Of growing up to be a child again

I was still a teenager when the men in uniform first came to kill me, and when I search for the moment in my life when I ceased to be a child, this is the one I keep returning to.

I had already been away from my home and my family for two years then, but both of those years — as different from each other as they could possibly be — had structure, had people taking care of me, of my daily schedule, of my duties and my free space. They were the years of the almost unquestioning belief in the system and my place within it. They were the years of doing the same I did my whole childhood – playing games, albeit ever changing ones.

Going to the Land of the Free for a one-year respite from life as a 17-year old is as much fun and games as it sounds. But even the year after that, spent in the secluded corner of the Accursed Mountains, sharing the uninhabited patches of nature with the wolf packs and being taught by those same men in uniform how to kill most efficiently, was but a game back then. The enemy was imaginary, and every repeated fired shot, knife stab, granate throw or neck-breaking grip was as far from its murderous reality as long jumps and hurdles were in the years prior. It was a new game, with new set of rules and new opponents to compete against. It was a strange, exhilarating way to spend a part of my childhood and, when we parted ways a year later, I still, very naively, thought that was the last times our paths would cross.

I was still a teenager when the men in uniform first came to kill me, but although I ceased to be a child on that day, there would still be a long time until I would start growing up, for there is more to being a grown-up than not being a child anymore.

One cannot grow while shackled to the ponderous ball of self-pity and I didn’t start for many more years until when, on this day twenty years ago, I would finally walk through the doors of a small student dormitory in southern Germany, in an old blue navy coat, wire rim glasses and uncombed hair and say, “Hi. I’m the new guy here”.

It was just a greeting back then, but with time it almost became a mission statement. What was supposed to last six months never ended, and with each passing day and year on the other side there was a little distance gained, a little more clay available to actively shape my life. A little more perspective to acknowledge and appreciate what so many people have done for me over the years. A little sadness that the new, somewhat wiser and more eloquent me will not have the chance to say thank you to all the departed ones. A little strength to look back and remember, both good and bad.

I started my quest for adulthood on that day twenty years ago, and the gods of my voyage have been very kind to me, granting me a good job, a nice place to live and a wonderful partner. But most of all, I was granted the ability to live my life here and now, and not in the yearnings for some time and place that will never come back. I was given so much more life, so many more days than I thought possible for the longest time.

I was still a teenager when the men in uniform first came to kill me, and while they never succeeded, I didn’t quite survive, either.

But for a long time now, I have been reconstructing the pieces of my former life, gluing them together with memories of love. And perhaps the best thing that my adulthood has brought me is that I have some of my childhood back. That the smell of the fresh bread my father used to bake found its way back to me over the one of burnt flesh; that my mother’s soothing voice again echoes in my memory louder than the terrifying roar of the approaching tanks; that when I close my eyes I see and feel my fig trees and blackberry fields and not the exploding entrails being washed into the cold and dark river of death.

On this day twenty years ago I walked not only into a student dormitory, but into the beginning of my adulthood, too. It was a great ride so far, a gift I never thought I would be given. Today, I am drinking to it, literally and quite heavily, but also to my childhood, the one I have again.

Don’t send the bread tomorrow

The last time I saw my elementary school is already a few years back. I remember thinking how everything seemed smaller than it did three and a half decades ago, when I walked into it for the first time, carrying a healthy dose of pride, a heavy backpack filled with future knowledge, and brand new pants and blazer, white and smart, courtesy of my mother’s nightly sewing. Yet, apart from the apparent size, the time hadn’t changed it much. It was still gray and brown, like most of the surrounding buildings, and it was still in a need of a little repair here and there. There were still kids running around that same playground where both my arm and my heart were broken, running with the energy and the ease you only have when you are completely unburdened with the pursue of any greatness in life. The building transpired what it always did, that all who entered it were equal, not because anybody could achieve anything they wanted, but because nobody could. The only thing that changed was the name.

