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What's In A Name

Thomas H. Cook

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  ALTMAN HAD NEVER SEEN New York dressed so gaily. Bunting hung from every window, and Broadway was decked out in various elaborations of red, white and blue. There’d been an enormous parade earlier in the day, and it had left a festive atmosphere in its wake, people laughing and talking and in a thousand different ways expressing the joy they felt at what this day—November 11, 1968, the 50th Anniversary of Armistice Day—had commemorated.

  Altman, himself, could hardly believe the day had actually come. Fifty years since the Great War had ended, and the unlikely predictions of a few cock-eyed optimists had proven true. It really had been “the war to end all wars.”

  As he walked toward the little bookstore where he was to give his talk, it struck him that he’d never have thought it possible that the world would remain at peace for five decades after that odious treaty his native Germany had been forced to sign in that humiliating little railway car near Compiegne on what had been fatefully recorded as “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918.

  At the time, Altman could not have imagined that this treaty, with its many dreadful provisions, would actually put an end to war in Europe. Nor had he been alone in his doubts. The great economist, John Maynard Keynes, no less, had predicted that a second world war would inevitably result from this sorry peace, one that had saddled Germany with an impossible burden of reparations. In fact, it had been the resulting inflation, with its consequent social chaos, that had urged Altman to leave Germany and come to America, abandon impoverished, defeated Berlin for bountiful, victorious New York. To leave that world behind had been his goal in coming to America, and now, on this splendid anniversary of fifty years of world peace, he felt certain that he’d truly escaped it.

  For that reason, it was with complete confidence that his life had been the result of his own wise decisions that Altman entered the bookstore where he was to speak, and after a few pleasantries to the audience, began his talk.

  He’d finished it only a few minutes later, exactly as planned, and just in time to conclude with his customary summation.

  “Therefore, despite the magisterial splendor of the language Thomas Carlyle employed in his great book, The Hero in History,” Altman said, “his theory that the course of history can be changed by a single human being simply isn’t true.” He felt quite satisfied with the thoroughly convincing argument he’d made against Carlyle. Not bad, he thought, for a man who was simply a rare book dealer who specialized in books and manuscripts in his native tongue, particularly those written just after the Great War, when Germany had seemed on the brink of economic and social collapse, a dangerously spinning maelstrom from which anything might have emerged.

  Even better, the attendance was greater than he’d expected given the 50th Anniversary Armistice Day parties that were no doubt planned for this particular evening. In light of those festivities, Altman had hardly expected anyone to show up for his talk, despite the fact that the History Bookstore catered to a well-educated audience.

  “Roman history would have followed the same course without Caesar,” Altman added now, “and France would have followed the same course without Napoleon.”

  He thought of his vast collection of books and manuscripts, a bibliophile’s dream, shelves and shelves of works from the most famous to the most obscure writers. How thoroughly he’d searched through them, not in order to disprove Carlyle, but to support his theory that a great man could change the world. But in the end he’d come to the opposite conclusion.

  “A nation may look for a hero who can restore its optimism and revitalize its faith in itself,” Altman said. “But history is made by great forces, not great men.” He smiled. “This is the conclusion to which I have come after many, many years of study.” He paused, then said, “Any questions?”

  There were a few, all of them intelligent, and Altman answered them graciously, and even with a bit of humor.

  “All right, well, thank you for coming,” Altman said after the last of them had been addressed.

  With that the members of his audience began to pick up their belongings.

  He’d expected them all to have trundled off into the evening by the time he’d returned his notes to his briefcase, but as he glanced up, he saw that one of them remained, an old man, quite pale, with white hair, who sat staring at him fixedly and a little quizzically.

  Perhaps, Altman thought, there’ll be one final question.

  He was right.

  “Mr. Altman,” the old man said. “It was very interesting, your talk.”

  The old man remained where Altman had first seen him, seated third chair from the aisle in the second row. He was dressed in dark blue trousers, with a shirt that was a lighter shade of blue. There was something disheveled about him, a sense of buttons in the wrong holes, of trouser legs with uneven cuffs, but it was the slight tremor Altman now noticed more than anything else about the poor fellow. It was in his head and in his hands, and it made him look quite frail, as if precariously holding on to life, like an autumn leaf.

  “I’m glad you found my remarks interesting,” Altman said.

  The old man smiled shyly. “I would like to have a great many books, as you do,” he said, “but I am on a pension.”

  “I understand,” Altman said, then made his way up the aisle, his mind on the chicken salad sandwich waiting for him at the diner on 83rd and Broadway, a treat he allowed himself despite his doctor’s warnings about mayonnaise.

  “Do you remember the Realschule? In Linz?”

  Altman stopped dead, astonished by the question. “The Realschule in Linz?”

  The old man struggled to his feet. “You were a student there before the Great War.”

  “Yes, I was,” Altman told him.

