The Scout Years
In Scouting, a boy is encouraged to educate himself instead of being instructed. Robert Powell
How I became a scout, I can no long remember. Perhaps a friend or a classmate introduced me to the Union of European Scouts (BEP), a new organization that sprang up in many towns in the late 1950’s. In an era when European countries still lived in fear, distrust, even hatred for each other, the idea of a European community without borders appeared to be absurd. However, it was the key mission statement of this fledgling movement to bring young people of Western Europe together. They were not burdened by the weight of old political prejudices by former generations.
My experiences as a scout did much to enrich my life with lasting effects and nurtured qualities that became rewarding and useful later on in my adult years. Among those qualities were the ability to work in teams, the development of leadership skills, self-reliance, the love of the outdoors in general and the joy of camping in particular, the indescribable pleasure of singing pirate and lansquenet songs, shanties and spirituals, hearty tunes of adventures in distant lands in unison with like-minded boys, contentedness with simple things in life, a certain degree of frugality with food and clothes, just to name a few.
The city of Wesel had generously made the citadel available to youth groups and other non-profit organizations for their meetings and activities. The citadel is the only intact fortification left in all of Westphalia. Its history goes back to the Napoleonic era and even much earlier, when the French were in control of the Lower Rhine region. The citadel was the massive and robust building where we gathered. The solid interior walls emanated the kind of imagery befitting the stalwart character of scouts in their late teens: strength and dependability. Here we learned under the capable leadership of Günther Alvensleben with the misleading nickname Little Chicken (Hühnchen in German) the rudiments of scouting, from tying knots, writing down our favorite camp songs in notebooks to orienteering with map and compass.
My friend Hans and I were chosen to take on a leadership role in the rapidly expanding local chapter. To become a leader we had to be acquainted with the history of the scout movement and its founder Lord Baden-Powell. We also had to demonstrate competence in a variety of skills related to scouting. Since we had no books, we created our own using small notebooks complete with hand-drawn diagrams and illustrations. After passing an oral test, we had our entries in the booklets signed and provided with the official rubber stamp of Tribe Zoska, to which we belonged. Thus, after a period of intense training, I became leader of a clan consisting of about a dozen boys in their early teens. For the first time in my life I felt responsible for the welfare and safety of others. In the beginning I had become a member of the local scout chapter merely to find enjoyment in their exciting outdoor program. But now I had moved away from a mere egocentric perspective and began to care and feel an obligation towards my fellow scouts in the clan. I also started to understand the truism in the saying ‘By helping others, you help yourself’.
Talents for teaching, organizing activities, bringing about order in chaotic situations, abilities hitherto unknown to me were slumbering and waiting to be awakened. All these hidden capabilities were being developed while learning to be a good leader. What I did not realize at the time was that I also started to bring my own house in order. Gradually I became acutely aware that I had a tendency to lose myself in a dream world indulging in the entire gamut of fantasy-driven emotions. I began to suspect that avoidance of the requirements and obligations of every day living made me dwell so much in my disconnected inner world. My active involvement as leader of a clan brought fresh air into my life, encouraged me to focus on planning, organizing, and executing projects and camp-outs. In short I began to steer away from my unproductive self-centeredness.
Bike Ride to Xanten and Kleve
Our weekly gatherings in the citadel provided opportunities for learning sessions, singing of scout-oriented hiking songs and preparing our favorite monthly weekend excursions on bicycles. These sessions were cheerful and noisy. The singing, which my new friend Klaus accompanied with his guitar, was especially enjoyable. Our voices reverberated powerfully from the ancient stonewalls in the large assembly hall. But nothing would surpass the anticipation and enthusiasm for the actual camp life in the nearby forests. Before we ventured out into the wilds, we biked to Kleve, a town on the other side of the River Rhine near the Dutch border. The road, a biker’s dream, so level that one would have to search hard to find even a hillock, passes by the town of Xanten and Kalkar before ending at Kleve, where a large youth hostel was located. Even though the total distance from Wesel was only 50 km, we spent all day getting there.
There was so much to see, especially in the archeological park of Xanten. Here the Roman legions had their headquarters. The centerpiece of the Roman town was the amphitheater, which used to be the focal point for entertainment in every city of the Roman Empire. When we glanced at the circular arena, we conjured up in our youthful imagination gory scenes of Germanic barbarians struggling against wild beasts, gladiator fights, and the bloodthirsty spectators yelling and screaming from the tiered rows of benches. When we arrived at the amphitheater, there were very few other visitors, no park warden and entrance fees to be paid. Today Xanten attracts an incredible crowd of over a million tourists a year. Late in the evening we rolled into the large yard of the Kleve youth hostel, single file on our bikes, very proud in our black scout uniforms decorated with badges, but also very tired after so much sightseeing on the way.
The man in charge of the hostel looked annoyed, when he saw a bunch of boys dropping in so late in the day to disturb his peace and quiet. He immediately singled me out with his keen eyes as the leader and pounced on me giving me a severe dressing down for failing to give him advance notice of our arrival. When I meekly showed him the youth hostel membership card that Hühnchen had given me with the prospect of easy access to food and lodging, he exploded in anger and with his yelling and screaming almost scared me out of my wits. I learned from his verbal attacks that using somebody else’s ID is forbidden. He made me feel so guilty that all I could do was to remain silent. At last he ended his abusive tirade, which included scornful remarks about my shabby appearance. Having thoroughly blown his stack, he felt much better and to our relief calmed down, even managed to give us a smile. He instructed me to inform my ignorant boss not to hand over his membership card to others and, with a hint of reconciliation, asked us to come in and register for the night.
Dangerous Play with Ammunition
The Siegfried Line (Westwall) was a German defense system covering a distance of 630 km with over 18,000 bunkers, tunnels and tank traps, the so-called dragon’s teeth. It started in Kleve on the border with the Netherlands along the western border and went as far south as the town of Weil am Rhein on the border with Switzerland. Touted by the Nazi propaganda as a unbreachable bulwark, the Siegfried Line was only able to delay the Allied advance to the center of Germany for a very short time in early 1945.
On our way home taking another route away from the main highway we discovered deep in the forest of the Reichswald a number of bunkers from that famous last line of defense. Their walls and ceiling were 1.5 meters thick and had once offered room for a dozen soldiers each. This would be an ideal shelter and hideout for my clan, I thought. Far from the major traffic routes we would be shielded from curious eyes. There in the densest part of the forest we selected the least damaged bunker that would serve as a permanent base for our outdoor activities. I instantly realized the advantage of a bunker over a tipi. The communal tent would have to be laboriously set up. Young trees would have to be cut to provide the poles for the tipi that was barely large enough to accommodate the clan. Of course, enthusiasm among the scouts was high. Attendance went up and new members showed up for our weekly sessions in the citadel. After two or three weekend trips to our fortress, we had transformed the austere looking concrete dwelling into a cozy shelter complete with beds, table and chairs all made of dead wood that we had picked up from the forest floor. We even had turned a barrel into a primitive stove, which provided warmth during the chilly nights of the approaching fall season.
Fifteen years after the war great dangers were still lurking in this section of the Reichswald. Heavy fighting must have taken place around our bunker. For we found unexploded shells, so-called duds on the forest floor. One young scout stumbled over one of these rocket-shaped shells and tossed it against the concrete wall. I guess in his total ignorance of the potentially fatal consequences he expected it to blow up like a giant firecracker. Fortunately for us it did not go off. When I had somewhat recovered from the initial shock, I blew the whistle as a signal to the scouts to assemble around me. Then pointing to the shell I gave them a stern lecture on the danger to life and limb and ordered them not to touch any of these explosive devices. As punishment for the reckless boy I ordered that they should throw a rope over a sturdy tree branch and attach to it a stick, on which the delinquent would have to sit. In a somber, authoritative voice I pronounced the verdict. The boy shall be pulled up three meters above the ground, where he will have time to reflect on his reckless behavior and serve as a warning to all others who might be tempted to imitate his foolish act. While I maintained a straight face, the entire clan including the culprit took the whole proceedings as excitement and fun. With shouts of hooray they pulled at the rope to raise the boy to the desired height. There he was swinging back and forth until his release from his lofty prison.
Had I learned my very own lesson about safety regarding WWII projectiles? Looking back, I would say no. For on the day we were breaking camp, I secretly wrapped one of the best looking shells in a towel, placed it deep inside my luggage bag and took it home. There it stood for a while like a trophy in my room on the windowsill. With a new coat of red paint it looked shiny and new and attracted the attention of my visiting friends. It was a very fitting display at a time, when the Russians were launching with great fanfare the first man-made satellites, their famous Sputniks.
On the next bike trip to our bunker we were in for a great disappointment. Someone had discovered our weekend base and reported it to the police as a potential hideout for fugitives from the law. Thus, being alerted, they began patrolling the access roads to the Reichswald. How surprised were they when instead of nabbing a gang of criminals they caught a bunch of teenage boys dressed in neat scout uniforms. Unlike the irate youth hostel man the officer told us in a calm, professional manner how dangerous it was to camp out here with all those explosive devices lying all over the forest floor. He also gave us a scare when he recorded all our names and addresses with a warning that he would notify our parents and that there would be possible fines for trespassing. Luckily, the letters never came. But the encounter with the police made us go to safer wooded areas and sleep again in our tipi. As for me the leader of the clan, I now realized that even though I had taken vigorous measures to alert the scouts to the dangers of the shells I should have avoided the bunkers in the first place. In retrospect it was like divine intervention that the police had put a sudden stop to our adventurous trips to the Siegfried Line. That very same weekend I took the ‘rocket’ and threw it in the garbage can. For all I know it still rests somewhere in the Wesel garbage dump.
