Escape from Waicher Alm:
It must have been around the end of the summer of 1953, when we occupied an old hunting lodge located high up in the Bavarian Alps. This wooden lodge presided over a most spectacular view. From where it sat atop of the Schwartzenbach valley, the Waicher Alm overlooked a parade of snow tipped peaks extending across the horizon from Austria to Italy.
In the summer, the fields around this old cabin were full of blueberries and redolent with the pungent smell of heather clinging to the crags that rose not far from the cabin. I can remember the almost black color of the old wooden walls, and the green shutters that framed the small square windows. The roof was covered with flattened rolls of tree bark, interspersed with thin logs that lay horizontally across the sloping roof held in place by large locks. In the winter these wooden ridges and rocks would hold the snow pack in place giving the cabin an extra layer of insulation to keep us all cozy under our mantle of snow. The Waicher Alm had a unique smell of old wood, creosote, kitchen smells, coffee and the gritty odor that spilled from the broken rocks that lay cracked all around the knobby pastures surrounding the cabin, the old barn and the feeding station for the deer. Ancient woven brush fences enclosed a small paddock where the cows had churned the mud into a redolent paste. But mostly they ranged the heights all day only returning in the evening to be milked and returning to the wild even as the sun set behind the distant peaks.
The driveway swung up from the old logging road that twisted about 10 miles up the mountain from the local paved road that connected a series of remote mountain hamlets that lay snug up against the Austrian border from Laubau to the quaint “Reit im Winkle”, which my mother and sister jokingly referred to as “Right in the Corner.” Waicheralm was one of the highest habitations in the region and lay way above the reach of casual hikers. The serious climbers that scaled the Sonntagshorn to reach the Austrian village of Lofer would ascend from a lower valley, so we were completely on our own except for visits by Jorschie, the state’s ancient and stooped forester. During the days the farmer’s boys were mostly occupied trying to coax a meager harvest of hay from the sparse upland fields with their hand scythes. In the evening they’d gather the cows in for their milking.
A wide graveled surface faced the upper side of the cabin. Our dusty cars sat lined up ready to roll down the mountain. Around the base of the cabin a wide wooden terrace encircled the building. On the downhill side a balcony under the wide eaves was adorned with window boxed filled bright red Geraniums in the traditional Bavarian style. A wooden balustrade enclosed the porch and I loved to ride my tricycle at breakneck speeds all around the house clattering across the wooden planks like someone playing a never-ending xylopone. All around lay a spectacular panorama of snow tipped peaks.
The Waicher Alm was about as far up as one could get in Bavaria’s steep Alps. In September my mother and I would sit listening through the open window as the stags roared all around us. We would try to count and keep track of the many males converging into our vale. There below our house they would converge to act out their annual mating duels. Long after dark my mother would urge me into the feather bed. I can still recall the noise of great horns clashing as the bulls jousted vigorously in the muddy field below our lodge. Eventually the window was shut, and the sounds became fainter as the crackling of the wood stove put me to sleep.
Every fall we would spend weeks splitting short lengths of wood into chunks that would be stacked alongside the wall – up to the top of the eaves. The walls of split wood had to be built to withstand the grasping blasts of frigid air that would sweap off the rocky heights and slip in behind our towering piles of wood. And if we were unlucky the “Berggeist”, as we called the mountains spirits, would squeeze their prying fingers behind the stacks and bring the whole edifice down into a heap of scattered kindling strewn all across the wooden terrace.
The inside of the house was dark with its deeply stained wood panel walls. A narrow staircase ascended to the bedrooms that lay squeezed under the broad shingle roof. Long wooden poles and rocks were strewn across the roof, ready to hold the snow pack that would keep the building warm more than half of the year. You had to stoop to get into bed, as the roof slanted down towards the outside walls. De
spite our remote location, we often had visitors to see my father. And they would stay in these upstairs beds. In the winter, you would hear the snow cascade off the roof just inches above your head, and October you could also hear the stags challenging each other across the narrow confines of the vale, the “Waicher Alm”.
