The fathers knew what they would leave behind. All the author had for sure was this tale—and a wagon full of empty hefeweizen bottles.
Mein guter Freunds!
Tomorrow we will follow the German tradition of Christi Himmelfahrt. We will fill a hand wagon with locally crafted hefeweizen, Gewürztraminer and schnapps, then pass through the city into the forest, walking slowly until the sun has set and the wagon’s contents have been drained. Through this ritual we’ll celebrate both German father’s day and the ascension of Jesus, which are—rather cleverly you have to admit—one and the same day in Germany. For luck, we will also carry bratwurst, mustard, pretzels, Ritter chocolate and a small hookah. We will explore the path of fatherdom (you), and the path of fatherdom not taken (me).
It started officially at 6:30 in West Hillhurst. Although unofficially, you could say it began two years earlier when I found Brendan Greeley’s “The Most German Day Ever.” Greeley alludes to a peculiar father’s day ritual along the River Elbe. I had started dating a German woman then. She told me about the wagon and the beer. The forest. Ascension. Turkish Currywurst. “You don’t do that here?” she said in shock.
And I thought, if we ever have kids, I will do that here.
Two years passed, and the inclination to have kids was no more urgent. The inclination to partake in Himmelfahrt, however, had become too much, and I recruited an expedition from the small group of fathers I knew. Fathers who I perceived to be competent and loving fathers, yet also still engaged in regular feats of excessive behaviour.
Immediately, we began scouring the city for a very specific wagon, something with both metal and wood, an abundance of red, and a little bit of squeak in the wheels. It would have to be large enough to hold two large coolers and a small keg. A friend of a friend’s neighbour’s sister’s daughter had such a wagon—a bona fide Radio Flyer. And now in West Hillhurst at 6:30 as ten spicy sausages became black on a barbecue, the ritual of pimping das wagon began.
A four-foot long buggy whip was affixed to the aft port corner. Garlands of dandelions and lilac were woven into the wood topper. A World War I medal of commendation to the starboard side. Two bottles of Herbstweizen were opened and quickly downed. Though the Germans are known for beers ranging from alt to kolsch and doppelbok to roasch, hefeweizen is their unquestioned greatest contribution. In a proper hefeweizen, the yeast is unfiltered. You pour it slowly, swirling so that each glass gets a good hit of the resulting sediment. It is this sediment that makes you whole and über.
The only thing missing was a route. Should we head for populated areas? For the suburbs? Our path would be paramount to whatever larger statement the Himmelfahrt hoped to make. To the very prospects of our own assorted ascensions. All we knew FOR SURE was that we had to end up in a forest at some point, and after five blocks, it was agreed that this forest would be somewhere on Prince’s Island. But at 10th Street and Memorial Drive we hung a sudden left—who’s to say why?—and were smack dab in the middle of the general civilian population.
ON THE FRINGES OF THE BUSTLING KENSINGTON DRAG, we had encountered couples on their porches. Old men digging up weeds. Children playing hopscotch. They expressed a kind of grateful fascination with the wagon. We were like Hesse characters trundling unexpectedly through the sticks.
We took turns pulling. When it is your turn to pull the wagon, you develop an intimacy with the sidewalk. More so than on a bike. Though less than a wheelchair. The wagon can be portaged over rougher terrain. Over dipless curbs. Sunnyside may have the best wagon sidewalks in all of Calgary. They have been poured in 1913 and 1922 and 1930. They have outlived the grandfathers who pull weeds, and without so much as a crack all these decades later, we realize they will outlive us too.
It is at just past 6th Street and 3rd Avenue that Sunnyside and its perfect walks begin to disappear. The route ascends suddenly up a steep hill, thought thick clusters of trees, around two blind corners and a long stone fence. Birds sing over the clatter of the wagon. Lilacs overpower the banana smell of unfiltered beer. It’s approximately 8:30pm. And that will be my last reference to time in this tale. Time now ceased to exist. The city has melted away. We had found our forest.
We moved slowly—cautiously—in no hurry to meet whatever judgment was waiting at the top of the hill. The heat and the beer and the sediment took a strange perfect hold. There’s a safety in this steep forest. The wagon conducted energy from one man to the next. Himmelfhart became a verb. The path wound up and plateaued, and then went back down again. The empty bottles in the coolers clattered above the wagon’s steady rattle. I remembered holding, on various nights, the children of these fathers. Not in a “do you want to hold my baby” kind of way, but more a sudden “here hold this while I get another beer” fashion. The pressure of holding these babies. I remember feeling self-conscious as others watched. A single man with a baby in his arms, who is nowhere near drunk enough to be holding a baby, is a vulnerable and attractive thing, and perhaps my friends were secretly trying to teach me something.
Finally, the path through the forest and up the hill into Crescent Heights dipped right back down, almost back to the street level. It’s at that exact moment, consumed by doubt, that the route winds around the Hillhurst Sunnyside Community Garden. A bona fide Schrebergarten! In the middle of a bona fide Himmelfahrt!
Then, just in front of the curling rink, the final ascent begins. There is a sign that says “CYCLISTS YIELD TO PEDESTRIANS,” but nothing of wagons. Halfway up someone has painted the words “HOLY SHIT THIS IS A BIG HILL.” And at the top, where the property values double, and teenagers make out in their cars while the skyline glitters at eye level, you find yourself in front of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, no beer left, uncorking a Sumac Ridge Gertzraminer, peering down the valley towards where the river curves around the Island, so green in June, rain clouds forming, and you can’t help ponder paths and roles, how you’ll be judged and by whom. Eventually we would pull our wagon over a 1910 slab of concrete that. North towards the Trans-Canada highway. Yes, the Himmelfahrt took a darker turn that night. Before the sun could rise, my friends stumbled home faithfully to make breakfast for their children, to drive them to school and daycare. I would search my medicine cabinet for a bottle of Tylenol, unsure whether to be thankful or to regret.
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