The Peter and Gertrud Klopp Family Project

Reflections on Life, Family and Community

Category Archives: Autobiography

The Peter and Gertrud Klopp Story – Chapter XXVII

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The Voyage

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Shakespeare

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Theatre in Giessen – Photo Credit: wikipedia.org

Travel Preparations and a  Farewell Speech on a Vinyl Record

The day after Biene had returned home, Adolf took my sister Eka and me on a whirlwind tour to Berlin, where we saw for the last time Aunt Alma and her family. On the way back we dropped in at the apartment of our brother Karl in Braunschweig, where he had recently embarked on a banking career at a local bank. There in the beautiful apartment we spent a few days with our brother, his wife Ingrid and their little baby daughter Annekatrin.

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Adolf Standing in front of the Giessen Travel Agency

Back at home we directed our attention to the task of getting our belongings packed and ready. Our tickets for the voyage to Canada included the shipping charges for the wooden crates that contained all our personal effects. Almost too late we found out that we were responsible for moving them to the travel agency in Giessen. Almost instantly arose a heated argument among the hot-tempered siblings, myself included, as to whose fault it was for having overlooked such an obvious problem. Accusations were flying back and forth. It seemed that each one of us was on a faultfinding mission. Of course, no matter how hotly we debated the issue, the heat of the arguments would not move our big, heavy crates to Giessen.

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Problems Worked out over a Mug of Beer

Fortunately our cousin Jürgen arrived just at the right time and helped diffuse a potentially explosive situation. He suggested a cooling-off period for the enraged brothers. In Giessen we dropped in at the ‘Vienna Forest, a popular restaurant, where they served us grilled chicken and beer. Tension and lingering hostility abated quickly at the same rate as our stomachs filled with delicious food and copious amounts of beer. Now we were ready to tackle the shipping in a more amiable environment. Jürgen had just made the acquaintance of a fellow student, who would be willing to provide his old and dilapidated VW bus for the crates. After a few more drinks at a roadside fast food outlet we were going to announce the good news at home. However, the pub, ‘The New Homeland’, was still open in Watzenborn. We thought a few more beers would not hurt and would definitely clear away the last little bit of rancour, before going home. So we finally arrived in a fairly boisterous mood. Everybody had already gone to bed. But this did not prevent us from loudly announcing to Eka that we had found a solution to the shipping problem. We all withdrew into the furnace room, which with its excellent sound-proofed walls offered a modicum of protection against the noise. Befuddled by all that beer I played the guitar rather poorly often missing the correct fret, while Adolf sang the song merrily out of tune with the chords I was playing. In the meantime  Jürgen and Eka had an animated discussion on the poor timing of our nocturnal arrival. Not receiving the appreciative reception that we were expecting, we decided to spend the night at Jürgen’s place in Giessen and slept for want of something more accommodating all three in one bed, but not before having a taste from the bottle of whiskey that happened to be there for this crazy occasion. Next morning (or was it noon?) Adolf and I, feeling somewhat remorseful for our rambunctious behaviour the night before, drove home quite willing to accept any criticism with a repentant heart and to make amends by getting the crates ready for shipment.

Record

In the turmoil of the endless visits of well-meaning relatives and friends, who all came to say good-bye, I still managed to keep up the correspondence with Biene, although it was almost impossible to find a quiet corner in the house. I had  made a recording of a few simple classical guitar pieces that I felt were good enough for her to listen to. In addition, I recorded a farewell message on tape and mailed it together with the music to a company in France to have it pressed onto a vinyl record. A few days before our departure date the record arrived, which I embellished with some pretty labels and redirected it to Biene’s home address. It so happened that on the very day we boarded the Canada bound vessel, the ‘Ryndam’, she received my gift.

The recording sounds a bit scratchy. But what do you expect from a 50-year old vinyl record?

Farewell to Germany

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Papa Panknin with Daughter Biene and Son Walter 1965

Career planning for his daughter was on Papa Panknin’s mind, when he asked Biene to have a serious talk with him. He was not fond of seeing her becoming a teacher. He felt that it would be too stressful for her.  Sitting endless hours in lecture rooms, bending over and studying textbooks would lead to even getting more stressed out, when after her university training Biene would enter again the educational treadmill. In his opinion the best thing for her to do would be to get a job and earn money as quickly as possible. Being a little tightfisted and in control of the family purse strings, he may also have been thinking of the expenses, which a prolonged period of university training for his daughter would incur. In contrast to North American practice German law required that parents were at least in part financially responsible for their children’s post-secondary education. In addition, there was probably on his mind his son Walter, Biene’s twin brother, who was embarking on a six-year program at the Institute of Engineering at the University of Hanover. Biene, with her eyes firmly set on getting married, agreed to a compromise that her father had proposed. She would start immediately her teacher’s training at the university of Wuppertal, but at the same time apply at the German airline Lufthansa to enter a training program to become a stewardess at the age of twenty-one. In my eyes this was a good plan. I really wanted her to become a teacher. So I took comfort in the fact that thousands of young girls were dreaming about becoming a stewardess and only a few had their applications accepted every year. Therefore, I had no difficulty of sending my wholehearted approval and let Biene romanticize about working for Lufthansa and flying to Calgary, where she could visit me on her stopover flights to Western Canada.

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Adolf and Eka in the Waiting Room at the Rotterdam Terminal Station

          At last, the day arrived when Adolf, Eka and I were on our way to Rotterdam, where we would board the passenger ship Ryndam that was to carry us to Canada. Mother woke us at 3 a.m. to make sure we would have ample time to enjoy a solid breakfast before we parted. One hour later we sat at the breakfast table. Aunt Mieze read from her devotional booklet and included us in her morning prayers, with which she had been greeting the day for as long as I can remember. The outside world was still shrouded in darkness, which put us all into a somber mood. The thought that we would not be seeing Mother and all the other dear relatives for a very long time was weighing heavily on our mind. Later on, we were occupied loading Jürgen’s car with our possessions, five suitcases, my tape recorder, guitar and a gigantic duffel bag with personal belongings too valuable to be trusted to the wooden crates. The heavy work made us forget a little the pain of leaving home. We even managed to put on a cheerful face, when we said our good-byes adding comforting words like ‘We’ll meet again in beautiful Canada!’

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The Ryndam that brought us to Canada – Anchored at Rotterdam Harbour

          The Trans European Express train (TEE) was racing at an incredible speed towards the Dutch border stopping only at major urban centres. At Wesel, my previous hometown, which had grown into a city of almost 50,000, the train did not stop either. Shortly after noon we arrived in Rotterdam, where a taxi took us to the harbour, which was and still is one of the biggest and busiest ports in the world. There our ship was waiting for her passengers to come on board. In the harbour inn Adolf and I sat and drank beer, while Eka had a coffee to perk up with after such a long train ride. We were quite annoyed at the delay of our departure caused by the much larger sister vessel of the Holland-America line bound for New York, which happened to leave port on the same day. Finally we were allowed to embark. Before heading out into the Atlantic Ocean, the Ryndam, for the next ten days our home, hotel, restaurant, and entertainment centre, had to make two ports of call, Le Havre and Southampton. From England I mailed Biene my first letter written at sea.

Two Letters and a Poem

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Meal Time on the Ryndam – Adolf, Eka and Peter at the Back

April 28th, 1965 Le Havre

           My dear Biene,

           We just left Le Havre and are heading towards England. Thousands of impressions hit me all at once. I feel as if I had already been on board  for a very long time. It is like paradise. Yet, I am restless, because you cannot experience all this with me. I’d like describe to you how a typical day is panning out for us travelers. The tinkling of bells wakes us up in the morning. It is also reminds us in this gentle way to show up for breakfast soon. Then I climb down the ladder. For I sleep in the upper bunk, while Adolf sleeps below. We can shower or take a bath for as long as we like.  Then we march off to the dining room. Never before have I seen a greater variety of food. When we return to our cabin, the steward has already made our beds. The cabin is very small, and if one had to share it with a stranger, that would definitely not be a pleasant experience. We all have our own peculiar habits, which someone else would have to get used to.

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Shuffle Board on the Sun Bathed Deck

          The entertainment program is so rich and varied that one does not know which item to choose first. You can watch English movies, go to the library, play all kinds of games. The big hit here is Shuffleboard. After lunch you can attend a concert, go dancing in the evening or have a beer in the bar. And now I experience all this without you! That makes me a little sad and pensive. When I turn melancholic, I gladly withdraw from all these fun activities and write in my travelogue.

          Oh this heavenly weather! People are presently sun bathing and there is no rough sea, not even a trace of a swell. I wanted to experience a real storm. But my brother said that it would come soon enough, if I were really that keen on getting seasick.

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Peter Strumming on his Guitar

          Your picture stands on my little desk. When at night I look down to you from my bed, I feel infinitely happy. I wished I could do the voyage all over again with you, when I have enough money to pick you up in Germany.

In a few days you will begin your studies, whereas I while away the time here doing nothing. Tackle your academic work as if you never applied for the stewardess program and as if you pursued a life’s career. You should know that you can help me also as a trained teacher, perhaps later assist me for a little while, in case my own studies should be dragging on.

          What would I give to be able to kiss you now! Until next time greetings to you and your parents!

          Your Peter

           On the same day Biene also wrote me a letter, which of course I was unable to read, until I arrived at my brother’s place in Calgary. I only included excerpts here to avoid breaking the chronological order of the family history.

April 28th, 1965 Velbert

           My dear Peter,

           Again you have made me cry. But don’t you worry, Peter. I did not have to cry out of sorrow (it was only lingering at the back of my mind), but from an overwhelming feeling of joy, happiness and unfathomable love. I listened to your guitar music  and to your voice on the record you had sent me. I could not grasp it! I just sat there, and tears were streaming down my cheeks. I once read that only a few people really understand how to say good-bye, and you knew how, Peter. Never will I forget this!

Dear Peter, now you have been on board for one day and with every minute you are getting closer to your destination. And when you read this letter, the long sea voyage and the road trip across Canada will already be behind you. Tell me Peter, isn’t it an incomprehensible feeling to be on the high seas and to experience the vastness and beauty of the ocean? When I experienced the sea for the first time, I was deeply moved. It was in the year we had met. My family and I were spending our vacation on the island of Corsica. Toward evening we had landed on the island. It was night, when we reached after an adventurous trip through the mountains our vacation village at the sea. Completely exhausted we immediately fell into a deep sleep, from which I awoke unusually early in the morning. In eager anticipation to finally cast my eyes onto the sea, I quietly sneaked out, because my brother Walter was still fast asleep. Outside the air was cool and still. The sun had just risen above the horizon. The beach spread before me still completely untouched. I went a few steps down the slope and then I took in the full view of the sea! Somehow I was like in trance and could not move another step forward. Although the view was overwhelmingly beautiful, the infinite vastness also instilled in me a little bit of fear. I sat down very quietly in the sand and remained there, until the first beach guests, who frolicked in the water, broke the charm that had kept me spellbound. You alone, dear Peter, would not have dispelled the magic atmosphere.

          Inspired by her memories Biene wrote the following poem and entered it into the Book of Dreams.

The Sea

 I will forever love the sea,

Even when the gulls scream

Above thousands of storm-tossed waves.

I love the play of colors in the surf,

The billowing clouds, the sun, the warm sand, …

Oh Peter!

How much would I like to sit with you

On a lonely beach, at the sea

With its music

Rather than being

Separated from you

So infinitely far away

On the other side of the ocean.

On board of the Ryndam I also romanticized the sea as if in response of her letter that I had not even read yet.

Gale Force 7 in the North Atlantic

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The calm sea and the sunshine are deceiving (my sister and I relaxing on deck of the Ryndam)

After a few days of calm and sunny weather a violent storm broke out, which put an end to the leisurely lounging on deck and made most passengers withdraw into their cabins. I entered into my travelogue:

“ Today is an especially stormy day. Most passengers don’t dare to come on deck. They play cards instead or while away the long hours in some other way. But outside awaits the intrepid traveler an indescribable experience. I believe, if you fellow travelers were not afraid of becoming seasick, you would, like my brother and I, be eager to see what a storm Poseidon can whip up for you. At the stern of the ship we view how one of the most awesome spectacles are playing out in front of our eyes. Presently we have wind force 7 on the Beaufort scale, and the waves are piling up high threatening to engulf the Ryndam. In the dark all this takes on an all the more eerie appearance. The waves are bedecked with white foam. And it seethes and hisses like in a witch’s cauldron. When the crests reach a certain height, they seem to lose by the sheer wind force their support and dissolve into sheets of spray, which drift like blowing snow up against us. Feeling the mighty wind and tasting salt in our mouth, we are invigorated in body and soul. A great sea voyage turns into an inner experience.”

