August 4, 2013

Sieg Heil, Mein Vater's Land

I don’t think I’ve ever written a Sunday blog post before. I’ve been describing the Schappi Grand Tour of Europe chronologically, but with a one-week time lag.

I’m posting in real time today (Sunday) from my room in the Edelweiss Hotel in Mürren . . . because it’s a special occasion. Two generations of Schappis arrived in Switzerland yesterday at the airport in Zurich, where my father was born 120 years ago (i.e.in Zurich, not the airport).
The Swiss Schappis
I’m John Schappi III (at least). My grandfather worked in Switzerland’s textile industry and – around 1890 -- decided to see if he could improve his lot by getting a job in Patterson, NJ, then a thriving textile town. Once established, he encouraged the rest of the family to follow. My grandmother decided to remain in Switzerland. But my father, then six, came to America with an uncle.

In the United States, my grandfather married a Swiss woman, whom I knew as my grandmother (I suspect my grandfather never officially divorced my father’s mother). I remember during my early childhood that my father exchanged letters with his mother back in Switzerland. My grandfather prospered in Patterson. I remember visiting him there several times and staying at his large house ("large" at least compared to the half-house we rented in Ithaca, NY).

My grandfather and “grandmother” had one or two sons of their own and I think my father was given less support than his step brother (or step brothers). Dad went to Cooper Union in NYC, which has a long history as one of the rare colleges to grant full scholarships to every admitted student. Unfortunately, this year it announced that -- due to financial problems -- it would have to discontinue this practice for incoming freshmen.

I’m embarrassed to admit how little I know (or remember) of my family history. I’m not even sure my father graduated from Cooper Union. In any event, he was a draftsman and tool designer. My mother and father met and married in NYC. The oldest of their three children, I was born in May 1929 in Hudson, NY, where my dad had found a job. The Wall Street crash in October 1929 resulted in dad’s being unemployed for at least six months.

We bounced around for a few years between NYC and Philadelphia, but we ended up in Ithaca when I was about four years old. We stayed there. Dad started with an Ithaca-based company that made and rented equipment to clean railroad tracks. But he soon got a job with the Morse Chain Company, a division of Borg-Warner. A factory perched on top of Ithaca’s South Hill, it was one of Ithaca’s largest employers,.

[Interesting sidebar: Googling “Morse Chain Company” just now, I find that its plant, no longer active, has been the subject of major environmental impact studies which have found evidence of serious contamination affecting homes on lower South Hill. We lived in a rented half-house on lower South Hill. The owner of the house lived in the other half. The son of the owner was about my age and a good friend. Today, we both have Parkinson’s. Industrial chemical pollutants head most lists of probable causes of Parkinson’s. I’ll pursue the topic when I get home. But now, I just want to enjoy this Shangri-La.]

In that regard, I’m going to stop this narrative on the Swiss Schappis for now and just briefly touch upon:

The Schappis Return to Switzerland in 2013
As we neared Interlaken and the turnoff for our cablecar ride to Mürren, we had a flat tire. The rental car’s lug wrench didn’t work. The owner’s manual in the glove compartment was in German. It was 7pm on a Saturday night. Local garages no doubt were closed. The Eurocar rental office’s "help line" put us on hold forever. We tried flagging down passing motorists for help. A car stopped.

Two wonderful Swiss women, one from Zurich and the other from Bern, were returning from a rock concert down the road. They spent half an hour with us, trying various phone numbers and exploring other options. Finally, thanks to their translation of the owner’s manual, the flat tire got replaced with the spare, and we were on our way . . . after hugs all around.

Maybe we could still make it to Mürren in time for supper. We plugged Mürren into our GPS. As we climbed the mountain, we enjoyed the spectacular views. But the road was getting narrower and narrower. At one point, we went through a long one-lane tunnel with only a few pull-off points. Finally we came to an intersection that had directional signs, but the one to Mürren pointed toward an even smaller “road.” We also noticed that the Mürren sign included the image of a bike rider. Hmmm.

We called our hotel in Mürren for suggestions. The person who answered told u, while laughing, that if we proceeded any further on this route toward Mürren, the police might arrest us. The road we were traveling was for emergency vehicles only, and the two places with cable or funicular access to Mürren were back down at the bottom of the valley.

When we finally returned to the valley, we found the first stop was shut down for the evening. Fortunately, we got to the other station, took one of the last cable cars to Mürren, and arrived at our hotel after 11pm. The man who checked us in offered bread and fruit to sustain us until breakfast.

This morning, I got up around 4am for my bathroom visit and meditation. I went out on my balcony and saw no lights except the stars and the new moon. I was moved to tears. I sat on the balcony for the next two hours and watched as dawn slowly lifted the curtain to reveal the stunning views from our temporary mountain home:




It was a bitter sweet moment. I kept thinking of how sad it was that my father never got a chance ti return to Switzerland  And I also thought how the extraordinary kindness and good humor we were shown by the two Swiss ladies last night were traits my father shared.



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