Strong Men


The Hawks Perch    Sketchbook & Starlight©

Strong Men From Budapest to Salinas©

 Clyde turned 90 the first week in April. He told me this on the very day it happened, coinciding as it did with his morning 2 mile hike, a ritual which takes him circuitously round the pretty neighborhood and past my gallery just off Robinson Canyon Road.

The life of Clyde has happily been unfolding before me on the random days he stops in, sits in the Hawks Perch faded blue velvet easy chair, and retails the various wonders of an astounding career and fine life. Though others sit in that chair surrounded by my oil portraits, and paintings of wildly colorful flowers whose fragrance is turpentine and Damar varnish, it is evolving into Clyde’s Chair. A pinched up now half empty plastic bottle of Arrowhead Water remains on hand if the weather makes his throat dry. That is Clyde’s Water Bottle.

Clyde is methodical, a consequence of his WWII army intelligence days when burdens were heavy and lives weighed in the balance. Now, he still figures statistical chances for all events,  calculates risk VS benefit, and knows how to brilliantly unwind a story with enough delicacy and no omissions so that the listener more than once pulls back in her opposite chair upon discovering the tilt, the leaning in for his crisp deep voice.

He is cautious in the matter of full disclosure. Over the past three months, characters appear with frequency who yet go unnamed for multitudinous references, then finally a first name, an initial, a location added. Which, for all I know, may be a string of aliases. It is, after all, his métier.  But I have yet to catch him on a slip up, so the constancy is due either to truth, or a canny brain that during the Big War and years into the Cold War made him a sought after discerner in matters of importance to men in high places, and good at playing it close to the vest.

Today, Clyde told me about his friend John, who is his same age, and lives in Salinas.

When Germany pushed their invading armies east, John was a seventeen year old Jew in Hungary. His parents quickly succumbed to concentration camp death. John was young and strong and put to work in a munitions factory the Germans had commandeered and refitted. The final war years played out in disarray. Nazi soldiers abandoned factories, moved populations to the camps, then news of the arriving American soldiers sent them fleeing. Prisoners who could run or still walk escaped to the surrounding forests.

On that day of liberation, an American soldier discovered John a mile outside the camp’s barbed wire, hunting for mushrooms and desperate for anything sustaining he could find.  That soldier was a GI from Salinas, California.

Here Clyde the storyteller readjusts his long legs, and lowers a strong-arm down to the water bottle for a swig before continuing.

We next find John on the Atlantic coast of North America. He’s a quick study on English, is employed, and setting type for the New York Times. It must have been a stunning combination of talk, form filling out, phone calls and perseverance on the part of the Salinas soldier who found the boy in the woods of Hungary outside a German death camp, but he made it happen.

There’s an aside here and Clyde sits up for it, waving the air like briefly pulling a curtain in front of the words that he has just spoken. Clyde tells of John’s love for books. He’d been an avid reader through his youth. When the Nazi’s invaded his homeland, John hid armfuls of his precious books at the bottom of an elevator shaft. The building was destroyed but the elevator shaft, below ground, kept its secret. John dug up his treasure and carried it to his new country.

John’s soldier benefactor returned to Salinas and his family, and left the war behind. The boy he’d saved was well launched. As the years passed, they kept in touch. When John was going through some uncertainty with his love life, the soldier urged him to travel west, and he did, and they met again, in California.

John’s passion for reading drew him to the one place in town with the most books. He got the librarian job. There he discovered and fell in love with writings of John Steinbeck. What a writer! Hero of the downtrodden, seeker of justice. And Jewish! He couldn’t get enough of him.

For the uninitiated (my aside here) Salinas was Steinbeck’s home town. Steinbeck was increasingly famous if not notorious in the post war years, hated by Californians up and down the coast and inland who had been depicted so harshly with his pen in The Grapes of Wrath.

Now Hungarian John was on a mission. He wanted local access to and recognition for Steinbeck’s books. He wanted a room designated in his honor in the Salinas library to hold everything Steinbeck ever wrote. Nobody else had the heart or pocketbook for any such thing. But this was a lad of courage who already survived the darkest days the world had known and he didn’t view obstacles the way most folks might. So John started a letter writing campaign to more certain allies, the librarians of Elsewhere, America, far enough east from the stinging indictments of the author to adore him too.

Books began pouring in. First editions, magazine stories, collected works, four, five, ten copies of Steinbeck novels for the library shelves. The meddlesome obvious remained: where to put it. For the Salinas Library would not be scandalized by the collected works of a reprobate, local or not, collected or not by an American-rescued Nazi concentration camp surviving Hungarian Jew who had shown up on Main Street.

So Hungarian John made a John Steinbeck Memorial Library out of one of the two rooms in his little house. And when hostility encompassed even decor, John built the reading tables and chairs himself, too, and painted the sign he nailed to his front porch.

I like thinking of my country as a hodge-podge kind of many parts. The drifting airborne seeds of far away lives….when they come to ground here will they take strong roots like they had or hoped for in their homeland and prosper. What dimensions and textures are added. What flavors and shapes us natives have not known before will show up in the streets and in the shops…..and in our small town libraries.

Like most Americans, my favorite immigrants are the ones who love their new home, my country, as much as I do; get savvy to its faults and relish the differences that propelled them in fear, far from what was familiar, and have the wisdom to give their thanks and adjust their loyalties.

And America will always be composed of large cities where a foreigner, maybe a Hungarian boy, can set type for a big English language newspaper. Where a Jew can settle down and raise up a stir in a small western town populated by Presbyterian farmers and Catholic fruit pickers. Where a death camp survivor who saw books burnt is saved by a GI 2000 miles away then turns up in Salinas to build a library for a writer simply because he really likes the words the man wrote.


2 thoughts on “Strong Men

  1. Oh, what a fine tale you weave with this one! Your tapestry is brilliant, with a sweet subtlety near the edges. I really must visit Hawks Perch more often and feed my soul!

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