When I turned eighteen years old my dad called me into the kitchen where I saw him sitting by himself. As I walked closer I could smell the grease and dirt on him from working in the machine shed where he often spent hours repairing farm machinery and working on motors. Sitting on the table next to him I saw a little tin cup that I had never seen before. He told me to sit down as he had something to share. This was odd because dad never spent much time talking with me about many things, but I could tell this was important. He pointed at the little cup and said, “You know what that is?” I said, “Looks like a small child’s cup.” He smiled and said, “You’re correct. This was mine when I was quite a bit younger than you are now. I found it out in the shed when I was clearing out some old boxes. I’d like you to have it.” I was surprised as gifts were unusual in my family, especially personal ones like this. I picked up the cup and turned it over in my hands. When I looked at the bottom of the cup I noticed a small marking on the underside that looked like small balloons tied to some kind of pitch fork. I looked up at my dad with curious eyes, and it was then that I noticed a small tear rolling down his cheek. This was something else I had never seen.
My dad was a very quite man, who spent the majority of his time dedicated to working on our small farm in south-eastern North Dakota. When he spoke, I tended to listen to him intently because his words were often few and direct about whatever topic was on his mind. My siblings and I always new our dad loved us, he just never showed it in a physical way or through the words he spoke. You could tell everything you needed to know from they way he looked at us and his body language. This method of raising us made us all very observant of the world around us. I became very sensitive to movement, intentions and sequences of events. For example, watching him work putting up a fence, you had a sense of the rhythm and sequence of how the fence was constructed. When he would hold the wire up to the fence post, you knew the next step was to staple the wire to the post using a hammer, so you would just do it without being told. Some of the ways we all worked as a family was like dancing, instinctively knowing the next step and movement.
Even at eighteen years old, I never really knew much about my dad’s life or even his family for that matter. My siblings had told me some stories they’d heard from our cousins about my dad’s childhood being pretty hard. His parents, my grand parents, were very strict orthodox catholics. They lived and raised their family in a remote region of eastern Germany near Dresden. Their whole lives revolved around hard work and strict discipline doled out by my grandfather on a regular basis. I was told that my dad and his nine siblings shared a large barracks type room on the third level of the a farm house. The room had five bunk beds where the children were paired up by age from oldest to youngest. I was told the room had a wooden floor with only one small round window near the peak of the roof. There was a large trunk sitting on the floor in front of each set of bunks where the kids had to store all of their personal belongings. There were no shelves, dressers or chairs in the entire room and it was painted a dark forest green color. Only one small light bulb hung from the ceiling that barely lit the room. I also heard from my oldest brother, that there was some kind of horrible accident that happened years ago to my dad’s family, but no one spoke about it. Ever.
As I sat there at the kitchen table looking at by dad, I couldn’t help but sense that this small tin cup had a significant connection to something or someone in his past. I placed my hand on his and said, “Thank you dad”. As soon as I touched him, he immediately pulled back and wiped the tears from his face. He cleared his throat and blinked his eyes a few times as though he was waking from a trance.
I said, “Dad, you okay?” He looked at me directly and focused his eyes on mine. “Jeremy”, my dad said, “this little tin cup is very special to me. I thought I had lost it years ago when we moved here to our farm, but today the Good Lord saw fit to bring this cup back into my life. This cup is the only thing I have left of the house I lived in as a young boy. You may not know this, but when I was about 10 years old, my childhood home was ravaged by fire, destroying the entire house and my whole family died except your uncle Hans.” I was shocked to hear this. I knew that my dad and Uncle were orphans, but we never knew how they came to be that way.
“Wow, really dad? What happened, what started the fire?”, I said. “Well Hans and I were outside feeding the last of the pigs before going into the house for dinner. All of the others had gone in before us to start cleaning up. I remember dumping the last bucket of old table scrapes in the trough when we heard a series of loud popping noises coming from the direction of the house. I looked at my older brother and said, “What was that?”. He said, “Those were gun shots!”
My dad continued his story and said, “We both dropped our buckets and took off running toward the house. It was about a 100 yards away, but it seemed like an eternity before we even got close. As we were running, I was thinking about how things had seemed even more tense than usual around the house. I remembered hearing mom and dad fighting in their bedroom the night before. I couldn’t hear what they were saying but there were loud shouts and I could hear my mom sobbing. At one point, I heard a door slam with footsteps going down the stairs to the main level. I thought about how my mother just stood in front of the kitchen sink, staring out the window while we all ate our breakfast earlier that morning. I remember how my dad would make these occasional grunting noises and glance over at my mom.”
I couldn’t believe what my dad was telling me. I never knew any of this and I could tell that, for some reason, he was finally ready to tell someone about this part of his life. I sat there mesmerized, as my dad said, “When Hans and I where about half way to the house, we could see a bright orange glow coming from the front windows of the house and smoke was starting to billow out of a few open windows. As we got nearer, we both started screaming and yelling fire, fire, get out… get out!!!”
With these words, I could hear my dad’s voice crack as he caught his breath while holding back his sorrow. “We couldn’t believe what we were seeing.”, my dad continued. “When we reached the front door, Hans grabbed the door handle and jumped back yelling in pain from the burn he just received from the scalding hot metal door knob. I put on the pair of leather gloves I had in my back pocket, turned and pushed the door in yelling for my family, “Get out… Fire!”