Travels to Berlin (1959), Spain (1960) and Yugoslavia (1961)
The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.
During my Easter holidays Mr. and Mrs. Peter L., who had recently escaped from the German Democratic Republic (GDR), invited me to come and visit them in West Berlin. Whether they were distant relatives or just friends of the family, I can no longer tell with certainty. But after their escape from the Eastern Zone, as the GDR was called, they had often visited us in Wesel. In those days West Berlin was geographically isolated from West Germany. It was an exclave surrounded by communist East Germany. Also a fence stretching over a thousand kilometers following the inner German border complete with thousands of observation towers prevented the mass migration from the east. Many people died in their attempt to flee from their ‘socialist paradise’.
The rapid train I had taken from Cologne stopped at the border where travelers had to show their passports to cross the Iron Curtain to go from one part of Germany through another part of Germany to Berlin. This was the only stop for the train. After it had been given the green light, it sped through all the major railway stations past many towns as if trying to shield us from the ugly sights of a country that still lay in ruins so many years after the war. At the border station near West Berlin another even more thorough inspection was being made that included the search for fugitives who might have jumped in transit onto the train. Border guards were using specially trained dogs to sniff out any potential escapees clinging to the train’s undercarriages in their desperate attempt to get to freedom. Finally the train was given clearance and allowed to cross into West Berlin. I breathed a sigh of relief, when our train rumbled into the main station, where Peter L. was waiting for me at the platform.
On the very next day Peter took me on a whirlwind sightseeing tour through the divided city that was still interconnected by subway, streetcar and roads. Thus, Berlin was the only remaining escape route for thousands of refugees, until the building of the infamous wall stopped the ever-increasing flow in 1961. Among the sights were the illustrious Brandenburg Gate, which stood right behind the border crossing in East Berlin, and the Soviet War memorial commemorating the 80,000 Russian soldiers who died in April and May 1945 in the Battle of Berlin. Then we went to see the Congress Hall, which on account of its shell-like shape the Berliners irreverently call the Pregnant Oyster. Here Bill Haley and his rock and roll band caused an uproar, when he whipped the mob of young fans into such a frenzy that they demolished their seats normally reserved for more conservative concert goers.
We also looked at the Reichstag building, which was almost completely destroyed during WWII and now was being reconstructed. We were not much impressed by the Stalin Boulevard.
With its new box-like massive apartment buildings, built Soviet style, the structures were completely out of tune with modern architecture, but were designed to serve as a showpiece of the fledgling East German capital. There were so many impressions that at the end of the day I could no longer absorb any more sights. In today’s language I began to suffer from a severe case of information overload.
So I was glad when Peter suggested we should go and find a place to eat. As a former citizen of the GDR he knew that the basic necessities of life, such as food, were heavily subsidized by the socialist state. As it was close to dinnertime, he took me to the great student-dining hall of the Humboldt University in East Berlin. There we feasted with a good appetite on an excellent meal complete with roast beef, fresh veggies, beer and dessert for the extremely low price of two east marks. Considering the depressed value of the currency often trading at less than one tenth of the value of the West German mark, we had our fill for the measly amount of 20 pennies, for about a Canadian nickel. Even though I had learned early to look out for a bargain, it did not feel right to take advantage of a state supported facility that was not based on profit but on service to the people. Later on I found out that the West German government in Bonn heavily subsidized West Berlin to help with housing and food expenses. Even luxury items, such as coffee, cigarettes and liquor were selling so cheaply that even I could buy half a dozen bottles of fruit wine with my pocket-money for as little as six marks. West Berlin had become a showcase for the entire world, a giant billboard of glamour and glitter, the gateway to the ‘Golden West’. Refugees from East Germany found out upon their arrival the harsh realities of life in camps, old army barracks, and other emergency shelters. The reader may wish to read more on this topic in my wife’s blog bieneklopp.com.
Visiting Relatives in East Berlin 1959
Chart I – II of the Klopp Family Tree
A few days after the sightseeing tour with Peter I went to see Aunt Alma in Berlin-Köpenick. In contrast to Aunt Meta’s tranquil life in Freiburg, the apartment in Köpenik was a beehive of activity of more than ten family members bustling about. The spacious living room could hardly accommodate the large family. On the one hand I felt like a guest of honor, being the youngest son of Alma’s youngest brother (my father). But I also had the impression that they all had come together to gawk at this rare specimen from West Germany. At age 77 Aunt Alma was still strong in spirit and body to run the household of her daughter Else and son-in-law Artur Thiess and their four daughters. Two were already married with children at the time of my visit.
Uncle Artur was actually my cousin. But I called him uncle, because he was almost forty years older than I. He was engineer. He had published a book on low frequency communication technology and was giving lectures at the Humboldt University as a specialist in the field of electronics. I took an instant liking to him, not because of my hobby akin to his academic work, but rather because of the fact that he was one cut above the rest of those adult family members, who had chauvinistically embraced the communist-socialist ideology. He impressed me with his sharp wit and disarming humor, with which he distanced himself from the political narrow-mindedness of his sons-in-law. Perhaps more importantly, he was for me a father figure radiating kindness and affection. No wonder I maintained contact by corresponding with him until his death in 1992. Apart from the one-sided political talk about the advantages of their peace-loving society versus the corrupt war-mongering system of western capitalism, to which I had nothing to add, confirm or oppose, it was a very enjoyable time spent in a family so wonderfully knit together. One thing of great interest to me was the stereoscopic viewer, in which Uncle Artur had inserted glass plates each containing two b/w images that he had taken with his special 3d camera. The quality of these images was absolutely stunning. For the first time in my life I got a glimpse of the land, where I was born. Artur had taken many pictures on his various visits to Father and Mother’s place at Gutfelde (Zlotniki). When I looked at them, it was like traveling back to a time, when my parents were happy and managed together the three large estates entrusted to them.
In the afternoon Aunt Alma took me to the cottage of her elder sister in the garden district of Berlin-Köpenick. Aunt Jula was born as the second child to Friedrich and Emma Klopp in 1877. She had lived a colorful life spending her teenage and early adult years in Vienna as student and artist. She struck it rich by marrying a wealthy mining director. Later on she became the proud owner and manager of a hotel, but lost it all again during the turbulent inflation years after WWI. In a deal that went bad she took out a mortgage on her property to help out her brother Hermann, a classical rags-to-riches story in reverse.
This feisty old lady must have absorbed the whole gamut of communist ideology and firmly believed in it. For she presented her distorted views with so much passion that only unwavering conviction can deliver. In her strident tirades against capitalism she did not spare the West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, a Nazi in disguise in her strong opinion, who was planning to wage a revisionist war against her peace-loving republic.
She served stale coffee and moldy cake that someone may have brought to her humble abode a few weeks earlier. Aunt Alma signaled to me not to eat it and drop it quietly under the table. To my great relief she soon announced to her sister that it was time for her to leave and prepare supper for her folks at home. I was a bit disappointed with the visit to Father’s eldest living sister. However, I did not feel personally attacked by my aunt. Being an apolitical teenager, I had already forgotten this unpleasant episode upon my return to West Berlin.
España, here we come (1960)
When you travel, travel young. Your mind is still open to perceive the world in an unbiased way. It will stay a crack open, when you get older. You retain your precious memories much better and you are able and willing to undergo hardships, seek and find solutions in emergencies without giving up your dreams. When traveling with my friend and scout companion Klaus F. to Spain, I kept a journal of our journey, in which we two on alternate days made entries to describe our daily experiences.
We described them with humor and wit often exaggerating each other’s foibles in a good-natured fashion. If a particular attack on one’s ego turned out to be a bit too caustic, there was always an opportunity for rebuttal and counterattack the very next day. We traveled on the cheap by hitchhiking through Germany, Switzerland and Southern France all the way to the Spanish border, where we bought train passes, because hitchhiking was next to impossible on the nearly deserted country roads. The journal, which is still in my possession, was my first major writing attempt apart from the mandatory boring school assignments. By composing in vivid and expressive language descriptions of land and people, I discovered and developed a talent for creative writing that led me to dabble in the art of writing poetry, short story, even a novel in the following years. Klaus and I looked handsome and respectable in our khaki uniforms. With them we instilled confidence, especially in older drivers, who would not have otherwise given us a ride.
By train mostly in fourth-class compartments we made an exciting semi-circle tour of the northern half of Spain including Tarragona, Barcelona, Valencia, Toledo and Madrid. In the overcrowded train cars we were with body and soul close to the life of common people. Even though we did not understand a single word of Spanish, we felt the excitement of being part of it all. Wine was being passed around in bulging wineskins. The chatter of peasants talking about their crops and livestock was filling the smoky compartments. The train stopped at every minor railroad station, where women brought cages of chicken on board in the hope of selling them at the next major market place first thing in the morning. Somewhere from another compartment we heard singing (or was the sweet wine we had a little bit too much of?), which lulled us to sleep, as the train was rumbling through the night.
We spent a few days in the capital of Spain, where a visit to the national arts museum, the famous Prado, was on our agenda. There we stood in awe in front of Ruben’s illustrious oil paintings depicting voluptuous women in the buff with their blissful expressions on their faces. A bit shy about this entirely new experience it was not surprising that the erotic assault on our senses did not find any mention in the otherwise so open-minded journal.
The youth hostel in Madrid was modern and had more the appearance of a hotel than that of a simple shelter for young people on the go. We ate; no, we gorge ourselves with delicious food and wine from large pitchers placed generously on the dining tables in the cafeteria. Unfortunately, in this not overly sanitary environment Klaus picked up the stomach flu, which made him stay close to the nearest bathroom for the next couple of days. Our last train ride through the green, lush Basque countryside fed by the mist of the nearby Atlantic Ocean was not exactly a pleasure trip. We lost all interest in the scenic beauty, as my friend’s condition worsened by the hour. By the time we crossed the border into France, he was plagued by a high fever. He needed rest. So at the first opportunity I quickly set up our tent on a lakeshore and made Klaus crawl inside and lie on his air mattress to get if possible a little bit of sleep and recuperate from the ordeal of the train ride.
