The Peter and Gertrud Klopp Family Project

Reflections on Life, Family and Community

Daily Archives: November 27, 2018

The Peter and Gertrud Klopp Story – Chapter XXIV

23

A Wall Comes Tumbling Down

But love is much like a dam: if you allow a tiny crack to form through which only a trickle of water can pass, that trickle will quickly bring down the whole structure, and soon no one will be able to control the force of the current. For when those walls come down, then love takes over, and it no longer matters what is possible or impossible; it doesn’t even matter whether we can keep the loved one at our side. To love is to lose control. Paulo Coelho

Having a Good Time in Marburg

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Downtown Marburg – Photo Credit: wikipedia.org

In the afternoon of October 1st, 1964, I stepped into Room 328 of the Tannenberg barracks named after the place in East Prussia, where Germany defeated the Czarist Second Army at the beginning of WW1. The room was fully occupied by ten soldiers. To accommodate me, another bed was brought into the room for the newcomer from Koblenz. Even though I felt like an intruder in this close-knit group of young men, they gave me a cordial welcome into their circle of friendship and camaraderie. We had many things in common, which greatly facilitated my acceptance by the group. All of us were near the end of our army time with 180 days or less left to go. We shared the same know-how of carrier frequency technology and were looking forward to more technical training on the latest communication devices. But best of all there was a love in the entire group for music, singing, even dancing in a wholesome, man-centred environment, which gave me a big lift in optimism and morale. There were three buddies in Room 328, who could play the guitar. They were delighted to see that I had brought my six-string with me. I gladly let them use it, as they were so much better in the accompaniment of our favourite army songs, whereas I was just a beginner and concentrated more on playing simple classical guitar pieces. We celebrated the major countdown dates of the remaining days, first every month, then every week, finally the last ten days every single day.

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Singing and Celebrating: Peter to the left of the one Playing the Guitar

As part of the ritual we marched through the hallway past the rooms where the new recruits were just beginning their lengthy term of duty. Boisterously, mockingly, but mostly joyfully singing, our voices reverberated throughout the building with the intoxicating line, ‘Homeward bound, the reserve has rest.’ Then we returned to our room for more celebration and merrymaking. On one of these occasions, having already consumed a good quantity of the fine Marburg beer, I felt emboldened to demonstrate to my room buddies how beer can travel upwards from the mouth to the stomach. To accomplish that feat I assumed the typical yoga headstand position. To everyone’s amazement, I drank a glass of beer, which a roommate was slowly pouring into my open mouth. Klopp, the yoga man from high school, had just added a new twist to the ancient Indian system of physical exercises.

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Peter drinking Beer in a Headstand Position

There must have been some favourable mention of my instructional abilities on my transfer papers. For it did not take long before I was asked to resume my teaching duties in basic electricity and electronics. To deliver effective lessons to the new recruits, I was given preferential treatment. For the preparation of the instructional units I had more time than I needed, which I often used to write letters to Biene instead.

Maneuvers and military war games were more frequent now and occurred on a much greater scale often involving several divisions drawn from the various regions of West Germany. The exact starting time, scenario and action plan were kept secret by the high command to make the exercises more realistic. Our commanding officers at Marburg were also kept in the dark and fretted like little schoolboys over their involvement in the upcoming operation. For achieving success in the eyes of the army top brass they heavily depended on our cooperation and technical expertise. Gone were the days of the master-servant relationship of the former days at the basic training period. It felt good to be truly respected as citizens in uniform. I remember one particular military exercise very well. Many days ahead of time the Tannenberg barracks were put on high alert. Weekend passes were cancelled. Maintenance crews feverishly worked on the trucks to make sure that they were ready to roll out at short notice. I had to verify that the electronic equipment was functioning properly in the truck that was assigned to my driver and me for the impending maneuver. Alluring promises were filtering down the ranks. If we did well during the seven to ten days of the upcoming manouver, we all could count on a pass for an extra long weekend as a reward for our efforts.

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On the Way to Military Exercises on a foggy November Day

Then one day in the early morning hours the long-expected order came. Within less than an hour a column of heavy-duty Mercedes trucks was heading west. The purpose of the operation for all the army units in the northwestern region had finally been revealed. Our mission was to throw back an imaginary enemy across the River Rhine. At a location unknown to me, the truck and electronic gear for which I was responsible was parked in a small clearing surrounded by dense woods. These were tiresome days. My partner and I often worked through the night ensuring that the connections were establishing telephone contacts by the cables, which the linemen were rolling in from all directions. But there were also lulls in the frantic activities, when we took turns sneaking in a little bit of much-needed sleep. The only noise then was coming from the 220 V generator, which provided power for light, electronic gear, but also heat for those chilly November nights. I found the entire experience challenging and rewarding to be at the controls of one of the centres of a complex communication’s network. Tired, but satisfied in the knowledge of having made a small contribution to the success of the Marburg contingent, I took the extra long weekend catching up on some much-needed sleep and enjoying Mother’s excellent home cooked meals and hospitality.

