By: Zac Hestand
David is home sick with the flu. He is lying on the sofa, with the television on. He lost interest in the Jean-Claude Van Damme double feature playing, so picked up a book from the coffee table. It does not peak his interest either. He felt cold, and got up to search for a thicker blanket. He walked past his bookcase in the hallway, and got distracted. The second to the last shelf displayed a row of photo albums. He grabbed a random one, and skimmed through it as he picked a blanket. Curled up on the couch, he stopped at a photo that caught his eye. The picture is faded and yellowed by age. Six men pose, dressed in overalls, standing in front of a tractor. Five of the men in the photo are black, with a white sixth man. This white man is Gunter Heidel, David's grandfather.
The Heidel family (his mother's side) is of German descent. They are traced back to a small farming community outside of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. The year is 1927, and Gunter Heidel , a young man of twenty, lives with his mother and father. Gunter's father is a Lutheran minister and ran his household with an iron fist; he is a cold and distant man. As common in the era, his mother tended to matters around the house and would not ever question her husband. She would not, of course, she feared him. Gunter did not want any more of this; he longed to go to America.
"Absolutely not!" roared his father.
"Father, please be reasonable," Gunter said. "Why can't I go to America?"
The United States at this time was experiencing the so-called Roaring Twenties. Whenever Gunter saw a newsreel at his local cinema, he longed to be a part of it. The minister explained that Germany still suffers from the Great War, and that able-bodied young men should remain to help the country become great again. His father added that Americans are not kind to immigrants from what he heard about the Italians and Irish over there. His mother is in their kitchen peeling potatoes in stone silence.
"You are to remain here. End of discussion," his father stated. Their discussion, if it can be called one, came to a halt by the sudden appearance of his mother's voice.
"Shit!" she exclaimed. His mother, a normally stoic woman, had cut her hand with her knife. Father halted his speech at once. He stormed past Gunter and entered the kitchen to confront his wife.
"What is this coarse talk I hear in my home?" he demanded.
"Dear husband...", his mother said, but got cut off before she could say her piece.
"Minister Heidel, I am to be addressed as Minister Heidel. Is that clear?"
Mother sheepishly cast her eyes downward. Father said that he felt shame that his spouse, the spouse of a minister no less, spoke in the crude manner reserved for the lost souls found in beer halls and opium dens. Father extended his ring hand, instructed her to kiss it and pray for her already damned soul. This is when Gunter pushed his father. Minister Heidel slapped him, and the both of them brawled throughout the house. Mother pleaded and prayed in the kitchen to see an end to the violence. There was a silence, followed by heaving breathing. Mother stopped praying, and continued with the potatoes. This night would be Gunter's last.
After what seemed like years, Gunter's boat made it to Ellis Island. It is now the fall of 1927, and will be two full years before the stock market crash. The decade saw the Lost Generation make their mark in literary circles, jazz clubs were rampant, the motion picture heard the voice of Al Jolson and women wore their skirts shorter. Gunter thought it was a good time to be alive.
Gunter longed to attend university and become a Biologist. Back home, his father forbade it. He believes Biology, and people like Darwin, were leading individuals astray, shattering the foundation of core Christian values. Gunter did not believe this, science is there to make life better, not worse, for people.
His father was right about one thing though: intolerance toward immigrants. With the war still fresh on everyone's mind, being foreigner in America was not an easy road. Working part-time as a janitor at a Wall Street office, Gunter would find hurtful words scribbled on his locker and the occasional co-worker kicking over his mop water.
Things were beginning to look up for Gunter. He got accepted to NYU, and began his course work, while continuing to feel more settled in the US. He met, and fell in love with a woman named Patricia Monroe, the daughter of one of his professors, and married quickly. Two years into his studies, the Crash came. Gunter lost his job and quit school. Tensions grew in the Heidel household.
Gunter began to drink heavily. This concerned Patricia with Prohibition still around and the possibility of her husband facing jail time. She would lock herself in the bathroom down the hall for extended periods of time, to the dismay of other tenants.
Things shifted for the worst for this little family. Gunter received a telegram from a family friend in Germany. His father had committed suicide. His mother walked in on him in bed with another man, in the bottom position. The other man in question was Franz, the church organist. Gunter's father grabbed his pistol and put the barrel in his mouth. Gunter's mother was put away.
"Mother", uttered Gunter. He tore up the telegram, and stormed out of the house to his alcohol source, which required a password.
"Scotch on the rocks, Mike," he said to the bartender.
Mike is chatting with a twenty-something blonde at the end of the bar. He nodded his head toward Gunter, but continued to speak with the blond.
"Throat's a little dry," Gunter continued.
