I was ten the first time Gerhard told me he was the luckiest man alive; I had to laugh.
Just to look at him, standing in a dirty puddle, gum boots caked in chicken shit. His denim coveralls patched here and there, stained with grease or chicken blood or some other unknown substance. It was raining, and we were towing an awkward little cart he had built through the mud to the cooler, the flats of eggs teetering precariously.
But he said it like he meant it. And then he said – Because I have you! Did he mean just me, or all of us?
I guess you are not expected to take statements like that literally. But you think someone who said that would have some evidence readily available to back it up. Maybe he was lucky to be alive, and surely that would feel like being the luckiest man alive because of the alternative. But as for the evidence I could see…
The farm was small as chicken farms in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia tend to go, the buildings’ decrepitude defining the decades of their construction. I could tell by the urgent reprimand whenever I broke an egg that financially things weren’t so great either. Seven children to clothe and feed, the car fifteen years old. Raspberries weren’t paying like they used to. No lottery winnings here.
He was a man you could lose in a crowd. Average height, average build, but strong and his biceps popped out like tennis balls. He combed his wavy black hair straight back and usually covered it with a military type of cap and his sideburns migrated up and down the side of his face according to the current style. When he kissed you, his face prickled and you couldn’t get away fast enough. If he was alive today, he’d probably have a James Harden beard. He didn’t look like a German soldier although he said he had been one. As proof he had half a thumb on his right hand, and a little devil-horn of a nail protruded from it. If he wanted your attention, he’d squeeze it into you somewhere and it really hurt.
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Gerhard’s life began the day I was born. He came into this world a fully formed adult father of three. He was gentle as a feather but he couldn’t sit still; he was fully occupied. Chickens were fed, eggs collected and shipped, chicken shit was shoveled and distributed liberally on pastures in the town, the cow was milked, the garden tended, school and church attended, fruit was picked: this life barreled on with an energy all its own. For years this was all we knew of Gerhard, our master, protector and father. On occasion secret Gerhard would leak out – Russia! Germany! War! Sometimes we imagined we were the adopted children of Soviet spies and our parents’ true identity would be revealed at a later date. Sometimes dark Gerhard came out too, the shaking fist, the welts on the buttocks preceded by some misdemeanor, the angry shouts of “someday you’ll dig in the garbage for those peas!” There was also pious Gerhard – no one attended more church services than he did. Sundays, Saturdays, Wednesdays, prayer meetings, bible studies, evangelistic meetings, spiritual emphasis weeks, it goes on. He read the Bible every morning and tore off another page from his daily Christian calendar. Every night he knelt on the hard floor and prayed for our souls, at times becoming overwrought with emotion, weeping long and loud.
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In time I realized Gerhard had been alive for a significant period before I was born. Someday I’d look into that. They say people who have been to war don’t like to talk about it and don’t want to go back. Yet sometimes Gerhard would tell tales of strange lands, strange times like science fiction, believe it if you want to, and you wanted to hear more, but the cow needed milking, and we’d go our separate ways. Perhaps he was not aware of the intricacies of a child growing up in the Sixties, how much attention to detail was required, so the times were few and far between.
There came a time when I had to decide when Gerhard was really born, and if it was in 1911 as he alleged, then there may be certain material facts I should be made aware of. Who are we? Where are we from? Where are my people?
Years later, I made a written request to Gerhard – in German. I’ll never know how it was received, with dread or excitement, but in due course I received in the mail a notebook of thirty pages, neatly handwritten in German containing certain facts of his life. After his death, several other notebooks were found along with a box of letters. This is the treasure I have shared with you.
Was he the luckiest man alive? Perhaps. If you’ve been on the Journey, you’ll have an opinion. I think luck is just luck, sometimes good, sometimes not and you rarely know which is which. Luck can always be deconstructed to become its opposite, good luck precedes the fall, bad luck builds character, so these are just events that have happened without inherent meaning. Gerhard’s incredible survival was lucky, but tempered with pain and tragedy and a cruel death. In the end it is the journey that matters. On the journey we find our luck, and like Gerhard we ourselves can decide if we are the luckiest person alive.
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Thanks to my editor Dave Broughton who faithfully combed each episode for mistakes and inconsistencies, and who bore me no ill will since his father fought on the other side. And thanks to Julie Swenson for her wise and just criticism both as an astute reader and as my wife.
Thanks also to those who encouraged me along the way. I would not have started or continued this blog without you.
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To my readers: Thanks for coming along. Please don’t hesitate to leave comments, suggestions, criticisms or improvements. All are appreciated.
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This is the end. Really.