MY GRANDFATHER HAD N O T I M E F O R H I T L E R
‘What is the matter that you don’t speak to me? …
I’d be better satisfied if you would talk to me once in a while.
Why don’t you look at me and smile at me? I am the same man.
I have the same feet, legs and hands, and the sun looks down
upon me a complete man. I want you to look and smile at me.’
Goyathlay (Geronimo) to
General George Crook, US Army.
Crazy Horse never had his picture taken, so here’s one of Red Cloud.
In the summer of 1866, the great Sioux War Chief Red Cloud made his position clear with regard to the influx of white men into his sacred territory. At a special council he told the gathering;
“The white man lies and steals. My lodges were many, but now they are few. The white man wants everything. The white man must fight, and the Indian will die where his fathers died.”
It’s a sobering thought, but my grandfather was about six years old when Red Cloud called his meeting. He was born in Bielefeld, Germany, and sadly died two years before I became Crazy Horse. He left us in 1947 when I was just four years old. He’d left Germany as a young man and worked as a ship’s cook on the route between Liverpool and New York. The misty myth in our family has it that whilst living briefly in America, he married a Native American girl whilst working as a manservant to Frank Winfield Woolworth, founder of the now defunct High Street stores. Damn right I want to believe it, although I realise it’s probably untrue. This is because I can’t see the sense of abandoning a potential career in New York City for the life of a railway clerk in Sculcoates, Hull. How the hell did Granddad end up in Hull after such an American existence? It would be like swapping a life in St. Tropez for one in Middlesborough. But if it was true – and when I was a mewling kid it always was true – then I imagined
I had some extremely tenuous connection to the free men of the Black Hills, the Great Plains, or the forest, Monument Valley – wherever Hollywood suggested the Indians lived. Yes; it was so genetically obvious – that was why I went red in the sun and not brown like my little mates. I was a Sioux warrior, and I would accept no other identity. And Granddad, as Aryan as they came, had his truck with the white man, too. The breed in question were the whiter than white variety – the Nazis, whose ascendance had changed his mind about returning to Germany in 1932.
He’d been a railwayman, a cook, a baker, a manservant. He was tough, square, angular, and blue-eyed with a shock of white hair which had once been Nordic blond. He liked listening to Beethoven and Brahms on the radio, kept chickens in the back yard at Queen’s Terrace off Portland Street in Hull, just a stone’s throw from the bus station. People liked old Karl – at least before the war came along. For a while he had a small baker’s shop in Convent Lane. Even then, before I was born, he was very old and sometimes absent minded, yet people loved his bread and they spoke well of him. Even when Mrs. Clutterbuck returned a loaf one day, its fluffy white interior displaying the bizarre grin of the old man’s lower set from his false teeth, he exclaimed “Mein Gott! I have been looking for those since yesterday!” Yet the exchanged banter was humorous and good natured, sweetened by a new, denture-free replacement loaf and some cream buns. That was, until the war. In the first war, they had locked him up with his fellow ‘Enemies of The King’ in a camp on the Isle of Man. This time, with the Luftwaffe ascendant, it was different. The man who once sold bread to his talkative neighbours had bricks thrown through his window, and we were not admitted to the air-raid shelter. We’d become the nasty Krauts, the ‘enemy within’, a situation Granddad, still measuring out his flour and yeast, found quite puzzling. His dough was British, but it was kneaded with German hands. Yet his three sons were risking their lives for England in the Atlantic Convoys and the ranks of the British Army.
“Vy? Vy are they so crazy?” He would ask; “I am the same man!” Such is the fear and incomprehensible effect of war.
But for me, the brief Granddad days were days of joy.
When the sun shone on those immediate, peaceful post-war mornings I would awake to the smell of freshly baked bread, and on the landing outside my bedroom would carefully avoid looking at the smirking Laughing Cavalier who stared sinisterly down from the frame on the wall at the top of the stairs. The lure of fresh bread nullified the fear engendered by the Cavalier’s follow-you-everywhere eyes.
