My apology to all my dear readers and followers, who have been missing this post last week. I skipped over to Chapter 34 by mistake and left out the events that had brought new energy, hope and joy to Biene and me. At that time we had new idea that dark storm clouds were brewing on the horizon of our love story.
First Semester at the University of Calgary
“I will ask no more of life than this that I might love you through all my days, and that you may find peace and joy in the constancy of my heart.” Robert Sexton
While searching for a quote that described best my feelings about love and faithfulness, I came across many quotes about fidelity, loyalty, and faithfulness. These virtues have always found strong support across the ages from philosophers, theologians, and rulers, as long as they were part of an individual’s commitment to an ideal, religion, or country. When I narrowed my search down to the love between a man and a woman, I discovered to my dismay that there were two camps of opinions, which differed from each other like day and night. The dark side would have scoffed at Robert Sexton’s quote as if he was promoting boredom and loss of freedom in human relationships. It ridiculed commitment through faithfulness by quotes, such as ‘The follies which a man regrets the most in his life are those he didn’t commit when he had the opportunity’, ‘A bridegroom is a guy who has lost his liberty in pursuit of happiness’, and ‘Absence makes the heart go wander’. The list is almost endless.
Biene and I were poorly prepared and had nothing except our love to repel the onslaught of subversive opinions and temptations. To this day I am grateful to Biene’s sister Elsbeth for trying to warn Biene about the dangers of a long separation. Even though we were not too happy about the doubts she had cast into our hearts, she at least forced us to confront the issue. By being made aware of the perils for our romantic relationship so far apart from each other, we were able to recognize situations that could potentially destroy it.
Before Biene went to England, she had to learn first hand how a commonly held opinion could put belief in faithfulness into question as something both unrealistic and old-fashioned. A nice young man, a fellow student of the Wuppertal University, no doubt infatuated and attracted to her natural charm and beauty, pursued her and in vain tried to weaken her resolve to wait for me. She was dismayed to see that so few people believed in the power of love, which would give us the strength to be faithful. Incidences of this kind prompted her to ask for a ring as a form of protection against aggressive suitors in Germany and in England.
I for my part had no such outer sign, with which I started my studies in Calgary. But I thought being male I would find it easier to avoid the pitfalls of temptation. For in the mid sixties it was the man, who would normally invite a girl to a date. While being very worried about Biene in this regard and actually sharing my concerns with her, I myself felt secure in my belief that my female fellow students, who may have taken a fancy to me, would not pursue me, as Biene’s aggressive suitor did in Wuppertal. As it turned out I was quite mistaken. I had to learn and I learned quickly that their methods were not as obvious, rather a lot subtler in their outward manifestations.
For the eighteen-year old female graduates from high school, the faculty of education was the most favourite department to enrol. Very few were willing to face the exacting demands of engineering, nor were they welcome in this male dominated field in those years. But there was also another reason why they were outnumbering young men in the teachers’ training program almost at the ratio two to one. This was still the time when well-to-do parents would send their daughters to college in the hope to marry them off to a professional young man, who would be acceptable within their socially elevated family status.
At the end of the frosh week, during which we new students received our orientation and introduction into the life on campus, the university had organized a dance in the huge gymnasium of the Physical Education complex. Six bands were playing alternately rock and more traditional music. They made sure that there was never a break for the indefatigable couples on the dance floor. Having no friends to hang out with, I felt lonely and wished that Biene were there sharing this special moment with me. With all the tables taken I had no place to sit down. I leaned against the back wall taking in some of my favourite music I remembered so well from my birthday parties. But I was not in the mood to enjoy it. So I left, took the next available bus and returned to my humble basement room. To overcome my feeling of loneliness I wrote a letter to Biene.
