It is my pleasure and privilege to welcome Tina Frisco, author, blogger, singer-songwriter, RN, activist, a student of shamanism and friend, to Words To Captivate. Death is a difficult thing to face, but Tina puts a different face on it.
On Facing Death
Facing death is a life-changing experience and one that most of us fear. The first time I faced this monster, I paced and cried, ranted and cursed its arrogance. The second time, I tightened my mid-section and refused to acknowledge it; but I couldn’t sleep. The third time, I took in a deep breath, sat down, and closed my eyes. In a flash, I saw myriad lifetimes pass before me – incarnations I was fortunate to have lived.
What is it about physical death that throws so many of us into a tailspin of grief, anger, and denial? Is it not knowing whether life continues beyond the…
Bobby the Big Blue Bunny wasn’t always big, and he wasn’t always blue. However, he had always been Bobby, at least for as long as he could remember.
When he was only a white bunny, Bobby used to live in the woods with his other bunny friends. His closest friends were Homer, Janice, and Tommy. They would play together every day. They would play many games, but their favorite was hide-n-seek. That was ever so much fun.
One day, Bobby decided that he was going to be the champion hide-n-seek player of all time. He would hide so well that no one would ever find him. Not even Janice who was the best hide-n-seek player in the whole wide world!
On that day, as Janice covered her eyes and counted to one hundred, Tommy and Homer hid in their usual places. But Bobby went deep into the woods, farther than he had ever gone before. His mommy would have been so worried about him if she had known how far from home he had traveled.
After a while, he came to an old fallen-down-and-hollowed-out log in a quiet glade. I can hide in there and Janice will never find me, thought Bobby. So he hopped into the log and made himself comfortable. It was cozy. It was so cozy that after a while, Bobby started to get sleepy. I’ll take a short nap. Then I’ll go back and surprise them all. How all the other bunnies will cheer when I hop into the clearing after Janice has given up looking for me. These were his thoughts as he fell asleep.
The next thing Bobby knew, it was nighttime. He had slept longer than he had intended, and he was afraid. It was too dark to find his way home; he missed his mommy. He wanted to cry, but decided he would be a big bunny and not cry. He would wait for the sun to come up and then he would scamper home as fast as he could.
Once again, Bobby fell asleep.
When he awoke this time, the sun was out and the birds were singing. It was a beautiful day. “Oh, good! Now I can go home,” said Bobby.
He started to squirm his way out of the log and he was almost out when he heard, “Dum-dee-dum-dum. Dum-dee-dum-dum.” Someone was humming to himself. Then the phrase was repeated: “Dum-dee-dum-dum.”
“What is this?” Bobby wondered aloud. There was only one way to find out, he would have to leave the safety of the log. The voice did not sound scary. In fact it was quite a pleasant voice, so he made his way out into the sunshine.
There, before him, stood the biggest bunny he had ever seen. And to top it off, he was pink in colour! The bunny was stirring something in a big black kettle. And there were many more kettles spread throughout the glade.
Bobby was about to turn and run away when the pink bunny said, “I was wondering when you were going to wake up, sleepyhead.”
“You knew I was in the log?” asked Bobby.
“I surely did, but you were sleeping so soundly, I thought I’d leave you alone for the time being.”
“What are you doing?” Bobby wanted to know.
“I’m getting the colour ready for my eggs,” was the bunny’s reasoned response.
“Yes, my eggs! I’m the Easter Bunny. You’ve heard of me.”
“I’m sorry, but I haven’t.”
“It doesn’t matter. Now, come and give me a hand. I have to mix the next colour.”
The Easter Bunny walked over to a kettle and lifted what looked like a heavy sack. He poured the contents into the pot. “You stir this while I go on to the next one.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but I have to go home. My mommy will be worried about me.”
“Yes, mommies are like that.”
“It’s been nice meeting you, sir.”
“Yes, yes. Now be on your way. I’m running late, and this year I have much work to do.”
Bobby turned away and hopped down the trail. But an hour later he was back. “I can’t find my way home. I’ve gone too far. I’ve never been this far into the woods before.”
The Easter Bunny sighed. “I will see that you get home, but first you must help me. Pick up a stick and stir that kettle over there,” he said pointing to the biggest kettle of the lot.
“It’s a little too high for me to reach,” said Bobby.
With another sigh, the Easter Bunny went over and opened a short step-ladder that was nearby and put it next to the kettle. “Here. Stand on this, and make sure the colour is thoroughly mixed with the water. There is nothing worse than spotted eggs.”
Bobby climbed to the top of the ladder and started to stir. Then he asked, “How long do I do this?”
“Until I get back,” answered the Easter Bunny. Then he added, “I won’t be long. I have to get the eggs.”
Bobby was warming to the task. It was fun to watch the colour swirls as they mixed with the water. His attention was so fixed on what he was doing that he did not notice he had moved a little too close to the pot. When he did notice, he tried to take a step back, but he lost his balance and fell into the kettle. That was all right; the water was not hot, but the edge was too high for him to reach. He yelled for help, but there was no one there to hear him.
In a few minutes, the Easter Bunny returned and saw the splashing in the kettle Bobby was supposed to be tending. He peered over the rim and saw a thoroughly soaked Bobby swimming around in circles.
“Can’t I leave you alone for even a minute?” the Easter Bunny asked. And without waiting for an answer, he reached down and pulled Bobby out of the water.
The Easter Bunny gave Bobby a towel and told him to dry off. “And sit over there, out of the way. As soon as my eggs are coloured, I’ll see you home.”
A few hours later, Bobby was standing in front of his burrow waving good-bye to his new friend, the Easter Bunny. When he went inside, he saw his mother standing at the sink and he called to her. She turned to him—and dropped the plate she was washing. His brothers and sisters snickered and laughed. “What is it?” he wanted to know.
“Look in the mirror,” said one of his brothers.
And so Bobby did look in the mirror and was surprised to see a very blue bunny staring back at him. It had been the blue dye kettle he had fallen into.
From that day onward, everyone called him Bobby the Blue Bunny. And when he grew up, he became known as Bobby the Big Blue Bunny. It was then that he stopped playing hide-n-seek. Being big and blue, he was always too easy to find.
I went off to war at the tender age of sixteen. My mother cried and begged me to stay, but my country needed me. I would not see my mother again for four very long years.
Due to my age, I was assigned to field headquarters as a dispatch courier for the first two years of the war. However, by the beginning of the third year, I had grown a foot taller and was shaving. And because men were dying at an alarming rate, I was sent into the trenches.
They say that war is hell. I say hell is peaceful compared to living in a muddy trench with bombs exploding around you at all hours of the day and night. Though there were periods of respite from the shelling. Those were the hours when the enemy had to let their big guns cool or else the heat of firing would warp them. I lived like that for two years.
I was at Verdun where I saw the true hell of war. After eleven months, we fought to a standstill. When the dead were counted, almost a million men from both sides had given their lives and not one inch of ground had been gained.
By November of 1918, we were out of food, out of ammunition, and almost out of men to send to the slaughter. The people at home had had enough of seeing their sons and fathers and brothers shipped home in boxes. There were marches and protests against the war. Near the end, the dead were not even sent home. They were buried in the fields where they had fallen.
At last, the war was over. I am told that nine million men died in those four years, and another twenty million were wounded. I was there and those numbers seem a little low to me, but what do I know? I was only a private.
When I returned home, President Ebert was there to meet us soldiers. He shook my hand and said, “No enemy has vanquished you.” He said the same thing to each man as he stepped off the train. Then I read in a newspaper that he repeated the same phrase in a speech. He should not have done so. It was the basis of, the beginning of, Dolchstoßlegende, the Stab-In-The-Back Myth. The myth that said we lost the war because of the Jews, the Socialists, and the Bolsheviks. But mostly because of the Jews.
I told you of my war experience because I wanted you to know I was there. I saw why we lost the war, and it was not because of Dolchstoßlegende. However, Dolchstoßlegende would affect me much more than the war ever had.
