Fathers: everyone has one and every story is different – but every father leaves a lasting impression that shapes the lives of their children forever.
It is truly amazing to consider that if my father were alive today, he would be 113 years old. He was a teenager when World War I broke out and always said that it was due to the dissolution of the monarchy of Austria-Hungary — eerily similar to how the John F. Kennedy assassination marked the end of one America and the beginning of another.
He first came to the United States from Prague in 1934 as part of a trade delegation. He worked as an economist and bank executive as Hitler rose to power in Germany. He raised a family (my half-brother, his first wife) and prior to that, as a bachelor, traveled to the French Riviera with his best friend, the famous German actor Curt Goetz, and Valerie von Martens, a Czech actress whom he introduced to Goetz and who became his wife.
My father was imprisoned by the Germans during WW II and survived the war in Therezienstadt with his first wife and son, and his mother. After the war he divorced his wife, gained custody of his son and met my mother. At the time Prague was under the occupation of the Communists and when my mother was pregnant, my father managed to get us to Vienna without governmental permission.
He was set to join us just before my birth, when my brother ran away to his mother and my father asked his mother, my grandmother, what he should do. She told him to go — that he had a new family — and he left his son in Prague to join us in Vienna where he was terrified of being abducted and returned to Prague as a defector.
We arrived in New York after six years of waiting for immigration papers in Vienna. My father had no job and went to night school to learn English. He worked as a ski salesman at Macy’s, lacing boots on his knees, the only job he could get because he was from Austria and they assumed that meant he knew about skiing even though my father had never skied a day in his life. He preferred to play billiards and smoke cigars in cafes.
From this background my father eventually became the treasurer and confidant of the CEO of a large international travel company. When I graduated from college, my father arranged for me to go to Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco as a tour guide. I kept that “job” for 7 years, while he encouraged me to travel the world and ride it out because I would never have such an opportunity again.
During this period we returned to Vienna for a few days where my father reunited with his first son, Hansl. As one might imagine, it was a terribly emotional time and the only time I can remember my father crying — which he maintained was due to my brother’s poor health. My brother returned to Prague where he worked as a manager of musicians. My dad was proud of his survival skills.
During college I remember coming home and going to religious services to please my father, and the two of us getting into political and philosophical arguments. I once said to him, “I don’t need money. Money doesn’t matter to me.” My father carried those words to his grave hoping he’d taught me that financial responsibility was a requisite for safety in an unsafe world.
My father managed to win a settlement with the German government for his pension and my mother’s pension, and when I moved to Los Angeles he assured me that if I was “settled” he would retire.
Since my father had taken the subway every morning for about 30 years and worked harder than anyone I ever knew, I took this with many grains of salt. However, after I lived in L.A. for a year, my parents visited and we went to La Jolla for the weekend. That Monday afternoon when I spoke to my father, he informed me that “just like that” he had put down a deposit on an apartment “near the tennis courts” and he was retiring, and they were moving to San Diego.
He survived one of the earlier heart transplants to take daily walks and play bridge in his beloved La Jolla until his death about six years later. My mother would say lovingly that “he is retired, but I’m not,” when he returned from the bridge club where other widows clamored for his company and attention.
As I write this I am tearing up because besides all of this, my father was incredibly kind and very affectionate and I can still remember driving into La Jolla. He would pretend to just be out for a walk, but we both knew he was out waiting for me, and when he saw my car he would raise his walking stick into the air with glee.
We would sit for hours talking about everything and anything (even women, believe it or not) and he was the wisest and most intelligent man I ever met. He was also my best friend and I miss him every day.
Today the scale of his life, the wisdom he accumulated, and the depth of his achievements and love, are known to me in a way I could have never imagined.
I suppose we will be reunited in due course.
Copyright © Tom Bunzel/2013 Singular Communications, LLC.