When and where did I begin, do I begin, shall I begin?
With vague childhood memories of growing up, in not too wealthy circumstances during the years after World War II, in a small part of a big town house in a little district town surrounded by mountains?
With being afraid of the chicken and ducks my grandmother kept in our backyard? Of the delirious fever fantasies I still remember during two attacks of scarlet fever exactly around Xmas-time in two consecutive years when I was 4 and 5 years old? (Must have been a real treat for my parents, and my grandmother, who was living with us!) Or with the fears and nightmares I had about having to go and fetch a bucket of coal from the dimly lit basement, whose dark corners in my imagination were full of hidden dangers and hideous monsters?
Or with the routine of crossing main street to go into the smoky old little pub with an empty mug, worm my way through the forest of trousered legs, hold up my mug and a few coins to catch the innkeeper’s attention, watch the tap beer fill the mug until it made a nice foamy crown on top, and then carefully manage the high steps of the stairway back up to my fatheŕs supper table without spilling any of the precious liquid?
Or with first memories of suffering injustice, of a child́'s most ardent wishes coming true (rare) or remaining unfulfilled (the rule), of happily riding around on a bright red wooden fire engine, clutching my favorite cuddly animal (of off-brown cloth, stuffed with sawdust, lovingly made by my mother)? Or with spectacular (and usually bloody) crashes with my first wooden scooter, then proudly and even more daring with a precious metal scooter with which one day I managed to crash through the glass door leading from the backyard to the hallway and, miraculously, only suffered some minor cuts?
With the fast years of grade school at whose end were not only my first pair of glasses (much hated) and the then obligatory entrance examination to high school? Or, on a quite different scale, the end of the allied occupation of Austria and the birth of a new, neutral and independent state - registered by me mostly because of diverse ceremonies that interrupted the school routine and brought unusual treats like ice cream or chocolate bars from parents & uncles & aunts?
With the first two grades of highschool, when I got up at 5.15 a. m. every morning and sleepwalked/scurried to the railway station to catch the express train at 6.15 a. m. that took me to the next Gymnasium 50 km away? With the pleasures & dangers of these daily train rides, the first cigarette smoked there, on the lavatory (with much coughing and a sinking feeling in the stomach); the first strange sensations - sweet and hurting - when a certain girl walked by; the occasional fights with other boys about God-knows-what-seemed-so-serious at the time? Or the memories of the huge fist that grabbed my heart when I saw my best friend, who tried to show off while our train was entering the station, miss the iron steps and simply disappear under the carriage - and with incredible luck resurface seconds later, white as a sheet but unharmed?
Or maybe with the hours I spent, after several years of not so enthusiastic practice (which nevertheless provided me with the basic abilities) alone with the piano in my grandmotheŕs salon, playing sonatas and dances and ètudes with growing ease and pleasure? Or with the bitter, bitter tears of pain and disillusionment when, at the age of 15, I had to bury my dreams of becoming a pianist because my hands started hurting terribly after only a few minutes of playing and the doctors told me, after one year of trying all kinds of treatments, that I had developed chronic tendonitis? Maybe with the many hours I spent reading numerous books of all kinds or sitting at the piano as an adolescent, improvising then popular songs (like the Beatles), or just playing some fantasy tunes, trying to give shape to my feelings and moods? With the memories of when I ́courted́ my then girlfriend not with words but with passionate songs played on ivory keys - and of my hurt pride and feelings when she, apparently unimpressed, preferred a more world-wise classmate of mine and left me almost wrecking the poor piano with violent dissonances in e-flat minor hammered on the bass keys?
Or maybe with the first sobering experiences at summer jobs in steel mills, on construction sites, in the roofing business? And with the first `wild́ parties during these summers at the garden house of a friend, where only a few years before we had been playing Cowboys and Indians, fighting the neighborhood boys, and where now we were sipping wine and/or gin tonics etc., smoking expertly, dancing to loud and slow music, hugging our partners close, feeling very wise, terribly attracted and at the same time a bit afraid of what might come of it?
Or with the final two year of high school that went by like in trance, filled to the brim with a hyped-up mixture of studying, playing billiards, dance class, dating, promising glances, secret meetings on warm summer evenings and at the skating rink in frosty winter nights, summer jobs, parties, the shocks about the death of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, organizing the graduation ball, ceremoniously opening the polonaise, living through the ups and downs of the final examinations, getting terribly but wonderfully drunk on the afternoon after the oral finals and recovering sufficiently within two hours to gracefully play the role of the class speaker and deliver the public address at the farewell dinner ...
And then the final trip of the graduating class - two weeks together on the beach in what used to be a budding Yugoslav seaside resort (and now is a recovering Croatian seaside resort), with the sun and the sea during the days, dancing and wine in the evening, my first experience at a strip-tease show (rather pathetic) and, a few days later, a heated but somewhat inconclusive evening with a member of a group of Swedish girls that had arrived at our bungalow village...
... then coming home, parties continuing, but noticing how gradually the closeness of all the years of small class community begins to loosen, the growing awareness that a formative period of your life has come to an end, you will not go back to school again in fall ... and by mid-summer everybody has discovered that ... my highschool girl friend tells me about her plans for the future ... I tell her about mine ... and we quietly acknowledge (looking back, it is almost unbelievable how quietly this is done) that we do not appear in each otheŕs plans ... years of relationships grow pale and finally evaporate under the hot summer sun ... I work another four weeks in the steel mill, read, meet with friends for drinks in the evening, start thinking about how student life will be, what The City will be like ... eager to get away and yet a little hesitant of the unknown ... playing the piano often, taking my leave from people, from places full of sweet and painful memories ... sorting schoolbooks, putting things away ... already growing out of the room I have shared with my ́little brotheŕ ... out of my parentś house, my grandmotheŕs world, my brotheŕs boyish affection ... growing out ... growing up?
© Walter W. Hölbling