The Austria trip — Part VI: Alpine leisure

27 JUNE 2018 — Across the valley, in the town of Meiters, was an alpine slide. We tried to reach it the day before from the backside of the mountain, but GPS led us to a dead-end. Katherine and I later spotted its steep, serpentine path during our hike and were eager to get up close. The day was breezy and partly cloudy. An enclosed gondola lifted us to the top of the mountain for a gorgeous ridge-line view of the valley—Telfes below and Innsbruck in the distance. The slide wasn’t running yet—it was weather-dependent, although there was no sign of rain. Thankfully the park had plenty to offer.


A restaurant attracted the hiking crowd, who enjoyed steins of beer at eleven in the morning. Cow pies dotted the ground and a trail led us down to an artificial lake and a playground packed with school kids. A raft could be pulled across the pond using a rope. A group of school boys attempted to cross, only to topple into the shallow water halfway across. Some fell gleefully, others in tears.

I was determined to go down the alpine slide; my wife even more so. We lingered by the entrance, studying the operators. The sun was shining but dark clouds brewed in the eastern sky. Two crewmen went down to test the track. After thirty minutes of waiting, we got the green light. Katherine fearlessly claimed the first sled. It was like a modified go-cart, with skateboard wheels clinging to a single track that was elevated about a foot off the ground. In place of a steering wheel was a throttle. Pull forward to speed up, pull back to brake. With barely a minute to settle into our carts, Katherine zipped ahead, followed by me and Lee. My mom decided to play it safe and take the gondola down—and she had good reason. Instantly, the mountain dropped off and we plunged downward, cutting through the trees, accelerating with the G-forces of a mini roller coaster, as fast as forty-two kilometers an hour. With no one ahead, Katherine had the rail to herself, free to go as fast or slow as she pleased (she went fast). I tried to keep up, but some sharp turns warned me to be smarter with the brakes. A few exhilarating minutes passed (time got lost in the adrenaline rush) before the land leveled off and we made our final approach to the gondola station. Even as I decelerated, the end of the line came racing fast. And then it was done, a thrill from start to finish. Lee trailed behind, exercising caution but still keeping up speed. Other carts stacked up behind her. My sister and her family stayed atop the mountain, their window for the slide closing as rain clouds blew closer.

Without them, we set off on a scenic backroad towards Innsbruck to complete the rest of my mother’s visit. We found the apartment building where her family’s Austrian friends resided and hosted them once for Saint Nicholas Day (including a visit from the menacing Krampus). Heavy rain fell as we parked briefly outside, then continued on to the major destination (Rum) as oldies played on the stereo. The military base where my grandfather was stationed, as well as the children’s school, was a short drive east of Innsbruck. We followed the main streets they would’ve driven, awakening my mom’s memories of bus rides to and from, as well as the neighborhoods where certain classmates lived. 

In 1945, as Allied forces ultimately reclaimed the Austrian territory annexed by the Germans, the nation was quartered amongst the victors. The USSR claimed the eastern side, while the USA, UK and France split the western (Vienna was an equally divided city like Berlin). In 1952, the French left North Tyrol to the Americans, which included a storage depot and military base. My grandfather was fortunate not to be sent overseas during the war, but finally got to see the world in relative peacetime. He was assigned Provost Marshal of Camp Rum, essentially a chief of police in the occupied state. While the camp had a general purpose as resources came in through Italy and Austria worked to regain its independence, it was also a strategic front, an escape route should the Soviets in the east turn hostile. The presence of the soldiers’ wives and children were part of the ruse—a tight knit community who would evacuate together if necessary. Although, my grandmother famously said she would rather face the Russian Army than share a car with the mother she was assigned to and her unruly boys.

Camp Rum, 1954. Photo by a “spy” who turned out to be the provost marshal’s wife (also my grandmother).

Camp Rum, 1954. Photo by a “spy” who turned out to be the provost marshal’s wife (also my grandmother).

