Hermann and Gretchen were married in 1904. After a luxurious honeymoon in Mexico visiting with papa’s former business associates, they bought a house at 315 Adams Street, on the fringes of the prosperous German neighborhood not far from the house mother had grown up in.1 This was my place of birth, and was home for each of us children until we successively left for college and the pursuit of our careers, and mother’s home until she sold it in 1962. Papa had died in 1938. Built in the 1880s, it fit the mold of the German American community, a broad front porch with a gingerbread banister, behind which were floor-to-ceiling windows, true brick construction in the front part, Germanic, substantial, but not fancy or, for that matter, not really adequate for a family of five. Its best feature was a lot 110` x 120` that extended to the street behind, which was back alley to us but not to the residents there. The well-heeled newlyweds furnished it with a heavy “mission style” dining room set, an 8-piece bird’s eye maple bedroom set, glass-fronted bookshelves with Das Grosse Brockhaus, the collected works of Shakespeare along with modern books in the parlor we always called the library. There was bric-a-brac from Germany that included miniature busts of literary figures and, in the dining room, some oils on wood painted by a Mexican artist. The front part had a kind of Germanic Victorian (shouldn’t it be called Bismarckian?) elegance that deteriorated as one moved to the back. When I was a boy the Mission-style sideboard contained the remnants of the refinement with which it had once been filled, such as fine German hand-painted fish plates and platters, and the matching glass Schrank that held elegant tinted long-stemmed Bohemian (Czechoslovakian) wine glasses and gold-inlaid liquor glasses and carafe.
These artifacts speak of middle-class opulence with a German accent that was long gone by the time I was a sentient member of the ménage. They bespeak entertaining the families of the old L.U.C. crowd and new business associates. There was a gardener-butler of English descent who probably also doubled as syce. Old Balderson was the hero of one of my mother’s stories; one that amused us as children but now tells me as much about mother as it does about papa. One day she came home to find a big pile of dirt right in front of the front door. Mother called him and said something that would now be rendered as “What the hell goes here?” to which he replied, “Well, ma’am, the master will find something to complain about when he comes home and he might as well be done with it right away.”
This prosperous life was interrupted by the death at birth of their first child in 1906. They went on what was always referred to as a second honeymoon, which netted more grainy fading pictures of Mexican scenes and friends in the family album. The boy had been named Hans, as in Hansel and Gretel and my sister, Dorothea, after Hermann and Dorothea (though always called Thea), born in1908, bespeaking both their Germanic and their literary slant. Arthur, who had the nickname, Buntz1, the etymology of which is unknown, was born in 1910, just as a disaster befell. A large shipment of coffee from Mexico that had been signed off on in error was waylaid by insurgents during the Diaz uprising in that year and the loss was devastating. This was followed with another tragedy, coincident with my birth in 1913, the fire of an uninsured lumber mill in Louisiana; a loss that apparently was the final blow to papa’s San Antonio business venture, for soon afterward they rented out the house and moved to Fredericksburg, where we remained until 1918. I never heard papa mention these matters once, having learned them only from mother. She once told me how the loss in Mexico happened. As it was in revolutionary times, I thought it just one of those things that happen, but it seems that she had signed off on the bill of lading herself, and she assured me most insistently that papa had insisted that she do that. I can’t entirely rid myself of the feeling that “methinks the lady doth protest too much.” We will never know and inasmuch as I now find that this loss was, to me, a blessing, however well it was disguised, there are no recriminations in my heart.
The response to the second disaster was a move to the little town of Fredericksburg, a community that had been settled in the ‘fifties, I think by peasants, lying some 80 miles west of San Antonio, a distance that was a full day’s trip even then because of the terrain and the roads, though now it is an hour’s drive. Fredericksburg is a story in itself, a cultural enclave that seems to have been taken from Europe peasant by peasant, like Hearst castles were taken brick by brick. Though now but an hour’s drive and a tourist attraction, it was then a remote village of German peasantry, a full day’s travel from San Antonio, in which most businesses as well as the schools, were conducted in German. Whether this move had been made, as my brother says, for papa’s health (Fredericksburg is in the cooler “hill country”) or because he needed work, or both, I don’t know. He went as a wholesaler of grocery supplies, a kind of internal importer, I presume, and moved into an old stone mansion that could have been the set for The Addams Family. I arrived as a child in arms and left at five and have few memories of life there, but it served as a rich source of family stories. The tone of these memories is one of pleasant bemusement at the local peasantry, I think it was a relatively happy time for them, who, being more urbane and more educated than the natives, took on leadership roles from the outset. There was the story of papa’s Solomonic solution of a troublesome local issue. There were two moieties in Fredericksburg, die Oberstadt and die Unterstadt, each with its own public services, including the very essential water wagon to wet down the broad, dusty main street. The town square with the post office was neutral territory and neither moiety would operate its water wagon on it (to universal discomfort). Papa, the neutral, supplied the solution: alternating days.
But the favorite story gave us a quote from Lena, mother’s peasant Dienstmẩdchen, who replied to mother’s asking if she had had a good time at the party, saying: “Ach ja, Ich war die shaenste und die shmartzte und konnt auch die beste tanze” (I was the prettiest and the smartest and could also dance the best). Forever after, when any of us came home feeling satisfied with some social or academic performance, we would quote Lena. Then there was Buntz’s brag that he spoke three languages, English, German and “Katolisch,” referring to the local Bauerndeutsch. The subliminal message is one of class superiority without disdain for the less educated. Mother, the only woman with a college degree having children in school, was immediately elected president of the PTA, and initiated an institution that remains today. Fredericksburg was known to world travelers since early in the 19th century for having the best food anywhere in the Texas culinary desert. Mother established a project for the school girls to record the recipes of their German peasant mothers. It was not an easy task, as the women never considered measured amounts, but used handfuls, pinches, bunches and the like so the girls had to stop them to measure the amount. They took to the task and the Fredericksburg Cookbook was born. Mother was honored at the 50th anniversary, when a new edition was published, along with a facsimile of the original. It is now something for the tourists to buy.
I don’t know why we left Fredericksburg. We had moved out of the big house some time before, perhaps as an economy measure or because an earlier effort to move had aborted. I don’t think mother and papa were unhappy there for they reminisced about Fredericksburg with pleasure and visited there frequently. Perhaps they saw no future for them there. Earlier plans to move back had been frustrated because papa was an “enemy alien,” never having finished his citizenship application, and this forbade them from living within a mile of the arsenal. A re-measurement at 315 determined that the bedroom was beyond the one-mile line and the refusal was rescinded. A tale of misplaced wartime fanaticism. The anti-German propaganda during the war was atrocious, as I could see when I leafed through the scrapbook my father had masochistically made, and Tex says in his oral history that he had nightmares over the fear of the knock on the door. I did not have such memories.
All of what has been said so far is background – my cultural heritage. Those first five years of my life in Fredericksburg are really as mythical to me as my great grandmother’s vilification of the “blackbirds” or my grandfather’s Horatio Alger beginning. I have very little memory of Fredericksburg, just fleeting scenes cut into my mind: when I found the dog our neighbor had poisoned; the hot afternoon we chased after a plane people thought was coming down, the nightmare that drove me into my parents’ bedroom and a vague scene or two at the Charles Addams house. That is why I have included this section with my ancestral beginnings rather than with the life that I knew after we got back to San Antonio.