Claus Spiekermann 1941-2015 RIP
Claus Spiekermann and I tried to smuggle a car from Germany to Greece in the winter of 1963. It didn’t go well, and we spent two weeks trapped by what people were calling the worst blizzard in 200 years. We got as far as Belgrade, then the capital of Yugoslavia. The blizzard eventually let up enough for us to make a slow and stress-filled retreat across Italy and France in our unsmuggled car to get back to Germany. We survived the adventure, but within a few months both of us returned to Northern B.C., defeated in more ways than as smugglers. The experience altered us permanently if not quite profoundly: it put a scare into us, and neither I nor Claus ventured beyond the North American continent for the next quarter century.
Any extreme experience creates permanent bonds between people, and Claus and I remained life-long friends even though we didn’t spend a lot of time together. Before the smuggling adventure, my instinct had been to look up to Claus, maybe because he was a few years older than I was, and his large physical stature kind of made it obligatory. But in Europe I’d seen him fall apart in several situations and in several different ways, and it taught me that there were some things he didn’t do well. Our relationship changed, in that both of us recognized that there was now an unbreakable bond between us, but that it was wise to hold the other at a slight distance. What it came down to, I think, is that we each trusted our understanding of the other’s limitations and flaws more than we trusted the other’s abilities and judgment, probably because our abilities and judgment had failed us so miserably as smugglers. So we developed a kind of mutual discretion that made us good at keeping the other’s secrets, of which Claus had more than most people. We never again tried to collaborate on anything more complicated than a Fondue dinner party—and that one-timer, so you know, was a culinary disaster.
We each went to university, and we each got married fairly young. But as the years went on, and I began to learn how to see people for what they did and not just as ciphers in my private psychodrama, I noted that Claus and I didn’t see the world very similarly. Claus wasn’t much given to second thoughts—not about marriage, not about people, and not about ideas or career choices. His commitments tended to be permanent and binding, and he was predictably loyal to them and to the people and things—and ideas—he’d committed to. I, meanwhile, was a cauldron of second thoughts about literally everything and everyone, and the more I learned about the world and the people in it, the harder that cauldron bubbled and boiled: I was interested in the nuances, the bits along the side, and I was loyal to what I was learning about being a human being and about the world, and, well, that was about it.
Claus became an elementary school teacher, then an administrator, and finally, as an elementary school principal he pioneered the reorganizing of schools to better serve the complex network of communities around them. He was brilliant at this, and it wasn’t just because he was a large man with a forceful personality. His almost eccentric single-minded, once he got going, was a force by itself, whether he was playing Monopoly with his boyhood friends, or arguing passionately as an adult about the proper utilization of public facilities. The idea of enhanced integration of schools with their surrounding communities dovetailed with Claus’ political instincts, which were firmly on the left even though they often weren’t fueled by conventional leftist ideology. Like I said, Claus was a man who liked being around people, made fundamental decisions easily and predictably, and he didn’t second guess them once made.
His domestic life was like that, too. His marriage wasn’t a conventional one, and it couldn’t have been easy to hold together. But once inside it, he worked hard to keep it stable and alive, and he tried equally hard to do the right thing, by the institution and by his wife, Lorraine. They had a child, perfectly normal and healthy, and then there was an adopted child with unsolvable health problems. There were also elements in Claus and Lorraine’s backgrounds that were centrifugal, and each had health problems, that, among other things, led to Lorraine’s premature death. Claus’ commitment never wavered. “Nobody,” he once told me, “said that marriage was easy. You have to do the work.”
He never shirked that work, or any other kind. He was dedicated to the community schools idea, and he worked to make them a reality. He even worked hard for the NDP when they made him the candidate in an unwinnable riding, which they did, I think, more than once. He didn’t seem to recognize it, but he didn’t fit well with the B.C. NDP, who, after Dave Barrett won the 1972 election, came to believe that it was more important to hold onto political power than to act on social democratic values, things like treating people with kindness and/or expropriating service monopolies.
But if we’re being honest, politics left-of-centre have been a troubled domain for a long time—in Canada as elsewhere. They’ve been particularly troubled since 1968, when the old notion of socialist revolution failed for the final time, and it became clear that the achievement of economic and social justice wasn’t inevitable, and that the laws of science have very little application to political life. Since then, the left has bifurcated from a dozen or two relatively coherent and connected dedications into thousands of squabbling factions, all of them convinced, as leftists always are, that theirs is the only true revolutionary line, or medium, or party, pursuit or whatever satisfies the now completely-contaminated dialectic. Claus, I think, was a leftist faction of one person.
While he was applying his strain of social democracy in the schools and anywhere else he could, I was learning, with George Orwell’s distant guidance, to simplify post-1968 leftist politics by focusing on the motives that guided the different factions. There were good leftists, I decided, usually bewildered by and suspicious of the proliferating factions, who believed that the left ought to be an instrument for treating people with fairness and kindness—my kind of people. But then there were also the Bolsheviks, in North America mostly academics with safe university jobs, who were and remain about equally obsessed by a murderous hatred of their class enemies and their factional rivals.
Claus had a different and much less abstract approach than mine. He distinguished between the egalitarian and supervisory modes of leftism by refusing to understand that people on the left could motivated by hatred. Thus, there were people he liked, and people he couldn’t understand.
I suspect that on the fly, there were more subtle distinctions he made between those two categories of leftists, because no one could have wrangled school communities as effectively as he did without a powerful flexibility of mind: there’s a mob of obtuse shitheads on the left that’s nearly as unpersuadable as the right wing mob, and Claus knew that as well as anyone.