September 19th Calgary
My dear Biene, now you will get to know how things turned out with my search for an apartment and with my introduction to the university. For days I have been running around in the northwestern section of Calgary, until I finally decided on a small basement suite. I am exaggerating if I say suite, because it is only one large room. Table and chairs, bed and cupboard, as well as a gas heater and some basic cooking facilities are included in the rent, which is thirty dollars a month. To be totally independent, I decided to exclude bedding from the rental agreement, which would have cost me five dollars more. Now it is gradually turning into a really cozy place All day long I scrubbed the dirty walls, mopped the linoleum floor and cleaned the windows. My old wooden crate has been converted into a cooking stand so that the table remains free for my studies. Oh and then came all the shopping I had to do: bedclothes, blankets, cutlery, bowls and plates, a small radio, etc. Now I am satisfied and wonder whether you would like it.
An old lady also lives down here in the basement adjacent to my room. She is very pleasant and enjoys the sound of my guitar, which I sometimes play for relaxation. I could hardly suppress my astonishment about her ignorance of geography. When I told her that I had come from Germany, she asked me, where that city was located in Canada.
Yesterday we had our orientation complete with welcome speeches and formal ceremonies for the frosh. The professors spoke so clearly and distinctly that all my fear disappeared from my anxious heart. I have already made the acquaintance with a couple of classmates and hope to meet them again later on. To understand them is quite a bit harder for me, because they just don’t make the effort to speak clearly and distinctly.
Yes, dear Biene, if you were here, my happiness would be complete. How much I miss you, I again felt last night, when after the formalities the six largest bands of the city were playing music in the gymnasium, where everyone was dancing except you and me …
The very next day the fall session began. Since I was in a first year program, most of the lectures were held in auditorium-sized rooms accommodating more than a hundred students at a time. Courses like calculus and psychology that were being shared by other departments were especially crowded. Having chosen a senior course in German turned out to be a blessing. Dr. Cardinal, a very likeable professor, was teaching The Age of Goethe to our small group of three students. Here my mind could at least take a short break from the great demands in the other subject areas. Ever since Biene and I had decided on starting our life together as husband and wife in Canada, I knew that I had not merely entered a race for the survival in the academic training program, but also committed myself to an all-out effort to achieve an above average standing. For only with a grade point average of close to an A could I hope to receive substantial government grants and scholarships for the second year. I had poured my entire savings from my army service and my summer earnings as a labourer into the cost of tuition, textbooks, rent and living expenses. There would be little left for me to finance another academic year except with the help of financial support from the Alberta Government. Thus, in spite of my limited English language skills I set my goal to nothing less that a B+ over all standing. To achieve this, I had to get near perfect scores in German and Calculus, while maintaining a minimum of 70% final grade in the other subjects. For the first couple of weeks this appeared to be an unobtainable target. I often communicated my concerns and worries with Biene. I told her that I did not want our life to start in poverty with no chance for a prosperous future. Even just to finish the year with merely passing grades looked like a great challenge to me in the beginning. Then came another shock. I had set my hopes on studying lecture notes and textbooks and on doing well in the multiple-choice tests that were becoming very popular in the mid sixties. Instead we were required to write one essay after another. I felt that I could not compete very well in this challenging field with my Canadian fellow students. A visit to the office of my English professor was going to shed some light onto the nebulous trail of my academic future at the U of C.
Facing the Challenges of the English Literature Course
I took some comfort in the fact that the English literature classes were small. The one I attended had only twenty students under the loving tutelage of Dr. Alexander. In my mind I called her Dr. Nightingale, because she was frequently teasing her students for not knowing the European songbird that had taken such a prominent place in John Keat’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. I went to see her one day after class in her office to get advice as to how to cope with my language problems. Apparently having a good knowledge of the European high school system, she pointed out that I had studied the principles of essay writing for much longer and in greater depth than my Canadian fellow students. What I would have to do was to concentrate my efforts on expanding my active and passive vocabulary and thus build up my confidence.
