Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.
Adventures Above and Below the City of Wesel
In 1956, the same year my brother Gerhard (Gerry) immigrated to Canada, Mutter, Aunt Mieze and I moved into our brand-new apartment near the center of the city of Wesel. Just a little over a decade after the war, the city lay still to a large part in ruins. Reconstruction was in full swing. Looking from my bedroom window I had an unobstructed view of a three km stretch with no houses standing all the way to the railroad station.
Of course, from a boy’s perspective, the city was an exciting place waiting to be explored. With my friend Hartmut I went on adventurous exploration into the huge bombed-out area not far from the street with the melodious-sounding name Auf dem Dudel, where I lived. Not finding much in the rubble that had been picked clean long time ago, we felt the magnetic pull of the few houses, which had been declared unsafe by the authorities. There were warning and ‘no trespassing’ signs. Did curious teenagers ever heed such notices? Hartmut and I found a window at the back that the city workers had forgotten to board up. Assisting each other we gained quick access to the interior of the house that had miraculously escaped total destruction from the Allied carpet-bombing raid a decade ago. We climbed up a fancy wooden staircase to explore the upper rooms. From the ornamental engraving and carving of the railing and the decorative oak panels on the walls we knew we had entered a small mansion. Eagerly we scurried from room to room in search of some treasure that the owner might have left behind. To our greatest disappointment the rooms were bare and the floors had been swept clean. Only the old-fashioned flowery wallpaper offered a hint that this little mansion had seen better days. To get at least one benefit out of our discovery, we decided to come back and turn one room into the headquarters of our secret society that we soon formed under the mysterious name “The Black Hand”. Unfortunately on the following excursion, we made the sad discovery that the only remaining opening into our hiding place had been properly nailed shut.
At the outskirts of the city there was a brand new sewage treatment plant. Construction workers were still busy installing underground concrete pipes more than two meters in diameter. A few weeks before the town sewage and drainage system was to be connected to the new facility, Hartmut and I came across an open manhole, which led down via an iron ladder to one of the underground tunnels. Our plan was to come back the next day with flashlights and to embark on a new adventure underneath the city of Wesel. The following afternoon we descended into what seemed to our excited imagination Minotaur’s labyrinth. Fear of the unknown and the desire to prove our courage heightened the excitement. Iron rung by iron rung we lowered ourselves into the municipal underworld, where three giant pipes joined to form a Y-connection. We decided to follow the larger pipe that led away from the city. It was eerie to walk through the dark passageway, where the feeble flashlights could not reach farther than a few meters. The echo of our steps reverberated a million times from the smooth concrete walls. We did not dare to speak, for we were afraid of our own hollow sounding voices. Every ten minutes or so we encountered a shaft leading up to a manhole. But they were all securely closed and the metal lid would have been too heavy for us to lift. With some trepidation we realized that we had to return to the manhole we had just climbed through, if we wanted to get out of this gloomy environment. We were just about ready to turn around, when I saw a faint circular light. It was the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. It gave us hope to escape a little sooner from this frightening darkness, since our flashlights were already beginning to fade. We were moving faster now toward the exit. Soon we were close enough to hear the grinding noises and then we felt the vibrations from heavy machines. Just then a crane was lowering another pipe section into place, when the foreman of the work crew spotted us emerging from the darkness into the broad daylight.
“What the hell are you little devils doing down there? Get out of there this very minute! I want to talk to you.” Seeing the man seething with anger and hearing the verbal abuse that came raining down upon us, we stood there stunned and paralyzed for a short while as if glued to the edge of the pipe. But when he threatened to call the police, we regained our mobility. We quickly turned around and rushed back into the safety of the underworld that just a moment ago we were so eager to escape from. With the flashlight flickering and threatening to go out completely we raced back without granting ourselves a single break fearing all the time that the foreman had sent his work crew to catch us. The two or three kilometers seemed endless, but all of sudden we had reached, huffing and puffing, the Y-section, where our adventure had begun. Except for our heavy breathing no footsteps from the other end could be heard. The light from the open manhole above signaled that we were safe. We were totally exhausted from the run, but very happy to see the light of day again.