Friday, 16 October 2015


A great number of predominantly German settlers came to our part of Texas way back whenever, and San Antonio is therefore characterised by - amongst other factors - a mix of the Mexican and the culturally Germanic. At the most basic level this amounts to it being significantly easier for me to buy bratwurst, sauerkraut and strudel in local stores than Marmite or anything which I, being English, would recognise as a sausage. Once outside of the city, you tend to encounter a number of towns bearing German names with high streets lined with buildings carrying more than a whiff of Black Forest about them - New Braunfels, Fredericksburg, Boerne, Gruene, Weimar and so on. My wife is herself of mixed German-English ancestry, descended from the Schwab and the Engel families on her father's side. The Schwab and Engel families were of sufficient notice amongst the early immigrant communities as to have had local roads named after them. We pass the turn off for both the Schwab and Engel roads each time we head for New Braunfels on I-35.

From my perspective, this is one of those details which really differentiates the place in which I live from that in which I grew up. I am married to someone whose grandparents are commemorated in features of local urban geography, a fact which strikes me as even stranger for being a not uncommon thing. It serves as a reminder that most of that which I see built up around me is of relatively recent origin, and that in many respects we've only just got here. America is a new country by the standards of that with which I am familiar, although of course this is partially an illusion fostered by the greatly and unfortunately diminished visibility of those who occupied this land before we did, or at least before the Germans arrived, fleeing whatever was going on back in the old country at the time.

My wife's grandmother, Johanna Schwab had married LeRoy Rosenthal back in the forties or thereabouts, and the couple had three boys, Daniel, Johnny, and Carl. Daniel was Bess's father, but he recently passed on.

Bess had already told me of a Schwab family reunion attended when she was much younger: oompah bands, lederhosen, beer steins and elderly relatives who didn't speak much English. Now we are on our way to another such reunion, once again passing the turn off to the Schwab and Engel roads as we approach New Braunfels.

The reunion is held in a building adjacent to the swimming pool at Landa Park, New Braunfels. We enter, register at the desk, and there is a short flurry of excitement as my accent gives me away as something other than authentically Texan. The women working the desk get out their questionnaires, pink sheets of A4 to be taken around the attendees ticking off signatures as one encounters someone under the age of ten, an airline pilot, anyone over six feet tall, or in this case any person born outside the state of Texas.

'That would indeed be me,' I confess as I sign each of the three sheets which have been thrust under my nose. 'I'm from England. You can probably tell, can't you?'

There's some sort of prize for the first person to come back with a full house, so to speak.

Bess and myself - Junior in tow - find our way to the dining area at the back of the hall and I deposit the pasta salad I knocked together the previous evening, adding it to all the other goodies supplied by various Schwabs and their relatives. We find Bess's Uncle Johnny talking to Elton, Johanna's surviving brother. I met Elton earlier in the year at the funeral service for his sister, Hilda Huth née Schwab. This comes as something of a relief - familiar faces, and Johnny is always good company. We fill paper plates with salads, hot dogs, burgers and so on, and get settled in. I can't quite tell if Uncle Elton remembers me from the funeral. He is small and old, and speaks with a high reedy voice, his accent more German than American.

'He's a bit annoyed that they didn't include the question about veterans,' Johnny tells me. He indicates his own pink sheet of signatures. 'Usually they ask whether you've met a veteran?'

Elton seems clearly displeased. Bess later tells me that he had amassed a full sheet of signatures but refused to hand it in as a protest. He served in Korea, and was telling us about it last time we met.

Bess and Junior return from gathering both food and signatures and join us at the table.

'He's from England, you know?' my wife reminds her uncle.

Johnny now remembers this and has me sign his paper.

'I'm surprised they haven't been queueing up for your autograph.'

I shrug, silently pleased at the effectiveness of my disguise. 'Maybe there's someone else here.'

'I think there's a guy from Tennessee or somewhere.'

I take another quick look at the questions on Bess's sheet. 'You've managed to find someone who has flown a plane?'

'Yes, and he's over six feet so I had him sign twice.' She indicates a tall guy in a red shirt stood across the other side of the hall.

'What? Did you just go up to him and ask if he's ever flown a plane?'

'There was a queue so I just went with it.'

Elton and Johnny are talking. Johnny pauses to explain. 'Elton has a farm. He was telling me that developers have been working on the next piece of land and had promised to set up a fence, but his cattle have all been getting out.'

'You have a farm?' I raise my voice because I have a feeling Elton probably can't hear me. I know his hearing is poor. 'I grew up on a farm back in England. Do you have dairy or er,' - somehow I can't recall the term for those cows which end up as beefburgers - 'are they for food?'

'They escape.' Elton gestures wildly. 'They go everywhere.'

Johnny rephrases my question for Elton's benefit. He doesn't  appear particularly surprised to learn that I grew up on a farm in England, so I have a feeling he may not have heard the full statement.

'Beef cattle,' he tells me. 'We had sheep too, because you know the Muslims eat lamb, but the price is no good - not any more. You cannot get much for a sheep now.'