The town of Rum was a few kilometers east of Innsbruck, a suburban tendril of the sprawling city, small and unassuming. A supermarket sat on the edge of the fields where the military base once stood. After Austria regained its independence in 1955, the Americans packed up and went home; my grandfather found a new Stateside post but the fate of Camp Rum was unknown. Remnants had since disappeared. Of the few photos I could find from the 1950s, there were few clues of what the camp looked like—just a cluster of small buildings and warehouses, intentionally inconspicuous. The sky cleared in time for us to walk around briefly, despite there being little to see.

I watched my mom as she tried to piece it together in her mind. Yes, this was the place, but unlike her former homes in Innsbruck, it was difficult to remember where exactly everything was.

We could’ve lingered longer if not for the need to get back to Telfes. Dinner plans awaited us for our final night together as a group of eight. We changed quickly, then hopped on the little red tram that ran hourly into the city. It was nice to take in the scenery without adhering to GPS and the confusion of unfamiliar roads. The alpine environment changed steadily into urban density. It was pouring rain when we got off in downtown Innsbruck. We shopped for gifts and souvenirs (and more importantly, umbrellas), then settled at an outdoor cafe beneath the Goldenes Dachl. Unseen TVs played the World Cup as locals cheered Germany’s loss to South Korea. Rain pelted the ground and scattered the tourists, but eventually the sky cleared and rebalanced the people-to-water ratio.


A short walk away was Die Wilderin, a modern farm-to-table restaurant tucked inside a little arcade. It had the lively comfort of a modern French bistro, dark wood and white walls, creamy in the soft light, with an upper level artfully encircling the main floor. We settled upstairs at a long table, entertained by a friendly host. First cocktails, then an amazing meal. As with any great dining experience, it is always over too soon, deliberating satisfaction with one’s chosen entrées or wishing to have tried another. 

A taxi brought us back to Telfes at twilight, and we spent the evening relaxing with dessert and wine. From the balcony, we watched the full moon rise from behind the mountain ridge, listening to the serenity of the valley, the gentle roar of alpine air, reluctant to leave this beautiful pocket of the world. It was agreed, of all the places we had collectively visited, this was one highly worthy of a return visit.


[More photos can be seen on my Flickr site.]

Armistice Day

“Well, finis la guerre!” my great grandfather wrote to his wife from the front lines, a day after Armistice. He was an officer serving with the American Red Cross, a 48-year-old physician from Montana. He described the sudden shift from war to peace, danger to jubilation on the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918. 

Dearest Mabel:

Well, finis la guerre!

Yesterday morning early the wireless told us that the Boche was going to sign but we fired till the last minute and, funny to relate, I had the closest call of the war just 6 minutes before they ceased firing. C battery commander, L——, went out with a 2nd Lt. named Luke Sunday afternoon looking for advance —— positions and never came back so yesterday morning —— and I went up in the car to the advance ambulance stations to see if we could weed out anything about there. We pulled out of Thiaucourt at 10:46 and just as we got to Xammes we went into a bunch of 77 bursts and how we got out I don’t know as they fell all round us. We got behind a house at 10:56. It seemed every —— on both sides of the front was firing as fast as it could and stones were flying in all directions when suddenly – 11 o’clock! Silence! And we drove home through the villages and the bands were getting out and the roads were —— with cheery troops. We found out today that they had been taken prisoners. Hard luck, last day of the war.

Last night had a big dinner at Ades, the colonel & some other ——. Lots of champagne and toasts for the best battalion of the best Artillery Regiment on the front. (Suppose every other Regiment doing the same thing.) The sky was full of German fireworks. They say the Boche is tickled to death that peace has come. Rumor has it that we are going to Metz for garrison duty, but I think I have done my bit and will apply to be put on the inactive list and come home as soon as the chance offers. See stocks going up. Did you get out of —. P. Ry? Have not heard from Lawrence [his eldest son] for several days but have an impression that he was not sent back. You asked a question about whether we are division troops. No. We are what is called Army Artillery. JKB can explain. We go in to support division movements or hold difficult sectors that the ordinary divisional artillery cannot alone and unsupported take care of.

Lawrence’s duties were mostly administrative and the action of carrying orders from the front line to the battalion echelon. Well, Georgie boy, Daddy will be home soon.

