Wolf Alexander Erich Albert Ferdinand Freiherr von Lersner
Who would name their baby all of that!?
… a given name
… FOUR middle names
… a rank (Freiherr – Free Lord, or Baron: a nobleman free to own land,
in an age when not everybody was)
… a nobiliary particle (“von,” that denotes belonging to an old and noble clan)
… and a family name: Lersner, or maker of hip boots (once the family trade, before Dad’s great great … many more greats … grandfather was elevated to noble status,
back in the 16th century,
for exemplary contributions to the governance of his village):
eight names that would never fit onto a standard form,
lined up on a birth certificate
like a queue of empty train cars at the start of a journey,
signaling high expectation.
What kind of people give their newborn son a 17-syllable name?
Wolf’s parents were gifted and ambitious aristocrats, both.
His father, Karl Alexander,
skilled in fencing,
was also sufficiently accomplished as an equestrian
to land a spot as an alternate
on the 1936 Olympic team.
He was a rising young officer in the German military
(before he was killed by a sniper
as he led his company into Russia on skis).
Karl’s final gift to his family
was advice –
whispered to his young wife Ilse
(who, unbeknownst to either of them,
was soon to be the widowed mother of three
that packed up home and family
and braved an ocean journey
to seek haven in Argentina
while the Vaterland
pulled itself together again).
Her husband’s parting words:
“I don’t know what Adolf Hitler is up to,
but I don’t trust him,
and neither should you.”
Of course the little fellow needed eight names to fill their shoes.
On the other hand, one has to wonder:
what sort of child could shoulder the burden
of such aspiration
without buckling a bit at the knees?
Wolf Alexander Erich Albert Ferdinand Freiherr von Lersner
came into the world in Kassel, Germany,
on August 3rd, of 1927 –
his hard-driving parents’ firstborn child.
Clever, witty, and affable,
impatient for adventure,
everybody’s friend (but with a mind all his own)
Wolf had a gift for engineering
departures from the commonplace –
yet his exploits were utterly innocent.
The lion heart that thumped inside his chest
was unfailingly generous of spirit
and reverent toward life.
He never wished anyone harm.
When, as a preschooler,
he gleefully performed the epic feat
of throwing playroom furniture
from the window of their 4th floor Berlin flat –
he meant no harm.
He was simply treating his two young siblings
to the marvels of exploding wood and paint
orchestrated from a safe distance above.
A few years later, he meant no harm
when Irresistible Intrigue (his lifelong Muse)
called him to follow, on foot,
a train that rumbled ominous thru Berlin
loaded with military hardware,
cloaked in canvas,
strapped to flatbed cars,
and backed onto a railway siding
concealed in a copse on the edge of town.
Invited by his father
to greet a group of brandy-sipping officers
confabulating in the drawing room that night,
the loquacious lad had only good intentions
when he corrected – in graphic detail –
(and much to their astonishment)
his dad’s accounts
of complex weapon loading drills
he had observed
while crouched amid the underbrush that day.
No less rascally
at school than at home,
Wolf was routinely condemned
(as a consequence of classroom antics)
to fill a copybook
with irregular English verbs,
conjugated to their most arcane grammatical forms.
He despised both the English language
and the stern schoolmaster
who made him learn it.
Besides – when would he ever need to use English anyway?
As an adolescent, the plucky young man
was conscripted (along with his peers)
into full-fledged military service.
Young Wolf was manning anti-aircraft weapons
at an age when most of us were (quite literally)
plumbing the basics of biology.
(In a bizarre pretense
The State sent teachers to the field –
Wednesday: Latin, Thursday: Math –
so the boys could
fight for their homeland
without losing any learning.
Little did they anticipate
that for the young men behind the weapons
war would be the sternest schoolmaster of all.)
Wolf soon found himself engaged in battle
as part of the ragtag company
of previously retired veterans,
and wet-behind-the-ears boys
that were famously called to defend
the tactically crucial Bridge at Remagen
in a vain, late war effort to hold off the Americans.
Overwhelmed and forced to surrender,
the German survivors
were taken to work camps in France
as prisoners of war.
In one of his life’s many ironies,
our gregarious virtuoso of the English verb
was singled out to serve
in the plum role of translator
between the American captors and their captives.
