I’m flipping from one cable channel to another. I’ve kicked back in the lounger, sipping a refreshing beverage, and I am cruising for cheap entertainment. My favorite kind.
I flash from channel to channel at near light speed. Suddenly, something catches my eye. No, to be precise, something catches my ear.
I backtrack. There it is. Polka music. In a flash, I am washed away by a wave of memory.
We near the top of the Mogollon Rim, northbound on U.S. 17.
Snow is falling and the highway is turning into an ice rink. Arizonans and Californians speed past us in their brand-new SUVs and several miles down the highway, we pass their overturned, now less-than-brand-new SUVs as the once haughty motorists attempt to exit the vehicles and scramble back to the edge of the roadway.
As I drive, I contemplate names for my soon-to-be-born grandchild.
My daughter, Aurora, is working on names for her child that, to my taste, are far too subdued, too tame, too politically correct. I remind her that she received her name — Aurora Borealis — following a fit of late-60s passion, and that she is now the caretaker of a tradition. She does not agree.
I am a professional wordsmith; I have superb ideas for names, and when Aurora refuses to comply with my suggestions, I inform her that I will call the child whatever I please, regardless of the name she chooses.
If the child is a girl, I will call her either “Ipana” or “Listerine.” If I have a grandson, he will be named “Zanax,” “Waxy” or “Max Apollo.”
I will not compromise.
As a grandfather I will work hard to be an embarrassment to the kid. The young ’uns are easily and profoundly embarrassed by old fools.
This will be fun.
We near the Prescott interchange and Kathy tunes the radio to an AM station out of Tucson. The airwaves are suddenly full of “international favorites,” scratchy, tuneful memories needled off old 78s, beamed to sentimental retirees hunkered in RVs parked in Tucson, in Mesa, all across the lower half of Arizona.
Kathy is thrilled when the program’s host plays the German Duck Dance. She knows the song well, quacks loudly at all the right times and, hands in her armpits, flaps her elbows up and down in a demented imitation of an Eider duck.
While Kathy wings her special way through the last few bars of the miserable Teutonic air, the announcer thanks the Heidelberg Club for its sponsorship of the show, and he notes that the next meeting of the club — the Cabbage Fest — will be held at a local hall on Friday.
At the mention of the Heidelberg Club, I am distracted from my primary tasks: to select a name for my grandchild, and to be on the alert for shapeshifters as we near the boundaries of the Navajo Nation.
It is said that shapeshifters appear next to roadways disguised as a wounded animal, a needy hitchhiker or a bewildered park ranger. You stop to help the limping Collie or to pick up the bright-eyed college student and, whammo, the shifter transmogrifies, the curtain falls, the lights go out. You have taken your last motor trip.
But the Heidelberg Club captures my attention. I can see the members of the club in my mind’s eye: a bunch of hefty old coots wearing Bavarian hats set at jaunty angles, argyle knee socks and — the piece de resistance — lederhosen. They teeter in a line, gold teeth flashing, feebly slapping their thighs as the accordion and tuba music reaches a crescendo. Then, they retire to the bar for a mini-stein of lager and a hit of Milk of Magnesia.
The vision precipitates a major anxiety attack.
It’s the blasted lederhosen!
I steer toward Flagstaff but I am consumed by thoughts of Denver, circa 1957.
I am at Lincoln Elementary School, one of a legion of dweebs conceived nine months after the troop trains arrive home and the GIs disembark at Union Station — one among more than 40 fourth-grade students in Section A, all of us crammed into a high-ceilinged classroom on the third floor of the school building.
Our teacher, Miss Bellodi, thanks a prematurely buxom Karen Goodhue for a touching and educational presentation as part of “Show and Tell.” Karen has described her cat Blondie’s agonizing death in amazing detail and has sobbed her way through a recreation of Blondie’s funeral in the Goodhue’s back yard. Karen receives a great deal of emotional support as she returns to her seat
I am terrified.
I want Show and Tell to end.