Downstairs in the kitchen, in front of the cast iron Yorkist range where the fire flickered, Granddad would serve me a hot muffin oozing with melting butter. The daily baking of bread was – even in his 80s – the heartbeat of his life. It began at ¬6.30 am every day; first rising of the dough, a concentrated kneading followed by a second rising at 7.30, then into the oven by 8.15. Sometimes he would mutter along in German as he worked, others he would hum some ancient, indecipherable Teutonic song.
The war was a huge tragedy for my Mam and Granddad. In the mid 1930s she had met a German sailor, Rudolf. A merchant navy engineer, apparently he was the consummate Bremen gentleman, and by all accounts good looking to boot. Mam’s brothers, my uncles Laurie and Frank, however, both well-travelled sailors, knew what was going on in the Reich, and had a strong inkling of what was coming. When he docked in Hull, Mam would invite Rudolf to visit, where he had the added bonus of being able to converse in his native tongue at will with Granddad. However, if Laurie and Frank were ashore at the same time, things became frosty. This was a pity, because Rudolf had serious reservations about the Nazis. He said he preferred being away at sea to get away from all the ‘Heil Hitler’ stuff back home. Yet Laurie and Frank were having none of this. Laurie knew how many ordinary Germans had been sucked into Hitler’s charismatic honey trap, and as his sister Freda’s big brother, he felt he had a certain responsibility.
“There’ll be a war,” he would say, “and where would you be then – a collaborator! There’s thousands of good Englishmen out there and you choose a German!”
This attitude always puzzled Mam, especially with our German ancestry. Yet in later years she understood Laurie and Frank’s attitude. As the prospect of war loomed they had both attempted to join the Royal Navy, yet were turned down. Laurie always maintained that it was something to do with the family surname, Kohler. This had produced a bitterness which was overcome by a burning desire to prove their absolutely British credentials, a mission they would complete with honour during the inevitable conflict.
The things Rudolf told Granddad about Hitler and his goose-stepping empire made the old man laugh. He’d already seen it with Mussolini’s pompous fascism, and he considered everything about the Third Reich to be nothing more than an end-of-the-pier music hall show. He was very sad when he realised he was wrong, but not as heartbroken as Mam was when Rudolf was called into the U-Boat service. After the spring of 1939 she never saw him again.
When the war eventually ground to a bloody halt, Granddad laughed out loud when he heard that Hitler was dead. There was no time for der fuhrer in our house.
“Ach! I said it would happen! That dumkopf! I knew he would ruin Deutschland and he has done it! Now I can never go back!”
Meanwhile, in 1942, Freda, my Mam, had married a British soldier; an act of honour which she hoped would impress her fighting brothers. Sadly, as time would tell, honour was a characteristic missing from my father’s arcane, albeit British character.
In the long, pre-school afternoons I would watch the clouds scudding by over the broken, bombed and toothless landscape of Hull as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – or one of the other eight – boomed out through our chipped Bakelite radio as Granddad hummed along to the main themes. Mam would dust and sweep and polish, take the rag rugs out into the yard, hang them on the line and beat them with a carpet beater. After an hour, they would be brought back in and, like a playful puppy
smelling his first horse manure, I would roll on those rugs absorbing the freshness of the air in which they’d hung. Then I would watch Granddad feed the chickens, and wonder about his long life and all the things which had happened in the world since he left Germany as a young man. If only I had been older, and known which questions to ask. But it was too late, I suppose.
My biological father, originally a miner from Barnsley, was still in the Army, serving as a Private in the Lincolnshire Regiment. I’m not sure what wartime battles he fought in, but I do know that one of his duties was guarding what was left of the pier at Withernsea. Presumably Rock Bob’s novelty confectionery emporium must have been a major target for the Panzer Divisions. Anyway, I didn’t see much of him. In fact, I can’t recall seeing him at all until I was probably about three and a half, and the occasion was a catastrophe which would shape our lives for years to come. The storm broke one sunny afternoon in Queen’s Terrace.
I had been across for a treat at the house of Mrs. Moses, an aged neighbour whose name suited her seemingly Methuselah years. She was, looking back, an obvious survivor from Victoria’s reign. The only sound behind the delicate lace curtains of her pristine dwelling was the dull, rhythmic ‘clunk’ of her grandfather clock, and when it struck loudly on the hour I always jumped out of my tiny skin. It was the kind of house where Edgar Allan Poe would have spent his time with his ear clamped to the wall, listening for the agonised, coffin-bound scratching of a premature burial. Yet for a curious toddler, with its potpourri fragrances of faint carbolic, mint, molasses and surgical spirit, it was weirdly irresistible.
