This is a true story about a real person.
A young man immigrates to America. He is persuaded to leave the village where he grew up by his Uncle, who promises him a job and a place to stay. He goes to a town in the USA where many others from his village have also settled. His sister and her husband live nearby. They sweat and scrape to eke out a living from the soil.
He has a funny-sounding name and speaks no English, but when he arrives in his new home, his family and friends are there to greet him in his native tongue. He is full of promise, dreams and hard work.
How did he become a fugitive? How did he get back to his homeland, only to have his life and hopes swallowed up in an imperialist war.
How do such bright hopes come to confusion?
The man whose odyssey I've outlined above the fold did not come from El Salvador or Serbia or Cambodia or Iraq, though I'm sure that people from those lands could give accounts similar to this one. His bitter story doesn't follow the "Land of Opportunity" success-story script. He didn't die fighting for liberty, equality and brotherhood. Instead of living happily ever after, he died in one of the worst episodes of suffering and squalor known to humankind.
I never met him but I feel as though I know him. He died long ago. He was my great-uncle and his name was Vinzenz Kandlbinder. This account came to me through my father with a few additional details from my aunts and uncles. The basic events described herein occurred before my Dad was born. The conversations, conjectures about human nature, greed and their effects on the motives of the people in the story are my "speculative additions".
My grandfather, Johann Wallisch, emigrated from the village of Hinterschmiding, in the state of Bavaria, Germany. The year was 1890 and he was only 14 years old when he took a laborer's job in an Indiana stone quarry. By the time he was 20, he had saved enough money to buy a one-way steamship ticket. In a letter home, he expressed his desire to marry a girl from the old country. An eligible young lady was found in the neighboring village of Zwölfhäuser. A marriage was arranged on the condition that Johann also furnish a round-trip ticket for the girl's chaperone. That was how 18 year-old Therese Kandlbinder came to be wedded to a man she barely knew.
That's her on the right:
Glidden had started out as a wild lumber boom-town that went bust when the forest was clear-cut. Land speculators picked up vast acreage on credit and flipped the property to unsuspecting immigrants who put up their life savings for a parcel of sand, stumps and rocks.
Although she had learned to speak, read and write in English, Therese felt like stranger the first time Johann drove her and their wagon-load of children into town for Sunday Mass. Imagine her joy when she recognized an old grammar-school friend from Zwölfhäuser in the next pew. She was one link in a chain of family ties and friendships that stretched from Wisconsin to Bavaria and Bohemia. She soon discovered some cousins and old neighbors were among her new neighbors in Glidden. But wolves appear wherever lambs frolic.
It wasn't long before Theresa's Uncle Max arrived in Glidden to purchase a dry-goods store. It was nice to have family nearby, but Uncle Max soon aquired a deserved reputation for sharp practice, short change and a thumb on the scale at the only store in town. In a small-town, a reputation gets around fast and a bad reputation gets around faster. It was bad enough to have to depend on such a person for gingham, nails and barrel hoops. The citizens of Glidden would rather starve than rely on such a bastard for their daily bread. Nobody wanted to work for Max Kandlbinder.
Uncle Max needed a patsy to help him mind the store. Like cheaters and bullies everywhere, he thought he could outsmart any dumb dutchman who just fell off the boat. He needed a fresh mark from the old country. Back in Zwölfhäuser, he had a nephew, a sturdy young fellow named Vinzenz. But there was a small problem. Max had left behind a string of broken promises and hard feelings in Germany. "Zwölfhäuser" means "twelve houses" and to this day it is little more than a crossroads farming village in Bavaria's Black Forest. The small town telegraph line had all the news and Max's bad reputation spanned the Atlantic. Having tarnished his own image on two continents, he went to work spattering mud on his niece. Like dirt-farmers everywhere, Therese and Johann owed the storekeeper money. She would do as she was told.
Against her better judgement, Therese gave in to pressure from Uncle Max and wrote to her brother Vinzenz. If he would come to America, Uncle Max promised to give him a job and lodging. Johann had been a landless peasant in Germany. Here in America, he owned 60 acres of fine land that would soon produce a profitable crop of potatoes. Perhaps Vincenz could find such success in the new world. Uncle Max would pay his passage and he could work it off in the store.
Vinzenz was convinced and soon arrived in Glidden. His "lodging" consisted of a pallet in the back room of the store and taking his meals in the kitchen at Uncle Max's house. Unlike his sister, he could speak little English. He could wait on the German-speaking customers, move boxes and barrels, stock shelves, sweep and mop, fetch wood and water and shovel away the horse manure that gathered in the dusty street outside. Although he had only one language, his command of arithmetic was strong enough to know when he had worked off his debts for the steamship and train tickets as well as his modest lodging up to that date.
