29 September 1973

My accident

The first night away from home. My grandmother was worried, of course, my mother was not, and I was excited. Besides being worried, my grandmother had not forgiven Frau Arnold for what had happened a week earlier on 29 September.

It had been my grandmother's 60th birthday. Ten years earlier she had spent her 50th birthday in black, because her husband, my grandfather, had died nine months earlier. The 60th was a to be a big birthday for her. It was to be something memorable.

My mother was supposed to pick us up at six o'clock. We would drive to my mother's apartment and we would celebrate there with a good dinner. But my mother was late. In those days, She was always late.

When she finally drove up the road to the Yellow House, Oma and I went downstairs to meet her.

When we came down, my mother was talking to Frau Arnold, who was at her window, and my mother told her that it was Oma's 60th birthday and she was picking us up.

Frau Arnold insisted on opening a bottle of sparkling wine in honour of Oma. Sergeant Arnold got a bottle from the refrigerator, opened it with a muted pop, and poured four flutes. They all drank to Oma's health. Oma showed little enthusiasm and only drank half a flute, so did Sergeant Arnold, and my mother and Frau Arnold finished off the bottle.

My mother never was a pleasant drunk. In fact, she was the exact opposite, and early as a child I learned the six phases. She started out jolly. Then her jokes became insulting, as if she were testing your patience. Then she became outright hostile. Upon realizing the devastation she was causing, she became derisive. Then she fled into self-pity, which usually culminated in her crying and everybody else trying to calm her down. Last, she tried to make amends by apologizing to everybody, including strangers who had no idea about anything.

(I remember the last time I suffered the sequence, or at least the beginning of it: I was a student in Vienna by then, and my mother and her husband came for a visit, and we went to a wine tavern, and my mother had a very short jolly phase followed quickly by the derisive phase, and I got up and without saying a word walked out.)

The problem on Oma's birthday was that my mother was already drunk when she picked us up, and the jolly phase was already wearing thin, and by the time we left in the car, a short insulting phase quickly gave way to abuse. The abuse was directed towards my grandmother. As usual, it had to do with some pictures of my grandfather I had never seen and would never see, but apparently my mother had seen. I don't know if these pictures ever existed, and if they did, what had happened to them. But I know every time these pictures were mentioned my grandmother started to cry.

By the time we reached my mother's place, Oma was in tears and walking about ten steps behind us down the hallway.

I can't remember the rest of the evening, but I am sure that no dinner was prepared, and the evening was ruined.

I do remember however that after that evening, every time I asked my grandmother what her best birthday had been she would invariably answer: "I don't know what my best birthday was, but I do know that my worst birthday was my sixtieth."

I don't blame her.

And so my grandmother had not forgiven Frau Arnold, when they invited me to come along over the weekend to one of the Alpine cabins that was owned by the Austrian Federal Army.

Saturday after lunch we left in Sergeant Arnold's light blue Mercedes Diesel. Sergeant Arnold drove, Frau Arnold sat the passenger seat, smoking as usual, and the four of us were crammed on the backbench, Manfred, his two sisters, and I. The cabin was an hour's drive east of Salzburg and just south of the lakes, and after we had parked the car, we had to hike for another hour to get to our destination which was higher up the mountain still.

The cabin was a rustic affair, with a steep iron sheet roof so the winter snows would slide off. The outside walls were all covered with shingles to protect against wind and rain and as insulation against the cold. On the north side there was wooden porch, which overlooked the lake far down in the valley. There were four or five simple long tables and benches on the porch. South of the cabin, behind it really, was a meadow where cows still grazed all day, and you could hear the bell of the lead cow.

The entrance was on the east side, which makes sense when the winds are predominantly from the west. The outside door lead into a little anteroom where we had to take our boots off. From there another door led into a large kitchen and dining area, with seating along the wall. On the south wall stood a large green tile stove for heating in the winter, which would also radiate heat into the sleeping quarters that could be reached through another door.