The feisty fellow who would eat pretty much anything
(if it didn’t walk away from him first)
developed a lifelong disgust for peanut butter and canned pineapples
(because that was all they got to eat …
when they got to eat).
And he never stopped having
that recurring nightmare
about the prison camp rats
that scrabbled beneath his head in the night
to steal bread that he’d saved for later
under the wad of straw that was his pillow
on the wooden shelf that was his bed.
He learned to drive when he was ordered
to get behind the steering apparatus
of a giant harbor crane,
and deliver it by road to Paris.
How did he live up to his 8 names?
This guy escaped from POW camp
twice – before he was twenty
(the second attempt more successful than the first).
He walked home to Germany from France –
first running only after dark,
and timing his crouched dashes
between cultivated fields
to avoid the sweep of searchlights
that revealed his buddy’s location
and left him traveling alone.
He encountered a farmhouse
– nobody home! –
sneaked in, and tore a map of France
from a child’s textbook,
so he could get his bearings.
Swapped his POW togs
for a farmer’s coveralls
and a cotton shirt.
Hitched a ride on a northbound train,
and climbed out on a catwalk
to pose as a mechanic
while the conductor came ’round
to punch tickets.
He swam across the Rhine
holding his stolen civvies overhead to keep them dry,
and, though tempted, decided against eating slugs,
preferring one more risky raid of a farmer’s food stores.
Back at home, he completed
his high school finishing exams
and apprenticed with Daimler Benz.
But when a wheelbarrow full of cash
wouldn’t buy a loaf of bread,
there was no living to be made.
His mother made the choice:
the family set sail to seek a new life.
Setting out from
a German transplant community
in Buenos Aires,
Wolf pursued his talents and his (mostly) innocent pleasures.
Genteel and good looking, good humored and with many a tale to tell,
he was the life of every gathering
and often pulled on his accordion
to furnish soundtracks for the fun.
He was a master of inclusion:
always the gallant fellow who’d bid
the introvert at the fringes
to join him in the middle of the dance floor
because “me too” meant something different for this guy.
He reached the twilight of his twenties,
(a frivolous pursuit, he thought, if ever there was one)
and plying a trade in tool design
before he finally met his match:
the beautiful, intelligent, talented, playful, and gutsy
young German woman, Martha Mueller,
whom he was asked to entertain
while she visited his neighbors in B.A.
Entertain her, he did … and the delight was mutual.
She returned to her home in Brazil as planned,
but the flame had been lit.
They corresponded feverishly,
the only way one could, back then:
through long, handwritten letters, posted daily.
When he visited Porto Alegre
to meet her folks and ask her
if she’d deign to be his wife,
she responded with a squeeze of the hand
that became their lifelong emblem of connection.
Who could have guessed
that silent covenant,
which soon evolved into a squeezed morse code
“Ich liebe dich” ( • – • • ) (Di Dah Di Dit)
would launch a 61 year love affair
and hold them to each other’s side
through all rejoicing and every reversal of fortune
for over three score years from then?
When time came for them to wed
Wolf generously supplied the date
(his birthday, so he’d never risk forgetting),
and the bridesmaids
(his friends, because Mom’s were 1000 miles north, in Brazil).
Arriving in a new world on a freight ship, empty handed –
to find work, make a home, start a family, build a life:
these were minor obstacles for our heroic pair.
But dinner party small talk was another matter.
Being afficionados of language, art, music, and cuisine,
historically literate, politically informed, and socially aware,
they were never at a loss for words.
It was the conversation starter:
“So where did you go to school?”
that forever tripped them up.
Two of the most broadly, thoroughly, and authentically educated people I know
struggled all their lives
to formulate a simple, honest, and unapologetic response.
“I went to the School of Life”
“I’m an autodidact” … arrogant.
But this conundrum
is the heavy mantle
worn by those who sail into open seas
to navigate authentic lives
as pioneers and precursors
for those of us who sail more gingerly
along the reassuring coastlines –
ever loath to turn our keels
to the unknown.
For much of their life in the US,
a degree from the School of Life
was looked upon
as less than what people of their gifts
could have aspired to.
(Though one has to admit,
they’ve been vindicated of late:
Today the only people more esteemed
than graduates of elite universities
are those who matriculate at elite universities,
and then drop out
because they glimpse
the rich and satisfying education
that lies beyond the halls
of academies that mass produce scholars.)