Storm zaujimavysvet.sk

Giant Wave – Photo Credit: zaujimavysvet.sk

World literature is replete with fascinating stories dealing with violent storms at sea. Confronted with the raw unbridled forces of Mother Nature man seems so small, so weak and insignificant. In the early days of exploration sailing ships were being tossed about like little nutshells by mountainous waves and hurricane-force strong winds. In ballads, short stories and novels the authors extol the indomitable human spirit that pushed man beyond what was thought to be possible. Standing with Adolf at the stern, hanging onto the safety ropes, and leaning against the wind that threatened to knock us down, we caught a glimpse of what it must have been like to be a sailor on a small sailing ship. On the other hand the Ryndam passengers hardly noticed the storm that was howling on the outside of the steel hull. The 200 m long vessel pitched and rolled just a little. None of the entertainment programs were cancelled. Most passengers continued to play cards, watch movies, danced, or sipped whiskey in the bar. They all missed out on the adventure of a lifetime.

          It was Sunday. I attended the church service provided by a Dutch minister in a large stateroom that served as church on this particular day. It was only a few months ago that I had bought a New Testament book in Latin with the twofold purpose of reading its message and keeping my ancient language skills alive. For similar reasons I felt attracted to the religious service. I wanted to hear God’s word and at the same time reinforce my English that had been getting rusty from lack of practice, since I graduated form high school. Was I ever into a treat on both counts! The minister spoke with a strong Dutch accent but very clearly. He explained how the Jews were devastated, after the Romans had utterly destroyed their temple in 70 AD. They believed that God had lost his dwelling place on earth and therefore could no longer live among them. The pastor emphasized that God had never lived in a temple. No man-made structure would be adequate to contain the glory of God. Instead he lives in the hearts of those who are seeking His presence and accept His Son Jesus as their personal savior. Hearing these words it felt like water was being poured on the parched soil of my impoverished soul and the seed that was once planted had just received the spiritual nourishment to grow and develop in the New World that I was about to enter.

          A Mysterious Thing Called Love

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The Ryndam Approaching Canada

      We had already set back our time on board by three hours, which meant that we had covered more than half of the total distance of our route to Canada. Like a giant magnet the approaching American continent channeled and directed my thoughts and feelings towards it as to make me feel at home before we even arrived at the port of entry. At Adolf’s portable radio, which he had bought on board at the duty-free shop, we picked up the first Canadian stations and eagerly listened to music and news from the island province of Newfoundland. Yet, in spite of my joyful anticipation of soon setting foot on my new homeland, there were also moments, when being alone in our cabin I began to examine in a critical manner my motives for leaving Germany.

     For my brother Adolf the voyage was simply a return to where he belonged after the successful completion of his journeyman program as a machinist. My sister Erika, a fully trained and certified nurse, wanted to escape the deplorable working conditions in the German hospitals, where she was overworked and underpaid.

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My Brother Adolf Chatting with a Butcher’s Couple

       But what about me? Wasn’t I a fool to leave Germany, where I could have enrolled in any of the post-secondary programs leading to a diploma in my favourite field in high frequency technology? The words of the kind army major at the basic training camp were still ringing in my ears and entered my thoughts about a great opportunity I may have missed. He had urged me to consider a career in teaching at the technical army schools as a high-ranking and well-paid officer. I could have also gone into teaching with excellent prospects in Germany. Seeing all these real opportunities I realized the painful irony of my situation. Even though I had never met Biene’s parents except for a brief encounter at the Baldeney campground, I was unknowingly sharing their conservative – we would say old-fashioned today – expectations for their future son-in-law. I felt like they did that to be acceptable to marry their daughter I would have to be able to support her. To achieve this goal, I needed a minimum of six years at a German university in order to become a high school teacher or an engineer in electronics. At the time of my immigration to Canada, there existed a two-years teachers’ training program. This would have been a crash course, which upon successful completion allowed the student to go out and teach as long as he or she was willing to put in the extra course work in summer sessions to complete the diploma requirements. So the main reason for me to emigrate was not to seek better jobs, to enjoy a greater sense of freedom, or to experience the grandeur of the Canadian wilderness, albeit very appealing in and of themselves, but that it was a means to an end, i.e. to get married to Biene as soon as possible. It was truly paradoxical that in order to be close to Biene in the future, I had to be far away from her, At this point in time we couldn’t even dream of meeting in the next couple of years.

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Adolf in his Tiny, but Cozy Bunk

          It is a strange thing about love. We feel its power, yet we cannot describe it. It has no physical location, even though we assert we feel it in our hearts. It has no substance, yet we say metaphorically love is in the air. However, we know it exists whenever we are in it and feel its tug at our heartstrings. We begin to see things associated with our beloved that we did not see before. So it was the case with Biene and me. I was on my way to Canada. All of a sudden this relatively unknown country from a German perspective had taken on an entirely new meaning for Biene. If love had not established a connection to this alluring country across the Atlantic, she would not have cared much about it, when her sister Elsbeth in Gotha romanticized about Canada and the wonderful things she had seen on TV. But now the floodgate of associations was wide open. Anything that had even remotely to do with Canada filled her heart with joyous anticipation. Somehow its name had taken on an auspicious meaning for her. She bought travel books on this second largest country in the world. Soon she described herself tongue-in-cheek as an expert on Canadian affairs. Whenever something related to this country came up on the radio, she perked up and eagerly listened to the news. On her daily trip to the teacher’s college in Wuppertal she walked by a large clock that indicated also the times in many other locations in the world. Of course, she would be interested in knowing the time in Calgary, where I would soon arrive by car with Adolf. When a seminar with slide presentation on travels in North America was offered to the general public at a community college, Biene attended the session. The presenter Martin Winter had traveled across all the Americas. He showed his slides of the Canadian wilderness, the majestic Rocky Mountains, serene lakes and raging rivers. When he talked about Calgary and the Stampede, the greatest rodeo spectacle on earth, Biene was so thrilled, she went to see him after the presentation and told him that her fiancé was just then on his way to Canada. ‘One day’, she wrote me in her enthusiasm for this wild and beautiful country, ‘you must take me camping to one of these glorious mountain lakes.’

         Arriving in Canada in our Sleep

Iceberg – Photo Credit: icebergwatereurope.com

In the meantime on board of the Ryndam we could tell that we were approaching Canada’s territorial waters. The storm that had been stirring up the ocean moved on eastward and made room for sunny sky and calm conditions. The temperature plunged to 2° C. On deck we had to wrap ourselves in woolen blankets to enjoy a short sunbathing session in the cold air. The Ryndam seemed to have reduced her speed although there were hardly any waves. Suddenly we heard a message over the intercom speakers to alert us to an iceberg that was floating by less than one km to the right. As we were coming closer, we marvelled at the beauty of the mountainous object that glittered in the bright sunshine like a diamond of gigantic size. Knowing that ninety percent of an iceberg is submerged and invisibly spreads into all directions, we now understood why the captain had decided on a slower pace. Fifty-five years ago about the same time and in the same waters a single iceberg had sent the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic in less than three hours to the bottom of the sea.

The First Seagulls

The next morning three fishing vessels were slowly passing by on starboard, a sure sign that we were not far from land. Seagulls suddenly appeared as if from nowhere and trailed our ship at the stern expecting to find scraps of food that someone might have thrown overboard. Then the first offshore islands emerged from the hazy horizon. They looked desolate and uninhabited. They were all covered in snow. The icebergs, the snow on the islands and the chill in the air made us feel that spring had not yet come in this part of Canada.

The First Off-Shore Islands

My sister suffered from a sore throat and decided not to accompany us in the car to travel across the continent, but to take the train instead. In the evening Adolf and I went into the bar that was more crowded than usual to say good-bye to our friends and table companions. At three in the morning, I am not sure after how many shots of whiskey and how many glasses of beer, we were finally done with saying our good-byes. After getting only a few winks of sleep, we awoke this time not by the familiar tinkling of the breakfast bell, but by an eerie quietness. Still groggy from all the partying the night before we however managed to jump into our clothes at lightning speed and rushed on board. We were anxious to find out what kind of calamity the Ryndam had gotten itself into. Perhaps the engines had broken down. Or did those dreadful icebergs surround us? What a pleasant surprise was unfolding before our eyes! The Ryndam peacefully lay securely tied to the pier posts at the Quebec Harbor. What a shame! While sleeping we had arrived in Canada.

Quebec Harbor – May 1965

After breakfast Erika and I with all the other immigrants walked over the gangway past large cargo and shipping facilities to the federal office building. There a friendly bilingual customs and immigration official greeted us and carefully examined our passports and the flimsy unassuming piece of paper we had received from the Canadian embassy in Cologne. The terrorists of today would be laughing at the simple document of fifty years ago. A photocopy on ordinary paper would have sufficed to let them slip by our border checkpoints. While we were waiting to get our documents stamped and approved, a charitable organization offered us our first cup of coffee on Canadian soil. It turned out to be a typical brew as offered then in most American coffee shops, so weak and bland you could be drinking it all day without any adverse effect, as some people were in the habit of doing. A Catholic priest asked us about our plans and provided us with useful information on Alberta, British Columbia and the other provinces of Canada. Then quite relieved that we had successfully jumped the first hurdle and had officially become a member of the Canadian society with all its rights and responsibilities except for the right to vote, we returned to our ship to reconnect with Adolf. The French-Canadian officials at the pier smiled, when I played the German folk song ‘Muss i denn, muss i denn zum Städtele hinaus’ on the harmonica. Elvis Presley sang this lovely tune while with the American Armed Forces in Germany. Wooden Heart was its English title. The sentimental Germans who themselves were beginning to forget and to neglect their very own folk songs liked the Elvis version so much that the song maintained the number one position on the German record charts for several weeks in a row.

First Impressions

Picturesque Quebec City – May 1965

Now we were at liberty to visit Quebec City. Adolf, who as Canadian citizen did not have to go through the immigration procedure, joined us to explore the only walled city in all of North America. We took a taxi to the city centre. We traveled past wooden houses painted in bright, sometimes garish-looking colors offering a bewildering sight for the new immigrants from the Old Country. When my sister and I noticed the ugly power poles often leaning at a precarious angle in the back alleys with wires seemingly helter-skelter stretching out in all directions, we broke out in irreverent fits of laughter. Adolf was quite annoyed, as we had touched a sensitive nerve. After all it was his home country that we were insulting with our disrespectful conduct.

City Hall Quebec City

We got out of the taxi at the statue of Samuel de Champlain, the French explorer, founder and first governor of Quebec. There Adolf and I decided to separate from Erika and her companion Beate, as they were more interested in shopping. We two brothers, however, wanted to have a good look at the ramparts and fortifications of this historically rich city. So we took a tour of the classical 17th century defense systems with its mighty walls, which unfortunately in the end did not prevent the British redcoats from taking over all the French colonial possessions in North America.

Samuel Champlain – French Explorer and First Governor of Quebec

When hunger pangs reminded us that it was time to have lunch, we dropped in at one of the many restaurants catering to the tourists that were flocking to Quebec City by the tens of thousands every year. We ordered steaks, large enough to fill out the entire plate and at $2.00 a bargain even at the then current dismal German Canadian currency exchange rate of four marks to one dollar. I had trouble communicating with the waiter with my Parisian school French. So I could not figure out, why they could not serve us any beer, which would have complemented nicely the fabulous meat dish. To quench our thirst, it felt odd that we had to move on in search of a beer parlor. To call it a pub would have definitely been a misnomer. The place was filled with dense cigarette smoke wafting above oversized round tables, the jabbering of hundreds of people echoing from the bare walls gave more the impression of a large waiting hall at a German railroad station than that of a cozy inn, like the one where Biene and I had spent a romantic afternoon on Mount Vogelsberg. These beer parlors had been built based on the mistaken belief that their grotesque ugliness would deter people from gathering and drinking beer. Great was my amazement to watch the clients order half a dozen glasses of beer all at once, not caring about their drink getting stale. Some even sprinkled salt on their brew or ate heavily salted peanuts to increase their thirst for more. Adolf was quite used to this custom, which seemed to me a relic of the past. It was a bit of a culture shock to me and I was happy when we returned to the Ryndam, where we enjoyed the sumptuous farewell dinner that the cooks had prepared for us, truly a culinary experience par excellence.

Cannons and Fortifications – My Brother Adolf on the Left

There were many last times on this floating hotel and entertainment centre that had safely carried us across the Atlantic, the last dinner with our table companions, the last game of chess with a Yugoslav doctor, the last card game of Mau Mau, the last visit to the bar, the last time I climbed up to my upper bunk, a last glance from above on Biene’s portrait on the cabin’s tiny desk, the last time the little room bell tinkled and called us for the last breakfast on board of the Ryndam. My heart filled with a sense of nostalgia and bittersweet feelings of regret. I had to leave this wonderful ship with her dedicated staff behind. I felt sad that I had not been able to share all these memorable experiences of the eight days on board with Biene.

 

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.

The Peter and Gertrud Klopp Story – Chapter XXIII

29

The Complexities of the Heart

 The heart has its reasons which reason knows not. Blaise Pascal

 

Marburg Castle - Photo Credit: wikipedia.org

Marburg Castle – Photo Credit: wikipedia.org

Biene and I had met twice in the early summer of 1964, each time for only a few hours, as I had a long train ride to get back to the barracks before midnight. Being completely incapable to feel happy for any length of time until then, I was amazed how my restless heart and mind could be in perfect harmony to permit that elusive sensation of happiness during those five wonderful hours I had spent with Biene along the shores of Lake Baldeney. This blissful feeling was further enhanced when Biene wrote that she now knew that I was no longer just a fantasy person, but a real human being she could love and be happy with.