Her tall, mahogany sideboard supported an array of glass domes, beneath which were a stuffed cat and two long-dead paragons of the taxidermist’s trade, the motionless parrots
Captain Billy and Mr. Pedro. Often she would talk to these rigid, silent corpses as if they were still about to flutter into some kind of cackling vocal life. In fact, not fully understanding death, I sometimes put my ear to their glass
coffins and expected a response. But Mrs. Moses was a kind old lady with a hobby most boys could admire; she made her own sweets. She had all those characteristics you’d expect for a lady of her Victorian vintage; a hair-sprouty wart on her chin the size of a nipple, pince nez spectacles, lace shawls, and as she passed close there was a distinct aroma of lavender. Pride of place in her confectioner’s art was her cough candy. It nestled on a lace doyley in a nickel-silver bowl, all chunky, brown, sugar-dusted translucent rough cubes of it, piled up like the abandoned masonry of an Assyrian tomb, a delight to crunch in tiny trainee teeth despite its tongue-splitting menthol after burn. She had a glass case with shelves in her kitchen and I would ask her to read to me the mysterious labels on the jars there, because they had funny names; something called ‘squills’, ‘tincture of tolu’ ‘ipecac’ and ‘oil of gualtheria’. No doubt had Mrs. Moses, in the company of her black cat, Alastair, lived a couple of centuries earlier, she would have spent every Friday on a ducking stool on the banks of the Humber. But that product of her geriatric alchemy, cough candy, was something else. It never seemed to cure coughs, but it beat the hell out of my Junior Liquorice Smoker’s kits, complete with sweet cigarettes and coconut tobacco.
On that hot afternoon I had made it back across the terrace to our house with my mouth stuffed with cough candy and enough of the rugged delicacy stuffed into my pockets to provide ballast for a trawler. Once inside, with Granddad snoozing in his chair, I was accosted by Mam who barked “Open your mouth!” No doubt the viscous brown gunge I displayed looked like something from a sewer, although my breath did undoubtedly have all the fragrance of a recently disinfected orthopaedic ward. She was about to tell me to spit it all out and chastise me for once again pestering Mrs. Moses
when she suddenly stopped and looked into the middle distance, listening. I heard it, too; the steady marching rhythm of hobnail boots clattering down the terrace. My father was in the back yard, feeding the chickens, when there was a loud knock on our front door. Mam wiped her hands on her apron
and went to open it, and I stared down the passage to see two stocky, tall military men wearing red caps. I couldn’t hear the conversation clearly, but they were both invited in and, as was the custom with visitors, installed in the front room. Granddad snoozed on, I stood in the middle of the kitchen still digesting my candy, as Mam cruised past, called Father from the yard, after which they both disappeared into the front room. I beat a hasty retreat upstairs, carefully averting my eyes from the omnipresent Laughing Cavalier, and hid my surplus cough candy in the old biscuit tin under my bed, where it clattered into place between several platoons of lead soldiers.
When I came back downstairs, I was puzzled to see the two red caps escorting my father, complete with his army kitbag, from the house. It would be over twenty years before I would see him again. Although he had often referred to me as his ‘precious little lad’, it transpired that he was a bigamist, already married before the war to a lady in Barnsley, where he already had several other precious little lads and lasses he had conveniently forgotten about. Going up to bed that night, leaving my mother in the kitchen in floods of tears, I finally faced up to the Laughing Cavalier. You don’t scare me, I thought. Grin all you like. Even though I couldn’t quite understand it, I’d just experienced a shaft of reality. Even today, every time I see his enigmatic face, I sneer back at him. Piss off, go and frighten somebody else.
Hitler had taken one of our families – my Mam’s younger brother, Stanley, who, although he’d survived D-Day, had been shot dead by the SS in the Falaise Pocket in Normandy in August 1944. But now, in our house, down our little terrace which had stubbornly dodged the Luftwaffe’s bombs, the war seemed as if it was far from over.