Show and Tell is not my favorite time. I have made several serious errors during Show and Tell, the last being a display of full-color photos of carcinoma of the penis I found in one of my father’s medical journals. The photos occasioned a number of extreme reactions, and I was sent to the principal’s office for the morning.
This Show and Tell, however, could be worse. It has me frozen with fear. I dreaded it the night before; I barely slept worrying about it.
Fraught with anxiety, I arrived early for school, making my way to my place in the classroom a half hour before Miss Bellodi arrived, nearly a full hour before any of the other students. I set off for school on my Schwinn before the sun was up, my breath visible as I passed beneath the streetlights on Exposition Avenue.
I have not budged since I arrived and took my place at the table at the back of the room. Now, the joint is full. It is Show and Tell time, and Karen retreats to her seat. My friend Ricky Hudson is next to me, picking his nose and eating the prize, totally preoccupied with mucous. Ricky smells like Vicks Vapo Rub.
I am in a dither, my mind races wildly. My normally short attention span is shattered into even smaller segments. I bounce from thought to thought — all the thoughts arising from one ominous source point.
I pray I will not be asked to leave my seat, to go to the front of the room, to stand in front of the blackboard. If I evade that dilemma, I will next need to find a way to excuse myself from lunch, find a way to remain in my seat, at my desk, as my classmates go to the cafeteria.
I will miss one my favorite meals — macaroni and cheese, and fish sticks — but the sacrifice is necessary.
What if I have to go to the bathroom? What if there is an air raid drill or, worse yet, a fire drill where everyone stands and files out of the room in an orderly manner; where we walk in single file down the hall, part of a streaming horde heading for the fire escapes and the playgrounds below?
What if . . .
Miss Bellodi speaks, and my jaw muscles tighten.
“Does anyone else have something to share with the class?” she asks. Ricky has found something interesting but, thankfully, he chooses not to make it public and devours it on the spot.
“Well then,” she continues, “we need to take out our crayons and …”
The instant she halts in midsentence, I sense trouble. Everything was going so smoothly. Everything was working out. Then, suddenly … Oh, no!
Unconsciously, I add up the facts. The equation is clear, the logic inexorable. Miss Bellodi is a close friend of my grandmother, Minnie. Miss Bellodi accompanied her sister, Dewey, to my grandmother’s house for dinner and bridge the night before. Miss Bellodi and my grandmother exchanged small talk. Some of that small talk concerned a trip my family made to Europe during the summer. Some of that small talk concerned items purchased during the European adventure: pot metal replicas of the Eiffel Tower; dolls from England, miniature Beefeaters and Yeomen of the Guard crafted from lead; Swiss wine skins; red, waxy rounds of Gouda. Some of that small talk centered on Karl. Some of that small talk concerned an article of clothing, and a cruel idea foisted on Karl by his otherwise loving mother.
Miss Bellodi is on an unstoppable march to an awful destination; there is nothing I can do. It is like being in a car crash: it seems to happen in slow motion, yet there is no way to avoid the impact.
“There is one more thing,” says Miss Bellodi, gazing to the back of the room, toward the chubby, gap-toothed, myopic lad sitting next to the kid with a finger jammed in a nostril.
“Karl, I nearly forgot. You have something very interesting to show us, don’t you?”
I grit my teeth so hard the enamel begins to crack. I start to hyperventilate. I peer through my bottle-thick specs at Miss Bellodi and, brow furrowed, attempt to subtly indicate my discomfort with a barely perceptible waggling of my head from side to side. It is a tremor fraught with significance.
It is a tremor ignored.
“Karl, come to the front of the room and show everyone your lederhosen.”
I am doomed.
Heads turn. All eyes are on me, especially the crystal-clear, ice-blue eyes set in the angelic, perfect head of Judy Brandsmaa. Judy turns in her chair, fixing those cerulean orbs on me, her perky little lips parting in anticipation of a wonderful surprise.
Can it get any more horrible?
Oh, yeah. It can.
