I said goodbye to Irving last night.
I know some of you don't know Irving, but those of you who do, know how heavy it was to say goodbye, and yet easy at the same time.
See, Irving Ratzinger was a character in my first novel, Becoming NADIA, an EPIC award finalist for Best Thriller. The man I based him on died last Friday. His name was unpronounceable to us lowly Americans only because German is such a surprisingly complex language. So we'll call him Bill. Everyone else did, and it worked for him.
Growing up in Indiana, I had this friend from elementary school, named Erick. His parents were both German immigrants. His father was a WWII veteran, captured by American soldiers and interred in a Canadian POW camp. He immigrated to the U.S. after the war and moved to Chicago, where he met the love of his life in the German community there. I will say at this point that Bill was regular wermacht, not SS.
I met Bill the first time I came over to Erick's house after school. Bill and Maggie were the warmest, most open and friendly people I had met, and the background hum of the household was German. I suppose that would inspire some people to learn the language, but I was too busy learning French to pick up another. So most of the time, I would just nod and smile, and add an occasional "Yeah, that too" that never failed to bring a smile.
Bill had this smile he wore most of the time, unless Erick and I got too unbearable. I only saw Bill angry once in all the time I knew him. Otherwise, he was sneaking in wise cracks at every opportunity that presented itself, and one side of his mouth would curl up in this impish grin while he waited for the rest of us to get his joke. Sometimes we did, and other times, well…
I remember one time in particular when I came home from the service on leave. Erick, Bill and I sat around that kitchen table and shared schnapps and jokes (I found out then that schnapps in German means a generic term for an adult beverage. I think it was whiskey sours, I can't quite remember). I don't even think the jokes were that great. But it was just a nice evening spent with "the guys."
Bill was a gentle, kind man in the truest and most complete sense of the word. Every memory I had of him was a good one. So when we drove back to Indiana to support the family, there was no melancholy, no hysterics. For one thing, everyone expected it. Bill had been fighting cancer for some time, and it finally became too much for him. For another, everyone else's memory of Bill seemed to be just as happy, just as joyful as my own, which is some testimonial to the kind of man he was.
Whenever I wrote Irving Ratzinger's dialogue, I heard Bill. So I simply stole Bill's voice and personality and transferred it into Irving, drawing from Bill's character and his integrity.
In a way, then, Bill was saved, as Alicia Burgess was saved. A piece still lives on, something that we can pull on to remind us of the warm and generous nature of a man who remains on my list of the most respected people in my life. He wasn't a president, wasn't a leader of any but his own household. But he inspired a character who, by the feedback I've received, is one of my most beloved.
So thank you for letting me introduce to Irving. Or Bill. And I hope he becomes to you at least a shadow of what he's been to me.
Rest easy, old friend.
(From Becoming NADIA:)
Nadia sighed and threw a twig into the water, watching it settle into the current and drift
slowly downstream, carried away to who knew where. She felt like that twig, carried on by
forces outside her will, not knowing where she would eventually end up.
She heard a noise behind her and turned. Irving was making his way down to the dock,
grasping a white plastic, five-gallon bucket and a pair of fishing poles in one hand, and a
tackle box in the other. He greeted her merrily and tottered out to the end of the pier.
“Would you care for a little company, young lady?”
She smiled and beckoned. “I like to come out here in the morning,” he announced with
a grin, sitting down next to her. “It's a great time to fish.”
He opened the tackle box and began to rig a spinning rod with a small Rooster Tail. She
watched his meticulous, steady fingers tie the lure on the line. Then he flipped it out into the water and wound it back against the current, making little jerking motions with the rod tip.
The lure leaped out of the river as it neared the end of its travel, trailing tiny, diamond
droplets of water from its skirt as it swung in the sunlight.
Irving set the bail and flipped it out again, drawing it back along some rocks. She could
barely see it in the murky water, the little silver blade spinning happily as it came back to the pier, like a tiny puppy wagging its tail.
A dragonfly zoomed down and hovered inquisitively over it, and then sped off for parts
unknown. Nadia said nothing. She just watched as Irving made cast after cast.
She didn't want to break the silence of this golden morning, but her curiosity finally got
the best of her. “Don't you ever get bored, doing that same thing over and over again?”
“Nah, I've got nothing better to do. Do you?”
Nadia smiled. “No, I guess not. But what if you don't catch any fish?”
Irving winked and grinned. “Sometimes, fishing has nothing to do with catching fish.”