The sleeping quarters were an elongated dorm room with a centre aisle and bunk beds to the left and right, military style. That's where we children stayed. It was a dark room that only had a small window at the other end. The adults would sleep in a primitive loft that was located above the kitchen, I think, and which you reached by ladder. This mattress lair had a slanted ceiling, and the floor was covered with old mattresses.

Unbeknownst to me, it wasn't only the Arnold's and I who had planned a stay at the cabin. There were other N.C.O.s, Sergeant Arnold's comrades-in-arms, and their families as well. Many children I didn't know, too many for my taste.

Manfred was wearing his dark-blue Puma track suit, and my mother had bought me a track suit for the occasion. Red pants and a red jacket with green stripes and bands, and a green zip-up collar. It wasn't a Puma, and I wished I had the same as Manfred's.

In the afternoon we played football in the field behind the cabin, or at least we tried. We couldn't play between the cows, and there were too many cow pies, and the only place the cows wouldn't go was the swampy area were the meadow met the forest. Still, the day passed quickly, and we had a simple dinner of pasta and afterwards and after dark we children were sent into the dorm room.

We ranged in age from about six to about twelve, and the older boys taught the younger ones a limerick they called Chiquita banana, and I blushed because they recited it in front of the girls.

Chiquita banana -- An old kook in his eighties,
Chiquita banana -- Loved all the pretty ladies.
Chiquita banana -- At his mansion they danced naked,
Chiquita banana -- And none of them did fake it.
Chiquita banana -- They stayed up all the night,
Chiquita banana -- And moaned with great delight.

Later one of the older girls suggested we all play spin-the-bottle, a game I hadn't even heard of before. Manfred explained the game to me, but I was too shy, and I didn't like it. So I kept to myself outside the circle, on the top of one of the bunk beds. I enjoyed watching them play though, and I laughed with them.

The adults left us pretty much alone, except that we could hear them singing. At around ten o'clock Sergeant Arnold came in and told us it was time for bed. Through the open door I could see the smoky dining area and all the N.C.O.s and their wives drinking and smoking. Frau Arnold was drunk, and most of them were, but they left us alone after that.

We turned off the lights, but we kept talking, and every once in a while somebody would turn on a torchlight and shine it directly in your face so that you would see white circles for a couple of minutes. We didn't sleep a lot and woke up tired. Maybe that was the reason for what happened later.

It was chilly in the cabin, and the dining room tables were still full of half-empty glasses and empty bottles of beer, and wine, and spirits. The room smelled of cold cigarette smoke, and the hung-over adults smelled like sweat and alcohol. Frau Arnold made us some tea and bread and butter and jam. She was in a bad mood, which lightened after her first cigarette.

After breakfast Sergeant Arnold aired out the whole cabin by opening the entrance door and the little window in our dorm room. Although it was only early October the air was frigid, and we all jumped back into our sleeping bags. The N.C.O.s laughed at us, and only their wives had some compassion, because they were cold too.

"Listen, children," Sergeant Arnold said to us. "How about we go on a little hike to get your blood flowing."

Once we started walking we got warm quickly, and an hour later when we reached the summit cross we were all sweating. We children wolfed down our snacks of rye bread and pork sausage, and Sergeant Arnold handed around a cup of hot tea that he had brought in a thermos. But we didn't like to sit for long, and we walked about the summit, and some of us went right to the edge of the cliff, the Bleckwand, that looked down onto the lakes. I am afraid of heights and only dared to slowly crawl on all fours and not even to the precipice. Some boy I didn't know made fun of me, but Manfred told him to stop, and he did.

We started back down the mountain, using a different route than the one we used to climb up. We were goofing around, running ahead of the two sergeants, hiding behind trees, falling behind, passing them again on the narrow footpath that was covered in needles from the larch tress that lined the route. Manfred ran ahead of me, and I tried to catch up to him, but he was faster, and I took a big leap over a root that ran across the path. I remember the root.

Then nothing.