Grandpa’s delusions create memories

Bob Huber: Local Columnist

Before the days of retirement homes, my grandfather Opa lived with us a few years as part of an autumn quest in his life. He wanted to spend his remaining days with his five far-flung sons, one at a time. It was German tradition, he said.

I didn’t mind, but my mother, who was neither German nor weak in the knees, didn’t like it. She told my father, “He complains about my cooking, and he calls me Greta. Who in blazes was Greta?”

My father shrugged, because there was no answer short of big trouble. He knew Opa had slipped off the edge, but at the same time pleading innocent to Mom never panned out.

Opa’s main annoyance was his paranoia. He was convinced that uniformed German troops would someday break down the door and bootleg him back to the Fatherland to serve out his conscription in the navy. He had deserted in 1892 and rowed a stolen boat across the Rhine to come to America.

He spent the next 40 years hiding on a hard scrabble Nebraska farm, always muttering, “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean those swine aren’t out to get me.”

When he came to live with us, he showed up unannounced one day with only a cane and a small carpet bag. World War II was at its peak. One of my projects for the war effort was keeping a diligent eye on German prisoners of war held at a nearby Army camp. I was 12 years old.

But Opa was oblivious to the war. He came down to breakfast one morning and told my mother, “Greta, I’m taking Willie wild boar hunting today. We need fresh meat on the table.”

Naturally, that aggravated my mother. Her name was Essie, not Greta, and when Opa called me Willie, she knew he was into another irritating time warp. I didn’t mind being called Willie — Opa pronounced it “Veelee” — but Mom always pointed at me and said, “He’s not your brother. Willie died in 1887 of the linden tree blight at Stutgart.”

Opa nodded. “Yes, yes, that is true, but now is before that.”
So Opa and I left the house and climbed a nearby barren slope, a hobbling old man with a huge mustache accompanied by his genius-class grandson, searching for wild boar on the barren foothills of the Rockies. Our safari took us near the prisoner of war camp where large green tents cooked in the sun, and a tall wire fence blocked our path.

“What is this place?” Opa asked.

I said, “That’s where they keep the German prisoners, Opa.”
“God in heaven!” Opa cried. “Those Prussian swine have prisons everywhere! We must make escape plans. It isn’t boar season anyway.”

There was no talking Opa out of his latest delusion and, that night, when I heard his boots thump down the back stairs, I crept to my window and watched him hobble away in the darkness. I shrugged and went back to bed. When Opa was in one of his moods, I left him alone.

Early the next day two green trucks filled with Army troops came to our house. “What is it, Ralph?” my mother said, clutching at me and my sister, Gazelda the Fifth Columnist. Gazelda had spotted the soldiers and was busy fussing with her hair.

I won’t go into detail except to say that a guard at the POW camp spotted Opa cutting a hole in the fence during the night and identified him as a man with a German accent who lived in our house. Opa yelled in German for the prisoners to come out and get in his boat, and he would row them across the Rhine to America. No one did.

After my father explained Opa’s condition to the Army and offered to repair the fence, the troops left. Opa, who had slept through the confusion, took that moment to come into the kitchen and announce, “Good morning, Greta. Willie and I are going wild boar hunting today.”

Mom threw up her hands and yelled, “Haven’t you done enough? I’m not Greta, the closest boar is an ocean away, and he’s not Willie!”

Opa glanced at me and smiled. “Of course he isn’t, Essie. Everyone knows Willie died of linden tree blight at Stutgart in 1887.”