I became very eager to prove my ability to write well after this encouraging and heart-warming interview. Near the end of one of the Friday morning lectures Dr. Alexander announced to the class that for Monday she planned on giving us a written test on one of two topics having to do with poems of English Romanticism. Having all weekend to prepare myself I chose the topic I felt most comfortable with, I first wrote the essay on a piece of scrap paper, then memorized the three pages sentence by sentence. When I could recite the entire text out loud, I was looking forward to take the test. All I needed to do now was to rewrite the essay from memory on the official exam paper on Monday. How proud I would feel, if I could report to Biene my first A in English 240!
Well rested and as I thought well prepared I sat at my desk in the small lecture room waiting for Dr. Alexander to come in, while others were chatting about all the fun they had over the weekend. A bit annoyed that they were partying while I had been studying so hard, but at the same time quite relieved that with their poor preparation I would have a better chance of getting a high mark on the test, I attempted to tune them out and tried to focus on the precious content I had stored in my memory. By now I was well known to the other students for my strong, not necessarily unpleasant German accent and my often-stilted way of expressing myself. Some asked, “Well, Peter, I bet, you studied really hard for the exam.”
“I studied hard enough to get by with a passing grade,” I replied trying to be modest.
Then our professor walked in with her endearing smile. Without further ado she handed out the papers and then announced, “You will write on the second topic”, whereupon she sat down apparently quite content to spend the lecture free morning watching us write.
In the meantime I felt the emotional shockwaves of her incredible announcement racing through my mind. Believing we had a choice between the two topics, I had studied for the first one. For several minutes I stared at the blank paper in front of me. The pen I held in my right hand did not move for a very long time. Then finally I began to calm down. Under pressure and time constraints, where others would fall apart, I had the ability to make the best out of a bad situation. In a creative surge I took the parts of the memorized essay, which at least by some stretch of imagination bore some resemblance to topic two, reworded them and recombined them with ideas which I had picked up at the lectures. In spite of the initial delay I was able to hand in my finished work at the end of the fifty-minute session. With some apprehension I was awaiting the return of my paper. Great was my relief when I read the professor’s comment, ‘Well written! But very weak conclusion! 67%.’
Walking the Line
After a few sessions in the Calculus Course I realized that I had underestimated the scope and depth of this extremely demanding subject area. I was of the mistaken belief that I could easily sail through its content with a minimum of effort, as the course appeared to be merely a review of what I had already learned at the German high school. Also the lecture hall for the Math 211 students was overcrowded with more than two hundred students in attendance. The course was compulsory for all first-year students in the Departments of Engineering and Education. Then there were the obligatory tutorial classes, which were much smaller and more conducive to the nature of a question-and-answer period. The tutor, a young graduate student by the name of Jenkins, was very keen on telling us off-colour jokes and even more questionable mathematical riddles very much to the embarrassment of the female students in the class. When asked to explain how to go about solving a particular math problem, he appeared often evasive and rarely was of any real help to anyone. So we got into the habit of helping each other.
This is how I got to know Brian Fisher, with whom I immediately struck up a friendship that was going to last a lifetime. I helped him to get through the course with a passing grade, while he freed me from my social isolation His mother was a very caring person. Seeing that I had been on a hunger diet she insisted that I should join the family for Thanksgiving. For the first time in my life I looked at an oven-roasted turkey, smelled the aroma of the carved up slices on my plate that together with the mashed potatoes drenched in mouth watering gravy, the cranberry sauce, and the mix of carrots and peas presented a most wonderful culinary delight. This was truly a treat for someone like me, who out of budgetary constraints was content with a diet alternating between chicken noodle soup on one day and chunky dinner out of a can on the next.
