A Tirolean Out West
By Christopher Henze, 2001
Robby and Kay met on the slopes of the Arlberg. He was working there as an X-ray technician who used to pull a heavy portable X-ray machine up the slopes on a sled, using sealskins on his skis, in order to diagnose fractures. These were the days before ski lifts. He held the downhill speed record three years running. As a member of the Red Devils, Robby also made some of the early skiing and mountain movies with Hannes Schneider and Leni Riefenstahl (Storms Over Mont Blanc, Foxhunt on Skis, White Hell of Piz Palü). His fellow skiers joked that they would like to break a leg so that Leni would visit them in the hospital. Not Robby. Kay was a young American on vacation. They celebrated their 63rd wedding anniversary in 2000.
Robby left Austria in 1938, just before Hitler’s Anschluss. He tried to join the American military to fight the Nazis as a pilot, but couldn’t pass the physical due to a broken back suffered at age 18 on a ski jumping dare. (The doctor couldn’t believe he had walked home, with only the aid of ski poles.) Frustrated, he went to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where the Canadian Air Force was recruiting. They wouldn’t take him either, not wanting any trouble with the American authorities. “It felt sort of odd,” he said, “carrying a card stating I was an ‘Enemy Alien.’”
It was hard, too, when the friendly neighbor came over to share the good news in a letter from her son in the Army Air Corps that he had just flown a bombing run over the Stefansbrücke on the Brenner Pass road. The last known address of Robby’s parents was the inn at the end of the bridge.
(They survived. My grandfather, who would not permit Nazi uniforms in his biochemistry classes at the University of Innsbruck, and thus lost his pension, was having his afternoon nap when Robby’s older brother, my Uncle Carlo, wearing a U.S. Army Captain’s uniform, asked the innkeeper if Professor Henze was there – after five years without news. Carlo, as a German-speaking M.D., was with the advance Allied Occupation Forces assigned to interrogate German medical personnel about biological and chemical warfare capabilities.)
Robby’s first attempt at passing the naturalization exam on American history failed. He studied hard and returned to find an extremely pleasant lady who said, “Mr. Henze, I understand you had a little trouble with the French and Indian Wars. Let’s see if we can help you with that,” and practically gave him the answers to one or two simple questions.
During the post-war Red Scare period Robby was employed as a censor of Italian radio programs at station KWKW in Sierra Madre, California. “It was a little embarrassing,” he said. “They were nice friendly people, and they knew I had to sit behind a window and listen to what they were broadcasting, ready to press a button to cut them off if they started to give away U.S. military secrets.” They never did.
Language occasionally caused problems during Robby’s early days in Southern California. Once somebody berated him for giving orders in German to our airedale Bruno–”How can you speak German to your dog?” Another time he was told to “Go back to Czechoslovakia where you came from.” Robby had never been to Czechoslovakia. (People would also occasionally ask him about the kangaroos in Austria!)
Robby thought he was safe in telling Kay, while a very fat lady was obstructing access to a tram, “Bei uns heisst das eine Fleischlawine.” (We call that a meat avalanche.) Unfortunately, the good lady’s husband spoke German, and asked Robby to kindly keep his personal remarks to himself.
American informality bothered Robby, who hated being slapped on the back and being called Bob. His Austrian politeness made it difficult for him to precede someone through a door, and I was often amused by the Alphonse/Gaston routine.
Americanisms could be amusing. There was the guy at the gas station at the beach who characterized something Robby had said as “baloney.” As I recall, we had been gathering abalone shells or eating abalone steaks, a new delight for a Tirolean, who immediately retorted, “Abalone yourself.”
Or the camper returning from the outhouse on a cold morning in the High Sierra who told him, “There’s a little frost on the pumpkin.” Robby told him he hoped he hadn’t kept it exposed too long.
And although he spoke excellent English, Robby continued to go to the barber to get his “hairs” cut and loved cooking “spaghettis.”