At a good distance from the tent I heard some yelling and screaming by frantic French women whose message was that we should leave the beach area. While Klaus was uttering incoherent sentences and I was tempted to ignore the warnings pretending not to understand any French, the good ladies shouted all the more loudly and more urgently with words I could not fail to miss lake, ocean, connected, tide, drown. Finally I comprehended that the tide was coming in and we would be under water within three hours or less. Now I had to convince Klaus that we were in grave danger and that we had to move our tent up away from the beach. After much coaxing he reluctantly came out, whereupon I pulled out all the pegs and dragged the tent and its content up to higher grounds. When perusing the old journal and rereading some of the other entries, I became aware how many perilous situations we had encountered on our otherwise fascinating road trip.
On a Two-Seater Scooter to Yugoslavia (1961)
One of my favorite tunes that I often played and still play on my harmonica was the popular scout song about the Adriatic Sea. So that was where Klaus and I were heading in the summer of 1961. Klaus had just passed his driver’s license test and had acquired a used scooter that was going to carry us via Austria and Northern Italy into Yugoslavia, which later on after the death of communist leader General Tito broke apart into half a dozen small countries due to strife and ethnic tension. Yugoslavia was just opening up its borders to attract tourists to their beautiful rugged coastline.
I remember very little about our journey to the southeastern part of Europe, partly because we kept no journal, but also because sitting on the back seat of a scooter does not offer as much opportunity for human contact as you would have traveling by car or train.
After a smooth ride on the newly built super-strada from Trieste to the border of this immense Balkan country, we were quite a bit disappointed by the shabby look of towns and villages we were passing through. Dilapidated houses in various stages of neglect and decay, communist slogans crudely written on house walls, the red star painted on any bare surface, dusty streets gave us the impressions as if we had traveled back in time. I cannot remember how far we traveled south along the Adriatic coast.
Our aim was to find a secluded beach at the rugged coastline away from this eerie state-dominated world. When we had finally found such a place, which would be overcrowded by sun seekers from Northern Europe today, we pitched our tent not more than 10 m from the crystal clear waters of the Adriatic Sea. We stayed there, until our food ran out, perhaps 2 or 3 days.
One event will stand out forever in my mind. On our way home we were held up for several days in a small Austrian town, where the old scooter had broken down with engine problems and needed a major repair job. It was the morning of August 13th. On our walk from the campground to the repair shop, we noticed that the usually tranquil, almost sleepy ambience had drastically changed overnight. An ominous gloom hung over this little Alpine resort. In front of shops, restaurants and cafés, on the market square, everywhere groups of people huddled together, some talking in subdued tones, others shouting angrily. Nobody paid any attention to us. It was eerie. Seeing so many people out on the street and not knowing what they were discussing instilled in us the uncanny feeling of imminent doom. Here and there we snatched up phrases from some of the more vociferous voices: There will be war. World War III. We are not going to fight another war. Austria is neutral. She will not be sucked into another conflict. What on earth had happened, we wondered, that made the people in this remote mountain town so excited?
As we found out later, troops in East Germany, in flagrant violation of East-West agreements, had sealed the border between East and West Berlin, shutting off the last remaining escape route. The soldiers had put up barbed wire fences during the night, and Berliners woke to find they were living in a divided city. The fences were just the first step in a sequence of desperate measures to stem the flow of thousands of refugees. Train services between the two sectors had been cut off, and road traffic across the border came to a sudden halt. In the weeks that followed, work crews replaced the temporary fence by building the infamous Berlin Wall. If Klaus and I had heard the news over the radio or read the headlines in the papers, the impact of this momentous event in modern history would not have been as powerful on us as our witnessing of the passionate reaction of common people to such blatant attack on human liberty.
School Visit of the Berlin Wall (1961)
It is not surprising that the Wesel High School amongst many other schools in North Rhine-Westphalia organized, one year before our graduation, a field trip to the capital of Germany to provide the students with first-hand experience of the wall that was going to separate Germans from Germans for almost 30 years. The day after our class had participated in a guided tour of a small section of the wall, the teacher in charge of our group granted me permission to go see my relatives in East Berlin. Mr. Zorn with the Latin nickname Ira was personally responsible for our safety. I often wondered how he could have allowed me to cross the border on my own with all the horror stories circulating in the daily newspapers about harassments, arrests, even disappearances of people from West Germany. At the checkpoint I had to list all my personal belongings. I had nothing to declare except my cheap DM 20.00 camera.
Again I enjoyed a most pleasant visit with Aunt Alma and her family. I cannot recall having announced my coming, but I must have sent them a card, because the whole family had assembled in the living room, when I arrived at their door. Uncle Artur with his biting sarcasm softened only by a disarming sense of humor was again, as on my previous visit, at his best poking fun at the political system in general, but especially at the wall very much to the chagrin of his party-loyal sons-in-law. He asked whether I knew why there were so many round holes in the wall. When I shook my head, he answered the question for me, “To let off the cabbage steam.” Now this riddle makes only sense in English if one knows that cabbage steam (Kohldampf) was a euphemism for ravenous hunger.
Now the sons-in-law had their turn to inform me from their perspective the raison d’être for the wall. It was built, so they insisted, to protect the citizens of the GDR from the attacks of the Western imperialists. Surely I must have seen the tank traps and the barbed wire in front of the wall facing west. They would serve as the first line of defense. If they were intended to keep people from leaving their socialist country, they would have been set up behind the wall. I remained unimpressed. Their fervor for the system showed me that they had pulled blindfolds over their eyes. They believed what they wanted to believe on the principle that you do not slap the hand that feeds you. With Uncle Artur`s help the family finally steered away from the political hogwash and focused on their guest.
Berlin Wall – Photo Credit: hstrclgrl.blogspot.ca
When I told them about my trips to Spain and Yugoslavia I indirectly conveyed to them the kind of freedom I enjoyed on the other side of the Wall. Also I enthusiastically talked about my career plans, namely to study high frequency technology. Uncle Artur, a leading scientist in a related field, a son-in-law already involved with electronics in the NVA (National People’s Army), Anje, the second youngest daughter also planning to become an electronics engineer, we all warmed up to this refreshingly apolitical topic with Aunt Alma cheerfully chiming in, “Wouldn’t it be nice, if Peter and Anje could study together in the exciting world of electronics!” With this comment Aunt Alma more concerned about good family relations than about politics made a profound statement about the tragedy of a divided Germany.
Paralyzed by Fear
On my way back to the youth hostel I sat apprehensively in the city train that used to run unimpededly across the border, but now would stop at a new terminal a short distance from the nearest checkpoint. I had hoped to immerse myself into the anonymity of a large commuter crowd. But there were only a few passengers and at each stop more and more people stepped off the train, until I was almost by myself. I looked at my watch. In less than half an hour I would be at the border checkpoint. I was just beginning to relax a little, when a young man stepped into my compartment. He sat down on the bench opposite mine, and recognizing me by my clothes as a Westerner immediately addressed me and compelled me to listen to his story. In a torrent of words he seemed to have broken the dam of pain, anger and frustration deep within his troubled mind. He apparently was totally oblivious to the fact that a spy might be listening in and denounce him to the authorities. The more boldly he spoke, the more fearfully I listened. Enthralled by his tale and unable to move from my seat, I felt like the wedding guest in Coleridge’s poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.
“He holds him with his glittering eye –
The wedding guest stood still,
And listened like a three-years’ child.
The mariner hath his will.”
“Last year,” the young began his story, “I was just finishing my apprenticeship program. Many friends and family members had already fled to the West. There were rumors that the inner city border would be closed soon. Every week many people, first by the hundreds, then by the thousands, escaped to start a new life in freedom. Then my girlfriend also left with her entire family just one week before they built this horrible wall.” The young man was now sobbing and screaming.
“To get a good start with a completed journeyman ticket, I promised her that I would follow her as soon as I had passed my exam. How stupid I was in trying to be responsible. Over a better job I lost my love. I will never see her again. Like all the others her family is on the black list. She would be arrested and thrown into prison, if she tried to see me.” He was venting his anger and frustration so loudly that everyone left on the train could hear, but pretended not to.
“We live in one giant prison here! No, we live like animals in a zoo. Westerners may come and gawk. I feel like a monkey behind bars, when I look from my apartment window over the wall into West Berlin, where people are free to move about as they please. My girlfriend is out there somewhere. She cannot even write a letter for fear to land me in prison as someone befriending a traitor of socialism. Oh, how I loathe that ugly word!”
Suddenly the apprentice grew very quiet. He had unburdened himself by boldly telling his story. I knew that there was nothing I could do for him. How to give hope, when there is no hope, or how to offer a comforting word, when you cannot find it within yourself? A comment no matter how carefully chosen would have added insult to injury. It was good that I remained silent and listened to what he had to say. But to find the right words to show compassion to my fellow human beings had never been my forte and remains a problem to this very day. Without saying another word, the young man got off the train on the second last station. Five more minutes and I would be at the terminal.
I sat there on my bench all alone. Indeed the entire train car was empty now. The emptiness began to oppress me. I felt ashamed of having been so afraid. The apprentice from East Berlin was not. I began to realize that there was another kind of freedom that came from within independent of where one happens to live. But the realization of the converse hit me even harder. One could live in the best society – if there ever was one – with all the rights and privileges enshrined in its constitution and still be a slave to fear.
