He was the survivor of a Nazi concentration camp. His parents and sisters perished there.
I met Robert Walker when I was about eleven years old.
I’m not sure if Robert felt sorry for me, genuinely liked me, or thought I needed a break, but he had me home for a weekend. It was a rare opportunity to spend time in the city. Living on a farm, a religious commune, my brother and I worked hard as we had next to no mechanization.
“After the camp, when the war was over, I came to Canada. I was only ten years old. The family I lived with had a farm. I was paid by the blister.” He held out his hands, palms facing me. “Ten cents a blister. I made sure I had ten blisters. I needed that money.”
Robert showed me his coin collection and his stamp collection. He demonstrated how to remove a stamp from an envelope by soaking it in water, and he explained that fingerprints on a coin are bad because the oils, over time, can corrode the metal. He took me to museums and told me of the importance of wearing a seat belt and that if you’re going to do a lot of walking, the best thing for your feet were shoes with thick rubber soles.
It was so alien to me to have someone talk to me rather than at me. I’m sure I wasn’t an easy kid to like. I smelled bad, my hair spiked in crude chops, and I could be rude and crass, as a result of having lived apart from the world.
The kindness Robert showed me stayed with me, and now as an adult I wish I hadn’t lost touch with him. I wish I’d thanked him. He opened a window to a life that was possible, one I hadn’t conceived of on my own but that had sparked my imagination. A life of being clean, eating sandwiches on a deck in the sunshine, and laughing with people who are content.
The lamp on the bedside table was still on in Robert’s guest room. I had slept with the light on throughout my childhood for the nightmares. My brother and I were told the Devil was always watching for a moment of weakness so that he may possess our bodies and claim our souls. I often dreamed of a creature blacker than night who would appear out of the dark and sit on my chest and choke me.
But that night I thought about Robert and the Nazis and all that he had lost and endured. I turned off the light. I realized that there are demons in this world more real and frightening than anything my father could conjure. And Robert showed me that even a little boy could endure a long, dark night and still be whole when morning came.
John Callaghan at Get Off My Lawn
101 thoughts on “Ten Cents a Blister”
Marvelous post. So much courage and determination, and so much kindness. I am glad he entered your life, a mitzvah for sure.
Thank you. It really was one of those events that stays with you. It didn’t seem all that impactful at the time but it certainly became so later on.
Beautiful story. I hope one day you will be able to re-connect.
Maybe, I tried looking him up but I suspect he may not be on social media much. And thank you.
Reblogged this on Get Off My Lawn and commented:
I’ve been honoured to do a guest post for the Wayfarer at A Holistic Journey. So go on over and check it out.
What an amazing post a wonderful story thank you for sharing x
Oh, thank you so much. I’m practically blushing.
A beautiful post
Reblogged this on rixlibris.
Reblogged this on S.O.U.L. S-P-A-C-E.
Thank you. 🙂
The truth wins out over fiction every time!
Hahaha. You might be onto something. Thanks!
Something I’ve thought about this year. Though I grew up on fiction, your observation is the reason I have kept to nonfiction on this blog in my writing.
This was quite the powerful story! It leaves me wondering what happened next to you, to Robert, and to your family. I’m hoping for a happy ending for all of you. I’m off to check out your blog.
Well, I’d like to think I am having a happy ending but it was a very bumpy road. And, no, most of family did not have a happy ending. But my life today is as good as I could have hoped for.
A powerful example…our life’s acquaintances are never accidental. You were meant to meet, and be influenced by him. Such a great story. Thanks.
Thank you so much.
Inspiring post. I have too many reactions to put them all into words. Suffice it to say, from the bottom of my heart, thanks for your appreciation of what he gave you and for sharing it with us.
Oh my goodness, what kind words. Thank you.
“I have too many reactions to put them all into words.”
I know, right? =) HUG, Mona!!
Thanks guys. Geez, my poor wife. After all this high praise I may be insufferable to live with.
She’ll have to get you a bigger hat this Cmas to fit your head. LOL
Something in a ten gallon.
LOL At least you’re honest.
Actually, some of that is from the swelling under the bloody bandages. Your head should regain some normalcy with time.
Hahahaha. I think you’re right. The swelling is already starting to go down.
When the student is ready the teacher appears.
Children are so impressionable. Whatever my mood I always make a point of smiling at young children to let them know that the world is a friendly place.
It is a marvel how an encounter that was this fleeting in many ways stayed with me and imprinted itself on me.
And thank you.
I love the children too and they make me smile. The world is not a friendly place, so children need a ray of light here and there. I try to be that ray when I have opportunity.
That is such a beautiful thing you do, MG. A great reminder for us heavy-laden grown-ups.