Alas, barely two weeks later, while I was still deeply immersed in a state of euphoria, a letter from Biene arrived with an obscure message out of which I could make very little sense.

“Dear Peter,

You will probably ask yourself why I haven’t written to you sooner. Indeed, you may ask this question. It is strange with me; for I can’t get rid of my sadness. When everything outside looks so peaceful and when I think of you, it is getting even worse. I would rather crawl into my bed being so much in pain and cry. How beautiful it is outside! The sun is shining and the wheat fields have already turned completely yellow and the stalks are swaying in the wind and making a gentle sound. Normally wheat fields fill me with joy and let me dream many a beautiful dream. And now?

I would like to talk to you about everything that moves me. But it is not because of you that I cannot do it. I have a great longing to be with you. But I cannot tell you what I want to tell you. It would increase my sadness, because I would hurt you, and I would like you so much to be happy, if you think of me. Please forgive me that I write nothing that would cheer you up. Normally, I am not like that. Now even beautiful memories don’t comfort me. I don’t want to think about anything of the past …”

Uncle Günther and Peter

Uncle Günther and Peter

I reread this passage at least half a dozen times in an effort to penetrate the veil, with which Biene may have covered a secret of the past. With all the talk in the male-dominated army, where many a room buddy had made himself an expert on what made the girls tick, on how to deal with their capricious behaviour, on how to please them, what to do and what not to do, with all that half knowledge of the opposite gender floating around in the gossip mills, not one of the so-called specialists ever mentioned the devastating influence of the monthly period. I was completely ignorant about what most women had to put up with, their mood swings, feeling psychologically and physically down, often bordering on severe forms of depression. More likely than not, the topic was one of the few remaining taboos left in the otherwise rough and tumble world of the military environment. If only I had had an inkling of those terrible days, often labeled ‘the evil days’, then truly I would have worded my reply with greater understanding. But not knowing the true nature of her problem I merely encouraged her to unburden herself of her troubling past.

Do you really believe, dear Biene, that I could be happy at your expense? I know that so much of your past has been left unexplained and remains shrouded in darkness.  Now you write that the ‘before’ oppresses you or whatever else it might be. But you won’t say, because you don’t want to hurt me. How sweet of you! But you must understand me right. If you are not happy, I cannot be happy either. It makes no sense to shield me from your pain. On the contrary, the silence is more torturous. I start to dig in my memories and try to figure out what it is that bothers you. And someone, who contemplates, gets too many ideas.  I’d rather be sad with you than to wander about in fateful darkness, where there is no room for true happiness. Does it have to do with Henk? Or haven’t I understood you yet? Are you afraid that I would some day be lost to you forever? A thousand questions that make me sick! Dear Biene, I ask you, be of good courage and write what oppresses you. Otherwise, I don’t feel happy any more …”

Then there was Biene’s question about my brother Adolf.

“Sometimes I think of your brother from Canada. I cannot understand that no girl would want to be his wife. If two love each other, it does not matter where the two are together, and if it were at the end of the world. Don’t you think so?”

It was obvious that Biene used the example of my brother Adolf to indirectly tell me that if I was going to Canada and stayed there, she would be willing to follow me and be my wife. However, dense as I was then with regard to her hypothetical questions, I failed to read between the lines – the very same ineptitude, of which I had often accused Biene in the past. Or was it that we both suffered from the same tendency to back off whenever we came dangerously close to making a commitment? So I lamely replied as if Adolf had truly been her main concern.

Family Gathering: Aunt Mieze, Eka (Lavana), Mother, Peter and Adolf

Family Gathering: Aunt Mieze, Eka (Lavana), Mother, Peter and Adolf

“You wonder, dear Biene, why Adolf can find no girl, who is willing to follow him to Canada. Have you ever put yourself into this position? Think about what a girl would have to give up: her parents,  friends, dear acquaintances, her home country, etc. Girls cling much more to matters of the heart than boys.  Adolf knows this …”

So we two continued to beat around the bush. We only indirectly described to each other our innermost desires and hopes and out of fear of appearing too bold, we foolishly held back and failed to openly state what really was important to us, our love for each other.

Biene’s Visit to her Birthplace in Gotha

and her Vacation on the Island of Majorca, Spain

In the meantime Biene traveled to Gotha, where her half-sister Elsbeth and husband Paul Werner with their two children Norbert and Christian lived. Biene grew up in Gotha, until her parents and family escaped to West Germany. After a lengthy ordeal at the refugee camp in Aurich her parents eventually succeeded in receiving a decent apartment in Velbert.

Castle Friedenstein, Gotha - Photo Credit: thueringerschloesser.de

Castle Friedenstein, Gotha – Photo Credit: thueringerschloesser.de

Biene reported enthusiastically about her former home province Thuringia. They made many excursions into the surrounding area of Gotha, even visited the famous castle, the Warthburg, where Martin Luther within the safety of the massive walls translated the Bible into German. But what mattered most to Biene was that she and Elsbeth became close friends. They spent as much time as possible together.

biene

Biene with her sister Elsbeth

While everyone was sound asleep, Elsbeth, twenty years her senior, would share her most precious memories with her. The two would often talk into the wee hours. Biene learned that Elsbeth loved to pen stories and even contemplated writing a book. After the wedding she was deeply saddened that her husband did not share her passion for writing. He was a very practical man with both feet on the ground and was focusing only on what had to be done to survive in the postwar communist society, where most basic consumer commodities were scarce. Paul ignored what was dearest to his young wife’s heart and treated with contempt what was in his eyes useless, sentimental tripe. He callously burned her entire portfolio of creative and much cherished writing leaving her nothing of her priceless collection except for a very few stories, which she managed to save from the senseless destruction. Overall, Biene had spent a wonderful time at her birthplace, that quaint house and apartment, where little had changed, since Biene and her family had escaped from the socialist ‘paradise’ in 1954.

The House in Gotha - Biene's Birthplace

The House in Gotha – Biene’s Birthplace

Within barely a week upon her return to Velbert she was getting ready to fly with her friend Gisela to the Spanish Isle of Majorca. There in the company of other young girls and boys she enjoyed two relaxing weeks at the sandy beaches of the Mediterranean Sea. This was the first time Biene was allowed to travel alone without parental supervision. Her mother had always kept a watchful eye on her stunningly beautiful and romantically inclined daughter, who had given her in the past much grief with her dangerous, almost fateful attraction she exerted on her male admirers. But as it turned out, Biene returned home safe and sound, tanned by the southern sun so dark she could have easily been mistaken for a Spanish senorita.

Biene on Vacation on Majorca Summer 1964

Biene on Vacation on Majorca Summer 1964

Apart from lounging at the beach and going swimming, Biene had once gone scuba diving in the crystal clear waters to explore the mysterious seascape, which gave her quite a thrill. However, as she soon discovered, diving and depending on the vital air supply from the oxygen tank on her back was not entirely without danger. While she took in the wonders of the strange world under the sea, the air supply suddenly dwindled forcing her to quickly surface. There was plenty of oxygen left in the tank. Perhaps Biene had put a kink into the connecting hose. Fortunately she had kept her cool and after being confronted with imminent danger did not panic. After this scary experience Biene decided that it was safer to stick with the more relaxing beach routine. Their flight back to Germany had been delayed by more than a day due to the loss of a plane, which the small tourist airline had suffered in a plane crash elsewhere. When they finally arrived in the dead of night at the Düsseldorf Airport, no busses were running any more to take them home. Biene and her friend were stranded. They were waiting at the dreary railroad station for the morning to come. Then a small miracle happened, which I let Biene describe in her own words.

Beach on Wild Coastline of Majorca - Photo Credit: wikipedia.org

Beach on Wild Coastline of Majorca – Photo Credit: wikipedia.org

          “In the bungalow village was also a young girl who was teased by all, especially by the boys. She was strutting about in an extravagant attire entirely too dressed up. Nobody liked her. I had only once exchanged a few words with her. When Gisela and I were now waiting at the station for the morning and had gone outside to catch a little bit of fresh air, she suddenly walked up to us. She knew that our plane had landed late. When she learned that our bus would arrive only in the early morning, she took us without hesitation to her place not far from the station. She gave us each a couch, where we totally exhausted slept until she woke us with coffee and buns. You wouldn’t believe how lovingly she cared for us. I had never before noticed so prominently how much one lets outer appearance deceive oneself. I was really stunned by such kindliness.”

The Pain of Indecision

73

Romantic University City of Marburg, Hesse, Germany  1964

Love that is engulfed by fear is not perfect. It cannot grow in the darkness of uncertainty, where doubt enters the heart and where there is no commitment. In my excessive sensitivity towards Biene’s past distressing experiences of love coming too early and too suddenly, but also out of the horrid fear of rejection, I never found, as I should have, the courage to ask her point-blank to marry me. With a clear yes or no, we both would have been able to carry on with our lives and make plans for the future with or without being together. There is infinite wisdom in the convention to have a formal engagement when both partners gather with their families, relatives and friends, exchange rings, and promise before witnesses to marry each other. In as much this formal coming together was lacking, doubtfulness and its evil ally distrust cast a dark shadow on our relationship in spite of our declared love for each other. Until we met again in November, the pretence to be happy with a mere friendship on my part caused us both to sit on the fence. Frustrated with the regression to a mere amicable correspondence between two very good friends, I responded to Biene’s lamentation over the power of Fate, which was threatening to separate us,

          “Leave Fate, dear Biene, out of the picture. Fate in our case is not a blind, impersonal power, to which we must submit. We all create it with our own desires and action. When you say that Fate will one day separate us; that we have to knuckle under; that we have to be happy with what we have given to each other, then you don’t mean Fate, but you yourself and your hidden wishes. What should separate us? Is it perhaps my voyage to Canada? This is not Fate’s power, but my own wish. My wish is also to return if necessary, and yours could be simply to follow me. Why am I harping on it so long? Because I remember all too well our agreement right from the beginning to be honest and truthful, even if it meant to hurt one another. Please don’t be angry with me that I am writing to you so openly… I do not stand terrified and inconsolable before this mysterious force called ‘Fate’. No tyrant, nor any distance, nor any ocean can separate us. We alone separate each other.”

Marburg, Germany on the Lahn River - Photo Credit: wikipedia.org

Marburg, Germany on the Lahn River – Photo Credit: wikipedia.org

          There is some truth in my reflections of some fifty years ago. People do indeed use this irrational force as a pretext to excuse their own lack of courage, inability to act when action is required, their self-doubt and uncertainty about that portion of their personal life that could be given direction and purpose if there was a will. However, truth becomes tarnished when mingled with disingenuous motives and intentions. Such was the case when I accepted the boundary that Biene had set for our love, although in reality I had always wanted to cross that boundary. Instead of giving a pedantic lecture on Fate, why didn’t I tell her that I loved her, asked her to marry me, and then, if she said yes, point out that we needed to make plans to turn our dreams into reality? With horror I look back and realize how much I had been willing to risk with my provocative letter, in which I had renounced my true intentions. But I was young and inexperienced, only a little over a year out of high school. I was groping in the dark. I had nobody to turn to for advice. I only had Biene’s responses and reactions, which were often just as bewildering and confusing to me as were my letters to her. The problem was that we were so much alike in our fear of the pain of permanent separation, which was looming more and more ominous with each passing month that we were erecting walls to protect ourselves, when we should have been busy building bridges of love and faithfulness. Thus, it is not surprising that Biene shrouded in darkness about my true feelings for her would not be writing very encouraging words to bolster our relationship.

          “Alas, I also hope, as you do, that everything will work out nicely between the two of us, before you depart, although then the good-bye will be even harder. I thank you that you want to grant me my wish (respecting the boundary) and imagine, sometimes I even wish the opposite. Oh Peter, it is so confusing. Please forgive me! I don’t understand it myself. The more I want to free myself from you, the more my longing for you increases.”

          Were these lines popping up sporadically in her letters not an urgent plea to me to make a move, to take the first step to reach out to her, to comfort her with a word of commitment? In the culture of traditional values and conventions of the mid-sixties Biene expected me to take the initiative and break the stalemate. But shy like a little schoolboy I kept beating around the bush. The word marriage was not part of my vocabulary. However, mindful of my good friend Dieter’s advice, I began to arrange another rendezvous with Biene. She was eager to prepare our meeting and combine it with a visit to the Wuppertal Opera House. We both were looking forward to it. We sincerely felt that seeing each other again would chase away those gloomy thoughts and ominous forebodings about our impending separation and potential break-up of our tenuous, yet so cherished relationship.

The Peter and Gertrud Klopp Story Chapter XXII

30

From Darkness into Light

Immature love says: ‘I love you because I need you.’ Mature love says ‘I need you because I love you.’ Erich Fromm

Filing a Complaint

Beautiful Feldafing at Lake Starnberg - Photo Credit: bergfex.com

Beautiful Feldafing at Lake Starnberg – Photo Credit: bergfex.com

Soon after my return to Maxhof, Gauke and I received the order to report to the commanding officer. I wondered what could be so important that we would be sent away from our very first driving lesson in the New Year. The young clerk in uniform behind the massive office counter told us that the captain was expecting us in his office. With a heavy heart we entered. After the perfunctory military salute the captain asked us to take a seat. I had the ominous feeling that we might have unknowingly broken some rules resulting in a disciplinary issue that the sergeant at the driving school could not handle himself. Without giving any explanation the officer informed us that we would be transferred back to our unit in Koblenz as of April 1st. We were stunned. But when the officer asked us whether we had any questions, Gauke inquired, “Why are we being sent back, if the purpose of the transfer was to have us trained as certified truck drivers?”