From the moment mom spotted the lederhosen in Munich, the experience was fated. From the instant mom saw the liver-gray leather shorts with the bib-style suspenders embroidered with scenes from a Black Forest stag hunt, and said, “Oh my, these would look so cute on Karl,” the awful course was set. The second mom took the heavy, smelly, ugly shorts from the rack and said, “Oh yes, these are big enough to fit Karl. He’s husky, you know,” my humiliation was ordained. When she discovered the matching Hitler Youth knee socks, my fate was sealed.
“Come to the front of the classroom, Karl. Show everyone your interesting German shorts.”
I rise slowly from my chair, face crimson, palms sweating, and I waddle through the maze of tables to the front of the room. The cheap rubber soles of my Hush Puppies squeak on the bare wood floor.
I stand at the front of the classroom, my stomach protruding beneath the fleeing stag, my chubby knees chalk-white, bulging above the knee socks and the flashy “Forester” sock garters with the Kelly green tabs.
Miss Bellodi’s reputation for unbridled cruelty gives me temporary respite: no one dares laugh or shout insults in the classroom. Richard, the class bully, stares at me with a bizarre look on his face — a mixture of confusion and naked hostility. My friend Fabrizio puts his head down on the desk, his shoulders shaking. Judy’s eyes bulge. Ricky continues to pick his nose. It is the onset of allergy season.
Can it get any worse?
Yeah, it can get worse.
“Turn around, Karl. Show us your pants. Tell us about them.”
Had I read Nietzsche I could have regaled my classmates with a thrilling tale of “great blond beasts,” the last of the triumphant northern warriors, “Hyperboreans” alone on the icy heights … clad in lederhosen. I could create a story about the ancient origins of lederhosen and the role of the shorts in the knightly activities of medieval German royalty. I could, if need be, invoke my Swedish heritage and overwhelm ridicule with tales of Valhalla and Ragnarok.
Instead, I feel sick. My brain burns, thoughts tumble inside my head incomplete and confused. Finally, I mumble: “I dunno. My mom got them for me. She made me wear them.”
Can it get any worse?
You bet it can.
Once I am released from the front of the room I feign a life-threatening illness, but the school nurse returns me to class and I am forced to go to lunch. I walk through the crowded cafeteria in my lederhosen, clutching the tray with my precious cargo of macaroni and cheese and fish sticks, this time observed by an audience unrestrained by Miss Bellodi’s ferocious demeanor. The sixth-graders are none too kindly.
Can it get any worse?
Sure it can.
Ever try to high jump in lederhosen?
There is no way Mr. McIntosh the gym teacher is letting me out of the high jump test. Getting over that damned bar is hard enough for a fat kid in the best of circumstances, but when he is encumbered by a pair of stiff German shorts with bib-style suspenders with embroidered scenes of a stag hunt? Not a chance! And believe me, once sand is inside a pair of lederhosen, it is there for the rest of the day.
Can it get any worse?
Stinging from a five-hour barrage of taunts, I stay in the cloakroom after school, waiting for my classmates to flee the building. When the halls outside the room are silent, I sneak down the back stairs, peering over the banisters to spot any potential problems on the landings below. I peek out the back door of the building, checking for trouble lurking on the playground. I creep out the door and over to the bike rack where my Schwinn was parked.
As I take the trusty flyer from the rack and put my Big Chief tablet in the basket attached to the front handlebars, I hear the voice — cold, ominous, behind me.
I don’t need to turn around.
“Nice shorts, porky. Does Mommie dress you every day?”
The only guy in the school to be stabbed. Twice!
The only guy whose parents let him wear his hair in a waterfall.
The only guy in the school with a leather motorcycle jacket.
The only 13-year-old in the fifth grade!
Can it get any worse?
Count on it.
I have no idea if Richard really attempts to catch me that day, but I am certain I set a land speed record on that clunky Schwinn. Uphill.
The chafing that follows is incredible. Damp German leather, sand, chubby thighs, metal-melting friction — all figure in an abrasion that takes weeks to heal. Due to my injury, my performance in the school softball tournament is abysmal.
Can it get any worse?
The incredible Judy never sets eyes on me again that she does not giggle, no doubt calling up an image of a lederhosen-clad paramour standing at her door proffering a bouquet of alpine wild flowers and a pork hock.