Your rude but honest introduction to the world was this: “I realized that there are demons in this world more real and frightening than anything my father could conjure. And Robert showed me that even a little boy could endure a long, dark night and still be whole when morning came.”
Man’s inhumanity to man never ceases to amaze me. Today’s riots and brutality are so blatant I am not able to comprehend their mindlessness. And the media only exacerbates the problem.
But by meeting people like Robert, and what they have gone through, and seeing how he turned out, gives me much hope for humanity. And thank you for taking the time comment.
He sounds like he was a lovely and rare soul. It is amazing the impact one person can have on us.
Yes it is. And I don’t think he really was aware of what he was doing. He was just being kind for the sake of being kind and that alone made everything so much more impressive. Thanks for commenting.
When I think of Nazi Germany, I think of man trying to dehumanize their fellow man in the concentration camps. The Nazis failed in Robert Walker’s case because he saw your spirit (and your soul) despite your circumstances, your background or your “dirty” exterior. Your story filled me with hope!
Thank you so much. Yes, Robert turned out quite wonderful despite having a lot reasons to be bitter and full of hate. He gives us all hope in that way.
What a wonderful story! Loved it. Grieved for the boy you were and for another boy who got paid for blisters.
Thank you so much. Yeah, we that in common for sure, both of us were working pretty hard as kids.
You have a real gift for stripping things down to their essence in your writing like this. No false sentiment, no over-writing. It’s great. You honor the man by telling us about him and who he was to you.
Thank you so much. Your kind words mean a lot to me. But, I must give Diana full credit as an editor. So patient and kind, she was able to take my far too lengthy post and distill it down to what you see here. It was a fantastic education.
I must say your feedback is (supremely) gratifying; I love every word and how you’re mindful of overwriting. I appreciate the conscious reading.
John, I obviously did not write this beautiful piece for you. But I appreciate the acknowledgement. (I hope you changed your bloody bandages today. My knife’s been cleaned and put away. Evidence gone.) ^ ^
Hahahaha. Yes my bandages are clean but I do have some mild PTSD. I will heal over time though. I’m glad you put that knife away. At least for now.
Well, whatever you each contributed brought out the best in you both.
The closing line in this evocative piece gives me chills everytime. I enjoy your voice, too. The honesty, the simplicity. That line where you turned off the light is powerful and moving all on its own in the context. Yes, some parts could expand to a fuller story but the piece, as it stands, gives us artful and poignant glimpses into the parts of your childhood that were very difficult. You should submit this piece in a magazine. I also have great respect for those who did time in the trenches, who learned and developed character through the straight toil of their hands.
Along this line, Robert was indeed a remarkable man. It would’ve been generous of anyone to take you under in any way, but the kindness borne of such a traumatic past as his is astonishing. I am so pleased to be able to host his story and am glad you named him.
Ah-ah– no more thanks.
I am smiling as I read this. I am really pleased with how all this turned out. I think it was because of people like Robert that I had met at critical moments in my development that were the difference between me having the life I have now and me winding up in prison.
And I’ll stop thanking you. For now.
You have to keep that thanks in your breath and hold it until you publish this piece in a magz. And then you’d BETTER let it out.
I will. When the dust settles I will get going on that.
I hope you get the opportunity to thank Robert, John. What a testimony!
I hope so too. That would be wonderful.
Absolutely beautiful post. So glad you had someone there who showed you courage so you could sleep with the lights off (obviously Robert’s influence extended much further than that.)
As a parent, I am struck by the fact that if an adult offered to have my child over, I would decline out of fear of what their true intentions. Most people are good, and their influence would be wonderful, but evil is with us, in the every day as you say. I guess caution has its own downsides.
Really enjoyed this. Thanks for sharing.
I absolutely agree and I am suspicious of any man who wants to spend time with children who are not related to him (such are the times) but in the 70’s and early 80’s children ran to feral end of the spectrum and parenting was way, way, more lax than anything we have today. Thank you for your kind words.
“f an adult offered to have my child over, I would decline out of fear of what their true intentions.” Same here, EC. We have a lot in common.
There are people who come into our lives and, through their very being, influence us for the rest of our lives. Robert seems to have been one of these people. I remember a few teachers who played that role in my life and I am forever grateful. It also reminds me that we can be that person for someone else. One of the key factors for resilience and surviving a difficult childhood is an influential person like Robert, a role model who shows us that life can be different than what we are accustomed to, who give us hope and courage to carry on and find our own way thru the darkness.
I couldn’t agree more. The importance of simply demonstrating a way to live is something I absorbed and must have incorperated along the way. And he did this just by simply being himself. He was so patient and kind and content in his own skin. But it was also his home and how he carried himself, and having accomplished this after he had lived a nightmare I can scarcely contemplate. All of this seemed to seep into me, and in some way, became a reserve of hope when things had gone badly.
