Alone at the Siemens Apartment Building
“Study hard, for the well is deep, and our brains are shallow.”
In search for a place to spend the next six months Mother had found a mini-apartment in a huge building complex that had been specifically built for single workers in the local Siemens factory. Small it was indeed. The room I called my own covered hardly an area of fifteen sq. m. I shared the hallway, which contained a few basic kitchen facilities, with an older man next door, who fortunately moved out before Christmas with no one moving in to replace him. On the right side of the hallway was the common bathroom with a shower instead of a bathtub. In spite of the limited space I was extremely happy to have my own four walls with a large window and even a tiny balcony facing the rising sun.
It was from here that I wrote my first letter to Biene’s twin brother Walter at the end of August. As promised I included schematics of electronic circuits that I thought might be of interest to him. Of course, I had not forgotten Biene, whose image began to fade in my mind, but whose idealistic afterglow I cherished all the more. “And do not forget to greet your parents and Biene from me,” I ended this letter and all subsequent ones. Walter promptly replied and inserted an advanced RC transistor diagram that was far too complex for me to understand or to be useful for my simple projects. But the desired connection had been made, and before long Biene and I were corresponding with each other. There were two important aspects to the letters, which were traveling back and forth between Velbert and Wesel. One, they opened a window and brought bright sunshine and fresh air into the often gloomy, stuffy interior of my soul; two, due to the physical distance we could write about our thoughts and feelings, wrapped up in a flowery language, carefully worded and lovingly presented. We opened our hearts to each other and discovered that we both had a romantic vein that was rich and seemed to be inexhaustible. In short, the seeds of our developing relationship had fallen on fertile ground. For me in particular, the correspondence proved to be a journey into the wonderful world of self-discovery. I enjoyed creating written tableaus depicting dream-like, often melancholic scenes with fact and fiction imaginatively intertwined. They engendered in a perpetual cycle an ever increasing sense of self-awareness. Reminiscing about a stopover at a railroad station I once wrote her.
Over the railroad station sways the moon. Its pale light flickers through dense patches of fog, and the moist shimmering rails vanish behind the impenetrable wall of uncertainty. I am pacing the empty platform up and down, three minutes forth, and three minutes back. Slowly, hesitatingly the heavy hand of the clock advances from one-minute mark to the next. Lost in thoughts I look up to the moon. The cold, damp forces of nature’s power attempt to snuff out its golden light. But it is not you, good moon, who are eluding me, you, the embodiment of all my happiness. No, around me lurk the cold forces; they seize me with their moist fingers. Oh happiness, you would always dwell among people, if darkness were not all around us that hides you and saddens my heart. Two lights emerge from out of the fog. They have a goal; they glide over solid tracks. I can put my trust in them. In vain the dense fog is clutching to hold the iron vehicle; it cannot delay its course. I step onboard. 22:20
Shortly after I had written the letter to Biene with its sentimental railroad story, I traveled by train to Rendsburg in Northern Germany to attend my eldest brother’s wedding. Karl’s bride was Ingrid Lehmann, born in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad), East Prussia, whose father was a retired sea captain. Karl was making sure that everything was prim and proper for the festivities. He checked out my clothes and appearance very carefully and was quite pleased with the new suit I was wearing. Even though I had shaved in the morning, Karl spotted the beginning of new growth darkening the area around my chin and requested for the sake of the important event another shave. Putting my usual stubbornness aside, I complied with his request.
With almost all close relatives present it was a memorable wedding. At the banquet Captain Lehmann and Uncle Günther solemnly delivered words of wisdom, reflections on their lost home provinces in the East, fine speeches, which were recorded on tape and can still be heard today on audio CD. It was here in Rendsburg that for the first time I was seriously contemplating about what it would be like to tie the knot and form a life-long partnership in marriage. I also began to see that hard work at school and university must come first to realize such dreams. I thought that as an electronics engineer I might have a fairly good income to support a wife and family.
One Drink Too Many
When I returned from my brother’s wedding, I resolved to be more goal-oriented, to study hard, to raise myself above mere mediocrity to an academic achievement I could truly be proud of. On the wall hung the work schedule, which I had imposed upon myself outlining a rigorous timetable: getting up at six, attending school from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., taking some time off till three, doing homework and studying till five. After supper followed another two hours of intensive study. I had a lot of catching up to do. An hour before it was time for me to go to bed. usually around ten o’clock, I critically reviewed my day. And if according to the work schedule I had passed the test, I rewarded myself (and only then) with a small shot of vodka and let the pleasant warmth penetrate my body as a form of instant relaxation. The master allowed the slave to temporarily forget the self-imposed burden. At moments like these I would grab my guitar, play a few simple classical pieces composed by Carulli, or take out the harmonica and strike up a potpourri of folksongs, pop music or my favourite scouting melodies.
