1912 is most famously known as the year of the maiden voyage of the Titanic. While Jack and Kate were busy creating the need for regulating the number of lifeboats carried on ocean liners, in Nuremberg, Germany, Martin Schneebalg (no middle name) was born. Martin, my maternal grandfather, is someone I have looked up to my entire life. In grade school, we often were given assignments to discuss people in our family or our heroes. I chose to write about Martin every time, but there were so many stories that he told and so many experiences I had with him that were never written down…until now.
Fox Martin Fink, born February 29, 2016, is most notably named for Fox Mulder – one of the greatest fictional characters on one of the greatest TV shows of all time – the X-Files. But his middle name – Martin – is named after one of the greatest real characters of all time. He passed away in 2009 at the age of 97, but he had a life worth recording. I will feel satisfied if Fox grows up to have any traits and similarities to Martin. Here’s why:
Hunger was well known to Martin growing up. For the first nine years of his life, his family was dirt poor in Nuremberg, Germany. He told me sometimes all he would have to eat was one potato for a whole day – or maybe two. Poverty of this type is unimaginable to most of us, and it clearly affected him for his entire life. I obsess over food, but as I think about it, I can’t name one thing I know was his favorite food. I think he liked chocolate? Food just ceased to be that important to him – he didn’t have it growing up so he didn’t care about it as an adult. Technology, on the other hand, was an obsession! He always wanted to be a first adopter, and loved when something new came out. He wanted the biggest screen television and his mind was blown when the iPhone came out. I wish he’d lived long enough to know Siri – they would have been fast friends.
He was the first person I knew to have a car phone. It was wired to the dash in a used BMW he purchased to use while staying with us in Hawaii. He always loved cars and obsessed over them as well. Despite his difficulties growing up, he trusted German engineering and rarely bought American cars. He spent hours waxing and shining up his cars. He did this for all of his equipment, really – including his riding lawnmower. I’ll get to that later.
In 1921, aboard the Susquehanna bound for New York, the ship ran aground in Boston, which is officially the Schneebalg’s point of entry. As Jews, the family chose a very good time to leave Germany and was very fortunate to reach America. Martin was only 9 years old and did not know a word of English. He recalled getting off the boat and hearing the workers yell “one side! ONE SIDE!” His first English words. I’ve heard many stories about immigrants who had their names changed upon entry to the U.S. Blacksmiths became Blacks, Whitehulls became Whites, Finklesteinberg just ended up as Fink (though my family’s Finks were always Finks). Yet, no one on this ship had the good sense to change Schneebalg into…anything!
The name Schneebalg somewhat plagued Martin throughout his life. When he was young, he became the drummer in a “rock” group. The name Martin Schneebalg wasn’t cool enough to be a drummer. Since Schneebalg literally translates to snowball, he chose the stage name of Marty White. It suited him as a drummer, and he continued to use the name later in life to avoid awkward name conversations. Even well into his 70’s and 80’s when we were at a restaurant and I heard “White – party of 5” I knew that was us.
Drumming wasn’t Martin’s only talent. He was also a fantastic French horn player and could play the harmonica like Blues Traveler. He had an ability to work with his hands that aided his musical ability and others. One of his first jobs in New York was at a dress-cutting factory. He learned to line up and cut material for dresses, and he would package them and send them out with a bow. As a little girl, I loved when he was in town because he was the best at tying a bow on my party dresses!
You would think a scrawny little boy who grew up without food who was good at music and tying dresses wouldn’t be much of an athlete, but you’d be wrong. Martin was a sprinter and he was fast. In middle school in the Bronx, Martin was one of the only white kids who was any good at running. At the County track race, he actually finished in first place in the 100 meter dash and was personally congratulated by Paavo Nurmi (a twelve-time Olympic medalist).
I don’t know much else about his early years, but I know being poor shaped him into the kind, humble, and extremely generous man he became.