My mother, when she saw me, dropped the dish she was holding. It broke on the floor, shattering into many pieces. She rushed to me and held me tight. I felt her warm tears on my neck until she let go and held me at arm’s length. “Let me look at you,” she said as she cried with happiness. “My, you have grown so big! You remind me of your father.” My father had died years earlier; I barely remembered him.
It was good to be home. I had no plans except to sleep late every morning and eat my mother’s good cooking. However, the sleeping late was not to be. When I left, my mother was working in her friend’s millinery shop, but the shop had gone out of business during the war. My mother had been living off the money I was sending home every month. She said she did not write me of her plight because she did not want me to worry about her.
I was no longer a boy. I was now a man of twenty years. I had seen the horrors of war and I had lived through those horrors. Certainly, I could provide for my mother and me. Four days after returning home, I went in search of a job.
My first employment was with a blacksmith. However, that did not last long. The automobile was driving him out of business, and he had to let me go. Then Herr Hoffman hired me; he ran the largest bakery in Berlin. It was a good job because I was treated well and shown respect by Herr Hoffman. It was a job I was to have until . . . well . . . until I could no longer work. More on that later.
It was about that time the troubles began. The Allies had demanded reparations, and because of the war itself, there were food shortages and inflation. It was not uncommon to see someone with a suitcase filled with Mark notes going to buy a few groceries. One day, a man came into our shop with a 10,000 Mark note and asked if it would be enough to buy ten loaves of bread. Before the war, a loaf of bread cost 10 Pfennig, the equivalent of an American nickel. It was good to work where I could take a little food home every day, even if it was only a loaf of stale bread.
By 1924, inflation had gotten so bad that the Mark was replaced by the Reichsmark, but it did little good. There was still rampant inflation, and food shortages persisted. Of course, someone had to be blamed for the sorry state of affairs. That is when the Brownshirts appeared. I used to see them on the street corners giving speeches. They were always going on about the Jews and the communists.
In those days, I kept mostly to myself. However, being a young man, I did, on occasion, go to a beer hall for a stein or two. It was on one of those occasions that I had my first, but not my last, run-in with the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or the National Socialist German Worker’s Party. They called themselves Nazis.
The year was 1931. I was thirty-three years old. I still lived with my mother and I still worked for Herr Hoffman. But by then, I did more than carry the fifty-pound bags of flour for the bakers. I was now a baker myself. It was a very good position.
I was sitting at a table with four other young men, none of whom I knew. At the next table was a group of Brownshirts loudly going on about how the Juden betrayed the Fatherland during the Great War.
After my second stein, I could take it no longer. I turned to them and asked, “Were any of you in the war?” I knew none of them had been because of their age. I think the oldest one couldn’t have been more than twenty-five.
One of the younger ones answered my question. “No, but if we had been, we wouldn’t have lost the war.” At that, I had to smile. I was dealing with children.
My smile seemed to anger them. “What are you laughing at?” one of them asked. Another stood and approached me. “Are you a Jew?” he demanded.
That was enough for me. I stood and said, “No, I am not a Jew, but I fought shoulder to shoulder with them during the war while you were sucking your mother’s tit. And pound for pound, I’d rather have a Jew fighting next to me than any of you!”
True to the Nazi form, they took out their batons and beat me. There were six of them, so I did not have much of a chance, but I did get in a few good punches. One of which knocked out a front tooth of the man who had asked if I was a Jew.
Someone called the police, and they broke up the brawl. Just in time from my way of thinking; I was getting the worst of it. I was told to go home, and as I paid my bill, I saw the policemen talking to the Brownshirts. They all seemed quite friendly with one another.
In January of 1933, Herr Hitler became the chancellor of our republic. In February, the Reichstag burned. The Nazis said it was arson and Hitler persuaded President von Hindenburg to pass the Enabling Act, which suspended our civil liberties. The Act empowered Hitler to name himself dictator of Germany, which he did in 1934. His first act as dictator was to outlaw trade unions. Then he passed laws prohibiting Jews from working in the civil service and as lawyers or doctors for anyone except their own people.
By 1938, I had been promoted to master baker in Herr Hoffman’s shop. My life was good. My mother was still alive, and we still lived together. On my way home one night, I stopped off at a local ratskeller for a stein. As I entered, I bumped into a man wearing the black uniform of the Schutzstaffe; he was missing a front tooth. I knew him right away. He was the Brownshirt whose tooth I had knocked out back in 1931. All of Germany knew of Hitler’s storm troopers, and all of Germany feared them. I could see that he remembered me from somewhere, but was not sure where. Before he could remember, I left without having my stein. As I was going through the door, I turned to see him talking to the barmaid, pointing in my direction.
Since the passing of the Enabling Act, it was legal to arrest a person for little or no reason. Most of the arrests were of people who spoke out against Hitler. The SS Storm Troopers were the ones that did the arresting. Once the SS had you in custody, you ended up in a concentration camp.
The establishment of the camps was also one of the things Herr Hitler did in his first year as chancellor. I had no desire to be sent to a camp for punching a party member in the face years earlier, so I hurried home that evening. I remember the date well. It was 8 November 1938, one day before Kristallnacht or Crystal Night, also known as The Night of Broken Glass.
Over a two-day period, the SS and non-Jewish citizens throughout the country destroyed property owned by Jews. Storefronts were shattered; homes entered and looted; synagogues set afire. The property of Jews was easy to identify because their stores, houses and synagogues were painted with a yellow Star of David or the word Jude.
When the rampage ended, the sunlight reflecting off the fragmented glass lying in the street gave it the look of broken crystal. Two thousand Jewish men had been arrested—two thousand Jewish men . . . and me.
On the final night of Kristallnacht, the SS—led by the storm trooper with the missing tooth—came for me. My mother cried and pleaded with them not to take me. I said nothing; I knew what it was about. It was about revenge for a single punch in the face seven years earlier.
The SS put me in jail and there I sat for a month before I was charged with treason to the Fatherland and being a “Jew-lover.” Without a trial, I was sent to Dachau, which was located in southern Germany. At first, I was treated as any other prisoner. I was sent to a sub-camp and used as slave labor, hollowing out a mountain for a military installation. Then one day, two prison guards hauled me out of the mountain, transported me back to the main camp, and escorted me into the office of the camp commandant, Hauptsturmführer Piorkowski.
I stood before his desk with a guard on either side of me. Piorkowski was reading a file and did not acknowledge our presence. I was hopeful that at last someone had realized my arrest had been a mistake, that it was due to a vengeful major of the SS. I had been in the camp five months by then and had lost forty pounds. I would not last much longer if I was not freed.
Presently, Piorkowski raised his head from the file and looked at me. “It says here in your dossier that you are a baker.”
It was not a question, but I answered him anyway. “Yes, I am a master baker.”
Piorkowski smiled and asked if I knew how to make strudel. Of course I did, and I told him so. Again he smiled and said, “We will see.” He told the guards to take me to the showers, get me a clean prison uniform, and escort me to the kantine. Turning to me he said, “This might be your lucky day. If you can make a decent strudel, I will take you out of the mountain and put you to baking for the officers and enlisted men. Our cooks are adequate, but none of them can make a proper strudel. And their breads are not much better.”
With those words, any hope of my release flew out the window.
After I cleaned up, the two guards took me to the main kitchen. There were two kitchens, the main one that prepared the SS’s food, and another one that did the same for the prisoners. Both were staffed by men of the Wehrmacht or regular army. The men of the Waffen-SS were above such things as running a mess hall. Of course, prisoners could not be trusted to work around food considering the insufficient amount we were given. They would not have been able to help themselves and would have stolen more food than they prepared.
When we arrived, one of the guards left and the other one told the cook on duty what the commandant wanted of me. The cook shrugged and pointed to a table next to a wall of ovens. The guard said, “You will find what you need under the table.” And he added, “The ovens are heated and ready to go.” He did not leave; he just stood there and watched me work.
I did have to ask where to find certain ingredients. But I soon got down to work. It felt good to knead flour once again.