Make no mistake:
Wolf was no enemy of mass production.
In fact, he was a wizard
at conceiving, designing, and mechanizing
food production at scale.
(You can thank him for the itty bitty grill burns
on the dime-sized burgers
in your Chunky Sirloin Burger Soup.)
He didn’t mind producing
mini frankfurters with mustard cores,
or meatballs by the millions.
It’s just that he never took to
the batch processing of humans.
Without formal certification from any accredited institution
he made his way as a mechanical engineer
for the Campbell’s Soup Company in Camden, NJ
and wrapped up 30 years of employment there
as Director of ER&D,
with more than a dozen patents to his name,
and leading a team of
machinists, scientists, and designers
in dreaming up
clever ways to feed the world.
Methodical and self-disciplined,
his workshop was a well-lit, high functioning man-cave –
always diversely supplied
and meticulously stocked –
a floor-to-ceiling repository of specialized tools and materials
on shelves and hooks, in jars and boxes,
all classified by form and function
and each item clearly identified.
It didn’t matter if we were
dyeing Easter eggs or digging a drainage ditch:
he deemed no job complete until
the tools were restored to prime condition
and returned to their homes on the shelf.
And even though
he tended to be the partner on the receiving end
of the accolades (for intelligence, creativity, and wherewithal),
it was the woman beside him
who always made sure
he could made it look easy.
Truth be told: until he retired,
his prodigious talents
seemed to go mysteriously limp
at the homestead door.
There was little evidence that he knew
where to find the blender, the broom,
the baking powder, the band-aids or the bed sheets –
and even less reason to believe
that he knew what to do with them
if ever he found them.
(Though to be fair, legend has it
that when his young bride
was laid up with a stomach bug,
he once lovingly crafted and
earnestly brought to her bedside
his designed-on-the-spot remedy.
Who would deny the curative value
of buttered rye toast
bedecked with sliced apples and sharp cheddar cheese,
and garnished with dark chocolate shavings?)
Few are aware that, after they retired to Florida,
Wolf found himself a conscript once again –
this time, to Martha’s boot camp
at Village on the Green.
There, he learned to set and clear the table,
pour his own cereal, cut his own fruit,
load the dishwasher, empty the dryer, and fold his own socks.
He sometimes even carried serving dishes to the dining room
instead of browsing the New York Times
until the dinner bell rang.
I know for sure he would agree, though,
that he was a vastly improved version of himself
for the way Mom challenged him
to recognize humble heroics
in mindful rendering
of the prosaic patterns
of the every day.
And who can believe
how his astonishing life came full circle
when he learned that his Orlando neighbor, Ken,
had been a young man fighting for the Allies
in the selfsame Rhine bridge battle
that turned them both from boys to men
a lifetime ago?
Wolf and Ken were both bad shots, they like to say,
(which one has to suspect
was not so much a failure of skill
as a failure of will)
but it’s surely why they lived to tell about it.
… and when Ken came to pay respects
just a week before Dad took his leave,
the two old soldiers looked at each other
and the departing man quietly uttered
one of his last complete sentences
as well as
what may have been the message of his life:
“I guess we weren’t enemies after all.”
In his last marvelous act of engineering,
he designed a deathbed scene
so improbably joyous
that no one would have dared to script it.
He wouldn’t take leave of his body
until he felt assured
that we were all properly prepared.
For five days
after he stopped taking food or water,
he toiled to lead us through
approximately 90 stages of grief.
His giant heart refused to rest
until his loved ones – each and every one –
to sing lullabyes, sweet hymns, and German children’s songs
to cheer him through his final passage.
After 90 years of galavanting around the globe, Wolf von Lersner – mischievous school boy, dutiful adolescent soldier, prisoner of war, cartoonist, humorist, musician, poet, pilot, ballroom dancer, epicure, sailor, storyteller, historian, tinkerer, inventor, designer and problem solver, adoring husband, steadfast father, tenderhearted Opa, awe-inspired great grandfather, lover of life – departed this earthly plane on March 20, 2018, leaving his great heart, high character, and lively spirit fully alive among us.
Every one the amiable engineer touched
is more inventive,
and more gracious today
for having had the good fortune
to be on this ride with him.
Thank you, Dad.