponder how I could continue my journey. I decided that I might be able to walk to Freddy’s house that was not all that far away. So I put on the rubber hip boots that I always carried with me in the car, entered the flood and continued float-walking, trying to follow the submarine roadway as best as I could. But the current became so strong that I floundered into a hole, immersing me to my armpits. Afraid that I would be sucked down the river, I struggled back to the car and drove home again.
When will there be an end to this life?
* * *
Although I had missed a lot of chances to depart into the sky, I once observed others crashing from the sky during my crushing existence on the tideland. While I was returning there late one afternoon, I observed an airliner descending into the mountains far from an airport. It disappeared over a forested hill, barely missing it. Since I was sure that this plane was in trouble, I turned toward its direction to investigate.
Before long, the car radio confirmed that a Boeing 707 on a training flight had just crashed. A couple of vehicles with "Press" decals passed me at great speed, and I tried to follow them, thinking that since this was a very low population area, they were heading to this important news event. Later I found them parked by the edge of a forest, along with a few other cars. I looked for a road or trailhead but could not find one. So I took a chance and simply went straight into the thicket, in the direction the vehicles were facing, to struggle through the underbrush, hoping to find the crash site.
Within a few hundred yards I came to a clearing, a huge disaster area around a small river. Only a few people had arrived here as yet. Like everyone else, I was browsing around the widely scattered debris when a sheriff announced that anyone who was not with the press or on official duty had to leave this scene immediately. Dutifully I headed back into the woods to where I thought I had entered. By this time it was getting very late in the day, and I encountered such a dark forest that I could not even see my hand in front of my face. I felt and beat my way through thick brush. There were no lights or stars, and the only sound that I heard was my thrashing about. I had no idea if I was just struggling through a random pattern to be lost forever. Strangely, I did not worry about this, and miraculously exited the forest within a short distance from my car.
* * *
Maxo’s pretense to help Siggi and me some day were part of his scheme to keep me on his tideland. He only hinted about such and evaded my few and infrequent questions with his own questions. Siggi told me that during his first summer on the tideland, Maxo and he had had long discussions about various subjects. Therefore, I decided to impress Maxo with my intellect and simply asked him:
"How does a person think? Does one ask questions?"
The pink map seemed to appear on his forehead again, just like the time when I had told him that I wanted to get more education. He avoided my eyes and just mumbled, "No. I don’t think so."
That was the extent of this debate, and I could tell by his demeanor that he did not want to talk about such subjects under the principle of "let sleeping dogs lie," let slaves be ignorant.
However, I did follow Maxo’s suggestion and enrolled in Mechanical Drafting and Descriptive Geometry night classes at the Everett Junior College, now community college and soon to be a university. Eventually it might even become something that has not been thought of yet, maybe an intergalactic super-cyber university.
One evening, during my commute to this super-cyber university, I thought that my steering felt soft or wobbly. I stopped as soon as possible, inspected the wheels and discovered that a front tire had a hole in it and its inner tube was bulging out. I did not know for how long I had been driving on air. It was truly a double miracle in that it had not blown out, and that I even had noticed this defect in the short slice of time before I would have crashed at high speed.
* * *
The fields around my shack were often impassable, because frequent rains turned the clay into sticky, slippery mud. After the jalopy buried itself to its axles, I pulled it out with Maxo’s Caterpillar. This packed clay into the very tracks that I had cleaned and oiled so well. From then on, I parked at the end of the gravel road and changed into rubber hip boots to get back and forth to my car. Mud would ball up on my soles, travel up the sides of my boots and build up inside Villa Schitzma in the Mud faster than I could sweep or shovel it out.
I not only occupied myself with mud but also with cute little mice that pooped and piddled on everything, including on my bed and food prep counter. One morning I opened my eyes when a mouse bolted away from my face. Because they might pierce my ears or other sensitive organs, I became determined to exterminate them mercilessly, albeit without much success.