A Tale of Two Castles

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Marburg Castle – Photo Credit: Panoramio.com

 In contrast to Koblenz soldiers relatively small in numbers did not overcrowd the medieval city of Marburg. The only barracks was relatively small and like Maxhof in Bavaria served as a technical training centre. To go to the city center I had to descend from the hilltop where the Tannenberg barracks was located on steep roads or if I wanted to take a shortcut on even steeper stone staircases. In the narrow streets below there was hardly enough room for cars to pass each other. It was not uncommon to see vehicles parked right on the sidewalks as not to impede the traffic flow. On my free late afternoons and evenings I often strolled by the many quaint shops. Sometimes I dropped in at one of the numerous bookstores, which always have exerted a special attraction for me. With shelves upon shelves reaching all the way to the ceiling these stores looked more like libraries, which is not surprising, if one considers that Marburg is a wellknown university town. Here I discovered and bought a copy of the New Testament in Latin. The young saleslady might have thought that I was a first year student enrolled in the faculty of theology rather than a common soldier from the local barracks.

Marburg Castle - October 1964

Marburg Castle – October 1964

In the downtown area there were also many cozy pubs. In one that was catering to the students of the nearby university my friend Hans and I frequently got together for a chat and a refreshing local beer from the tap. Naturally in such congenial place we did not limit ourselves to just one drink. After the third beer I felt ready to give my old friend a progress report on my relationship with Biene. Through our correspondence Hans was well aware of the trials and tribulations, but also had been very skeptical about my love to her. He shook his head in disbelief when I told him that I had met her only two times earlier in the spring. Having gone through several love affairs, all of which have ended in disaster, he could not believe that I was still on my first.

            “We are planning to meet again in November,” I said noticing the same doubtful expression that I had seen so often in Dieter’s face.

            Ignoring my statement, Hans bluntly asked with a sardonic grin, “Have you kissed her yet?”

            “Yes, I have,” I answered curtly getting quite a bit uncomfortable with the direction our conversation was taking.

            Making use of his own peculiar metaphor, which he had used in his letters before, he ventured another question. “Have you conquered the castle or has she voluntarily open the castle gate to you?”

            I felt quite annoyed with the embarrassing questions, which so glibly popped out of his mouth. With a hint of rising anger I managed to reply firmly, “Whether it is open or whether it is locked is none of your business! But to satisfy your juvenile curiosity, I will wait to marry her if and when she is ready.”

My Friend Hans giving a Guitar Concert to Fellow Stundents

My Friend Hans giving a Guitar Concert to Fellow Students

            “Ede,” using my nickname and almost shouting now, “you must be kidding me …” He stopped in mid-sentence, when he glanced at my angry and determined face. Whatever was his opinion on this delicate topic, I did not care to hear anymore from someone so disillusioned as my friend was through all his failed relationships. Fortunately I had the presence of mind to change topics, before the matter would escalate into a real fight. I told Hans that I still had the set of walkie-talkies, which I had bought from a roommate and had occasionally used in Koblenz to transmit music within the short-range of the barracks environment.

“ Wouldn’t it be exciting if we tried them out over a longer distance between the castle and the barracks?” I suggested to him. He happily agreed. And so we turned our attention away from the contentious issue of a few moments ago and focused on the number one common interest in electronics that had once formed the foundation of our friendship. Opposite to the Tannenberg barracks was an even higher hill, on which the Marburg castle and the Museum for Armory were located. Three kilometers or perhaps even four separated the two hills with a direct line of sight high above any obstruction, which might have impeded the radio signals. We agreed to test the radios at five o’clock on the very next day. To add an air of adventure, we recalled from the time before we joined the European scout movement our old code words we had used in our twosome secret society ‘The Black Hand’. However, what we in our excitement did not consider was that the fantasy world of our boyhood adventures was not so far removed from the reality of the Cold War era, where spies and agents from East Germany were roaming about looking for valuable information of military significance in West Germany. Precisely at 1700 hours Hans and I established a communication link with our walkie-talkies between the two hills. An exchange of short and snappy statements ensued taking on a distinctly clandestine character and went approximately like this.

            “XU73 calling Ede Wolf. Over.”

            “Ede Wolf acknowledging call from XU73. Over.”

            “XU73 to Ede Wolf. Confirm validity of call by providing code word between XU73 and Ede Wolf. Over.”

            “Code word is: ‘The Black Hand’. Over.”

            “Roger from XU73. What is today’s message? Over.”

Now came the moment when our game reached its climax. Even though we had rehearsed the script in the pub the day before, I felt just as excited as if the whole scenario was for real. “The message for XU73 from Ede Wolf is: Five black umbrellas in Italian ice cream parlour. I repeat …”

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Tannenberg Barracks at Marburg – Photo Credit: wikipedia.org

I could not repeat the sentence. In the twilight of the early November evening hours I saw a police car with a directional antenna on top racing up the winding hillside road. Almost in panic I pressed the send button one more time and warned my friend, “Danger! Turn off your radio at once. I explain later.”

