My Onkle Heiner was a ski trooper in the German army and was shot through his left biceps in 1917. For two years, he continually squeezed a rubber ball in his left hand until bone, flesh and nerves healed completely. The scar on his arm was white on both sides and the size of a silver dollar. He was my favorite uncle.

He emigrated to the United States in the mid nineteen twenties and married my mother’s sister, Elsa. They had a daughter who died young and a son, Willy, whom I idolized growing up. Heiner worked as a foreman in the Hummel Brothers sausage factory in New Haven, Connecticut and was strong and solid as an oak. He loved kids and let us pick from the fruit trees in his backyard, climb fences, and slide down his cellar door. There was always a twinkle in his eye that meant forthcoming delights like squeezing four kids on to the floor of the Ford’s rumble seat, close the lid and take us for a ride in a rainstorm. The rain pelting the tin above us, the rumble of the engine in the humid interior, the closeness of our bodies in the darkness was indescribably joyful. Double scoops of maple walnut ice cream afterwards was frosting on the cake of contentment.

My favorite times with him were when I helped him clean machines and prepare for the next week at the factory on Saturday mornings. I was eight or nine the first time and fascinated by the gleaming machines and refrigerators holding huge slabs of meat. He told me I shouldn’t know what went into a hot dog and then showed me anyway. It was fascinating but shocking, and I will not share it with you. Let me just say that if you think your hot dog tastes like eyeball, you are probably right.

The Hummel brothers came to the United States after a rigorous apprentice program in Germany with an excellent understanding of the role spices play in sausage making. This they passed on to Onkle Heiner who proudly displayed the spice closet in a sunny corner of the factory floor. Even though it was tightly built, I could smell the contents eight feet away. It was breathtaking. There  were familiar and mysterious aromas fighting for attention by the receptors in my nose. It was overwhelming. I sneezed three times before the door opened and I saw the boxes, bags, and bottles arrayed on eight-foot-high shelves.

My uncle let me sniff a dozen varieties, naming them and their countries of origin. I remember a few. Saffron and smoked paprika from Spain. Ground anise seed and oregano from Italy. Cinnamon powder from Ceylon. Ground ginger from India. Annatto powder from the Caribbean. And cracked fennel seed, allspice, and garlic from Germany. A budding stamp collector, I knew where those countries were, so I soon associated the shape, color, taste, and home country with each spice’s smell. I couldn’t wait for my uncle to unlock the spice closet Saturday mornings. At first overwhelmed by competing aromas, I began to distinguish individual scents and, in my mind, associate them with pictures of stamps and imagine being in those marvelous places. I traveled the world in that spice closet.

Heiner was born in 1899. In his nineties, he told me he wanted to live to 101 so he could tell Saint Peter he lived for three centuries. Saint Peter had other ideas; Heiner passed on when he was 98.

Whether by plan or coincidence, over the years my work took me to many of the places I imagined in the spice closet. I now realize how fortunate I was to have an uncle who understood the power of aromas to stimulate the other senses and enhanced my library of known scents. Now retired, I have more time and inclination to turn another olfactory page and enjoy memories of times and scents past. With age, one becomes more easily amused, and I can sniff the time away. My nose doesn’t require recharging, booting, a bigger screen, or an outlet, and all the inputs are free. Most of the downloads come from the twentieth Century. And that’s a good thing.

Trouble Shooter

Since I last wrote in this blog, a major life change occurred. My wife and I moved to a two-bedroom cottage in a life care community. No more stars to climb, grass to cut, or gardens to maintain. Meals and many maintenance items like haircuts are available on site, and there are many new friends with similar life experiences to make. When friends ask how we like it, we say it’s 80% perfect and 20% needs work.
The editor of the community newsletter asked if I’d provide an article, so I wrote a short memoir that I’ll also share here. Like much of my writing, it’s based on something I experienced, part true, part made up. You can figure out what’s made up.