She sat watching, quiet, and he went on. “It helps me keep my perspective out here.” He
spoke slowly, dividing his attention between the young lady next to him and his lure in the
water. “I lost my Hilda, God rest her soul, four years ago. She was everything to me. We
came out here all the time on weekends, and then after I retired we moved out here full-time, partly to watch the other cabins for their owners.”
“What was the other 'partly'?”
“Well, if you had a choice of living out here or in Boston, which would you choose?”
Nadia looked out over the river, taking in the glorious morning scenery. The mist was
departing, leaving thready traces here and there on the water, being dragged along by the
current. A water bird swooped low over the river, and its feet drew a silent, silver trace
across its surface. Somewhere in the distance, a bullfrog roared. Birds sang all around them.
The sky was an intense blue, that shade they call cyan, with nary a cloud to mar the
skyscape. The quiet reminded her of the balcony back at Twin Oaks, that time after she
woke up. Here was peace. She remembered living in San Francisco, with its business and
noise, the traffic outside her apartment, the hustle of pedestrians. She'd enjoyed bits and
pieces of both, but if she had to choose…. “I suppose I'd live out here,” she said at last. “It
gives a person time to think.”
“But you have to be careful you don't think too much,” said Irving as the spinner hit the
water one more time. “Your brain has a way of getting you into trouble. That's why God put
the fish out here, to keep your mind busy.” He grinned at her again, and she couldn't help but smile back.
“Gotcha!” he exclaimed, and lifted the pole upward as the line snapped taut. The water's
surface swirled and splashed as the struggling fish broke and twisted. He played it with
confidence borne of experience, bringing it in a little bit at a time and then letting it run.
Each time he let it work itself more tired, more fatigued. Then he would turn it around with
a tug on the line, keeping the rod tip high. With a final splash and flash of scales, Irving
hefted the big fish up to the pier.
He handed the rod to Nadia. “Here. Take it, and don't let go.” She held it tightly as the
fish strained and thrashed in the water below. She watched as Irving rolled up his sleeves
and grabbed his bucket. He dipped it into the river and drew it back up onto the pier with a
grunt. Then he took the rod back from Nadia and lifted it up, unhooking the fish over the
Irving placed the fish inside, where it swam around chaotically, banging into the sides
for several seconds. Then it settled down and centered itself in the vessel, and Nadia
watched its gills working, quickly at first, and then slowing as the fish calmed down. Irving
had the rod back in his hand and was already casting back out into the stream when she
looked up again. “When I'm out here, I think about my Hilda, God rest her soul, and how
much she loved it here. But I don't take the time to think about how lonely I get without her
here with me. Sometimes I think about that, but not too much. My Hilda, God rest her soul, she would say, 'Irving you have too much to worry about already. You can only do one thing at a time.'“
“She sounds like a very sensible person,” Nadia said, watching the rhythm of his hands:
flip the bail, cast, retrieve.
Irving paused before he answered. “Yes, I suppose she was.”
They sat together in silence for some time. Irving fished and Nadia watched. “What's
that on your arm?” she asked presently, pointing at where he had rolled up his sleeve,
exposing his forearm.
“A memory,” he said, “from a long time ago.” He let the lure sink to the bottom and it
stayed there as he explained about the Nazis.
“I was a German Jew, twelve years old when they rounded us all up and put us on a
train. On a cattle car, we were loaded. It dropped us off at a place called Buchenwald.”
He had to explain to her about the death camps, the starvation, the rape of the women
and girls. He told her about the serial number that every prisoner wore, tattooed on the
inside of their left forearm, and about the experiments. Then he told her about the ovens. She had to hear everything he could remember, every detail. To her it seemed more than a
nightmare, something beyond comprehension, beyond Hell. His eyes were moist when he
looked up. “I never got to tell my mother goodbye. She just…disappeared. My father threw
himself on the electric fence one night, not long after. They just dragged him away and
threw him in a pit. People,” he concluded, “don't have any idea what it's like to be treated as less than human.” He stared out over the river and said nothing more for a long time.
“Some people do,” she whispered to herself. “I think some people do.” A cold chill ran
up her spine as she thought about what she had overheard two nights previous, and what had already changed in her short life, and how the last two days had changed even more.
Moreover, she wondered what might lie ahead. Presently, she stood. “I need to get back to
the cabin. Jon probably wonders where I am.” Yeah, right. He could probably not care less. Would you treat me any differently, Irving, if you knew?