My grandfather passed away recently. He was 96 years old, God rest his soul.
My brother Faris wrote a beautiful article about him, which I’m sharing it with you today, with his permission. I think it expresses perfectly how all his grandchildren felt about our “opa.”
My grandfather used to spend a few nights a week in our empty house when we were away. He’d bring along one of his hunting rifles. I once asked what he would do if he came across a burglar at night.
“First I’d shoot him dead, then I’d fire a round into the ceiling.”
When I asked why he would shoot at the ceiling, he explained that he’d tell the police he had fired a warning shot, and then at the burglar. I was absolutely certain that he meant it; I was far less certain the police would believe that any sane burglar would stick around after hearing a gunshot.
For as long as I can remember, Günter Presser had grey hair. In my childhood, he was the closest thing I knew to a real-life super hero. I was pretty sure that he was the strongest person I knew. He was the embodiment of that cliche: They don’t make ’em like that anymore. He could build anything, fix anything, carry anything, and he had lots and lots of guns. Grandfathers don’t come any cooler than this.
He had a workshop kitted out with every tool imaginable, and as far as I could tell, he used every one of them. I’d spend many an hour in his workshop, whittling away at blocks of wood, making air planes, badly constructed vaguely recognisable cars, and on one occasion a throwing knife (don’t ask). My grandfather – or Opa as we called him, walked in once as I was filing away, trying to get a round edge on a plank of wood, and calmly told me: “That’s wood, and you’re using a metal file”.
He didn’t talk much, which was probably just as well since he had difficulty hearing. Truth be told, he chose not to use his hearing aid. Many of us suspected that he genuinely wasn’t interested in the prattle the family engaged in. When he did talk, his speech was often laced with a wicked sense of humour. It should also be noted that in other ways, he was the quintessential granddad: he’d sit his young grandchildren (and great grandchildren!) on his knee and lovingly dote on them.
For the vast majority of my years, I don’t ever recall him drinking water. “It puts lice in your stomach!!” he would exclaim to anyone foolish enough to ask if he would like some. His liquid intake as far as I could tell consisted primarily of coffee and beer, supplemented by whisky.
When I was 12 , he bought me a hunting crossbow. This weapon had a lethal range of 50 meters. When I say lethal, I mean it. I was 12. My older brother was incredulous at the recklessness of such a gift, but for Opa, 12 was a perfectly good age to wield weaponry. Children should be well versed in the safe use of knives and guns. A self-evident truth for a hunter.
He once told me about how he would take my mother along on his hunting trips when she was still a little girl. They’d sit patiently on a high-up hunting perch and he would wait for a deer or wild boar to wander through the forest. When he shot something, he’d have to go and fetch it. Before he left the perch, he told his young daughter:
“Take this rifle and point the barrel down the ladder. If anyone comes up that isn’t me, pull the trigger”
How truthful his retelling is, I don’t know. But again, I can’t help but feel the certainty in his conviction: You don’t hesitate to do what it takes if someone threatens your family. There is a certain coldness in this. But it helps to remember that Günter Presser was born in 1918. 1918, when Germany had been crushed utterly in a war that it instigated. It is difficult to think of today’s economic powerhouse in that way; devastated and stripped of everything. “My family would boil grass, because there was nothing else to eat” – my grandmother explained to me. Destitute and starving, the Germany of the young Günter.
My knowledge of his participation in the next war is limited. He was a flight instructor and then later an active pilot. His job towards the end of the war was to intercept and destroy enemy bombers. He very rarely talked about it to me. Occasionally though, he would. He explained to me that they used to fly under the bombers and fire upwards at the plane. And how this was especially dangerous if the bomber opened its fully loaded bay doors. I was far too young at the time to understand just how insane this was.
There are a couple of other stories I’m aware of. The time he pulled his pistol and pointed it at the man that told him the train was “too full” for his wife and child. Upon seeing the gun, that man suddenly realised the train was absolutely not too full after all. There was also the time he went to great lengths to break his own shoulder in an American POW camp. Injured men were more likely to be released and he wanted to go back to his family.
All in all though, didn’t mention his time in the war very often and I didn’t ask. How do you go about asking something like that? “Tell me about the worst years of your life?”. No, I decided it was best to let him talk when he wanted to. My place was to shut up and listen.
After the war he moved to a little place called “Bahrain”. He had responded to an ad in a trade journal. If he hadn’t, I wouldn’t be typing these words. Again, I am woefully unaware of the details of his life in Bahrain, but I do know that he gave his blessing for his daughter to marry a Saudi lawyer. Considering he grew up in a time where racial purity was unfortunately a recurring theme, this is to my mind an incredible thing. Beyond that, there’s not much I know of. He lived in Bahrain for many years, and then retired back to Germany.
His real love (in addition to his wonderfully devoted wife) was hunting. I think the only sane place in the world for him was the seclusion of the dark forest. He took me with him on a couple of occasions. He didn’t shoot anything. We just sat on the perch, wrapped in silence and blankets. Waiting. Well, I was waiting. I’m not at all sure he was actually waiting. I think it might be more accurate to say he was being.
In Germany, the hunter is part of the forest. An integral part of it. And Günter Presser loved the forest. He went hunting well into his 80s. It kept him alive more than anything in this world. The day he could no longer do it, was the day his life lost much of its meaning.
My grandfather passed away this week, and I feel as I always do when someone I love passes away. I can’t help but wish I had known them better, asked more questions. But that’s the way it goes. I can’t change the past.
All I can do is remember that real-life super hero. I push aside the image of that old man in his chair – the 96 year-old man who no longer recognises me and can barely walk, and replace it with the image of the white-haired giant. He’s striding towards the door with his hunting cap on and a rifle slung over his shoulder:
(Hail hunter, grandpa!)
“Waidmanssdank, mein Bub!”
( A hunter’s thanks, my lad!)