My father with his instruments; my first intercontinental trip
My first name, OLGA, is from my mother.
My last name, SZOKOLAY, is from my husband.
My middle name, VÁLLAY, is from my father and I would find it very unfair to leave him out of me. They all have passed and I am their only heir, the only guardian of their collective memory.
Ever since we first met, my father and I had been best of friends. He was a merchant marine captain, at sea for several months at a time. That’s why our first meeting took place only when I was about eight months old and Mom felt it safe to travel with me to Germany where we embarked on his ship, the Badacsony, after midnight. She put me down on the bed in Dad’s cabin. He looked at me, I opened my eyes from a deep sleep to give him a broad smile and drifted back to dreamland. Our friendship thus became sealed forever.
Dad lost his mother when he was 10. Their father soon remarried but he, his younger brother and their baby sister were raised by their loving aunt and grandmother in Budapest. At 14, with the help of their uncle, both boys were sent to Fiume (now Rijeka), to study at the Nautical Academy, the school that had also been Regent Horthy’s alma mater. Having graduated at the end of WWI in 1918, in the confusion Dad was not assigned to a ship but was enlisted in the Army.
There was an epidemic of dysentery among the young soldiers and they filled the field hospital at the Croatian seafront city of Pula. My father contracted a bad case of the debilitating disease that, in those pre-antibiotic days was more frequently lethal than not. By his account, the deceased were carried out hourly. Recognizing that this most probably would be his own fate, he decided to exit from this miserable world pleasurably. Under his bed he had hidden a shoe-boxful of his beloved Linzer pastry, baked and sent to him by his grandmother. He opened the box and ate its contents to the last crumb. The doctor, making his rounds, caught him in the act and waved his hand in resignation: “Young man, you’ll be carried out of here soon…”
Instead, next morning that young man walked out from the hospital. Decades later, some physician friends assured him that he had done the right thing: some ingredients of the Linzer, probably the almonds, contain some known antidote of dysentery. Dad’s instincts served him right. Otherwise I would not be writing this now…
In time, he had jobs on various ships and sailed around much of the world. In the mid-twenties, being fed up with seasickness, he decided to settle down on land. It was in New Orleans where he started a house-painting company, and at the same time was adopted by a childless older local Hungarian couple. Decades later he tried to establish his American citizenship and our immigration on that basis but was notified that adoption does not grant that privilege.
He wanted to settle permanently in the U.S. but went back to marry a Hungarian girl. That part of his plan worked. He met my mother, they fell in love and they became engaged. But she refused to move to America. So he abandoned his original plan and took a job on a Hungarian merchant ship, the Tátra that, as part of some deal, may have sailed under the Panamanian flag after the war. They married in 1928 and, after enjoying some marvelous traveling together, had a baby girl in 1930.
Dad was the captain of the ill-fated Tátra when, in early 1931, during a bad storm they became shipwrecked on the Aegean Sea, near Seriphos. More precisely, the cursed ship’s engines stopped and the vessel was dangerously drifting among the rocky shoals. He ordered “Abandon Ship.” All evacuated into lifeboats, however, one of the boats with a dozen men capsized and all aboard perished.
By a wicked twist of fate, when a rescue ship arrived and tested the engines, they started up like magic, rendering the evacuation unwarranted! My father survived the ordeal but became the target of a merciless lawsuit. Newspapers covered the story on a regular basis, blaming him for the unnecessary death of his men. Ultimately, he was exonerated but arrived home to the sad news, that their six-month-old firstborn baby girl had died of encephalitis.
Although it was the death of one child, it was the beginning of life for another: me. Upon his acquittal, he became captain of the Badacsony, where we first met.
The Great Depression reached Europe somewhat belatedly. That is how those Hungarian ships kept sailing until 1934-35. Then, however, all the shipping companies went out of business and all the personnel had to go home. Home, where there were no jobs.