Besides furry pets, I also had feathery friends. There were dozens of swans, hundreds of ducks and thousands of snow geese. They did not want to be shot out of the sky, so they landed on the tideland only at dusk or during great storms. Sometimes, I would sneak up to the geese from behind the dike and slowly peek over its top so as not to scare them. It did not take them long to spot me, however, and then their racket would start. With honking and screeching that could be heard for miles, acres of white, fluttering feathers rose to circle the fields, rising ever higher to sail away into the distant sky.
To provide me with additional companionship, Maxo thoughtfully had left me an old car radio and a battery before he departed on his annual winter trip. But within a day or two this battery went dead. Maxo also bought me a subscription to The Christian Science Monitor and sent me a paperback book, Ethics. I did not yet know the meaning of this word and found it puzzling that he expected me to read these publications and understand their contents.
However, I read religiously with a dictionary close at hand. Initially, I was unable to comprehend the meaning of Ethics but doggedly worked my way through this book, underlining and later reviewing the words that I did not know. From the Monitor I learned the words "ultramontane" and "insurgents." I briefly felt that I should become one but did not have the courage to be a lone rebel.
At night, a camp lantern provided a gloomy light in my shack. I did not know that it was supposed to be used only outdoors, because it produced a lot of soot. Only years later would I learn that the mantles of these lamps also emitted nuclear radiation. In the radiating black deposit on the ceiling of my shack, I traced with my finger "HOME SWEET HOME." Someone thoughtlessly discarded my message by taking my home to a garbage dump after I had escaped from it.
* * *
Maxo did not communicate well verbally, even though he had almost earned a master’s degree. His verbal discourse could be very ambiguous, because he would use pronouns without identifying the person or object referred to, as in "they did this," "he did that," causing the listeners to wonder who did what. A banker once told Siggi that Maxo must be very intelligent, because he could sometimes not comprehend what he was talking about.
Up to this time, Maxo had written me friendly letters, because he worried that his dike would be destroyed again and wanted to make sure that I quickly repaired any damage. It had cost him, or the Unknown Taxpayer, to whom a monument has yet to be built, a lot of money to restore it after the previous winter storms. He wrote me instructions and demanded that I inform him weekly of the status of his dike, tides and weather. I did not like to write, as words did not come easily to me. I was struggling with my soul and the forces of nature. I was spending many months repairing the dike by filling hundreds of sacks with clay and driving hundreds of stakes with a sledgehammer, often in the wind and rain. In December, after Maxo learned that I was complaining to someone about my earnings, I received a letter from him, wherein he skillfully tugged my chains to make sure that they were still secure, while intimidating me with the most powerful method available to him:
"Apparently you don’t find it necessary to write me a letter to tell me about the project, and how you are getting along at least every second Sunday (taking mother along and back to Snohomish)... you act and do towards my friends as if I were responsible for your troubles, etc. This is something that Americans (and good people in Europe) don’t do either. For this reason I am telling you in all seriousness to do the following, or else I am through with you. If you don’t do the following I will write to Uncle Fullo immediately and you will have to go back to him. He is your guardian and he sponsored you to come to America…"
No more "uncle."
Before I even received this letter, I had sent him one with photos showing some of its most eroded areas. The dike damage from the latest storm shocked him. He responded with the following:
"…I have made arrangements with my sister as I told you before, and she can help you. You must not keep things within you, because they work themselves up to a regular explosion of bitterness. As you know you can get up to $50 a month from my sister, and your tuition, gas, food, etc. This is all I can afford at the present, but I think you can help prepare yourself for life by studying and at the same time look out for my interest. You can be sure, if you look out for my interests there, I will do all I can for you.
"Now as to the dike. The pictures shocked me when I saw them and it is probably more serious than you realize. If one or two storms did that what will happen when the storms come between Christmas and the 20th of January?
