Alex’s Stories

Alex was born in Graz Austria, in May 1935.  He had quite a difficult childhood. His parents weren’t married and his father was a soldier who died in the war.  His mother couldn’t keep him, so he grew up mostly in orphanages and apprentice homes.  He lived for short periods with his grandparents, but then went back to the institutions.   Alex had told me, his children and his grandchildren these stories quite often, and in fact, sometimes his granddaughters would ask for him to tell a particular story again.

1.He told about living with his grandparents one Christmas time when he was quite young, and he set the Christmas tree on fire with a sparkler.  His grandfather grabbed the tree and took it out to the hallway where he put it out, but Alex was so afraid of being punished that he ran up to the attic and out onto the roof.   So that was one memorable Christmas.

2. In another story from his childhood, when he was living in one of the apprentice homes, he had a good friend who he’s kept in touch with all his life.  Alex was out in the streets surrounding the home on his bicycle, and he saw a huge rat — Alex said it was actually the size of a cat.  These rats earned a bounty of 5 schillings, so Alex caught it and brought it inside, where he wrapped it up in a cloth and put it in his locker.  Later on, he wanted to show his friend this wonderful huge rat that he’d caught, and he opened his locker and the rat was alive.  It was scratching at the door trying to get out and they both yelled.

3. When he was a little bit older, around age 10, he was back living with his grandparents in the city of Graz.  By that time food was becoming scarce, so his grandparents sent Alex out alone on his bike into the surrounding countryside with pots and pans and kitchen utensils to trade for food, mostly for milk.  So there he was all alone, and often by later in the afternoon it was getting dark, so he carried a little lantern on a spike while he rode his bike.  It was quite a common thing during the war —  it was called “hamstern” – to collect things from the household and go out to the farmers and trade for food.

4. This next story is very dark, and it seems to have been Alex’s most traumatic memory.  At the very end of the war, the school that he was at had been relocated, and he was sent away to another school in Upper Austria, to be away from the bombing in Graz — it was May 1945, and Alex had just turned 10.  Within days, the war ended and he wanted to get back to Graz.  So he ran away from the school and hitched rides wherever he could – mostly on Russian army wagons that were coming through to Graz.  He stole food wherever he could find it, gardens or whatever.  He slept in barns and haystacks.  And he saw some terrible things.  He saw a German soldier who had committed suicide, with a bottle of wine between his knees.  He heard women’s screams in the night.  It took him several days of walking and hitching rides, but he made it back to Graz.

5. Another story that he’s often told was when he was about 14.  He was an apprentice to a seed handler in Graz. He was supposed to be learning how to run a business, and how to identify seeds.  But he mostly remembers being sent as a laborer out into the fields, digging, planting and harvesting the seeds.  So the apprentice training was not all it could have been, let’s put it that way.  I think he felt taken advantage of.  I don’t think it paid anything at all.

6. At the age of 20, Alex felt that there wasn’t really any future for him in Austria, so he emigrated to Canada with his first wife. They came to Halifax on a ship, then to Toronto where they lived and worked for a few years. So there they were in a strange country having to learn English.  They didn’t know it at all as they hadn’t taken it in school.  So he and his wife decided when they arrived that they would stop speaking German, even at home.  They would not read German books or newspapers, or listen to anything except English.  A few years later, they decided to move to Vancouver.  So they drove across Canada in their car with all their possessions.  He tells the story of driving around the Great Lakes and pulling into a campground to cook a meal and stay the night.  He thought he must have happened upon a convention of beekeepers, as everyone was covered in hats and veils and full-length clothes.  He didn’t think too much of it, until he got out of the car and was attacked by mosquitoes.  He had to dash back to the car, and that was his first introduction to mosquitoes (and bug-suits).

7. When they got to Vancouver, he and his wife both found work quite quickly.  She was a seamstress and he was in the heating and ventilation industry.   They lived in a tent that they set up in a park in North Vancouver, with only sleeping bags and some clothes and a few possessions.  Each morning, they both left the tent to go to their jobs, and they came back each evening, and everything was still there.  Nothing was disturbed or stolen.  So they made their dinner and repeated it all again the next day.  A friend finally warned them in October that it was going to start raining pretty soon, and then it was going to get cold, so they better find someplace more suitable to live.  We would call it being homeless now, but he didn’t think of it that way — that was just where they were living.

8. So after the tent, they moved to a rooming house in Vancouver.  They had single small bedroom, with a bed and a hot plate for cooking.  The bathroom was shared among all the rooms on that floor.  The room was heated, but the vent for heating was in the wall rather than the floor, and it was shared with the neighboring room and controlled by a flap with a handle on each side.  So if you wanted heat, you would pull the flap to direct all the hot air into your room.  But then your neighbor probably wasn’t too happy, so they would pull their handle, and flip the flap the other way.  So then all the heat went to their room.  It was a constant battle as to which room would be heated!

9. Since he was a young man, Alex worked in HVAC — heating, ventilation and air conditioning. When he started, he was an installer, which involved crawling into crawlspaces underneath houses that didn’t have basements, installing the ducts, and demolishing the old furnaces.   In many cases in Vancouver back then, they had what’s called a gravity furnace, which was a big kind of octopus-like monster of a metal furnace with 10 or 12-inch diameter pipes going up to the various rooms.  Those furnaces were often insulated with a paste of asbestos and tape wrapped around them.  So to dismantle them, you had to tear the tape and asbestos off and break up the metal.  Of course, there weren’t any masks, let alone the haz-mat suits they use now when working with asbestos.  Workers safety standards were a bit of a dream at that point.

10. In his late thirties, when he had paid off the mortgage on his first small home in Vancouver, he was able to buy a lot in North Vancouver and build a house, mostly by himself.  He got the walls up, and then went out to Mission, which is an hour or two drive from Vancouver, to pick up cedar shakes for the roof.   He loaded up enough of them for the house in his pickup truck, but it was so overloaded it was practically dragging on the roadbed.  He brought them back to his house carried them in 50 lb. bundles on one shoulder up the ladder to the roof.  He did his own roofing, carpentry, painting, and his own heating, of course.  He often marvels when he tells the story that he was able to do that while also working full-time.  He’s always been a very hard worker.

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