  He had not thought of the Realschule in a great many years. Why should he? He’d come to America a few years after the war, a journey funded by his wealthy Berlin parents despite their objections to his “go West young man” argument for leaving Germany and moving to the New World. It was a position Altman had found ridiculous in its patriotism, his father’s feeling that despite the horrible times being endured by Germany in the wake of the Great War, its “noble sons” should remain and rebuild the homeland.

  “I was there also,” the old man said in a voice that was little above a whisper. “At the Realschule.”

  “Really?” Altman said. “After the Great War, there can’t be many of us left now, can there?” He shook his head. “Such a slaughterer of young men, that war.”

  The old man nodded, and the wave of straight white hair that lay across his brow drooped slightly. “Slaughter,” he murmured, “yes.”

  There was something disturbing about this old man, and for that reason, Altman felt a curious urge to get away from him. In addition, that chicken salad sandwich was calling to him powerfully. And yet, he also felt called to engage this poor fellow a little longer. Evidently they’d been in school together, and clearly this unfortunate and apparently infirm old gentleman had not had an easy life, a fact that seemed to waft up from him, like an odor.

  “Did you like the Realschule?” Altman asked.

  The old man shook his head.

  “Why not?” Altman asked, since he’d loved his time at the Realschule, even fell in love there, this girl of his dreams now rising to his consciousness after so many years, blond, with radiant blue eyes, still a vision to him.

  “I was not treated well,” the old man said.

bsp; Altman could find no way to respond to this, and so merely stared silently at the luckless fellow whose conversation was still keeping him from his sandwich, this spectral figure, pale as a ghost, a phantom so frail he appeared insubstantial, his hat trembling in his oddly shaped fingers.

  “There was a bully,” the old man added.

  And indeed this unfortunate fellow did look like one of life’s perennial victims, bullied not just in the schoolyard, but no doubt forever after that, bullied on the factory floor, or in the lumberyard, bullied, as it were, by the stars above, always the one at the back of the line, the one who gets the cold soup, and even that, spilled upon him. What was the word those awful Polish Jews who’d worked in his father’s factory had had for such a creature? Ah, yes, Altman thought: schlemazel.

  “I’m sorry to hear it,” Altman said, “My own experience at the Realschule was quite pleasant.”

  “You were smart,” the old man said.

  Altman waved his hand as if to bat away such flattery despite the fact that he quite enjoyed being remembered in such a way. But then, he had been smart, hadn’t he? In fact, he still was.

  “I was not smart,” the old man said.

  And so even nature had proved a bully to this poor fellow, Altman thought, proved a bully by shortchanging him in the critical matter of intelligence. He’d been shortchanged in height as well, and from the look of him, the crumpled gray hat, the threadbare jacket, he’d never known success in any venture. What an unfortunate wretch, Altman thought, and for the first time in a long time, calculated his own good fortune, born into a wealthy family, able to pursue his intellectual interests without fear of want, a man now living contentedly among his many books and manuscripts. His life, he decided, had been good.

  “I did not distinguish myself in my studies,” the old man said. He smiled sadly. “I have never distinguished myself.” He shrugged. “Well, maybe a little during the Great War.”

  The old man’s brown eyes were somewhat milky and the whites were faintly yellow. This is not a well man, Altman told himself. Even in health, shortchanged.

  “Were you in the Great War, Ziggy?” the old man asked.


  Altman had not been called Ziggy since his school days in, yes, the Realschule in Linz. His father and all his relatives had called him Ziegfried then, but after coming to America, he’d switched first to Franz, then to Franklin, and it was by this name, Franklin Altman, that he’d been known ever since: Franklin Altman on his marriage license, on his business cards, on… everything. Ziegfried, and most certainly Ziggy, had, like so many things from his past, simply disappeared.

  “Yes, I was in the war,” Altman said proudly, despite the fact that he’d never actually seen combat. His superior intelligence had served him well in that department, too, so that he’d worked in Berlin throughout the conflict, a pampered member of the Intelligence Service who’d never so much as seen a trench or fired a rifle.

  “You fought on the side of the Fatherland, of course,” the old man said.

  What an odd remark, Altman thought. Of course he’d fought—well, at least in a matter of speaking—but certainly on the German side. He looked at the old man sternly, wondered if he’d just been insulted.

  “Of course on the side of the Fatherland,” Altman answered with only a slight hint of offence at the question.

  “I was wounded twice,” the old man said, “and gassed at Ypres.”

  Altman thought of the many dead, the dreadful way they’d died: shot to ribbons, blown to bits, buried alive in the muddy expanse of No Man’s Land. “In Flanders Field the poppies grow,” he recited by way of giving homage to these fallen comrades. “Between the crosses row on row.”

  It was obvious that this poor fellow had never heard this well-known verse, and yet he seemed deeply moved by it.

  “So many died,” he said. Then, after a pause, he added, “You were in the Intelligence Service.”

  “Yes, I was,” Altman said. “How did you know?”

  “There was a picture after the war,” the old man answered. “All of you got medals. You were in the picture. I remembered you from the Realschule. You were standing next to the Kaiser.”

