Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

Waiting For My Father

The author remembers the man who disappeared

Photos courtesy of Harold Hoefle  

On August 18, 1966, my father drove his blue Plymouth to work and never returned. Five days later, the police found his locked car at Woodbine Beach, Toronto, his clothes folded in squares on the front seat, his briefcase, glasses and wallet hidden in the back. No one in my family-not me, my two sisters, my mother or my Austrian relatives-has seen Anton (Tony) Hoefle in thirty-eight years. He was thirty-eight when he disappeared. Almost a year later, an image of my mother weeping into her handkerchief accompanied a front-page article in the Toronto Daily Star. "She's sure he's alive-somewhere," the headline tantalizes. "It's not exactly Lonely St.," runs the reporter's first line, "but there's heartbreak at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac in Scarborough called Lea Grove Cres." The writer is profoundly right: we lived at the end of a dead end, and in a sense we are still there, waiting. At least I am. On my writing desk are black and white photographs curled at the edges, torn-out newspaper articles, scrawled notes and a silver knife. My father brought the knife back from Germany to his village in western Austria in 1945, just weeks after VE Day. He was sixteen. He had walked a thousand kilometres, wading through rivers-the Allies had bombed most bridges-and travelling mostly by night, trying to evade four occupying armies. In a forest in Germany, his squad had been captured by American soldiers, who marched them to the side of a barn and told them to remove their helmets and raise their hands. Instead of shooting, the Americans gasped: the dozen prisoners were all smooth-cheeked children, aged twelve to seventeen. The captors bivouacked the prisoners in the barn overnight while they figured out what to do with them. A black officer, towering over my father, slipped him a cigarette and said, in perfect German, "In my country, we're just like you. Prisoners." The next day, American-issue mess kits in hand, the boys were told to go home. I think my father always felt imprisoned. Years later, his best friend told me, "Your father hated his life." On a Friday afternoon in 1949, a month away from finishing his two-year apprenticeship at the local manufacturing plant, Tony tore out of the factory and began another flight. Alarmed, his friend followed him out of the plant and, after much argument, convinced Tony he was "cutting his throat" if he did not at least return to work until he got his papers. They would prove he had finished his apprenticeship as a tool-and-die maker; without those papers, he would not get work in a post-war Austria undergoing heavily regulated reconstruction. But I don't think my father cared. I think he liked to run away. He would do it again and again-as would I. In the autumn of 1987, inspired by my reading of Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts-a book chronicling the young author's walk from Holland to Turkey in the early thirties-I walked from my father's house to Vienna, a journey of 800 kilometres. On the morning I left, my uncle gave me my father's silver knife-it was embossed "US Army 1944." That's when I learned of his first flight. He had been freed from a wartime capture to return home, which for him ultimately meant another kind of captivity. On my walk, I started by toiling up a narrow, serpentine road, climbing the very hill my father had stumbled down three decades earlier as a band trumpeted his return. However temporary.
I think my father disliked buildings. He needed air and space, conduits of change and escape. I imagine he dreamed of climbing, driving, flying, making up any excuse to "get out of the house." There is no evidence that my father read anything beyond the newspaper-I grew up in a house with ten books, mostly German. However, if he had read fiction, he might have warmed to Kafka's "The Sudden Walk." It celebrates the spontaneous quitting of home,
[when] you find yourself once more in the street with limbs swinging extra freely in answer to the unexpected liberty you have procured for them, when as a result of this decisive action you feel concentrated within yourself all the potentialities of decisive action, when you recognize with more than usual significance that your strength is greater than your need to accomplish effortlessly the swiftest of changes and to cope with it, when in this frame of mind you go striding down the long streets-then for that evening you have completely got away from your family, which fades into insubstantiality, while you yourself, a firm, boldly drawn figure, slapping yourself on the thigh, grow to your true stature. Kafka's tale reminds me of my father; as does much of the literature I've read. Perhaps literature, for me, has become a kind of father. All those authorial voices: wise, confiding, lovingly reaching out to their reader, to me. And the act of reading itself; how, when you hold a book, it is also holding you. But some men, I now realize, do not like to be held-at least not for too long a time, and not by the same person. And so my father proves that Lawrence Durrell got it wrong. In The Alexandria Quartet-a self-proclaimed investigation of modern love-the author lists the only things a man can do with a woman: love her, suffer for her or turn her into literature. Durrell forgot that a man can leave her.
In 1951, my father, "limbs swinging extra freely," emigrated by boat to Canada. Soon he would marry, have children and drive his family north every weekend from the Toronto suburb of Scarborough to Lake Simcoe. He would one-finger the wheel of his sleek Plymouth, that glistening component of the Immigrant Dream. It was the same car he once piled me into to go see a documentary about lions. I must have been five or six years old. I recall tawny beasts loping across grassy savannahs and tearing the throat out of a young impala. A stronger memory, though, is the ride home-my child's delight in being allowed to stay up late and cruise through the streets in the safety of darkness, in the barely lit interior, my father's large strong shape beside me. Before my father left, we often escaped together. One summer afternoon he rented a Cessna, and for half an hour we soared over hills and patches of green-and-yellow farmland, the sky glinting in my eyes as, fearfully hugging my sides, I peered out the window at a slow, sunlit world. I am more the child of his loins than I may like to admit. I run marathons; I have travelled to twenty-one countries. In Montreal, where I live, I often walk instead of taking public transit or a cab. A poet friend once scolded me, saying he would always dish out ten or twenty dollars in cab fare so he could get home quickly and do what he really wanted: read or write or relax. Seeing his logic, I felt instantly insecure about my desire to walk everywhere even if, in the idiom of our age, it "wastes time." But like my father, I need to be moving, to be between places, even if it means neglecting my work (uncorrected student essays, dishes, laundry). I like to escape, to forsake responsibility-like my father, my favourite word is "yes."

