Papa. My grandfather.
He was full-on German. And by full-on, I mean full-fucking-ON.
Born and bred Prussian aristocracy: a real Von from Berlin. I’m not bragging, it just is what it is, and very relevant to who he was. Unless you’ve been pinned under the gaze of a man who’s had that kind of upbringing, you can’t really understand what all comes with that.
He was fearsome. The most terrifying eyes I’ve ever beheld. A thunderstorm controlled and housed in the frame of man. Always correct, especially when he was horrifyingly wrong. Absolute in his will.
In his world there was a crushing system of cruelty and trauma, so-called discipline, applied to children. To create men: the psychotics of the ruling class that were to wield privilege and power for the state. This is how the Europeans dominated, and the Prussian system was their template.
At the age of sixteen, Papa had gone to war to fight for Germany in World War Two. Captured by Americans, he spent a few years in a POW camp in England. He said the camp wasn’t as bad as I might have heard (the fake Nazis in today’s lockups have nothing on the real ones that were in those camps); since he was Luftwaffe and a Von, the hero fighter-pilot aristocrats took him under their wing.
When he was released, he returned to Germany to find his family dead and their properties clamped down behind what would later become the iron curtain. Nothing left. Riches to rags. A while later, he met and knocked up my grandmother, moved in with her family (also displaced persons, DPs, from what is now Poland), and sold newspapers and radios he built from scratch to get the money to move to Canada with his (then) three kids.
Luckily for me, Canada and age had mellowed him by the time I came around as his eldest grandchild, because I spent a lot of time with him when I was little. I really worshiped him. My parents were typical hippy types with very few consistent boundaries, and he quickly became the authoritarian in my life that I looked to for stability.
In so many ways, I am as he made me.
I miss him very much. I loved him deeply. He taught me chess and how to communicate with silence.
Later, I would hear about how he used to be from my mother and aunts. About the terrible, regular beatings he would lay out as a matter of principle. But he was forbidden from laying a hand on my sister and me, upon my mother’s threat of his being banished from our lives, and he never did. His voice, however, that vehicle of his displeasure, was all he ever needed to reign me in.
There was no fucking around with this man. Even so, he loved us deeply and taught us what he could. He was a giant in my formative years.
Now, as I just mentioned, I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ “farm:” a small cattle ranch in northern Alberta. There were always a lot of relatives there too. My grandparents had five kids and both of my grandmother’s surviving sisters followed her to Edmonton. I was the eldest grandkid, so as I aged there were always cousins underfoot, like noisy, mobile pylons.
There were two uncles, Nick and Dave, both in the family by marriage (although at that time, I suppose, they were just boyfriends), who dominated my early life at the farm. One in a good sense, and another not so much. Both were macho, 70s, hairy, manly men, and very physical.
Uncle Nick was, and is, one of my favorite uncles. He was around a lot, dating my youngest aunt who was probably about eighteen when all this happened. Some of my earliest memories are of great fun with Uncle Nick on the big sofa in my grandmother’s living room. He’d read to me and also do that snuggle-wrestling that toddlers and young kids love so well. He was great at it too; a big bear of a man who was both strong and gentle.
He did, however, discover that I am insanely ticklish. He never pushed it too far, but he did throw a good tickle into his repertoire. As I got older, there was less snuggling and cuddling, and more serious wrestling. That was a lot of fun, but he never failed to give me a good tickle as the finish to a pin. I didn’t like that part of it, to be honest, but it also wasn’t too bad. Definitely worth suffering through as a price for the wrestling.
Then there was Uncle Dave. He was different. He started dating one of my mom’s cousins, and was more of a toxic masculinity type. I was about four or five years old at this point, and I guess he observed how ticklish I was during one of my wrastles with Uncle Nick. This seems to have piqued a predatory impulse in Uncle Dave.
Uncle Dave was never around so much, but when he was, he would track me down and forcibly tickle me to that point where I would want to die. For way too long. It was sadistic and horrible. There was never any pretense of fun as a lead in to it either. It was always just a straight up, dominating physical assault right from the second he got his hands on me.