One of our most frequent guests was a good friend of my father’s, known to me as Uncle Toto. In actuality “Toto” Toerring was also the hereditary Count who’s ancestors had been granted all the fishing rights to the Traun and all its tributaries which reached all the way up to Waicher Alm. Count Toerring’s holding included more than 100 miles of some of the most excellent trout fishing in continental Europe. Both he and my father loved to wander these streams, fly fishing the little pools that studded these waters. Up here near the Waicher Alm the catches were usually too small, but down below in Laubau and all the way down into the flatlands near Pertenstein, one of Count Toerring’s ancestral castles, the fish were plentiful and delicious. His family had owned these hunting and fishing rights since the mid 15th century when his ancestors had been deeded the exclusive fishing rights to the entire Traun river system – all the way down to where it joined the mighty Inn River that spilled down from the Austrian town of Innsbruck.
Uncle Toto was a frequent visitor driving his old Mercedez the 90 minutes from Munich up to my father’s hide out. He and my father would fish rainbows, browns, brook trout and the newly imported Canadian Kamloops trout all the way up and down the boulder filled Traun. The ice-cold pond at Seehuase was where the Traun actually bubbled up from the freezing depths. A short way below the pond was a stretch of the river so prolific with fish, that my father dubbed it “idiots’ delight”. There even the less skilled fishermen could manage to snag something. Afterwards, Uncle Toto and Papa would eventually repair to the “eck bank” with its built in bench seats and together they would devastate several packs of L&M’s and more than a bottle of Johnnie Walker, and German Steinhager schnapps as they argued over German and European politics and the constant threat of a Russian invasion by the eight division of troops the Russians had stationed only about 30 minutes to the east of Waicher Alm.
The night in question was a lovely summer evening, redolent of heather. In anticipation of Uncle Toto’s arrival I was busy completing endless circles around the terrace charging along with as much abandon as a tricycle can muster. When I saw Uncle Toto’s car climbing up the slope, I remember dashing into the house to announce his arrival. I then I hustled out to the gravel compound in front of the chalet to serve as the advance greeting party, because Uncle Toto was a great favorite of mine, as well. Wheeling my trusty tricycle up to his car, I welcomed him to Waicher Alm.
I was dressed in the local garb, a blue gingham shirt and a pair of well-worn Lederhosen. With “Servus, Uncle Toto” I greeted him and he smiled at my unique mixture of Bavarian dialect and English interspersed. It would take me years to sort out the three languages I spoke at home. Opening up the door, Uncle Toto looked me up and down.
“Now look at you”, he exclaimed “you’re the most Bavarian boy I know.” The irony of my actual American nationality went clear over my head, and I beamed at the compliment. “But where is your rucksack?” he asked. “You know all good Bavarian boys must have a rucksack for climbing in the mountains. Where is your’s?” I was utterly chagrined that I hadn’t realize the absolute necessity of owning a “rucksack”. Whom did I know, he asked, who didn’t have at least one rucksack? And I had to admit that most everyone I encountered up here did have a “rucksack”.
Dinner with Uncle Toto was always a pleasure as he brought us all the news from Munich, the newest on the communist takeovers spreading through Russian dominated Eastern Europe and all the rumors of communist purges in the United States. But my father was very excited because finally it seemed that Senator Joe McCarthy had met his match when he confronted the Army and his blustering attacks were being deflated and beaten back. At the same time the Senator’s excessive drinking habits were undermining his reputation. My father had been forced to resign from the Foreign Service a few years earlier after persistent threats to summon him to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Senator Joe’s powerful red-baiting forum.
Given my father’s somewhat derring-do attitude and his uncanny ability to get things done even in remote localities, it shouldn’t come as no surprise that Senator McCarthy’s minions found him intriguing and were preparing to skewer him. Unwilling to be grilled in a nationally broadcast hearing, he was forced to resign from the Foreign Service even though at the time we was being actively considered to be the first American Ambassador to Yugoslavia. Instead he went into exile on a remote Spanish island. Only after the demise of Senator Joe McCarthy and the success of Papa’s first book, “Bears in the Caviar” was he able to return to Munich. But on week-ends and often over extended periods he and my mother would retreat up to the “Waicher Alm”.
