When my grandpa returned from the war he brought two things with him. Both were mentioned several times a week and both had to do with potatoes: the Ritterkreuz and an open rifle wound on his back. »As big as a potato!« he said and formed an imaginary fruit with his gout-crippled fingers which was about the size of a decorative pumpkin. »From Ivan« he would mumble.
»He had such big potatoes?« I would argue.
»No, they had even less than we did.«
»But the potatoes from the market are much smaller.«
»Well, those are new spring potatoes.«
»Will you show me the potato wound?«
But that request was never granted, not even when in 1983, I put it on my wish list to Santa Claus. Normally, grandpa grants me every wish. »No, that is not for you, but the old potato medal you can have! Back then everybody got one if they only got one of them ...!« »One of whom?« »Oh, nothing, here take this and go and play.«
Then he handed me that cold piece of metal on a colourful ribbon and suggested I could hang it on my lunch box. Today I think Maya The Bee would have had fun with this Nazi decoration but back then grandma knew how to prevent the worst. »Hermannchen, Herrmannchen« she would say at any critical junction in her wonderful Königsberg dialect, »I will fix you something to eat. Come along, child, you can help me peel potatoes, and leave the medal with grandpa. The Bee was not even in the war. Tomorrow you can play with it again.«
At my grandparents house there were regular meetings of war invalids, usually attended by three or four men and an old dog. If I kept really quiet, I was allowed to play with the medal and the dog under the table and listen to their stories and »count legs«, as grandma called it. »Let's see if you come up with more than seven,« she said as she left to go to the beauty parlor like she always did whenever these meetings took place.
»Where is Ivan?« I once asked but there was silence for a very long time. The smoke from the Handelsgold cigars got thicker and Mr. Katelmann touched his sock and fastened the safety pin that held up his empty trouser leg. »He looks at the radishes from below« said grandpa, acting stern, and reshuffled the cards. »And now get out and take the dog with you, then I'll tell you another veggie story tomorrow.«
Those he usually told after supper when grandma was busy washing up. As reference point for his war memories he always used some kind of food items. Maybe because he had always wanted to be a cook, or maybe because at the front, vegetables with their meals was a rarity. He spoke of potato noses, of figs and cabbage and beanstalks, of cauliflower ears, raw meat and little sausages, munition the size of peppercorns, pinching wounds and gulash-kanons. While listening to all that one would wonder if the war took place in the weekly market.
Contrary to grandma, I especially loved to listen to the story about Schmittfranz. »It was Good Friday when we removed boils from his backside. With a pocket knife yet; three of them; as big as chicken eggs; at minus 15 degrees.« At that time I had no idea what boils were but that a man should have three blinking chicken eggs in his bum, that I thought was extremely funny. »You are so uncouth, Herrmannchen!«, grandma shook her head; »put that on my tombstone,« he answered in a friendly manner – and died two years later.
»At least your brand of humour would be excusable with this« said my friend Bert when I told him about grandpa, grandma and Maya The Bee. Bert is 32 and my new grandpa because he has an inoperable brain tumour the size of a lemon. »That is more than I had expected in your pea brain«, I thought was a fitting reaction to his citrus comparison when he told me about the latest visit to his doctor. »This is a good match to your orange skin« he countered, and we ordered the third Mojito for the evening.
Only a year ago his tumour was the »size of a ping pong ball«, as his physician in his first diagnosis pictured. »Have you ever noticed that tumours are classified as either ping pong balls or lemons? Why don't they classify a small tumour as walnut sized? Would it not be more logical to stay with edible categories? The few cubic millimeters smaller or larger would not make much difference« I speculated with the conviction of a drunk 28 year old.
»The image of carrying a walnut in your cortex I find much more appealing than having a small white plastic ball in the brain. But what other comparison sizes are to be found in all that psycho babble?« After some deliberation we hit on the theory that S-tumours, though recognizable, have not been named with an edible comparison. Probably no physician wanted to look at the x-ray, point at a little speck and say something like »right here, next to your blood-brain-barrier, Mrs. Fischer, that's where you have a tiny little tumour, about the size of a pitless grape/ currant/raisin.«
Understandable, it just doesn't sound too sovereign.
Bert's explanation for the reason we never hear about anyone with XL tumours is as follows: »Everything that is larger than your average lemon and is stuck in your head, inadvertently leads to the final exit!«
»With such arguments you don't win a war, soldier. We don't know anyone with something larger than a lemon in his head, because anything larger is totally absurd! I will prove it to you. We will now make the definitive tumour test!«
Waitress A, on being told that Bert had a tumour as big as a grapefruit, managed a laconic »ya ya, so what«. Waitress B, confronted with the lemon story, brought us a round of Mojitos ‘on the house'. »See, a grapefruit is just not being taken seriously! It would be too absurd to have anything larger than a lemon in your head, you fruitcake! I drink to your damned lemon; I drink to Maya The Bee; sour is supposed to make you happy! After the shift change we should try it with celery.«
»And what happens if it gets even larger?« he asked with the strength of old carrot greens, »Then you are the only human being with a Russian potato in the head. Satisfied, Ivan?« whispered the Ph value of 2 in me. To Bert's final statement »you are ridiculous« I could only give a friendly nod before I fell asleep under the table.
Please read the sequel to this column:
»In Lieu Of Cards...«.