He used to tell the story of how he met his wife, my grandmother, Rose, in New York. He knew it was love at first sight, and after spotting her he ran to tell his brother. Out of breath, he huffed, “there’s a girl down by the water playing a harmonica!” His brother eyed him, hunched over panting, and asked if she was any good at the instrument. “Oh no, she’s lousy…but she’s GORGEOUS!”
That night was the beginning of a long courtship that wasn’t easy on anyone. Martin was nine years older than Rose and did not have anything more than an eighth grade education. Rose, on the other hand, came from a wealthier family that valued education. In fact, Rose, born in 1921, graduated high school, college, and even received her master’s degree in music education. Saying that Rose’s family did not approve of Martin is an understatement. As I understand it, the entire family, including six children, moved to Florida from New York mostly to keep Martin from Rose. Determined to marry Rose, Martin simply moved to Florida, too.
Martin and Rose married in 1939, long before technology allowed people to keep in touch, and Martin lost track of most of his family in New York. More than 60 years later, after the internet became a thing, my uncle would google the name Schneebalg and see if he could find anyone we could trace back ancestry with. I remember having a dinner or two with a David Schneebalg who, despite our best efforts, was clearly not related to us. Then, around 2007, a Martin Schneebalg popped up who was not my grandfather. With a name like Schneebalg, it’s not every day you get someone with the same first and last name. So, my uncle started emailing him and asking about his background. When we read his explanatory email, everyone’s jaw dropped. He wrote “my grandfather, Jack, came to the United States from Germany in 1921 on the Susquehanna.” Jack was my grandfather’s brother. We had found a direct cousin – Martin’s long lost New York family. Incredibly, he still had a living sister who he got to trade phone calls with and the young Martin Schneebalg came down to Miami to visit the old Martin Schneebalg. He was losing his sight at the time, but it was an incredible reunion filled with laughing and, of all things, drawings because the young Martin Schneebalg was a fabulous sketch artist who lived in Brooklyn. Although the name plagued him throughout his life, he was able to reconnect with his family years later because of it, so I guess it was worth it.
But, before that, Martin lived an incredible life in Miami. He got a job as a mechanic for Pan American Airlines, where he worked for most of his life. I imagine him walking on the wings of planes and making sure they were safe to fly. I have no idea what mechanics actually do. I know some of the planes he worked on had propellers. That’s because he brought one home one day and it’s hanging in my house. The more I think about it, the more I’m pretty sure he wasn’t supposed to do that. But it’s really cool and I’ve taken a stapler from my job, so that’s pretty much the same thing.
Working for Pan Am gave him and his immediate family flight benefits for life! (At least until Pan Am went under. Poop.). My mom was able to take fabulous trips all around the world growing up and they took full advantage. For me, it was great because even though we lived in Hawaii and my grandparents lived in Florida, they were able to visit us far more often than they could have if someone had to pay for it. Of course, this meant they were always on stand by and I recall many visits where we had a tearful goodbye only to have them come back later in the evening and go through the same thing the next night (and the next).
Because Martin had the priority, he would often be the one to come out and stay with me on short notice if my mom had to travel for work and it would just be the two of us for a few days. I remember him being there when one of my teeth fell out, and I remember him being there when I threw up red pixie sticks all over my bed. But the most traumatic experience for him must have been when I brought home peep. When he was the only one looking after me, in third grade, I came home from school with a cardboard box that held a little chicken. I asked if I could keep it. How was he supposed to know – he couldn’t call my mom to ask, so he was forced to watch it for a few days. Neither of us knew what to feed a baby chick, and rummaging through the cabinets, we found creamed corn. He hungrily ate it up and proceeded to have diarrhea all over the white carpet. I thought it was hilarious, but Martin was probably holding his breath for what my mom would say. She let us keep the chicken (later correction: rooster) and Martin built us a cage for the backyard!
