(My parents at The Bookman in Orange, California.)
I learned to read late compared to my brother and my classmates. I think I was six and a half when I started stringing sounds together. At the time, we were learning both the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets at school. I became the reader I am today between first and second grade when because of incessant bombings we weren’t allowed outside and spent our days behind the heavy blackout curtains in the company of only books and my grandfather’s chess set.
My favorite books to read were the Winnetou series by Karl May. In them, the Indians were brave and untamed, the cowboys carried rifles that could fire more than 20 shots without being reloaded, and I first learned the words “bloodbrothers” and “scalping.” It was a world of savage wilderness where the wild horses kicked up dust as they galloped into the sunset and guns were named after pretty ladies that danced in saloons. Later, as an adult, living in the now tame Wild, Wild West, I would learn that the Nazi’s used Winnetou to support their idea of the inferiority of non-Aryan races.
When I finished Winnetou, there were always other books to read, mostly by Yugoslavian writers about Partisans, the revolutionary communists, in WWII. My mother would bring these books to me in plastic sacks under leaves of parsley and fistfuls of ground beef wrapped in butcher paper. A couple of times a week, on the days that promised a clear and safe sky, she would set out on her bicycle trading wads of devalued bills for the sparse black market goods arranged on blankets on city corners. The city library had closed, but somehow my mother was still able to procure books for me and even take me there on one of the safe days.
My father also loved books and had amassed shelves of tomes about the history of flight. The day before he was summoned to join the newly formed Bosnian army, he called me into his study, pulled a book off the shelf, and opened it to reveal a stack of bills. ”In case something happens to me,” he said. My mother was making pogačice in the kitchen that she would wrap in kitchen-cloths and arrange in the bottom of my father’s rucksack in the morning. My father’s sun-weathered boots stood gaping on the bottom step. I was eight years old and wondered if my father would name his gun after my mother.