Dinner was served and after dinner Uncle Toto produced a “special gift” for my mother and with a flourish he produced a perfectly ripe Camembert cheese, he had just purchased from the new Kaefer gourmet food shop near his home in Munich. My mother beamed as he handed her the cheese knife to make the first ceremonial stab into the heart of the fuzzy white covering. The cheese looked perfectly ripe with the rind turning slightly orange at the edges. Carefully she positioned the knife and pressed down with the point. It produced an audible “squeek”!
Confused she tried again, but this time there was the unmistakable squeal of a rubber toy. The delicious looking Camembert was a trick designed to disappoint! Luckily, Uncle Toto had invested in another Camembert that was soon devoured. Not long after dinner I was tucked away in my bed under a giant eiderdown.
But all along my head was abuzz with the notion that I could not aspire to be a good Bavarian boy unless I had a rucksack to carry on my back. It was a problem that I had to fix, and now was just as good a time as any other.
Meanwhile in the kitchen, Uncle Toto and Papa had forecast the demise of the newly installed governments across about a dozen Soviet satellite countries, and were now edging into the second bottle which increased the exuberance of their prognostications markedly. By this time midnight had passed it was decided to halt the deliberations untill the morning.
Before retiring Papa went past my bedroom to check on me one more time. Instead of a sleeping babe, he found the eiderdown toppled to the floor alongside the discarded PJ’s. Both Papa and Uncle Toto were sobered in an instant, as they looked frantically around the house, but there was no sign of Jimmy. Artos, our German short-hair hunting dog was enlisted in the search, but he only wandered around in circles and lay down to sleep.
It was then that Uncle Toto made the connection with the friendly taunting about the missing rucksack. He realized that’s why I had bolted immediately. It was a long way to Munich on a tricycle.
Sharing this exchange with Papa, they quickly did a search of the premises for my infamous tricycle, but it, too had vanished. Now the search got frantic, as both men hopped into my father’s jeep and tore off down the cliff-lined road that snaked down into the valley. This treacherous gravel road was at least 5 miles long and for most of that distance it had been carved out of the mountain – with cliffs on either side.
Uncle Toto and Papa tore down this gravel track expecting at any moment to see me sprawled across the gravel next to an overturned tricycle. Of course, in their darkest imaginations they stared at the outer edge of the road that was demarcated with the occasional cement bollard and nothing in between. How long would it take them to search these treacherous cliffs all along the route – and was it possibly that I could have survived the 50-100 foot drops all along the route?
One mile has been passed. Now the second and third miles had been searched, but ahead lay the narrowest portion of the road as it crawled its way along a ledge. Hearing something, my father switched off the engine of the car. Ahead they heard an unearthly shuffling and snuffling. Occasionally, the silence was shattered as several metallic “dings” could be heard and something bleated angrily and this was followed up with an angry stamping of feet in the narrow space. Suddenly a cow appeared around the corner of the cliff and peered dubiously at the car’s headlights. Now several more cows appeared and stopped at the corner avoiding the bright headlights beaming directly at them.
Toto got out and prodded the cows past the car. Then they slowly proceeded ahead and turned the corner. There, stopped in the middle of the road, sat a small figure on a tricycle angrily ringing his bell at the shuffling herd that was obstructing his progress.
Quickly my father and Uncle Toto jumped out of the car and scooped me up and grabbed the dusty tricycle. Quickly removing me to the safety of the Jeep they began to reverse back up the track with the cows following close behind.
But I was furious , why had they interrupted my journey I demanded to know. Besides I had nearly made my way the asphalt road in Laubau. And from Laubau to Munich was only a 90 minute drive on the autobahn – which should by easy to replicate on my super swift tricycle. And why was I so intent on getting to Munich Papa asked, but Uncle Toto already knew the answer…
Indeed, how could I be an authentic Bavarian boy if I did not own a rucksack, I asked my father? I was the quintessential Bavarian boy with my lederhosen, the gingham shirt, no shoes and socks and the perennially runny nose that my mother so often complained about. But without a rucksack I was a fraud, a nobody and I needed to complete my Bavarian identity immediately, and now I was being hauled off to bed before being able to secure that all important rucksack.
Needless to say, Uncle Toto came to visit the subsequent weekend and he brought with him a lovely grey rucksack with the green straps, and a patch adorned with the blue and white diamond checkerboard pattern of the Bavarian kings. And on the kitchen table sat a big new wheel of real Camembert cheese for my mother.