The tone of this letter was opposite from the one before, because he knew that he needed me to keep repairing his dike. Another growing season would be lost if his land flooded again with saltwater. Now he seemed to be more concerned about my happiness and offered me greater virtual rewards than in the past. He worried about the dissipation of his dike and the possible escape of his slave. Even though he was wealthy and expressed concern for me, he made little effort to improve my situation.
I have now been waiting so long for Maxo to fulfill his promise that some of my hairs are now growing in reverse directions and out of other places. Sometimes I even have to pluck them out of my computer keyboard. So when Maxo died a few years ago, I hoped to reap my reward, to receive the pay that I had earned so long ago. Therefore, I was happy to learn that a lawyer had prepared a will for him. The execution of his will would yet be another one of our spirit-lifting experiences that would be totally out of our control, Siggi’s and mine.
I did my best to do everything that he requested in his letters. I inspected the dike frequently, especially during storms and high tides. Since it faced squarely into the prevailing winds, the waves assaulted it with great force, washing it out in many places. I continued to work alone filling hundreds of sacks with clay and threw them down into the eroding area of the dike.
And so I continued to live and work from day to day, alone on the tideland, miles from anywhere. Deepo, brother of Maxo, came to visit me once. I was glad to have company, any kind of company, but he did not offer to help me, and therefore, I was not very hospitable. I did not offer him delicacies from my gourmet kitchen, although I did permit him to pee against the back of my shack.
* * *
Since Maxo had ordered me to take his mother out, I picked up my date at the nursing home and drove her to Deepo’s farm. She was in her eighties, had dementia and often did not recognize anyone anymore. She just kept staring and smiling at me, and strangely, seemed to like me.
One day, while returning from such a date, I drove past a pulp and paper mill in Everett and almost impulsively turned down the road toward one of them. It did not look or smell very inviting, and I wondered why anyone would want to work there. However, I was curious about this factory, machinery and the many pipes and from which smoke, steam and stink were wafting, and I did not expect to be stopped at a guardhouse at the end of the road.
"May I help you?" asked the guard, the dreaded authority.
"I am looking for a job," I replied uncertainly, trying to give a legitimate reason for coming here.
The guard gave me directions to the office, where I filled out a form and was hired immediately. I was now twenty years old and was finally going to get paid for my work. I decided to move from Maxo’s shack into an apartment close to my work. It had a bathroom! My first bathroom with water and sewer, ever, which I could use without duress and with abandon. To pay my first month’s rent and living expenses, I applied for a seventy-five dollar loan at a nearby bank. This was more money than I ever had had at any one time.
I felt uncomfortable in the opulence of the banker’s office, his Herrenzimmer.
"I would like to borrow seventy-five dollars."
"What do you have for collateral?" he asked me, while handing me a form.
"It is something that you pledge as a security for your loan."
"Nothing," I said.
I could read the banker’s face. "Where did this guy come from? I wish he would get out of here."
"You mean absolutely nothing?"
"These clothes here."
"Do you have a job?" queried the banker.
"Screech and Stench," I said.
"How long have you worked there?"
"I am starting next week."
He phoned the company to confirm this fact and wrote me a check. I was elated. I had made one of the biggest decisions in my life, a decision that was not made for me by other people, to borrow money, had acted on that decision and gotten results.
A crushing burden lifted from my soul.
That weekend, feeling exuberant with new freedom, I visited Fullo’s family where Aunt Houwke served tea. I announced that I now had a paying job, and we caught up on important family news that was worthless for me. It was not long before Fullo asked me if I could help him for a minute. "Sure," I said magnanimously. I was independent now and could not be chained again. Besides, I was not wearing my cowboy uniform, so I could not get too deep into his ubiquitous doodoo.
He led the way down to his slaughterhouse barn, where he picked up a pitchfork and a shovel that he gave to me. As we walked over to the milkhouse the air decayed.
My spirit decayed.
There it was.
A mass of crawling, wiggling maggots reveling in the putrid carcass parts of a onetime cow. Fullo had butchered her long before and had left her leftovers near the milkhouse by the highway, maybe in a misguided attempt to advertise his business. In the meantime, these leftovers had come back to life. When life got out of control, Fullo must have been overcome with doubts, and therefore, asked me to help him bury life.
