Today is my grandfather Frank’s birthday. It would have been his 98th birthday, but it isn’t because he had a heart attack at 82 while driving to work. I still don’t really like driving down my grandparents’ street (which also happens to be a main thoroughfare) on my way elsewhere, because I don’t want to look at or acknowledge the tree their car slammed into when he lost control, that dumb helpless tree (still there!) that took not just him away, but also my grandmother and my belief that bad things only happen to bad people.
I really don’t want to talk about that though, but about what my grandfather was like before I knew him.
He already had an entire adult life in Austria before he came to the United States in 1939, before he served as an infantryman in the U.S. Army, before he married my grandmother in 1947 – before all those things, when he was still Franz instead of Frank. In those days, Franz was a playboy who probably learned the arts of certain excesses (parties, women, fun) from his father, a successful men’s clothier, who brought home a mistress from the Russian front after World War I. I say “certain excesses” because it seems that there were other lessons that Franzl possibly also learned from his father Emil, who happened to suffer from chronic gout as a result of a diet too rich in schnitzel, Sachertorte and cigars. Far from suffering from gout, Franz was a champion athlete: a skiier, a soccer player, a water polo player, a swimmer. Maybe it was just the health culture of the time, where athleticism and gesund were valued and celebrated all over the place, and it had nothing to do with Emil’s foibles – but I like to think that some kind of family-based psychology could have had something to do with Franz’s athletic prowess.
Skiing is something that Franz and I share, something I didn’t know we shared until a few years ago. It would be nice if I could say that we shared a love of skiing, but that would be a bald-faced lie, because skiing scares the living daylights out of me and I haven’t been on a pair of skis in the last 13 years. No, what we share in common is something I discovered when I found an account he wrote sometime in the 1920s or 1930s, entitled “Erinnerung au meinem Oberschenkel-Brauch.” This “Account of my Broken Femur” does not have a counterpart in any “Story of my Broken Tibia,” though it probably should.
Franz skiied in the days before ski lifts. In the picture above, sitting with his wooden skis almost parallel to the photo’s frame, Franz sits at a ski hut on Mount Rax with a bunch of his friends in March 1930. They would have hiked up the mountain to get there and sometimes they would be so warm when they arrived at the top that they’d lay out in the snow in their underwear (which I know for a fact because I have pictures of it). When Franz went skiing with his friends on the Schneeberg, the day he broke his oberschenkel, maybe it was a day just like this one on Mount Rax. That day on the Schneeberg, Franz brought slalom flags with him in his rucksack and after they were in place, cannonballed down the mountain. What happened exactly I don’t know, because my German does not exactly exist, but he ended up with a compound fracture of the femur. He writes about how his three friends found a sled and splinted him up as best they could, skiing him carefully down the mountain with his head facing downhill so he could absorb all the shocks with his shoulders. Eventually, he was taken by a horse cart to Puchberg, where he was put on the train home to Vienna. Unable, perhaps, to fit in a regular passenger car comfortably with his splinted leg, he had to ride in the cattle car, where it was very cold, despite the three blankets he was bundled in (“it was cold, then colder and then damned cold,” he said). Then, I assume, he was brought somewhere (home? doctor? hospital?) where they fixed his leg and stitched him up, leaving him with a scar on his thigh.
The story of my broken tibia is not quite as impressive. I was 5, in a ski lesson with some family friends at the top of a ski lift in Brian Head, Utah. We did not do any hiking, we did not do any laying out in the snow in our underwear, we did not wear collared shirts under v-neck sweaters. Instead, we were making our way across a vast plain of powdery snow, from the lift over to the start of a run, skating in that way you skate on skis when the ground is level. Then, all of a sudden (no slalom flags, no slope) I fell in the powder, twisting my legs and falling on the ground. Had I been Franz, I probably would have been fine, in my leather boots and leather bindings, but I was wearing modern ski boots with modern bindings that decided not to free my poor little feet from their locked-in position. It hurt. It hurt like a mother. I don’t really remember that, though, but I assume it did. Somehow someone called the ski patrol, and they came and picked me up. I don’t remember waiting for them, and I don’t remember being loaded onto the toboggan they brought, but I do remember (vaguely, like a fever-dream) bumping softly down the hill behind them, snowflakes falling softly onto my face. I remember (vaguely, in a way I can’t fully grab ahold of) waiting in the mountain emergency room for my parents. I remember (vaguely) only getting an ace bandage, sleeping and crying fitfully on a couch in our rental condo, sleeping and crying fitfully on a night-time airplane ride home to Los Angeles. I was disappointed, I recall, because I always had wanted to fly through clouds, and now I was told we were flying through clouds that I couldn’t see because it was night, and it was nothing like I expected flying through clouds to be. I remember, too, getting to ride in a wheelchair from the airplane to the car. I don’t remember being brought somewhere (a doctor) to have my leg fixed, but apparently I screamed so loudly as the doctor tried to set my leg that I made him (a grown-ups’ doctor, not a kid doctor, who would have known better) nervous and my leg was not set straight at all. I wore a cast for 16 weeks and became a whiz on crutches. I don’t have any scars like Franz, but I do have a crookedly set leg with a foot that turns out funny and I never liked skiing ever again.
Franz did not have that in common with me. Like a person who gets back on a horse after they’ve been thrown, he put his skis back on and skiied until he was in his mid-70s. Me, like a person who gets back on a horse after they’ve been thrown and cries the whole time, I was never able to conquer the fear of falling, the fear that sets in when you look down a steep (or in my case, bunny) slope and think “no way.” Still, though, somehow I like that there is this shared family story of leg-breaking on skis (one that Franz’s daughter, my Aunt Helene, now also shares with us). I am not sure why – it is just somehow pleasing, in a perverse kind of way – but at the very least, it helps me to support my assertion that skiing is a very dangerous sport that one should never attempt. And it gives me something in common with my grandfather, who lived so many different lives before he found himself in the same one as me.