Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Pater: The loan...

Pater: The loan...  The photo at right is from July, 2005, at Clear Lake in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.  This was the first trip I'd been on with my dad where I could out-hike him, and that was quite a shock for me.  His age and chronic lymphatic leukemia had tremendously sapped his physicality, but not his spirit, not even in the slightest degree.  He was just as eager to see the trees, flowers, and scenery as he ever was – he just couldn't walk as far to do it.  We made very good use of our LandCruiser's offroad capability to help mitigate this – I was able to get my dad into all sorts of places that would ordinarily require a rugged hike, and he was really happy about that.  In the beginning of that trip, he was frequently expressing his amazement about where we could go in the LandCruiser.  By the end of the trip, he just assumed we could go anywhere at all :)
The loan...

This is a story I only know second-hand, and now the only two people who could elaborate on it are gone.  But I do know the essentials, though some details may be missing or wrong, and the story nicely illustrates another aspect of my dad's personality.  I'll relate it as I found out about it.

The first I found out about the loan was on a warm summer day when I was 11 or 12 years old – '63 give or take a year or two.  My dad had given me the job of cleaning up some brush and trash up on top of an old concrete truck loading apron.  I'd driven our tractor with a utility cart up there, and I was loading it up with junk – hot and sweaty work, and I wasn't happy about it.  I muttered some unkind and irritated things about my dad as I worked away.

Nearby, Julius Mate sat on a chair in front of the little cottage that he and his wife lived in, puffing away on his pipe, watching me intently.  Julius was a Hungarian immigrant whom my dad employed as general help on the nursery, mostly in our greenhouse.  He was, I'm guessing, about 60 years old at the time – short, thickset, weathered face, and always smelling of beer and tobacco.  He spoke English poorly, with a very thick accent.  We kids thought of him as a kind of odd, grumpy old man who never hesitated to holler at us if he didn't like what we were doing.  Sometimes we could understand what he was saying, sometimes not – but we had zero trouble understanding that he wasn't happy with us.

So I wasn't surprised that day when Julius wandered over to where I was working.  I expected him to start hollering at me, but instead, he beckoned me (he used a lot of non-verbal communications) to come over to where he'd been sitting.  He wanted me to sit down, because he wanted to talk with me.  Through the nearly impenetrable accent, I eventually figured out that he wanted to tell me a story.  What follows in italics is what I understood the story to be, but without the accent and hand-waving...

My dad hired Julius sometime before I was born, and (I believe) before he was married to my mom.  Julius was a refugee from then-Communist Hungary; he had been a member of the resistance in WWII, and was well-known as being anti-Communist, and was afraid for his life if he stayed in Hungary – so he left, but his wife and two sons stayed behind.  Eventually Julius made it to the U.S., and then found a job with my father, who valued his knowledge of greenhouse horticulture.  He was glad to be safe, glad to have a job, and thought of himself as being nearly in heaven, in America.

But always he dreamed of bringing his family here, to join him in this heaven on earth.  To fulfill this dream, he needed money – not only for the travel, but for bribing the Hungarian officials and border guards, for otherwise there was no hope of his family emigrating.  He also needed an American sponsor to sign a document promising to provide work, a place to live, and so on – to guarantee that the immigrant wouldn't become a burden to the community.  So Julius scrimped and saved, but knew it would be years before he could save enough money.  He thought my dad might be willing to be the sponsor, though, and he resolved to sound my dad out on that idea.  He figured my dad probably wouldn't mind, as he had already allowed Julius to live in (by Julius' standards) a fine house that his family could also live in.

One day, when he and my dad were working together in our greenhouse culling holly cuttings, Julius broached the subject with my dad.  This led to many questions, as my dad knew vaguely that Julius had a family in Hungary, but didn't know any of the details.  My dad asked where exactly they lived, what it would take to get them to the U.S., etc.  Then when Julius told my dad about the need to bribe officials, my dad's attitude changed – he was, apparently, quite angry that Julius' family might be kept in Hungary by such cruel people.  He then asked Julius how much money the bribes and travel would take?  Julius told him: about $800.

I don't know exactly when that conversation happened, but my best guess is 1949 or 1950 – after the war, after my dad was demobilized, but before he and my mom were married.  At that time, $800 would have been a great deal of money to my dad – probably close to a year's income – and even more to Julius...

What happened next just stunned Julius: my dad offered to lend him the $800, right then.  He also agreed to be his family's official sponsor.  Julius told my father than he didn't know when he could repay him, and he certainly had no assets to offer as security.  My dad told him – on this point Julius was adamant, and all choked up, near tears – that Julius' word was good enough for him, and that all my dad expected was to be paid when Julius could do so.  