            While the police car navigated a few more switchbacks, I had barely enough time to jump off the road and hide in the dense brush below. A minute later I heard a car passing by at high-speed no doubt in search for that elusive radio signal carrying those mysterious messages. If I had been caught, Hans and I would have been in a real pickle as to how to explain that the conversation between a student of the local university and a member of the Armed Forces was just a juvenile game apart from the disturbing fact that we had been using a communication device without a license.

Rendezvous at the Wuppertal Opera House

On the Sunday morning of November 15th, I boarded the train at Giessen and was on my way to Wuppertal, where I was to meet Biene at the train station.

Floating Tram in Wuppertal - Photo Credit: wikipedia.org

Floating Tram in Wuppertal – Photo Credit: wikipedia.org

During the three-hour train ride I had ample time to reflect on the strange nature of my relationship with Biene. In the angry exchange of words with my friend Hans I had allowed the word ‘marriage’ to slip out of my mouth, which must have seemed totally ridiculous to him and seemed to me now as well. Hadn’t she set new boundaries for the two of us? Hadn’t I acknowledged them in my letters and promised to respect them? And what was the purpose of friendship in the light of my planned emigration to Canada? Hadn’t I lost within less than a year friends and classmates, who were living closer than a half-day’s train ride from me? Would any of my friends sit for hours in a train just to attend an opera in a distant city on a Sunday evening and then in a grand loop, including annoying late night transfers, return home at eight o’clock in the morning? Why was I doing this? It seemed to me that in spite of my promises to the contrary I still wanted to climb over the wall that Biene had erected between the two of us.

Return Ticket of November 15, 1964

Return Ticket of November 15, 1964

As the express train was approaching my destination, I put myself in Biene’s shoes and began to ponder what had made her so eager to meet me. Why would she go through the trouble of traveling to Wuppertal to buy tickets and then exchange them a few days later, because I had postponed the date of my arrival? Would anyone do this for a mere friend? In spite of my disagreements with Dieter, Gauke and Hans, they had been right in one thing. An actual face-to-face encounter is worth more than a hundred beautifully written love letters. I remembered how annoyed I was in my grief, when Private Gauke romanticized about that happy moment when he saw his sweetheart waiting for him at the end of the platform with her hair undulating in the evening breeze. After our transfer back to Koblenz we had lost sight of each other. I felt thankful now for the care and compassion of a true friend and for the romantic image that was almost identical to the one that I envisioned now. It had vividly come back through Biene’s instructions in her postcard, “I will be standing under the railway clock near the exit behind the ticket gate.”

Opera House Wuppertal - Photo Credit: wikipedia.org

Opera House Wuppertal – Photo Credit: wikipedia.org

Then we met. During the afternoon we immersed ourselves into the mellow sensation of togetherness that resisted any attempt to spoil it with talk about how we felt about each other and what destiny held in store for us. In my memory the exuberant feeling, which I experienced while being together with her so powerfully dominated my heart that all else was drawn into a blissful blur. Later on I could not tell where and how we had spent the twilight hours before we entered the opera house to take in the sights and sounds of Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’. For me, who had never gone out on a date before, the experience was almost overwhelming. We were thankful for the silence imposed upon the audience by the theater’s etiquette. Any casual conversation would have ruined our sense of happiness. Instead we communicated the feeling of physical closeness to each other by the gentle squeezing of our hands. Too soon the three-hour long opera came to an end. I had to catch the last train to take me home in a veritable odyssey. By German traveling standards the round trip of more than ten hours with its many stopovers and waiting times had been an ordeal. Although I arrived at Mother’s place tired and exhausted, I felt happy. I sensed that our late night rendezvous at the opera had sprung a hairline crack in the invisible wall that Biene had erected.

Train Arriving at Home Base: Watzenborn-Steinberg (Now Pohlheim) near Giessen

Train Arriving at my Home Town Watzenborn-Steinberg (Now Pohlheim) near Giessen (1964)

While the monotonous clickidy-clack of the train lulled me into sleep, I was blissfully unaware of the profound sadness and feelings of desperation, which had gripped Biene the very moment my train had vanished like a phantom into the darkness of the night.

The Wall Comes Tumbling Down

Excerpts from our Correspondence Half a Century Ago
Limburg in the Lahn Valley - Photo Credit: Allemagne Romantique

Limburg in the Lahn Valley – Photo Credit: Allemagne Romantique

After the night-long train ride I was physically exhausted, but somehow refreshed in mind and spirit. In the next couple of days I felt like I was riding high above cloud nine. On my walks to the nearby derelict mill the dreary landscape shrouded in dense fog did not conjure up depressive thoughts. On the contrary, I let the new-found tender feelings guide me. I was whistling and singing bold scout and army songs and offered Mother a cheerful good morning, when I arrived at our home’s doorstep. A few days later I received Biene’s letter.

