Post Road Magazine #21

The Mouth of the Volga

Trent Hergenrader

It's 1952, and five women and one man sit around a dining room table in Lincoln, Nebraska. Stacks of bills are lined up against an open cash box, which contains a set of car keys and a property deed for a house on West G Street. They speak in low voices, take drags on their cigarettes, and watch the smoke curl as the eldest woman deals out the bills one at a time, like cards in a poker game. On the hardwood floor, an eight-year-old boy plays with blocks crudely fashioned into the shapes of train cars tethered together with twine.

Jacob Becker has passed away and his two sisters and three daughters have gathered to divide up his worldly belongings. The youngest woman is Emma, and the boy is her son, Robert. Her father had a mistrust of banks and kept his life savings in a box under his bed, and the women have agreed to divide the cash evenly between them. Once the cash has been distributed, those who owed Jacob money return it to the center of the table to be redistributed to the others. After this, they begin bartering, first for Jacob's house, next for his car. Always the cold pragmatist, Emma is thinking only of her older son Dick, who will be turning sixteen soon and will need a car in order to get a good paying job. She holds out until the end and outbids the rest, paying fifty dollars for the green 50s Plymouth, and snatches the keys from the cash box.

Robert drags the train cars across the uneven floor, imagining they have wheels.


It's 1962, and Robert has been awarded a baseball scholarship to the University of Nebraska. He knows that without this full ride, college would have been an impossibility. He grew up as a post-war latchkey kid, coming home from school to an empty house as his mother worked long hours at Dorsey Labs screwing tops on Triaminic bottles. For the duration of his childhood, he ate his meals on the open stove door because they had no kitchen table; he slept in a crib with the sides knocked out until he was thirteen. The neighborhood they grew up in is called the South Bottoms—it's a low income area populated mostly by ethnic German immigrants struggling to make ends meet. After school, Robert often played stickball with his friend, George Starkweather.

The surname may sound familiar. It's because in 1958, George's older brother Charles and his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate murdered eleven people, becoming two of the nation's most notorious mass murderers, the story that inspired Oliver Stone's film Natural Born Killers.


It's 1763, and a woman of minor German nobility has overtaken her husband Peter the Third for the vacant imperial throne of Russia. She dubs herself Catherine the Great. Believing that Russia would be improved by Western European culture, she makes strong overtures for disenfranchised Germans to come to Russia, where she guaranteed farmable land, freedom from conscription, minimum taxation, religious freedom, the right to self-governance, and loans to help cover settlement expenses. Over the next decade, more than thirty thousand colonists will settle in southeastern Russia, including the village of Balzer on the banks of the Volga River.


It's 1989, and I join my father Robert on a trip to Lincoln where he is being entered into the University of Nebraska's Hall of Fame. I'm fifteen years old and taking drivers ed, and we take turns driving on the long stretches of highway between Nebraska and Wisconsin. Before the induction ceremony, we drive through Lincoln and he points out landmarks from the stories of his boyhood days, stories I've heard a million times: I see the church where he broke the stained glass window throwing a baseball bat at my uncle; he points at the riverbank where they would shoot across the water with pellet guns, exploding winos' booze bottles; and we drive past the house they used to share with another family. Slightly smaller than our two-door garage at home, it looks like a stiff breeze could blow it over.

Later at the ceremony, we meet dozens of my dad's old baseball teammates and coaches. They tell countless stories of their exploits, and one after another, like they're reading from a script, they tell me that I am a regular chip off the old block, that I look just like my dad at that age, that I am his spitting image.


It's 1978, I'm four years old, and my family has just moved from Cedarburg, Wisconsin to Green Bay. My parents vow that it is the last in a long series of moves. My brothers are three years older than me and have already lived in Freemont, Nebraska; Olathe, Kansas; Portland, Oregon; and Kansas City, Missouri before the move to Wisconsin. My parents fear all these moves are too disruptive for us kids. They want to put down roots.

My father has been chasing career advancement. The move to Green Bay promised to be too good to pass up, but within a few years corporate reshuffling leaves my father stuck at a junior vice-president position. He quits his job and decides to start his own business as a third-party administrator, a niche service in the health insurance industry. My mother joins him as the vice president and my brothers and I learn to let ourselves in after school, having each other and an Atari 2600 for company.

When my parents reveal their plans for this new business, my grandma Em phones from Lincoln and sternly asks them, "Do you kids know what you're doing?"