The smells of the kitchen were driving me mad. I was hungry, incredibly hungry, but I knew if I asked for something to eat, I would probably be beaten. Soon the strudels were ready for the oven. I had made twelve filled with cheese.
When they were done, I took the pan out of the oven and laid it on the table. The guard was a young private; he was licking his lips as his eyes followed the strudels from oven to table. Then the cook came over. He looked at my work and then picked up a strudel. It was hot, but it did not seem to faze him. He took a bite, chewed and swallowed. Without saying a word, he nodded at me and went back to whatever it was he had been doing. It was all I could do not to shove a strudel into my mouth.
The private took me and the strudels back to the commandant. This time we had to wait in the outer office for about fifteen minutes. But at least I was not in the mountain with a pickaxe in my hand and a machine gun at my back. At length, we were summoned into Piorkowski’s office.
As we entered, the commandant told me to lay the pan on his desk. I could see that a place had been cleared for that purpose. Then he said, “If they taste half as good as they smell, you will have a new job here at our little camp. Now wait outside until called for.” The guard and I left Piorkowski to enjoy his strudels.
By the time we were called back in, two of the strudels were gone, and Piorkowski had a smile on his face. “It is a good thing for you that you are not a Jew,” he said. The questioning look on my face must have prompted him to go on. “If you were a Jew, I couldn’t allow you in the kitchen. None of my men would eat anything that was touched by a Jew, no matter how tasty.” As I turned to leave, Piorkowski told the guard that, after he brought me back to the kitchen, he could go about his regular duties. “I don’t think our new baker will try to escape because, if he did, then I’d have to have him shot.” To me he said, “The head cook will tell you what you need to know. I’ve instructed him to give you one meal a day, regular rations. We don’t want you getting too weak to make your wonderful strudel.”
As I bent to pick up the tray with the remaining strudels, he told me to leave it. Then as an afterthought, he said, “Keep clean. I will give orders allowing you to shower every day. And when your uniform is soiled, ask for a clean one. I do not want dirt or lice falling onto what you bake.”
I nodded, and the guard and I started out, but before we got to the door, Piorkowski asked, “How are you with pfeffernüsse?” I told him I was the best with anything he wanted baked, including spice cookies. When I answered him, there was a slight edge to my voice. I was still disappointed at not being released.
His smile was quickly replaced with a frown. “Never use that tone of voice with me again or I’ll send you back to the mountain. Now get to work!”
I was brought back to the kitchen and placed in the hands of the head cook. He informed me of my duties. His main concern was bread. There were 1500 camp personnel, mostly SS, but there were also, as I have said, some Wehrmacht. He would need 1000 loaves per day. Of course, it was also going to be my duty to make desserts. Unless ordered by the commandant to produce a particular dessert, he would leave the decision of what to prepare up to me. He was a nice man, a sergeant in the Wehrmacht. He treated me as an equal the entire time I worked in his kitchen. His name was Joseph Müller.
It was late in the afternoon, and there would be no more baking that day. They fired the ovens at 3:00 a.m. and that was when my day would begin. It would not end until I had everything baked for the evening meal, usually between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m.
After he had finished showing me around and told me what was expected of me, I told him that I could not come up with 1000 loaves of bread per day and desserts for 1500 men twice a day, every day, without some help. Sgt. Müller said he had detailed six men to help me. He had told them to do what I said and pay no attention to the fact that I was a prisoner. It was the first time in five months that I had been treated like a human being and it brought a tear to my eye.
Unlike Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Dachau was not a death camp. It was a camp for political prisoners. Many died, but the deaths were mostly from disease and starvation.
I felt guilty eating my one meal a day in the kitchen while my fellow prisoners lined up for their meager meal of watered-down soup. We were always hungry, but I had it a little better than the other prisoners. That is why, one afternoon when my work was done, I smuggled two loaves of bread from the kitchen and brought them to my barracks. My intent was to feed a few poor souls. But when the people saw what I had, a riot broke out. People were shoving and stepping over one another to get to me. The loaves were wrenched from my hands before I was five steps into the barracks. Of course, with all the commotion, the guards came in, and when they saw what was happening and what had caused the disturbance, I was brought before Piorkowski.
He was furious and paced back and forth as I stood in front of his desk between two guards. Finally, he stood in front of me, and after a moment’s hesitation, he slapped me hard, right across the face.
“So that is how you repay my kindness?” Without waiting for an answer, he went on. “One more incident like we had this afternoon, I will hang you in the yard and your body will stay there until it rots. It will serve as a reminder to the other prisoners that my will is law, and anyone who breaks my law will suffer a similar fate.”
He then calmed down, and in a softer voice, he said, “Seeing as how you love your fellow prisoners so much, you can eat with them for the next four days. After that, you can go back to your meal in the kitchen. I don’t want you too weak to work.”
When I returned to the barracks, no one would look me in the eye or speak with me. They were ashamed for the way they had acted and resentful of me for being the cause of their shame. But I could not blame them. Hunger is a terrible thing. To be hungry day in and day out, with no relief in sight, will take away one’s humanity.
Six other commandants followed Piorkowski, and they all kept me baking my breads and strudels. That is how I survived Dachau. I did not starve to death because I ate relatively well. Besides my daily meal, I snuck cheese and fruits meant for the strudels and a piece of bread now and then. I had to be careful because, if caught, I’d be reported. Sgt. Müller knew what I was doing, but as I’ve said before, he was a good man. I did not succumb to disease because of my diet and the fact that I was allowed to shower daily.
I’ll never forget the date the camp was liberated. It was 29 April 1945. I was forty-seven years old.
The commandant and the SS officers left in the morning; the Americans came in the afternoon. The first thing the Americans did once they had control of the camp was separate the men of the Wehrmacht from the SS. Then they stood forty-five men of the SS up against a wall and executed them. At the time, I did not speak English, but a prisoner who did told me why the SS were shot.
A half mile from the camp, the Americans had come upon railroad cars that were locked and standing idle. When the cars were opened, there lay two thousand dead Jews. They had been left locked in the cars with no water or food for three weeks. Many of the Americans retched from the smell of feces and rotting flesh. Many more were sick just from the horrible sight.
So, when the Americans liberated our camp, they were not feeling too kindly towards members of the SS. In fact, they stood around and watched, and did not interfere, when prisoners who were not too weak or too sick attacked SS guards that had been rounded up and herded into the roll-call yard. When the SS men were dead, one man who took part in the killings came towards me holding a shovel, shouting that I was a Nazi-lover. He would have struck me, but another prisoner came between us. He held up his hand and said, pointing to me, “This man has done nothing against any of us. He did what he had to do to survive. You were not here at the time, but, at great risk to himself, he brought bread to us. He was found out and told that he would be executed if he did it again. What would you have done differently, my friend?” The man dropped the shovel, buried his face in his hands and cried. I think he was crying because at last the horror was over and once again he could live as a human being and not as a feral animal.
We could not leave the camp because the war was still raging all around us. The Americans were fighting their way to Berlin. My mother was in Berlin and I wanted to see her again so badly. We could not leave, but we were fed three meals a day, and the Americans brought in medical personnel to treat the sick. Half the camp was down with typhus.
Two large warehouses held the clothes that were taken from us upon our arrival at the camp. We were allowed to pick out a suit of clothes to replace the hated prison uniforms.
The war ended about two weeks later when Admiral Dönitz unconditionally surrendered. Hitler had appointed him head of state in his will. We were free to leave the camp, but before we could go, we had to queue up and get a card stating that we were ex-prisoners. This was done because many SS men had discarded their uniforms and were claiming to be either civilians or ex-soldiers of the Wehrmacht.
There was no train service because the tracks had all been bombed. So I started walking to Berlin. It was a three-hundred-and-fifty-mile walk. Along the way, I saw what the war—or more to the point—what Hitler had done to our country. There was devastation of one sort or another in all the cities. The countryside for the most part looked untouched. But wherever I went, people were hungry. And so was I. I stole vegetables from some farms and received handouts from others. There was no food to be had in the towns or the cities, at least not for me.
