Letter Re: Lessons Learned From My Elders

As a five year old I lived with my grandparents in a small isolated village in the foothills of the Austrian Alps.  This was about 1953 until 1958.  Rural life had its own rhythm which now seemed more akin to the 19th century.  Small family fields were plowed with the milk cow which was also used to bring in the hay and the harvest.  Everything planted had a use.  Each tree on these small family farms bore fruits or nuts.  Ornamentals were for the well to do- perhaps the village doctor who had a more secure source of income.  Each farmstead depended on a variety of fruit and other crops.  If one thing did not do well that year, then other harvests such as the chestnuts or the pears and apples for hard cider might be plentiful.
The grain keeping body and soul together was polenta, a new world crop, along with the potato.  Corn grew well and would be eaten as mush with pork cracklings, sour milk, or coffee mornings and evenings. Each farmer’s wife was also capable of making hearty loaves of bread seasoned with herbs along with the obligatory home churned butter. Besides working in the fields alongside her husband, the women also had a kitchen garden with vegetables and savory herbs.

The other mainstay was the pumpkin which is still harvested for its seeds and the superb oil the roasted seed produces.  Oils and fats are always at a premium and never ever thrown away.  I have had many a pork fat sandwich with garlic, salt, and pepper. Anything left over was given to the hogs which were slaughtered in the fall and processed, smoked and hung on rafters in the pantry or preserved in a tub of lard.   The root cellar like the pantry was built of stone, being cool and moist. It held barrels of sauerkraut, pickles, and perhaps of eggs which had been covered with a solution of lime and water.

In the evenings, kept warm by the ceramic wood & coal stove, stories were told about surviving WWII and the Russian occupation.  Some were very funny, some not so much.
During the war everything was rationed. Towards the end of the conflict, people in the city would get on the train for the country with their fur coats and oriental rugs and anything else they thought they could trade for a sack of potatoes. Many a farmer’s wife could be found with finery. If you had extra food you kept a very low profile as not to arouse anger or envy of neighbors.
If you were fortunate enough to live in the country, then hunger was not a problem because you grew what was needed – most had the skills, experience, and land needed. Organic methods along with long established permaculture were the norm.  Small livestock such as chickens and sometimes rabbits and doves were part of the living larder. Everything depended on composting and the farmer with the biggest manure pile was considered rich.  Of course humanure was part of recycling necessary nutrients for a successful harvest season. 
Several stories which contained significant life lessons were told by uncles who had to serve on the front.

One uncle was a medical doctor and he told of a pampered young man who came in with a shoulder wound and he hysterically thought that he was mortally wounded.  The team of doctors assured him that he would do just fine, all to no avail.  This young city boy did die unnecessarily.  Later a farm boy came into the medical facility with a very serious stomach wound.  He walked in carrying his intestines in a newspaper.  He was not expected to live but he had the right mindset and he recovered.

The second story about serving on the front came from a different uncle who was in a Siberian prison camp for seven years.  He was a very tall man and as all those with him lost a tremendous amount of weight because of a terrible diet.  Every meal consisted of a cabbage soup with a few chunks of potatoes thrown in.  After a time the men were no longer able to eat this soup, and even though they tried, they threw it up. Fortunately there was a doctor in their unit who told them to take anything of value that they had, cigarette lighters, cigarettes, belt buckles and trade it for hot peppers when they went out on work details.  Each meal they were to cut a little of the peppers into their soup so that their gastric juices would start up again.  This is how I learned about appetite fatigue.  My uncle would say that the peasants in Siberia were as poor as the prisoners and really did not eat much better.

The last story about the Siberian camp had to do with going home.  The trains were loaded with prisoners and they were to depart but for some reason the last car was uncoupled and left.  This caused such great disappointment and loss of hope that many men in that last compartment killed themselves.  Without a solid spiritual foundation our “men’s hearts will fail them” (Luke 21:26) when faced with desperation.

And then there was the third uncle who was a survivor.  His very hard life had honed his instincts. Somehow he would have an inkling when the next attack at the front would occur and he would work his night patrols either before or after.  Several men in his unit caught on to this talent of being aware and sensitive to his surroundings, they started to stay close to him.  Most Austrians were conscripts that wanted to get home to their families.

Hearing such stories and more made a great impression on my mind and these stories have been told to the next generation.  Better to learn from another’s life lessons, the personal cost is less if one listens well.

Sincerely, – U.E.