Ten Cents a Blister

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

    • 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. 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.


  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. I too struggle to find the right adjectives to describe this piece. Emotionally, it touches so many places. For a short piece, it covers such a spectrum. That is storytelling at its best. I particularly loved “A life of being clean, eating sandwiches on a deck in the sunshine, and laughing with people who are content.” So few words, so much packed in. That alone can summon the imagination.

    For some reason, and I am not sure why, I heard the word “Namaste” after reading this. Some have defined the word as meaning “The Spirit within me honours and respects the Spirit within you”. There is something in the relationship you and Robert had that seemed to follow that direction. There was something in you he saw that he acknowledged and felt compelled to share his wisdom with you.

    Thank you for this, John. Fantastic story.


    • 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. “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! 🙂

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