It's 1966, and Robert is marrying Marti Ann, his high school sweetheart. It's a Tuesday night in April, the only free date he has available that spring due to his relentless baseball schedule. He is playing for the Sioux Falls Canaries, a Triple A team, and in the coming years will be drafted by the Minnesota Twins. When this happens, the Vietnam War will be at its peak, and if he accepts the Twins' draft choice, he must also accept the draft choice of the US Government. He also has twins of his own at home, which in truth gives him no choice at all. Instead of playing baseball, he elects to go back to school for his masters degree in business.

Being a Tuesday night, the wedding is sparsely attended. It's only the wedding party, the bride's parents, and the groom's mother.

Robert's father is rarely ever mentioned and his history is a murky one. He was, in turns, a fireman, a drunk, a coward, and a criminal. He spent time in jail, or perhaps prison, but it's never clear what for. Marti only met him once, shortly after her engagement to Robert. He showed up on Robert's doorstep, recently free from jail, and borrowed twenty bucks before disappearing back into the night, turning up dead some years later. Or that's the story Robert passes on to his sons.

I think about my paternal grandfather when the doctors ask about my family medical history, when I'm battling my own bouts of depression, when my quick temper gets the better of me, when I turn to booze looking for a brief escape, and I wonder if his shadow is long enough to reach across the years.


It's 2005, and Anna Marie Hergenrader, my Grandma Em, has passed away. She wears a lovely pink funeral dress and in the huge casket she seems tiny, like some fragile bird. This image is a lie though, as all of us remember her being tough as nails. My father and uncle recount stories depicting her as a strict mother who showed them little warmth, but to me she was always Grandma. She had lived alone in her apartment in Lincoln, caring for herself, until breaking her hip in 2002. Talking with her on the phone, you would have believed she was in great health both mentally and physically, but after the accident the family discovered that the apartment had fallen into serious disrepair and that she had been frittering away her money on telemarketing scams. It was as though all her years of relentless work had been etched onto her bones, her body refusing to quit even as her mind started to give way.

The last time I saw her alive was in a nursing home in 2003. My wife and I were traveling across the country, moving from an apartment in Seattle to our first home in Madison, Wisconsin, and we stopped in Omaha on the way. My grandmother didn't recognize me at first and talked about going to the drive-in. Later in the conversation, she thought

I was my father.

At the funeral, the pastor tells a story of my grandmother's life, putting it in perspective alongside the generations of immigrants that had founded the South Bottoms neighborhood, where he himself had grown up.

Anna Marie was the last living member of the family that had made the long journey from Russia. She lived ninety-three years.


It's 1912, and Jacob Becker is standing along the banks of the Volga River in the village of Balzer. It is night and patches of stars can be seen through holes in the clouds. He has recently been discharged from the Russian Army for the second time but rumors abound that yet another war is on the horizon. Catherine the Great's promises to the German immigrants have steadily eroded over the last century. The settlers no longer govern their own communities; they pay exorbitant taxes to the Russian government; they are repeatedly conscripted into the military. Jacob fought and nearly died in the Russo-Japanese war in 1905, but this has not precluded him from further service.

While he was away on duty, his firstborn—a son also named Jacob— died of diphtheria and his wife gave birth to his daughter Katherine, whom he did not meet until she was almost four. She's now eight, and has a younger sister Marie who is half her age. And then there's the newborn, Anna Marie, the one they call Emma.

Jacob knows that other men have gone to America to find work. He has heard that they found jobs with the Burlington Railroad, offering low fares west for cheap lands in places called Kansas, the Dakotas, and Nebraska. Jacob knows that he would have to leave his young family behind once again should he make this journey, and that there would be no guarantee of success, that it could all turn out badly.

Jacob palms a flat stone and tosses it into the current, deep in thought.


It's 2008, and the world is a far smaller place. Using Google maps, I can find the satellite images of Saratov, the city where the emigrants from Balzer caught trains that rumbled 1300 miles north to the Baltic Sea, where they boarded ships bound for Boston via Liverpool. Balzer, the village where my grandmother was born, is long gone, reclaimed by the Russian government. History says that the remaining Germans were treated harshly during the Russian Revolution, the World Wars, and the aftermath.

After my grandmother's funeral, my family visited a museum sponsored by the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, located in Lincoln's South Bottoms neighborhood. It's a short walk from the house where my father grew up. We made a donation and bought a commemorative brick and had my grandmother's name engraved on it.

Such bricks line the walkways and pave the small courtyard, forming the public monument.

Still, it feels like this small gesture isn't enough. Part of me wants to board a plane to Moscow and take the sixteen-hour train south to Saratov, rent a car and drive another hour south to where the village of Balzer and my great-grandfather once stood. I would look at the sky, touch the earth, and put my ear to the mouth of the Volga to see what kind of stories it might tell.

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