I was stopped numerous times by allied soldiers. Even though I had the card stating I was an ex-prisoner, I was asked on more than one occasion to remove my coat and shirt and raise my arms. The soldiers were looking for the tattoo of the SS. All SS men had the symbol tattooed on the inside of their biceps. Some soldiers let me pass without checking for the tattoo because of my thin frame. It was obvious that I had not been eating very well or very much for a long while. All members of the SS were well fed.
It took me eighteen days to reach the outskirts of Berlin. I thought I had seen devastation on my journey, but I was not prepared for what I beheld as I walked the streets of Berlin. The city had been thoroughly destroyed. There was not a building left intact, and the people were walking around in a state of shock. I went right to my former home to find only a crater and half of a wall standing where my house should have been. My mother was nowhere to be seen. I prayed that she had not been in the building when the bomb struck.
I spent the rest of the day walking the streets looking for my mother before I had to stop because of darkness. I found a cellar that was unoccupied. Even though the floor was rough and hard, I slept through the night. I was awakened by an excited clamor up in the street. It was the sound of many people talking all at once. I brushed the dust off my clothes and went to see what was happening.
There was a line of people waiting to be fed. At the front of the line were American soldiers ladling out what looked to be soup. I hurriedly got to the end of the line and asked the man in front of me what was going on. “Isn’t it obvious? The Americans are feeding us so that we don’t devolve into cannibalism,” he said with a slight grin on his face. He went on to tell me that twice a day, at various locations, they dished out just enough food to keep a person alive. Then he looked at my empty hands and added, ‘Unless you are going to carry your soup in those, I would recommend you find a bowl somewhere.” By then there were about twenty people behind me and I hated to give up my place, but he was right, so I left the line.
I had to go only a block. In a destroyed building, on the ground floor, I saw an exposed kitchen. I moved bricks around until I unearthed a pie tin. Next, I looked for a spoon. I was throwing bricks aside as fast as I could. I was in a panic that the soup would run out before I could get back. Then I found what I was looking for. There was only one problem. The spoon was attached to a woman’s hand—a dead woman’s hand. It was all that I could see. The rest of her body was buried under a pile of bricks.
I had seen many a dead body over the last five years, so one more did not shock me. And I am ashamed to say it, but I took the spoon from her cold, dead hand and hurried back to the food line without giving her another thought. As I said, hunger is a terrible thing and a man will do terrible things to alleviate the pain.
That was my life for the next month. I would line up twice a day for something to eat, usually soup. When I wasn’t in line, I would search for my mother. At night, I slept in an air raid shelter with two hundred other displaced Berliners. The occupiers had converted all the shelters into sleeping quarters. Unless you were extremely sick, you were not allowed to be there during the day.
On all the light posts were notices put up by people looking for lost family members. I borrowed a pencil from a nice woman and found some paper that I tore into four pieces. I wrote my name, my mother’s name, and a short message on each piece, saying that she should meet me at the house where we used to live. I then placed one of them on the wall left standing at our old house and the other three on different light posts around the city. For as long as I was in Berlin, I went every day to where our house had stood, even long after my plaintive notices had blown away.
It wasn’t long before the Americans told us that all able-bodied people would have to work if they wanted to eat. I was given a wheelbarrow and told to collect bricks and deposit them in neat stacks at a certain location. I wasn’t the only one doing so. Men and women all over Berlin were doing the same thing. I think the work that the Americans had us do was as much about keeping us occupied as it was about cleaning up Berlin. But there was no shortage of bricks, and I kept busy in that fashion for the next five months. At the end of each day, I was given a piece of paper that allowed me to get in the workers’ line for food; a little more food was doled out there than at the other food lines.
After six months in Berlin, I had given up hope of ever finding my mother. If she were alive, she would have been at our old house waiting for me long before I even got back to the city. It was time to get on with my life. I was a baker, not a brick picker-upper. And as things were, there was no need of my services in Berlin, nor would there be for the foreseeable future.
By the time I came to that decision, some of the railroad tracks had been repaired, and there was limited train service, but only for commercial reasons. I hid in an open car that was carrying coal and heading northwest. The train stopped in Cuxhaven, a small seaport town on the North Sea. On the spur of the moment, I decided I would try to get to another country. Germany had been destroyed and, without my mother, there was nothing to keep me there. But first, I would need some money.
I was in luck and found a job loading and off-loading ships. Everything was still a mass of confusion; however, the Allies wanted to get the economy up and running as soon as possible to avoid the inflation that followed the Great War, and shipping was a necessary component of that strategy.
I had been working on the docks for a little over six months when I decided that I wanted to go to America. But I did not have enough saved for my passage. I worked hard and I got to know a few of the captains that frequented the port. One captain in particular, Captain Hans Becker. One day he invited me to come to his cabin when the loading of his ship was completed. “Come and have a glass of schnapps with me when you are done,” he bellowed from the bridge.
Once we were seated at his table, both of us with a glass of very good schnapps in hand, he said, “You once told me that you were a baker. Do you know how to cook also?”
I took a sip of my schnapps and thought for a moment before answering. “I cook for myself every night. I do not waste money eating out. I am saving for my passage to America.”
“That is very good, but will the Americans let you into their country?”
“I don’t see why not. I am able-bodied and can support myself. It is a big country. I am sure they can use one more baker.”
“There are such things as passports and visas, my friend.”
Yes, I knew of those things, but I refused to dwell on them until I had the money in hand for the trip.
Hans poured me another glass of schnapps and said, “I am sailing for America in two days, and I need a cook. If you agree not to poison my crew with your cooking, you can sign on. We will be in America for two weeks before returning. It will give you a chance to see if you like the country, and you will be earning the whole way there and back with no expenses for lodging or food. You will be able to put more away than if you stayed here.”
It may have been the schnapps, but I accepted his offer without hesitation. I was going to America!
It was a fast crossing. We pulled into New York Harbor just seven days after leaving Cuxhaven. The customs people came on board before we had even finished tying our lines to the dock. They checked Hans’ paperwork and when they saw that he was carrying industrial parts from the IG Farben Company as part of the war reparations, we were quickly documented and told to enjoy ourselves while in the city of New York. IG Farben was the company that made the poison gas used in the death camps.
At first I had trouble adjusting to the tall buildings. I had never seen anything like them before, except in the moving pictures that came from America prior to the war. I soon began to love the city. Whenever I had the time, I would walk the streets and observe the people. They were all so intent with their lives. Rushing to wherever it was they were going. I wondered if they knew how lucky they were that the war had not affected America as it had Germany.
One day while walking in a part of the city that I later learned was known as Little Germany, I happened upon a bakery. The smells coming from inside reminded me of Herr Hoffman’s shop. I went in not knowing how I was going to make myself understood. At the time, I still spoke no English. However, I need not have worried. The shop was empty but for a man behind the counter who asked me, in German, what I would like.
I told him I was just over from the Fatherland and it was good to hear my native tongue spoken in America. When he heard that I had been in Germany just a week earlier, he asked me to sit down at a little table by the window and excused himself. He was back in less than a minute with two cups of coffee and a plate of cinnamon cookies.
He had seen newsreels and read the papers. He wanted to know all about how things were back home. He asked if it was true that Germany had been totally destroyed. I told him what I had seen from one end of the country to the other, especially what had been done to Berlin. He sat there and listened without interruption and without touching his coffee.
As soon as I had finished speaking, he took my cup, went behind the counter and refilled it. When he sat down again, he asked about me personally. Was I immigrating to America? What had I done during the war, and a thousand other questions. We talked the afternoon away. By the time I realized that I would be late getting back to the ship, I had learned that he was a Jew and had left Germany two years after Hitler came to power. He had seen the handwriting on the wall. And I told him that, like him, I was a baker. He said he had things he wanted to talk to me about, but I didn’t have the time right then, so I agreed to come back to his shop the following day. The baker’s name was Herman Klein. He would turn out to be the best friend I would ever have.
