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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Crosshairs by John von Daler

                "First ve haf dinner, den coffee and den ve go to bed. So ve get up, ve haf brakefast, ve drife down to see the kink and queen arrife and den you leaf."
My Aunt's orders were very clear when we came. No chance for deviation from the schedule here. You could tell that she was the oldest daughter of an Austrian general. During the First World War she had worked as a battlefield nurse and had fallen in love with a Danish doctor who had been inscripted to work for the Germans and Austrians and to operate in a tent on their battlefields.
                Our family of four had traveled to Denmark for the first time. Little did I know at that point, that I would live in this strange little country for most of my life. At this moment I was concentrating on taking in as much as possible of all the new events.
                We had thought that Denmark would be a poor place. After all, Dad had sent money every year to his sisters in Europe, and they never sent anything back to us. But on arriving we found ourselves in a large apartment in a red brick building close to King Christian X's bridge over #Als Sound in a town called #Sønderborg. The widow had many large oil paintings on her walls and rooms of which there were enough for each of us to have a bedroom to ourselves. Her beds had mattresses like spoon holders, but otherwise the place was pretty ritzy compared to the mishandled and maimed Europe we had expected. 
                At dinner we had a bowl of boiled-out spaghetti with a clear tomato sauce, which as far as I could tell had been made exclusively from canned tomatoes and nothing else. Getting our plates in to the table and out to the kitchen again took some doing. I was young enough to wander a little in the apartment, to peek under tables and into rooms. I had already seen a stocky woman with an apron and wooden shoes leaning against the counter in the large, pristine clean kitchen. Under the dining table I had noted an old-fashioned electric button with a wire connection that ran under the carpet to the wall. My aunt fished for this with her right foot, but my mother had dislodged it when she sat down, so the process took awhile. The little old lady almost disappeared under the white, embroidered cloth in her search, but finally she activated the bell in the kitchen. The bored serving woman made three trips in and out with five plates and then (as I ascertained on a quick trip from the table) returned to her leaning position by the counter.
                When we had eaten our spaghetti, my aunt made the same foot search, this time with more luck, and summoned the woman who this time could make do with one trip back and forth. We retired to the big, stuffy living room full of dark furniture and things I could break. After a cup of Nescafé we went to our beds, falling into the holes that would hold us captive in one position the rest of the night. The eiderdown with an embroidered round hole in the top of its cover kept me sweating in my cubbyhole until morning.
                The next day my aunt herself served round Danish rolls, butter, Danbo cheese and orange marmelade together with Nescafé. Then we squashed all five of us in our Volkswagon and drove down to the harbor to see the king and queen arrive with their three daughters.
                I've learned since that Sønderborg is no insignificant place in Denmark. It had been the scene of the Danish national trauma in 1864 when the Prussians and Austrians had ensconced themselves in the hills overlooking the city by the #Dybbøl Mill. From that vantage point they bombed the city at will for weeks and weeks, which was probably why my aunt now lived in a comparatively new building of brick instead of some of the several centuries-old houses of which there now only were relatively few left. The Danish army had struggled in vain against the powerful German army with its newly purchased machineguns and had been duly slaughtered in the thousands. To this day one could say the farther south you move in Denmark, the more intensely patriotic the inhabitants are.
                Certainly there were thousands of red and white Danish flags waving as we arrived at the dock with the king's beautiful, wooden cruise ship, with its crew all lined up in one glistening row. My aunt took my sister and me by the hands, leaving my parents to fight their way through the crowd, and headed with us in tow towards some low buildings that housed shipping companies and overlooked the harbor. She pulled us behind her up the steps to the second floor and flung open the door of the first office, strode over to the closest window which was packed with waving Danes and pushed them aside, all the while saying one word again and again: "Amerikanere, Amerikanere, Amerikanere". Clearing a place for us, she told us to stand in the open window while the Danes who had been there retreated still once more from an aggressive Austrian.
                Down at the ship the King in a dark uniform and the Queen in an unruly hat had come out on the deck together with the three princesses all in white, the oldest of whom was about my sister's age and later to be queen of Denmark and the youngest of whom was about my age and destined to be queen of Greece for a short period. They all stood in a row and smiled and waved. Then the band played and the royal family of five came down the gangway and greeted their thousands of subjects, accepted their flowers, poems and pictures and went off to a luncheon with the mayor of Sønderborg leading the way bearing the heavy golden chain around his neck that symbolized his office. The wind down from Dybbøl whipped up the flags and the water and the great ship almost whinnied as it bucked majestically in the waves.
                The crowd dispersed and we went down the steps and across the dock to our car. As we took one last look at Dybbøl  over the sound, I did not think or suspect that I was in the crosshairs of my own history as much as of Denmark's: here was my aunt soon to die, but living proof of the strange coincidences of history, here was my country-to-be all decked out in its finest, here was I, American as a can of campbell soup but completely ignorant of my coming language, country, and culture. If I had known, I would have gasped at the improbability of it all. Since I didn't, I got in the car, thinking of baseball scores, girls and of the lunch we were going to have in Copenhagen later that day. We drove my aunt home, kissed her goodby and drove off towards the ferry on our way to Copenhagen.


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