Dad’s unemployment had me as the only beneficiary. He and I went for regular long walks that we both enjoyed immensely. He explained to me everything we saw, from nature’s workings in flowers, to the sky and its inhabitants. The fact that I was interested in everything delighted him. Once my parents and I ran into some friends with their son my age, in the street, as we both were preschoolers. The adults started chatting as usual, of their boring grown-up stuff until they began staring at us kids: I was walking circles around the boy while rotating about myself. The parents, puzzled, asked what we were doing and I said without hesitation: “I am explaining the solar system to Tibi. He is the Sun and I am the Earth.”
In spite of our delightful free time together, Dad was facing serious financial problems. We were not able to afford a place of our own, so at one point, during the winter months we lived at the summer house of friends, in one of the suburbs of Budapest, and at my uncle’s apartment in the summer while they were vacationing in the country. During tourist season, my father was occasionally called to be a tour guide. Some of his clients maintained a correspondence with him and a dear lady from Philadelphia not only sent me a Shirley Temple doll with a rich wardrobe handmade by her, but after the war she sent us packages of food and clothing that kept us well fed and clad in luxury. Dad was also giving language lessons in English, Italian and Spanish, but that was just about our sole income.
Fortunately, by the time I came of school age, my father had a permanent job as translator at the Department of Defense and finally we could afford to rent a small apartment.
Dad always fostered my independence and self-reliance. At age seven, I could travel alone in the City, taking streetcars. His office was in the Castle District where I loved to meet him, taking the funicular (Sikló) from the Chain Bridge (Lánchid). During school vacations, we attended Mass together at the Mátyás Church where he enjoyed the acoustics, the fine music and the uplifting ambience. But he claimed that one could most intensely feel the presence of God on sentry duty at the bridge of a ship in the middle of the night on the ocean. Although not a regularly practicing Catholic, he firmly believed in “Deus in pecto,” that God was in us, therefore we should never do anything unworthy of that.
Besides his regular employment, Dad was also adjunct teacher at the Budapest limited Nautical Academy, educating future generations of personnel for the 10,000-ton Danube-Black-Sea-sailing Hungarian ships. He also continued giving private language lessons to youngsters and adults. Again, I was the accidental beneficiary, overhearing and absorbing some of the material, reinforced by occasional conversations at the dinner table when he would say: “English has such a suitable expression for that…” It made me learn at an early age the differences in ways of expressing thought, rather than translating verbatim.
Dad taught me another precious life gift, which was how to sail, basically in one lesson, across Lake Balaton.
With his inquisitive, active mind, my father was motivated to invent. Watching the slabs of ice on the Danube from our apartment windows in the winter, he was seriously working on the idea of preventing floods by ice dams on rivers. He built models representing the problem, without ever succeeding.
His creative planning, however, had to be soon utilized for more imminent issues. During the bombing phase of WWII, Dad was elected air-raid protection captain of our large apartment house. Recruiting volunteer help from fellow residents, he had rudimentary but sturdy bunk beds built in the basement, for eventual overnight sojourns. They proved to be lifesavers during the six-week siege of Budapest. The 130 inhabitants’ cooking on one small stove was arranged on a 24-hour schedule. He also organized procurement and rationing of water after the central boiler’s supply had run out.
Dad put strong emphasis on my getting a college degree, in order to ensure that I had independence for life. This also would enable me to marry for love, not for financial dependence on a husband.
It worked! And it made me believe firmly that girls, who enjoy a relaxed, trusting relationship with their father while growing up, would be able to relate to men more successfully all their lives.
He approved and welcomed my emigration to America with my husband. We ultimately achieved the dream of his youth, and he vicariously enjoyed his first grandchild as well as every free heartbeat of ours.
Unfortunately, his own heartbeat stopped much too soon. His second stroke took him mere months before his 59th birthday. The wreath I ordered for his funeral had this on the ribbon:
“You’ll continue living in us – Olgi and Family”
Olga Vállay Szokolay is an architect and Professor Emerita of Norwalk Community College, CT after three decades of teaching. She is a member of the Editorial Board of Magyar News Online.