Gathering Strength Through Inner Calm
Within the next thirty minutes I had to deal with fear all over again. The guard on duty at the border checkpoint carefully examined my passport and was just about ready to check off my name from the list, when he asked for my camera, which I had left behind at my relatives. Under normal circumstances this would not have been a big deal. I could have given the camera as a gift to my aunt, lost it on the train, or gotten rid of it in myriads of other ways. But this was not considered normal. The guard asked me to follow him into the drab border building, where he made me enter a small office room, and then quickly left closing the door behind him. Sitting on a chair opposite a giant empty desk I felt trapped. I had the feeling, as if I was being watched for my reaction through hidden cameras. But to my surprise, a great calm pervaded my inner being. I had done nothing wrong, I had simply visited my relatives with official permission, had left a camera behind, which was not a crime, but a trivial oversight. After a five-minute wait a security officer neither friendly nor unfriendly entered the room and said without making any reference to the missing camera that he was going to ask me a few questions. Even though he made me feel that the whole process was a mere formality, it appeared to me like a full-fledged interrogation. There was nothing to hide. To all his questions about myself, my family, relatives in East and West Germany I gave prompt answers without showing any signs of nervousness. After being convinced that I was not a spy, he finally turned his attention to the camera. If it had not been recorded on the inventory list, there would not have been any problems. But since it was, I would have to go back, pick up the camera at my aunt’s place and show it to him, before his shift would end be at midnight. I said that this would be quite impossible for me to do considering that the youth hostel closes its gate at 11 o’clock, that I would be locked out, and that the teacher would report me as a missing person. To make a long story short, the officer showed some human understanding for my case behind the mask of his stern face and let me go under the condition that I would have to return during his shift on the very next day. If I did not comply and did not show him the camera, my relatives would be in serious trouble. Whether there was a bit of humanity shining through or whether it was even the fear for having broken some rules, I could not say. Perhaps it was a mixture of both.
Chess, War Games and Birthday Parties
“When you see a good move, look for a better one”
Since Father had taught me to play chess, the royal game, as he called it, I took every opportunity to challenge my friends and classmates to hone my thinking skills. What I liked about it was that its outcome did not depend on luck. As a matter of fact, the game was for me like a metaphor for life containing all the ingredients necessary for success, such as planning ahead, anticipating good and bad situations, making decisions, keeping a solid grip on your emotions, distinguishing between a real mistake and a bait or trap, being gracious and humble in victory and defeat. The chess literature offers a plethora of anecdotes making fun of the foibles of human nature among chess players, especially among those suffering from an excessive amount of vainglory and self-importance. One character can be added to this list in the following true story.
Whether ancient languages, mathematics, physics were the subjects, or playing classical guitar or practically anything else Hans took on, he excelled and was superior to anyone around him during the nine years I happened to know him. Being so good in everything, he could afford to be humble. But when I had beaten him in chess three times in a row, his reaction was definitely not a modest, humble acknowledgement of defeat. He exploded, “I cannot understand how somebody as dumb as you can beat me in chess!” I was so content with my victory over the genius of the Wesel High School that I was not even insulted. Actually I took his disparaging words as a compliment.
The chessboard is like a miniature battlefield except that the opposing armies are at the beginning identical in position, numbers, and strength. But with trillions of possible moves for the average game of thirty moves and counter-moves, the scales begin to tip in favor of the player who has the superior strategy and avoids making mistakes. Somehow it was this combative game that inspired me to create my own war game for four players. From chess I learned that a good game should not depend on luck, on the roll of dice, or cards pulled randomly from a stack. In the final version that would take three to four hours to play, transport vessels and battle ships, tanks, trucks and soldiers had their own movement and attack properties, very much like pawns, bishops, knights, rooks, queen and king in the chess game. On a large piece of cardboard I had drawn a giant grid of 600 squares, on which I placed the four countries with their respective capitals around the inner sea in a perfectly symmetrical fashion. The successful occupation of a capital by any enemy piece would be equivalent to checkmate with one particular twist: all the lands, islands, the wealth of resources, war material and money would become immediate property of the player who captured the capital. Reflecting realistically the pattern of conquest throughout the history of mankind, the game had to include precious resources not available at the beginning within the borders of the four countries. Gold, iron, and other vital ores were located on the islands at the center of the ocean. To access any of the islands, the player would have to send his transport ships and occupy them. So war was inevitable. Each player depended on the resources to manufacture weapons or to turn them into money whose value fluctuated with the growth or decline of the island possessions. Add to this the player’s ability to form alliances, to make treaties, or arrange secret deals under the table, and we had an exciting game that was in its simplicity of rules and in complexity of scenarios years ahead of the commercial war games, such as ‘Rommel in the Desert’, ‘Eastern Front’, ‘The Battle of the Bulge’, and many others.
As for me, the inventor of the game, I had the distinct advantage of knowing how to deploy the army and navy units most effectively. So it was no surprise that for most games I emerged victorious either as an ally with a willing partner or daringly going forth all alone. One day I arrived a little late for our weekly war game at Rainer’s place. I immediately sensed that my three friends had come to some sort of agreement to form an alliance against me that was supposed to hold at least until I was defeated and eliminated from the game. I saw my suspicion confirmed, when the two players whose countries were adjacent to mine almost immediately prepared an attack with their ground troops at the two borders, while the third player was directing his naval fleet towards my favorite island amounting to a declaration of war. It was plain to see that Hans, Rainer and Klaus had prearranged this maneuver, because the ships were loaded to their maximum carrying capacity with tanks and trucks, while the borders remained virtually unprotected. Never before had I been in such a precarious scenario, in which I had been outnumbered three to one in a war against all three playing partners. Once the enemy forces would have occupied the islands and cheap production of more war material would have begun, the odds would even be worse. I had to act swiftly and decisively. I suspected that Hans had devised this Machiavellian scheme, since in the past he had always been at the losing end of the stick. Although he amassed his troops at my border, he merely engaged in minor skirmishes. He was obviously hoping that the major battles would be fought by his allies who near the end would be so worn-out that all he would have to do was to let his units undiminished in strength and number march into the poorly defended capitals and taste effortlessly the sweet glory of victory. To his dismay I concentrated most of my forces at his border and forced him into battle. While his allies were making good progress facing only token resistance at land and at sea, Hans suffered heavy losses against an experienced general and began to grumble against his allies. When I cheerfully encouraged Rainer to capture my undefended capital, he was convinced that he had been double-crossed. Although their unexpected success was due to my strategy, he called them traitors and hurled undeserved and unmentionable expletives at their faces. No longer able to control his temper he swept the playing pieces off the game board. Thus, I managed to escape the humiliation of certain defeat at the hands of my three friends and enjoyed the honor of the details of this particular game being discussed by my friends for a long time afterwards.
My Twentieth Birthday Celebration
In contrast to the war games my birthday parties with Hans, Klaus and Rainer took place in a rather amicable atmosphere. Mother, who liked my friends very much, was very supportive and ensured that we boys would have fun in celebrating my special day. She even contributed a bottle of fine Mosel wine. Since each guest also brought a bottle, Mother hid them and mad sure that only one bottle at a time would be on the living room table. She did this to alleviate my aunt’s concern over our overindulgence in alcoholic beverages. Before the actual party began, Mother and Aunt Mieze joined us for coffee and cake. All eyes were fixed on the main object of attraction, a visual feast, which made our mouth water in delightful anticipation. Mother had known my preference for the same cake during the past four years and had done it again for my 20th birthday. In the middle of the table she had placed the beloved Grillagetorte, which she had ordered from the local bakery and pastry shop. As soon as you mention this cake outside the Lower Rhineland, you encounter blank faces, because nobody seems to have heard of it. But for decades the Grillagetorte had been the center of many traditional coffee parties and the focus of family get-together and festive days. The cake is the product of high-level pastry making, a pastry composition made from half-frozen cream and meringue. This was heavenly cake for us. It had a fresh and crisp taste, crunchy and rich with its layers of cream and pastry, in short it was fit for the celebration of the first twenty years of my life. How much we enjoyed the feast can only be measured by what little was left over on our plates, which looked as if we had licked them clean. Mother and Aunt Mieze now withdrew to the kitchen so that the all-boys party could begin. We opened the first bottle of wine, filled our glasses to the rim and said cheers.
It was the tacit understanding that each guest would have to make a presentation worthy of the occasion. Rainer took on the role of a nonagenarian and delivered a comical review of his long life in a slapstick mix of prose and poetry, which, because I remember it so well, I will attempt to translate into English.
“Today I am celebrating my 90th birthday. I don’t feel that old yet, but I always say, what is gone, is gone. When I was born, there was nobody at home. On the table lay a note that said, ‘The milk is in the oven’. My mother’s maiden name was Federal Railway, for that name was written on our towels. We did not have a clock. When the chamber pot was full it was six o’clock in the morning. But when my father had gone boozing, the pot was running three hours fast. When I was six years old, I went to a special needs school. What my special needs were, I still don’t know to this day. The teacher was quite dumb and asked a lot of questions. One day he asked one student, ‘What do you know about the ancient Romans?’ The student answered correctly, ‘They are all dead.’ Then it was my turn, ‘What do you know about the ancient Wends (a Germanic tribe that sounds like walls in German)?’ I answered, ‘The plaster keeps falling off from them.’ He must have liked my answer, for he pressed his hand into my face. After I had completed my education, I started to work in a photo shop. There I could not develop, because my boss was constantly fixing me. One day a woman came into the shop and asked me to enlarge her family. I told her to kindly go to the man who had started it all. Each time I opened the cash register I got a cramp in my fingers. My boss did not like it and I was voluntarily forced to leave. Then I went on a long journey with my older brother. All the things he found, other people hadn’t even lost yet. One day we found a rope with a cow attached to it. The judge would not believe that we just wanted the rope and he gave us three years of free board and room. During that time I discovered my poetic talents and wrote a number of fine poems, one of which I would like to share with you now.