He presented his sums to Uncle Max, noting the balance, now tipped into the black, and requested that Max pay him what was owed for his labor. Max replied that there had been no mention of cash wages. Their agreement had been that Vinzenz work off his passage, bed and board. If he wanted money, he could go find a second job. He could earn his lodging at the store and if he didn't like it, he was free to leave as a penniless unskilled laborer in a foreign land.
"Freedom's just another word for..."
Vinzenz watched as the world passed him by.
Uncle Max enjoyed the services of an indentured servant.
About a mile north of town, Therese cared for children, some chickens, a hog and a cow while Johann worked with pick, shovel, axe, and a team of horses to pull stumps & pick rocks. To pay their mortgage, they needed to have as many acres in potatoes as possible. Therese kept the books and they told a sad story. They could get 2 cents per bushel for potatoes. She would total up the year's expenses and average them by the number of bushels of potatoes they produced. If the average expense per bushel was over 2 cents, they were in trouble.
In addition to their debt with the bank, they owed money to the shopkeepers in town. She might barter a few eggs to the grocer for flour and salt. She would use the salt to put up crocks of sauerkraut with the cabbage from her kitchen garden. The cow grazed on marsh hay and gave good milk for butter, puddings and schmearkäse. Her oldest boy, John, could walk down to the creek and catch some fish; anything to keep the wolves from the door.
Herr Fischbach, who owned the livery stable and butcher shop (don't ask), was patient and kind but couldn't live on promises. Perhaps his patience had something to do with his son George, who never missed a chance to chat with Therese's daughter Ann. One would think that her own Uncle at the dry-goods store might cut them some slack, but he demanded cash and carry. She made a point of stopping there only when Uncle Max was away. Only then would she and the children visit with her sad, lonely brother Vinzenz.
When he could get away from the store, Vinzenz took any odd jobs he could find to earn a little pocket money. Sometimes he would bring Johann a pail of beer from the tavern, help clear stumps and stay for a plate of spätzle und schmaltz.
A summer morning's music.
On a fine Monday morning in 1914, Johann was hilling the potatoes. Therese had spent the morning washing clothes. She was interrupted for a moment by Uncle Max and George Fischbach. Max had business to attend to in Ashland and had retained the services of young George and his wagon to drive him there. Her dear Uncle had stopped to tell Therese that they would certainly be gone overnight, perhaps until Wednesday and her ne'er-do-well brother would most likely drop in for a visit just before suppertime. As Max droned on, George kept one eye on the horses and the other peeled for a glimpse of Ann. Ann saw to it that he was not disappointed.
George gave Ann a wink as he turned the horses onto the dirt road. Therese pretended not to notice and grinned as she turned back to her washboard. She hadn't known the luxury of being wooed and took vicarious pleasure in seeing the spark in her daughter's eye. Johann was gentle and kind and a hard worker. Her mother had assured her that they would grow to love each other in a partnership of faith and family. Her mother was right and it had all turned out for the best, but Therese quietly swore to herself that her daughters would marry men of their own choosing. Even if life is hard, we can still be happy.
Adelaide swept the house and Caroline tended the hens while Ann looked after little Theresa. John, Jacob and Aloisius brought their Mama pails of water from the well and she rinsed the clothes, wrung them out and wondered if the child she was carrying would be a boy or girl. The white-throated sparrows whistled and trilled as the dew faded from the hawkweed while shirts, shifts, bloomers and pinafores flapped in the July breeze. She braced up the clothesline with a forked stick to keep the sleeves from touching the gound. As she turned back to the basket of damp clothes, she saw Vinzenz striding up from the road. She snapped the wrinkles from a wet nightshirt and called out to him, "You're here in time for lunch."
"These are for you", he muttered. He handed her a bag with two big loaves of bread from the bakery in town. He set down another bag next to the laundry basket. It was filled with a sack of dried split-peas, a can of black pepper, a summer sausage, some salt pork and a sheet of postage stamps. On top of the groceries, there was a bouquet of wild chicory flowers he had picked along the roadside.
"You will not see me again" he said stiffly. "I am going back to Zwölfhäuser".
She thought he was joking.
"What's the hurry? Will you at least stay for lunch?"
"No, I must go. I have to leave on the eleven o'clock train. Please tell Johann goodbye for me."
He kissed her on the cheek, ran out of the farmyard and into the road. Before she could make sense of what had just happened he was gone. She continued hanging the wash in a daze until she heard the whistle blow as the eleven o'clock train pulled out of the station. She collapsed in the shade of the clothesline. The children found her sobbing there and ran to the field to get Papa.
