na foine ting


Wednesday, July 28, 2004
 
Claus Winkler was a tall, gaunt German who wore starched white linen shirts almost every day.  He carried a crisp white handkerchief, and cigarettes.

According to my mother, Claus met his wife Dorette during WW2.  He was a badly injured soldier recovering from imprisonment, she was an army nurse.  These were not stories I heard from the Winklers, who had left that past more or less behind them;  I knew them only in their older, more settled years in Samoa, where Claus worked for the FAO and Dorette kept an impeccable house, and gardened.  On weekend mornings they would sit in lawn chairs with their coffee outside, all crisp expatriate propriety while enjoying the view of the rampant jungle as though it were a serene vista of the Rhone. 

I know because I saw them enjoying a serene vista of the Rhone several years later, in the hotel where Claus was honored retroactively for combat valor in a ceremony which he both dismissed in conversation and did not permit me to attend.

"Boring speeches," he said afterwards.  "Even the food wasn't very good."

Claus had a severe face, a beaked nose and hollowed, jutting cheekbones.  The muscles of his left arm were twisted by scar into and under bone, knotted so that his forearm looked as sinewed and strong as the other one, but also strangely skeletal.

His voice could be sharp, and later I would wonder if that clipped bark was what those other soldiers heard, under his command.  Later I would get a glimpse of whatever Claus had been, riding horseback against tanks in the Russian forests.  A cavalry officer.  Decorated.  SS.

At ten, I questioned very little about Claus, only enjoyed his many kindnesses, his interest, his humor.  He playfully mocked our American quirks, my slang, and what must have seemed to him a very Californian, bohemian and perhaps too permissive lifestyle.

This, while taking me seriously in ways that a precocious foreign service brat and only child might crave.  We had considered conversations about books, life in Samoa, horses.  When I said I'd always wanted a horse, Claus gave me a horse care book for my birthday, and promised another surprise when I'd read it cover to cover and he said with mock severity, memorized its contents.

Which I happily did, and then Claus had got me an interview with a weathy Samoan business tycoon who after a meeting in his office in Apia--an event that in retrospect I think was staged mostly to humor Claus and terrify me--agreed to let me help train his racehorses in the off season.

Samoa has one racetrack, and the Samoans--having gotten the legacy and the horses from the Germans and New Zealanders--take racing very seriously. 

Most often Claus drove me to the job, where I groomed, fed, mucked and then helped the Samoan boys exercise the horses each day.   It was hard work, the horses were high strung and the boys exacting, my Samoan was poor and no one spoke any English.

Daily exercise rides were down to the beach and back, a terrifying event where I had to somehow control a heated up thoroughbred far too big for me, with only a hackamore and one hand while the other hand held a lead rope. 

I was galloped into many ditches, scraped off onto many walls, fell onto the road, onto the grass, onto the sand, and into the tycoon's flower beds.  We rode on thin blankets and without saddles or stirrups, so that at the end of the day I had bruises and raw blisters on my ass from the horses' bony spines.

I had bruises from being kicked while swimming them, hanging on to their manes like a terrified wet rag doll, trying to stay relaxed and not drown them while at the same controlling them.  And staying out of their way.

Claus found all this amusing and satisfying.  We would discuss the job, and my adventures, and he would laugh and nod and approve.

Eventually I admitted the horses were too much for me.  I thanked the tycoon for the opportunity, and stopped working there.  I wondered later if Claus had predicted, even planned for that too.

 
I was seventeen when my parents sent me to Germany to visit the Winklers.  Travelling alone, and reluctant to face the man who had been a friend and mentor, but also sexually abused me for the better part of three years.

I feared and dreaded going.  I told my mom what had happened, but the revelation was dismissed, and I was sent there anyway.

 
The Winklers' home in Secklendorf is a rambling mansion built from a three hundred year old barn.  Its halls are narrow and dark and rooms small and shortened by sloping eaves, but every table had a vase of flowers on it, and white linen can brighten almost anything.

We had coffee at four o'clock promptly every day, around a table in the garden surrounded by Dorette's roses.  Conversation was much as it had always been, gently mocking, interested, often serious and considering.  

Neither Claus nor I mentioned what had happened in Samoa, and I don't think there was any need to.  We made our peace in other ways, and after his death I came to be glad of them.  Like white wine drunk to excess at a restaraunt table in the Black Forest, where I said that the Nazis were monsters and he growled that I had no fucking idea about the truth of any of it.  Sitting there in the half-dark, the place otherwise empty and only a bottle and two glasses between us, a cheerful checkered tablecloth where we leaned and had this intense, oblique and oddly weighted conversation.

He was right;  I was seventeen and didn't know shit about war, his war or any of the other ones.  But I said what I thought and he bothered to argue with me, until we came to silence and the last of the wine.

Then he told me a story, about his cavalry horse Ulan, and being lost in the forest after the rest of his men were also either dead or missing.  He said he'd ridden for too long, trying to avoid capture and make his way back to his own lines, exhausted and cold and in danger of making fatigued mistakes that could prove fatal.

"I had to sleep," he said, and put his hands up, matter of fact.  "So I dismounted and lay down on the ground and put the reins in my belt, like so."  Demonstrating.

And slept, trusting that if anyone came Ulan would lift up his head and warn him, and apparently it worked because he was sitting there in the Black Forest telling me about it.

 
In Secklendorf, Claus had a seventeen and a half hand Trakhener, also named Ulan.  Ulan was deep bay, young, hot, brilliant, and beautiful.  I feared and admired him, and deliberately kept my distance.

After a long ride one day, Claus brought Ulan back sweating and slid to the garden grass with the ease of a man much younger than seventy.  He handed me the reins, and politely ignored my stammering.

"Take him back to the paddock," he said, and walked away.

He meant ride, I knew he meant ride, and I stood there looking at the stallion, surrounded by roses and clipped grass and all that Winkler garden beautiful severity.

"All right, then," I said, and was seventeen and a better rider by then.  Older, and I took up the reins and swung up and let Ulan have some slack while he sidled and then settled.

I rode him back down the half mile or so to the paddock, kept him more or less under control, and marvelled at the power and sheer gorgeous elegance underneath me.  In the paddock I slid off and took the bridle and saddle off, and stood in amused surprise as he hung around to nudge and nuzzle at me. 

Then I walked back to the house and to the garden, where coffee was set out and Claus was sitting, smoking, showered and dressed.  I saw him start to offer me a cigarette, from the pocket of his white linen shirt.  And stop, but not before I understood the place we had come to, and how much had changed.

 

**

 

 



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