Whenever I see images of destruction on the front page, brought by rocket attacks, car bombs, or bulldozers tearing houses down, I'm back in post-war Germany, a six-year old playing with my friends in the rubble. And every time I think of my friend Boembes. Here is what I remember:
Boembes took his eye out, looked at it briefly with his good one, and showed it around among the little circle of boys and one girl. It was obviously a fake since it was not even a complete sphere -- it fell quite short of that. Later I learned that the technical term for this geometrical shape is calotte, which is the shape you wind up with when you slice a sphere above or below its mid-plane. The girl, Gudrun was her name, was really a tomboy and we didn’t mind her being around as long as she kept that way. (I later developed a crush on her, in fourth grade, but that is a different story). We’d all watch Boembes with a mixture of awe and envy – our own eyes were firmly fixed in their sockets, and of a soft consistency, so they were of little use for showing them around and bragging.
Boembes did his eye-opening act every time he’d meet a new kid, making most of his talents at the critical opportunity for recruitment of new friends. I was a new kid, in a sense, since my parents had pretty much kept me away from the street until then, as I got into elementary school. Boembes’ glass eye was white, with a light-blue iris surrounding a fixed black pupil, the color and pattern matching the real ones, and finely crafted like a marble. But of course the shape of it, with its so-to-say calottesque properties, kept it from moving on a table beyond a mere wiggle, either looking up at the ceiling or looking down, myopically, at the grain in the wood of the table. Years later, when I heard about Van Gogh and his allegedly missing ear, I thought of him as just another Boembes, or a close variant of him, whose most important distinction was that he lost track of his organ at one point while Boembes never left his eye out of sight. I was glad every time the eye was back in its normal place because, whenever it was out, the hole that it left in my friend’s face was pink, just like freshly diced goulash meat on the kitchen table at my home before it went into the pan. I didn’t like to look at meat, and if it had been up to me I would have turned vegetarian.
At that time, when World War II was just over and done with a couple of years before, and much of our town was still in rubble, we played a game called War on our street. We were five kids, more or less: Boembes and I and sometimes Gudrun, and a couple of others, and the aim was to take over the world. We’d draw a big circle in the dirt to be the earth, and divided it like a pie into Germany, France, England, Russia and America. The kid who had the ball would stand with one foot in his country and shout, for instance, “GERMANY … DECLARES … WAR … AGAINST … (and this was the point where we got nervous since according to the rules, we had to behave differently depending on our designation as victim of the aggression, or mere bystander) … France!” And as he blasted out this last word he would throw the ball, and the kid owning France was supposed to run and catch the ball while all others put their feet firmly into the victim’s territory to carve out a piece, as a legitimate annexation even bystanders were entitled to. And there was some logic in how the ball and the right to be the next aggressor were passed from one kid to the other, which I can’t remember after more than half a century.
Today, as I think about Boembes’ violent accident that happened when he was a little boy, I find his appetite for war games difficult to understand. When I was a boy, though, the opposite was true: our little neighborhood gang, we looked up at Boembes as the epitome of an uncompromising warrior. He would gladly fight, even with his grandmother -- even, it seemed, at the risk of losing his other eye. And he was in the possession of truths we, the inexperienced, were unable to fathom.
Boembes’ real name was Kurt Fischbach, the last name meaning fish creek, which half a century later and some 1500 miles away, at the place where I came to live, became associated with Governor Pataki, whose home town was Fishkill, New York. “Kill,” according to the Wikipedia, meant “creek” in Middle Dutch. Boembes lived alone with his grandmother and his aunt in a little blue-grey slate-covered corner house since his father had been killed in the War, and his mother had died early. I was convinced the exact shrapnel that killed his father also hit his own eye though I’d never dared to ask him.
He was a bit on the short side, but he made up for it with his big mouth. With his sure instinct for finding people who were below himself in social rank – smaller kids, handymen and bums -- he loved to humiliate them in front of his friends, but was always ready to run if a shovel would be swung in his direction. He could be quite mean, and had a store of swear words and derogatory comments at the tip of his tongue.
“You better shut up,” he said once to a grownup man who worked away for a few deutschmarks a day, excavating a space next to the slate-covered house, for the construction of an annex. “You just stay in your shithole.” I witnessed the scene open-mouthed since the risk my friend took was without any discernable benefits, except for the effect of increasing his self-esteem and the imponderable gain in my admiration.
The little clap-trap house he lived in with his aunt and grandmother was on the corner of our street with Austrasse. “Au” in German means something like pristine meadow, but the street it lent its name to was virtually devoid of meadows or lawns. In fact, most houses protruded into the sidewalk, leaving little room for flowers and bushes. Only some houses deserved the name “villa” or “bungalow,” houses that were well-kept and surrounded by flowerbeds and the occasional vegetable garden, and protected by wrought-iron fences, with formal gates hinged on two pillars, and mailboxes made of brass embossed with the owner’s names. These names belonged to the industrial mini-barons of our little town.
His grandma was a small, grey, trapezoidal woman. To us she was a generic hausfrau short of any gender identification, without recognizable breasts, shorter in build than Boembes, but with a tongue even sharper than his. She lashed it at him for transgressions of any kind, unwittingly training him in the use of nasty, foul-mouthed language and ultrafast retorts, though some of his swear-words were quite original and entirely his own. The more routine words like “Scheisshund” and “Arschloch” came from his lips easily, like mountain dew. When he was angry, his face would turn red and mean, his mouth would contort with contempt, and his fake eye would for once look quite human next to its living companion.
Boembes represented a world of mysteries far removed from the well-kept house with garden that I grew up in. He was not welcome in my parents’ house since the little family he was part of lacked standing. My mother said these are not “our kind of people.” These were unwritten rules, but so categorical that I never dared to bring Boembes home, even on my birthday. In fact, he never ever set foot in our house. But a couple of times I benefited from his folks’ hospitality; I came to sit in the tiny kitchen of his house. There I was overwhelmed by the smell of cabbage being boiled on the wood-stove, and the utter smallness of the room, and the nature of the clipped conversations between aunt and grandma, all about basic necessities. But on both occasions it was very cold outside, and I liked the feeling of comfort in the steamy kitchen. The kitchen doubled up as dining and living room, since the only other space in the house was taken by three tiny bedrooms and a bathroom.
The contrast with my parents’ house could not have been more striking. Visitors in my parents’ house were brought into the living room, never into the kitchen. Our living room was dominated by an immense mahogany cupboard with inlays from the 20’s, and my father’s mahogany desk, and a giant oil painting of a river forever running through an idyllic landscape.
I never found out what became of him later on. I was one of only four kids selected in my elementary school class to go on to the Gymnasium, and Boembes -- with his loud mouth and versatile bragging eye -- was left behind. For a few years, when we ran into each other, we were both embarrassed since neither of us could understand what precisely put us into different places and why we should run out of words after saying Hi. It was the first but not last time when I lost a good friend before even knowing he’d been one all along.