Streets, schools, institutions – where I come from, the names don’t last very long. As old men waving from the balconies give way to new men waving from the balconies, so do their visions, their narratives and their truths, their inscriptions on history and on the little plaques on the street corners. Back when I was little, our truth was knitted out of the fine threads of the virtues of communism and out of even finer ones in which brave men and women fought for those virtues and for our country. It was a colorful fabric of heroism and martyrdom, a guiding light of values to shape our lives after. A clear blueprint of not necessarily what is good, but who is and who isn’t.

The man whose bust looked down upon me every time I entered that edifice of primary education was a hero. And a martyr. His bravery was not the one of action, but the one of the strength of conviction which he would, and did, pay for with his own life. He was a school director, I was told, who taught his biggest lesson during the war, on a day when soldiers came to his town and to his school, looking for retaliation. Soldiers had been killed and there were to be 100 civilians executed for every loss of life, 50 for every wound. Staring at the firing squad, surrounded by his pupils, he was offered a pardon. He would have none of it. He chose death, uttering the ultimate words of bravery: “Shoot! Now, too, I am holding a class.”

Seventy years have passed since the man whose name used to grace my elementary school was killed, and seventy years is enough time for a lot of things to change, not only for the names of schools, streets and institutions. It is enough time for the narratives to lose steam and purpose, enough time for the facts to slowly just be. Heroes, too, have expiry dates. With time, a different picture emerged, no less tragic and none easier to fathom. The school director was indeed apprehended and jailed and he was indeed awaiting his execution. During those horrifying hours and days, every single connection anyone in his town had was pulled, every favor one was owed was played on. It was a frantic game in which lives were saved only to be replaced with other lives to be lost, it was humanity that was executed over and over again. The school director’s name found its way to one of the lists with a promise of freedom. The man who was in charge of exchanging the prisoners on such lists for the ones yet to be apprehended held a personal grudge against him and refused to free him. He was executed shortly thereafter, with no final stand, no final words and no class held.

His death was tragic, as were those of thousands who died along his side in those days. He wasn’t greater than life and there was nothing heroic about his death. There usually never is. He was scared, he was imprisoned and he didn’t want to die. He had dreams and fears, friends and enemies, lusts and convictions. He was a real man, not a caricature superhero that someone made him be. We make heroes all the time, be it to spread the narrative of our nation, our ideology or our religion. And when we do, we deny them the decency of empathy with their real struggle. A man tragically lost his life 70 years ago. He was human, not a bust waiting to be toppled or a shrine for someone to preach their tale.

When I look at my elementary school, I see a place where I learned to read and write and a place where I learned to handle numbers well. I also see a place that taught me all the wrong lessons about life, just like scores of elementary schools around the world do every day. A place that taught me that we have the heroes and that they have the villains, and that the only thing I can expect to change in life are the definitions of we and they. I wasn’t taught that when the school director was awaiting his bullet, he and many others found a way to send little messages to their families. I wish I had learned more about them, about the despair of their forlornness. About those who apologized to their families, for they would no longer be there for them. About those who lamented every lost moment they never took advantage of. About those who begged for help, or at least a little food.

It was only years later that I learned about one of those messages. It was short and simple and at first glance impersonal. It was sent just before the execution and it only said: “Don’t send the bread tomorrow”. The family should have it, it would do a dead man no good. I wish I were taught about that, I wish we all were. With no names, no nationalities and no religion attached. Only a story about a person who had to die because we as a society are prone to having people die for no reason, a story about a person who didn’t defend his ideals or make a great speech. About someone who found it in him to help and provide one last time, fully knowing that the world had failed him miserably. I wish we were taught that it was not heroism we ought to pursue, but humanity.

 

Four graphs and a story

I was eight years old the first time I searched for truth. The man in the dark suit taught me how to do it.*

* Yes, I obviously love Paul Auster

The man in the dark suit was my father and the impeccable clothing was as much an integral part of his persona as was the uncompromising desire to not only know, but also speak up the truth at any cost. There are more favorable circumstances to yield to this desire than being a lead columnist in one of the biggest newspapers of a communist country, but that seemed to interest him as little as did the inevitable consequences.