In the meantime the calculus course had become increasingly more difficult. We were now struggling with the concepts of mathematical limits and the first derivative. At the end of the tutorial class a female student intending to become a music teacher approached me rather timidly and asked if I could give her some help with a problem that Mr. Jenkins had been unwilling or unable to explain. Why the curriculum required that primary, music, art and all other teachers not embarking on a career in secondary math had to take this course, I could never figure out. I was able to give her some valuable clues without providing the answer. On the next tutorial class she cheerfully told me that thanks to my help she was able to solve the problem and asked me a little less timidly this time if I could spare a few minutes again after the tutorial to assist her with a question she had some trouble with. As I showed her the steps that would lead her with some work of her own to the answer, I noticed how excited she had become during my lesson. And when I saw her joyfully singing and prancing down the hallway, I realized that she had more on her mind than just receiving extra help from me. So I told her there and then that my fiancée was coming to Canada next spring and that we intended to get married soon after her arrival. Disappointment was written all over her face. But she managed to say, “I am so happy for you two.” I had to repeat the story a few more times during the course of the year, when I felt I was being approached by some other girl with similar intentions. I had no trouble doing so and did it each time I felt in my heart that someone has been trying to cross the line. Before I immigrated to Canada I had often listened to the popular Johnny Cash song ‘I walk the line’ on the American Forces Network in Munich. It has been one of my favourite tunes and lyrics to this very day.
Discussing Marriage at Lunch Break
On the wall of my basement room hung a timetable, a rigid what-to-do list that was to govern my life for the next seven months. On weekdays I got up at six and after a cornflakes-and-milk breakfast spent sixty minutes to have an early morning study period. Then I took the bus for my first morning class at campus. I had one hour for lunch that always consisted of the same homemade bologna and cheese sandwiches washed down with the watery coffee from the vending machine. During this time, when I managed to relax a little bit, I often met with three students on alternate days, as they all had their own schedules to follow.
On Tuesdays and Fridays I sat together with Brian Fisher, since we both attended the same afternoon tutorial class for Math 211. It made me feel very good to be able to help him with many of the questions from the weekly assignment sheets. In turn I got gradually used to the informal, casual way of English conversation. On the other days I met with two women, both married, one from Great Britain, whose husband had recently been promoted to a managerial position in an IBM sponsored business in downtown Calgary, the other Mrs. Karen Bolso, an immigrant from Norway. Both were attending the same late morning psychology lecture. In a country that was built on the skills and talents of hundreds of thousands of immigrants the voices of three individuals producing an interesting blend of Oxford English, Scandinavian and German accents were not unusual in the student lounge. All three of us, coming from Europe, had interesting stories and experiences to share. The British student, whose name I can no longer recall, had recently followed and joined her husband in Calgary and was pursuing a teaching career to get out of the house as she put it, while her husband was busy setting up calculating machines, the forerunners of business computers. Her main point of advice relating to happiness in marriage was that the two partners should come from the same ethnic and cultural background. Their children would integrate quickly with their new environment, but the parents would take a long time to adjust. “Like oil and water Canadian and immigrant spouses just do not mix,” she stated her opinion with a slightly superior air.
Mrs. Bolso, whose marriage was on the rocks, protested and said, “Well, let me tell you something. I was married to a Norwegian, and yet things did not work out at all. When I arrived as his bride from Norway, he lavished gifts on me, bought me a diamond ring and a fur coat with money he did not have. He had bought all these luxury goods on credit, even though he held only a low paying job. He could barely put enough food on the table for our two children and me. I would rather have a husband, who would show his love in a financially responsible manner. Your theory is all wrong!”
Then it was my turn to voice my opinion. I spoke quite eloquently presenting an entirely idealistic viewpoint, which, as I could see from their reaction, took them by surprise. “Even if a partner could afford the most expensive diamond ring, a fancy car, and an even more fanciful house, it would be all for naught, if love and faithfulness were not present to hold the two together.” Then I thought it would be a good time to talk about my invisible engagement ring, the story about Biene, my fiancée, who was going to join me here in Calgary next spring. After many exclamations of ‘O, how wonderful’, ‘You must be so happy’ and the like, we moved on to other topics.