Mike whispered in the blonde's ear. She laughed like a banshee. She must have had one drink too many. He walked toward Gunter, told him not to lose his shirt, and to front some money.
"Put it on my tab. I'll pay when I find work."
"Your tab's no good. I've got five mouths to feed," Mike responded. "Show me greenbacks, Kraut."
Gunter told Mike that his father died, but spared him of the intimate details. Mike told him he was sorry to hear of his loss, but still could not give Gunter a drink. Like he said, five mouths to feed at home. Mike went back to the blonde. Gunter stood up, and headed toward that direction.
"Hey baby, what's your name?" asked the blonde. Mike refilled her glass in order to make her legs easier to spread.
"You have my money?" Mike asked with a sneer.
Gunter grabbed Mike by the collar. Mike pleaded with him to calm down, the blonde laughed. A vein throbbed through Gunter's forehead, and the bartender struggled to loosen his grip. A crowd formed when Gunter slammed Mike's head on the counter. The blonde screamed as she finally grasped the seriousness of the situation. Mike managed to escape Gunter's grip, and he hopped over the bar throwing punches. The crowd grew rowdy, each cheering on their own guy. In the midst of all of this, two policemen entered.
They withdrew their batons, and trekked through the crowd. Some members of this audience backed away immediately, others claimed they had no idea alcohol was served here. The larger of the two yanked Gunter by his hair, and threw him to the ground. The side of his face hit the floor first, the impact so intense it shattered a few teeth. He felt particles skate across his tongue.
He sat in his cell, in hopes that Patricia would come. She did not have bail money, so he waited for three days. To his complete and utter surprise, his father-in-law showed up with the bail.
Outside the jail, the morning sun illuminated brightly on Gunter, his eyes shut extra tight, giving him more difficulty to look at his father-in-law straight in the eye. Gunter explained the suicide of his father, the mental breakdown of his mother and financial woes. His father-in-law listened in silence, and then explained that he had land down South. A tobacco farm in Georgia that could use an extra hand. The pay would be low, but Gunter is more than ecstatic, and accepts the offer.
"You're going to be outside working mostly with Negros, are you fine with that?" his father-in-law asked.
"It's fine. Work's work."
He drove Gunter back to his apartment, when he arrived; he apologized to Patricia and told him the news. They spent the next few months selling possessions and building a small amount of money before they left New York. In the spring of 1930, they bought two tickets for the 8am train to Valdosta.
The humidity is at an unseasonal high for the spring. Gunter felt his shirt cling to his chest. The peaches are in full development, and the birds are chirping away. Gunter and Patricia stroll through the town square, arm in arm. They soak in the Southern hospitality and the smell of catfish.
Their mirth would be short-lived. Gunter kept from her that he would be barely making enough to have a home of their own. Temporarily, they hoped, they would live with her Aunt Fay and Uncle Troy.
"Welcome welcome. Heavens, girl, you're a rail. Imma get you some meat on yer bones," bellowed Aunt Fay. She is a large woman, with a weathered face and kind eyes. She smiled at Gunter, flashing what few teeth remained.
"Welcome, dear boy," she said, giving Gunter a hug. "Go say hi to Troy, he's in the barn." She hurried back in the house, leaving him alone. The inside sounded jubilant.
A group of men sat inside the barn. All three in tattered overalls, work boots and caps. Troy, in the center, and the other two on each side. Troy is tall and slender; his beard is unkempt with patches of grey. The one on the left is George, short and stocky and the one on the right is Bill, tall and broad-shouldered. The trio smoke and are full of jocularity.
"...then the dumb son of a bitch falls face first in the pig pen!" George said, obviously the punchline to an amusing anecdote. The three continue to cackle, Troy slaps his knee.
"George, that's the damn funniest story I've heard in many a moon," he said.
The laugher decreased when Gunter made his presence known. He looked around, admiring the mere magnitude of the barn. The three men stare in stone silence; it broke when George cleared his throat.
"Yeah?" he asked gruffly.
"Good day," Gunter said uneasily. "My name is Gunter Heidel, Patricia's husband".
Troy stood, tossed his cigarette, and walked toward Gunter. The men shook hands. Troy has a very firm grip. Troy pointed to the other two men; they both nodded and continued in their smoking and chatting.
"You talk kinda funny. Where you from?" Bill asked. Gunter almost didn't answer; he couldn't believe the size of Bill.
"That a fact?"
Gunter brought up his objective for moving down South. Troy seemed to have forgotten all about it. He told Gunter that tobacco farming is not an easy job. He expected his employees on time, bright and early, and to give their 150%. Gunter does not understand why Americans are so bad at Math.