An opportunity of hateful revenge knocked on my noggin. I suddenly wanted to experience the greatest of joys, Schadenfreude. To permanently cure his habit of exploiting defenseless poor people, I impulsively grabbed Fullo with a chokehold, flung him to the ground and sat on him. Then I pushed his face into the stinking mass and vigorously pounded it repeatedly into it, squishing maggots up his nose and ears. And hopefully also deep into his soul to clean out his mean spirit, the way maggots could have cleaned the rotting flesh out of my ear.
But I did not think of it. Instead, I tried to hold my breath, and obediently dug a hole as fast as I could, to bury this most sense-offending pile of disgusting matter.
* * *
The personnel officer at Screech and Stench did not interview me, check my finger nails for trim, or tell me what kind of work I would have to do. I did not ask him what I would do, because as unbelievable as this may seem, I still did not yet think that far ahead. I was just very happy to earn money to become independent. I was also impressed that this company would pay for my physical exam that also included a hearing test. This could only indicate that it would take good care of me.
I chose to work nights, because it paid a few cents an hour more. After my boss told me to buy leather gloves and a long leather apron, meaning that I was not going to work in a climate-controlled office, he led me deeply into a huge structure, into the bowels of earsplitting, mind-scrambling hell. I felt as if I had to slash my way through an invisible jungle of sound waves with a machete. I followed him up and down various levels, through a labyrinth of posts and beams, cranes and stacks of lumber. Saws and planers were screaming. Wheels were spinning, chains and belts were clanking and squeaking. Boards were moving hither and yon.
I resisted the impulse to run back out. I thought: "Not here, God, please not here."
I felt a great relief when we went back out at the far end of this building and into a long open-sided shelter covering a river of boards. They came floating, side by side, out of a dark cavern on a set of moving parallel chains. Except for the squeaking of chains and clapping of boards, it was relatively quiet here. Men scurrying along the riverbanks were pulling these boards from the conveyer chains, to sort them by length and grade onto a row of stacks behind and below them. My boss stopped here and explained to me the various lengths and grade marks of the boards. Since I was a quick learner, I needed no further instructions for my lifelong career. I was to catch selected boards from the conveyor and stack them up into neat piles. He did not introduce me to the other workers, because they had no time to stop wrestling big ones from this unending cellulose river.
I donned my gloves and apron, strapping down its leggings, making me feel armored and invincible like the knights of medieval Europe. I took my station between two human robots that paid little attention to me. I lifted the end of a board. It was heavier than any board that I had ever handled, and I had lugged hundreds of them for Maxo’s dike. This board was still full of sap, rough-sawn, and had been part of a tree trunk in the mill pond only a few minutes before. I pulled this twenty-foot long two-by-twelve over the rollers mounted at the edge of the waist-high river platform, guided its end unto a stack and dropped its other end with a clap. Turned around, grabbed the next board, pulled it off, threw it into place, turned around, dashed to the left, pulled it off, smashed it into place, … all night long.
When the sun set that evening, it dawned on me that I was working on the "green chain" that I had heard about in high school as being the toughest job in town. But what I despised most in my new professional career was the lack of interaction with the robots near me. While I wanted to be friends and start a tiny family circle, they did not talk. They just kept grunting and gnashing their teeth. Just like I would do for the rest of this night. And maybe for the rest of my working life.
When my body-morphing, character-warping encounter was over at two o’clock in the morning, I followed the robots out of our disassembly plant. As soon as I reached level ground without obstacles, I began to run out, even though I was dead tired and my legs were rubbery. My arms felt inches longer, my legs somewhat shorter, and my back crooked, ready to break. When I arrived home I fixed dinner: five bowls of corn flakes with milk and sugar. While I ate, I read, because I thought I had wasted the night. I had not yet rejoiced in the night that the Lord had made.