He must have had a special category for me because I was, from his value-set, on the extreme edge of obtuse. And yet he never branded me a shithead, something he was fairly casual about pressing onto the hindquarters of others when his inner force heated up. I never knew why he gave me that free pass, or whether I abused it, but that’s another story, and this story is his.
Let me say, instead. Left wing utopians live within and maybe on their imagination. What that means, really, is that they make things up—often too many things. Usually it’s to fill the deficit between the world-as-it-is, and the world the utopians would prefer to have. Claus had always lived with good motives and good intentions, but this has become a world where goog motives and intentions are less frequently rewarded than they once were. The community schools movement, for instance, once its logic was adopted, seemed to go sideways, and Claus was, I think, himself sidelined within the school system, because forcefulness, particularly of the physically large strain he had, generally gets punished. His adopted child, meanwhile, suffered from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and whatever he and Lorraine tried to do help the boy stabilize failed. Then Lorraine died of breast cancer. Claus, after mourning, found another woman—and she died of breast cancer after less than a year of marriage. Claus again grieved appropriately, and then tried to move on.
The last time I saw him was at a highschool reunion in Prince George about a decade ago. At the time I hadn’t seen him for more than five years—I was living in Eastern Canada, and we just lost track of one another. I knew about Lorraine’s death, and I knew he’d remarried relatively quickly, but little else. I was shocked by his appearance: he was in a wheelchair, and he was gaunt. The year before Lorraine died, I’d spent a day with him, and he’d then weighed more than 300 pounds. Now he weighed barely 185, and his hands trembled with what he admitted was Parkinson’s disease.
It turned out that he was actually in and out of the wheel-chair, and when I pushed him out of the hotel in the wheelchair to find his car, it was an elderly but elegant BMW, and he was still the Claus I knew, independent and as determined as ever to do things his own way. And then, he told me a very strange story.
He was, he said, living in Vancouver’s west side during the grieving period following the death of his second wife, and one afternoon he went for a walk. He was ambling along, he said, minding his own business, when a car with some young men in it pulled up beside him. One of the young men in the car had a pistol, and he casually aimed it at Claus and shot him three times in the stomach and lower abdomen.
I was helping Claus across a parking lot when he told me this, and the story couldn’t have taken more than ninety seconds from start to finish. It was related to me as the trigger for his Parkinson’s condition, and Claus finished the story, after a slight pause, with a question: “what in the hell did I do to deserve all this?”
As I folded up the wheel-chair and crammed it into the BMW’s trunk, It didn’t seem to me that Claus was asking a rhetorical question, and I certainly couldn’t see any simple answer to it, and out of respect for both him and the question, I didn’t offer anything facile. It was Job’s question he was asking, and since we were both atheists, it has no answer, really. All I could do was ask him if there was anything I could do to help.
Claus seemed to forget the impossible question he’d posed as soon as it was out of his mouth, and he never did answer my question, which I asked several more times that same afternoon and a few more times in the years that followed. In the end, I had to answer both questions on my own: Claus was just as ferociously independent as he’d always been, and I knew he wouldn’t accept my help because I lived far away and thus could offer nothing practical. He was never much for existential commiseration.
But I did help him get behind the steering wheel of his BMW that day, and we drove around town for a hour or so, two small-town boys bombing the drag and shooting the shit the way we’d done it thirty years before—and never mind that just driving around with him was a minor adventure given his Parkinson’s. We talked, I recall, nearly exclusively about the distant past, mostly about his step-father Nick, who I’d always liked and gotten along with, and whom Claus, well, respected for his tough-mindedness. We somehow never got back to talking about the drive-by shooting, and although I’ve thought about it hundreds of times in the subsequent years, often when I was feeling sorry for myself and needed a “so you think you’ve got it tough?” emetic to snap me out of whatever shitpile of self-pity I’d crawled into, it wasn’t until I began to write this obituary that I questioned the mechanical verity of Claus’ story.
In the evidential universe, I’m pretty sure that the shooting didn’t take place. I checked the Vancouver newspaper archives every way I knew how, even going as far as to call an ex-Vancouver Sun reporter I knew who’d been working the crime beat around that time and would have known if a shooting had taken place, even if the story was, for some unimaginable reason, suppressed. There was nothing anywhere in the records about a drive-by shooting of a grief-stricken 300 pound ex-teacher, random or targeted. It just didn’t happen.
But at the same time, I don’t believe that Claus was lying to me. I think he was speaking, for the only time in our friendship, in metaphor, trying to communicate to me that he was in terrible pain at the way his life had gone, and that the pain was incomprehensible to him.
I get it, too. He lost the two women he loved, he lost an adopted child, and after living a professional life with courage and integrity, there was little to show for it except a rickety BMW and a room in an anonymous “facility” for the infirm elderly. There was nothing to show for his decades of good citizenship, his generosity or his willingness to help others less able than himself, or for the fact that he had lived his adult life without malice and pretty much without violence despite his large physical stature and his vitality. I think he was trying to tell me—not that life isn’t fair, because we all know that it isn’t—but that life shouldn’t be that unfair, Job-level unfair.
I hope that by the time he stopped breathing, ceased to have to choose between his body’s involuntary trembling and its rigid silence, that he’d found a sweeter way to understand why life treated him as harshly as it did.
August 1, 2018, 2400 words