So long ago now that the memory itself has gone sepia , I used a miniature "Spy Camera" from the Johnson Smith Novelty catalog to take this picture of the young John Irving just as we were about to set off on our very strange trout fishing expedition to Waidhoffen an der Ybbs: that river of forgetting.
Twenty years later, the photo appeared in a Time magazine cover story on Irving at mid- career:
"Wrestling Fate into Fable" didn't say anything at all about our trip to Waidhofen , about the fishy business of the Forellen Brudern or about our experiences on the haunted Ybbs.
And it won't likely ever be ....at least not by me. Way back then my interests were narrow and few, so I was mostly unaware of what went on around me. And anyway....you never know the big story when you're right in the eye of it.
What I mostly knew then was Trout. Forelle , in German.
Before going abroad, I barely knew Austria from Australia, but I knew the Austrian Alps were home waters for the Brown Trout. This is not supposed to be a fish story, but to me then, trout were what it was all about..... Salmo Trutta, the European Brown was the god fish.....and the surface of the water, where the trout met the fly, was the place where desire met truth and beauty. Naturally, that meeting at the water didn't always go well. At Waidhofen, it almost went too far.
The Fish Fang Brothers
Along with the Spy camera and a little Remington typewriter, I had brought from the U.S. a Perine aluminum box of home-tied dry flies and my Pfleuger Medalist fly reel holding a hundred feet of Cortland 333 double-tapered floating line. I planned to buy an Austrian fly rod in Vienna and ask the tackle dealer where I should go to find some hallowed trout water.
John had only recently bought the Jawa and he wanted to take it on a test road- trip before he toured Europe with it that summer. He knew New Hampshire Brook Trourt, and had read Big Two Hearted River, but on this trip, he was only going to drive and watch. One afternoon we rode to a shop on a back street between the inner and outer Ring Strassen: The Brudern Forellen, Fish Fang Geselshaft, " Fish Fang" meaning " fish catching........rather than fish tooth.
A painted wooden trout with high forehead like a whale's hung from the Brudern Forellen shop sign.
The shop itself wasn't too much wider than the door. Hardly room to test wag a fly rod in there.
A few tubular rod cases, hung from chamois-horn racks ; reels under glass, beside a few meershaum pipes.
I don't know if the pipes were for sale or just belonged to the man with a overhanging moustache and braid-trimmed sporting jacket who stood by the counter.
He didn't seem to even glance at us.........just picked up a pipe from the ash tray before him and made three sharp raps on the ashtray....like on a door.
At which the twin of his moustash parted the curtains from the back room ....and the other brother stepped in.
Without the exaggerated mustaches, I am not sure whether or not they would have appeared to be twins or even brothers.
"Heil Peter", said one or both of them, to each other or to us, I don't know , but I knew that "Heil Peter" refers to the fisherman saint, and is the traditional Austrian greeting when one fisherman encounters another.
"Guten Tag Gruss Gott." I spoke for us. My German wasn't exactly a clear, flowing stream, but my accent was good enough that I was often mistaken for a borderline Hungarian who understood German much better than I really did.
I was able to explain, clearly enough, I THOUGHT, that I had come to buy a fly rod and to get their recommendation of a place to lease a leg of trout stream, Leg, ( literally beim in German) being, I thought, the equivalent of our " beat" in trout fishing terms.....rather than "shlag", which is the literal translation of beat, but which I knew means whipped cream in Austira, as in "cafe mit shlag obers". Although in other situations, "ober " means waiter.
The brothers checked their relfections in each other, then unaimiously recommended we go to Waidhoffen an Der Ybbs, which they assured us would be sehr rewarding.
Then we got down to choosing a rod. At that time, the gulf of Tonkin, where the bamboo with the best resilience for use in building fly rods grows....really it is really was the only acceptable bamboo for that purpose.... but was the Communists had it and weren't letting it out.
There wasn't all that much of a choice on the racks......but the brothers were well connected, and I'm sure now now that if they had really thought that I was really there about fishing, rather then for something extremely ullterior to fishing.... they could have brought out a decent, pre-war rod ...... something hiding behind the curtain there....... rather than selling me the limpest fly rod I would ever own.
The Towering Dead
The Post -War, divided occupation of Vienna had formally ended. The Stephans Dom cathedral roof had been repaired, and most of the other visible inner city war damage had already been taken care of, but outside the Rng Strassen were ocassional blocks of unreconstructed rubble.
I particularly remember a block not far from the WestBahnoff, where must have been a very large building - now was a perfect pyramid of rubble. Near the top of the pyramid, a small plane was crumpled and partly embedded: . I never knew wether it had crashed there during the war, or more recently. Maybe no one had noticed it and the pilot was still in the cock-pit : a monument in my mind .
