Klinic am Zurichberg

The sacred corn


We recline on the bed in our little cubicle room, Karla and me, volunteer workers on a seaside kibbutz. We have worked long and hard and now we rest. She is Swiss. Sometimes she speaks in German as we sleep. This evening when she wakes we abandon ourselves to it while the Frenchman Gerard who wants his radio, bangs, bangs, bangs and wallops the flimsy wood door. In our play making we do not hear his desperate shouts, his aching cries, his incessant pounding fists. After a time we arch and stretch, tremble and shake. Then loose ourselves in a tangle of dreams.

Work: Each morning at 5am, we volunteers, a dozen or so young people from various country’s who live in a line of tumble down shacks, douse the kerosene heaters, wash up, get dressed, trudge to the well built eating hall, dine on fresh bread, pear juice, fresh cheese, then board the tractor pulled trolley, which takes us to far away fields.

From 6am to 2pm we work hard beneath the pummeling sun. In the peanut fields there are endless rows of flat cabbage-like clusters hugging the ground. We form up ten meters apart. We bear our pitchforks like soldiers set to attack though our task is different. We skillfully thrust the long curved prongs beneath the dry clumps, lift, twirl and flip them over, let them fall to place, moist side up, which the sun will dry. Over and over we do that until it’s time for a break. We talk and joke with the thin, shaggy haired kibbutznicks, wipe the crud and dirt from our eyes. After fifteen minutes we return to work.

Some days we labor in the orange groves. We wear long burlap sacks with strong canvass belts that loop our shoulders. We climb up sturdy wood ladders that lean hard against the stubborn trees. We pull, twist, pluck the ripe yellow fruit, drop it into the sack. When the bag is full we trudge like turtles to a large wooden box, upend the bag, empty out half a hundred pounds. Over and over we pluck and twist, harvest the golden fruit until our blistered hands are chaffed and red. Sometimes, when the kibbutznik is away, we have orange fights. We pelt each other, we pelt the wooden box, we waste hundreds of dollars worth of fruit. And sometimes we steal the sweet pulpy eggs, peel away the golden skin, eat our secrets at just the right time and just the right place.

Some days we snip avocados with long wood stemmed shears. It’s a tiresome task but the shady groves are quiet, sad and beautiful.

We clean cow sheds. Armed with shovels and brooms we sweep and scrub, hose the sheds down, smile at our hard earned stench.

Worst is the work with chickens. The boxy shack is the size of an airplane hanger. At 2am we don canvass gloves and cotton masks; we wear our filthiest jeans and long sleeved shirts. The Chicken Woman, for that is what we call her, shows us how to do it. One must walk calmly amongst the sleepy birds, deftly scoop them up, two in the right hand, two in the left, calmly walk to the narrow doorways either side of the shed, hand the fluttering upside down birds to waiting kibbutznicks, who thrust them into plastic cages, stack them on trucks. Back and forth. Back and forth. We volunteers walk like zombies, arms held stiffly at our sides, then quickly we strike. After a time the birds strike back. This is when I punch them, knocking them out, with my canvass gloved fist. Some volunteers laugh when the feathered heads droop and the avian eyes go dead. Others mumble beneath their masks. It’s the same with the oranges. They say I throw too hard. They say I don’t know when to stop. They say that’s not right. But what do they know? Do they have nightmares? Do they have crying spells? Do they take Valium to barely get by? I doubt it.  But somehow it all works and we are all friends. Except for long haired, short, stocky Bella, who broods and broods because he wants Karla back. We are not friends and keep our distance.

Lunch: Lunch at the eating hall is a great communal tabernacle affair. There are piles of food. Mountains of it. Set out before us: A rainbow of fresh caught fish neatly stacked in serried ranks. A garden of emerald salads. Wicker baskets hold fresh baked bread, pans of sweet roll pastries; there are boxes and boxes of mouth watering cookies and squares of cake. We eat all we want and we often eat much because the next day we will work and work and burn it all off. Six out of seven days we do that.

After lunch, we volunteers change clothes, gather at the pebbled beach, where the waves are soft, the young men are fit, the young women beautiful, and the emerald ocean makes us clean.

Like the others, Karla and I lay on a towel spread out on the sun warmed sand. Her long brown hair falls to her shoulders in salty ringlets. After a time I say, “Come closer.” Because the sun begins to set. And soon it will be dark, and soon we volunteers will gather round a campfire, to sing, or dance, or just be young.

One night Karla wakes and screams. She plucks a rock from beneath the pillow. She looks at me strange. “Your dog is dead,” she says through a mask of fear. Then she runs away. I lose her and find her and grab her just before the speeding car turns the bend. She screams and howls like a wounded animal. The kibbutznicks take her to another town.

“To a hospital,” they say.

After work, every other day, I visit her. An armed guard with a side arm tucked in a green nylon holster patrols the stony grounds at the one storey ramshackle psychiatric center. I show him my passport. He lets me pass to the locked ward. The ward where the crazy women are kept. When the large metal door creeks open a dozen crazy women throb round me like butterflies, the better to touch and touch the top of my head. Karla stands back. She has been medicated. She walks forward in a slow-slumber step. Her head hangs low, she can hardly speak. There is little life in her eyes.

Later, the kibbutz nurse asks, “Why do you go? Why do go? It’s hopeless. Haven’t you read I Never Promised You a Rose Garden?” I say, “Because I love her.” After a month the medication is reduced and Karla is set to go home. We go for a walk on the stony hospital grounds. She’s alert, smiling, captivating.

