Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend. Albert Camus
Among our family acquaintances and friends I had a few aunts to whom I was not related. Out of convenience and lack of a better word I called them so. One was Auntie Pippi, who had known me from the time in Gutfelde (Zlotniki). She had lost her first husband in January 1945 and had married Ernst Grohmann, a well-to-do master of the chimney sweeper guild in Hamburg. From her first marriage she had a son whose name was Thomas about my age. Since Mother and Auntie Pippi were very good friends, they decided that I should travel to Hamburg and spend my summer holidays with Thomas. Auntie Ella, another of Mother’s close friends, agreed to provide bed and breakfast for me in a nearby district of the city.
Thomas and I had a great time together. We played outdoor games in the yard, climbed trees, or played chess when it was raining. But what I regretfully remember most are the utterly foolish and thoughtless things we did in the name of having fun. Relatively mild in retrospect were our chess games we conducted over the phone. Using the European method, we identified each move by a combination of letters and numbers. Moving the king pawn two squares from its original position would be e2 – e4. What we did not realize in our enthusiasm for the royal game was that a local call at that time was charged by the minute. As all chess players know a good game lasts at least one hour. After a dozen games that we played during my stay in Hamburg the telephone bills must have been quite a shock for poor Auntie Ella.
Getting bored with spending the afternoon hours on trees and itching to do something more exciting, we decided to build traps for imaginary wild animals in the neighborhood. We dug 30 cm deep holes, covered them carefully with twigs and dead branches and camouflaged them with clumps of grass to blend in nicely with the lawn. Just as we were digging another hole at the far end of the yard, Auntie Pippi stepped out from the backdoor and walked across the lawn to bring us some refreshment. She was a heavy lady weighing at least three hundred pounds. Not that she was overindulging in calorie rich food; on the contrary she was literally starving herself to keep herself from gaining more weight. She was suffering from a severe case of malfunctioning thyroid glands. In horror we saw her walking straight to the first trap. Why we did not call to warn her is hard to understand. Perhaps we were stunned, perhaps we hoped that she would miss the trap and we would not be scolded for digging unsightly holes. But she stepped right onto the camouflaged twigs and plunged her right foot deep into the hole. With a loud terrifying shriek she dropped the tray and managed to land on both hands cushioning the impact of her massive body on the ground. She could have easily broken her ankle. Great was her anger over our stupidity and thoughtlessness. For punishment we had to restore the lawn to its original state of perfection, which we gladly did.
One day we went to a pedestrian overpass to watch cars and trucks traveling north and south on one of Germany’s busiest freeways. It is one thing to throw flat stones onto the surface of a lake to make them skip, but it is unquestionably a most reckless prank to lob small pebbles onto the cargo areas of passing trucks from an overpass. In our adolescent fervor to seek excitement at all cost we were blind to the grave danger of causing damage, injury or even death to the drivers below. We had not dropped too many pebbles, most of which had luckily fallen onto the pavement, when one landed with a loud clang onto the top of a truck’s cabin. Before we had time to rejoice over the successful throw, the truck pulled over to the emergency lane and came to a complete stop. The driver emerged from his vehicle and seeing us young punks at the railing immediately started racing up the hill that separated the overpass from the highway. In our attempt to escape the angry truck driver, we broke all athletic school records in the one-kilometer run for our age group. Even though we managed to escape, I often felt guilty and even more so considering what could have happened if the truck driver had not taken any action and had not stopped our dangerous game. To this day I am being reminded of this event and cringe when I hear reports in the news of similar mindless behavior on our city bridges and overpasses.