I nod and realise that it will probably be more trouble than it's worth to subject Elton to further questioning, so I finish my burger. I have a feeling the old guy may just have told me that the farm is on Schwab, right where it has been since before anyone thought to give the road its name, but I could be getting my wires crossed.

Once we've eaten, we move to the other part of the hall for the meeting, hosted by Vincent - Elton's son. I've now encountered Vincent at two funerals but have not yet been properly introduced. I get the impression that he's probably a nice guy, although this may in part be because he seems to bear a more than passing resemblance to the late science-fiction author, Philip K. Dick, at least to my eyes. This means I'm well-disposed towards him before he's even spoken. He reads the minutes of the previous year's reunion, then passes on the greetings and apologies of an entirely separate faction of Schwabs who would ordinarily have been present but for having attended a related family reunion in Germany.

As minutes are read, random yelping interjections come from Bruno who, so far as I can tell, seems to be the old, white guy equivalent of ODB from the Wu-Tang Clan. Each time he speaks, I half expect him to squint and hee haw and git hi'self to a-leapin' up and down like some moon-struck fool 'cause dang it if that ain't gold in that ol' creek; although possibly this may only be how he sounds to my ears. His outbursts are frequent, mostly greeted with a ripple of laughter, or a sigh as eyes roll towards the ceiling in the case of a relative sat at the table behind me.

Vincent brings us to the matter of next year's meeting. It will be held in this same venue, and shall we all just agree to each bring something for food, just as we have done today?

Bruno leaps from his chair once more and I hear a heavy groan from somewhere behind me.

'Is he drunk or something?' I whisper to my wife.

She shrugs, enjoying the spectacle.

Bruno's proposal - delivered by means of a jumble of details and promises which we ourselves are required to mentally assemble in the correct order - is that he will pay for a full barbecue to be laid on next year - brisket, sausage, chicken, shrimp, the works; he will pay for everything. Then someone asks 'What if it falls through, whatever this is that you have in mind?'

It is suggested that in such an eventuality we just go back to what we did this year, a pile of hot dogs and everyone bring a salad; which somehow raises the question of what happens if we should fail to bring our hot dogs and salads because Bruno has promised a barbecue; which I'm fairly certain we had already asked ourselves.

The discussion goes around in increasingly weird circles for about ten minutes until it is finally agreed that we'll make a decision closer to the time. Bruno's contributions resume their previous, more random tempo.

Vincent runs through the list of all which has happened to our extended family since the previous meeting - births and deaths although no marriages, a subject to which we return during an awards ceremony involving the dispensation of small trophies. The first award goes to the oldest person present. Vincent looks around waiting for nominations. Bruno leaps from his seat hooting and hollering for the umpteenth time. The man sat behind me sighs and mutters darkly to himself. Bruno indicates his own wife, a pleasant looking woman who has been silent throughout. I get the impression she's awaiting the end of the meeting with some anticipation. Vincent hands her a trophy, and Bess and I marvel at the disparity between her appearance and the count of her years. From what I've seen of my wife's family, they tend to be quite long lived, and to age fairly well.

'Has anyone here been married within the last year?' Vincent asks, now ready with another trophy. There are no answers. 'Anyone within the last two years?'

Again there is no response.

'Three years?,' then 'Within four years?'

'We have,' my wife pipes up.

'Well, it's not four years,' I begin, because our fourth wedding anniversary passed a few weeks earlier. Technically we are now in our fourth year of marriage, which is different to having been married within the previous four years.

'They can't even agree on that!' Bruno hoots, hollers, and points at us, ever the court jester. 'That ain't gonna last, no siree!' He probably didn't sound quite so much like one of the Beverley Hillbillies, but he did to me.

We take our trophy, and the meeting is over for another year. It was low on incident, but it was nice to see Johnny and Elton again.

It later occurs to me that when people who aren't from Texas refer to those who are, they're probably imagining people very much like the Schwabs - rural, religious, and probably not overly familiar with the work of Neutral Milk Hotel or Sunn O))). When I invoke people who aren't from Texas referring to those who are, I'm thinking mainly of the hateful crap clogging up certain sections of the internet and adhering to the general view of the south as a realm of dangerous, gun-toting simpletons. Such views - invariably born out of ignorance and a need for every argument to be reduced to a Star Wars narrative of good versus evil - make me testy at the best of times, but spending an hour or so in the company of the Schwabs simply induces pity for all those spleen-venting supporters of enforced Texan secession. The Schwabs may indeed be rural and mostly religious, but such qualities viewed as inherently wrong tends to stem, in my experience, from a basic misanthropic fear of the working classes, which amounts to good old xenophobia dressed up nice with a few arbitrary moral trimmings. I only mention this because, despite being from somewhere other than Texas, I am beginning to resent the assumption that my sympathies might be with persons other than those who seem quite happy to have me living amongst them.

Anyway, I've met the Schwabs. They're good people, and I've even begun to feel a little proud to have become a bauble strung upon one of the outer branches of their extended family tree.

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