Villa Waldberta Feldafing - Photo Credit: wikipedia.org

Villa Waldberta Feldafing – Photo Credit: wikipedia.org

The officer was a little taken aback, as soldiers are only allowed to ask questions, but not to question orders. But he must have realized that in this case we were entitled to know. For he said, “Soldiers that were transferred to my unit were supposed to be already fully trained as truck drivers. That was my request. Instead THEY send you! Dismissed!” From the furious tone of his voice, with which he pronounced ‘they’, it seemed to me that he was not angry at us, but at the system that cheated him out of two valuable truck drivers. Because of this ridiculous transfer I had not only lost out on the officer’s training program, but now I would also be deprived of the golden opportunity of getting my driver’s license. But what bothered my sense of justice the most was that we had been lied to, that the promise to provide driving lessons in January had been broken. In a violent outburst of angry words I released my frustration in a ten-page letter to Mother, which she acknowledged in a postcard expressing her hope that I had been able to calm down. In her motherly wisdom she had also destroyed the letter because of its incriminating content that she did not want anyone else to read.

Portrait of my mother - Erika Klopp

Portrait of my mother – Erika Klopp

Gauke and I had a good talk over a mug of beer in one of the local pubs and discussed what our next move should be to address the unfairness of our transfers. I suggested grieving the matter at the next higher authority. Gauke agreed and encouraged me to write the letter of complaint,  since with all my novel-writing I should have the better writing skills. Then we ordered another beer to drink to what sounded to us as a good decision. Within less than a week our grievance to the major in charge of the signal corps was in the mail.

Challenging Times at Maxhof

In these turbulent days I now and then pulled out Biene’s letter and carefully read it over looking for a sign of encouragement, a key to her heart, but there was none except perhaps that she had written to me at all. Again I was in a dilemma. One side of me said, ‘In view of her engagement and promise of marriage to another, it is unfair for me to keep writing. Let her go! Leave her alone!’ The other more irrational side, which by definition is not persuaded by reason, urged, ‘You loved her; and you love her still. Cling to her as long as you can.’ So unable to keep the two warring parties apart within me, I wrote a short note intended to show that I was still thinking of her, but at the same time emphasizing that we were hopelessly drifting apart.

Feldafing - Photo Credit: immo-vilalta.com

Feldafing – Photo Credit: immo-vilalta.com

In a poisonous blend of regret and resignation I wrote, “From month to month our tracks are more and more drifting apart, and what is left, as you write so correctly is the pain. But also pain eases over time. What seemed so devastating at first does not hurt as much any more. Only from time to time when I look at your pictures, melancholy sets in and spreads its debilitating influence. But even that will end like a river disappearing in the parched sands of the desert…”

Kegler Family: Helga. Gerhard, Günther, my mother Erika Klopp, Marie and Lucie Kegler

Kegler Family: Helga. Gerhard, Günther, my mother Erika Klopp, Marie and Lucie Kegler

Picking up Biene’s very own words I continued, “Will we see each other again? Perhaps. But may Fate prevent this from happening! We met, played and laughed at Lake Baldeney. We were dreamy idealists, when we wrote each other! It was good that things turned out this way for you and also for me. We would have deeply disappointed each other; I would have certainly disappointed you. Believe me, there are a thousand sides to my personality, and in my letters I showed only one. Until next time! Farewell, dear Biene! Your Peter.” As soon as I had dropped off the letter in the mailbox, I called myself a fool. For I was sure that Biene after reading these confusing, despairing, heartless lines would not consider me worthy of another reply.

Feldafing from above = Photo Credit: bayern.de

Feldafing from above – Photo Credit: bayern.de

The response to our complaint was swift, and realizing that most things in my life lately have turned out to be a surprise, I began to expect the unexpected. The way the army brass dealt with the transfer grievance was no exception. I wanted the major of the signal corps to deal directly with our problem, invite us to respond to more questions, and eventually serve justice by reinstating us into the driving school or even put us into the officer-of-the-reserve program. Instead, we were called in to see the very same officer we had filed our complaint against. If he was angry at the system on our first visit, he was now openly hostile at us. He resented that we had the audacity to bypass him and that we had gone straight to his superior to complain about him, even though we had not even mentioned him in our letter. With a calm voice calculated to instill fear he told us while pointing to our letter on his massive desk that we had two choices. Either we withdrew our grievance with no disciplinary action taken against us or we foolishly insisted on following through with our complaint before a hearing committee with most unpleasant consequences if it is determined that we had made false accusations. Barely concealing the intended threat he nevertheless spoke matter-of-factly almost in a conciliatory, amiable tone, “You must know, young fellows, we merely spoke of the possibility of getting you into the driving school. The office staff for some reason or other did not inform you of the impending transfer. That’s the whole story, regrettable for you, but true.” Gauke and I looked at each other. The threat had worked. We would have no leg to stand on, even if the hearing committee was going to lend us a sympathetic ear. Thus, we signed the document certifying the withdrawal of our grievance.

“Listen,” the officer said with a triumphant smirk on his face, “Enjoy your stay at Maxhof. You have more than two months left here. Most soldiers would only be too happy to trade with you.” So Gauke and I had accomplished nothing. We returned to our living quarters deeply disappointed.

 

A Good Friend’s Advice

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Starnberg – Photo Credit: starberg24.de

Gauke and I were dining at the Gasthof zur Post, a small inn not far from the beautiful Starnberg Lake. We savored the tender pork roast served with the traditional dumplings and salad. It was midweek and hardly any tourists ventured out from the big cities to see the lake country in the dead of winter. So we had the cozy dining area all to ourselves in the ideal ambience, where the refreshing Bavarian beer and conversation make a great pair to enhance friendship and companionship. We had decided to accept the captain’s advice and make the best of our remaining time in Bavaria. I was still reeling under the effect of the double whammy of a lost opportunity for advancement in the army and the specter of unrequited love. But the fine food and drink started to ease the tension and made me at least for the moment forget both the headaches and heartaches of the past three weeks. My friend started talking about his sweetheart in a town near Frankfurt, with whom he got together almost every other weekend. The previous summer they had gone on a bicycle tour out from the searing city of concrete and steel. Following the picturesque River Main they found an idyllic spot at one of its tributaries, where they pitched their tent. They had a most wonderful time at the campfire gazing at the stars, listening to the nearby murmuring brook, then huddled together, as the chill of the cloudless night made them seek each other’s warmth. Hearing Gauke so passionately describe his summer weekend with his girlfriend, I almost choked. There was my friend and comrade sitting across from me with a romantic spirit just like me although with one painful difference. What he had so vividly portrayed that I could almost sense their happiness, he had experienced in the real, tangible world in perfect harmony of body and soul. In my dream-like fantasies I had visions of similar experiences. But they were mere figments of my imagination coupled with the hope that somehow or someway, if I waited long enough, they would as if by the stroke of a magic wand become reality.

bayrische-stube-lukullum-de

Bavarian Pub – Photo Credit: lukullum.de

Gauke not knowing the feelings he had stirred up within me kept on talking. “Now, Peter, do you know what the sweetest moment is when I come home on the weekends?” He was so eager to tell that he did not wait for me to answer. “When the train arrives at my hometown just a few minutes before midnight and I step off the train, I see at the end of that long empty platform behind the iron gate my girlfriend with her long black hair fluttering in the night breeze.”

I wanted to shout at him, ‘Stop it! You are torturing me with your romantic talk!’ Instead I quickly grabbed the stein of beer and gulped down the cool liquid in a desperate effort to quell my emotions. As if Gauke had read my mind, he briefly interrupted his ardent story telling and ordered two more mugs of beer. Then perhaps sensing my embarrassment and uneasiness over all this romantic talk he quickly added in conclusion that he was invited to meet her parents this coming weekend and being only an ordinary soldier he was quite a bit nervous about it. I was thankful to Gauke about his tactfulness. For his talk reminded me of everything I had done wrong in my relationship with Biene and it confirmed what Dieter Krug had already stated on our scenic bike tour up the Moselle valley. To capture the affection of a heart and to desire to be loved, the two need to be together to feel each other’s presence and to experience each other through the five senses. This can never happen in and through letters. Remove the sight of your love walking with you on a shady trail on a warm summer day, remove her cheerful laughter, pleasant voice, her songs, remove her touch, a walk with her arm in arm, remove the sweet taste of her kiss, remove the fragrance of her hair and skin, and you will have blocked the gateway to each other’s soul, doomed to wither and die. We had been drinking our beer in silence, when Gauke indicated that now it was my turn to talk. After a long pause I told him that I had nothing to say.

“I noticed that you were writing a novel about her. And you want to tell me that you have nothing to say?” he rebuked and teased me in a jokingly disarming manner. Then he began to extract bit by bit like an experienced lawyer the details of my relationship with Biene and in doing so put them like little pieces in a mosaic clearly before me. He was surprised to hear that I had met her only once; he was even more surprised to hear that I loved her on the basis of mere letters; and he was most surprised to hear that she was engaged to a young man in Holland. He shook his head in utter disbelief. He ordered another beer for us. Then he spoke kindly and softly no longer like a lawyer. With his balding head and the concerned looks on his face he actually looked more like a counselor.

“Peter, I urge you. Let go of her. The love you feel for her has no foundation. The love you think she feels for you is not based on reality but comes out of the make-believe world of sentimental novels or movies. Let go of her. You are heading for disaster. A girl who is engaged to marry another cannot possibly love you. And if she does, she is as crazy as you are, and she too will be heading for disaster. As a friend I give you my advice, let go of her, Peter.”

We sat for a while and silently finished our beer. Gauke was sensitive and kind. He did not speak another word. On the way back to the barracks I thanked him for his friendship and told him I would take his advice very seriously. I slept well that night as if a great burden had been taken off my chest. How could I have suffered so much about something that did not exist? With such rhetorical musings I drifted off to sleep.

Light at the End of the Tunnel

Late Sunday night Private Gauke entered our room after spending the long weekend at his girlfriend’s home. He was so excited about it that he felt justified in waking me up. Even though I was still half asleep I could tell that my friend was beaming with joy. He had good news to tell me. He had met his girlfriend’s parents who were delighted to get acquainted with the young man their daughter had been telling them about so much. He was amazed almost embarrassed how much they knew about him. For them the most important thing was to see their daughter happy. In their eyes he seemed to be the right man for her. My companion would have gone on to share his happiness with me, but when he looked at my sleepy and grumpy face, he stopped. I was annoyed and wondered why he could not have waited with all that chatter till next morning. Then I would have perhaps appreciated his latest romantic tale with a wakeful mind. I made no effort to suppress a loud yawn to indicate that I wished to get back to sleep. However, Gauke had still something else on his mind that was supposed to cheer me up.

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Biene quite in Tune with the Fashion of the Sixties

“Peter,” he started again with undiminished exuberance in his voice,   ”my sweetheart back home has a wonderful girlfriend who is just like you; she loves poetry, even writes her own verses …”

“I’m not interested,” I interrupted him gruffly.

“Peter, don’t get me wrong. You need to break out of your doom and gloom. I invite you to come with and spend the weekend at my parents’. We could go out together and meet …”, I interrupted him again raising my voice just a notch higher to make it clear that I had enough of his idle talk.

“Well, suit yourself”, he replied. “All I wanted is to advise you to keep your options open. It is not a good idea to have just one egg in your basket. In case it breaks, you know.”

Poor Gauke, he tried so hard. He was a nice chap and a good friend. He was truly trying to help. I was stubborn or insanely in love, or both. It took me a long time that night before I managed to catch a few winks of sleep.

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Biene (Gertrud)

In the second week of February, just when I had given up ever receiving a message from Biene again, her letter arrived, which I expected to be the final farewell letter. Instead it contained a bombshell. I read with relative calm that her engagement with Henk had been broken off. Her dream about a life together with him had been shattered through unfortunate events and circumstances, which she was unable to describe except to say that Henk had loved her so much that she for a while believed to love him too. However, what led up to the actual break-up, she left unsaid setting in motion an avalanche of speculations on my part. In vain I tried to penetrate the veil that shrouded the circumstances that she was alluding to. Had Henk revealed an aspect of his character that made her shudder? Had he been too aggressive and demanded of her too much, too soon? Many more questions were racing through my head, for which I found no answer, creating a jumble of mixed emotions. If she had given me a few concrete details no matter how shocking, I would eventually have accepted with love and understanding her tragic experiences. As I continued reading I noticed how much she was troubled by my plans to emigrate to Canada.