November 16th, 1964

         ” My dear Peter,

I would so much like to ask you: Come back right away and stay with me and no longer depart from me. Alas, I know that it is not possible and that you would come immediately if you could. I felt so miserable, when I walked off the platform. What would I have given to step on the train with you to travel anyplace with you no matter where. I feel so unspeakably lonesome, and the question gives me pain: For what do I live and for whom?  I am so distressed and it hurts me so much in the terrible knowledge that you can only come to go away again and soon forever. Dear Peter, please forgive me. I don’t want to reproach you for anything. With your visit you brought me much joy and you undertook the long, strenuous journey, and yet I am sad and my longing for you is even greater. I would like to love you so much and be with you and make you happy. When I have calmed down a little bit, I will write you again.

          Your Biene”

Meandering Lahn River - Photo Credit: allemagne romantique

Meandering Lahn River – Photo Credit: allemagne romantique

No rhyme nor reason will ever explain why during my reading of her lines a dark cloud would cast a shadow over my entire being. Instead of rejoicing over her letter, I was deeply disturbed, not so much by her pain, suffering and longing for my presence, but rather by my own stubborn refusal to wholeheartedly accept her declaration of love. I was stewing over Biene’s sudden turnaround regarding the wall, which she had erected for whatever reason and which I had so foolishly and cowardly accepted. After I had brought the emotional stew, a mixture of confused anger and painful stubbornness, to the boiling point, I rashly wrote her a response. I told her that I had gotten used to the wall as a sort of protection against another blow of fate. Distrust had entered my heart and I was unwilling to start all over again. I had barely thrown my letter into the mailbox, when I felt sorry. I had a broken a promise I once made to myself, never to reply in haste and thoughtlessness. I was expecting the worst. Within 48 hours her reply arrived in the mail.

Dear Peter,

Something in your letter has frightened me. For I have again recognized how much I had hurt you at the time when it appeared to you as if I wanted to erect a wall between us in order to protect myself against your affection. Oh Peter, believe me that I had never wanted this, instead I had always longed for your affection. Perhaps you had also felt it. For why did you write in spite of everything and were so kind to me? But you are distrustful, because you could never really understand me. Maybe you don’t know or just cannot believe how I cling to you and how much I love you. For the longest time I myself did not think it possible that it is so, and therefore I wanted to warn you in order not to disappoint you; for I really did not know whether I really loved you as much as it seemed. Dear Peter, this is one reason; alas there were also many other reasons, which I cannot so quickly explain to you. Only after you had come to me did I dare to admit how much you mean to me; and now, Peter, I know it for sure. And now it is certainly too late; for you yourself say that you have resigned yourself to the limits of our friendship and no longer have the same longing as before. It oppresses me very much that it no longer means as much to you that I love you, as it would have meant to you before.

And now, when I want to dream something beautiful about us, this thought destroys it: It will not be! How much I wished now you would still dream about us studying together and be together every day. See, dear Peter, such thoughts are entering my mind and many more…

How I’d wish that I could bewitch you and give you a love potion just like it happens in fairy tales so that I won’t lose you…

Your Biene”
 

Castle Lahneck in the Lahn Valley - Photo Credit: wikipedia.org

Castle Lahneck in the Lahn Valley – Photo Credit: wikipedia.org

Not waiting for a response from me, she quickly sent another letter making a last-ditch effort to save what appeared to have already been lost.

My dear Peter,

Guess Peter, what I did last night. I took all your letters out of the portfolio and read them all once more. Alternately I became quite sad and quite happy. How strangely things have come to pass with us, if I think only about the past year!  In my subconscious I must have always loved you. When I look back, I recognize it, this feeling had to struggle first through much darkness and confusion to the light. And now Peter, it is the most beautiful feeling that I have ever experienced. I believe that if I could really be every minute with you, I would fall apart experiencing so much happiness.

          To you dear Peter, I send a secret Christmas kiss, which you would get under the Christmas tree.

          Your Biene”

After reading Biene’s Christmas letter, the realization hit me with stunning clarity that if I could not see a wall, could not feel a wall, then in all likelihood there wasn’t a wall. Indeed, at the trumpet call of love from deep within her heart the wall had come tumbling down. The dam had been broken, and I found myself swept up by the torrent, against which no further resistance was possible and would have been sheer foolishness. Willingly I went with the flow and felt the tug carrying me unerringly into the direction of my dreams.

Of Good Luck Charms and Love Potions

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Limburg at the River Lahn – Photo Credit: goodwp.com

The wall, which had caused so much grief, had finally collapsed. A fresh breeze of lightheartedness entered our hearts and prompted us to write more cheerfully about our feelings towards one another. We felt safe to joke and banter about our relationship. For example, when I referred to Don Giovanni, the lover of over a thousand women, and boldly declared  that my favorite line was ‘but in Spain already one thousand three’, Biene teasingly asked if she was perhaps Don Pedro’s 1003rd. In that case she would plan her revenge and demand that for me to be forgiven I would have to sing her an aria to demonstrate my true repentance.