We’re given a private room in the locked ward. Karla wears a wool sweater, blue jeans and cowboy boots, not often seen in Israel. As we lay on the spring coil bed the locked ward women peer at us through a small bullet proof window set in the center of the heavy wood door. They wave, grimace, cackle, shriek, they make obscene faces. Then the armed guard arrives and like scattering crows the butterfly women are gone.

Here, in this locked ward of an Israeli psychiatric center I ask Karla to marry me. She says yes. I say, “I’ll come to Switzerland as soon as your settled.” We kiss, then get up, go for a last walk.

How or why it happened I don't understand: on the plane to Switzerland I exploded. A hundred milligrams of the sky blue pill cannot contain my agony. A hundred times during the long flight I want to run, I want to scream, want to howl. It’s been seven long years since the war but something is not right and I don’t know what it is.

I make my way to snowy Zurich. Take the well kept, charming Dolderban, a trolley like train which ascends the steep, steep hills over sturdy wood tracks. At the top I get out and ask directions to the Klinic.

“Over there,” says an impassive policeman in a spotless black uniform trimmed with leather straps and gold cloth epaulettes. I look where he points and in my best German, my only German, say, “Danke.” He pinches the brim of his jaunty blue cap. “Bitter,” he says. And I’m off.

Klinic am Zurichberg is a palace, a gold mine, a well kept estate of immense and intricate proportion. A curtain of ivy hugs the walls of each magnificent brick, stone and stucco building. There is certainty here. There is hope. Within minutes I’m admitted as a patient. They confiscate the Valium. I’m given a palatial room that I share with a wealthy Italian businessman. In our colorfully carpeted room there are many brass lamps. A large bay window overlooks the white aproned city below. Our thick firm beds are separated fifteen meters apart. They are covered by enormous down blankets, rolled at the foot of the bed, as is the custom. We have private telephones. We have indoor heat and private bathrooms with toilet and bath. The well groomed, white uniformed pharmacist comes to my bedside. I’m given drugs which make me whole in less than an hour. Later I meet Karla; she is doing well.

At the cozy chandelier lit dining room, with its gilt wood trim, thick white walls, the entire room breathing the unseen Jungian passage of time, there are four long oak tables crowded with hand carved chairs. Here, three times a day the seven professional staff and twenty two patients gather to eat abundant three course meals cooked by a stout chef sporting a white smock and white pleated toque. Each patient, each staff member has his own linen place mat, which sits atop the blue embroidered table cloth and holds silverware: two forks, two knives, two spoons. We are treated with respect. We are treated with dignity. Here, there is no locked ward. There is no armed guard. There is no need to over medicate.

I sit next to Thomas, son of the president of Arrow Shirts. He is a handsome man, with wide alert eyes, a gaunt angular face, and spiky red hair. Thomas and I strike up a conversation. I lend him a book which he reads in a day. “Do you have any more?” he asks. I say, “Yes,” and give him Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut. He enjoys it immensely. Thomas introduces me to a curly headed bearded man who wears wire rimmed glasses, a sport jacket and colorful tie. This is Joshua, an American psychologist who I will meet with twice a week. At the next table sits the cheerful, ribbon haired Fraulein Hannah, the art therapist who works with patients in the well stocked atelier. Herr Dr. Simmel, a distinguished looking man with silver hair and a trimmed goatee, knocks the table top, thanks the chef for this wonderful meal, the patients clap, sing, hurrah, then we select the proper silverware and begin to eat. I have gone from living in a plywood shack, nightly breathing toxic fumes, daily twisting and sniping stems, shoveling shit, lifting living creatures to certain death, to life in a king size villa with all its royal accouterments. And all it took was a simple nervous breakdown. At least that’s how I see it.

On my third visit with Joshua he asks about my dreams. He asks all his patients to write them down. He says they’re important. He says dreams are the voice of the unconscious and we need to listen to what they say. So I begin the habit of jotting them down as soon as I wake up.

Most are uninteresting. Your garden variety based on everyday events. Small dreams, the Jungian’s call them. But one day in Joshua’s cozy sun filled office there is a turning point, though neither of us knows it.

We sit opposite each other in plush black leather chairs. We are relaxed and comfortable. My work clothes are clean. There is not a hint of grime or sweat, heat or death on them.

I say, “Last night I dreamt about cowboys and Indians. I dreamt the Indians killed the cowboys with six arrows in the back. Then the credits came up. Like in the movies. And the main actor was Redman. All the actors were named Redman.”

Joshua leans forward. He says, “Well, what does that mean to you? What comes to your mind. Think about it. But don’t think.”

I start to talk, then can’t talk, then talk. Joshua knows I’ve been to war.

I say, “There was a transfer from the Big Red One. His squad walked into an ambush and radioed for help. Three of us ran up. He’d been shot six times. I bandaged him as best I could. It was sad: All those bullets in his arms and belly. We called in a medivac. A gun ship worked out. They hauled him away. I don’t...I don’t think he made it. We called him...Red.”

I can’t talk. I’m sobbing too much. Joshua raises up. He pushes his chair aside. Before leaving he says, “There’s really nothing else to say. See you next week.”

I lasted two months: Psychotherapy. Art therapy. Drama therapy. Little liaisons with Karla which the staff politely ignored. There is nothing like love in the best psychiatric institute in Switzerland to make the spirit whole. But then the money ran out and Karla became sick again and we broke up. “You are a bad man,” she said. “A very bad man.” It was 1977, the beginning of a very long affair.
Marc Levy    Then  and  Now           
D 1/7 Cav '69-'70
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