“How can we possibly meet again, when you are so far away,” she asked, “and disappoint each other? Do you really believe ‘disappoint’? I cannot imagine it; but I would not be afraid to see you again.” At that moment my heart beat a little faster. The horizon began to brighten up with the rays of hope and eager anticipation. Unfortunately, like a bolt out of the blue, without any merciful transition, Biene continued, “Imagine this, my pen pal from Morocco intends to come this summer to get to know me and Germany. Will he be like I imagined him to be? My parents don’t agree with the idea; for they fear we could fall in love with each other.” I felt that the tenuous thread that so far had held us somehow together was ready to snap. What prevented this from happening was a mental trick that moved my mind to a distant vantage point from which I looked down upon the bizarre soap-opera-like comedy show below. The Moroccan pen pal had miraculously risen from the dead and imbued with renewed zest for life was eager to see her, to meet her, to get to know her, while her poor parents having just been saved from one disaster were heading into the next. I could not help but internally smile and laugh. My friend Gauke would be laughing too, He was absolutely right in his urgent plea to let go of her and also in his opinion to have more options than one. In an ironic twist it was Biene, who obviously had more than one egg in her basket. One broke, but she had two or more eggs left to break. I tried to probe into the possible reasons as to why in this particular moment she would tell me this. Was she trying to goad me into action? Her concluding sentence seemed to confirm my speculation, “Sometimes, even though you wouldn’t like it, I would really like to see you again.” A new seed had been planted. It was now up to me to water it, to nourish it, to make it grow in the fertile soil of reality. To accomplish it, a rendezvous with Biene was the key and time was of the essence. To blaze a trail to the doorsteps of her heart, I made some unusual preparations.

Four Deaths in Four Months

President Kennedy, "Ich bin ein Berliner" - Photo Credit: cnn.com

President Kennedy, “Ich bin ein Berliner” – Photo Credit: cnn.com

But first I had to endure another blow. Death had given me in quick succession several reminders of our transitory life here on earth. On November 22nd at the Maxhof army residence. I was listening to the American Forces Network (AFN Munich). The DJ suddenly interrupted the Country and Western music and after a short pause announced that President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas, Texas. Later that night it was reported that he had died of his gun shot wounds. I was shocked over the news of this tragedy, as I had taken a liking to this great man for his fortitude to force the Soviet Union to remove their missiles out of Cuba. I liked the way he had publicly committed himself to the security of West Berlin. His famous statement, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’ will remain in me for as long as I live. Then in January our staff sergeant Wohl had a fatal accident, when his VW beetle collided with a public transit bus on an icy hillside road in Feldafing. Gauke and I and two other comrades accepted the sad task of becoming his pallbearers. I will never forget the heart-rending sobbing of the widow in the front pew, when the officiating priest addressed her with a few consoling words. A couple of weeks later, almost if death intended to remind me again of its presence, I lent sixty marks to a comrade so he could buy a train ticket to attend his grandmother’s funeral. On the morning of February 26th I was called out of the office to see the captain for an important message. This time Gauke stayed behind at his typewriter, and I went a little puzzled and worried to the captain’s office alone. After I sat down, he informed me with genuine regret that my father had died of a massive heart attack during the night of February 25th. The officer granted me a five-day compassionate leave, effective immediately. I was numb. I could not respond with a single word. The captain deliberately ignoring military protocol shook hands with me and spoke kind words of condolences. Only a small number of family members, aunts, Erna’s relatives and friends attended the funeral in Michelbach. I wrote and dedicated a poem to my dad. The poem ended with a line in Latin:

Viventium, non mortuorum misereor.
I mourn the living, not the dead.

Grieving Father’s death and attempting to overcome the blow, I wrote Biene that I needed time to respond to her wish to see me again. It also took me quite an effort not to mention her pen pal from Morocco in my letter. Perhaps I should not have suppressed my feelings. For jealousy although often portrayed as a negative force has its legitimate place. Just as we need fear to protect us from dangerous situations, a small dose of jealousy at the very least reveals that you care and are sincerely concerned about your partner’s affection.

Novella 'Carthage' Dedicated to Biene

Novella ‘Carthage’ Dedicated to Biene

Back at Maxhof I began to edit and to copy in my very best handwriting the novella ‘Carthage’ into a thick green covered notebook. I dedicated the more than 200-page book to Biene. As it was not only a historical novel but also a testimonial of my love to her, it turned out to be quite literally the longest letter I had ever written. More importantly it ended in such a way that Biene herself one day could write the final chapter not as a flowery addition to an imaginary tale, but a true story with Biene and me being the main characters in the real world. At the time of my transfer back to Koblenz I was back home to celebrate my 22nd birthday.  There I mailed the book to Biene, after I had mysteriously hinted in a previous letter that I would be mailing her a very interesting book portraying us as Claudia and Publius. In the accompanying letter I wrote, ‘Dear Biene, you have sensitivity and understanding, Even though in this book everything had happened over two thousand years ago, its content is so current and volatile that I would not dare to show it to anyone but you. Whoever opens his heart is twice as sensitive and vulnerable. You will read many a chapter filled with blood-curdling details about this fateful city. Just remember what happens here in terms of physical suffering and pain is to be understood at the psychological level. I have been writing the novella for a long time. Personal experience and history went hand in hand to create it. The shock I experienced last fall put a sudden end to the story. You will notice that the form of the narrative lost its formal structure and the story ends in a desperate monologue. About some of the things, which I have written, I think differently today. But I have not lost my idealism. I am searching for a world, where I can turn my hopes and aspirations into reality.’  I felt like a general, who in a last-ditch effort committed all his troops and resources and staked everything on one card to win the battle and claim the prize of victory.

Gertrud (Biene) Panknin

Gertrud (Biene) Panknin

Peter‘s Musing on the Nature of Platonic Love

Fortunately, I did not have to wait very long. Biene had expected a store-bought book that in content and style would bear a strong resemblance to our turbulent relationship, where the ending would perhaps provide an urgent plea to get our act together and leave our fantasy world behind. To put it mildly, the handwritten book had overwhelmed her. Never before had she received a gift like this, where every single page had been written exclusively for and about her. She did not insult me in the least (as a matter of fact I took it as a compliment), when she questioned for a moment the authenticity of the book’s claimed authorship. Then came the sentence I had been waiting for, ‘I believe we love each other.’ What all my letters in the lines and between the lines could not accomplish, it seemed to me the novel had succeeded in pronouncing my unequivocal and unmistakable message ‘I love you’ and that at last I had received the long-awaited, if somewhat faint echo, ‘I believe we love each other’. However, when she qualified the kind of love she had in mind, I realized that I had rejoiced too soon and that at best I had only scored a partial victory.

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Biene’s Parents Mr. and Mrs. Walter Panknin

‘But it is a strange love’, she continued, ‘like a dream not bound to reality. I love your words, your soul, which your words express. I love you as a human being, Peter, but I am very much afraid to love you as a man, and I fear that you already love me as a woman. That will bring much pain. How shall I make it clear to you, so you will understand what I mean? I cannot yet belong to a man. It has been my greatest desire for a long time to love a man and to completely belong to him, and yet I know, and I have experienced it myself that I am not yet ready for it .’

‘Therefore, Peter’, she continued, ‘I must ask you, do not love me as a woman, for then we could quickly lose each other again! I would like to write to you the opposite and yet let us this time not go with our dreams any farther than what reality will be able to give us as fulfillment. I find it so hard to tell you this and yet, Peter, grant me this wish, let us be friends just as in the beginning.’

I reread her letter looking for clues in the bewildering plea to turn back the clock to the time, when we had started our friendship. But I found nothing apart from just a vague hint of something horrible that she had experienced in the recent past. It was obvious to me that she had not written the happy ending to the novel in real life, which I had so intensely been hoping for. It was a now-or-never situation for me. I realized that she was in a complete state of confusion and afraid of a man-woman relationship, so afraid that she risked losing the one whom she believed she truly loved. The spirit within me that so often in the past had said ‘one last time, try just one more time’ goaded me to write. I felt completely calm. I wanted to pass on to her that sense of tranquility, which would ultimately provide the pillar upon which she could rest her final decision without regret. It was either a life together with me, or the end of a friendship that could not be maintained. I was one step ahead of Biene in that I had felt the pain of jealousy over Henk and the Moroccan pen pal. She was in my opinion naïve to believe that she could find a broad-minded, speak indifferent husband, who would tolerate another soul mate in their marriage, no matter how platonic such a relationship would be.

So I wrote after some considerable time of reflection, ‘I have the feeling, you want to cut off the roots to a tree, but still want to harvest its fruits. You must not be so fearful, dear Biene. When one talks about love between a man and a woman, one must not think right away of its consummation. What I think about it will perhaps be to you a bit of a consolation. I can belong to only one girl. Then all the others vanish with time. If they don’t, they cause hard to solve conflicts within me. The girl that I mean was and is you, dear Biene. Don’t be shocked if I tell you that the love, which you are renouncing, took control of me from the moment I met you the first time. But in its purest form, as it finds expression through passion, it comes last. Many thousands of steps precede it. But it lives within me not strictly separated from all other human values. It plays its role in everything I am doing and thinking. In every sentence that I write to you it is there. Even if it is never mentioned, it is there. My entire being is woven into it through and through. And I feel happier now than in the times when I tried to suppress it as something evil.

Peter with his Buddies at an Army Training Site

Peter with his Buddies at an Army Training Site

Dear Biene, you have a decision to make. But it is not difficult; I am not getting lost to you, at least not in the way you envision it now with a pure friendship between soul mates. What your attitude will be later does not matter now. The question for you is whether you will accept me with my love as a man. You can keep me just as I am or you set yourself and me free for the ‘love’ for somebody else that fate will bring into our lives. I give you complete freedom with your decision and accept everything. But I must have clarity! Take your time to answer my letter, just as I have taken my time.’

A few days later feeling sorry of having had the audacity to force a decision upon her, I thought it wiser to go back to Biene’s original plea for platonic love between the two of us and describe it vividly with a good measure of irony so that she could see at long last that this kind of love would not be worth pursuing.

‘I think I know now what is troubling you. Recently it stood before my eyes like a vision. It is the relationship between two souls pure, aiming upward, self-sufficient. This kind of love permits no passion; it wishes to be pure. That’s why you were afraid that our friendship would be in jeopardy, if you didn’t warn me. In your eyes we are two souls completely separated from our bodies in quiet distant solitude, eyes open for the wonders of nature and its beauty. Lovingly we exchange experiences we each had suffered from the blows of fate; we mature and rise upward towards ethical perfection. Earth with its horrors is no longer important; nothing bothers us any more. We let ourselves go, when we say farewell to our bodies. The day has arrived; we reach out for each other; the gate to our ideals opens. Who then should stop these innocent souls from entering the land of arts? One admires Spitzweg’s idyllic pictures, listens to romantically imbued poetry and goes into raptures over Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. One meets great spirits: Goethe, Lessing, and Schiller. We take flight and seek refuge at philosopher Seneca, who teaches us to relish contentment and happiness. But we are not so simple-minded as to ignore that even this is a dubious fabrication of human beings seeking escape from this odious world. Shuddering, we rise even higher, leaving everything behind. It feels so warm and fuzzy around our hearts; like a bridal veil our souls become transparent. Nothing weighs us down any more. Indeed, we are being lifted up; we melt into nothingness. You are I, and I am you. How magnificent and glorious! Our contours begin to blur. Eternally happy and content we have been transported into the heavenly realms. Dear Biene, with all that bliss why don’t we just go ahead and die?’

With this bitter-sweet rhetorical question I ended my letter and wondered about how Biene would respond to the imagery of my emotional diatribe.

 Career Planning and a Painful Self-Assessment

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Art Work  Entitled ‘There are many ways’ by my Friend Hans Fricke

 

My brother Gerry, who lived in Medicine Hat, while I was in the West German army, is not exactly known among family members as an avid letter writer. All the more I was surprised to receive a detailed answer from him to my inquiry regarding teacher’s training in Alberta, Canada. Driven by a youthful desire for adventure but also by a kind of escapism that was getting stronger with each additional month in the army I wanted to explore a possible teaching career in Canada.

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My Brother Gerry and his Wife Martha at Medicine Hat

Equally important for the understanding of my sudden interest in a totally different profession was that my staff sergeant in Koblenz had taken notice of my knowledge of basic electricity and electronics and had given me the task to instruct the new recruits. This went over so well that I was given more and more time off from regular duty to prepare my lessons and teach. So it happened that I discovered a talent, which I thought I did not have. Gerry accurately explained the current requirements for entering the teaching profession in Alberta. I had to have my German high school diploma validated, had to give evidence for proficiency in the English language, and to successfully complete a minimum of two years university training. With this information I was able to do some serious planning for the future. Suddenly a most fortuitous train of thoughts popped up in my mind that greatly increased my longing to go to Canada. Exciting ideas followed in rapid succession: immigration, teachers’ training at the University of Calgary, a teaching career, an income with the prospect of pay increases with more training, getting married to Biene and having a family.