At the end of our visit to the opera Biene managed to slip a good luck charm into my coat pocket. It turned out to be an effective substitute for the originally intended love potion. This talisman was a little man, made out of wood, with lots of hair spreading profusely into all directions. Biene truly believed that he would do its magic and completely surrender my heart to her. While I was less inclined to lend credence to such superstition, her strong belief proved her right. The little man with its exuberant hair both amused and endeared me to Biene all the more so, as my army buddies knowing its romantic origin and loved that cute little fellow and constantly teased me about it. Of course, I reported back to Biene how much I loved her good luck charm. When she feigned jealousy over Don Pedro’s love affair, I lectured her good-naturedly that since my cute new friend was a gift from her I considered him part of her and therefore incredibly she would be jealous of herself. Of course, I relished the excitement and bantering Biene’s gift had generated in Room 328. One morning I discovered my roommates had braided his hair. When they threatened tongue-in-cheek to cut it off, I made them all sign a written promise in a letter to Biene that they would not utter such threats again. Just to be on the safe side, from that moment on I kept the little man locked up in my closet.

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View into the Lahn Valley – Photo Credit: Romantic-Germany.info

It was also during the weeks before Christmas that my roommates being aware of my expertise in electronics started bringing their broken-down radios to me. Fortunately the radios suffered only from minor defects, such as blown fuses or tubes needing replacement and similar problems, which I was only too happy to fix. At home I began to assemble from a still functional transistorized tuner and electronic components from my parts box a little radio that I planned to use as a farewell gift for Biene before leaving for Canada.

Amid all this happiness there was just one fly in the ointment. Every once in a while with the regularity of the lunar cycle Biene would feel depressed and so miserable that according to her own words only I would have been able to comfort her, if only I had been present at such time. She would wake up in the middle of the night or even cry in her sleep. Quite frankly, not knowing anything about the so-called evil days that were often used in the German language as a euphemism for the monthly period, I was quite bewildered by the disturbing lines about her distressed state of mind. I felt an uncanny foreboding and wondered why the great joy she felt would not be strong enough to carry her across the occasional ups and downs. Afraid to walk across an emotional minefield, I chose to ignore such sentiments. I still had to learn that avoiding a problem was no way of solving it.

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My Brother Adolf at the Marburg Castle 1964

For Christmas I mailed her an LP with excerpts of the best musical pieces from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which immensely delighted her. She quickly regained her balance. Listening to the familiar tunes recreated the imagery of us two sitting together and holding hands. She in turn sent me a guitar booklet with easy to learn hillbilly songs, such as ‘My wife and I live all alone in a little hut we call our own’. Chords, which I learned and practiced to accompany the songs, supplemented the tunes.

At Christmas I had guard duty at an ammunition depot deep in the woods of unknown location. On my lonely night rounds along the eight-foot fence with the stars shining brightly from a cloudless sky above me, I had ample time to make plans for the future. That’s when I made up my mind to talk to Biene about them on our next rendezvous in the New Year. Indirectly I had prepared her for this by presenting one more time my thoughts on what according to my opinion fate was and perhaps more importantly what it was not.

“December 24th, 1964 – one hour before guard duty

My dear Biene,

 … For I believe that we have still a lot of things to talk about. You know, a great decision will have to be made. But no matter, what it will be, it need not mean our permanent separation. Look, dear Biene, this is also the point, in which I have always voiced a different opinion. Fate can bring us death, turn us into cripples, take away father and mother, drag us into war, but we have in our hands the tender threads of happiness, and fate will take them only out of our hands, if we are incapable or unwilling to make use of them. I can promise you, ‘I come back again’. You can promise me,’ I will follow you’. This is our decision and not one of fate. And whether we both abide by it and act accordingly will be the proof of our love for each other. Now it is getting dark, and I must soon put on helmet and uniform. Have a wonderful holiday and always believe that I think of you often!

Your Peter”

 Amidst feverish preparations for our next get-together in the second week of January Biene mailed along with her Christmas letter two beautiful poems, one of which I like so much that I made an attempt to translate it into English.

          Eyes

 Eyes gleam like a sea at night,

And softly your gaze submerges.

But your gaze is only a weak glimmer like the starlight,

Which on the dark sea winks and blinks

And yet does not fathom the mystery of the deep.

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Windows to the Soul by Gertrud Klopp

 

The Peter and Gertrud Klopp Story – Chapter XXVI

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Of a Young Man’s Needs and Faithfulness

Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for. Epicurus

Biene’s Second Visit to Gotha

Beautiful Stained Glass Windows at the Erfurt Cathedral

During the last three weeks of my military service I took the time to write a report on my army experiences. I intended to mail it to the ombudsman, whose job was to receive and act on the written complaints from soldiers about alleged abuses and injustices in the West German army. Having gained the much-needed distance from the upsetting transfer episode and having received fair and respectful treatment at my final army post at Marburg, I was in the right frame of mind to describe in an emotionally neutral and objective manner some of the deplorable conditions at the Koblenz barracks, where low ranking army personnel were fraternizing, drinking, and getting drunk with common soldiers and thus tarnishing the public image of the Armed Forces. I also pointed out the errors, which the officer in charge – whether intentionally or not I could not say – committed to bring about my transfer to Maxhof. Furthermore I made it clear that while I lost out on a chance of becoming a lieutenant of the reserve, the army itself would suffer in the long run from such careless and wasteful practices. Biene helped me by typing up the handwritten draft copy of the report.  She was quite impressed how I managed to control my anger and yet decidedly communicated my legitimate concerns to the ombudsman. Being aware of the fact that for the first time we worked together to address and solve a problem, she remarked in her letter that all her thoughts were directed to a time in the future with me. She wanted to do her part that our life would not turn to be something, upon which we would look back with regret, rather a life that was perhaps difficult, but would fill our hearts with joy, because we mastered it together.