‘Ein Stinktier saß auf einer Bank und stank.
Es hatte keine Eile, es stank aus langer Weile.
Und als die Sonne war versunken,
da hat das Stinktier immer noch gestunken.’
Roughly translated into English, it reads like this:
‘A skunk sat on a bench and stank.
Away it wouldn’t scurry.
It wasn’t in a big hurry.
And when the sun had finally sunk
The skunk on the bench still had stunk.’
The translation provides a little bit the flavor of the story, which was very well received by the entire gang and cheered with another glass of wine from a new bottle of slightly inferior quality. Hans for his contribution played three pieces of classical guitar music composed by Sor, Carulli, and Albinoni. This was truly a feast for our ears, even for Rainer not accustomed to this musical genre. Hans, an absolute genius in so many fields of endeavor and autodidact in the fine art of playing the guitar, performed later in his university years on his simple six-string so expertly that a wealthy aficionado gave him as a gift the best classical guitar money could buy. What amazed then and still amazes me today is how a single instrument can sound as if there were three: one for the melody, another for the accompaniment, and a third for the rhythm provided by the tapping of the free remaining fingers on the hollow body of the guitar.
Mother brought another bottle with a happy smile as if she was reminiscing about the good, old days in Gutfelde, where liquor also flowed in abundance to serve as a social lubricant. Then Klaus, apparently ill prepared, suggested that we all produced a totally improvised opera with the lofty theme of an emperor going to the bathroom. By this time we had imbibed so much wine that we most enthusiastically accepted the challenge to do a mini-opera without an orchestra guiding us from scene to scene except for Hans’ intermittent strumming on the guitar. We sang solos, duets, every possible combination of roles and characters describing graphically in a down-to-earth language the emperor’s pains and troubles on the toilet seat. As it was also loaded with words that would never surface in a properly written school essay, I will spare the reader any further details of our otherwise artfully created opera.
After we had emptied the third bottle and our cheerfulness had turned into a cacophony of uninhibited song, fragments of classical music, and pop music from the radio, we transferred our party to my room at the opposite end of the apartment as not to disturb the elderly tenants below. With wine being consumed more in gulps than in sips, the level of our inebriation had reached its climax. We played a round of strip poker, in which for each lost game the player had to surrender one piece of clothing on his upper body and be marked with a black cross from a chunk of charcoal. Finally it was time for my friends to go home. I guided them down the two flights of the creaky wooden staircase making sure that nobody would fall over their wobbly legs and also would not make a racket that would incur the wrath of the landlady. She had once asked me rather innocently how I liked the new apartment. Not expecting any guile, I naively replied, “Oh, I love the new place very much.” Then in a threatening tone she retorted, “Then make sure that you will keep it!”
Summer Employment, School, and Ballroom Dancing
“Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.”
On a side street not too far from the post office and the Berlin Gate – not to be confused with the Brandenburg Gate of Germany’s capital – was a small electronics store. The owner was also a contractor who did most of the electrical wiring jobs for the apartment buildings, which were popping up like mushrooms in the early sixties. I was well known to the staff as I had often dropped in to ask for nonworking radios, which I would then cannibalize for parts. One day I felt especially courageous and asked if they had a job for me. To my great surprise the boss immediately hired me to work as an electrician’s helper on the various construction sites in Wesel. For the next week or so I had to punch holes into the concrete walls using hammer and chisel. For the first time in my life I began to see the connection between hard work and earning money. Being quite unaccustomed to this type of work at first, I often hit my hands and fingers leaving bluish and bloody reminders of my clumsiness at the end of the day. I worked under pressure, because the rectangular holes had to be ready for the certified electrician to wire the junction boxes. One day the foreman asked me to run over to the shop and ask the boss for construction holes, as they would be needed immediately. Very proud of having received such an important assignment, I ran as fast as I could to make the request for something that sounded quite mysterious to me. When the boss had received the message, he asked his employees with a twinkle in his eyes if they had seen any of those construction holes lying around.
“I believe that some of those holes are on the top shelf over the counter”, the lady of the sales department answered. The boss reached for them and placed them into my outstretched hands. In total disbelief I stared into my empty palms. Then I realized that I had been fooled, when he said, “Here are half a dozen of these holes. Now rush back to the construction sites and make sure you don’t lose any.” With this remark the entire staff could no longer restrain themselves and burst out into good-natured laughter indicating their prank had worked on the novice employee. For my part I was quite a bit annoyed that I had become the laughing stock, but took some consolation in the fact that every newcomer in this business had to undergo the same humiliating initiation.
At the end of one of my shifts a young aggressive salesman, who had been standing outside the store, cornered me on my way home and bombarded me with an endless stream of words extolling the advantages of becoming a member of the Bertelsmann Book Club. It represented one of the largest publishing houses in Germany, the young man asserted. Eager to get home and totally unaware of the financial consequences, I signed on the dotted line of the contract. As long as we lived in Wesel Aunt Mieze (Marie Kegler) paid the quarterly membership fee. She assumed correctly that if I was going to do a lot more reading as a result of this commitment, it would help improve my language skills not only in the remaining school years, but would hopefully create an appreciation of good literature.
In the meantime my boss had been informed by the safety board that it was illegal to have an electrician’s helper at my age working on a construction site. Apparently it had to do with laws governing safety and liability issues. However, he kept me in his employ at the store, even though there was absolutely nothing for me to do. For most of the day I hung around in the store, where pop music from the latest stereo equipment attracted a lot of potential customers, mostly women deeply touched by the sentimental love songs in vogue in those days. Occasionally I ran an errant for the people working in the repair and service department. During those days I discovered that working life is boring if one does not have anything meaningful to do.
One day I saw a short piece of solder on the floor. No cow was attached to it like in Rainer’s birthday speech. I put it in my pocket thinking it might come in handy when working on my electronic projects at home. A few minutes later one of the technicians, who had watched me pick it up, reported the incident to the boss. It is quite possible that my employer was truly outraged over my pilfering or perhaps it provided the perfect pretext to let me go from a place where I had outlived my usefulness. Whatever it was that made him fire me, something good came out of it. It created a moral sensitivity in me with regard to theft. No matter how small, petty, insignificant an item seems to be, whether it is piece of solder or a pen belonging to an office, in the realm of absolutes there are no gray areas. Theft is theft.
Yoga and Electronic Tinkering
I will insert in some posts a fact sheet to show what made the news headlines during the same time period in Canada.
In school I managed to stay within the shrinking number of senior high school students and even improved my grades, especially in physics, where I impressed my science teacher and fellow students with my electronics projects. I brought them for enrichment into the old-fashioned physics lab that was equipped with outdated apparatus. I once demonstrated the ability of capacitors to store electrical energy. Out of old radio parts I had assembled a rectifier that supplied the high voltage energy to charge several electrolytic capacitors wired in parallel. After the device had been unplugged for several minutes, I connected a light bulb to the terminals. To everyone’s amazement the bulb lit up brightly. More than once through similar experimental contributions my teacher entered an A+ in his grade book. These voltage charges were not without danger, especially if I had forgotten to discharge the capacitors or worse, if I had left the power on. Many a times I suffered a severe zap from 300 V DC, when I wasn’t careful enough working with live circuitry. At one incident I was stunned for several minutes by the current that had run through my body from one hand into the other.
My passion for this hobby was well-known to my classmates and the word got around very quickly that I had built a transmitter for wireless Morse code transmissions. When tinkering with a small electrical motor run by a battery I discovered that the stream of sparks on the commutator in turn produced a continuous noise across the entire AM band on the radio. With a long antenna connected via a Morse key to the running motor the electromagnetic signal spread over a distance of several hundred meters. Soon orders were coming in from my excited classmates for the Klopp transmitter, which I was selling at a tidy profit one unit at a time. Of course, it must have been very annoying for the people in the immediate neighborhood having to listen to the dah-di-dah’s instead of the news or music from their favorite radio stations. Even though my nickname Ede accompanied me for the remainder of the high school years and even past graduation as long as I stayed in contact with my closest friends, they also dubbed me the electro-boy. I took the name as a compliment. My friends did not use it to ridicule me, but rather in admiration for the expertise in a field that was supposed to become my professional career.
In Physical Education, where I trailed near the bottom of the class, it was an entirely different story. Because of my extreme growth rate during my teenage years I never felt quite at home in my own body. The old Latin saying ‘mens sana in corpore sano’ had no meaning for me. The call for a sound mind in a healthy body applied only to the fortunate ones whose body and mind grew up together in perfect synchrony. As for me I suffered under the lack of physical skills in the gym and outdoors on track and field days. I was actually afraid of having anything to do with the balance beam, the horizontal bar, parallel bars, the pommel horse, the rings and the vault and often refused to participate in all but the most basic exercises.
One day I had bought a book on yoga. The exercises were described in a simple and concise language. They were illustrated by a number of photos that appealed to me. I could practice them in the privacy of my little room at home. Thus, I had a chance to have control in a slow and deliberate manner over my body. Little by little I acquired a skill level that made me proud and allowed me to compensate for my shortcomings in P.E. Soon I was doing a head stand away from the wall, assumed the lotus position for as long as I wanted, even wrapped my knee over the neck and did many other exercises, which with their emphasis on extreme flexibility and coordination of all body parts were bordering on acrobatics rather than on the meditative nature of yoga. When I presented some of the more spectacular exercises to my class during P.E., I had to learn to live with yet another nickname. Even the gym teacher was so impressed with the display of my new-found skills. They were so much different from the prescribed curriculum for the upper grades that he and my peers called me the yoga-man.