Best love, dear ——


Public domain at a premium price

I recently shared some important documents with my distant cousins who happen to be among the few relatives I know who actually have an interest in our family history. The files were scans of our ancestors' burial records, which I found during last research trip to England. Since these cousins have provided me with phenomenal ancestral artifacts, I had no qualms about sharing my findings with them. It also inspired me to scan more of my precious discoveries, instead of letting them remain dormant in a folder and allowing my poor predecessors to be forgotten by their own flesh and blood.

Only after sending out the emails, did I realize my foolishness. I committed what is considered to be a sin in the world of intellectual property: giving away my work for free. It's a common mistake for us genealogy folk, and I don't really think any of us consider the results of our actions.

While genealogical records are essentially free or inexpensive for anyone access, I had made a considerable effort to unearth them, an effort that required both time and money. While anyone can walk into the Berkshire Record Office in Reading, getting there takes a bit of investment. I gave up a valuable week of vacation time to cross the ocean, and beg my British friends to drive me around the English countryside. Every purchase I made was in pounds sterling, which at the time was double the cost of an American dollar. It was like being on one trip for the price of two!

With this in mind, my thoughts turn to putting some proprietary control on my findings. Not on the records themselves, but on my research. My concern isn't with sharing an important find with a fellow researcher, it's what that fellow researcher does with the document. Digital files are like rabbits - in the right situation, they can multiple rapidly and prolifically. My generous exchange with a distant cousin suddenly allows future generations to freely benefit from my thousand-dollar research trip.

The best solution seems to be putting a watermark on any digital files that I share, and to make the files as low resolution as possible. If someone wants a high-resolution file without the watermark, then they will have to pay me for it. If they don't want to pay, then they can go get the document from the source themselves, "for free".

This attitude sounds a little greedy, doesn't it? Here I am, taking exclusive control of public records. The truth of it is, these records aren't free. And if my relatives, no matter how close or how distant, are willing to share the financial burden, then we all will benefit (this is starting to sound a lot like the American public healthcare debate). After all, charges a hefty fee to use their services, so why shouldn't a small time genealogist? Or even a hobbyist for that matter?

Now, there is an added benefit to putting a watermark on these files. Because copies can be made and shared so easily, the added text will actually help keep track of who found the document to begin with. So often I see fellow family researchers emailing or posting documents and photos with no mention of the source. And if you ask, they frequently have no idea of where it came from. There is an original copy out there somewhere, but nobody knows where it is. This is Genealogy 101, people! Cite your sources! This is going to be crucial as we move into the digital future, where paper becomes a thing of the past (I do believe that paper records will go the way of another type of record - vinyl - and live on as a precious premium item).

Of course, I'll only do this on documents that I know no one else has. Common things like census records and certain photographs won't matter as they've already been widely distributed. And if I do charge a relative for the cost of doing our shared family research, then that will add value, in their eyes, to the document and make them think twice before giving away their purchase for free. It's simple economics.

The same goes for my professional genealogy research. Since one person is actually paying me to research their family, the watermark will help them keep tabs on their investment, should some ignorant or unscrupulous relative of theirs decide to freely distribute a valuable document.

Any thoughts on this would be appreciated.

Corporate Diaspora

As the cooling economy has slowed down human migration this past year, it’s worth reflecting how intense relocation has been during the past few decades. Historically, humans have always migrated for job opportunities, but usually for just one move per generation. Today we see families relocate multiple times as a result of the Corporate Diaspora, where distant job opportunities liken white-collar executives with nomadic migrant workers.

The end result will be a genealogist’s nightmare. How do you track a family that jumps from Cincinnati to Silicon Valley to suburban Connecticut, all within a decade? Without wars, famines, religious persecutions or gold rushes to help a historian pinpoint the movements of a twentieth century family, the trail becomes muddled. When the census records finally get released, families might have moved several times between surveys. They might even end back in the town where they began, burying a significant story in the cracks of decentennial paperwork.

With any luck, our descendants will have better access to information about our lives than the generations before us. But should the data of today get lost in the digital dust, it will be no easier to map the life of a twenty-first century office worker than that of a seventeenth century peasant.