Lingerie Boutique in East Germany 30 Years after the End of World War 2

About a week before my birthday Biene and her twin brother Walter traveled to Gotha to visit their sister Elsbeth in the GDR behind the Iron Curtain. In those days, when a fence heavily guarded by the National People’s Army (NVA) divided the two Germanys, a person needed a traveling visa and a residence permit in order to cross the border and visit close relatives. What made the application process so frustrating for so many West Germans was not the hefty fee they had to pay, but the arbitrariness in the approval process by the East German authorities. Only in the event of a severe illness or death of a close relative could one be fairly sure to get that all important entry document. So Biene and Walter were lucky indeed to make their journey to their former hometown Gotha and to be together with sister Elsbeth and her family at their birthplace. The apartment, where Elsbeth, her husband Paul Werner, and their two sons Norbert and Christian lived, was located in a beautiful house that had escaped the destruction of the Allied bombing raids during the war. The home offered the warm, cozy feeling of a secure harbour, where the family found refuge from the desolation of the outside world, the depressing sights of dilapidated houses all around the neighbourhood. While West Germany had experienced an incredible economic boom with an unprecedented growth in prosperity during the past twenty years, not much had changed on this side of the border and large parts of the major cities still lay in ruins. There was a shortage of the most basic consumer goods that forced shoppers to buy, whenever and wherever they happened to be available in the drab city stores.

Biene and her two Nephews Norbert and Christian – 1965

On Biene’s previous visit in the summer of ’64, the two sisters had already formed a close bond with each other. Now Elsbeth was jealously watching that nobody spent too much time with her cherished guest. Together they traveled to Erfurt to visit the famous cathedral, where Martin Luther was ordained in 1507. Inside the 1200-year-old Gothic church they marveled at the beauty of the altar. Biene was impressed by the rich colors of the stained glass windows that let the vibrant light stream into the interior. In the evening the entire family would sit around the table and play a round of the German card game Doppelkopf, which was also our favorite game at the Kegler Clan. Of course, her two nephews were delighted, when they were allowed to spend a little bit of time and go for a sightseeing tour around town with their elegantly dressed and pretty Aunt Biene from the West.

Biene’s Birth Place in Gotha

Elsbeth had watched on East German TV many interesting documentaries on the landscapes and people of Canada. She confided to Biene that if she could live her life over again and had the freedom to travel, she would immigrate to this fascinating country with its magnificent scenery and its promise of a better future. When Biene told her that I was going to Canada in a matter of a few weeks and that we had promised to be faithful to each other, Elsbeth voiced her skepticism and did not mince words in sharing her opinion on what a man of my age needed. She warned her younger sister that I would be looking for a girl who would offer more than she had been able to give. Biene was quite troubled by her sister’s pessimistic views on men’s desires for sex and their  potential lack of faithfulness. True to our promise of always sharing our thoughts and concerns with each other, she immediately communicated her worry regarding these disturbing insights in a letter directly from Gotha and asked me to respond and hopefully reassure her.

A Delicate Question Answered

Gertrud (Biene) Panknin’s Graduation Class – Who can find her?

On my 23rd birthday with less than a week left before my release from the military service, I sneaked away from the electronic maintenance job, which had been completed long ago and only existed for one purpose to keep us busy and to kill time. I sat alone at the table of Room 328. No sergeant, drillmaster or officer would bother me here. The carrier frequency equipment, for which I had been responsible for its smooth operation, was in top shape and my absence would not be noticed anywhere at the Falkenstein Barracks. I wanted to do something special on my birthday. The daily celebrations, the drinking and carousing to mark the remaining ‘glorious’ days in the army were not that special anymore.

43

Endless Celebrations: Less than Ten Days Left of Military Service

I longed for quiet, a time to reflect on this idle Wednesday morning. I wanted to respond to Biene’s anxious questions and genuine concerns. Here at the soldiers’ simple living and sleeping quarters no loud talking and singing were distracting me, I found the ideal space to grapple with the contentious issue raised by Biene about faithfulness. It was good to know that Biene trusted me to provide an honest answer. I was proud of her courage to touch on the topic of sexuality, which we two had been too shy to discuss at our few encounters. I took out from my closet pen and paper and began to write down my thoughts. It turned out to be a very long letter, in which I, trusting Biene as much as she trusted me, did not hesitate to truthfully lay bare my innermost feelings. The following are excerpts taken from my lengthy reply.