The big problem with Uncle Dave’s tickling was that it ruined the fun time I would have with Uncle Nick. Now there was trauma connected to tickling. After Dave’s treatment, when Nick tickled me, gentle as he was, I went straight back into the same place where I wanted to die.
It was now intolerable.
So I bit Uncle Nick.
I remember pretty clearly that I felt safe with Nick, and made the conscious choice to practice biting as a defense I thought might work against Uncle Dave. I figured out pretty quick that there was no way to stop me curling up into a ball around some part of a leg to get my face into position to attack.
I don’t think I bit Nick hard, but he got the message. He looked a bit wounded, but he stopped tickling me after that and didn’t hold it against me. He’s a good man.
The next time Uncle Dave came to the farm, I was ready. I didn’t avoid him like I had been before (he always cornered me anyway): I sat down on the living room tickle sofa and waited for him. I don’t remember exactly what I was thinking, but I was fiercely determined that this was going to be the last day he tickled me without paying a price for it.
Sure enough, Dave zeroed right in on me and got to work. His big, strong hands pinned me down as his fingers drilled into my armpits and ribs. I didn’t hesitate either. I turned into him and turtled; sliding my chest and head down his leg until I reached his calf. Then I got a good hold around his leg and bit his calf as hard as I could, for as long as I could.
I don’t think I actually bit him for long, since he yelled really loudly and wrenched his leg free of me. If I recall correctly, my teeth rather hurt from his flesh getting yanked out from between them. I don’t know if he was bleeding, but he probably was. Reared on good, tough, German sourdough bread, I was. Strong jaw.
I look up at Uncle Dave and he is white with rage, his fist clenched and raised up. I don’t think I even had time to get afraid before Papa, my grandfather, was in the room. He had been at the dining room table in the adjacent room, doing his paperwork.
“Vas is zis?” he asked in his normal, quiet, terrifying way.
“Your grandson bit me!” yelled uncle Dave.
Papa gave this a measured think, with his usual inscrutable expression.
“Did he?” Papa finally said, turning his gaze to me.
I met his gaze, thinking the equivalent of, “well, fuck it, at least it was worth it.” But there was just the slightest twinkle in Papa’s eye that let me know everything was going to be okay. And something new, that hadn’t ever been there before. Respect.
Papa turned his gaze back to “Uncle” Dave, and I’m sure there was no twinkle there for him. Probably something closer to what Bob Dylan referred to as, “steel-eyed death.”
“And vat were you doing ven he bit you?” Papa asked.
This earned another thoughtful, pregnant pause. This time with a slow nod of judgment at its finish. The Patriarch had reached his decision.
“Vell, if he bites you ven you tickle him, maybe you shouldn’t tickle him.”
Dave did not like that one bit, there was no doubting that. But he only met Papa’s eye for a second before he deflated and got the fuck out of there (while he still had the legs to carry him).
Papa just gave me another quiet look, this time with a friendly little nod, and went back to his seat at the head of the table to return to his paperwork. He had not said another word.
Now that I think about it, I do believe that shortly after that he started teaching me the game of chess.
In thinking about this whole exchange now, as a father myself, I wonder at my grandfather’s approach. He was always right there. He saw everything. And he never stopped it.
As a child in that position of being victimized, it never occurred to me that some adult might be looking out for me. That someone would come to my aid. I just assumed that to be victimized in that way was my role. Because, clearly, it was.
That is, until I figured out a way to protect myself.
Then, and only then, my grandfather extended his protection. I was never beneath his notice; he had simply made the decision not to intervene.
So what was his lesson to me?
You’re on your own. When it comes right down to it, you can only rely on yourself. And if you’re going to let someone treat you this way, then that is how you are going to be treated. But, when you figure out the right lever to protect yourself; when you’ve finally had enough and make that proverbial prison shank; at that point I’ll have your back.
Maybe it wasn’t a good lesson, in certain senses of the word. But it was definitely an important one.
Oh, yeah, and Dave never tickled me again either.
Rest in peace, Papa.