Chapter VII – Part III
The farmers in Rohrdorf were relatively poor. But they were much ahead of their time by practicing what we now call organic farming methods. Their farmhouse was located in the village and their small fields often less than one ha in size were scattered in the outlying areas. With each plowing, rocks emerged from below the surface and needed to be picked up. Owning horses for pulling farm equipment was a luxury in this impoverished region between the River Danube and Lake Constance. Most farmers used cows for pulling their wagons and plows. Yet, they also expected them to give plenty of milk in the morning. Cow-barn and residence were located under the same roof. A giant manure pile decorated the front of the house right next to the stairway leading up to the main entrance. Conveniently the kitchen was right above the manure pile, so the farmer’s wife merely had to throw kitchen scraps and other organic refuse out of the window. Above the cow-barn the farmer stored hay for fodder and straw for the cows to rest on during the night. The architecture of the entire building was designed to save manual labor. During the winter months the farmer would simply take his pitchfork and throw down the hay into the long trough. From the rear end of the animals the cow pads mixed with straw would go directly onto the manure pile, while the urine would flow freely down the gutter into the holding tank outside the building. Nothing, absolutely nothing was wasted here. Well-rotted manure and aged slurry went back to the fields to revitalize the soil.
At one of these farmhouses I was playing all by myself one day. I cannot remember what attracted me. To be sure, it was not the pungent smell or the questionable beauty of the manure pile. Spurred on by my childlike curiosity, I was simply exploring a place that was new to me. Boundaries have no meaning to little children. Trespassing is a foreign concept to them. As I was walking around, I stepped on the lid that did not completely close the opening of the holding tank. All of a sudden the lid tipped under the weight of my body. I lost my balance and slipped into the deep, smelly slurry underneath. Panic-driven I frantically thrashed around to keep at least my head above the smelly liquid. In vain I looked for a foothold or at least something to cling to with my hands. But there was nothing but the slippery, slimy wall surface. Soon I began to tire. I found it harder and harder to stay afloat.
The little light that had penetrated the darkness before suddenly grew dimmer. I could no longer see the walls. It seemed I was losing consciousness. Did the toxic fumes make me mercifully lose consciousness, before I would drown? Just as I was beginning to submerge in the infernal soup, I felt a strong grip at one arm, then on the other. I was no longer sinking, but going up instead. Centimeter by centimeter my body was dragged by an invisible force higher and higher towards fresh air, sunshine and life. With a thump I landed on firm ground and after I recovered a little, I looked at my rescuer’s smiling face. One of the older Pröbstel boys had heard the clang of the lid and saw me fall into the holding tank. It would have been my certain death, had he not acted immediately. The miracle of my rescue appears even greater to me now, when I consider that by chance the holding tank was filled almost to the top. For otherwise the boy would not been able to reach me.
I learned to ride a bicycle under somewhat unpleasant circumstances. One day my brother Karl lifted me up onto the saddle of his rather tall bicycle. I was all excited. Indeed I was very eager to experience the freedom of moving about on two wheels. My legs were barely long enough for my feet to reach the pedals. While Karl was holding the luggage rack to keep the bike in an upright position, I began to pedal and managed to gradually build up speed. Every once in a while my brother let go of the rack just for a few seconds to give me the feeling of the relationship between speed and balance. Under his caring guidance I was able to ride the bike independently for longer and longer stretches, until I had developed enough confidence to break from Karl’s helping hands. I pedaled so fast that I soon left him far behind. I was on my own now experiencing the exhilaration of traveling on two wheels. I was on that straight level stretch between the ‘Poorhouse’ and the public fountain at the junction.
However, there was one problem. I had not yet learned to make a u-turn and what was worse I did not know how to stop the bike without falling and hurting myself. This meant that I was unable to turn around and get back to Karl who could assist me getting off the bike. The exhilarating sensation suddenly gave way first to mild anxiety, then to full-blown panic, as I realized that the only way to prevent a painful crash on the paved highway was to keep on pedaling. So I did, until after a few more minutes exhaustion set in and I could no longer move the bicycle fast enough to keep my balance. Fortunately, as the bike was just ready to fall on its side, I steered it into the ditch and thus avoided at least a major injury. If this had been a lady’s bike without that scary crossbar, I would have been all right. Roughed up a little in body and spirit I walked Karl’s bike back home crying all the way to express my hurt and misery.
There are two kinds of gifts, the one you buy and the one you make yourself. Although the former may be much appreciated at times for its usefulness or inherent thoughtfulness, it is the latter that is of greater value, because the giver has devoted so much time, planning, workmanship, and love to the gift. In a sense he has given part of himself to the recipient. So I feel today when I contemplate about the first Christmas gift that I can remember from the early days in the ‘Poorhouse’. Apart from the customary plate of nuts, sweets and cookies – truly highly esteemed luxury items during the rest of the year – I found under the tree a colossal wooden locomotive about half a meter long and big enough for me to sit on. It was equipped with a set of six or eight wooden wheels, which revolved smoothly around its skillfully crafted axles. It was a joy to look at and an even greater joy to play with. A lot of thought had gone into designing and building it. If I consider how few tools had been available and how primitive they were, it was truly a masterpiece. I do not know who was involved in the plan of creating this wonderful homemade toy. But it seems to me that the entire family had made a contribution to a project, which I cherished as the only true gift worth remembering all the way up to my teenage years.