Sunday, August 29, 2010

Man in a Boat

Prologue—September 1932
My name is Birk Gerhardt and I’m staring into a bucket of my own filth. That’s all I know right now. That’s all I can think about at this particular moment, I should say. I’m not even sure of my name anymore, to be honest. As I look into this metal bucket, pen in hand, notebook on the bed, things are coming back to me. I lied, exaggerated; can you blame me, I’m not myself, and I’m starting to doubt this whole odyssey, my resolve is faltering—indeed the ship’s mate says I’m as green as a frog. I know that I’m deep in the hull of a ship bound for Europe and the waves are making me nauseous. They look at me askance, a city dweller who can’t handle the high seas. And don’t let the name fool you, because I also know that I’m an American, third generation, a proud resident and alderman of Pemberton Heights, New Jersey, and I can’t wait for that bastard Hoover, the so-called “Great Engineer,” to get booted from the White House. Governor Roosevelt, now there’s a man of the people; he’s got my vote. I’ll forgive him for being Dutch, and for his cousin, President Roosevelt, that ruffian with the big teeth, for sending his son to fight against my homeland, though I felt for his loss. I digress. My grandfather and his brother came to this country as teenagers in 1850 from Alsace. My father was born during the Civil War. There’s no way I’d fight in the Great War. No way. But my family has been as American as Andrew Carnegie is!

I’m about to write a letter to my dearest Millie, but I don’t know where to begin, and I’m still having trouble explaining the reason for this trip—still trying to explain it to myself. Gerhard is on the German ocean liner MS St. Louis from New York to Hamburg thanks to the inheritance money and some considerable help from Mr. Whittaker, a kind man. Millie’s been such a blessing to me. I have only this locket photo of her and my daughter, and this navy blue cap that she knit for me. It’s been over a decade since my first wife and son died from the Spanish flu, leaving me and my five-year-old daughter behind in this Jammerthal, as my Oma used to say. Millie’s been such a great mother to my daughter and has been a source of comfort to me. Here’s what I have in my letter so far, and pay no heed to the sloppiness; it’s from the rocking of ship not from inebriation. I’ve been off the juice for three years. I’ll recopy it once I get to Strasbourg:

It all started when my aunt Gretchen in Cincinnati just before she died sent me the family Bible that’s been in our family for over three centuries. She was going to donate it to some Lutheran seminary but I convinced her to trouble herself to send it my way. At the time, eight years ago, I cared little about my ancestry beyond its arrival upon these shores. But I knew enough to realize it would be such a shame to let this precious heirloom go. It’s a Luther translation, which I could care less since I’m Episcopalian, at least when I want to be. It had been stored in a wooden chest with other valuables in a secret compartment in the closet ceiling. I was always puzzled by the Latin written on the bottom of the title page: Facientibus quod in est Deus non gratiam denegat. But this reference, and some other marginalia in the Bible dating back to the 17th century, is only part of the story that got me to travel across the world ill-advisedly during economic woes. I also received a letter from a man claiming to be a distant relative of mine. He said he must speak with me. He sent me a hand copy of a 17th-century chronicle that exists only in manuscript. He works at the municipal archive in Rauschenberg. I can read basic German, modern Hochdeutsch, and speak it with some trouble, but I needed someone to translate this for me. I hired a smart fellow from Princeton. I could make out only bits and pieces.

I know you don’t keep up with these things darling. Diplomacy and international politics is a man’s world, and you need not trouble your sweet fiery-haired head with such things. This man Hitler should probably be president someday. I always felt that Versailles was an unjust evil, and he’s the only one consistently opposing it. They say he hates the Jews. What with their riches, they could use some discipline, but there’s nothing to fear. I see his point that their haughtiness needs a bridle and bit. It does remind me, though, of an incident that I came across in my story, but more about that below.