33

Peter and his Buddy at the Last Military Exercise – March 1965

“March 24th, 1965

 My dear Biene,

Yesterday I received your letter from Gotha. Your sister seems to have a rather strange opinion on men. I am glad that you broached the delicate subject of sexuality. But I found it a little troublesome  that you let yourself get so easily misled. But I don’t want to reproach you; for I myself had often to deal with opinions of young married and unmarried men who asserted that a girl could only be faithful and true to her partner, after she had gone to bed with him. Please forgive me this drastic manner of expression, but why should I beat around the bush? You see the accusations are coming from both sides. As for me, I refuse to accept any form of generalization, when people say, that’s how women are, that’s how men are.

 But now to your concerns! You would like to know how I think about it, dear Biene. Like in all men there is undoubtedly a force that drives me to the opposite sex. Yes, furthermore I concede that the drive is not necessarily directed to a particular person. Dear Biene, you must absolutely believe in what I am writing you now. Let no ever so bold opinion throw you off balance again, if you truly love me. Sexuality does not stand on its own, otherwise we would be like animals, but it is intertwined most intimately with the entire personality of the human being. There will always be tensions, in which we have to struggle to maintain the balance and keep this vital force under control.

 Whoever surrenders in this battle and needs to run to a woman to relieve his tensions is in my opinion a weakling and a coward no matter how assertive and self-assured he might otherwise appear. And in what comes now, you can totally put your trust. Since we love each other, this battle for me is over. I have been able to have this uncanny force coexist in harmony with myself. It is always there, lurking behind the scenes, surprising me at times, but it does not bother me any more. When I read a book, look at pictures, walk in the streets or watch a movie, it often and unexpectedly flares up, and then in full awareness of control I have to smile at myself. Don’t you think that one has overcome much, if one can smile at oneself? Do you still worry about me, even when I tell you that I am strong enough to wait for you and through you alone I have become so strong? As long as I can hope for the fulfillment of my ideals, which I have set for myself, you may chase your worries away. You stand in the midst of this sphere, dear Biene, whether I am in Canada or at the end of the world.

 How beautiful it is that we are so frank with one another! This will not only keep us together, but also bring us ever closer together. Do we want to show this spiteful world that one can wait for one another for years without so-called ‘side leaps’, do we want to, dear Biene, do we want to?

 Finally I would like to say one thing, your sister will one day have to concede that there are some exceptions among men, who will turn out to be ‘miracle men’. Now you will smile; thank you so much! Be completely reassured!

          Your Peter”

The modern reader may scratch his or her head over the outdated notions about love and faithfulness expressed in our letters over fifty years ago. Yet, in our mind they remain completely unchanged and have been our beacon of hope even through the darkest and most turbulent times in our life-long relationship.

Last Rendezvous in Germany

Peter on the Left Walking out of the Falckenstein Barracks

The day of our official release from the West German Army had finally arrived. For the last time we stood in attention in front of the main building. One could easily spot the reservists and distinguish them from the soldiers on active duty by just looking at their clothes. We wore civilian clothes, while the others were standing in their uniform. In spite of all the drudgery during the past two years, it now felt good to have served one’s country. To prevent a war through the presence of a strong army as a deterrent to a would-be attacker was in my opinion far more important than being involved in a conflict with its horrors at the front line and with its casualties among the civilian population. I was grateful for the opportunity to spend my final six months in Marburg. I felt enriched by the outstanding technical training, blessed with a company of cheerful comrades, respected by a competent staff of officers and sergeants. Last but not least I was awarded a fine testimonial, which gave credit to my successful teaching assignments. Soon after the brief farewell speech and words of encouragements and good wishes by the commanding officer we walked through the open gate into momentary freedom until new duties and responsibilities – some of our own choosing, others forced upon us by circumstances beyond our control – would limit our choices all over again. But at this very moment we were truly free. I took the very first available train to take me home to my mother in Watzenborn. In an almost nostalgic mood I hummed in my mind: Parole heißt Heimat, Reserve hat Ruh!

Card Sent Home to announce my Coming

Biene’s reply to my long-winded exposition on love and faithfulness was very encouraging. She also confided to me that only two years prior to meeting me she was not even allowed to step outside the door. Her mother, to whom I will remain for ever grateful, worried a lot about her, kept a watchful eye, and thoroughly investigated, where she was going and with whom she was getting together. At that time quite a few dramas were rolling over the home stage. Biene admitted that during that time she was often in danger of being swept up by her impulsive and passionate feelings. Mother Panknin kept her from getting lost on the wrong path and made sure that her precious daughter would not be led astray by false emotions. But now it seemed that she had trust in her daughter. And even though she had never really got to know me, through the eyes of her daughter she seemed to have developed a favorable image of me. How else, so I asked myself, could she let her travel to me and allow her to stay overnight at a distant location? On Biene’s last visit, before I departed for Canada, with full support of her parents, she came to visit me for an entire week. Perhaps Herr and Frau Panknin shared Biene’s older sister’s view believing that once I was off to another country far away from Biene, our relationship would eventually fizzle out and die a natural death.

