Shadows of the Past

Franz Hindler owned a shoe repair shop over on Dickens Avenue just behind Steger’s grocery store. An enclosed porch to the west of the shop completed the two-story building and looked down on a small yard carefully arranged into an enchanting flower garden. The remaining sides of the yard were bordered by a garage that opened onto the street, and two tall fences. The fence that faced the public sidewalk was made of heavy gauge interlaced strands of steel, allowing neighbors who passed the garden to admire its beauty.

Franz’s parents had immigrated to the United States in 1897 and opened the shoe repair shop in 1912, two years before the outbreak of the First World War. Franz was born shortly after their arrival, and when he turned twelve his father began teaching him the skills of a shoemaker. The shop went to Franz when his father died in 1936.

I met Franz in the late thirties when money was scarce, and I found it prudent to have my shoes repaired as many times as possible. Sometimes he replaced a sole, other times a heel, and always in a very workman like fashion. In addition, they were brightly polished when I picked them up and appeared as if new. As a shoemaker, Franz ranked high with me and with everyone else in the Sheffield neighborhood.

As a gardener, Franz’s wife, Heidi, ranked equally high. In every season her garden displayed a lavish array of beautiful flowers. Most prized were her exquisite roses. Almost every shade of the rainbow and more was represented. And many of them were the size of oranges when their petals unfolded. Also highly admired were her peonies. Everyone agreed the white and pink blossoms were remarkable, but people would actually stop and stare in awe at the glorious fuchsia ones. It was difficult to believe that flowers growing in an inner city garden could attain such a rich color. By the time the Second World War started, Heidi’s garden was a favored sight in Sheffield.

In addition to visiting with Franz when I had my shoes repaired, I saw him in the evening, from time to time, in Dimple’s Tavern over on Halsted Street. He went there, especially on warm summer nights, as I did, for a mug of cold beer straight from the tap. Franz said that was the best way to drink beer, and I fully agreed with him. But he never drank more than two. He had to get home before sunset and sprinkle Heidi’s flowers – never directly onto the plants but into the soil beneath. He also helped her fertilize the plants, remove spent ones, and dig holes for new ones. He insisted more than once he knew nothing about flowers. Heidi told him what to do and he did it. He did admit, however, he enjoyed sitting in the yard on a late Sunday afternoon, inhaling the fragrances of the flowers, occasionally chatting with passing neighbors and letting the night settle gently on a tired world.

I knew exactly what he meant. And when I passed his yard on the way home (I usually stayed in Dimple’s longer than he did) I only nodded so I wouldn’t disturb his serenity with aimless conversation. Seeing his faint smile out of the corner of my eye, I knew he appreciated my silence.

When Hitler declared war on the United States a few days after Pearl Harbor, the farthest thing from my mind was the traumatic effect it would have on Franz and Heidi. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I suppose I knew they were of German extraction, but I never really thought about it seriously. And at the time, I knew nothing about the harsh treatment many German Americans received when America entered World War I. I soon found out one evening when I saw Franz in Dimple’s.

He was sitting at the bar – I should say leaning on it – when I came in. Even from the front door, I could see he had consumed more beers than usual – six mugs it turned out. Now Franz was not a big man. I doubt he weighed 145 lbs. dripping wet, so six mugs was a lot of beer for a light drinker. My assessment was confirmed when I sat down next to him and said, “Hi Franz, how are things going?” No answer. His head didn’t even move. He just raised a shaky hand and swallowed a mouthful of beer from the mug he was holding.

Fortunately, it was a Wednesday night, and Willy was behind the bar. For a number of reasons, Willy and I went back a long way – longer than I care to recount. That being the case, I could talk to him – if you know what I mean – and he’d do just about anything I asked. Like cut off the beer to the guy sitting next to me.

Franz was so far gone, he didn’t notice a thing. He just kept lifting the empty glass in his hand to his mouth and acting like he was drinking. This went on for almost fifteen minutes. Then he placed his arms on the bar, put his head down and fell asleep. While Franz slept, Willy (between interruptions for him to wait on customers) bent my ear on his latest problems with his wife. For the umpteenth time she had threatened divorce. An hour later, when I couldn’t listen to any more of his ongoing saga, I woke Franz up, got him standing shakily on his feet and helped him stagger home.

Heidi was in tears when she opened the door. She wasn’t sure where Franz had gone when he left the shop, so she had just waited and worried. She said if she’d known he was with me, she wouldn’t have worried so much. I was more embarrassed than flattered by this remark. I tried to assure her I wasn’t the kind of guy she thought I was. But she insisted, and I let it go at that.

After we got Franz into bed, I couldn’t bring myself to leave without asking Heidi why Franz had suddenly decided to go on a drinking binge. It was so unlike him. For years it was two beers and he was out the door. What prompted the dramatic change?

Before she would tell me, she asked me to promise to keep what she was about to say a secret. I immediately promised. Hell, I didn’t have anyone I was close enough to tell secrets to anyway.

She said Franz was afraid. He was a teenager when America entered the war against Germany in 1917. Angry people who noticed his mother’s German accent had accosted her in the grocery store, and later the same week, both windows of the shop had been smashed by an angry mob. If the police hadn’t arrived as quickly as they did, they might have beaten Franz’s father and Franz too. Franz was seventeen at the time. He told Heidi how he had still dreamed about the experience. And sometimes, even now, he woke up with a start at the part when the windows were broken and his mother was screaming. In his recurring dream, Franz vividly saw the glass shattering and the stone hitting the floor of the shop. The dream always caused him to awake in a cold sweat that stayed with him for the rest of the day.

When I left later, I told Heidi I didn’t think any of that would happen during this war. People were different now. They might be rude or resentful, but they wouldn’t become violent. I spoke as sincerely as possible, and truly hoped she believed me. But in my heart of hearts, I wasn’t sure.

Fred E. Schwartz owned and operated Baybury Books in Ephraim. He has written four books of essays, including Seasons on the Peninsula, on Door County. Fred was the publisher of the Baybury Review for six years, and also wrote numerous reviews and columns for other publications in the area.