A Failing Grade in English
Although I had developed quite early in my life a knack for languages, I was not doing very well in the English course. In spite of my efforts, especially in the last two senior grades, I failed to obtain a passing grade. To overcome my apparent deficiencies I even enrolled in an independent commercial correspondence course. I began to read English novels, exchanged notes and worked with friends, wrote a research paper on the British welfare system, all to no avail. Mr. M., our English teacher, used a rigid, my-way-only teaching approach, which I dreaded and which caused me to have nightmares. This young and inexperienced teacher had a peculiar way of marking our written work. For each grammatical error he would put a big cross in red ink on the margin of the test paper. No matter how good the essay was, no matter how well the student expressed his thoughts, the final grade would never be better than a mere satisfactory mark. But if one received two of those red marks, as was often the case with my work, the best one could hope for was a D (a 5 on a scale from 1 to 6). This method was stifling my creativity. For me the only way to squeeze out a satisfactory result was to write as little as possible in an effort to avoid those fearful crosses. Mr. M., of course, noticing my attempts of circumventing the grammatical pitfalls, now zeroed in with vengeance on the sketchy details and evaluated my writing as scanty and deficient. It became very clear to me then that I could not develop my true potential in an atmosphere of paralyzing fear and indeed I wound up with an unsatisfactory grade on my graduation certificate.
We had teachers, whom we feared and despised, teachers, whom we feared and respected, and teachers, whom we loved and respected. One of the latter was Mr. Müller, our math teacher in the senior grades. He presented his lessons on analytical geometry and calculus with clarity and a sense of humor. Being still in his early thirties, he was in touch with what made an adolescent mind tick. He gained our respect through his profound knowledge of the subject matter, his enthusiasm for mathematics and his ability to infuse in us understanding and even love for the queen of science. He often introduced a new topic with a joke. To warm us adolescents up to the trigonometric functions hinting with a meaningful twinkle in his eyes at their beautiful curves, he told us the joke about a teacher in an all-girls high school in the lower grades. One day the young girls asked him a question during the math lesson, “What are sine functions, Mr. T?”
He promptly answered while revealing his knowledge of ancient languages, “The word ‘sine’ is derived from the Latin ‘sinus’ and means bosom. But you will get that later in the upper grades.” No doubt, that joke and many others of this kind appealed to us boys being in that volatile stage of development sandwiched between child- and adulthood.
Terror in the Classroom
There were also the weak and incompetent teachers, who should have chosen a different profession. If they had only known the tortures from revengeful students, who focused with uncanny precision on their weaknesses! These were the teachers, who would not dare to report any unruly behavior to the vice-principal out of fear of being accused of having no control over their students. Dr. R. was teaching mainly Math and Science to the lower grades, but unfortunately for him was assigned to our class for Social Studies, in which he enlightened us with what he had recorded in his dilapidated thirty-year old notebook about the Soviet Union as an underdeveloped country. Strictly speaking he was not teaching us anything. With his back turned to the class he simply copied his outdated information on the blackboard, which we in turn copied into our notebooks. Any experienced teacher worth his salt would know that turning your back to the class is an open invitation to disaster. Upon a finger signal from the leader of the pack the entire class acted in complete unison, where each individual was hiding behind the anonymity of the mob finding protection from punishment through group solidarity. The inner voice of conscience that tells us what is right and what is wrong was drowned by the rush of emotions, that temporary high of having power over somebody who is invested with authority, but who is incapable of exerting it over a bunch of immature adolescents. One – the left finger of the ringleader went up, all students as if driven by a magical force grabbed their textbooks with their right hand. Two – the middle finger went up, that was the sign to lift the heavy books above our heads. Three – the leader’s left hand spread wide open, and in unbelievable synchrony of motion the books slammed the student desks sounding like the explosive bang of a single gunshot. Dr. R. swiftly turned around. There was terror and bewilderment written on his face, as he looked at a well-behaved class very attentive and ready to take more notes. All eyes were fixed on the board, as if the terrifying explosion had not happened at all. We students offered a picture of exemplary behavior, with which Dr. R. would have been delighted and proud. If the principal had walked in this very moment, he would have praised him for his excellent control. However, it was only an illusion. The diabolical game went on, until the poor teacher could not take it any more. He left the classroom and mustered enough courage to report to the vice principal that he could no longer control these louts. He asked for and received a reassignment to a more manageable class. Now it was our turn to find out what it meant to be harassed. For the dreaded vice principal well known for no nonsense army-style teaching methods took over the Social Studies instruction.
At the far end of the building at a good distance from the regular classrooms was a tower, which housed the room for music instruction. We climbed up the stairs twice a week for our lessons, which we did not find overly inspiring, because our teacher, Mr. T., wanted us to sing for the most part old-fashioned folk songs, to which he played the accompaniment on the piano. While singing in school was a time-honored tradition in all German schools, we openly rebelled against the idea of using our beautiful male voices on silly little songs we remembered from our elementary school years. As it turned out, Mr. T. had never learned to control a rebellious class like ours. The physical distance to the principal’s office was an additional disadvantage. But by far the biggest handicap was the poor selection of songs, which one would describe in modern jargon as inappropriate for our age level. Testing the teacher’s patience we started off by changing the lyrics of the song “High on the yellow coach”. The chorus line at the end of every verse, “But the yellow coach is rolling”, was transformed into “But the Harzer cheese wheel is rolling” (Harzer cheese is one of the more odiferous cheeses and originated in the Harz Mountains). Each time we repeated that ridiculous line, we sang it a little more loudly and more boisterously. The music teacher tried to ignore the adulterated version of one of his beloved folk songs. Revealing his true weakness, he incited us to seek stronger measures. Soon we were deliberately singing off key and as far as our deep voices would allow in high-pitched tones like a clutter of cats whose tails had just been stepped on. This was too much for our music teacher to swallow. His anger gave him courage to rant and rave calling us names we had never heard coming out of the mouth of the normally placid and rather peaceful teacher of music and religion. His whole body convulsed, his eyes wide open with utter contempt glared at us, and he screamed out the word that described us best, “SADISTS!!!”
His mouth so far ajar could no longer hold his dentures in place. They popped out and landed with a clatter on the floor. Nobody moved. There was dead silence in the classroom. We were stuck in a morass of embarrassment. We had gone too far. I felt guilty and still feel guilty thinking about it today that I had not opposed the shameful escalation of psychological violence perpetrated against a defenseless human being. After Mr. T. had sufficiently calmed down, he bent down and picked up his dentures off the floor, and without saying so much as another word left the music room, quietly closed the door behind him, as if not to disturb our remorseful silence. The next day he did not show for work. The rumor had it that he had suffered a nervous breakdown.
Some Reflections on the So-called Coincidences of Life
“Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”
Camping with Hans and Helmut
Spring came early in 1962. I no longer played an active role in the scout movement. But my desire to get out of the city and enjoy nature in the company of friends was as strong as ever. Among my friends, who had survived the nine-year culling process at the high school, only Hans and Helmut were left. All the others were either eliminated by the academic hurdles or departed on their own looking for other ways of moving up the educational ladder. Ever since I did Helmut that great favor at the ballroom final, he was seeking my friendship and clung to me like a burr on a woolen sweater. He wanted to be included in our overnight camp-outs. When I objected on the grounds that there was not enough room in my tent, he replied that he would sleep in his own tent. So it happened one sunny weekend that three young men went out camping together, with Helmut – so it appeared – being the odd man out. Hans and I in spite of our differences shared a bond that had lasted for more than five years. Our friendship was based on experiences in the boy scout movement, on our common interest in experimental electronics, all the way back to early days on the school yard, when I was Ede Wolf and Hans one of three piglets that I was supposed to catch. Helmut was a newcomer and in a sense also an intruder, gentle, polite, simply wanting to be part of our camaraderie. Perhaps on his part it was a struggle against loneliness that intellectuals feel more intensely, but we perceived him as an intruder just the same.
It was evening, when we arrived on our heavily packed bikes at a clearing. We quickly erected our tents helping each other to get ready for the night. After we had wolfed down our sandwiches, which our mothers had so lovingly prepared, we hurried into the woods, gathered dead branches and proudly started a campfire with only one match. In no time, flames leaped up and around the kettle, which we had suspended over the fire on a wooden tripod. Helmut, in my eyes still an intellectual nerd, impressed me how well he had learned the basics of camping in such a short time, and most of all how hard he tried to be helpful. The tea water in the kettle had almost come to a boil. Hans and I ceremoniously took turns adding tea bags, plenty of red wine, pepper and other assorted spices into the steaming brew. We lifted the kettle off the tripod to prevent the alcohol from evaporating. To fortify the punch some more, I pulled from my coat pocket a small bottle of rum and poured its brown content under the approving applause of my friends into the aromatic brew. By now it was getting dark. The stars began to shine in ever increasing numbers on the canopy of a moonless sky. The fire merrily crackled and its fiery tongues shot up high casting dancing shadows of us onto the mossy ground. It was time to fill our cups to the rim, to cheer to each other’s health and happiness, and drink. Hans grabbed his six-string and entertained us for a while with Spanish guitar music, which he played superbly off the cuff. In the meantime, the cups needed a refill. The warmth of this miraculous elixir penetrated deep into our bodies and spirits. During a pause I suggested to Hans to do something together, while the drink was good and the fire burning, “Let’s raise our voices and sing our favorite scouting songs.” Helmut being a good sport supported my suggestion, even though he did not know the lyrics of most of these specialized traveling songs. He would whistle along, whenever he recognized the tune, he said. Soon a chorus in a strange blend of young male voices, guitar chords, and whistling rose above the campfire strengthened in volume and enthusiasm by the concoction from the kettle. The birds waking up in the forest may have wondered why we were making such a cheerful noise. The more the night advanced, the more boisterously we belted out the songs, which glorified the violence and cruelty of the German and Swedish pike men in the Thirty-Year War in lines like, ‘We also came to Rome, there we threw the pope from his throne.’ ‘The little nobleman’s daughter we cast her into hell.’ And ‘Hang the chaplain on the window cross’. The booze, the raucous singing, the flickering flames, the starry night, all contributed to conjure up images in our young hearts of a time wild and free, in which we participated for this one short moment and in which Helmut had become a member of our friendship circle. Long after midnight we poured the remaining dregs from the kettle over the embers and happy and sleepy crawled into our sleeping bags.