At times when I felt in a creative mood, I would open the metal box with a dozen or so water colours and try my untrained hands to paint a picture often with a futuristic theme inspired by my voracious reading of science fiction novels. One picture (see above) depicts a romantic scene showing a young couple sitting on a park bench under the light of the full moon. High above the horizon towers the head of a helmeted space woman of a distant century in the future, whose envious eyes are glaring down on the romantic couple below.
Wilhelm, my classmate, came to school from a neighbouring town. His father produced apple juice, with which he tried to compete with the popular Coca Cola product that was making economic inroads into the German beverage market. Wilhelm once demonstrated in our school how corrosive coke was by filling two glasses, one with his father’s apple juice and the other with coke. He then threw an iron nail into each glass. In the following week, when we entered the chemistry lab, we were astounded by what we saw. The nail in the glass filled with coke was completely encrusted with rust, whereas the one in the apple juice was still shiny and unaffected. However, we failed to see the connection to the possible ill effects that the popular drink might have on our sensitive stomach linings.
It was about two weeks before Christmas, when Wilhelm came up to my apartment and brought me a 10-liter jug of apple juice. I placed it on the hot water radiator. Without the aid of a wine making kit with its expensive accessories we embarked on producing a cider by letting Mother Nature do the job. After only a few days I could report to my friends in school that bubbles were rising in the bottle, a certain indication that the process of fermentation had begun. Hans, Helmut, Wilhelm and I were already looking forward to our Christmas break party with the potent apple wine in the making. Soon the bacteria finding ample food in the juice and turning the sugar into alcohol multiplied a million times over generating CO2 at first weakly fizzing, then growing into a crescendo very much like the sound of rushing waters. Finally the bacteria had done their duty, and the homemade cider was ready for the party. School was out. In the New Year the final race would come to the finish line. The dreaded written and oral exams were looming on the horizon. So we four all felt the need to let go and put aside for a while our worries and graduation blues. I had put the jar outside into the wintry air on the balcony to chill the brew into a refreshing drink. We made ourselves as comfortable as possible in my tiny room. My three friends were sitting on the couch that converted into a bed and I sat on the only chair at my desk, whose prominent occupant was the giant jug with its delicious content. I poured the cider into coffee mugs. There were no glasses in the mini-kitchen. At first we had a serious talk about our plans for the future. The classroom genius Hans wanted to enroll at the Marburg University to study nuclear physics; Helmut, the lawyer’s son, was seeking a position in economics; Wilhelm planned to embrace a teaching career, and I had set my eyes on becoming an electronics engineer specializing in high frequency technology.
I poured us another cup of that deceptive cider that tasted like a refreshing fruit drink but carried a powerful punch. Hans tuned my guitar and starting picking a few melodies. Most Siemens workers in the building had gone home to their families. The apartment building was almost devoid of people. So there was nobody we would disturb with our singing. After another cup we had reached the point where singing had become the necessary ingredient for the continued success of the party. The vocal chords well lubricated by the smooth drinks were ready to metamorphose us into a cheerful bunch of young men.
To the great delight of my friends, after we had gone through our favorite scouting and traveling songs, I offered to sing a spiritual to express my sentiments over our oppressive teachers in school: “When Israel was in Egypt’s land, let my people go. Oppressed so hard, they could not stand …”, which I sang with the deepest voice I could muster without floundering. Now Hans injected rhythm into the life of the party and played masterfully one of the Flamenco style pieces with the beats being pounded vigorously on the guitar body. “That was the rendition of our friend and maestro worthy of another drink”, I said. By now the content of the 10-liter jug had dropped to about the halfway mark. Suddenly Helmut got up and said he had to go to the bathroom. The way he staggered into the hallway made it clear that he had already had too much to drink. Someone said, “I hope he’ll find the toilet in time. He looks ‘blau’ (German slang for drunk) to me!” Now one must know that in Germany you locked the bathroom door with a key. Poor Helmut must have taken it out and dropped it on the floor. All of a sudden we heard him call, “Let me out! You locked me in!” We rushed into the hallway and tried to convince him that he was the one who locked himself in and that he would have to find the key. “It is not in the lock”, he complained.