The lederhosen promise even more distress for me. When mom announces a “great idea,” namely that Karl wear his lederhosen to a huge picnic my father and his partners at the clinic are planning for the next weekend, drastic measures are in order. There is no way the Vandenbosch twins were going to see me in those shorts!
For help, I turn to Butch, our abnormally large Boston terrier.
Butch, as the ultimate Boston bulldog, has a penchant for clamping his powerful jaws on any object he fancies, then shredding that object, regardless of composition, into tiny bits and pieces. In his prime, Butch demolishes towels, ropes, roller skates, hockey pucks, large chunks of wood, pieces of asphalt roofing, Barbie dolls, brake pads, bricks, balls, football helmets, garden tools, a Christmas tree … and, saving the best for last — one pair of authentic Bavarian lederhosen.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dog any happier than Butch when he ties into those shorts. I’m not sure he takes time to enjoy the embroidered scene of a Black Forest stag hunt, but the animal is ecstatic. Not only does Butch demolish the pants, he eats part of them, then takes a well-deserved but somewhat restless nap. The sight of our black and white bundle of energy leaping and frolicking in golden evening light in our back yard, tossing those lederhosen into the air, ripping into that fine German leather and gnawing on those genuine bone buttons, is a thing of beauty.
Of course, I tearfully blame the destruction of mom’s favorite gift on Butch and he is banished to a crude plywood dungeon in the garage for a week, but the price is right. His sacrifice serves a purpose: I might never cleanse myself of my shame, but there will be no more humiliation.
As we roll toward Tuba City, the Tucson station begins to fade. The announcer reminds listeners of the correct spelling of “Dalmatian,” and Kathy and I enjoy what is left of a zippy polka before a wave of static erases the tune. Hail falls from the sky.
I decide to go German when I return home. Or, at least half-German — Alsatian — with a hearty choucroute dispelling the effects of the unexpected wintry weather. It will serve as a cleansing ritual, hair of the dog (may he rest in peace).
Sauerkraut provides the base and essence of choucroute. Gauge the amount of sauerkraut in terms of how many persons will enjoy the dish. Plan on at least a half pound of kraut per person. If you have a crock and the inclination, make your own. If this can’t happen, procure the freshest kraut possible. In Siberia With a View, this will be difficult, but there are refrigerated krauts that fill the bill. Rinse the sauerkraut well and squeeze out the moisture.
Saute a sliced onion or two in oil until golden, remove from the pan and mix with the drained sauerkraut. Add several cloves of chopped garlic and some ground black pepper. Throw in a smoked pork shank if you can find one, and a couple of peeled, whole carrots.
Line the bottom of a heavy pot with thin strips of salt pork. Dump the kraut mix on top of the salt pork. Cover the kraut with a half-and-half mix of chicken stock and a decent Riesling. Make sure the liquid thoroughly permeates the kraut.
Bring to a boil, then reduce and simmer for two hours minimum, adding wine when necessary.
Add some hefty chunks of Polish sausage a half hour before the dish is served and several links of Knackwurst 20 minutes before the kraut is ready to eat. Chuck a couple of genuine frankfurters into the pot while you’re at it.
If you can find the incredible, delicate white veal and parsley sausages called “bockwurst” (which I was once able to get at Erich Sachs Delicatessen in Denver — a lovely German deli on Broadway where, it is rumored, “special” meetings were held in the basement in the late ’30s) simmer them in water for five minutes then brown them lightly in butter before adding to the mix during the final ten minutes of cooking.
Fish out the carrots and throw them away before serving the choucroute. Separate the meats from the kraut, placing them around a mound of sauerkraut on a platter for serving.
Crank open another bottle of Riesling, maybe two, tear up a loaf of light rye and have plenty of butter on hand.
Call your nosepicking friends, put some accordion and tuba music on the Victrola, and get ready for fun.
Before you eat, lift a glass of Riesling in a toast — to Ipana or Waxy, to the Heidelberg Club, to lederhosen, and to Boston bulldogs everywhere.