Summer Employment, School, and Ballroom Dancing
“Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.”
On a side street not too far from the post office and the Berlin Gate – not to be confused with the Brandenburg Gate of Germany’s capital – was a small electronics store. The owner was also a contractor who did most of the electrical wiring jobs for the apartment buildings, which were popping up like mushrooms in the early sixties. I was well known to the staff as I had often dropped in to ask for nonworking radios, which I would then cannibalize for parts. One day I felt especially courageous and asked if they had a job for me. To my great surprise the boss immediately hired me to work as an electrician’s helper on the various construction sites in Wesel. For the next week or so I had to punch holes into the concrete walls using hammer and chisel. For the first time in my life I began to see the connection between hard work and earning money. Being quite unaccustomed to this type of work at first, I often hit my hands and fingers leaving bluish and bloody reminders of my clumsiness at the end of the day. I worked under pressure, because the rectangular holes had to be ready for the certified electrician to wire the junction boxes. One day the foreman asked me to run over to the shop and ask the boss for construction holes, as they would be needed immediately. Very proud of having received such an important assignment, I ran as fast as I could to make the request for something that sounded quite mysterious to me. When the boss had received the message, he asked his employees with a twinkle in his eyes if they had seen any of those construction holes lying around.
“I believe that some of those holes are on the top shelf over the counter”, the lady of the sales department answered. The boss reached for them and placed them into my outstretched hands. In total disbelief I stared into my empty palms. Then I realized that I had been fooled, when he said, “Here are half a dozen of these holes. Now rush back to the construction sites and make sure you don’t lose any.” With this remark the entire staff could no longer restrain themselves and burst out into good-natured laughter indicating their prank had worked on the novice employee. For my part I was quite a bit annoyed that I had become the laughing stock, but took some consolation in the fact that every newcomer in this business had to undergo the same humiliating initiation.
At the end of one of my shifts a young aggressive salesman, who had been standing outside the store, cornered me on my way home and bombarded me with an endless stream of words extolling the advantages of becoming a member of the Bertelsmann Book Club. It represented one of the largest publishing houses in Germany, the young man asserted. Eager to get home and totally unaware of the financial consequences, I signed on the dotted line of the contract. As long as we lived in Wesel Aunt Mieze (Marie Kegler) paid the quarterly membership fee. She assumed correctly that if I was going to do a lot more reading as a result of this commitment, it would help improve my language skills not only in the remaining school years, but would hopefully create an appreciation of good literature.
In the meantime my boss had been informed by the safety board that it was illegal to have an electrician’s helper at my age working on a construction site. Apparently it had to do with laws governing safety and liability issues. However, he kept me in his employ at the store, even though there was absolutely nothing for me to do. For most of the day I hung around in the store, where pop music from the latest stereo equipment attracted a lot of potential customers, mostly women deeply touched by the sentimental love songs in vogue in those days. Occasionally I ran an errant for the people working in the repair and service department. During those days I discovered that working life is boring if one does not have anything meaningful to do.
One day I saw a short piece of solder on the floor. No cow was attached to it like in Rainer’s birthday speech. I put it in my pocket thinking it might come in handy when working on my electronic projects at home. A few minutes later one of the technicians, who had watched me pick it up, reported the incident to the boss. It is quite possible that my employer was truly outraged over my pilfering or perhaps it provided the perfect pretext to let me go from a place where I had outlived my usefulness. Whatever it was that made him fire me, something good came out of it. It created a moral sensitivity in me with regard to theft. No matter how small, petty, insignificant an item seems to be, whether it is piece of solder or a pen belonging to an office, in the realm of absolutes there are no gray areas. Theft is theft.