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Mother and Daughter-In-Law Martha at her Home in Medicine Hat

I am still thankful to the captain from the basic training period for instilling the desire for good planning in order to achieve a dream by visualizing all the necessary steps in-between. The target I aimed for was still years ahead. It was actually a twin target of a rewarding meaningful career and life with Biene at my side. To hit the bull’s eye at such a distance would require a great deal of determination and persistence. Would I have those qualities, but most importantly would Biene support me in something – I am ashamed to admit – that I had not even mentioned to her yet? So this would be a good time to have a critical look at myself. In my own eyes I had become a very mature young man years ahead of my comrades in terms of acquired wisdom and good planning. But when I looked at the erroneous assumptions I had made about the world around me, about Biene and myself, I marvel at the way all my dreams had eventually become a reality.

Firstly, in my letters to Biene I had written about love, but never about marriage. I assumed that my ‘I love you’ would translate into ‘Will you marry me?’

Secondly, what was Biene to make out of my long-winded flowery dissertation on love between a man and woman?

Thirdly, Biene had already been frightened by the painful events leading up to and following the break-up of her engagement with Henk. Now I came and frightened her some more by openly writing about my passion for her without revealing or at least hinting at my genuine intention to marry her.

Fourthly, it was preposterous to assume that just because I was willing to marry her she would want to marry me too. This was truly the mark of an egocentric ass that I was at the time.

Fifthly, twelve months in the army and my comrades’ boastful talk about their amorous adventures should have taught me that being married and making love do not necessarily belong together. How was Biene supposed to know what was on my mind about a topic that had been a taboo throughout our childhood years?

Last, but not least, was the foolish assumption that just because I had broken off the correspondence with my girl friend, Biene in turn should have done the same with her Moroccan pen pal. Or put differently, just because my heart from now on belonged to Biene  did not mean that she should also restrict herself to a permanent commitment.

So in summary I had built a dream castle with love, marriage, family and career on the preconceived notion that Biene had read all this and much more between the lines. It was then one of the great miracles of our relationship that no storm tide came rushing in at that particular juncture and made the castle collapse like a deck of cards.

In a postcard Biene briefly assured me that she no longer wanted a mere soul-mate relationship. She wrote that many of the questions and problems that were troubling us would be resolved once we had met again. And indeed we met exactly two years after we had our first encounter at Lake Baldenay. This brought some sunshine into my heart. My brother Adolf contributed a great deal to enhance that joie de vivre, which I felt all the more intensely, whenever I went with him on an excursion in and around the Rhine, Moselle and Lahn valleys.

Exploring the Moselle Valley with my Brother Adolf

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Moselle River – Summer 1964

My brother Adolf was in the final year of his apprenticeship program at the Honeywell Company in Hanau. This city north of Frankfurt was not far from Koblenz. When the weather was fine, Adolf would make it a weekend practice to pick me up at the gates of the Falckenstein barracks. From there we went on trips in his venerable old VW beetle to explore together the beautiful Lahn and Moselle valleys. The summer of 1964 brought an exceptionally long period of sunshine quite unusual for this western part of Germany, when cloudy skies and rain often drove sun-seeking German tourists south to the Mediterranean beaches of Italy and Spain. On one of these fabulous weekends Adolf suggested a wine sampling tour all the way up the River Moselle to Trier, the ancient location of the imperial summer residence of the Roman emperors.

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Peter Relaxing in the Famous Wine Region of Germany

Having finally moved by two rendezvous with Biene at Lake Baldeney beyond a mere fantasy world to a more solid relationship, I felt carefree and cheerful. I readily agreed to Adolf’s proposal, and off we rolled into a westerly direction. Small towns and quaint villages, medieval castles on hill tops, the meandering river, the hills covered with the light green carpets of vineyards offered a magnificent view. At the town centres often located near the local fountain, vintners with samples from last year’s vintage were catering to the traveling tourists in the hope of selling their fine bottled wine. The labels on the bottles were just as alluring as they were their precious content. Some had grotesque, unusual, even titillating names, such as Zeller’s Black Cat, Bare Bottom, Dear Woman’s Milk, just to name a few. Adolf and I took full advantage of the incredibly inexpensive samples of the finest wines in the country. In high spirits we drove on to the next ‘watering hole’, sampled another exquisite wine, and kept on going from town to town, from sampling station to sampling station, like bees flitting from flower to flower savouring the delicious nectar. We happy-go-lucky brothers were singing, joking and drinking all the way up to Trier, where Adolf feeling generous invited me to have dinner in a cozy restaurant not far from the historic Porta Nigra and the famous ruins of the Roman thermal baths.

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The Imperial Baths of Trier

It felt good to enter the cool premises of an inn after such a long ride through the sweltering summer heat. After a hearty meal we lingered over a cool refreshing beer while waiting for the heat in the valley to come down to a more tolerable level. Air conditioning in a VW was virtually nonexistent in those days.

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My Brother Adolf at the Thermal Baths at Trier

There I sat, a bit sleepy and drowsy from the wine and beer, listening half-heartedly to Adolf’s tirades against the American imperialists, the war in Vietnam, the killing of innocent women and children perpetrated by the American ice cream soldiers as he contemptuously called the GI’s, the exploitation of the working people, the advantages of socialism for the common people and the evils of capitalism. When Adolf was talking politics, a passionate fervour seized his entire being; his words poured out as if he had experienced all these real and imagined injustices himself. When the verbose eruption of truths, half- truths and lies had finally subsided with no notable effect on me, the apolitical person that I was at the time, Adolf returned to his congenial and humorous self again, ordered another beer for us from the pretty and courteous waitress, whom he described benevolently as a ‘nice kid’. Now it was time to introduce me to the kind of vocabulary that would definitely not be very useful for my later academic career. The stock of swearwords coming from the oil patch environment was quite impressive.

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Peter on a Sightseeing Tour with his brother Adolf

When he changed topics and began to talk with extravagant enthusiasm about Canada, I was all ears, even though he described a totally different country from the one I had learned from books. Adolf’s opening line for almost anything that had to do with Canada was, “Peter, with us in Canada things are like this.”

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Adolf taking a Roadside Break at the River Moselle

Before coming to Germany for a three-year stay, he had worked in the oil fields at Swan Hills in northern Alberta, where work was hard and money was plentiful. He loved to tell me stories of the rough-and-tumble of camp life. At payday many workers would rush to Edmonton, the capital city of Alberta, to spend their hard earned money on booze, women, and cars. Adolf having a good grip over his finances was not entirely immune to the lure of owning a shiny new car. In a sudden wave of nostalgia for the good old days at camp he described how he had once walked into a car dealer’s showroom and pointed at the latest model of an eight cylinder muscle car that he wanted to purchase on the spot. When the delighted salesman asked him how he intended to pay for it, Adolf’s moment of glory had come, which he now revived by telling the story to his kid brother.

“Why,” Adolf answered, “in cash, of course!” And with these words he pulled out a bundle of hundred dollar bills and counted out the full amount of the purchase price on the counter of the astonished salesman. Adolf never failed to make critical remarks about the painfully slow German bureaucracy that he had to put up with, when he bought his VW beetle in Germany.

“Peter, with us in Canada things are like this,” he used his opening pet phrase again. “With all the paper work done and the registration and insurance papers signed I drove that beauty of a car out of the dealer’s parking lot within less than an hour.” Having learned how things were done in Canada, I remarked that it was time for me to return to the barracks. The evening sun flooded the eastern mountains in a sea of gold. When Adolf and I arrived in Koblenz, the sun began to set and only the pinnacles of the volcanic Eifel Mountains were still reflecting the last rays of the day.

The Romantic Soldier

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Beautiful City of Koblenz – Summer 1964

I often wondered how it was possible that at certain times all troublesome events seemed to come together to create one powerful drama. Such was my deplorable situation between Christmas and Carnival, when I could barely stem the tide in a string of fateful events, such as the fatal accident of Sergeant Wohl on the icy roads of Feldafing, the loss of my father, emotional upheaval over the injustices caused by red tape in the army bureaucracy, and above all the almost certain demise of a shaky relationship with Biene. And now barely six months later, emerging from an apparently bottomless pit, it seemed as if all favourable currents had joined forces to lift me out of my deep depression into the blissful realm of true happiness in quick succession of small but significant steps: a book written exclusively for Biene, clarifications of the intentions of my heart and their acceptance albeit somewhat hesitatingly by Biene, two rendezvous to show that we were real human beings, not phantoms of our distorted imagination, the discovery of the joy of teaching, the instructional sessions in the afternoons, and the recognition of my newly discovered talents by my superiors. All these events in combination raised my self-esteem so much that I almost regretted having requested a transfer to the Tannenberg barracks in Marburg.

The most enjoyable outings with my brother Adolf on the weekends tore me away from my history books. With his congenial companionship he gave me a renewed spirit with emphasis on the social aspects of life that I had been neglecting far too long. When Adolf was unable to come and I for one reason or another wanted to spend the weekend in the barracks, I would still read Roman history books, but with a focus on topics that were more relevant to my own life and closer to my heart. Instead of dwelling on Roman conquest with the inevitable theme of death and destruction, I now learned about the importance of values, particularly of those pertaining to marriage, family and the raising of children. On sunny days I would find a cozy spot on the lawn near the 400 m oval racetrack. There I would open Mommsen’s chapter on the status and significance of the family in the Roman Republic and would read with increasing interest about the family as the smallest unit, upon which the entire state depended for its health and its very existence. I marvelled at the role that the wife (domina) played in running a large and complex Roman villa and in nurturing and imparting values onto her children, while her husband (dominus), being still intimately connected to the soil, would work the fields to provide food and income for the family. Like myriads of individual healthy cells make up a strong body, so the Roman family units protected by law and honoured by society provided the moral fibre, which made the early Roman republic so strong and powerful. After such undisturbed moments of contemplation on matters so distant and yet so relevant I returned to my room with the distinct realization that I had received valuable clues for the unfolding of my own personal life in the not too distant future.

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Roman Family

If there was ever a period in my early adult years that reflected the spirit of 19th century German Romanticism, it was during the summer months of 1964, while I was awaiting my transfer to the Tannenberg barracks at Marburg. My new friend Josef Hegener and I made use of every free moment to escape the stuffiness of the poorly ventilated barracks rooms. Away from the noise and heat of the city we found refuge in the nearby wooded hills, where hiking trails invited us to explore nature in the cool of a Sunday morning. We delighted in the colourful sight of a mountain meadow bedecked with innumerable wild flowers. The buzzing of bees and bumblebees, the happy chirping of birds at the edge of the forest, the murmuring of a brook, the croaking of an army of frogs making their presence known from a pond were together with all the other joyful sounds music to our ears. From a footbridge we gazed at the athletic performances of water striders skimming gracefully over the surface of the gently flowing waters. Joyously we followed the trail to a hilltop, where our eyes feasted on the magnificent mosaic of woods, fields and villages below. Down in the valley a church bell was ringing inviting us to attend the church service and to give thanks to God for His wonderful creation. As we entered the village church, the congregation had just started singing ‘Now thank we all our God’, a hymn that became one of my favourite songs of praise both in German and in English. I felt elated after having been granted such a rare glimpse into the connectedness between the grandeur of nature and God’s presence in it. In my exuberance over this wonderful experience I quickly wrote a postcard to my folks back home in the form of a wedding announcement: We have been united in marriage signed Nature and I.

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Dandelion Flower

The following Monday I met Sergeant Otto Schmidt, as I was crossing the huge centre yard on my way to the building, where I was going to deliver another lesson on basic electricity. The sergeant was beaming with pride, because he had just received praise and recognition from his superior officer for his success in running an outstanding instructional program for his unit. He was actually very generous in giving me some of the credit. Then I noticed how his facial expression suddenly changed. Otto Schmidt about a head shorter than I was no longer looking up into my eyes, but gazed straight ahead in utter amazement and bewilderment at my uniform jacket. Had a button come off or had I left the shirt collar too casually unbuttoned? No, these minor flaws in my outer appearance had never been a problem with this friendly sergeant. There was something that he had most likely never seen before. In total disbelief his eyes were fixed on the humble head of a dandelion flower, which I, following my current romantic inclinations, had placed conspicuously on my uniform. Sergeant Schmidt was almost speechless. All he could do was shake his head and stammer, “Klopp, Klopp, what is the meaning of this all?” To his great relief I removed the objectionable flower and hurried off to my electricity class. A symbol of love, a symbol of peace was on the uniform of a German soldier!

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City of Koblenz – Photo Credit: Ferienwohnungen.de

Vittorio’s Entanglement in Sex, Love and Marriage

In our room there was a 17-year-old volunteer with the Italian sounding name Vittorio. At this tender age he was the youngest soldier in the signal corps. He had committed himself to a five-year service in the army and was obviously seeking a life long career with the Armed Forces. As a government employee in uniform he had a sizeable income at his disposal, which he squandered with his buddies in the local bars and in establishments of questionable reputation. So it was no surprise to any of us in the room that eventually he fell victim to one of the ladies of the night that was plying her trade in the lucrative barracks city of Koblenz. What I found bizarre, even shocking was that he was openly bragging about his amorous adventures with a prostitute, who had apparently singled him out as an easy target. Even the most hardened comrades in our room gave him contemptuous looks when he treated his sordid affair as if it was true love. At the end of a long weekend he felt especially inclined to proclaim from the top of his bunk his progress with the most wonderful woman he had ever met. I wondered how many women he could possibly have  met considering that he was only seventeen. A more outspoken roommate asked him in a sarcastic tone, “Are you paying for her services?”

