Circa 2007: from the book Tales of a Backyard Farmer
It was the Christmas of 1981, and in the depths of a Canadian winter I caught the train from my home in Ottawa to the Montreal Airport to board the flight to Germany. A deep sense of sadness pervaded all that lay behind me, and only uncertainty lay ahead as I touched down in Europe for the first time. Long-distance courtship was having a rough ride, and I had only three weeks of annual leave to sort things out before my return to Canada to complete my contract.
It was a great pity that I’d spent so much time trying to invent new ways of sampling mineral slurries, and so little time poring over my German textbooks. I was still operating on a six-word vocabulary derived largely from childhood war comics, and “Dumbkopf” and “Schweinhund” didn’t quite fit the bill as opening remarks in my upcoming introduction to my future in-laws. Nor did it help that my only source of English-to-German translation wasn’t talking to me, apart from the occasional clipped sentences delivered in an icy tone that made Canada seem warm by comparison. But help was at hand from an unexpected quarter…
“It’s a liddle varm, ja?” startled me out of my concentration on the soup in front of me. High tea was in progress that Christmas Eve, following stilted introductions, and you could have cut the air with a knife. Well, what I’d just heard was definitely in the English language, it probably was a little warm back home in Christmassy Australia, but outside the brass monkeys were keeling over by the dozen. But Sepp - Claudia’s father - was beaming at me over his soup-spoon, not knowing that it would take me over twenty years to figure out that he was on about the soup and not about the weather.
The war-torn Germany of Sepp’s youth was not a place were village schooling included studies of languages other than German. But the seventeen-year-old lad was soon enough conscripted off the farm to bolster the ranks of a nation contracting in defeat and defended only by old men and boys. Only days before his capture by Allied troops in Holland, Sepp was ordered to search local farmhouses and to bring back any animals he could find to feed the hungry German soldiers. The one horse he found belonged to an old farmer who would face severe hardship without it. To the German farm boy – no stranger himself to the difficulties of eking out a living from a smallholding – the farmer’s pleas touched a chord, and he reported back to his superiors that no livestock remained in the surrounding countryside.
Weeks later he found himself interned on a farm in Scotland, where he was to remain for three more years before his repatriation to southern Germany in 1947. Along the way, words and phrases in broad Scottish seeped into his life, and were to reappear unexpectedly decades later when his elder daughter turned up at his meal table with a stumbling Australian in tow. Nor was that small store of English vocabulary destined to rust any further – more years passed, and a small tribe of tousle-haired Aussie boys came to love their Opa and his odd mixture of German-English phrases.
Only a year after my wife’s uncle had fought Australian troops in Tobruk in North Africa with Rommel’s Afrika Korps, the ‘Desert Rats’ were called home to defend Australia in the Pacific War against the Japanese. Now my own favourite uncle was moved up with the Australian infantry forces to the New Guinea highlands. Reg Dempsey also returned from that war to marry and raise a family of six children, while pursuing his passion for gardening and poultry-raising half a world away from Sepp’s first garden in Karlsruhe Germany.
It was Reg who turned up one dark night at my rented house in Magill, and lifted six sleeping chooks out of cardboard cartons and placed them on the perches of the old chicken coop down the back of my first real garden. Years later, when he had moved back to Adelaide and I had a family and a garden I actually owned, we came to be friends. I’d take him potted tomatoes and do the heavy digging for him, and he’d send me home to my wife proudly bearing magnificent displays of potted petunias. Friendship grew between us in quiet ways, through our common love of growing plants and family history, bakeries and a good joke.
Near the end of his own life, he told me the story of a Japanese attack that had wiped out his mates in the other half of his Signals Platoon. They came under artillery attack on the opposite face of a mountain, while he looked on helplessly. I was fortunate indeed to have had these few years with this wonderful old gentleman. On the other side of the world, Sepp’s older brother had failed altogether to return from the Russian front, and we were never to know him or the family that he could have raised.