I arrived early the next day, and the shop was busy. There were at least fifteen people in line and Herr Klein could not serve them fast enough. When I saw one lady get frustrated at the wait and walk out, I joined Herr Klein behind the counter and helped him serve his customers.
At last, the shop was empty. Herr Klein poured two cups of coffee, and we resumed our seats by the window. After blowing on his coffee to cool it a bit, he said to me, “If you would like to stay here in America, I think I can fix it for you. I can vouch for you and tell the authorities that you have a job with me so that you will not be a burden on the people of this great country. And when they find out that you were in one of the camps, they are bound to let you stay.”
I wasn’t so sure of that and I started to say something, but he silenced me by holding up his hand and saying, “Let me finish what I have to say, and then you can talk.”
“My wife died before I left Germany, and I have no children. I’m over-working myself and I could use some help, but good bakers are hard to come by. If you come in with me and we get along, I will give you a 25% partnership in my business after six months.”
When it was my turn to talk, I could think of nothing to say. I desperately wanted to take him up on his offer, but I had a commitment to Hans. I told Herman that I would have to discuss the matter with my captain, but whatever the outcome, I wanted him to know that I was deeply moved by the proposition.
That night, Hans only laughed when I told him that I did not think I could stay in America because it would leave him without a cook. “Listen, my friend. You would be a fool not to take Herr Klein’s offer. The crossing is seven days; I think we can manage that long without a cook. The men can take turns doing the honors. It might be interesting to see what they come up with.”
That is how I ended up in America. I was allowed to stay because I had money, a job, and a sponsor. Herman was right—having been a prisoner did help my case. When I showed the man who was interviewing me the card stating that I had been at Dachau, I saw something in his eyes, something sad.
Herman taught me English and when I was proficient enough, I took the citizenship classes to learn about this wonderful country and its history. Six months to the day after I started working for him, Herman gave me a 25% interest in the bakery. It was official; his lawyer had drawn up the papers.
I became a proud citizen of the United States on 9 February 1947. I was forty-nine years old. Herman and I worked together for ten years. He was nineteen years older than I and in the fall of 1957 when he was seventy-eight, Herman announced that he could take the cold no longer and was retiring to Florida.
He sold me his interest in the shop, but no cash changed hands. Our agreement was that I would send him a check every month to cover his expenses with a little left over. If I sold the shop, then I would send him his percentage of the proceeds. This time there was no lawyer involved. It was a handshake deal. Two years later, Herman died in his sleep . . . two days after his eightieth birthday. I was listed as his next-of-kin and was duly notified of his passing. I closed the shop for a few days and flew to Florida to bury my friend under the warm Florida sun. I was sixty-one-years-old.
I ran the shop until I was eighty-five. Of course, I had help. I trained a young man to be a master baker and ended up selling him the shop with no money down. He sent me a check every month for ten years.
I am now one hundred and three years old as I sit in the Florida sun waiting to die.
Now I come to the purpose of my narrative. My hands shake too much for me to write, that is why I am speaking into a tape recorder.
I told you the story of my life so that anyone who hears these words will understand that I know whereof I speak. I lived through two of the worst periods in human history. And they took place only twenty years apart. The first, of course, being what was then known as the Great War. I saw the carnage first hand. In that war, nine million men were slain. The second occurrence of man’s inhumanity to man was the second great war. Sixty million men, women, and children died in that war, including the eleven million human beings that perished in the concentration camps.
To my point: All that suffering and all those deaths came about because of fear. I was young at the time, but I remember the election of 1912. The left-wing Social Democratic Party made huge gains in that election. The right-wing Prussians feared a loss of power and started agitating for war to distract the populace. Terms like “nationalism” and “territorial rights” were used. We Germans began to fear that there was not enough land. We felt that we had to take land from others so that we would have enough for ourselves. It is ironic, or maybe not, but that is the same argument Hitler used when he had his army march into Czechoslovakia. He wanted land for the German people.
In 1914, it was fear of not having enough space in which to live that caused the death of nine million men and seriously wounded another twenty-two million. And here we are one hundred years later and still there is plenty for everyone.
All wars are fought because of fear. Hitler did not hate the Jews, he feared them. He feared the left-wingers, and he feared anyone that was not just like him. Unfortunately, there were too many people in Germany at that time that had the same fears. That is how concentration camps come about. Concentrate those who are different from you behind fences of barbed wire.
In Germany, we gave up our civil liberties through the Enabling Act because of fear. The Reichstag had just been torched, and we were all fearful. Fearful of what, we were not quite sure. We were definitely afraid of the Jews, but our other fears were not so self-evident. We believed our leaders knew best, so we allowed them to take our freedoms in the hope that they would protect us. And once you give up your rights to a government—any government—it is very hard to get them back.
Here in America, this beautiful adopted land of mine, we gave up our civil liberties after 9/11 through the Patriot Act, another act that was born of fear. Like the Enabling Act, it was supposed to lapse after four years. And like the Enabling Act, it is not going anywhere.
In Germany, it was the Jews. Now many of us here fear Muslims. I am not saying that America is on the verge of another Hitler. What I am saying—and this is from an old man on his way out who has seen it all and lived it all—what I am saying is this: Come from a place of love, not fear.
I am one hundred and three years old as I speak these words, and I can still get around. I walked to a pawnshop not far from where I live and bought this recorder. It is a cassette recorder. The man in the store told me they were obsolete, so he gave me a good price. I bought it to say just one thing. I have to say it now because tomorrow I will be either in heaven or in hell, I do not know which, but wherever I am, you will not be able to hear my words. So I speak them into this microphone to be placed on a tape, and I pray that someone, someday, somewhere will hear them. Not only hear my words, but also heed them.
This is what I spent the better part of an hour getting to: There is only love and fear. That is all. All negative emotions come from fear; jealousy, hatred, greed, just to name a few. Fear of not having enough, fear of not being loved enough, fear of someone that is different from us, fear of someone who worships a different God than we do. There is only fear and love. I tell you: Live your life with love. The kind of love a mother has for her child. The kind of love that a man has who jumps in front a bullet to save his friend; love like Mother Teresa had for the poor of this world, the love that Jesus had when he laid down his life.
Love or fear?
Please . . . do not let what took place in Germany ever happen again!
You might want to listen tothis before you read my story.
Michael was my friend. Michael died saving my life.
Michael row the boat ashore . . . sister help to trim the sails . . . the River Jordan is chilly and cold . . . chills the body but not the soul . . . the river is deep and the river is wide . . . milk and honey on the other side.
I can only hope that Michael has found his milk and honey.
This is the story of Michael.
Michael and I grew up together. We went through grade school together. Then on to high school, where together we stayed. Neither of us wanted to pursue a “higher” education, so we decided to travel to broaden ourselves, as the terminology was in those days. At that time, we thought good would always win out over evil. But we were yet to be taught our lessons of the real world. Evil does sometimes triumph over good.
Michael James was six feet tall. He had straight blonde hair and blue eyes. The bluest eyes I ever did see. If limpid means clear as I think it does, then Michael’s eyes were limpid pools of blue. The color was that of the sky, perhaps a little lighter with flecks of yellow throughout the irises. Upon meeting Michael for the first time one was taken aback by his eyes. They did not bore into your soul—they lit up your life. Then there was his smile. I had known Michael for many years and I don’t think I ever saw him without that shit-eatin’ grin on his puss. And that grin, and its persistence, was amazing, given the fact that Michael suffered from a skin problem. He had large red patches on his skin, including his face. They came and went. I thought the name of the disease was psoriasis, but of that I am not certain.
Michael had no mother. She died when he was quite young . . . before I knew him. He had no siblings; he was reared by his father, which is probably the reason I am alive today. By that, I mean he was raised to be a man. He was taught “The Code” of real men, which is: You do what you have to do.
Michael row the boat ashore
Though we both had the travel bug, my case was more pronounced than his. During the summer between our junior and senior years of high school, I took off and bounced around the country while Michael held down the fort, so to speak. When I returned to finish my last year of school (at that time I still bought into the myth that you needed at least a high school education to survive in the world), I regaled Michael with tales of my adventures.