  Altman vividly recalled that proud moment, all of the members of the Intelligence Service High Command on the steps of the Reichstag, proud even in defeat. It was the last time the old aristocracy had seemed intact, and he suddenly felt an unmistakable nostalgia for the ease and elegance of his former life, the great houses and the balls, a Germany not yet burdened with reparations or afflicted with runaway inflation, not yet the suffering object of French and British revenge.

  “We needed to believe in ourselves, we Germans,” the old man said in the melancholy way, as Altman observed, of the vanquished.

  “Indeed, we did,” Altman agreed, and suddenly felt a powerful kinship with this former countryman. As if urged toward him by the pull of their shared blood, he offered his hand. “So, we are old soldiers then, you and I.”

  The old man did not take the offered hand.

  “In Ypres we were trying to get behind the British lines,” he said. “It was a secret plan, through a tunnel. When we came out, we were supposed to be behind the lines.” He stopped suddenly, as if by machine gun fire. “But they were waiting there, the British.”

  “Waiting?” Altman asked hesitantly.

  “They knew we were coming,” the old man explained. “They shot at us on all sides.” His eyes grew tense. “They shot Max. Gerhardt, too. Good boys, those two. Bavarian farm boys.”

  Altman watched him with a sudden wariness, as if, step by step, he were being led down a dark corridor. “War is terrible,” he said after a moment.

  “Betrayal is terrible,” the old man said. “To be stabbed in the back by one of your own.”

  “One of your own?” Altman asked, now lowering his hand since it appeared the old man either had not seen him offer it or had declined the offer. “Why do you say that?”

  “Because someone in the Intelligence Service sent us into the tunnel,” the old man answered.

  “How do you know that?”

  “They were the only ones who knew about the mission,” the old man answered. “It was a secret to everyone but them.”

  “So you think one of my colleagues betrayed you,” Altman said tensely. “That is a terrible accusation.”

  “No one else knew,” the old man said. He shook his head and lowered his voice slightly. “Good Bavarian boys,” he said, almost to himself. “Poor boys.” His melancholy lay like a black veil across his face. “So much time has passed since those dark days,” he said.

  “And we have both grown old.” Altman said and again offered his hand. “Old comrades in arms.”

  This time, the old man took Altman’s hand and shook it weakly.

  “Fifty years now,” Altman added as he started to withdraw his hand from the old man’s grip. “Fifty years and…”

  “You went to England,” the old man interrupted, squeezing his fingers more tightly around Altman’s hand as he did so. “After the war.”

  Cautiously, Altman nodded. Why did talking to this poor fellow make him feel as if he were walking across a minefield? He was small and sick. What could he do to a man of Altman’s robust health and mountainous build? And yet, there was something fearsome about him, some dark energy. Inside this old man, he thought, there is a fiery core.

  “And you started to collect rare books,” the old man added as he finally released Altman’s hand.

  “Yes,” Altman said.

  The old man smiled. “You became a bibliophile. That is the word, yes? You were always good with words. Back at the Reaschule, you were always reading.”

  “Was I?”

  “English, always reading English,” the old man said. “You are also maybe an Anglophile?”

  Before Altman could answer, the old man laughed. “So many big words I have now.” He chuckled softly, though it seemed to Altman that it was less a laugh t
han a disguised rebuke.

  “At the Realschule, I was always good with speaking,” the old man said. “I wanted to be a debater, but the bully stopped me.”

  “Who was this bully?” Altman asked. “I don’t remember a bully. I never saw anyone physically attack a…”

  The old man stepped back slightly. “Oh, it was not physical,” he said. “It was all with words. You would understand this, since you are a bibliophile. You would understand the power of words, yes? You collect words, isn’t that so? You collect words in books.”

  “I do,” Altman said cautiously, as if he were being accused of having such an interest, one he’d never thought it necessary to defend. And yet this old man did make him feel defensive. Suddenly, he thought he knew why.

  “Am I the bully?” he asked. “Did I bully you in some way?”

  “No, never,” the old man said softly, then with a curious darkening of his tone. “I was invisible to you.”

  There it was again, Altman thought, a vague accusation. “I’m sorry if I… never noticed you.”

  And it was clear that Altman hadn’t noticed this poor fellow. In fact, even now he found that other than those of his closest friends, he couldn’t recall any of his fellow students at the Realschule. He remembered the faces of certain boys and girls, but that was all. Save for Magda, of course. He would always remember Magda.

  “I would not have expected you to notice me,” the old man said softly. “You were from a fine family. For you, the Realschule in Linz was just…” He looked at Altman to finish his sentence.

  “Temporary,” Altman said. “I was only sent there for a year while my father arranged our family’s move to Vienna.”

  “Where you stayed until the war?”

  “Yes, and where my father stayed even after the war,” Altman said. “At least for a few years.”

  “Your family moved to Vienna, yes,” the old man said. “This was mentioned at the time.” He smiled. “And so, of course, the Realschule was for you something—as you say—temporary.”

  “Still, I’m sorry,” Altman told him. “So do forgive me for not recalling you.”