As any child does, I thought a world of my father. And as any child does, I tried to be like him as much as I could, but quickly realized that wearing a neatly ironed suit or finding an audience – any audience – is not something an eight year old can easily accomplish. I didn’t even have enough strength in my fingers to type on his geezer codger Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter* when he was not at home. So if I wanted to be anything like him, the only thing left to do was to search for the truth myself.

* Typewriters were a huge part of my childhood. Besides the two that my parents had and that were on our kitchen table for most of the time when we were not eating, my sister had one, too, and that one was in a room we shared. My sister is eleven years older than me and I am still convinced that she is the fastest typist in the world. And the loudest. She financed her education by retyping documents for diverse companies and she would do that during evenings and nights, so I rarely went to sleep without the light of her desk lamp and the sound of her mechanical typewriter accompanying me. To this day I find it easier to fall asleep on a sailing boat in the middle of the Ocean storm than in a quiet and dark room.

My father would come home around five on most days. I would first hear the car parking in front of our building and then he would climb the 114 stairs leading to our fourth floor* apartment. To this day I am ashamed to admit that my excitement for his arrival had less to do with him and more with what he would bring home day after day. Newspapers. A whole lot of newspapers.

* We actually lived on the fifth and the final floor of the building. However, the law required an elevator be installed for every building of five or more floors, so our building had two ground floors. I am serious. We had a “Ground Level Floor” and a “Close to the Ground Floor” above it. First floor was already at the height of the third deck of Coliseum, or at least so it seamed when one was a small kid.

He had a dark brown leather bag with a shiny copper buckle and inside it all the evening editions of all the major newspapers in the country. It wasn’t heavy and my father was a strong man, yet it seemed that his strength would abandon him as soon as he crossed the threshold of our home and that it was exactly that bag that was robbing him of all his power. I was too little to understand the weight this bag had on him, to understand the implications and the danger of a dissenting thought and the power of its menacing echo. To me, that bag represented a window to the world and there was nothing greater anywhere to be found. Back in the late seventies, that resentfully thrown piece of leather was my internet.

So, thirty years ago, almost to a day, I took one of the newspapers out of it and marched into our living room, opened the sports page, called for my parents’ attention and started reading an article out loud. I don’t remember anymore what the article was about, but I do remember that my parents’ faces showed that they were equal parts amazed and freaked out. I was reading an article from a Serbian newspaper. I had learned Cyrillic all on my own.

My father always told me that only when you hear the other side of the story are you ready to start understanding where the truth might lay. Serbian papers were the other side of the story, pretty much any story, and especially when that story was one of a soccer match between ours and theirs. I knew the soccer league standings by heart, so I had little problem deciphering the single letters and soon I was able to read the words, then the sentences, then the whole game recaps.

All by myself I searched for my very first truth and discovered my very first other side of the story. My father didn’t say much that day, but I remember how, later that night, he came to my side, put his arm across my shoulder, pulled me closer to him and just silently nodded.

My parents never lived to see me write or publish anything. As most teenagers, I wanted to be anything but what my parents were and as most grown ups who realize they haven’t thought of saying “thank you” until there was no more chance to do so, I regret it deeply. In every praise I ever get for my writing there is a vinegar drop, a realization that they will never know just how much they influenced me and will never have a chance to be proud of it.

Every now and then somebody who knew them well will read something I wrote, tell me that they think it was a good piece, then breathe in as if they want to say something more, only to hold their breath and stare thoughtfully at the floor or at an imaginary point way behind my back. Then we’ll just nod, tap each other on the shoulder and walk away.

I still search for truth from time to time. Sometimes it is in the photons of the optical fiber, sometimes in the thin Colorado air and it never matters. It never matters because it’s more about the journey than actually reaching the truth and because the truths I pursue are rather meaningless in the big picture. Yet, I search and every one of these searches leads me back to the warm evenings of my childhood, to the smell of the leather bag, the sound of the typewriter and my lead-smeared fingers leafing through what would be the memory of my life.

I owe you four graphs.