The real public and over the top baroque monument to the dead is the Pestaule ( Plague Column): a marble tower of humanity striving toward a gilded heavens , memoralizing the Plague dead at the Graben platz in the olf city center. I once wrote a story in which John Irving,....in a series quick wrestling moves, during a night of drinking, climbed half way up that pillar of striving bodies, but that was totally made up by me....... would have surely broken a few marble ears or arms if he tried it,...... and I am sorry for any legal problems my little joke may have caused.
So on the night John didn't climb the Pestuaule in a sleep-wrestling trance - a few days before he and I left for Waidhoffen - some of us were in Marco Walshock's room on a totten end street, not too many Pesttaule lengths from the Graben.
Sitting or standing around the stove, cognac in our tea and a smudge of Austrian national brand cigarette smoke in the air..... we were bored.
In hopes of making things more interesting, somebody had been eating morning glory seeds for two days , but with none of the intended results....whatever they were.
Somebody else suggested we try the hyperventilation thing ... you know, where you bend over and breathe way too much and too fast for a few minutes, then stand up and hold your breath while someone wraps around your chest from behind and squeezes ..........until you pass out, maybe not, maybe have a near death experience, a go into a dream. Maybe hit your head on the stove,
I can't remember how it went for me. Maybe I'm one who hit his head on the stove.
I do remember that it was Eric who gave John the big squeeze and eased him to the floor....but John didn't stay down for even a second....he flopped a couple of times and came up quick .........said something that sounded like "French Fries", but could have been Fish Fang.... or pretty much anything... then he went for the door.
By the time we asked where he was going.... the door had already closed behind him.
A half hour or forty five minutes later, John came back.
He had cut across his eye-brow and his upper lip was swollen stiff.. l
Hard to understand him talking from just the lower part of his face, he seemed to be saying he had been set upon by a bunch of people who had stolen his leg........and he insisted that we had to go back with him to wherever and deal with these guys.
Four of us went along with him. We didn't find the guys who had jumped him....and,+
were glad we didn't........ we split up, went home, to each his own, and I didn't hear anything more about that night until after our trip to Waidhofen.
The Ybbs Spell
I used to remember that John's Jawa had a side-car I rode in ....... but when I mentioned it a few years ago, he pointed out that, had there actually had been a side-car, you would be able to see the third wheel in the picture here.
O.K. then: with me on the rear saddle, my sling-bag and rod case over my shoulder,..... the two of us in those G.I. surplus field-Jackets..... we invaded Neider Ostereich,....and buzzed up the Ybbs Tal, winding toward Waidhoffen an der Ybbs: river under a spell.
Rural Austria hadn't suffered a lot of war damage ......at least we saw no rubble or ruins. All was kempt.
Invisible hands had picked up all the sticks from under the trees; where the grass was now being cropped t by red deer. Old men with brush scythes moved in slow arcs along the road-side ditches.
The village of Waidhoffen then was much smaller than it appears to be during a current Google Earth fly- over. A town square, a few Onion Domes, a small castle Inn. We checked into the castle and slept in a stone chamber beside the chyrglngk Ybbs, river without vowels.
Late the next morning we followed directions given us by the Fish Fang Brudern... to the home of the fellow they called the Mayor or maybe it was the Major, from whom we were to pick up the Fish Fang permit .
The man who opened the mayor's door had a moustache so like the tackle shop moustaches that I didn't know whether he was one of the two brothers, or a third man related only by moustache.
"Nur Ein Rod?" The major scowled and gave us a map showing my stretch of the river that day....from a bridge right in the center of town, to the Inn a dozen bends upstream.
Looking straight down on the stream from the bridge, we could see two grayling up against the bank, and several trout rising out in the main drift.
In any normal town there would be kids under the bridge after the trout with worms and snatch hooks, but the Ybbs valley was under a spell which made the river invisible to people who lived near it..
We Auslanders walked down to the riverside..
I rigged up with a Light Hendrickson dry fly and, flipping line off my reel m walked right inrto the water up to my knees....no hip boots or waders . I didn't even use hip boots back in the U. S. But back my home streams back in the U.S were not fifty percent glacial melt water either.
Around a few bends....and aftrer an hour or three - I had no idea in my tunnel of concentrtion - . I was well over my knees in a long slow run, occasionally bringing in and releasing a nine or ten inch brown . From shore, with the spy camera, John photographed me casting. The poor resolution and my distance from the camera make it so you can't tell whether I was standing in a river casting or kneeling on a road, tyring to wave down a ride.
One of his shots shows me with a small, silvery trout, which you can't tell is actually a foreign invasive Ameirican , Rainbow Trout: , a much flashier, more impulsive kind of trout, which Ernest Hemmingway introduced into to most every mountain range he visited.
