In thinking more about yesterday’s post, it struck me there might be a reader or two who would like to learn more about the experience of my father during those fraught years of the 1930s and 1940s.
Perhaps the easiest way to do it would be to simply adopt the obituary I prepared on his death. Since tomorrow would have been his 97th birthday, I’ll think of it as both a birthday and farewell reflection. Same continuum, no?
Albert Vaart, World War II Pilot, Civil and Computer Engineer–A Life Lived Long and Fortunately
Born, 5 November 1917, Tartu, Estonia
Died 26 October 2013, Jay, Vermont
Albert Vaart passed away on 26 October 2013, just short of 96 years of age. He had been a resident of the Northeast Kingdom in Northern Vermont since 1989, arriving from New Jersey soon after his retirement.
Albert was a World War II veteran, having flown as a fighter pilot for the Estonian Air Force and with the German Air Force on its Russian front. Albert Vaart’s shooting war ended, on his 250th combat mission, in February 1945 when Russian gunners brought down his plane. He parachuted out of his crippled airplane and luckily landed safely, although badly hurt, behind friendly German lines. He was rescued, taken to a hospital near Munich and over many months restored to health. But he was separated from his native Estonia and his family, his wife Hedvig and infant son Andres (me).
More good fortune intervened in 1948, when the US Congress passed an immigration law permitting refugees like him (and my mother and I) to come to the United States. It didn’t happen quickly, though. We remained separated until 1951, when we were reunited at a pier on the Hudson River in New York City.
At the risk of embarrassment, I’ll admit that my father and I (inching up on seven years old) first met (at least in my memory) in a Men’s Room at the pier, where I’d gone to the bathroom, unable to hold out until his arrival. Having done my duty, I was on my way out, when a man gently, but firmly, suggested (in what language I don’t remember–it could have been Estonian, German, or English) that I needed to wash my hands. I took the hint as he waited, and then he asked me to take him to “your mother.”
From his arrival, Albert began—along with my mother—to rebuild lives. My building project started from pretty close to my life’s foundation. Theirs was a different matter, but it was then a common project, lived by many millions, including some ten thousand or more Estonians displaced by war (See previous post). Our project was to restore broken or lost families and reconstruct dreams or follow new ones. Few of the old dreams were ever fully brought back. And so it was with Albert, who, before the war, hoped to become a conductor and make music his profession. But sidelined by war, music took a distant second place to making a living, although it remained a lifelong avocation and source of joy until his death. Instead, Albert’s profession would become engineering and computer science in an era when computing was fresh and pioneering.
Albert worked his way through college as a draftsman.
Through painstaking years of night-school at New York’s Cooper Union College and then through graduate programs at New York University, Albert earned MS and PhD degrees in civil engineering. The work he would find bridged engineering and computing in the manufacture of paper goods with the West Virginia Paper and Pulp Company, which remained true to its retirement programs over more than 25 years.
Albert the basso profundo singer.
Albert practiced his avocation of music throughout this rebuilding process, leading choirs in the Estonian community and in the Estonian Russian Orthodox Church in the New York City area.
From his retirement at 70 and widowed—my mother had passed away in 1980–Albert built another life in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, in the vicinity of Troy, near the state’s border with Canada. The country living and the climate reminded him of his native Estonia, and he wanted to be near an Estonian Air Force comrade living just across the border in Canada. Albert no longer worked for a living, but he tended his gardens and, wonder of wonders, he returned to flight school. Nearly on his 75th birthday, he soloed again for the first time since that day he had last flown in February 1945. Who would have thought it possible then?
Helping Albert built his third life, was a resident of Troy, VT, Clemence Leblond. Clem had sold him his first house nearby, and over time the two developed a deep friendship and love. Clem’s love and loyalty sustained him through his various illnesses and the growing weakness of his last years. They traveled together, ate together, and sang and played together at Albert’s electronic organ. She taught Andres the real meaning of caring for others for no tangible reward.