Great post, John. I’m not even sure where to start about why it is. One of the thing that amazes me about Holocaust survivors is how so many of them were able to still find optimism and hope in the world. I think that’s probably the best lesson we could learn from them. I’m glad you had the opportunity, when you were young, for such an incredible interaction with him.
My wife is Jewish. Her uncle survived Auschwitz. He never talked about it until Steven Spielberg started his project of videotaping living survivors. Somewhere buried in that project is a video of her uncle. I wonder what he says in it. I wonder what we could learn from him now.
Anyway, like I said, I don’t even know where to start. And, know I don’t know how to end this. Thanks for sharing your experience and your memories.
I understand. The Holocaust is so vast. I only wish I’d appreciated Robert more at the time, showed a little more curiosity, but maybe that’s why we got along. I didn’t ask a lot of questions but I did listen keenly to all his stories. Maybe that’s what he needed and it was something I could give.
Thank you for the kind words.
“The Holocaust is so vast.” That may be the best five word description of the thing ever.
I liked your sentence: “A life of being clean, eating sandwiches on a deck in the sunshine, and laughing with people who are content.”
I didn’t discover the beauty of this until later in life. It wasn’t part of my childhood home. How important to make this discovery.
Thanks for the wonderful story and great writing.
Thank you so much for the kind words. And yes, it amazes me how much I appreciate normalcy. When you grow up in fear and chaos it is the small simple events, the routine of a stable life, that can become so important.
It’s nice to remember people like this from our childhood.
Yes it is. Thank you for reading, and commenting.
WOW. The experiences that Robert Walker would had to endure would have been horrific and unimaginable. Yet to not let them break him, but instead to rise above and give dignity, respect and worth like he did with you, shows a man with GREAT character.
Thank you for sharing this. It was a wonderful and refreshing read.
Thank you Carl. Yes, he certainly was exceptional. If had endured what he did I’m not sure I would have turned a wonderful as Robert.
Thank you for posting your story…It brought hope into my life this morning! Again, thank you!
You’re welcome. And that you for the kind words.
Please publish – more need to read this. Many more.
Thanks. Yes, I haven’t really given too much thought to publishing my stuff just yet, but that’s something I’ll start working on in the new year. And thanks again for the kind words.
I also like the direct style of your writing. Sometimes children can be extremely lucky by having someone in their lives who gives them what a parent isn’t capable of giving. But, there was something in your personality that was open to receive it. It is a two way street.
Thank you Ginene. Yes, I suppose it was a two way street. Although I think Robert gave me much more than I gave him.
Great story ~ you two seemed a perfect fit at a perfect time. You are both lucky men, and while you may not have kept in touch ~ I’d bet not a week goes by where he doesn’t have fond thoughts about you. Excellent writing…and I like the 10-blisters story, I’m going to use that on my nephews.
Thank you so much. Yes, the timing does seem to be perfect. Oh, your poor nephews, ten blisters requires a lot labour :-).
🙂 It is good for them, builds character! Wish you well ~
He he. Korean mama says go for it. Yes, help build their character. 😛
You guys are scary. 🙂
He he. Husband said (complained) last night: “With you, it’s seven days of work. I’ve been playing with him. It’s Sunday. I’m tired. I’m going to rest.”
You shame us all with your work ethic. The amount of work you’ve put into these posts is jaw dropping.
Ha, ha ~ then it is a go 🙂 Cheers ~
this is wonderful writing, the kind I like to read.
Thank you :-).
Demons are certainly out these in the spiritual world, but as you’ve rightly pointed out some of the devils in our live are of our own making and our imagination.
Thank you for commenting.
Great post and great story John. It is funny how we remember snippets of our lives so vividly and people who we have met no matter how brief. He obviously made an impression and I can see why.
I know, eh. It was brief but the impact was intense. I think a big part of it was he really wasn’t trying to impress me, but just teach me.
Oh, and thank you (geez, I almost forgot to say thanks).
I think our relationship has moved beyond the obligatory thanks…. It’s a given and taken for granted 😛
Like an old married couple. 🙂
“I realized that there are demons in this world more real and frightening than anything my father could conjure. And Robert showed me that even a little boy could endure a long, dark night and still be whole when morning came.” Aww, this is so beautiful and well written! 🙂
Thank you. That sentence came a lot easier than some of the others.
A beautiful, poignant story here. The darkness comes in many forms, but the light, oh the light, can bring us back and give us strength to inspire others.
Yes, and I’ve been fortunate in my life that I’ve been able to see and appreciate the light when it does shine. Thank you for commenting.