“Not any more than what you would if you took your girlfriend out on a date,” Vittorio was quick to reply.

“Well, well, you don’t seem to understand. Let me put the question to you a bit differently. Are you paying to have sex with her?” Everyone in the room was itching to know how the argument about this hot topic would end.

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Falckenstein Barracks – Photo Credit: casino-falckenstein-kaserne.org

Vittorio was not easily intimidated. He knew how to fight back. He was aware of the saying that a good offense is the best defense. So he countered, “If you were a volunteer soldier and had a tidy income like me, wouldn’t you make her gifts and give her money because you love her?”

I was sure that our roommate must have felt a bit nettled by Vittorio’s suggestion that as a draftee with a mere pocket-money he would be in no position to argue with him on this point. Unable to respond to this powerful argument, he resorted to the most obscene and offensive language I had ever heard. If this had been the end of the story, I would not have considered it worthy of being part of my autobiography. As a matter of fact, the story was just beginning.

In the weeks that followed Vittorio was getting more and more quiet and was no longer bragging about his most wonderful woman. I thought that he was afraid of our unnamed roommate. But I was wrong.  One Sunday evening he returned much earlier than usual to our room. He appeared to be in a very agitated state of mind. Not caring whether we wanted to listen to him, he started ranting and raving about the woman he once loved so dearly. We were stunned by the complete reversal of his opinion and wondered whether or not we heard him talk about the same woman. His language now was just as crude and offensive as if his antagonistic roommate was still lecturing him on the definition of women of ill repute. He described the most wonderful woman in the world as a crooked slut, who first was content with twenties, then wanted fifties, and now demanded his entire monthly income.

“I am finished with her,” he screamed, “I will not see her again; she is a whore; she can go to HELL!” Then he threw himself on his bed and cried like a little boy that he actually still was.

aaltstadt_koblenz

City of Koblenz – Photo Credit: Wikipedia.org

It was near the end of the summer shortly before my transfer to Marburg, when a woman walked through the barracks gate and requested to see the commanding officer of the second company of the signal corps. The above lieutenant learned that one of his soldiers, Private Vittorio to be exact, was the cause of her being with child. The officer concerned about the honour and respectability of the army in general and of his unit in particular had Private Vittorio called in and confronted him with the woman he had vowed never to see again. The officer after having established the truth of the woman’s claim suggested in unmistakable terms – one might say he decreed that Vittorio marry the woman who was expecting his child. Upon proof of marriage Private Vittorio would receive two weeks of paid leave for their honeymoon.

Vittorio told us later how things had been arranged in the office and that he was going to get married. Having flip-flopped once more he proudly announced that he was the happiest man in the world to have such a wonderful woman for a wife and soon to have a family. His words were gushing out in a sentimental torrent. This time nobody dared to interrupt him; even the quarrelsome roommate kept quiet. Vittorio had chosen a dubious path. I felt pity, even compassion for the young man who had in my opinion such a small chance of success in his upcoming marriage. I never found out what became of him and his wife to be.

Shortly afterwards I was on my way to Marburg. I left Koblenz with mixed feelings. Not aware that with the recommendations from the commanding officer I would soon be teaching again I looked back with regret at the rewarding instructional sessions, which I had enjoyed so much. I would also miss Josef Hegener and our nature excursions into the local hill country . On the other hand I felt relieved to get away from the revolting environment that our room had become of late. Even though I had been open-minded about listening to jokes, I knew that Vittorio’s story was not a joke. It was a personal tragedy that shocked me to the core. If there was one good thing that came out of this sordid affair, it made me more determined than ever before to seek and strive for a better world. While an ideal by its own definition remains unobtainable, it nevertheless provides a vision and a goal worth aiming for. To the extent we struggle and make the effort to approach the ideal, we define our character. With a fresh new sense of optimism I was looking forward to spend the remaining 180 days of my army time in Marburg. I promised myself to meet Biene again, as soon as an opportunity would present itself. For me she represented the embodiment of the light and the hope for a better future.

The Peter and Gertrud Klopp Story Chapter XXI

39

Sorrows of Young Peter

“The Five W’s of Life:
WHO you are is what makes you special. Do not change for anyone.
WHAT lies ahead will always be a mystery. Do not be afraid to explore.
WHEN life pushes you over, you push back harder.
WHERE there are choices to make, make the one you won’t regret.
WHY things happen will never be certain. Take it in stride and move forward.”

Anonymous

With the transfer to the Falckenstein Barracks in Koblenz things were looking up for me. Our room was only slightly smaller than the one we had at the basic training camp, but instead of fifteen men only ten would share the sleeping facilities. The only drawback at the beginning was that the windows were facing one of the major north-south traffic arteries. The noise from the trucks and cars was considerable and lasted right through the night. At first I thought I could not sleep at all in a room inundated by the roar of engines and swishing of tires even with the windows closed. But little by little I got used to it and like the loud surf at the seashore at the Baltic Sea it no longer bothered me after a few days. I am sure that if the din below had suddenly stopped the silence would have woken me up.

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Peter on the right with truck driver and communication assistant

Also the pace of our daily routines significantly slackened. We still had to line up and stand at attention for the morning and noon announcements. But there were now more instructional sessions both theoretical and practical with emphasis on specialization depending to which of the three major groups we belonged in the signal corps. The linemen were responsible for connecting the various field centres during military exercises. They had from a physical perspective the toughest job. Rain or shine, heat or cold, their task was to unroll miles of cable and when the maneuver was over roll it back onto the empty drums on their backs. I had the good fortune that I was assigned to the second group. I was working inside a Mercedes truck packed with electronic gear, which I had learned to operate during my training sessions. The linemen would arrive huffing and puffing after a strenuous march through forests and fields. All I had to do was to connect the wires to the carrier frequency sets, call up my counterpart at the other end and tune up the line so that it would be capable of carrying several channels at once. It was the latest technology in those days, but miniscule by today’s standards, where thousands of telephone calls can be placed over a single wire or a wireless connection. The third and most prestigious group consisted of the wireless operators trained to set up and maintain point-to-point, line-of-sight connections. To be useful, the linemen also had to connect them by cable to our stations. I liked maneuvers of this kind, especially the ones that lasted a whole week, and often as a bonus resulting in an extra long weekend pass. It was during these action filled times that I began to reflect on the career proposal the captain had made to me less than a month ago. During guard duty, which I had to do every three weeks or so, whenever my turn was announced on the company bulletin board, I had also some time to do some thinking on the purpose and meaning of military service in a world that lived under the spell of the Cold War and under the threat of a massive attack by communist forces to take over Western Europe. While walking inside the fenced perimeter of our barracks I was searching for answers to those questions that popped up in my mind during the boring two-hour shifts in the dead of night. I composed a poem, which I included here in the hope that not too much is lost in translation.

Peter at work at his 'home' packed with electronic gear

Peter at work at his ‘home’ packed with electronic gear

Night Watch

Drearily the rain is falling.

I am walking in monotone even steps.

Nothing is moving in the semi-darkness.

Radio trucks like monsters are staring at me.

They appear to mock me,

Indeed threaten to devour me.

You servants of men!

To what end are you being abused?

Abused?

Aren’t you defending freedom and peace?

If you prevent that

For which you have been built,

Then sacred is your presence.

Yeah, just stare at me!

Your power brings me joy.

And I am walking past them

In monotone even steps.

To avoid war, an army must be strong so that an aggressor will understand that nothing would be gained and much more would be lost. It was the balance of power that kept the peace in the Cold War period, in which I was a soldier.

Discussion with a Friend on the Nature of Love

Mother had just returned from a visit to Gerry, daughter-in-law Martha and her one-year old grandson Wayne in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada. It so happened that I was on a ten-day leave and spent a relaxing vacation with her and Aunt Mieze, Aunt Lucie and Uncle Günther at their wonderful house in Watzenborn-Steinberg (Pohlheim). Mother talked a lot about her exciting trip to Canada. The proud grandmother had traveled with Gerry’s family over the Rocky Mountains all the way to beautiful British Columbia. Gerry described the countryside with its lush valleys, wild rushing streams, spectacular scenery and mild climate as God’s country. True to a long family tradition in the Kegler branch of the family, Mother wrote a report of her experiences of her journey to the land of the beavers.

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Mother Erika Klopp with Gerry on her visit to Canada

Biene’s school holidays were approaching. In 1962 her family had spent their vacation on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. Now they were planning to spend a couple of weeks at Lake Ammer in Bavaria. Even though I felt my love for Biene was getting stronger with every passing week, I did not openly declare it to her, because I erroneously assumed that she would already know. When she once asked me if I had ever been in love, I missed the golden opportunity to reveal what was on my heart. Instead I used a ride on my brand-new bicycle as a metaphor to describe in the most abstruse way the chaotic state of my inner being. I described how I got lost in the woods. I did not know which way to choose to get out. I dug deep into my psyche, too deep for comfort. Not yet realizing that the good and the evil lie close together within each and every human being, I criticized the world for failing to give me directions. Blind as a bat to my own flaws and weaknesses, I declared the entire world with its political systems, the church, and the army rotten and corrupt. These pathetic meanderings of my mind did very little to express my true feelings for her and would have been better left unsaid.

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Peter on his Bicycle

For the remaining three or four days I went on a bicycle tour with Dieter, my new army buddy. We traveled first up the River Moselle, then climbed up into the Eifel Mountains and stopped at a beautiful campsite named Pomerania, which reminded me of my grandparents’ lost home province in the east. At nightfall we sat in front of our tent looking at the rising moon in a cloudless sky. The day before I had bought a bottle of Moselle wine, a Riesling well known for its distinguished qualities due to the grapes, which incredibly ripen more fully during extended periods of autumnal fog in the river valley. Gazing at the crescent of the rising moon I remarked, “If me girl-friend in Velbert also looked at the moon this very minute, our eyes would be fixed on the same heavenly object and in some esoteric way we would be connected with one another.”

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Famous Moselle Valley with Germany’s finest Vineyards

Dieter chortled a few times, before he retorted, “But my friend, don’t be an idiot. That is not the same as being physically present. When I kiss my beloved Heidi, I know real love, love that you cannot even fathom with your strange romantic ideas in your head.” And that was the beginning of a long discussion on the nature of love. When we had savoured the last drop of the wine and were ready to crawl into the tent, we had moved away from our opposite points of view and found some middle ground. We agreed that in order for a relationship to be meaningful both the physical and spiritual dimensions would have to be present. We learned something important from each other. As for me, I resolved to arrange a rendezvous with Biene at the first opportunity that would offer itself in the near future. But you never know to start with, how things turn out in the end.

Storm Clouds on the Horizon

In the meantime Biene had an exciting vacation with her family in Bavaria, often went paddling on Lake Ammer with her parents’ folding boat. She and her twin brother Walter almost drowned, when their boat capsized in a violent storm. They traveled to the German Alps and even took a gondola ride up to the Zugspitze, which is with an altitude of 3000 m the highest mountain in Germany. She returned home filled with wonderful memories. There was so much to tell, but the flow of letters began to ebb. The intervals between them began to widen into two-week gaps. Something must have happened that made me worry. Had my letters lost its fervour? Were the thoughts expressed too philosophical, self-centred, out of touch with reality? I could not tell.

Biene and her father on the Zugspitze 1963

Biene and her father on the Zugspitze 1963

Fall was a beautiful time in Koblenz. The park at the German Corner, located at the confluence the Rivers Moselle and Rhine, was ablaze with brilliant red, yellow and orange colours. There I often sat on a park bench alone away from the noisy inner city and read about the fall and utter destruction of Rome’s rival Carthage in Mommsen’s History of Rome. I was fascinated to discover that the cause of the three Punic wars was the same as of most other conflicts in the history of mankind, namely the desire for economic power and growth at the expense of some other country. I gained important insights into the ways in which imperialistic expansions were intertwined with a general decay of the moral fibre of a nation. I saw so many parallels in our modern world that I contemplated writing a novella on the mighty city on the North African shore, if I could only add and weave in some personal experiences to the story to make it more interesting. These experiences were coming my way faster than expected, and in the end I got more than I had bargained for. Indeed I would have preferred not to write the novella in exchange for the pleasant status quo.

Deutsches Eck in Koblenz, Germany

Deutsches Eck in Koblenz, Germany – Photo Credit: wikipedia.org

I had just settled into the routine of orderly army life with its duties of monthly night watches, sessions of theoretical and practical instructions and the occasional maneuvers, which I enjoyed more and more, because they took place in the great outdoors away from the stuffy barracks in the city. Then a command from the newly formed signal corps at Maxhof in Bavaria went out to all army divisions to provide two truck drivers each. Our crafty commanding officer in Koblenz selected private Gauke and me for the transfer effective October 1st, even though we had no driver’s license for those colossal Mercedes communications trucks. Obviously, he wanted to keep his precious truck drivers for himself. We were told that we would receive professional training and certification that could be very useful later on, when we returned to civilian life. However, it was immediately clear to my that with the transfer to Maxhof, I would lose out on the chance of becoming part of the upcoming officer’s training program. It would upon successful completion raise me to the rank of a lieutenant of the reserve with a much higher pay-out at the end of my two-year term. The wheels had been set in motion. I had no recourse to an appeal process. The decision was final. I was devastated.

