Sledding Accident and Trouble in School
After the first heavy snowfall the boys and girls of the Lower Village took out their sleds to celebrate the beginning of winter on our long and steep hill. The Davos sled named after a Swiss village, where this most popular sled in the world originates, is traditionally fashioned from hardwood and is 80 to 130 cm long accommodating up to three persons in an upright position. Two metal runners in this otherwise all-wood construction ensure a smooth and stable ride. The Klopp children had only one long sled. So we took turns to take on the 1 km run down the street that had next to no traffic in the winter. Gerhard would lie down on the slatted seat and I would sit on top. Safety helmets were unknown in those days. The speed increased with each run, as the snow was packed down and turned into a icy surface. Exhilarating was the experience, when I felt the fresh air in my face and the sensation of being part of the fun in the community of children young and old. Soon someone came up with the idea to form a human train by hitching the sleds together. One simply had to hook the feet into the upward-curved front of the next sled. Up to half a dozen sleds connected this way and expanded into a super long snake-like figure. The pilot alone in the front had to make sure that the trip down the hill would be safe and would not result in broken bones. Often I was allowed to sit on the back of the front man. Being the only one sitting erect, I felt like an admiral in charge of an entire fleet. When I think of having so much fun together with friends and family, very fond memories still linger in the crevices of my mind after all these years.
When I was a little older, perhaps 10 or 11, I was allowed to use the family sled to go sledding with my friends on a nearby hill. Cattle would be grazing there in spring, summer and fall. It was completely fenced in except for a gate just wide enough to allow a hay wagon to pass through. When cows were on the pasture, the farmer simply closed the gate by sliding two poles through the horseshoes that were hammered into both end posts of the fence.
The frost in the night before had turned the snow into a crusty surface strong enough that we could with some care walk on it without breaking through. As we were climbing up to the top, an idea suddenly occurred to me,
“Hey, guys, how about making a single pair of tracks with our sleds on the first run. Then we don’t have to plow through deep snow on the following runs and we will go faster, faster, and FASTER.”
“Plus”, I added, “guess what? We don’t have to steer anymore. We will be zipping down the track like a speeding freight train!”
The plan found instant approval with loud cheers. In less than three trial runs we created the double track. And indeed, as I had predicted, our speed increased, because with each trip down the hill the sleds’ runners packed down the snow more and more into a hard and slippery surface. It was about the tenth time that I had climbed to the starting point.
As before I shouted, “Clear the gate opening! I’m coming”, and in one jump I landed belly-down on the slatted seat.
Now I zipped down the track reaching top speed about half way down the hillside. Looking up for the first I noticed that my friends had ignored my warning and were still blocking the gate. Even if they moved out of the way now, it would be too late. Fear of crashing into them gripped and paralyzed me. I was less than twenty meters away. I could have rolled off the sled and let it continue to speed toward the human target, but I didn’t. The collision seemed inevitable within just a few more seconds. Suddenly another force took control over my mind, a force that ignores all danger to oneself and only cares about the welfare of one’s fellow human beings.
My left foot dug deep into the snow. It exerted enough force to make the sled jump out the tracks and veer to the left and away from where my buddies were still idly standing. But now I had to think of myself, as the barbed wire fence and its posts appeared to rush toward me. In a desperate attempt to reduce speed I used both feet now and pushed my boots as far down into the icy crust as possible. I slowed down a bit. But it was too late. The post, worse the iron horseshoe on the post, was less than a meter away. An automatic reflex made me raise my right hand and cover my forehead, before everything around me submerged into complete darkness. When I came to, only a few of my friends were standing around me. Some had run home to get help, but others had left the gory scene of the accident, because they had never seen so much blood before. I was bleeding profusely. Eventually I was able to get up. Completely dazed I took my sled and stumbled home with injuries to the hand and forehead, which the visiting doctor later determined as a severe concussion. The scar under my right index finger reminds me to this day how my hand covering my forehead had softened the potentially fatal impact.
The Rohrdorf Elementary School was located in the Upper Village a distance of about two km from the Ös farmhouse. My teacher, a warm-hearted woman in her forties, was Frau Schroff. She was teaching the multi-grade primary division from Grades 1 through 5, while Herr Steidle took care of the intermediate classes in this two-room school. By now I had completely assimilated the local dialect and was no longer considered an outsider or foreigner by my peers.
In Grade 3 I wrote my first story. Actually it was more like a short paragraph containing only a couple of sentences and very simple words. There was nothing remarkable about this piece of writing except that I remember the wonderful feeling I had while writing it. I do not have the faintest idea of what the story was all about, but I remember how images in my mind created words and the words, as I was writing them down, sparked new images. Words are a product of the culture we grow up in, but the images they create are our own. The more vividly the individual image illuminates the mind, the more creative the writing will be. Take away language and the images will fade. A person without words suffers from a form of blindness. I remember this seemingly trivial event in my life, because of the emotional impact of the words and the associated imagery I experienced at the time of my writing. It was not the story, but the creative and emotive process that stayed with me encouraging me to write.
One rainy day at lunchtime we were allowed to stay indoors. While Frau Schroff had gone to the staff room, we released our pent-up energy by chasing each other around the classroom perimeter, engaging in wrestling matches on the wooden floor, or having sword fight with the teacher’s geometry tools. Obviously all these activities were strictly forbidden. But this time Frau Schroff took a long time in coming back. So this was a golden opportunity to do what we considered to be fun. I liked the sword fight idea best. With the wooden ruler in my left hand I attacked another boy, who defended himself with a protractor, which he used as a shield. We were not really out to hurt each other. It was merely play fight. We employed our arms to measure our strength. In sword-like fashion meter stick and protractor cross each other, and each fighter tried to push the opponent back and claim victory for himself. Unfortunately, as the pressure increased, my flexible ruler bent more and more, until it broke with a loud crack. At that very moment Frau Schroff entered the classroom. Where pandemonium had reigned just the second before and shouting, yelling and cheering had filled the room, now there was dead silence among the spectators.
My opponent and I stood there stock-still as if suspended in time. Frau Schroff asked us to return to our desks and to get ready for the afternoon lesson. She spoke with her usual kind, but firm voice, as if nothing out the ordinary had happened. Only after we had completely settled down, did she address me without displaying any trace of anger, “Of course, Peter, you realize that I will have to write a letter to your parents to request payment for the ruler you broke today.” Had she given me the strap or some other form of physical punishment, the matter would have been dealt and over with for good. But now I had the sword of Damocles hanging over my head. I did not know when or if she would write the letter, nor did I know how my parents would react upon its receipt. A fine tactical move of a very experienced and competent teacher employing the best psychological strategy!
To be continued