Martin loved visiting Hawaii, but I’m not sure why because most of his time was spent doing chores. Every home video shows him as a 70 year old man up in a tree sawing off branches and hauling them to the curb. Sometimes he was raking leaves or fixing the plumbing. But the happiest home videos are those of him using his shiny red riding lawnmower to cut our acre of grass. He even built that machine a home with fencing covered in flowering plants. I never liked the noise, but I did like to see him so happy.
He almost always visited in February because we could celebrate both of our birthdays. Mine is February 18 and his was February 21 or 22. Apparently, for three quarters of his life, he had always celebrated his birthday on the wrong day and later found out otherwise from a birth certificate or something. Even though it was sorted out by the time I was born, we still talked about it every year – “is it the 21st or 22nd?” no one could ever remember. I still don’t know. I do know that he turned 70 the year I was born so it was easy to remember how old he was. When I turned 5 he was turning 75. When I turned 8 he was turning 78. My child brain thought it was a really cool trick.
Besides visiting us in Hawaii, I went to visit him in Florida quite often. He and my grandmother would always be waiting for us at the gate with flowers and full of excitement. He always had toys for me and couldn’t wait to take me to walk the mall. He always loved walking the mall, and after he lost most of his sight and couldn’t drive he would spend his days walking the mall and people watching. And, at 90 years old, he picked up a girlfriend at the mall. At first we didn’t really believe it, but after many months we met her and she was lovely. She was so thankful for how nice Martin was to her, and although she was at least 20 years younger, she clearly just wanted his company and not his money (which was a good thing since he didn’t have any). It was fun to know that he could go to the mall and enjoy someone’s company. But, I doubt she really got all of the great stories.
Even after living in Miami for most of his adult life, he never picked up any Spanish, which I’m now realizing is pretty hard to do. But, our family loved Cuban food and we frequented a restaurant called La Carreta. I distinctly recall him once asking a waiter for some “aqua.” When the waiter didn’t understand, he kept repeating himself: aqua. aqua. AQUA! When he finally held up his water glass, the waiter nodded and said, “ahhhh – agua!” That set Martin off. “How did he not understand that? AQUA, AGUA – same thing!” My response to him, of course, was, “can you pass me some eagle.” I repeated louder that I would like some EAGLE, please. “I need eagle for my coffee!” I yelled, picking up the little blue packet of sweetener. Then he understood that he was actually out of line and a “qu” and “g” make quite a different sounding word and he apologized to the server and left a 100% tip. Ok – no, of course that didn’t happen. I just watched him do his yelling thing and never said anything about it. But, clearly I’ve thought about it over the years. A lot.
Martin loved to tell jokes. He wasn’t a punner and didn’t have one-liners that made people groan. He told lengthy in-depth jokes with punchlines that reeked of irony, but weren’t particularly funny. Yet, as a young child, they made me roll on the floor laughing – even the 100th time he told them. I would BEG him over and over to tell a particular joke, and sometimes I’d even ask him to repeat the same joke he just finished telling. His joke telling felt more like an intimate personal story he was willing to share with his audience. Every relative had a favorite joke of his and he would pull out his joke repertoire at every gathering. They were always met with cheers, laughter, and applause. I occasionally tell one of his jokes to friends when I’m reminded of one. It’s usually only met with a polite smile. I have no doubt it was the joke teller, rather than the jokes, that made them so special.
It was a no-brainer for me to have my son named after Martin (thanks to Charlie’s enthusiastic agreement). I can already see some similarities. Fox is definitely going to be a drummer, or at least a great musician. Hopefully, he’ll be a great joke teller, too. As a leap year baby, he will definitely only spend three quarters of his life celebrating his birthday on the actual correct day. I look forward to seeing more similarities and differences between these two important men.
So, most of the stories may be wildly inaccurate – but they are the way I remember them. Some can be fact checked and some can’t. Shaina’s version of Martin’s history probably isn’t horribly different from any biography or history book’s accuracy. If my version of his life is what goes down in history, I still think he would be proud.