The next evening I returned to my station on the wooden river, and I was doubtful that I could last very long doing this heavy work. My body was aching. The boards never stopped coming. At times I could barely keep up with the flow, running back and forth along the river, removing boards from various locations to stack them up, while making male guttural grunts. I was using every cell in my body, all but my brain cells, which stayed cocooned in a void, as always.
And so the weeks dragged on. Night after night after my shift, I ran to the parking lot, no matter how sore and exhausted I was, because I could not wait to get out of this hell.
* * *
When Siggi returned from college for his summer vacation, he moved into my sparsely furnished apartment. After I arrived home from work, I usually wolfed down cereal while reading and then fell into bed at three or four o’clock in the morning. Siggi would be asleep, and we saw each other only on weekends, because he had a day job for a generous one dollar sixty-eight an hour in a camper factory far outside of Everett. Besides earning a few cents an hour more, another advantage of me working nights was that it was cooler then. Sweat was a by-product of heavy labors. Therefore, Screech and Stench supplied free salt tablets from vending machines. Big candy bars cost a dime.
Our small apartment on Broadway in Everett was the top of a two-story shack with a flat, black roof and dark brown siding. Or it could have been cow dung green. The rising summer sun quickly heated it to afford us the ambience of the tropics. Humid heat often woke me in the mornings, and my sheets would often be tangled around me. This was our setting of "On Broadway" that we listened to on the radio.
Again our bed sheets changed from white to gray but not as much as before, a hint of old home style. We were too tired and too independent to waste time, effort or money to wash them regularly at a self-service laundry. Nor were we making much effort to cook or do dishes. When we were thirsty, we drank out of a milk carton. When hungry, we warmed up cans of peas or beans and ate directly from them, and I often finished with four or more Danish rolls for dessert.
I usually rose by noon and since we could not afford a TV, I got a quick fix for my anomie by reading and eating We never drank soda or alcohol, because they were too expensive, and we had no peers who pressured us to do so. We had not yet made friends here with common interests and the same concerns for the problems in this world. During these times people built underground fall-out shelters for a possible atomic war, and I thought this to be silly. I did not want to bury myself alive in a bunker, because I had done that before, and I did not like it. If the nuclear missiles came I wanted to be their first target.
* * *
After several weeks on the green chain, I was transferred to the planing mill. This was the last place where I wanted to start enjoying my life. This was where I had asked God to keep me away from when I passed through here on my first day on the job. Here I also had to do the same kind of boring repetitive work. Fortunately, these boards were lighter after having been kiln-dried and planed smooth. However, my torture became much greater, although I was harpooned by far fewer slivers. I was now totally immersed in the one hundred-plus decibel shrieking of planers shooting wooden missiles in ceaseless salvos. Their screeching was louder than jets during take off. As painful as the wail of air raid sirens stretched into continuous, unwavering screams. This torture was further enhanced by the saws, motors, cranes and machinery shuddering and shaking everything.
Every cell in my body vibrated in disharmony. I felt it in my bones. I could not escape from it. We robots could not talk to each other, but with a crude sign language that was punctuated by the bird. The Company did not provide us with ear protection, and I never saw anyone wearing such. However, in my attempt to soften the sounds of hell, I stuffed a wad of cotton into each ear, which made little difference in reducing in reducing decimating decibels.
Most of the lumber we produced was a nominal two inches thick, but occasionally three-inch thick beams came down the chain. They were dripping wet and were different from all other lumber in that they also had very sharp edges. I had to let them slide through my hands to be able to keep up with the production. They soon sliced through the rubber gloves that I also had to buy, thereby pickling my hands. I never discovered what this liquid might have been, and I cannot imagine it to have been only water. It most likely was preservative and/or pesticide.
Interestingly enough, only a few years ago an osteopathic doctor diagnosed me to have arsenic in my body and prescribed a lengthy detoxification regime that greatly improved my health again. And in some ways I now feel better than ever.
