Appearance and Reality
Dangerous Adventure on the Roof Top
In the summer holidays I traveled by train to Mother’s work place, the Senior Citizens Home in Rudersberg less than half an hour’s drive from the commercial hub and center of southwest Germany, the city of Stuttgart. Here I spent six carefree weeks alone or with a newfound friend, who spoke a similar dialect as the people in Rohrdorf. When it comes to language, I had and still have, to a lesser degree, the ability to quickly assimilate a new dialect. Looking back at the first few months at the Wesel High School, where very formal and standard German was spoken, I am amazed at the speed, at which I lay aside all traces of my southern dialect.
Right across from the Seniors Citizen Home was a small two-storied house with stone stairs leading up to the main entrance. Here a girl by the name of Ursula perhaps a year or two younger than I lived on the first floor. The two of us often sat on the steps chatting, swapping information about school life, our hobbies and the like. When the sun was coming around the building and it was getting too warm to sit on the stairs, we withdrew into the shade under the staircase. On a particularly hot afternoon we had spent quite a long time in our cool hiding place – perhaps a bit too long in the eyes of suspicious people who saw evil where there was none. When we eventually emerged and stepped into the glaring light, a barrage of angry words came raining down on us out one of the windows from the building across the street. An older woman all dressed in dark clothes shocked us with a seemingly endless tirade on the decline of morals, on the shameless and open display of inappropriate conduct between two, oh so young and already so corrupted individuals and all that so close to a Christian home for the elderly. “Shame on you! Shame on you!” she exclaimed, before she slammed the window shut. Apparently she had been following the invisible drama in her own imagination that was as far apart from reality as night is from day. We both were stunned by this outburst of incomprehensible accusations. Perhaps if we had been a few years older, we would have understood what this woman’s rage was all about. As for me, the unknown person in dark had already created an ever so vague impression that there was something unwholesome, sordid and morally questionable in dealing with the opposite sex, something I did not yet know what it was, but which came back to haunt me later in my adolescent years.
There happened to be a kermesse, in size and variety of entertainment, quite similar to the one I had attended in Messkirch the year before. This was a welcome distraction for me. Not having much money in my pocket, I simply enjoyed milling around in the crowds, going from booth to booth, from merry-go-round to roller coaster, listening to the rock n roll that was just beginning to penetrate the German pop music. I watched people play games or buy little toys and trinkets from noisy peddlers. As long as the kermesse lasted, I walked down to the fairgrounds every afternoon. One day I invited two elderly ladies who were sitting on a bench in front of the Seniors Home to walk with me down to the fairgrounds. From their reaction I could tell that this had never happened to these venerable old ladies before. A twelve-year-old boy offered to take them to the town square. After they had gotten over their surprise, they encouraged each other, and then nodded with a smile as a sign of acceptance. The scene that followed was quite comical, actually downright hilarious. Swaggering down the hillside sidewalk, one lady hooked in my arm on the left, the other one on the right, so full of joy, we were giggling and laughing all the way down to the fair grounds. What a wonderful feeling to bring happiness into people’s lives and not to care how crazy it might appear to bystanders or what they might think or say!
My desire to explore the things around me led me once into gravest danger. I had discovered by chance the stairs leading up to the huge unused attic space in the building of the Seniors Home. Inside the attic it was pitch dark. Overcoming my fear of darkness, I waited until my eyes had adjusted sufficiently to see that there was a hatch, which a storm perhaps may have pried open just a crack to let a shaft of sunlight shine through onto the wooden floor. Towards that single source of light I was directing my steps. When I had arrived near the far end of the attic, I discovered that the hatch had a simple locking mechanism. To let more light in, I pushed the hatch fully open. Now my eyes had to adjust again this time to the overpowering brilliance of the midday sun, which was flooding the beautiful landscape around the town before me. The ridge was less than three meters from the hatch. I thought that I would have a much better view if I climbed over the slate tiles onto the ridge. I immediately turned this daredevil thought into action, even though I severely suffer from acrophobia. It helped that the massive roof surface prevented me from seeing how high I was above from the parking lot below. So I slowly and carefully crept up on all fours until I reached the top and sat proudly on one of the ceramic ridge tiles. For extra measure of security I straddled the ridge and feasted my eyes on the magnificent panoramic view. Then the thought occurred to me that if I slid tile by tile forward I would reach the opposite end of the roof whence I could look down on the entire town of Rudersberg. Totally ignoring my fear of heights, I boldly went ahead. After thirty minutes of lifting and lowering alternately arms and legs in caterpillar-like fashion I arrived at the end of the roof. Far down below, people looked like ants and cars like matchbox toys. Had I before just seen mostly the roof surface with the lovely scenery on each side, it seemed to me now as if I was looking into a bottomless chasm. Three stories high on the rooftop I felt the first signs of a vertiginous attack making the world spin around me. Sensing the oncoming vertigo, I instinctively closed my eyes, lay prostrate with arms and legs straddling the ridgeline. I displayed, if anyone could see it, a picture of humble admission to my total stupidity and ignorance of the truism, what goes up must come down.
After the horrid sensation of twirling motion had ebbed away, I dared to open my eyes again. Then another fear far worse than the first seized me. I realized I was trapped. I could not get back to the hatch without turning around. And I could not turn around without falling off the roof. The thought crossed my mind to call for help. It would have been the most sensible thing to do in my situation. But what made sense, my pride did not allow me to do. So I lay there for a long time thinking and taking some comfort in the fact that as long as I did not move, nothing could happen to me. Many life-threatening situations require prompt decision and action. However, this one was different. After a long time that seemed like eternity I found the courage to sit up. Forcing myself not to look down in order to avoid another onslaught of dizziness, I moved my bottom backwards the short distance of a single ridge tile, stopped for a while, then encouraged slid back to the next tile a little further away from the house front. Now I knew that I had found the solution to my own rescue. Once the dizzying depth was out of sight, I regained my calm and retreated more quickly at a steady and rhythmic pace. Hands down, bum up, slip back one tile, bum down, short break and repeat. Finally I reached the hatch, climbed through it and felt at last the solid wooden attic floor under my feet.