This was the last thing Julius had expected, and he had no plans in place to get his family here, thinking it would be years and years before he could do so.  The next day, my dad went to the bank and got the money for Julius, and then Julius set things in motion.  He had a way to get letters and money secretly to relatives in Hungary, and they arranged the travel and the bribes to get his family out of the country, to Vienna, in Austria.  From there they traveled commercially to Philadelphia, where Julius met them and brought them home, to his cottage on our farm.  Julius' dream was fulfilled.

Julius related this story to me because he'd heard me saying something angry about my dad, and wanted me to know how wrong I was, and how good a man my father was.  Julius said he didn't know any man who would have done what my dad did for him.  I should respect and honor that, he told me.  My dad deserved no less.

Well, that was quite a story.  I believed him at the time; it didn't occur to me to question any of it then.  My anger and irritation had dissipated long before Julius finished his story, and I thought about his loan many times over the years.  It always gave me a warm feeling about my dad.  As I got older, though, a little doubt started to edge in.  Did I actually understand Julius correctly, or had I imagined parts of that story?  Or did Julius perhaps think I needed to hear a fable, even if it wasn't strictly that actually happened?

On one of our many trips together – this time, along the Big Sur coast to Monterey – I asked my dad about it.  He was quite taken aback to have that subject raised after so many years.  He was also a bit embarrassed to talk about it.  After all that time had passed, my dad couldn't remember all the details, but he verified the general outline of Julius' story: yes, he had lent Julius the money – a lot of money.  The money was used for both travel and bribes, and it worked: it got his family here.  It was done just on Julius' word that he'd repay it.  And yes, Julius had paid it all back.  And my dad was embarrassed that his generosity and trust had been discovered by his son.

Well, I've got some bad news for you, Pater: your son knows quite a few stories like that.  But this is one of the best ones...


  1. This brought me to a new level of tears, Tom...

    I did not know (much of) this story, but it does make me even more proud of Dad.

    A few different Julius memories... different from yours:

    I remember feeling a bit afraid of Julius, but don't remember him ever yelling at me. I do remember him helping me hunt for bugs when I was collecting for Mr. Whittingham's (my seventh grade biology teacher) project assignment. The stone wall (or was it just a rocky/stony outcropping?) on the edge of the circular drive that went in front of his home was a haven! I remember Julius lifting up a stone and finding a treasure trove of pill bugs, a blue-green beetle, and a few other insects. Julius grinned!

    I do not remember (or was too young and ignorant to realize) beer breath.

    Halloween and Easter = onion-skin dyed eggs!!! I do remember those oddities. This is a memory I now cherish, but did not appreciate so much as a child seeking candy treats.

    Thank you again, Tom, for these beautiful memories,

  2. Maybe Julius only hollered at boys? Or maybe just me :)

    I have lots of different memories of Julius, and most of them are good ones. He really liked to help us, when he could find something where he could. One example in my own experience that pops right to mind: he saw me sharpening an axe on the motorized grindstone in the shed, and came over to show me the right way to do it. To this day, when I sharpen an axe or other impact tool, I use the technique he showed me that day. I remember how overtly pleased he was when he finally got me to do it "right", with a great big grin...

    Mrs. Julius I also have lots of memories of, too. Mostly those revolve around food, especially the baked things she'd give us on the way up to the school bus stop. Yum! I remember a few times when she'd invite me into their little cottage, and how exotic and alien it looked and smelled inside. Bright, clashing primary colors all over (especially green and purple), and lots of cloth hanging things everywhere. I have no idea what made that odd smell in there, but it was certainly distinctive - I'm guessing some mix of unfamiliar spices. If I ever smell that again, it will instantly transport me back into that cottage...

    Oh, I just had another memory of Julius pop up. He saw me carrying some big boards (for bed sides) up from the shed to the display beds. I was carrying them across my arms, sideways in front of me, which was awkward because it made such a wide swath. He came over and showed me how to use a few feet of rope to rig up a sling that let me carry it vertically on my back - ever so much easier! Again, that really lit him up, and I was treated to that big grin.

    A different kind of Julius memory... One winter day, he was outside his cottage door sitting, and he beckoned me over - this time, he needed my help. He was stuck sitting; he was too stiff to be able to stand up and walk. I helped him get back into the warm cottage. Right now, at least, I can't remember any other occasion when he needed my help...