For the evening my timetable allowed me one hour for preparing and eating a frugal meal for supper. Two hours of studying followed till nine, after which I granted myself a little bit of time to play and practice a few tunes on my guitar. But if I had gotten stuck in my attempt to solve a particularly difficult calculus problem, there was no time for relaxation, until I had found the solution. One evening I had been working over a thorny differential equation. Stubborn as I was when working on problem solving, I did not want to give up. It was way past my bedtime. Midnight was rapidly approaching. Finally common sense prevailed and I decided to go to bed. But the brain having been overstimulated did not want to come to rest. So many possible solutions were gliding by in front of my inner eye that it took another hour before I managed to fall asleep. Before the alarm went off, I woke up with a jolt. My body had rested, but my brain had not. I jumped out of bed, ran up to the table, grabbed paper and pencil, and before it would fade away, I jotted down the solution, which my brain had worked out correctly in my sleep. Having no coffee maker, I put an extra spoonful of ground coffee into the cooking pot, added water and brought the brew to a boil over my two-element stove to make myself a cup of strong coffee. What a life!
Empathy for Peter
In Educational Foundations we studied the great philosophers of education from Socrates to Piaget. For this course also the university had set up tutorial classes to facilitate the exchange of ideas in small discussion groups. I spite of my language difficulties I felt I had a noticeable advantage. I was about five years older and therefore more mature in many aspects of learning. I also brought a wealth of life experiences, which enabled me to enrich the class with new and fresh ideas. To the amazement of my much younger fellow students I was not afraid to criticize the great thinkers of the past. There was venerable Rousseau for example, who advocated locking up disobedient children in a dark room instead of using corporal punishment. Remembering all too well my own ordeals being locked up as a young child in the dingy storage room of Mr. Stoll’s carpentry shop, I declared that in my opinion locking up a child was one of the cruelest forms of punishment and that ultimately spanking justly applied without causing physical harm was to be preferred.
Some other time we were discussing the importance of the family in early childhood development. Having a much broader concept of education in mind, I emphasized with as much conviction as I still have today, “The family is the smallest unit in a society. As healthy cells make a healthy body, so family units that are intact and provide a caring environment for the children are the building blocks for a strong society. Take away the health of the family and the state will sooner or later suffer and begin to disintegrate.” I am sure that I expressed these thoughts quite differently, but the idea came across with electrifying results. The students were most likely wondering, where this immigrant student had all his ideas from. Little did they know that I had studied Mommsen’s ‘History of Rome’ and that the ideas about the importance of the family were as old as the Roman Republic!
One day our tutorial instructor felt the need to divide us into groups of four or five students each. To develop a feeling for empathy, a term that can be easily defined in clinical terms but is otherwise quite an elusive concept, we needed someone in our group, who would be willing to take on the role of a client and come up with a story, to which the others as would-be councillor would react with supportive questions and remarks. A lot of time was being wasted, because nobody wanted to be saddled with the difficult role of the client. After a long pause, I said, “OK, I’ll do it. Just give me a little bit of time to think.”
Then I began without referring to any specific time or place to tell the story of my father, how close we had become before he had left home, how he gave me a guiding hand with my schoolwork, how much I was shaken up by my parents’ divorce, how I had to wait for five long years before I could see him again, how I spent many happy hours at his new home, then how suddenly and unexpectedly I had lost my father all over again and this time forever, when he died of a massive heart attack. By the time I had spoken the last sentence, it was so quiet that you could hear a pin drop in the tutorial room. All other groups had stopped their exercise to listen in to the extraordinary story that was grabbing everybody’s attention. Then the students were getting noisy with shouts of praise and admiration. After the tutor regained quiet and order, he said to me, “It seems your creative story caused quite an outpour of empathy. How did you think it all up so quickly?”
In a strange mix of pride and self-pity, I replied, “I’d wish it had been just a story.” With these words I quickly left the room. In my heart I was thankful to tutor and students for respecting my privacy and not asking any more questions in the sessions that followed.