Well, after hearing what a wonderful world awaited us out there, Michael could not wait to hit the road. He wanted to leave immediately, but seeing as how I had just come in from a three-month run, I prevailed upon him to wait a few months and allow me to at least try to get my diploma. He said he would wait, but he did not, or he could not. Within six weeks of my return, Michael was on the road.
the River Jordan is chilly and cold
Michael was hip, and the only place for a hip guy to migrate in 1968 was San Francisco. And that was the end of Michael’s roaming. He fell in love with the city. I endured my senior year as long as I could, but two weeks short of graduation I said, “The hell with it!”, stuck out my thumb and headed for San Francisco to rendezvous with my friend.
When I arrived, I didn’t know where Michael was living; however, I knew if I hung out on Haight Street long enough, I’d see him. It took less than two hours.
This will tell you something about my friend Michael: He always had a place to live out there, and never paid rent. People were always asking him home, and once there, he just moved in. They were always glad to have him. And when I would hit town, he’d take me to wherever he was living and tell me to make myself at home. The person who actually owned the domicile never looked askance when he brought me through the door, they all loved Michael, and any friend of Michael’s . . .
it chills the body, but not the soul
For the most part, Michael stayed in San Francisco. I, however, could not stay in one town for more than a few days. I was like a pinball, rebounding from coast to coast, and from Canada to Mexico. While on the road I was alive. When on the road, I interacted with humanity and had to live by my wits. I loved being on the road. Because of Michael’s reluctance to leave San Francisco, I had two homes, one on each coast. My mother’s in Miami, and wherever the hell Michael was staying at the moment in San Francisco.
On one of my forays to San Francisco, I was introduced to Linda, the love of Michael’s life—his soul mate. They had met at a Clint Eastwood marathon. A movie house was playing the three Sergio Leone films. You know, A Fist Full of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly … non-stop, twenty-four hours a day. Michael had a bag of Red Acid, and in 1969, what girl wouldn’t swoon toward a man who was into Clint Eastwood and had a bag of LSD? It was love at first sight.
sister help to trim the sails
Now that Michael had himself a woman, he got his own digs. Every time I hit town they were living in a new place. It wasn’t always easy to find them, but somehow we would always meet up on Haight Street. I stayed with them on Geary in the Tenderloin. We stayed south of Market in the low rent district, we stayed across from Golden Gate Park, and at the end, we were again in the Haight-Asbury district.
One thing I must tell you about Michael so you can get a sense of the man. And yes, he was a man; though we were the same age, he was a man, while I was just a kid. I think Michael knew he did not have much time in this world. He could not wait for anything. Back then, we were doing acid all the time. Normally, you would swallow a pill and wait for it to take effect. But not Michael. The twenty minutes or so that it took was just too long for him. He had to shoot the acid into his vein to get off instantaneously. Of course Linda and I would have to follow suit or there would be no peace. And in those days, I just did not have it in me to stick myself with a needle. Michael did the honors.
the river is deep and the river is wide
The last time I came into San Francisco and saw Michael and Linda was in 1970, it was July. They were living in the Haight. It was a crummy neighborhood; the Summer of Love was three years gone by then. All the shops on Haight Street were boarded up with sheets of plywood, and the denizens of the street were the leftovers from that long ago summer.
True to form, it was not Michael’s apartment he took me to; he and Linda were living with a guy named Bobby. Bobby was a likable enough fellow. He just didn’t know bad men when he met them. Bobby had set up a “drug” deal to buy two pounds of marijuana. Nowadays it seems ridiculous to term buying two pounds of pot a drug deal, but in those days, that was heavy shit.
It was my first night in town and we were sitting in Bobby’s pad smoking a joint when Michael told me he was going to be a father. I looked over at Linda, she was radiant, and she was also blushing. I was just about to say something appropriate when the door crashed open, and two guys burst through the entrance. They were the assholes that Bobby was supposed to buy the pot from.
Michael row the boat ashore
Only one of them had a gun, but that was enough for us. When told to lie on the floor, we did so without protest. They then said to Bobby, “Where’s the cash?”
Bobby answered, “In my pocket.” The guy covering us with the gun told the other guy to get the money. Bobby, trying to be helpful, reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out a wad of cash. Then it seemed like a lot of money, but now, as I look back on that night, it couldn’t have been more than $500.00.
As soon as the money was in the asshole’s hand, the other one with the gun walked over to Bobby, placed the gun to the back of his head, and killed him. Upon hearing the shot, Michael and I looked at each other and knew that we were next.
the river is deep and the river is wide
Before I could think of anything to do, Michael bounded to his feet and rushed the guy with the gun. When I saw Michael go into action, it released me from my paralysis, but not soon enough to help Michael. He took a bullet to the chest. While Michael was being shot, I picked up a lamp from a table and smashed it over the gunman’s head while his partner stood frozen in place.
it chills the body, but not the soul
The man with the gun went down hard and the gun fell from his hand. All this went down fast; in a blur, I did not have time to think. I picked up the gun from the floor while the other guy still stood frozen. Obviously they were not professionals, though, at the moment, that did not enter into my thinking. I aimed the gun at the one standing and shot him dead with two shots. Then I turned to the one on the floor. He was moving and about to get up when I put a bullet into his head.
sister help to trim the sails
By the time the second one fell to the floor, Linda was bent over Michael. I dropped the gun and went to them. He looked at her and smiled, then he looked at me and said, “Get her out of here.” We both, Linda and I, said at the same time, “No!” Then Michael died.
Michael row the boat ashore
It took me a full minute, which at the time felt like an eternity, to make a decision. I grabbed Linda by the arms and pulled her into a standing position. She was numb. I told her we had to get out of there; that this was a drug deal gone bad, and there were dead bodies—four of them! I told her prison was no place to have a baby, and Michael knew that. That is why he wanted her out of there.
if you get there before I do
I told Linda to collect everything of hers and Michael’s that could identify them. I had the presence of mind to wipe the gun clean, but not to pick up the cash lying on the floor. Linda could have used it; she had a baby on the way. I took Michael’s wallet. He had never been arrested so I knew they couldn’t identify him by his fingerprints. After I had Michael’s wallet, and while Linda went about collecting her things, I took the time to vomit all over Bobby’s carpet. It was, after all, the first time I had killed. We left Michael and never looked back. Though it wasn’t actually Michael we left, only the body that housed that wonderful, brave man.
tell all my friends I’m coming too
Linda’s folks lived in New Jersey, so I hitchhiked with her to the east coast. She was in a state of shock, and because Michael’s last words, though not implicit, were to look after her, that is what I did. After getting her to her parents, I stayed in the northeast for the next seven months. I kept moving, but would drop in to see her every few weeks. Seven months later, when the baby was born, I was there. I was there for my friend Michael. It was a boy and I was asked to be his godfather.
milk and honey on the other side
Once Linda had the child, and I knew she was in the goods hands of her parents, I said good-bye. And while still on the road, I dropped in to see Linda and my godson every few months.
There are three human beings extant on this earth because of my friend Michael James. I am one of them.
You guys are sensational. You looked over my first chapter and made astute observations and suggestions. Some, I have already incorporated into the manuscript—others, I’m giving serious consideration to. I had not intended to post any more of the novel, but then I woke up this morning, I thought, Why the hell not? Getting input from as many people as possible before publication can only make my humble offering better. And don’t worry. At the rate I’m writing, after the first five chapters, you’ll be let off the hook indefinitely. I’m not working that hard. I’m too busy out smelling the roses, so to speak. And if I smell many more roses, my liver is going to explode.
By the way, the horrors you are about to encounter are real. Maybe the reason the book is going so slow is not my drinking. Maybe it’s my research. For every ten minutes of writing I do, I spend twenty minutes in research. I’m not saying that is a good thing. Perhaps it’s my way of avoiding that dreaded blank page.
If you remember, chapter one ended with my protagonist stepping out onto the road for his journey to Cork.