I worked overtime every chance I had in order to earn enough to attend college in the fall. Therefore, I once wrestled with tons of lumber for three and a-half consecutive shifts. By the time I finished my second one, I could barely crawl. On Saturday morning, on my way to my final shift, after about three hours of restless sleep, I staggered out of our apartment to another off-Broadway performance. Siggi bid me adieu with an intensely serious face, "You walk like an old man, Neuman." Because I was dragging myself back into the bowels of hell, I obviously needed a lot of encouragement.
* * *
Since I was a chip off the old block, I was horny, and a bleach blonde sniffed this out. She had to get married at the age of fifteen, bore twins in Texas, divorced at seventeen and was now living next door. Sometimes, the three of them came over to sit on the lawn with me. Her little girls called each other "peehole." I had already pondered such a lot in my day dreams since my introduction to one in the rye in Simonswolde. Now Blondie also insisted on demonstrating one of its functions to me, when she visited me one afternoon and started kissing me on the couch. Oh, did I want to function. Oh, did I have to perform. And she even more so, because before I knew what was happening, she unzipped my pants and grabbed me. Around my muscular chest and said… …
Was that a compliment?
I almost lost my mind.
It is wrong to "drive under the influence."
Apparently to crack my self-discipline and get me under her influence, Blondie whispered softly into my ear, "The only time I’m ambitious is when I’m pregnant."
Even though by now a non-thinking body part wanted to take control over me, my ethereal conscience still managed to dominate me. It would not allow me to create another "peehole," one that I could not support, or she would not love. Therefore, I wrestled her to re-zip, she wrestled me to unzip.
My conscience prevented my ambitious member to get caught in her ambitious web, and therefore, I ran out of the apartment to escape her aggression. Wearing only her bra on top, and I cannot remember what on the bottom, no matter how hard I try, she followed me out into the alley. She yelled after me, "You expletive-deleted son of a bitch," although she was pointing a finger to the empty sky. Our scene must have titillated our neighbors. Fortunately, she was bird-dogging my talents, or they might have thought that I just had forced her to become so ambitious.
* * *
Shortly after I began working at Screech and Stench, I made the ambitious, instantaneous decision to apply at Washington State University, even though I had to repeat all of my fifth grade, even though I had always been a poor student, and even though I did not think that I would ever be able to pay for it. To my surprise I was accepted. Therefore, I simply continued living at the lowest level possible and kept saving every penny not needed for basic necessities. Like not thinking about my upcoming immigration to America, I again barely thought about the momentous change in my life by attending college.
By the middle of September, I had saved enough to pay for an entire year. Siggi and I drove to Pullman, Washington, in the old Ford that neither one of us owned. We carried no insurance whatsoever, but for now it was mine to keep. It was still in Maxo’s name, and Siggi still thought I had not paid him for it. I never owned it, had not yet signed any papers, and Maxo had not paid me enough for my work on his tideland.
We took turns driving across the state and after several hours, when Siggi was driving through the middle of nowhere, I said to him: "Stop a minute, I have to get out."
He stopped, I squirted. Before I could get back into the car, he drove off. He stopped. I ran after him. He drove off. He stopped, he laughed, we laughed. He drove away. I walked. Finally he let me back in. It was a happy time under the expansive blue sky of America, and we were off to the university.
Siggi was still driving when we arrived in LaCrosse. As we were approaching a stop sign, our car unexpectedly swerved around and screeched to a halt.
"What did you do?" I asked frightfully.
"Nothing. I didn’t do anything," Siggi replied with a worried face.
We discovered that a steering arm had come undone, causing our front wheels to cross in LaCrosse.
"Wow! If that’d happened at sixty, we’d be dead now," I philosophized.
The mechanic who repaired the car confirmed this by saying: "You are lucky guys!"
He was right even though he did not know how lucky we had always been. Siggi and I had already survived many attacks on our sanity and on our lives. And best of all, we were still full of zest for life.
* * *