by Walter Trkla
[Author's note: I wrote this off the cuff, a response to Martin Murie's article, "Yugoslav Glimpses," which a friend forwarded to me. I had tears in my eyes as I wrote some of the things and I am not a teary kind of fellow -- and I am not even sure why I wrote it. I always wanted to write a short story about the Helmet since it left a burning impression in my mind.]
(Swans - April 24, 2006) I cannot remember being unhappy as a child living in Yugoslavia. Every time I remember "Fern Hill" by Dylan Thomas, which I almost know by heart, I visualize the idyllic village life of my childhood. It is interesting how a child's mind works since my childhood was far from idyllic.
My earliest memories are of our house burning, not flames but intense heat of hot coals from where the terrace stood. I remember hiding in a clump of trees in the field below our farm home as a single plane, which I now know was a stuka, dove screaming at the town some three kilometers away. I also remember seeing skins of dead porcupines and soldiers speaking words that I could not understand. Later on I was told that Italians were there as well as the Germans and they ate porcupine. I remember a soldier whose language I did not understand giving me a hard biscuit with a slice of hard marmalade that I can still taste.
Chetniks, and later Partisans, came, and at that time I did not know the difference. The whole valley was divided between the two political sides. Our few houses were mostly Chetnik and when the Partisans came I remember a soldier sat me on his knee and asked me to sing a song that I sang as I walked to show how grave I was. The song was about an uncle who was a Chetnik, and as I sang (Ja sam Vule mali borac; Djoka Trklje dobrovoljac) he laughed loudly and encouraged me with bread and cheese to sing again -- the song, or the only phrase that I remember now. I am Vule the small warrior: George Trkla's volunteer.
When the war was over my father never came back, nor did the fathers of most children in our village. That did not matter since I was only four years old and I did not remember him since he was seldom home in those four years.
I do remember finding spent cartridges everywhere, hidden pistols and parts of rifles, unexploded large shells that I and other children would place on a fire and then we would hide behind a rock wall until the shells exploded. I remember my older brother building a rifle from spare parts and firing tracer bullets into the night. I remember my brother, with other children from the village gathered around him, throwing grenades at Canadian geese that had landed on the fields below our home. I remember our relatives telling us that a child was killed by playing with a grenade or so and so lost an eye or a hand when a shell exploded in their hands.
I remember someone cutting off my hair and dusting DDT powder all over me in order to kill lice. I remember eating acorns and stinging nettle mixed with thin gruel from flour sent to us in sacks marked UNRA. My mother made me a shirt from an UNRA sack. We all ate the gruel from the same dish. When I went to Canada I made a mental note to buy a dish for everyone; however, years later when I came back for a visit everyone had their own dish, which I did not purchase.
We were subsistence farmers and used horses to thresh grain. One of my aunts would hold two horses as she made them run in a circle, first in one direction and then in the other. I guess even horses get dizzy like I did watching them. The thing that I remember the most about this is the German helmet with a small hole in it in my aunt's hand. She used the helmet to catch horse dung. As the horses circled threshing stocks of grain, the horse would defecate and she did not want the dung mixed with the grain so she caught it in the helmet.
Many years later, when I came back from Canada, I asked my aunt about that helmet. She said it was by the barn, no longer used because they did not thresh grain anymore -- they bought the flour in the store. As a child growing up in Canada, and later as a teacher, I never forgot that helmet with a hole in it. I told this story to my history students every time we studied WWII. What pride that helmet must have represented, what sadness did it see? Where was its owner, did his family ever find out? Was he a young man from a farm in some corner of Germany? To this day when I think of war I think of that helmet. All helmets should be used for catching horse dung and those who plan wars should be the dung catchers.
My uncle came from Canada and adopted me. I left Yugoslavia in 1952 when I was ten years old. The songs I sang at that time were about Tito. Druze Tito Ljubicice bela tebe voli omladina cela -- "Friend Tito the white violet; you are loved by all the youth." I grew up in Canada with a new mother and father and did not return until 1962.
I returned for a visit and remember seeing my mother emerge from a mountain cabin -- a woman in her late forties running towards me. She was in the summer pasture in the mountains looking after shepherds where I found her. It was strange being hugged by this woman who was in tears and would not let go of me. It took a few days to get to know my birth mother all over again. She talked of her agony of giving me up, asked questions about my life: was she wrong?, did she do the right thing?, were never-ending questions.
Later on I was to make many visits back to Yugoslavia. I got to love the country all over again, all of it. Martin Murie writes about Split, Dubrovnik, Mostar, Slavonski Brod, Beograd, and Zagreb, all places that he went to, I saw as well. I took my wife to share with her the hospitality that he experienced and even more.
My wife, a young woman born in British Columbia to Croatian parents, was at first shocked by the difference, since in her mind Yugoslavia was a land where people were dressed in national costume, sang songs like Mladi Kapetane -- the Young Captain -- and danced the kolo. Within a week, as she met the people of the country, her disappointment disappeared and she was eating lamb, soups, tomato salad, and wonderful bread that she hated in Kamloops as a child. In two months of traveling to every part of the country, visiting her relatives in Croatia and mine in Montenegro, Serbia, and Bosnia & Herzegovina, she went from 95 lbs to 105. Everywhere we went it was a picnic with lamb, prosciutto, wine -- beer and shlivovitsa were never out of reach. No one asked us "are you a Serb or a Croat?" It was wonderful.
I wanted to take my daughters to experience my memories. The NATO bombs destroyed that dream. I hate Clinton, Blair, Chirac, Schroeder, Chrétien and the other so-called "leaders" for the destruction of that dream and of that wonderful country. It's leaders like these that should be the dung collectors of the world, and young men should never be asked to wear a military helmet again.
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