Saturday, January 15, 2011

A Spell on der Ybbs


                                            Holy Trout

       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.

                 With  another twenty years and several  twisted rivers  behind us now,  the whole   story   still hasn't been  told. 
         And it won't likely ever be 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 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  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, 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 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 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 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 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.


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