I remember his tasty porcupine goulash we couldn’t swallow because it hadn’t been marinated long enough, and his practical jokes. Coming back from our weekly shopping expedition to Bishop, he killed a rattlesnake, beheading it with a shovel kept in the car. My poor mother almost fainted when he asked me to hand her a paper bag containing “fresh lettuce” for dinner, and she reached in for the still writhing rattler.
He somewhat resented the influx of fishermen from Los Angeles into his beloved Sabrina Basin. We used to enjoy hiding behind boulders and awaiting the reaction of these folks when they came upon “Bridge Unsafe” and “No Fishing” signs artfully placed by Robby. The most imaginative was a jar with a perforated lid marked USSR Biological Warfare Unit. It contained a rotting orange, and Robby set it on the end of the boat landing dock.
He was good at imitating the roar of a mountain lion. One night we went down to the campground with a megaphone and gave the folks quite a scare. It was funny until one guy started shooting in our direction. We hit the dirt, and the bullets went into the aspens overhead.
There was also the day the sheriff drove up accompanied by a man who claimed we had stolen his dog. Robby said, “Do you want me to tell him to attack you? A dog wouldn’t attack his own master.” The gentleman backed off quickly.
An environmentalist long before it became fashionable, Robby collected a mountain of discarded beer and soft drink cans from Bishop Creek and planted a sign on it proclaiming, “American Sportsman: This is your monument.” Angry fishermen destroyed the sign within hours.
I was never allowed to become a Boy Scout. I think it had to do with memories of the regimented, brownshirted Hitler Jugend with their daggers emblazoned with Kraft durch Freude and Robby’s strong aversion to uniforms on kids. He also hated the way the Scouts used their BSA hatchets and pocketknives to mutilate trees around camp.
He had a bit of the same problem with the Sierra Club, although he was a member. He felt their large family camps complete with elaborate cooking and sanitary facilities packed into the high country on mules tended to destroy rather than preserve nature, if only by concentrating too many people in one place.
Despite his mixed feelings about horses in the back country, Robby, who always preferred walking to riding, deeply respected the local packer Art Schober, who himself and with his own father had built many of the trails and named the lakes we so enjoyed. More than once Art, the sheriff and/or the coroner called on Robby to find and retrieve a dead or injured climber accessible only to someone with mountaineering skills. Again, this was before climbing became popular in the U.S.
I remember he didn’t say much after having been awakened by Art in the middle of the night and returning only the next afternoon from one such rescue mission. The girl had fallen from Emerald Peak. Apparently she had removed her shoes and tried to take a shortcut back to the Sierra Club base camp. He carried her alone down the mountain to where the mule Hearsie waited with a body bag. Hearsie was so named because he was the only mule who didn’t mind carrying “dead weight.”
One overweight climber was injured in a fall from Mt. Humphrey in the Evolution Basin. Robby and Art carried him many miles in a stretcher to the trail head at North Lake, stopping periodically to administer blood transfusions. He recovered, with never a word of thanks. Just left word that next year he was going to tackle the Matterhorn!
Art is gone now, and a new packer has taken his place. The new man has started bringing his stock over a new trail close to our cabin, awfully close to where my sister Claire’s ashes are buried.
In his later years, Robby often dreamed of moving back to Austria or Switzerland, but he never did. One reason was that he preferred the ruggedness of California’s Sierra Nevada range to his relatively civilized native Alps. “Here you could hike for days without ever seeing anyone,” he noted. “In Europe, you have mountain huts where you can buy a meal or spend the night.”
Robby left us on March 6, 2001, with Kay holding his hand. A couple of days before, Carlo came down and the two brothers had a chance to say goodbye, Carlo in his wheelchair, Robby in his hospital bed. I was glad to arrive in San Luis Obispo from Paris in time for him to recognize me, smile and squeeze my hand. Didn’t realize how important that would be for me.