My dad’s eyes were wide and his face was flush as he said, “Just as I stepped into the blazing front room, I was horrified to see my mother and all my siblings sprawled out on the floor, all with horrified expressions on their faces and blood coming from their foreheads and chests. I could hardly breath as the smoke was filling my lungs. Hans had reached the room and grabbed me from behind by the shoulders yelling, “We have to get out of here!” I pulled away and yelled, “Dad, Dad! Where are you!” With that I looked over toward the kitchen doorway and saw him sitting on the floor. He was holding a large pistol in his hands that I’d seen many times before. It was from his time serving in the German army under the tyrant Adolf Hitler. My dad was saying something over and over, that I could barely make out. It sounded like he was saying, “Only pure blood. Only pure blood.” He just kept saying it over and over. I yelled at my dad to get out of the house and he raised his eyes to meet mine and I could see a crazed wild look in his eyes. He looked at my brother and has he did, he raised the gun and pointed it directly at Hans and pulled the trigger.”
As I listened to my dad tell his story, I thought, this was incredible! I had no idea what to do with this, but I couldn’t stop listening. I could feel that he was on a roll and needed to keep the story going, and to be free of its grip on him. As he spoke, he was very animated, with his hands and arms flailing about and rocking in his chair as he spoke. It was almost like he was seeing and reliving it all again.
“It was like I was having a nightmare.”, my dad continued. “In that instance, I simultaneously braced for the gun to fire and jerked backward crashing into Hans. I heard the gun fire and both my brother and I tumbled onto the floor. I could hear Hans scream in pain. I quickly turned over and saw him holding his left arm with blood coming out. I saw that he was hurt bad but still moving. In the same instance, I spun around to see my dad trying to get to his feet all while pointing the gun in our direction. I screamed, “Dad what are you doing?!” and just as he steadied himself to fire again, we heard a loud CRACK from above us. We both jerked our heads up to see one of the large ceiling beams above my dad give way and crash directly down on top of him. I rushed toward my dad only to see one of his hands lying motionless from under the burning beam.
The intensity of the fire was growing and I knew it was too late to help him. I turned and saw that Hans was crawling toward the front door. I ran and grabbed him around the waste and even though he was twice my size I pulled him up, and in a blur, we both ran out of the house just as we witnessed the house’s front porch and roof cave in.”
With that, my dad stopped his story and looked at me as if coming out of a dream. He shook his head and reached for the glass of water sitting on the kitchen table and drank it all. As he set the glass down, he said, “I almost lost my entire family that day. It wasn’t until years later that I heard more stories about my parents. They had spent several of the first years of their marriage trying to have kids, but weren’t having any luck. Being a virile German man, my father just assumed my mother was barren, but then surprisingly, my mom became pregnant with my oldest brother Frank. And just like clockwork, they began to have kids one after the other until all 10 of us were born. I just never would have dreamed I’d loose them all in such a horrific way and least of all by my own father’s hands.”
“I remember a few days after the fire”, my dad continued, “my brother and I sifted through the rubble of the house and the only thing of value we found was this little tin cup that my mother always had on her night stand.” And with that, he reached over and picked up the cup where I’d placed it. He said, “I don’t think I would have ever found it if it hadn’t been for our neighbor Ephraim helping us that day. He seemed to take the tragedy pretty hard now that i think of it. He was a good man who lived alone in a small house about a mile from our farm. Every year for many years he would help my dad during the planting and harvest seasons. Ephraim was a Jewish man who was kind of a loner in our part of the country. We thought the world of him because he would always make us kids a small gift on each of our birthdays. This seemed to work out because all our birthdays happened when he was working at the farm. We always wondered why he was a bachelor. Some say he had a girl in his younger days, but their love was forbidden, and her family moved her away to live with a distant relative in Dresden.”
When my dad looked at me, he seemed to be a lot calmer. He looked at me in a loving way and said. “I just want you to know Jeremy. I love you very much. I know I don’t say it… well, at all really, and I’m sorry for that. I know this was a lot to hear in a story of my childhood, and how Uncle Hans and I became orphans. I don’t know if I’ll ever understand why my dad did what he did, but I thought it was important that you knew. I just hope that moving forward, we will try to talk more. I know I’ll certainly be trying my best.” With that, my dad stood up and put his hand on my shoulder for a second, and then strapped on his bibs and walked out the door to the yard. As I watched him out the kitchen window, I had a huge urge to go after him and hug him. I knew that it wasn’t quite time to do that, but I knew somehow, someday we would get there.
I sat back down at the kitchen table and picked up the tin cup. I turned it over to examine the symbol on the bottom. I took out my pocket handkerchief and rubbed off the dirt and grime stuck to the cup from years in the shed. As I rubbed, I could tell that the symbol I was seeing was not balloons tied to a pitch fork, but it was a Jewish menorah that had little oblong flames coming out of each candle stick. I smiled and thought about Ephraim and how he had made my dad feel as a child. I was glad that he had that kind of man in his life and I wondered what ever happened to him. Maybe some day my dad will tell me the rest of the story. Maybe…
Dwight J. Raatz
(NOTE: The events depicted in this post are fictitious. Any similarity to any person living or dead is merely coincidental.)