A Most Curious Camping Trip
How I Met Biene
Pentecost was a long weekend and the beginning of a one-week break from school, the last one before the summer holidays. Hans had dropped out of our planned camping trip, because he had to baby-sit his younger stepbrothers and sisters. So Helmut and I got together to discuss our destination and the supplies we needed for the two and a half days. The reasons for the choice of our campsite will forever remain one of the great mysteries of my life. The nearby forests on either side of the River Rhine were within easy reach of a two- or three-hour bike ride. Our favorite camping sites were on federal land, rarely controlled for trespassing by forestry officials, miles away from the noisy highways, perfect places to be in tune with Mother Nature. The choice for this particular location was the opposite of everything I had learned to cherish during the years as a scout. As Helmut and I unfolded the map for the area of North Rhine Westphalia, we glanced over the tent icons, which marked the locations of campsites, and spotted one that bordered directly on a lake. On closer inspection we found out that it was Lake Baldeney between the city of Essen to the north and the city of Velbert to the south.
Apart from the dead side branches of the River Rhine, there was no real lake in the vicinity of Wesel. It appears to me that the things one does not have exert a certain attraction that one often finds hard to resist. So despite nagging doubts that in the light of the hard facts we had made a poor choice about our camping destination, our decision to go there was irrevocable. Who would have thought it possible that I would have considered taking a train to go camping? Was it not totally insane to trade a peaceful refuge in the forest for the hustle and bustle of a noisy commercial campground? The Rhine was filthy and burdened with chemical pollutants that came from the Ruhr industrial area, to which we were planning to go. With the economic recovery of West Germany came the demand for energy. Mining for the high-quality anthracite coal was in high gear bringing work and prosperity to the region, albeit at a price. On windless days the coal dust polluted the air. Dirt and grime covered walls, lawns, and even the wash that women hung up to dry. Yes, it is hard to believe that Helmut and I actually went, where – as people who knew the area around Essen warned us – the sun would seldom completely break through the gray cover of a leaden sky.
So it came to pass that on the late afternoon of June 9th, 1962, two young men carrying heavy backpacks and holding a two-man tent between the two of them arrived at the Baldeney Lake campground. Helmut and I were pleasantly surprised to view scenery quite different from what we had anticipated to find. The sky had cleared from the cleansing action of an early morning rain. There was not even a layer of industrial haze left to obscure the blue sky. The sun shone brightly, the trees were in full leaf, the lawn impressed us with its light-green spring verdure, best of all the brilliantly shining lake reflecting the blue sky created an ambiance we had not expected in a park south of the city of Essen. Since it was still early in the season and only a few hardy people had ventured out to camp, we had no trouble finding a suitable site near the lake shore to set up our tent. We enjoyed an early supper, which I had prepared from a can of chunky soup and had heated it up over my gasoline fueled camp stove. We spent the evening listening to pop music from my transistor radio and taking in the lush-green trees and bushes that the locals call the green lung of the Ruhr region. The only reminder that the black gold was mined north of here deep down from the rich coal deposits came when we looked at the dark soles of our feet black from our bare-foot walk through the park.
Next morning after a frugal breakfast with cereal and milk we pulled out our air mattresses into the brilliant morning sun. We relaxed reading, listening to music from Radio Luxembourg and watched people saunter by on the way to the beach. Two men, one in his early sixties, the other a little bit younger than I, caught our attention as they brought two of those so-called folding boats down to the lake shore. They can be easily transported on buses, trains, and even in the trunk of a car, because when folded together they easily fit into a large duffle bag.
For lunch I opened a can of sardines, an excellent staple for people like us traveling on a shoestring budget. Helmut having relied on me in charge of the provisions grumbled about the meal that consisted only of slices of dry bread and fish. In the meantime the boaters had returned to their tent with the folding boats. As we found out later, they were Herr Panknin and his son Walter. It seemed strange to us that they had nothing to eat and just sat there as if they were waiting for something. That something was obviously food. For now at a distance we noticed two persons approaching the camping area. As they came nearer, they turned out to be a woman and a young girl carrying baskets filled with delicious food perfect for a picnic in the sun. Enviously we looked on, as Frau Panknin and daughter Gertrud with a rather curious nickname Biene (Bee in English) unpacked the mouthwatering content of the baskets. We could see that this was culinary heaven on earth, Schlaraffenland, as a German fairy tale by Grimm so aptly describes the land, where people eat the finest delicacies in gluttonous quantities without having to work for them.
What attracted me to this family, however, was not so much the food, which in comparison to our lunch was so alluring, but rather that pretty seventeen-year old girl whose first impressions on me provided a good match with the image of idealized beauty that had been growing in my mind for the past two years. Biene, from the moment I cast my eyes on her, radiated a charm whose magic did not depend on bracelets, earrings, and similar outward adornments, not on make-up or perfume, which I rightly or wrongly loathed as poorly disguised cover-ups, but rather on the very lack of all those artificial means. In short, I gazed in admiration at the girl of my dreams.
Helmut and I were watching Biene and her twin brother play badminton in the open field. There was no net. The game was not very competitive. Its objective was to set new records by counting the number of times the birdie would fly back and forth before hitting the grass. Suddenly the idea occurred to me that we all could organize a mini-tournament with two pairs competing with each other for the highest score. After we had introduced ourselves, I explained the idea of a badminton tournament to be played with two pairs. Seeing that this would add a little bit of excitement, Walter and Biene readily accepted the proposal. As I had secretly wished, Biene wanted to form a team with me. I no longer recall how many rounds we played, but Biene and I always succeeded in getting the greatest number of hits. We were both very competitive, but the success in the game depended on complete cooperation. We felt good about our victories over our rivals and even more so, because we had won them together.
It was only a matter of time, until the topic of the folding boats would surface in our conversation. Walter suggested going for a ride on the lake. Herr and Frau Panknin voiced no objections, indeed they were happy to see their twins go boating and at the same time having a little bit of peace and quiet. Somehow Helmut had managed to partner with Biene, which at first made feel quite annoyed. But he argued convincingly that it was now his turn, since I had spent so much time playing badminton with her. As I was paddling with Walter, I soon got over my disappointment. Full of enthusiasm for his hobbies, Walter talked about his model airplanes and ships that he had been building. That was quite a pastime for Walter and took a lot of time, skills and dedication to bring a building project of this kind to perfection. I thought that just as Walter needed to have a plan and all the parts ready before he could even begin, so did I going through the same process in building a working radio. The moment Walter mentioned that he was thinking of using radio controlled devices to direct his model in the air or on water, I got quite excited and told him about my electronics projects, especially about the tube driven transmitter that provided musical entertainment to my friends in the apartment block in Wesel. Having found an area of common interest, we paddled less and less vigorously and talked all the more enthusiastically not realizing how fast time had been slipping by. When we pulled the boat ashore, we had already exchanged addresses and promised each other to mail each other schematics of electronic circuitry. Of course, what Walter did not know was that I had established a link to Biene, a connection that went beyond mere electronics. Like in an electric current, which the battery is pumping through a circuit providing energy and action to its individual parts, so warm feelings were flowing through my heart in the belief that Biene may have taken a liking to me during our badminton contest with Walter and Helmut.
On my Moped to Father in Michelbach
It doesn’t matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was.
It had been more than five years, since I had seen Father. He had left one day looking for work at friends and relatives. Considering his poor health and age, he was faced with the dilemma of having to return to Wesel, where he would be dependent on Aunt Mieze’s financial support or else be content with the odd casual work, which barely supported his livelihood. Furthermore considering his intensive pride as a former successful agricultural administrator and the pain he must have suffered from the dismal failure of his farming venture in Southern Germany, I can understand his anguish and feelings of having become utterly worthless in his own eyes and in the eyes of his family. Pride and failure have never been good bedfellows in a man’s heart, and Father was no exception. As for me, I missed his presence a lot, but I was too timid to ask as to when he would come back and did not know what was going on behind the scenes. Much later I found out that with Uncle Günther’s support Mother had initiated divorce proceedings. On the basis of the law that required common residence and conjugal relations Mother was able to get a divorce in exchange for waiving any rights to financial support from Father. So to make this sad and depressing story short, Father after the divorce joined and not long afterwards married Erna Krämer, an old acquaintance from the Warthegau days, who lived in her rustic and cozy home in the village of Michelbach at the foot of Mount Vogelsberg north of Frankfurt.
The last summer holidays before graduation were only a few weeks away. It was also to be the last year Mother and Aunt Mieze would reside in Wesel. Uncle Günther and Aunt Lucie had invited them to live with them in Watzenborn-Steinberg (now Pohlheim), where all four would share the rent of a brand-new house that had been built by a teacher as a retirement home in the distant future. Naturally there was a lot of joyful excitement among the three Kegler siblings having been raised together at the parsonage in Grünewald and now having the chance of living once more under one roof. There was just one problem. How would I fit into the grand plan of bringing the family members together? A transfer to a high school in another province with different graduation requirements was out of the question. The solution was an obvious one. I had to stay behind and continue my studies later on in the fall, while they would move to the land of the Hessians. The decision to finish my secondary education in Wesel proved to become one of the great milestones and turning points of my life.
