How I Became a Nuclear Refugee
Do you see the bearded dude up there driving the van? That’s my dad. And the little kid in the back, suckling on a pacifier and poking his head out of a window? That’s me. The nuclear explosion in the back? That’s Chernobyl.
Although not shown, my mom and baby brother are also in the van, clinging to their seats like koalas holding onto a tree in a forest fire. The event depicted happened sometime in the 1980s and led to me growing up on a Mediterranean island.
This is the story of how we all ended up in this situation.
Mitch is my mom’s oldest brother and was the first to arrive in India. He traveled all the way from Germany to India, doing the trip in a Volkswagen hippie van, just like the one my father later owned. On the way, he crossed such countries as Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, which I’m told were all quite liberal back then, with women in cities wearing miniskirts and all.
Once in India, Mitch found himself a guru — whom I’ll call Guru Wildeyes — and joined his ashram. Being the seventies, Mitch spent his time there, I presume, mostly meditating and being naked.
As luck had it, eventually my uncle’s van broke down and he could no longer make it to the nearby beaches of Goa. This spared Goa’s fishermen a weekly eyefull of male ungroomed nudity, but it made Mitch exceedingly unhappy. His stay in India had been reduced to meditation only.
Unfortunately, the only way to fix his van was to get a replacement for some very important part. Now, it might have been the steering wheel, the exhaust pipe, or the ashtray. I really don’t know and I’m not a car person. Let’s just say it was the motor.
So, being stranded without his means to visit Goa and hassle fishermen, he recruited all the charm he could muster and somehow convinced his little sister (my mom) and his upstanding conservative lawyer of a father (my grandpa) to buy a new motor back in Germany and bring it to him.
My mom and grandpa took a flight and, to the fishermen’s chagrin, the van was soon repaired. And to my grandpa’s chagrin, my mom, who was 20 at the time, found nudity, or whatever else she got to see, irresistible and ended up becoming a follower of Guru Wildeyes as well. She joined my uncle Mitch at the ashram while my grandpa returned home with a bag full of shock and exasperation.
My father was born during the Second World War in Solingen. He survived the bombings there and grew up to be a teenager. At 16 years old, he was taken out of school by his parents. Why? Because it was time for him to enter an apprenticeship as a metalworker. And so that’s what he did, specializing in using strong acids to edge intricate designs into blades of all sorts.
Although getting a daily lungful of noxious fumes wasn’t what my father had aspired to, at the time he had no choice. His parents insisted that he do something reputable and in their eyes working with metal was the only reputable thing to do. Solingen, after all, isn’t known as the City of Blades for nothing. It’s been famous for the manufacturing of fine swords, knives, scissors, and razors since medieval times. You might’ve heard of some of the companies founded there, such as Zwilling J. A. Henckels and Wuesthof.
As the years went by with my dad toiling away in a metal shop, he wasn’t particularly happy. After all, what my father really wanted was to leave his modest blue-collar background behind him and become an intellectual. So, with that drive spurring him on, he eventually decided to get his high school diploma as an adult. He entered an afternoon education program, completed it, and then passed some special exams that entitled him to become a teacher.
This was all good and well and, for a couple of years, my father worked as a respectable teacher in a school in Berlin. But then, in his unending thirst for knowledge, he stumbled upon Guru Wildeyes’ books and this turned him into a madman. He began wearing a maroon robe, a long beaded necklace with a portrait of his guru, stopped shaving, and began talking gibberish in class.
Just like Socrates, my father was convicted of corrupting the youth. Fortunately, unlike Socrates, he wasn’t sentenced to death, but just fired.
Free of his duties, he traveled to India to let himself be enlightened by Guru Wildeyes:
My mom almost dies
Being barely 20, my mother didn’t have much money in India and so she lived in a flimsy bamboo hut — so flimsy, in fact, that the Big Bad Wolf could have blown it over with a weary sigh. Luckily, since there were no wolves in the area, that wasn’t a problem. What was a problem, however, is that the hut couldn’t withstand an onslaught of mosquitoes either. And that almost killed her.
You see, one day — well, actually every day — something bit her. But on one particular day, something bit her in her left upper thigh and it became seriously infected. As a result, my mom’s leg grew to the size of a pregnant manatee.
Here’s a picture of her leg:
As no one knew where my uncle Mitch was at the time — and he can’t remember himself — my mom ended up alone and delirious and might have withered away unbeknownst to anyone had it not been for my father.
A week earlier, my dad had spotted my mom on a beach in Goa. She had been lying there on the sand, trying to get a nice tan, while actually barbecuing her pale North-European skin in the relentless tropical sun. She still has scars from the sunburn she got.