And the last of of John's pictures shows me in the Ybbs, nearly up to my boneless parts . One pointedly concentrated on....really located in the looping, floating fly....and entirely numb in the legs as I was....you could just about have amputated one of them without me noticing.
I vaguely remember the mayor, if that is what he was, as he passed us on the other side of the stream.
Maybe I remember John calling from behind me.
He says he finally got my attention by catching my backcast and holding on until I came around and reeled in.
We slogged across a meadow to the Inn beside the road , and sat at a table in the afternoon sun.
We probably ordered coffee and something to eat. I needed soup. John has said we gave them some trout they cooked up and served to us. What that is, is a fish story. I think that would be very nice, but i didn't even have a creel and would not have been bringing fish back the castle for the night.
What l I remember is the shivers and shudders . We walked back to the castle. I changed into dry clothes and wrapped up in one of those foot thick down dovets and didn't come out until it was time to eat again.
Next day, we decided to go back to Vienna by means of an upstream route, cutting over to the Danube. I suppose we thought it would be faster.
A half an hour out we asked directions of some guys fishing at a bridge. They pointed toward the pass, but invited us to climb off and go at the stream, because the owner was gone and would be away for three days. We soldiered on and up.
Before topping the pass or shortly after, we drove through a village....I didn't notice the name of it....but most of the people, (or at least a good percentage of those walking along the road, were either blind or were leading the blind.
The Third Leg
Das Detuches Weinhaus had more stories below ground than it did above : cellars below basements, below kellers,...... dug through time, and lined with the stones of old city walls. Eric, John, and I went there regularly for Friday night dinner.
One Friday after our Waidhofen trip, we finished our shnitzels on the street level of the Weinhaus, and then went down to drink beer in the first cellar.
We sat a few benches away from a lone man in a green felt hat, talking quietly to his plate and mug.
Eric... after a couple of chugs from his mug..... popped back up and went off to the water closet. We were both of us Frequent Shitters, ever since that meal aboard the Orient Express.
He was gone for longer than it usually took.....but Eric seldom went anywhere at all, without taking a side- trip.
When John and I had about finished the pitcher of beer, Eric showed up, face flushed and nostrils flaring. . He had gone all the way to the last basement, he said....and down theree saw a bus- boy sitting in the corner and YANKING HIS WANGER ! Loudly, he said it. I wasn't too drunk to look around embarassed,,,,,,,,,
as the man in the green hat straigtened up and yelled at me, STOP LOOKING AT MEINE MUTTER. Of course we all looked at him then, and he yelled more.
We didn't want to look at his mother anyway, so we got up and John said that since Eric couldn't even go to the bathroom without ending up in the fucking sewer... he himself would go get the pitcher filled.....but we went with him...... and then we took it down to the third level..
Somewhere during that or the next pitcher, over clanging student voices John wondered loudly if I remembered the Vilage of the Blind we drove through, on our way home from Waidhofen? And of course I did.
Did I remember that one bunch of blinden being led by a one-legged man? THE FUCKING HALT LEADING THE FUCKING BLIND?
No, I didn't remember that..
.......and I then I myself wondered out loud ..... what was that he had been mumbling that night at Marco's...... about some guys STEALING HIS LEG ? And by the way, what made him jump of and run off like that after he had passed out.
He didn't remember then what he had been mumbling, and the first thing he could recall from that night....he was out on the street............ with the image of the the Forellen Brudern shop sign with its wooden fish, dangling in his mind. ..... and no thought but to go there. Like a dog at a bone..
When he arrived, the shop lights were on but the door was locked.
Standing there he wondered at last what he was doing...and looked back toward the street. Then he noticed the hairline crack outlining a door on the back of the fish, and finger hole by which he was able to open it..
A large door key hung on the inside of the door itself.
Of course he took the key and used it.
He went past the counters under the chamaois horn racks and though the curtian to the back. Lights on there too. In a closet he found two wooden legs, both of them of barrel stave construction, and each with a small door on the inside thigh, He opened both. One had wads of newspaper between bricks of something wrapped in wax paper and the other had newspaper balls and sasusages.
But then he heard the front door opening. And there was no back door. Crouching over one of the legs, peeking through the curtains, he saw that it was one of the brothers, and that he was going to come right through to the back.....so John waited until the last moment, and, head down so he would not be recognized, burst low through the curtains, leg under one arm, stiff-arming the brother with the other as he reached for the leg.
And he was out of there.... not that he had planned to steal the leg,
He ran down a few streets and made a few turns until he had pretty well lost himself, then stepped in to a bier haus , and sat a rear table tryiing to hide the leg between his own
Two drunks at the bar had had noticed when he came humping in trying to hide the leg.
After another round, they came back and demanded to see his third leg...." Only meine Frau mienem third leg sehen kan" he says he said..