In Canada, his two-year-old business-Al Mould Manufacturing Co. Ltd., housed in a rented building just outside Toronto-made windows for commercial and private use. Orders and contracts were, typically, slow in coming at first. Not to mention Tony was fined $1,125 for income-tax violations. In July 1966, his father, Martin Hoefle, arrived from Austria. Martin, hale at seventy-four, went to his son's shop to help out. Tony was hardly ever there-or so my grandfather told me years later: "Every day he was out of the shop, driving around, while I stood on the factory floor and got nosebleeds." At the beginning of August, Martin flew back to Austria, and two weeks later my father disappeared. According to one of his sisters, Tony thought my mother had called Martin and said, "Please, come, help your son with a loan, his business is failing." The mere idea made my father furious at her. Yes, my grandfather did come and lend him ten thousand dollars, but it wasn't because of an SOS that he flew on a plane for the first time, journeying from his village across the ocean. My mother never called. The village's magnate had given Martin a free ticket to Canada, for decades of community service, so he could visit his only living son (he'd lost two in the war). My grandfather later told me that he came over "as a big surprise." Soon after he returned home, the second surprise occurred. But that is melodramatic. My father's pride had turned to shame. Ever the Austrian, he had no choice: he had to run away. In Austria, that ridiculously bucolic country of dashing streams, green hills, wooden homes surrounded by boxed flowers, snowy peaks and meadows where cows graze and peasants scythe-in this postcard, truth is always elsewhere. In 1987, the year I imbibed the land's beauty on my cross-country walk, Austria's suicide rate was the third highest in the world. In a café in Graz, I met a bank manager named Karl. He told me that of the 1,500 fur coats worn by women in his nearby town, only three were paid for; the rest had been bought on credit. "People here," he said, adjusting his tie and gripping his achtel of wine, "want to put on an I've-made-it face." His comment reminded me of a Sunday church service I attended in Molln, a village in Upper Austria. The mass started at 7:30 am; the church was packed. Afterward, when I expressed my amazement to my cousin, she scoffed. "If you don't go to early mass, people will gossip: you're lazy, you can't get out of bed. And of course the women want to show off their new dresses." The shine of a fur-coated figure is one way to keep the shaming truth at bay. Another is to take the offending thing and simply rid oneself of it. My father almost grasped the Immigrant Dream, but it shunned him. So to save face, he, in a sense, threw it away. When the police found his car, his bathing suit was missing. According to the newspaper report, "Harbor police dragged Lake Ontario near the beach and Metro police sent out a circular on the missing man to every other police force in Canada." Nothing. However, a "business acquaintance spotted Tony several weeks after the disappearance but wasn't aware of the mystery." According to the reporter, police would not identify the man, nor did they tell my mother. Nor have I told my mother what my Uncle Franz told me. He said Tony came to Austria in 1965, the year before he disappeared, ostensibly in search of business contracts. One evening, Tony and Franz drove into the country and sat on the grassy slope of a hill, overlooking the onion-shaped steeple of a church nestled deep in a valley's fold. My father turned to Franz and said that if he, Tony, ever went away, Franz should tell Tony's children how much he loved them. My uncle gave me the message in 1987. Like much of what I have just written, this "information," this "fact," has stayed with me. It joins all the others-one more shovel of dirt with which to bury the truth.
A friend phoned me a year ago and exclaimed, "I've solved your life!" He said I had to write about both my father and the Austrian culture that gave birth to him. I had already tried to write about my father in fiction. Consciously or not, that is where I thought he could best exist. I think my friend believed that in writing truthfully about my father, about the circumstances surrounding his life, I could somehow placate an Oedipal need. I could kill him. He obviously still exists in my unconscious, since I drag him out and pin him to the page in my literary work. But even that work merely proves he is something ineffable, a ghost, a gossamer being, but only in relation to me. In my story "Next Stop," the long-absent father has secretly returned to the city where his son lives and now sits across from the unsuspecting son on the metro. At the story's end, he approaches his son, fearful of what the reaction might be, but overjoyed at the thought of reunion. The father smiles as he approaches his book-reading progeny. He says, "Excuse me." The story ends. The reader is supposed to imagine the dramatic meeting. This writer cannot.