Now, I assume my dad spoke to her early that day before her skin split and chared like a hot dog on the grill. Still looking cute, she must have caught my dad’s eye while he was strolling down the beach wearing, I hope, at least a maroon robe. He chatted her up and probably delved into an esoteric sermon about the meaning of life. I doubt my mom was too interested in that, but she surely realized they were both big fans of Guru Wildeyes and that they both frequented his ashram.
So, when my mom was lying delirious in her bamboo shack that fateful day, my dad showed up. He might have had a bouquet of flowers in his hand, although it’s hard to tell. Hippies revolted against established norms, including courtship norms, but they were also big fans of flower power.
Either way, when he knocked on the hut’s door and only heard as a response the groaning sound of a dying animal, he probably became alarmed. So he peaked through one of the countless holes of the hut and surely became even more alarmed when he saw his object of desire being devoured by a manatee.
Luckily, my dad didn’t react too rashly. He didn’t kick the door down, thrust himself onto that monstrous manatee, and try to wrestle it into submission. Instead, as his eyes began to adjust to the darkness within the hut, he realized what was actually going on and called a doctor.
About two years later, back in Berlin, I was born. It wasn’t an easy birth as I came to this world with an oversized head. It seems to me that my dad’s efforts to grow his brain had merely resulted in him engendering a child with too big a head.
Here’s a picture of me and my dad:
After a year in Berlin, my parents realized that city life wasn’t what they had envisioned for me and so we soon moved south to Bavaria, which is home to the Oktoberfest, dirndls, and lederhosen. Although Bavaria is also famous for its beer, none of that attracted us. Instead, what my parents were longing for was an idyllic pastoral life far from cities.
So, after exploring the Bavarian countryside for a while, my parents eventually walked up to a farmer in an area they found particularly nice and my dad asked if they could rent the goat stable.
The farmer, having a little boy about the same age as me, must have taken pity upon seeing this disheveled family and, perhaps somewhat reluctantly, agreed. As a result, I spent the first few years of my life living with my pa and mom and little baby brother, who was born shortly afterwards, in a goat stable.
Here’s a short video from back then:
I’m the whiny boy with the big head. The other one is the farmer’s boy. The young woman in red is my mom and my father is the one recording the video. My little brother was probably sleeping in a crib.
Except for an evil rooster that kept biting me when I put my finger into its cage, all was idyllic on that bucolic farm. My mom made the goat stable homely and grew a little vegetable garden, which she used to feed us. My dad somehow managed to get his hands on an Apple Computer and spend his time writing and keeping the keyboard clear of goat droppings. And I had a little sandbox where I spent my days playing meerkat.
But then, on Saturday the 26th of April 1986, the unthinkable happened. The reactor core of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, in the north of the Ukrainian SSR, overheated and exploded. It wasn’t exactly in the neighborhood — there is the whole of Poland between southern Germany and northern Ukraine — but, as the news said, the wind was about to bring radioactive rain clouds.
My mom, with her soon-to-be-radioactively-soaked vegetable garden, freaked out. She grabbed me, my little brother, and a fistful of clothes, threw them all into the van and told my father to hit the gas pedal. And so off we went, fleeing the incoming cataclysmic rain.
Where were we headed? Silly question! West, of course, in the opposite direction of where the nuclear disaster had happened. And we went as far as we could, which, if you look at the map of Europe, is Portugal.
However, for reasons unbeknownst to me, we didn’t get a long-term visa for Portugal. So we ended up in Spain instead. I assume the Spanish government back then was simply more tolerant of crazy people than the Portuguese were.
Now, I cannot help but think that my parents overreacted, but I’m happy they did. I can now legitimately call myself a nuclear refugee and I didn’t grow up to be a yodeler who smells like goat cheese.
We ended up on one of the Mediterranean islands that belong to Spain. Maybe my parents thought that the surrounding water would keep the evil clouds away. Whatever the reason, I grew up on that island in a tiny village of only 700 people. Other hippie ex-pats from all over the world lived there as well and so I was lucky to learn more than one language in that multilingual environment.
In school, I can proudly say, I was the smartest kid in class. Not so proudly, I have to admit that this was simply because the school was so tiny that I just had a single classmate — a baker’s son who ended up becoming a professional cyclist.
Still, I was smart enough — or at least sufficiently tolerant of spending hours propped up like a cadaver in front of books and computers — that I entered that island’s university and eventually got a PhD in computer science. Given our circumstances, this was only possible because Spanish universities are cheap and I kept living with my parents — who had settled on something bigger than a goat stable by now.
My dad would have been incredibly proud of me and my PhD, but he died a few years before I completed it. I think he would have even called me Doctor for the heck of it. As it is, no one calls me Doctor, except my wife — when I screw up.
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