Johann sent Little John and Jacob into town to see if anyone was minding the dry-goods store. They returned to tell him that it was closed and locked up. The old woman who cooked and kept house for Uncle Max had chased them away with a harsh word. Vinzenz was gone. The clerk at the railroad station had told them that Vinzenz had bought a ticket for Chicago. They related this while munching summer sausage sandwiches their father had made them. Caroline and Adelaide had put Mama to bed while Ann placed the gentle blue flowers in a water glass at her bedside.
Johann wondered where Vinzenz had gotten the money for a train ticket. Unless he planned to swim to Germany, he would need even more money for the trip. The whole town was buzzing. He was glad it was summer. If the children had been in school they would be peppered with questions about their uncles. Best to keep them at home in a crisis.
George and Uncle Max rolled back into town on Wednesday afternoon. When they drove past the farm, Ann waved her handkerchief from the meadow. When they heard that Uncle Max was back, Mama and Papa had sent the children off to pick raspberries. About an hour after they had first passed the farm, George's wagon appeared in the farmyard, trailing clouds of dust and whipcracks. Uncle Max leapt down with cheeks as purple as pickled beets. As George smirked behind his back, he roared at Therese, "Where is that good-for-nothing, thieving brother of yours?" Johann stepped between them and spoke in a flat, almost toneless voice.
"You will never yell at my wife again," he said, as he tapped on Max's chest with a calloused fingertip.
The sight of George's silly grin over Max's shoulder nearly caused Johann to choke with stifled laughter. It was now clear to everyone where Vincenz had gotten the money. In as dignified voice as he could muster, Johann explained that Vinzenz had stopped by on Monday to say that he was going back to the land of his birth and would most certainly never return to America. Therese suddenly scurried off to the outhouse. Between the weight of baby and the physical effort of suppressing a fit of hysterical laughter, she felt as if her bladder were about to burst.
Tears of rage ran down Max's face as he wailed, "That bastard stole all of my money!"
"He took money from the till?"
"He took all the money from the till! And the strongbox! He broke the lock! He cleaned me out!"
Johann was genuinely surprised. He had assumed that Max kept his money in the bank.
He was not an especially humorous fellow, but the sight of George's simpering face, stained with tears of laughter lifted Johann to heights of wit he had never before visited.
"Are you sure it was Vinzenz who took it?"
"Dammit! Where else do you suppose he got the money for a train ticket?"
"Perhaps he was lucky at cards."
Hoots of wild, almost maniacal laughter emanated from the outhouse as the purple rage drained from Max's face. He stared down at the ground, barely noticing that his left foot was firmly pressed into an exquisitely fresh pile of horseshit.
Johann felt a twinge of pity and asked Max if he would like to stay for supper.
"Therese has made a pot of split-pea soup so there's plenty for everyone."
"No thank you, I'll be going now, Max whispered."
George hopped down from the wagon seat to help Max up.
"No, George, I think I'll take the air and walk home. Thank you. It would be a shame to rush on such a pleasant afternoon."
I confess that I have embellished the story a bit. But the bare facts are all there. Vinzenz took all of Uncle Max's money and absconded to Germany in the summer of 1914. If you were paying attention in history class, you know what happened in August of that year. There is no happy ending here.
Vinzenz Kandlbinder served in the German Army in the First World War
He was killed on August 18, 1916.
His brother, Rudolph Kandlbinder, also served and was killed on September 25, 1914.
Therese recieved this postcard in the mail:
It is roughly equivalent to the American Bronze Star and can only be won in combat.
The monument in Mauth states that he served in a Jäger regiment. Jäger translated literally means "hunter". Jäger troops were an elite light infantry, sort of like paratroopers or rangers.
In his Army records, Vinzenz gave Therese's name as his next of kin. By the time she got word of his death through the Red Cross, the USA was already at war with Germany.
The war was good for farm prices, but hard for German-Americans after the USA entered the fighting. Johann took to calling himself John, which was already on his citizenship papers. Therese and John got good prices for their potatoes and made a lot of progress paying off their mortgage. When the war ended, the bottom fell out and they were back to 2 cents per bushel. Therese got out her pencil and figured up their expenses. It cost 3 cents per bushel to grow them. They would have sold the farm while they were ahead, but Johann held to the old-country belief that if you didn't own land, you were nobody.
They sold everything, their wagon, their horses, the plow, the pick, the shovel. The house was sold, jacked up onto a flatbed wagon and placed on a new foundation in Glidden where, as far as I know, it still stands. They made enough money to pay off the mortgage and keep the land, but they had to move to Chicago where John found work driving a beer wagon.
There he is, on the left:
Until very recently their little slice of heaven remained in the family.
They had 13 children, 11 surviving to adulthood.
Their youngest, Francis, was my father.
The woman on the right in this picture is Therese. Her daughters Adelaide and Theresa (in cap) are seated at left. The 4 year-old rugrat chugging the pop in the middle is me.
Therese always said that the thing she missed most about the farm was the cow.