“Then it must be on the floor. Look for it”, we replied. Finally he located the key. What came next is incredible. Helmut’s level of intoxication was so far advanced that his eye-hand coordination was severely hampered. He was unable to insert the key into the keyhole. Imagine the hilarious scene, in which we three friends tried very hard to give him directions how to put the key into the hole. I was just about going to call the janitor for help, when Helmut managed to open the door. He looked pale and disgruntled, whether it was out of embarrassment or intoxication, we could not tell. Without saying good-bye he took his coat and left. Needless to say the bathroom incident had put a damper on the jolly time we were having. Nobody felt like having another drink. The party was over.
From Graduation into Carnival
When school continued in the first week in January, I avoided all distractions and focused all my energies on last minute studies. By now the school administration had let us know the subjects and topics, in which we were to receive our oral examinations. For me it was Charles V in History and Calculus in Mathematics. In the remaining four weeks I emptied an entire bottle of vodka, which one could take as evidence for my industriousness. I rarely missed to fulfill my daily work quota. Indeed I would go sometimes overboard and even skip my time for relaxation with guitar or harmonica. One morning I woke up late. I was shocked to discover that I had forgotten to set the alarm clock. School had already started, so I quickly jumped into my clothes, grabbed my books, and without having had breakfast I raced to school in record time and barged into the classroom, where my homeroom and German teacher Herr Aufderhaar had just begun a lesson on German romanticism. Because he was bald and also taught religion, we had given him the nickname ‘Kahler Jesus’, which means Bald Jesus in English. He took one look at me and instead of being angry about my tardiness showed remarkable understanding for my circumstances. He teased me good-naturedly and remarked to the entire class, “Klopp is not just late for class. He did not even shave!”
For the oral exam in History I was well prepared. The main topic that I was given was the era of Reformation with special consideration to the way Emperor Charles V dealt with the schism that threaten to tear apart the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations. I had about thirty minutes to write down a few notes for my presentation. Then when my turn had come and I was led into the somber exam room, I described in poignant details the political struggles of the emperor against France and the Turks and the frustrations he, as a good catholic, experienced with the rapid spread of the protestant revolt against the corrupt Church of Rome. I was no longer the timid student who once stood trembling with fear in front of our history teacher. I boldly and convincingly expounded all the pertinent factors that determined Germany’s future historical and religious landscape. I took the entire time allotted for the oral exam. So the committee of principal and teachers had no time to ask any unsettling questions at the end. I walked away with the confident feeling that I had consolidated my satisfactory standing in History. Also in Math I was able to prove that I deserved a better final grade. My task was to find a solution for the total amount of work required to dig a cylindrical hole of a certain depth. Herr Müller, my beloved math teacher in the senior division, guided me through this difficult problem of integration. He so cleverly posed the right questions that they contained valuable hints allowing me to bring the session to a successful conclusion. It would have been nice to express my gratitude to an excellent teacher some fifty years later. Unfortunately, while I was searching the school Website I found out that he had passed away the year, before I started to write our family history.
With the prestigious graduation certificate (Abitur) in our possession we had access to many postsecondary programs offered by the German universities. As for me, two years of military service at the Bundeswehr (West German army) had to come first. In those days it was still possible to enlist as a volunteer for a period of 24 months instead of the mandatory 18 months with the advantage of receiving a handsome salary, becoming an officer of the reserve, and being able to choose an army unit in keeping with one’s technical abilities. I opted for service in the signal corps, a choice that definitely reflected my interest in electronics and communication technologies.
It so happened that the graduation exercises had ended exactly at the start of the carnival season. Being together one last time with my friends and classmates, before we would scatter into all directions, I made full use of the golden opportunity to celebrate the great milestone and to lose myself in the relaxed atmosphere of the dance hall, forgetting the trials and tribulations before graduation and not worrying for the time being about the future. When the time of drinking, dancing and attending late night parties was over, I was physically exhausted, but for the moment I felt free as if a heavy burden had been taken off my shoulders.
I had not forgotten Biene. Now with more time at my disposal I wrote her a letter bringing her up to speed on my success at school and the tumultuous days at the carnival festivities. But what mattered the most I found the courage to express my feelings about what was so special about her in my mind. At the campground in the spring the year before I had discovered in her appearance the natural beauty that needed no cosmetic enhancement with rouge, lipstick or artificial hair colour. Biene for me embodied the ideal image of a girl. In the letter I gave her my father’s address hoping that she would reply.