The sound of the supper bell closed the conversation. The inside of the house was small and sparse. The sitting room contained only three chairs and a dilapidated piano. A framed portrait hung above the piano. It is a stoic man in Army attire. Gunter learned this man was Troy's brother, who served in the Great War. He fell victim to mustard gas in France.
Considering the domestic circumstances, it was a nice meal. Fried chicken (a little burnt), mashed potatoes, corn bread and peach cobbler. Iced tea was offered to drink, minus the ice. Troy said a brief blessing, eating commenced and the table fell silent.
"Auntie Fay, this cobbler is superb," Patricia said, breaking the silence.
"Thank you, sweet pea," she said. "It's grandma's recipe."
The group fell silent again. Troy started to talk about the weather with Gunter. Something about rain being good for the crops. Troy slurped the last drop of his tea. He slammed his glass on the table, and began to shake it. Fay sprang up to retrieve the pitcher. Gunter observed during supper that Fay sat on the edge of her seat the whole meal. He was saddened by this.
It is now the summer of 1947. Since then, Gunter and Patricia have had two children. A son, Gus, now age fifteen and a daughter, Heidi, age eleven. After two years of picking tobacco, Gunter was able to get a home for Patricia and him. It was a small place, but it was theirs.
It is Monday morning, flowers are in bloom. As tradition on weekday mornings, Gunter walks Heidi to school. Gus takes the school bus to the new high school. Conversation typically consists of what Heidi is learning in school, if she is coming straight home or if she is spending the afternoon with her friend, Nellie Moore. Today's school discussion took a different turn.
"Ralph Truman threw a rock at me again," she said.
"What do you mean, again? Why didn't you tell me this before?" Gunter asked.
"He said you're a Nazi spy, and want to kill the President," she said with small tears in her eyes.
"You know that's not true. Ralph is an idiot. You're an American, we are Americans. Besides, I came here before that movement was going on. You know that."
Heidi's face turned crimson, and tears cascaded at an accelerated speed. Ralph Truman, it turned out, was not the only child in her class that gave her trouble. Her teacher would not call on her if she raised her hand and children would call her "Mrs. Hitler" or "Frankfurter". It pained Gunter to hear all of this. He hugged her tightly.
After dropping her off at school, he headed to work. In 1938, he quit tobacco farming for good after getting into a fight with Bill. He and Bill would get into a series of arguments, and Gunter finally had it, and punched Bill in the throat. Since then, he has worked at Tom's General Store as an Assistant Sales Merchant. He saw Tom smoking his pipe outside.
"Morning Gunter, did ya get Heidi off to school?"
"Yeah, is there still coffee?"
Every morning, the two of them had the same conversation. Tom knew getting more words out of him would be a daunting task. Six months prior, Patricia died. She began an affair with a fifteen year old peach picker named Miguel. She got pregnant. She offered Miguel twenty dollars to help her abort the baby, but the abortion went awry. Miguel is now in prison, his mother weeps in church every evening.
Gunter took a sip of coffee. He felt the grounds rub against his teeth. Assistant Sales Merchant is merely a title; Gunter didn't sell a great deal. His days were spent stocking shelves and folding flannel shirts. His dream of Biology seemed like a lifetime ago. Even if he wanted to go back to school, it was too late.
Tom would let Gunter off at 3 o'clock so he could pick up Heidi from school. On the way out of the store, Gunter noticed his son with a group of other boys smoking next to the ice cream parlor. He could overhear their conversation: mostly about baseball, a new Humphrey Bogart movie and girls. He wanted to walk over to his son, but couldn't. Since his wife died, Gus had been blaming him for it and for his mother's past unhappiness. Gus didn't come home for dinner most nights, spending them instead with those unsavory friends of his. When he was home, he would not utter a word. Gunter turned and walked to pick up Heidi.
Several years followed, and they were not kind to the Heidel house. Gunter sunk deeper and deeper into a depression. He began dealing marijuana with a former farm hand to the black neighborhoods of Valdosta, and made the mistake of leaving evidence behind. He was sent to jail, where he hung himself. Both children were sent to live with Troy and Fay. Gus fell deeper into the wrong crowd. He spent a lot of time at pool halls, and made a bet with the wrong man. He ended up getting stabbed to death in the Men's toilet in 1951.
Heidi proved to be the beacon of hope for this doomed family. She did well in school, and received a full scholarship to NYU in the fall of 1954. After graduating with Honors with dual degrees in Biology and Physics, she traveled abroad, spending a great deal of time in France. While in France, she met her future husband, Etienne.
The tea kettle screamed. David put down the album. He rubbed his nose with a tissue while he poured himself a cup. He sat back on the couch and resumed looking through pictures. He stopped at a photo of Etienne and Heidi (his father and mother), in front of the Grand Canyon with David on Etienne's shoulders. He took a sip of tea, and smiled.