"A VERY PECULIAR CHILD"
"A VERY PECULIAR CHILD"
On a beautiful day in May 1946 I was baptized at the Silesian Don Bosco church in Linz. My godfather later told me that I was sound asleep throughout the festivities which proves that I had already begun to develop healthy defense mechanisms. The other two memories relayed to me were that my father gave me a small silver Focker airplane on a chain as a baptismal present. Manfred von Richthofen, the great air ace of the first World war was my father's life long idol and the source of my first name. This proved somewhat prophetic as I would later spend about 40 years of my life flying everything others let me. I still shudder at the thought of flying a contraption like the one depicted but then I never pretended to be a heroic type.
The second thing that day was that the baptismal party got properly inebriated at the Klosterhof beer garden.
The church however became important in my young life. As soon as possible I was sent to their kindergarten which lasted until February 1953 when, not quite five years old, I was expelled, a fact that my grandfather gleefully remembered as a first even in our family!
Sister Veronica had sent for my grandparents to break the news to them. "He is a very peculiar child" said the sister, and queried by grandmamma elaborated that "nobody knew what to do with me"."He does not play with the other children, he sits in the garden with a book in his hand when he is not hiding under the altar or trying to dismantle the organ or taking a nap in the sacristy. You would probably do better to have a tutor at home for him...."
Grandfather, an atheist and Freemason was elated, my grandmother, a language professor, was happy to see that I was reading and my attempts at organ modification caused no end of amusement because I had already taken apart one large kitchen clock and put it back together. So, they proudly took the little criminal to the Café Traxlmeier for ice cream. A happy spring and summer followed. In the mornings I went with grandma to her school where I was allowed to sit in on the art classes of professor Dichtl where I watched students create veneer chess boards or carve a linden wood bowl. I was given paints and paper, a good set of brushes and very little other supervision. In the afternoons I went to work with grandfather where my main job was to keep pencils sharpened for all the draftsmen. I watched bridges being drawn and railroad buildings, learned about perspective and drawing with pen and ink. I even had my own slide rule albeit I had no idea what it did. But I carried it proudly in the breast pocket of my tiny draftsman's apron. In short - I had a wonderful time of it.
Life at home was uncomplicated. We had a Bohemian cook, the fearful Mrs Navratil, a groundskeeper and part time chauffeur and "keeper of the heat" The last was the most important function of Hans Hayder. The old home was heated by twelve elaborate enamel stoves with a veracious appetite for charcoal briquettes which rumbled into the basement weekly through external coal chutes. Coal delivery was still by horse drawn wagons as was the delivery of milk, groceries and copious amounts of Goesser Lager beer. Herr Hayder had another function as well. As a childhood friend of my grandfather's he was his factotum, occasional drinking buddy and all around best friend. There was one other member of the household, the formidable Miss Kovacz who was in charge of cleaning, laundry, hot water for bathing and the supervision of me. Assisted by a never ending gaggle of young girls, she reigned supreme. Even my grandfather trod lightly around her because she was apt to catch him sneaking furtively out of the back door wearing yesterday's shirt or unpolished shoes, grave infractions in Miss Kovacz very strict household. Thankfully, she and my grandmother were also good friends with the gift of gab and there were those blessed hours when the two ladies were ensconced in grandmother's study with glasses of plum brandy and sconces, unaware of what evil things Alois and Manfred were up to.
We rarely ate dinner at home. Grandmother was busy with school and social functions and so we would mostly eat at one of our favorite small restaurants. Wherever we went, a stein of beer was quickly produced and a glass of cider for me. Most of the small dining establishments were and probably still are family owned, some for generations. Every house has a specialty such as my beloved Speck Knoedel with Sauerkraut, a large bread dumpling stuffed with bacon and served on a bed of kraut simmered in wine or hard cider with tiny apple bits and caraway seeds. Another was "Beuschl", an Austrian specialty stew of beef lights, cubes of steamed celeriac, baby carrots and potatoes. Or the incredibly good Gulyasz made with the best cuts of beef, a mixture of sweet and sharp onions and good Hungarian Paprika, served with bread or potato dumplings or over broad noodles. I also adored warm cabbage salad with bacon bits and sour cream spiced with Fennel seeds. I have often tried to make those dishes at home but it just does not come out as good as it was back then under trees on the banks of the Danube with the sun setting and casting a mellow glow over the baroque churches, large bridges, the castle on one hill and the cathedral on the other. Maybe I just miss the smell of grandfather's after dinner pipe.
After dinner we would walk, sometimes for almost two hours and I would learn about the history of the city and the land surrounding it, the history of my family and the notables, good or evil that populated our ancestry. Much amuses me to this day. An example is the fact that we had the very first railroad in Europe. It was a wooden rail line called the "Pferdeeisenbahn" or horse railroad. Horses would draw wagons on wooden rails all the way to Budweis or Pilsen in Bohemia to bring back the good beer Austrians craved. Unfortunately, today's "Bud" does not taste at all like the real thing still faithfully brewed. Right now I should love to have a bottle of the Pilsner Urquell. We seem to have always owned vineyards of which I shall speak later. But one enterprise that had kept my tribe in coins through the 17th and 18th centuries was the right to tax ships sailing downriver on the Danube. A percentage went to the Imperial coffers but the right to stop every salt barge, lumber ship or transports of German wines, ceramics, cloth or agricultural products was truly a license to steal. My ancestors operated a rope ferry near the town of Mauthausen (literally Toll House). Every ship was stopped and had to pay toll. If they did not have the required funds, the toll was taken in cargo to be stored and sold in our warehouses This little bit of chicanery which went on for a very long time, is mostly omitted in the telling of our history which included more than one ruthless robber baron, land owner or conniving "noble". Like all minor aristocratic families, mine was completely bound to the crown. Land and titles had been given from the house of Hapsburg but when the emperor or empress wanted something in return everyone in the large dual monarchy jumped to attention, bowed deeply and did as they were told. A bit of this was still alive when I was little: A large portrait of our last emperor Francis Joseph hung in the parlor and paintings or photographs of members of the Imperial household with members of my family were the cherished mementos of my elders. I still believe that deep down most older Austrians of my youth still longed for the years of glory where Austria ruled one of the largest nations in the world. And our motto (still found on historic buildings) was:
A.E.I.O.U - Austria erit in orbe ultima ("Austria will be the last (surviving) in the world"). Austriae est imperare orbi universo ("It is Austria's destiny to rule the whole world").
I shall end this happy reminiscing of my earliest years. My next installment will be about school, puberty and learning how to fly. Stay tuned.