The drunks were not amused and they had already convinced themselves that he had stolen the leg off a poor organ grinder. One tried to wrestle it away from him, so John let him have it while he threw that guy on his back, but then another guy was on him and while John dealt with him, the first guy ran off with the leg,,,, then some more guys came off the bar...... so that's when he got out of there ......and made his way back to Marco's .
John didn't know which leg he had taken from the shop.....the one with the sausage, or the one with bricks of something wrapped in wax paper, and tied with string. At the time, he thought the bricks were hashish, but it seems more likely that they were cheese, being at that end of the smuggling operation...... because that is what we had stumbled onto here.
In those days the pitying indulgence granted to they amputee war victims who still limped the streets, made customs easy for those with artificial limbs. We had seen sausages changing hands, if not being pulled from out of hollowlegs, when we rode the Orient Express through the Soviet countries. Those places were so poor then, that I bet there was more money to be made selling the ssusage on board the train than by distributing the hashish they brought back from Istambul.
But that was the soft end of that sinister operation.
The Halt, the Blind, and the Hungry
One Winter night, several years ago and a few hours after we had pulled apart a rack of lamb in the dining grotto of the Irving cave/ dome home in the White Mountains of northern New Hampshire....... we were once again discussing old Vienna and the Waidhofen of trailing memory, when John insisted that "Blindendorf" as we were calling it, was actually the real name of that village of the blind we rode through...... because he said he had seen the name on an actual road sign.
Well, I didn't remember THAT. I thought "Bliindendorf" was just anorther dorfish name we were CALLING the place.
Then he showed me a letter from a woman who reported that her mother and she had very much had enjoyed his every book. The envelope was postmarked "Blindendorf".
Now that he is translated into forty three languages and reads i to stadium crowds, Mr Irving is no longer available to write blurbs for friends or to sign books at his readings..... but he had actually wrirtten back to the woman of Blindendorf, thanking her for the kind attention ,........and asking by the way....... why DID they call it Blindendorf ?
There'd been no response.
So he suggested I write to her. I could assure here that he was the real John Irving .
I wrote to the Woman of Blindendoft , explained our history with the place and asked, by the way.....why DID they call it Blindendorf.
There was no response from Blindendorf.
Later that winter, I did what I should have done long before: I googled Blindendorf.
And I got THREE Blindendorfs!
it wasn't clear to me which Blindendof was ours, because II didn't recall exactly or generally where in Austria Waidhofen was anyway...... so then I 'Googled Waidhoffen an der Ybbs".
Before I even made it to a map, I landed in the middle of G.I. World War II diary, posted by a Vet who had been at the head of the push to Waidhoffen.
Waidhofen , he tells us, was the furthest East of the Alied penetration into Austria.... which I suppose is because that was the Nazi army's furthest retreat. I am supposing the officers were billited in the castle where we ourselves had stayed.
On the last day's march, as this brigade neared Waidhofen, they discovered a concentration camp , locked and abandoned by the Nazis.. When the G.I.s openened the gates, says the Vet, the still standing prisoners who did not fall at the soldeirs feet for ration packets, dragged across the road and began eating the bark off the trees. Others began straggling along the road to Waidhofen.
In the camp the G.I.s found sheds full of bodies, stacked like firew wood, rotting at the bottom, barely alive at the top.
The diary nearly breaks under the strain of trying to describe the evil smell.
After getting back on the road to Waidhofen, the G.I.s passed individuals they had recently freed struggling alone or in small groups beside the road,...and some dead on the shoulder.
That was enough to get past, that I didn't actually get around to googling Blindendorf again until three days later,
And THEN, there weren't three Blindendorfs, but ONLY ONE Blindendorf.... AND it was nowhere near Waidhoffen. I did find two or three BlindenMarkts....... but the nearest was a hundred miles away.
So is this winking , Blinkendorf thing a clue..... or an upland red herring? Whoever knows can please tell me...... but we had stumbled into the world of Black Medicine. By the early 1960's when we were there, the one-legged veterans were beginning to die off,d pitiful few new amputees could be found to fill the ranks of smugglers......... and there were plenty of desperate men who had nothing more than two good legs and a passport to make them a living.
With my misconstrued German expression "a leg " on the Ybbs, I had inadvertently spoken code words linked to their , gratuitous amputation station an der Ybbs... whether just outside Waidhofen, or in some portable Blindenorf
It is chillingly clear that if John had not hauled me out of the Ybbs that day when I had been standing numbed in the river... if I had instead followed the "Mayor" up the Ybbs ........ I would have been on my way to a hollow leg, and a whole other career. I owe John an arm and a leg for that.
But the one thing that still bothers me is, what did the brothers do with all the amputated legs? Sausage? Whenever I think of the whole thing, my legs shiver and sting, like ghost limbs in distant waters.....if you can have ghost limbs when you still have the real ones.