58

Peter in a contemplative mood at home in Watzenborn-Steinberg

 

One Misfortune Never Comes Alone

I was still reeling under the blow of the unexpected military transfer to Maxhof, Bavaria, when another one hit me like a bolt out of the blue. Biene wrote that she had met a young Dutch man by the name of Henk, to whom she was now engaged. They were dreaming about their own home at the edge of a forest near the city of Arnhem and were planning to get married. The news nearly tore me apart, all the more as Biene described our relationship as merely a nice correspondence between friends. Although my emotions were running high, I immediately responded to her letter and thanked her for being honest. It was a miracle of sort that I agreed to keep writing her. That promise was so terribly out of character, so contrary to what my pride and sense of honour would have allowed me to do that there was only one explanation. I was still in love with her.

Biene on Vacation at Lake Ammer 1963

Biene on Vacation at Lake Ammer 1963

Sleepless nights followed. I held endless conversations with myself. At times I would place the entire blame on my shoulders. Dieter was perhaps right, when he said that a kiss is more powerful than words, passion stronger than tender sentiments expressed merely in letters. Then the American folk song ‘On Top of Old Smokey’ was going through my mind during those agonizing hours of wakefulness. The apparent truth of the line ‘I lost my true lover for courting too slow’ hit me especially hard. Suddenly the pendulum swung into the opposite direction. For a short while, I found relief by putting the blame on Biene. ‘Surely, one does not get engaged overnight’, I argued. ‘Why didn’t she write me sooner? Why did she allow the correspondence to drag on so long? What about her other pen pals, the young man from Morocco for example? Does she want to keep all her options open? Is she like a bee, as her name implies, flying in a kind of romantic dance from flower to flower to see where she would find the sweetest nectar?’ Having experienced both ends of the emotional spectrum, I finally settled for a more balanced view. The wildly swinging pendulum was coming to rest in the middle. Concern for Biene pushed anger and jealousy aside; she might have responded to the lure of marital bliss too quickly. These internal monologues went on and on through several nights, at the end of which I was completely exhausted. But I had calmed down enough to finish my letter to Biene with the words, “Just one thing you must promise me. If you perceive a danger for your happiness in that you cannot distinguish between true friendship and love between a man and a woman or if your future husband does not like our correspondence, then have the courage to say goodbye. For I do not want to destroy your happiness.”

Frauenkirche, Munich, Bavaria - Photo Credit: wikipedia.org

Frauenkirche, Munich, Bavaria – Photo Credit: wikipedia.org

With my Phillips tape recorder in one hand and a heavy suitcase in the other, train tickets and army papers in my wallet, I stepped on the Intercity train to Munich. Private Gauke, whose first name I no longer recall, accompanied me to our destination. We were both in uniform, as this was a requirement when traveling on official assignments. While the high-speed electric train was rushing toward the Bavarian capital, Gauke tried to cheer me up by pointing out all the advantages of the prestigious truck driver’s license later in civilian life. But he succeeded only partly in pulling me out of my morose taciturn shell. He did not yet know about the other problem, for which the possession of a driver’s license offered no solution. In Munich we had to catch a local train to Starnberg. Thousands of passengers were milling about the main station. At the crowded automated billboard announcing arrival and departure times I spotted the wrinkled face of my former scout leader, Günther von A. He was as surprised to see me, as I was to see him. What were the chances of this occurring? Once in a million or less. And what were the chances of still being in love with Biene? The question made me think about fate and destiny, a topic that philosophers and theologians great and small have been grappling with for centuries, a can of worms, which I decided in my present state of mind to leave unopened.

Army Heaven

Lake Starnberg, Bavaria - Photo Credit: bavaria.by

Lake Starnberg, Bavaria – Photo Credit: bavaria.by

Maxhof, a modern army training centre, was a pleasant surprise to me. In contrast to the drab sameness of the 19th century design of the Falckenstein barracks, Maxhof impressed me with its pleasant appearance. It had more the looks of a hypermodern youth hostel than of a military building complex. Trees and ornamental shrubs surrounded the sleeping quarters, the cafeteria, and the administration building. There were even flowerbeds at the main entrance. Best of all was the room, where we were going to sleep. With its comfortable beds, its large windows with a view from the park-like setting all the way up to the nearby mountains, its brightly painted walls, a spacious desk for Gauke and me, all I needed was Mother’s fancy tablecloth, a vase with some pretty fall flowers to have the illusion of being at home.

Maxhof with Lake Starnberg in the background

Maxhof with Lake Starnberg in the background

Gauke and I reported for duty the following morning at the main building. There was a momentary kafuffle over us two soldiers from Koblenz. Apparently the officer in charge of the transfer was supposed to have provided certified truck drivers. The officer behind the counter was very much upset over being cheated out of two valuable experienced drivers. But in the end he assigned us to a driving instructor and informed us to show up for our lessons the very next morning. Gauke and I could hardly show restraint in our ecstatic joy over this most fortunate turn of events. Apart from our first positive impressions about the physical surroundings we noticed with glee that there were no mandatory line-ups, no check-ups of room, closet, and clothes; this was army heaven.

Massive Mercedes truck - the type we were trained on

Massive Mercedes truck – the type we were trained on

After two weeks of enjoyable driving lessons on the big Mercedes trucks, the compass needle of my inner life was no longer spinning out of control. More than three weeks had passed by now. Biene had not yet responded to my letter and I thought that if our correspondence was to end it should at least end on a good note. So I wrote,” … A relationship, no matter how you look at it, which had so beautifully and lovingly developed, is not the kind that we just break off. Something of that, which we shared, will remain open and will eat forever at our hearts. Therefore, I would like to amiably end, what we have so amiably started. Let us if not in reality then at least symbolically shake hands and without any bitter feelings part from each other. I am thankful for all the dear letters and  I tell you once more that you have given me much during the time of inner trouble and distress. Please do not turn down my last request, dear Biene, and write to me just one more time. One last sign from you, and I will be content…”

But there was no sign, and I was not content.

Destruction of Ancient Carthage

A Metaphor for Emotional Turmoil

There was enough explosive emotional energy bottled up inside me. Having no one to write to, I had to return to the unfinished novella to release it. At the park bench near the German Corner in Koblenz I had most of its content on Carthage written up in my notebook. The personal experiences making the story come alive were missing though. Now they were burning with a searing fire in my heart. My fingers were itching to commit them to paper.

Ancient Carhtage - Image Credit: ancient.eu

Ancient Carthage – Image Credit: ancient.eu

Our driving lessons had unexpectedly ended. We were told that the instructor was needed elsewhere and we would start over together with the next batch of soldiers coming in to render the course more efficient. Gauke and I were delegated to work  in the office. The assignment was to catalog the total electronic equipment with all its individual parts down to the last nut and bolt. Thus, we created a giant database for the signal corps stationed at Maxhof. I dictated the names and parts numbers and Gauke typed. One can hardly imagine anything more boring than this. But there was one advantage. We only worked during regular office hours, and we were done with our daily chores of number crunching by 4:30 p.m.

69

Peter playing with the neighbor’s dog (1963)

So I had more time than ever before to write in the semi-private room of our Maxhof residence. The historical sections of the novella heavily leaned on Mommsen’s historical work ‘History of Rome’ and to the best of my knowledge they described the power politics and Machiavellian schemes of Rome very accurately. My heart, which had lost two girlfriends within the span of less than six months, was the fertile breeding ground for the stuff that good writing feeds on. I transformed my former pen pal Margret, into Bersika, the daughter of a wealthy member of the Peace Party of Carthage to make the final dramatic encounter in the burning capital of the Carthaginians more believable. On the other hand, Claudia (Biene) and her twin brother received a more realistic description reflecting our first encounter at Lake Baldeney and the ensuing correspondence, which had ended so painfully. On the Palatine Hill in Rome Publius (Peter) and his friend became acquainted with an old sage, who introduced the young men to the philosophical centre piece of the novel, which reflected my ideas, in part burrowed from Democritus, on God and His creation and how He lives within it in a mysterious interplay between mind and matter. The destruction of Carthage, the fierce house to house street fighting, the slaughter of tens of thousands of civilians, the senseless resistance of the dictatorial ruling party against the almighty Roman war machine, the burning houses, the stench of unburied corpses provided the background for the final scene symbolizing my chaotic troublesome state of mind.

Crest of the Signal Corps

Crest of the Signal Corps

When I had penned the last line, I felt an eerie calm come over me. For a while I sat at my desk without a thought, without a feeling; it seemed that my inner being had been poured out into the thick writing book before me. Private Gauke entered the room. He had been teasing me about my writing craze for the past couple of weeks and had noticed with genuine concern how I was withdrawing more and more into my crusty shell. He said, “Peter, it is about time that you get off your chair. I just discovered a cozy pub in Feldafing. Let’s go and have a drink of that great Bavarian beer.” Gauke was a fine fellow. I gladly came along. The novella was finished.

New Year’s Eve Party

Chief Günther Kegler provides some much needed distraction

The stupendous outpour of pent-up emotions alleviated the anger and the pain. I began to enjoy the almost daily outings with my friend Gauke. But in spite of the pleasant distractions the visits to the pubs provided by the excellent beer, wholesome food, Bavarian music in the background, and the pretty waitresses in their traditional dirndls, I could not push the troubling spectre of my lost love out of my mind. I had asked her for a farewell letter or card to end amiably what had started amiably. Two months had passed. The silence became unbearable. So against my own conviction like a moth attracted to the flame of a burning candle I wrote her another letter from home before Christmas, in which I reiterated how much I appreciated her supportive letters during the hard days of my basic training, Then all of a sudden as if triggered by the emotionally cry of despair on the last pages of my novella, I let the proverbial cat out of the bag, “… Add to that the devastating fantasy, which produced during our correspondence the strangest imaginary flowers. At times I saw you – please don’t be alarmed, dear Biene – in my arms, then at my side travel to Canada, study with me in Marburg or Berlin, and in the more distant, but all the more brighter future spend a life with you through joy and sorrow. All these fantasies essentially destroyed our relationship…”

Biene and Mother ß Christmas 1963

Biene (Gertrud) and her mother  Elisabeth Panknin – Christmas 1963

Again I urged her to reply, even if she had no desire to write, just one more time. Before I sealed the envelope, I inserted a short story, which I had especially written for her. I hoped that it would in allegorical terms evoke the tender feelings we had once felt for one another. I did not mention the novella, which as an unedited rough copy I did not yet consider complete. Within three days and just in time for Christmas a miracle occurred. The letter that I no longer expected, but had hoped for arrived. And what it contained surpassed all my expectations. Instead of a farewell message, she wrote that my story about little Irwin had moved her to tears, but more importantly that she had once entertained similar thoughts and dreamed similar dreams about the two of us living a life time together. Even though she too had also allowed her fantasy to go too far and expressed doubts about the fickle nature of dreams, which often do not bring the fulfillment one had longed for.  She placed her trust in the mysterious force called Fate that one day things would work out between the two of us. The way she was wording her sentences I sensed that she had gone through some troublesome times during that long period of silence in our correspondence. Some way or another the anguish was connected to her fiancé Henk, whose father had suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. Nevertheless the news that our friendship at least at the correspondence level had been restored gave me a big boost.

Helga Kegler - daughter of General Gerhard Kegler

Helga Kegler – daughter of General Gerhard Kegler

I participated eagerly in the preparations for the New Year’s family party planned by the ‘chief’ of the Kegler clan, Uncle Günther. In the large vestibule of the basement suite we set up a bar, which we dubbed the Flamingo Bar. The good uncle had it well stocked with choice wine and beer as well as nonalcoholic drinks for this festive occasion. We decorated the wall with pictures, photos and old movie posters. I even contributed my painting of the 21st century space woman now looking down on a happy party crowd. Happy and diverse indeed was the crowd ringing in the New Year, young and old celebrating in perfect harmony, Uncle Günther, Aunt Lucie, Mother and Aunt Mieze, Adolf, Erika, my cousins Helga and Jutta, two young ladies, the daughters of a pastor’s couple, whose names I can no longer recall, and my humble self. My tape recorder provided the background music for the party, and whenever there was a call for a dance I cranked up the volume and switched the music to a livelier beat.

From left to right: Helga, Uncle Günther, and my sister Eka (Lavana)

From left to right: Helga, Uncle Günther, and my sister Eka (Lavana)

At midnight we raised and clinked our champagne glasses wishing each other a Happy New Year. With Biene’s letter tucked away in my suit pocket I looked with confidence into the future. I felt that 1964 was going to be a great year for me. However, if I had read Goethe’s autobiographical novel ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ and understood how I, like Werther, was also entangled in a love triangle, I would have been less optimistic. The frayed thread on which our love was hanging was ready to snap any time. Whether I would have shot a bullet through my brain on a night watch in the army, if Biene had married Henk, was doubtful. Eventually I would have found and married another girl. But the oppressive awareness of having lost my first love would have lingered on my consciousness for the rest of my life.

Jutta Kegler - Youngest daughter of General Gerhard Kegler

Jutta Kegler – Youngest daughter of General Gerhard Kegler

 

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