Peter and Biene in Front of Erna’s House in Michelbach

On Monday, April 5th, Biene arrived by train in Giessen, where I met her at the station. From there we traveled together to Michelbach near Schotten at the foot of Mount Vogelsberg. The week before I had given Erna, Father’s second wife, advance notice that we were coming for a visit. She knew that this would be the very last time Biene and I would be seeing each other before my voyage to Canada. Even though she was still mourning over Father’s sudden and unexpected death the year before, she did her best to make us feel welcome in her so typical cheerfulness. Everything was prepared for a comfortable and enjoyable stay for us. I was going to sleep in Father’s bedroom upstairs, while Biene was sleeping in the guest room.

Erna, Father’s second Wife, on the Left with her Friend Friedchen Langlitz

After a good night’s rest and a hearty breakfast, Biene and I decided to hike up to the Hoherodskopf, one of the higher peaks of the Vogelsberg Mountains, a 2500 square km terrain that was formed totally from volcanoes some 19 million years ago. This volcanic region has been long extinct. It had created one of the most amazing basalt rock formations anywhere in the world. But on this wonderful April day we were not going to study geology, we had better things in mind. We were more interested in each other’s company, living in the here and now, savouring each precious moment. It was cool, but the sun shone brightly over the park like landscape. Thunderclouds arising above the western horizon lent the vernal panorama a dramatic effect. We were grateful that we encountered very few people on our leisurely stroll, as it was early in the season. There was nothing that would disturb the warm, tender feelings we felt for one another. This was also not the time to look back at all the obstacles, challenges, and problems that we had to deal with in the past. We had mastered them and had set them aside not allowing them to interfere with our blissful state of mind.

Biene on our Hike to the Vogelsberg Peak

There was no need to talk. Our hearts and souls felt at one. We reached the top just in time to find some shelter from a heavy downpour that was threatening to spoil our outing. Near the peak of the Taufsteinhütte we stepped into a cozy restaurant by the same name, when the first raindrops began to fall. The dining area created that special kind of ambience so conducive for a romantic get-together, each table place at a window with a view over the spectacular scenery. Just then lightning lit up the dark clouds. Then followed the rumbling of thunder in the distance. I ordered a bottle of Mosel wine to celebrate and drink to our love that had carried us so far and would help us bridge the long time of separation ahead. For on this day we had not only climbed Mount Voglsberg, but even more importantly we had also reached a new pinnacle in our relationship. The rain was now coming down in buckets. Thunder and lightning engendered an electric atmosphere. In a strange mixture of fear and passion it made us move closer together. In the spirit of ‘carpe diem’ we did not gulp down our wine as if in hurry, instead we sipped the sweet wine from the Mosel valley to make the moment last. We almost wished that the storm would last forever. At least for the moment, time appeared to stand still. When we tasted the last drop, the storm and rain had subsided and had moved on. Erna, having worried about us, had sent a neighbour to pick us up in his car. We reluctantly got up and with a feeling of regret let the neighbour drive us back to Michelbach.

Schotten – April 1965

On the following day Biene and I promenaded down to the quaint town of Schotten with their timber-frame houses so typical of this region. Biene was quite excited and full of anticipation. For I had announced that I would buy her a mystery gift. Of course, I could not tell her what it was; after all it was supposed to be a mystery gift. Biene behaved as if she knew the secret. Therefore, she kept her innate curiosity for all things unknown to her in check. If I had a picture of us two walking into town, I would in a comic-book-like fashion place two speech bubbles above our heads. The one above Biene would say, ‘Today is the day Peter will buy me an engagement ring. I will be so happy!’ And my bubble would say, ‘Today is the day I will buy her a genuine Hohner harmonica. She will be so happy!’ Had I not played the mystery game, had Biene said just one word, I would have bought the ring and put it on her finger for everyone, her parents, friends and all would-be suitors to see that she was engaged. Instead she was now in possession of a fancy harmonica that could be played on both sides in keys C and G. Biene looked pleased and even appeared happy, but I am sure that deep inside she was also a bit disappointed. What I could vaguely at the time was that we could have saved ourselves a lot of pain and agony in the not too distant future, if we had been able to communicate with each other just a little better.

Michelbach, the Little Village, between Schotten and Vogelsberg Mountain

It was the night before we had to head back to Mother’s place at Watzenborn Was it the moon, or the noisy cats prowling and meowing in the attic, or fear of the unfamiliar surrounding, or romantic passion stirring in us? Perhaps all of these things! The plain fact, however, was that we could not sleep. With the two upstairs bedrooms so close to each other it would have been so simple on any of the three nights to yield to temptation. But we did not. I would be a hypocrite, if I was going to explain our conduct in terms of a moral victory. It just happened, almost certainly for our own good.

Elizabeth Gauffreau

Fiction Author

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