An ancient road it was. The Roman Christians had used it in the fifth century to spread the Word and baptize an entire nation. Then it was the Danes, or Vikings as they were known, who had come to conquer the isle late in the eighth century, deepening the wheel ruts laid down by the monks. By the time the Normans arrived in the twelfth century, it was a well-worn track that led from Cork to the Western shore. Along its length, the Danes built their castles. In the sixteenth century, Henry the Eighth’s soldiers used the road in their subjugation of an unruly people. Three hundred years later, Devin Mahoney, in solitary desolation, followed the wheel-rutted lane to an uncertain future.
With a pale dawn approaching, Devin made his way east into the face of the rising sun. It was an exceptionally clear day—not a cloud in the sky. He saw no children playing on the side of the road as in years past. Occasionally he would pass a work gang, but for the most part he had the road to himself.
As he approached the town of Coom, he came across the body of a dead man right there on the side of the road. There was little doubt that he had died from starvation. The body was barely more than a skeleton. It was not the first dead person Devin had seen. Over that last fifteen months, he had seen many. Devin wore no hat to doff as he passed by, but he did nod in that direction as a sign of respect.
He made it as far as the outskirts of Glenflesk before deciding to stop for the night. He went into the woods off to his right while the last rays of the setting sun reflected off the somber grey clouds in the west, turning them a soft pink around the edges. He found a small clearing after a few steps. This will do, he thought.
The road followed the River Lee, so water was easily accessible. He had not stopped during the day to eat, for his strategy was to make what he carried in the sack last as long as possible. Besides, he was used to going without food. Nevertheless, he now eagerly anticipated a bowl of bland cornmeal or perhaps a little oatmeal.
He put the sack down and collected what dead branches he could find in the vicinity. After clearing a space for his fire, he snapped the thin wood into foot-long lengths and laid them on a small pile of dead leaves. Next, he reached into the sack for the matches. While rummaging around, he also brought out the small kettle and the larger of the two bags of food, figuring it to be the cornmeal.
Once the fire was going, Devin went to the river and drew a kettle half-full with water. On the way back to his camp, the thought suddenly struck him that Missus Meehan had made no mention of a spoon. How was he to eat his stirabout?
He need not have worried. Missus Meehan was a good woman, indeed she was. There was a large, wooden-handled spoon at the bottom of the sack.
With the meal mixed with water, he held the pot over the fire using a three-foot-long branch and waited for the concoction to start its contented bubbling. Then he would stir it, and before long, he would have warm food resting comfortably in his empty stomach.
Devin’s eyes were fixated on the dancing flames of the fire. They were mesmerizing. His body was warm, wrapped in the fine overcoat; his thoughts wandered. Little doubts silently crept into his contemplations. It was a long way to America. Did he really want to leave The Auld Sod? But if he stayed, what hope would there be for him? Half the country was slowly starving to death.
His thinking was abruptly interrupted by a thrashing noise behind him. Quickly he turned his head, but he could see nothing. He was blinded—he had been looking into the fire. In fear, he cried out, “Who goes there?”
A voice sang out, “’Tis only I, Tom McNevin from Kinsale, County Cork. I saw your fire and thought you might be wanting company on this grand night.”
When his eyes had adjusted to the darkness, he saw a man standing a few feet away, wearing a smile, his hat in hand. Devin relaxed. “Come in, Tom McNevin. Come and sit by the fire.”
McNevin squatted opposite his host and held his hands over the fire to warm them. The firelight reflected off his gaunt face, showing him to be about forty. His hair and beard were dark, but starting to turn a little grey. His eyes were laughing eyes—merry eyes. His clothes were little more than rags and he sported no overcoat—he wore no shoes. He looked across the fire at Devin and saw a young man with a sparse brown beard and stormy blue eyes. He was a good-looking lad and his welcoming smile made Tom McNevin feel right at home.
“’Tis a grand night to be sitting by a warm fire, such as yours, and in such in such fine company,” said McNevin.
“So ’tis. I’m Devin Mahoney.”
Devin noticed McNevin eyeing the pot he held over the flames. “Have you eaten recently?” he asked in a soft voice.
“I cannot say that I have. But I have not come to eat your food. ’Tis a cold night and your fire looked inviting.”
“You are welcome to anything I have. I too know what it is like to go without.”
Devin handed the stick holding the kettle to McNevin. “Here, take this. Keep it over the top of the flames. I’ll do the stirring and soon we’ll be eating like kings, we’ll be.”
As Devin gingerly stirred the cornmeal, he asked of McNevin, “When did you last eat?”
“Like many of our countrymen, it’s been a little while since a bit of food has passed these lips. A day or two days, ’tis all the same. Since the blight came upon us, one day seems like all the others. I don’t count time by days anymore or even hours. Time is the distance from one meal till the next.”
When the stirabout was ready, McNevin placed the pot on the ground next to the fire and eagerly looked in Devin’s direction. He was trying to be polite and wait, but the pain in his stomach willed him to inquire, “Do you have two spoons?”
“Only the one; you are my guest, you eat first. When you have had your fill, then I will eat.”
They took turns eating and when the pot was empty, McNevin insisted that it would be he that took it to the river and cleaned it. While he was at his task, Devin searched out more firewood. It was a cold night and they would have to keep the fire going. Devin would be warm enough in his heavy coat, but McNevin would need the warmth of a fire so as not to shiver throughout the night.
With things taken care of, the two men sat down next to the fire, one on each side, and looked into its flames. They were grateful to have eaten this evening. Their stomachs were full. Tomorrow would bring what tomorrow would bring. But for the moment, they were two contented Irishmen.
Without taking his eyes off the fire, Devin asked, “Are you going or coming from Kinsale?”
“I’ve been to Dublin. I’m going back to Kinsale, but there’s little of any worth there for me, no more. These days there is very little for me—and people like me—anywhere in all of Blessed Ireland.”
“You’re slightly out of your way.”
“When I left Dublin, I thought I’d roam a ways to the west and see if there was any work for an able-bodied man. I’ve been all the way over to Glenbeigh. There is no work—and very little food that I’ve come across in my travels.”
“I’ll tell you true, Tom McNevin, there is very little for us poor folks here in Ireland. The land of St. Patrick, fairies, and the little people. The land of ruins. Of standing stones that have stood since the beginning of time. The land where my ancestors vanquished the Danes and ruled all this land hereabouts. I tell you true, Tom McNevin.”
McNevin moved a little closer to the fire.
Devin threw on a few sticks to build it up. “Tell me, Tom. What is it like in a big city like Dublin? Are there hungry people there too?”
“If you are not ready for sleep, I’ll tell you what I’ve seen from Kinsale to Cork to Dublin and back. Me thinks that somehow we Irish have angered the gods. What misery I’ve seen. But I have also seen acts of boundless Christian kindness.
“Before I tell my story, you must tell me what it is that you are doing out here on a cold night, mixing stirabout and wearing a fine gentleman’s coat. I would think that you could afford to stay at an inn.”
Devin laughed. “The coat was given to me by a kind woman. Underneath, I am dressed much as you are.” He then told his story and ended it with, “I’ll be going to America now. When I return, I’ll live in as fine a manor house as you have ever seen and have a coach-and-four to draw me to and fro as befits a man of my standing. No longer will I be walking from town to town.”
McNevin warmed his hands over the fire. “I’m sorry about your family. Me, I never had much of a family. My mother died giving bringing me into the world and, for one reason or another, I never married. Perhaps it was for the best. I don’t know how I’d survive having my whole family wiped out in a trace.”
Devin shrugged and said, “My sister is safe up in the North.”
“’Tis good to hear,” affirmed McNevin.
Devin threw a few more dried branches onto the fire. “Now, you tell me what is happening outside of County Kerry, in the rest of Ireland.”
McNevin leaned back as the fire flared up. “I’ll get to telling you, to be sure. I am a seanchaí of renown. An Irish teller of tales am I. You make yourself comfortable and I’ll pay for my supper this night with a tale that you will remember and pass down to your grandchildren as they sit upon your knee in that fine manor house that you will one day be building.”