On a sultry Saturday morning in April 1965, I left my hotel room in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and took the elevator to the dining room on the second floor for breakfast. I was an attorney three years out of law school, working as international counsel for a pharmaceutical company and was up earlier than usual, unable to go back to sleep in anticipation of the day ahead. Yesterday evening we concluded a complicated distribution agreement for my company’s drugs with a new partner, and I scheduled a midday flight to Montego Bay, Jamaica to meet my wife, Nancy. It was her first trip out of the country. I expected a wonderful weekend together in an exotic location.
The second-floor balcony overlooked the lobby below where I noticed two young men standing near the front desk. One had a moustache that looked as though he’d forgotten to wipe his mouth after drinking milk, and the other’s cheeks blazed with acne. They wore oversized khaki shirts and clutched snub-nosed Uzi machine pistols. The safeties were off and each had his finger on the trigger.
Otherwise, activity in the lobby seemed normal. People were talking with the desk clerk who was sweating but nonchalant, the elevators moved smoothly, and a row of local taxis lined the roadway leading to the hotel. Among the people sitting on overstuffed chairs was Felix, a driver whose taxi was an immaculate 1948 Cadillac Fleetwood sedan that gleamed as brightly as the single gold tooth shining among the white ones in his mouth. I hired him to be my chauffeur and guide during my four-day visit to Santo Domingo.
Felix noticed me, waved, and I motioned him to come up and join me for breakfast.
“Army boys want Bosch back,” said Felix, wiping muffin crumbs from his white shirt. Then he expanded my knowledge of both Spanish and English curses in describing the corrupt and venal administration that succeeded Juan Bosch who was elected in the country’s first free election in decades and ousted a year later.
“Jack Kennedy, you know, they say he helped get rid of Bosch. Thought he was soft on communism,” said Felix, drawing his finger across his throat.
Then he put on his conspirator’s face. “Didn’t want another goddam Cuba here, you know.”
Fascinated as I was by his lecture on current events, I was more interested in avoiding teenagers with Uzis and making it to the airport on time and in a single piece. I reminded him he was supposed to take me to the airport.
“Better go now,” he said. “There’s a little shooting downtown, and there’s gonna be roadblocks, maybe ten. Maybe more. Get yourself some fives.”
He meant I should supply myself with American five-dollar bills, which the desk clerk provided as I checked out and Felix took my bag to the trunk of the Cadillac.
During the past four days, the Cadillac became my second home. It ran quiet and smooth, even across bumpy Dominican roads. The air conditioning worked, and it offered a smorgasbord of familiar and agreeable aromas: Simonize, acrid chrome polish, the piney scent from the cardboard tree hanging from the mirror, the musty smell of well-maintained upholstery in a tropical climate. I eagerly opened the passenger door to sit next to Felix, as in previous trips.
He shook his finger. “No. Sit in back, like a Jefe. Give me your passport and the fives.”
Putting my trust in Felix, I climbed into the back seat, put on my best Jefe demeanor, and watched steam rising from the palm trees along the highway, last night’s dew warmed by the tropic sun.
As we reached the highway, we heard the rat-tat-tat of machineguns nearby. Felix headed the car in another direction as I stiffened in the back seat, wondering if, after making it through the Korean War, I’d meet my end on a highway in the tropics at the hands of teenagers with Uzis. Not a pleasant prospect.
Felix wandered through rutted roads for a few miles and pulled back onto the main highway toward the airport. Ahead, a garbage truck blocked the highway. It was surrounded by teenagers armed with rifles and two older men wearing khaki hats with brass insignia.
“Roadblock,” said Felix. “Look serious. Look important.”
I did my best, a thirty-year-old lawyer facing impending doom in the back of an antique Cadillac. I felt the very opposite of important.
Felix pulled up to a man with insignia, flashed his gold tooth, exchanged pleasantries in unintelligible Spanish, and handed over my passport with one of the “fives” jutting modestly from the top. Insignia studied my picture, saluted me and gave the passport back, minus the five.
After two more roadblocks, I lost count. Now my concern was that we’d run out of fives before reaching the airport. I briefly returned to thinking about my mortality when a road blocker fired his rifle in the air a few times to encourage Felix to stop.
The last roadblock was at the entrance to the airport, manned by a young man in an officer’s uniform. He smiled and waved us through, surprising me by returning the passport with the five intact.
Felix retrieved my bag and offered a strong embrace, which I returned enthusiastically, and told him to keep the remaining fives along with a few larger bills I offered in exchange for the exciting ride to the airport. As he drove away, his left arm hugging the top of the driver’s door, he offered me a huge smile, gold tooth blazing in the sun. I never saw him again.
The flight to Jamaica was uneventful, and my wife and I enjoyed some relaxing days in a tropical resort. Four days after l left the Dominican Republic, President Johnson sent in the Marines to protect American interests, the first U.S. military intervention in Latin America in three decades.
When I returned to the office later that week, my peers welcomed me as a great “trouble shooter.” I was honored to think they were praising my abilities as a legal problem solver.
“Well, I guess that too,’ said one of my friends, “but we thought that wherever you go, there’s trouble and shooting.”