Devin pulled his knees up, wrapped his arms about his legs, and waited for the seanchaí to begin his story.
“I had six acres that I planted every year for twenty years. The crop fed me with enough left over to sell at market and keep me steeped in whiskey for a few weeks after harvest. My rent was always paid. But then the blight struck. The leaves withered, the stems rotted, and my beautiful praties were covered with dark and black patches. It all happened very quickly.
“Without a crop, my rent I could not pay. The owner’s middleman badgered me daily and told me I’d be thrown out onto the road unless I came through. This after twenty years on the same plot of land. I had always paid my rent, but would the landlord give an understanding to the blight and what it has done to this country? No, he would not. He wanted only his money and his tenant of twenty years be damned! I told the middleman that you cannot get blood from a turnip.
“As a result of the agent’s badgering, I took myself off and joined one of those work gangs that the government had set up. We went out at dawn each day to dig holes. There was no reason to dig those holes, but if we wanted to be paid, we’d have to dig them damn holes. The next day we would go out and fill in those very same holes. Sometimes we would build stone walls that enclosed nothing or made an existing wall higher by two feet or more. All for no rhyme or reason, only to keep us busy.
“At least we were fed twice a day. Once at ten and then again at four. But it was very poor gruel they gave us, it was. And you had to work the full ten hours to be given even that.
“At the end of the week, I would turn my pay over to the middleman to keep a hold on my farm. But he always told me I still owed. Finally, I had had enough. I was working ten hours a day, six days a week for two miserly meals a day. And after all that work, I still went hungry on Sundays!
“The summer of last year I gave up my farm and left Kinsale. I thought I could find work in Cork, loading boats. It was on my first day out that I saw my first horror. I came across a woman walking my way, holding a bundle in her arms. Like me, she was dressed in rags, and like me, she was thin, her face drawn. I could tell by her looks that she had not eaten in many a day. But unlike me, she had a look about her that I cannot describe.
“When we came abreast of one another, I stopped and asked, ‘Are y’ alright?’ She looked at me with a blank stare and says she, ‘I do be alright, but my baby is hungry. Can you spare a morsel of food for the wee little one?’
“I had a biscuit in me pocket that I was holding for dinner. How I could I say no to her plea even if I had wanted to? I withdrew the biscuit and held it out to her. She says, ‘You give it to him.’ She unwound the swaddling to reveal her child. It was horrible, it was. The infant was dead, and from the look of it, had been so for some time. I looked at the woman smiling down at the lifeless baby boy as though he was alive. She had lost her mind either from hunger or grief—or both.”
Devin exclaimed, “That is horrible. What did you do?”
“I did the only thing I could do. I pressed the biscuit into her hand, saying, ‘You feed him and have some for yourself.’ She did not try to feed her baby and she did not raise the biscuit to her mouth. So, the only other thing I could say was, ‘Mind yourself, mother.’ She thanked me and resumed her slow wanderings. I stood in the middle of the road watching until she was out of sight.”
“Yesterday, I came across a dead man lying in the road just outside of Coom,” volunteered Devin.
“Aye. Corpses lay thick upon the roadside these days. I’ve seen a few myself. A month back, I stepped into a burying ground to avail myself of a little shade from the beech trees lining its walks. There was a funeral taking place and I decided to linger until the service was over. After the mourners had left, the burying men held the coffin over the dug grave. One of them pulled a string and a spring mechanism popped open the bottom and the body wrapped in old potato sacks fell six feet to its final resting place. I asked about it. ‘We have run out of wood for making coffins—there are just too many dead,’ informed one of the men. ‘Undertakers all over Ireland are doing the same,’ said another.”
“Now tell me, Tom McNevin, what is life like in the cities of Cork and Dublin?” questioned Devin.
McNevin leaned toward the fire—his face a ghostly yellow from the reflecting flames—and said, “’Tis a little better than the country, but not by much. There is no work to be had in either place. People from the country have crowded the streets looking for work and the police do not like it. But they arrest no one because then they’d have to feed them. What they do is give beatings in an effort to drive them back to the country. I’ve been on the receiving end of a few beatings myself.”
“Do they beat the women also?”
“To be sure, I have seen it done, so I have.”
“Then glad I am to be going to America,” sighed Devin. “What else have you seen? I want to know so that I can tell the people of America the true story of what is happening here. They are a rich people, and a kind people. They would send relief if they only knew.”
McNevin threw a few more sticks onto the fire. When they had caught, and the flames danced about in the slight wind that was coming down from the north, he said, “’Tis to be a cold night this night. I am grateful for the warmth of your fire, and I will tell you of more things that I have seen. I cannot understand how we have fallen so low.”
Devin braced himself for what he about to hear.
“From Dublin, I walked west to Galway. ’Tis on the coast that I saw what cruelty really is. There were two women collecting seaweed and putting it into baskets. Having nothing better to occupy my time, I approached them with an Irish greeting, ‘Dia dhuit.’
“‘Hello to you,’ answered one of the women.
“They were both older than I, grey-headed, and dressed in rags. One of ’em had a ratty old red shawl about her shoulders. The other one’s dress was in such tatters that it was cut off above the knees. Both their dresses were heavily patched and neither of the women wore shoes.
“They continued with their work, picking up the seaweed below the high water mark, as we walked along the beach. ‘There be plenty of what you’re after just a few feet away, above the high water line,’ says I. ‘Why do you scavenge for the scraps when the bounty is within reach?’ ‘We dare not,’ said the one with the red shawl. ‘’Tis the landlord’s property above that line.’
“The wind was blowing in off the ocean and it felt good, being the warm August day it was. We walked in that manner for a short while, when, from the north, three policemen came running towards us, making heavy footprints in the sand.
“When they caught up to us, two of them pulled the baskets out of the women’s hands. There was a sergeant and two privates. The sergeant said, ‘I arrest you for thievery. You three are to come along with us. And come peaceably if you know what is good for you.’
“I was shocked at the turn of events. Not so much that I was being arrested, but by the fact that it was against the law to collect seaweed. Since when?”
Devin shrugged his shoulders.
McNevin answered the shrug. “I’ll tell you since when. Since those damn English came here with Henry II hundreds of years ago. Those damn English think they own the whole damn island and all of us too! But enough of that. Back to my story.”
Devin broke a dead branch in two and threw the pieces onto the fire. “Please continue,” he urged.
“The women told the police that they took seaweed only from below the high tide mark. ‘That is surely not against the law,’ pleaded one of the women.
“Apparently it was. The constable’s rejoinder was short and to the point. ‘One of the landlord’s drivers saw you and reported you. There is nothing that we can do here. You must face a judge in a court of law. But why were you collecting seaweed? You do not look like you have a crop that needs fertilizing.’
“‘We was gathering it to eat,’ said the woman with the torn dress. At that point, I spoke up. ‘I was not stealing seaweed. I was merely walking along with these two grand ladies, enjoying the smell of the ocean air and their good company. You do not see a basket in my hands.’
“The women corroborated my words. And the sergeant, being a fair man, said, “Seeing as how the report was about two women and there was no mention of a man, you be on your way now.”
“I wished the women well and continued down the beach until I came to a path that led back to the road. I’ll tell you true. There have been times since then that I wished I had allowed myself to be arrested. At least I would have been fed twice a day while in jail.”
Devin shook his head and said, “’Tis a sorry thing to hear.”
“Aye, it ’tis,” concurred McNevin. Then added, “But not as bad as seeing it.”
Devin fed the fire and said, “We should sleep. We have a good walk ahead of us tomorrow.”
“Are you saying you want me to travel the road with y’?” asked McNevin.
“Sure. You are my seanchaí. As we walk, you’ll be telling me tales of things you’ve seen in this last year and I’ll be sharing my food with y’.”
“It will give my head peace to travel with you. May your blessings outnumber the shamrocks that grow.”
“Thank you, Tom. There’s enough wood to sustain the fire throughout the night, but I’ll have to depend on you to keep it going. According to my brothers, I’m not very good at that sort of thing.”