But for now at the beginning of the six-week break from school I had other things on my mind. I had to think of visiting Father. One of my old scout buddies sold me his moped for DM 50.00, a true bargain at the equivalent of ten monthly allowances. It had a peppy engine and in spite of being quite old was in excellent shape. The best part was that I did not need a driver’s license. Having always envied Klaus for his scooter, I now had my very own motorized transportation with which I could travel to Michelbach to see Father and his new wife Erna.
At a maximum speed of 50 km/h it took me all day to reach the scenic hill country around Mount Vogelsberg. Father and Erna gave me a warm welcome alleviating immediately all fear that Father might have turned into a stranger. I had departed from Wesel with these somber feelings, which had been building up due in part to our long separation, but also due to Mother’s bitter and regretful remarks that she had sometimes made about the divorce. So it was a great relief to be greeted so cordially and be welcomed as son and friend into their cozy old farmhouse. Here then I was going to spend the next six weeks, would become reacquainted with a rural environment slightly reminiscent of Rohrdorf, would get to know Father more closely through our philosophical and historical discussions, would begin to like his wife, would be introduced to her friends and relatives in the village, would taste her hearty meals albeit a little too rich in fat, in short I was here to relax and feel completely at home in an atmosphere of genuine friendliness and camaraderie.
Joy at my Father’s Home
Right from the beginning of my visit Erna and I got along very well. Her cheerful and lively disposition did not allow me to lose myself in gloomy moods, as I was occasionally prone to do, especially during prolonged periods of idleness and aimlessness. I could even see, even though I was reluctant to admit it, that Erna was the right person for Father. She was the sunshine that had brought lightness and contentment to his sunset years. From her radiated a contagious joyous spirit that created the in-peace-with-the-world atmosphere so conducive to Father’s healing process from a torturous past, from which he only now began to recover. I definitely do not remember him as a man broken in body and spirit, as my distant cousin Eberhard Klopp described him in his book of the Klopp Family History.
Erna also had a moped of the same make and the same 49 cc class as mine, on which she would travel down the steep hill into the town of Schotten to buy the few things she needed for the small household in Michelbach. When there is company, one always seems to find the time to show off the beauty surrounding one’s home turf. Without visitors one tends to delay and leave such outings for another day. Erna was no exception. Now she was eager to travel with me to the nearby-forested hills, up the scenic Nature Park around Mount Vogelsberg, down winding country roads into the lush verdant valleys neatly tucked in between minor mountain ranges. There was no better form of transportation than our two mopeds. With a lunch pack clamped to the rear luggage rack we were ready to dart off into the wonderful Hessian landscape. Father a little overweight for these light machines gladly stayed behind looking after a few chores still to be done on this mini-farm with just a few goats to feed and milk,. Just as we were revving up the engines, Father came to the road to congenially shout over the noise, “Have a good trip!” At the end of my vacations thanks to our weekly excursions into the hill country, I had acquired a solid geographical knowledge of the region. As I was internally preparing myself to leave the Rhineland for good after my graduation, I had already created a new base to drop in as son and stepson, a place I could truly call home.
In the long summer evenings after supper we three would sit in the living room leisurely sipping homemade apple cider. We would talk until it was time to go to bed. More accurately speaking it was Erna, who did most of the talking. She truly had the gift of the gab. With the unerring memory for minutest details spiced up with colorful expressions and peppered with the melodious dialect of her village she was the born storyteller. I will never forget how she described the chaotic scene of the German Reichstag of the roaring twenties. She and her friends were sitting in the same living room forty years earlier and acted out the ugly political debates they had heard over the radio. And they did this with such exuberance, with so much mock yelling and screaming that the poor cats terrified by the brouhaha created by the inflammatory speeches sought refuge under the sofa and added to the parliamentary cacophony with much hissing and growling.
Is it Love?
Within the scope of the family history I would go too far if I included Erna’s side of the family except the ones that I came into contact with. There was the Langlitz family, Walter, Frieda (Friedchen) and their two daughters Helga and Anita. Walter had become a successful contractor who ran a prosperous business with his impressive array of trucks,
caterpillars, backhoes and other heavy machinery that he had acquired to assist in the government sponsored land reform program. In contrast to the northern provinces of Germany, where the eldest son inherits the farm, inheritance laws in the south required equal division of the fields among all the children of the deceased farmer. Thus, over time emerged a chaotic patchwork of tiny fields often less than one ha in size, which made farming more and more inefficient and unproductive. So Walter profited from the reallocation of land by owning the right equipment at the right time. The two daughters, Helga and Anita, age 12 and age 10, whose exact degree of relationship to Erna I do not recall, often showed up to play board games, such as chess and checkers with the newcomer in Father’s home.
Erna was also anxious to have me meet her 16 year-old niece Roswitha, who lived a few houses down the street with her widowed mother. Even though I did not recognize it at the beginning, it was clearly a matchmaking effort supported by Father. In collusion with her sister-in-law, Erna invited her niece over for coffee and cake to make sure we would see each other as often as possible. Roswitha in terms of the standards I had set for what a girl should look like fell well within the range of acceptability. However, inner qualities, such as interests in activities that one could do together, readiness to share and exchange thoughts and feelings, to support them and if necessary even to oppose them, such qualities, which began to gain more and more in importance for me, were severely lacking. In a way my encounter with her helped me set the bar a few notches higher, which further limited the number of choices for my future mate. I vaguely felt for the first time that only love could help jump the hurdle. But what is love? I could not tell, because I had not experienced it yet. So what Erna had hoped for, did not happen. We were friends, who did things together for a while. We walked down the steep hill down to the town and district swimming pool in Schotten and on Saturday evenings we went dancing in the nearby villages. The music was not exactly rock ‘n’ roll, but we could dance to it, whenever a fast beat would permit. The performance of the band improved with each refill of the giant beer mugs during the frequent breaks. Thanks to the loud music there was no opportunity to talk, and there would not have been much to talk about. On our long walk home in the moonlight I explained to her how the stars would move like the sun following the rotation of the earth. For everything I said during my scientific dissertation she approvingly giggled. Only once did she protest to express her utter disbelief, when I insisted that the moon shining so brightly now onto the forests and meadows would also show its pale face during daytime.
With my first visit to see Father after such along gap inconceivable in the light of today’s custody laws that require visiting rights at regular intervals, I accomplished much more than just reconnecting with him. The ice had been broken. Other family members now were eager to come in a spirit of reconciliation that was shared even by Mother albeit somewhat reluctantly. Near the end of my holidays my brother Adolf dropped in for a visit. He had returned from Canada to Germany on a temporary basis to learn a trade in an apprenticeship program at the Honeywell Company at Hanau. There he eventually acquired a journeyman ticket as a trained machinist that would – so he was hoping – land him a good paying job upon his return to Canada. Adolf endowed with a witty sense of humor and an extroverted personality was the life of the party no matter where he went. In formal or informal gatherings, in suit or in jeans, with academics or with factory workers, he was the born entertainer who made people cheer up when they were depressed, got things rolling when they appeared to be stuck. Everybody liked him. He had many friends and few enemies. There was just one problem with this gregarious likable brother of mine. He seemed to be shy, yes even afraid of unmarried women, who might take too much of a liking to him, pursue him with the full force of passion and lock him up in the golden cage called marriage. When we received an invitation to a social evening by Roswitha’s mother, Adolf felt safe, because his youngest brother was with him. On the surface it looked like we were the suitors, Roswitha being courted by two promising young men. In reality in a strange reversal of the customary roles it was the other way around. As we gathered in the living room, Frau K. served us wine, crackers and cheese, spent a few perfunctory minutes in conversation with us and discretely withdrew with a few cheerful words meaning that we now were on our own. I found the situation very odd and to some extent embarrassing, because I had expected her to stay. It was Adolf who saved the day or more accurately the evening with his social skills that helped to get the ball rolling. He asked Roswitha about school, hobbies, her likes and dislikes, the weather, and all the other trivia that he was so apt in using as a social lubricant. To her replies often accompanied by the aforementioned giggles he added humorous comments that made us laugh and feel at ease. Eventually even I emerged out of my taciturn shell and presented to everyone’s amusement a few jokes and riddles. Around eleven o’clock Adolf ironically remarked that it was time for us ‘boys’ to go home. We politely said good night and cheerfully departed to have another drink of a more potent kind at our Father’s place.
Happy End to a most Enjoyable Visit
Then a close family member dropped in for a brief visit. When she heard that I had been going out dancing with Roswitha, she mockingly and contemptuously commented on her in Father’s presence, “Ho! Ho! Peasant duffer! (Bauerntrampel in German)” By now I had become quite accustomed to the unpredictable outpourings of her sharp tongue. Her caustic and biting remarks at Mother’s place in Wesel had been edged forever into my memory. However, Father was livid. Having respected all his life the hard honest work of the farmers from whom we receive our daily bread, he was deeply insulted by that derogatory remark. He gave her a severe dressing-down for displaying unjustified disdain for such an honorable class of people. Never since my early childhood days, when he had read me the riot act for stealing eggs from Mother’s henhouse, had I seen Father so angry. If I did not know the meaning of holy wrath, I knew it now.
Erna’s house was at least half a century old and the electrical wiring was outdated and no longer in compliance with the latest electrical code. It required that all circuits be properly grounded. It made me feel good that I was not just there to enjoy a relaxing summer visit but also had the opportunity to make myself useful. Father had bought the three-prong wire, and I installed it and connected it to the junction boxes, outlets and switches. When I showed reluctance to take the twenty marks Father wanted to give me as pay for my work, he lectured me somewhat like this, “Listen, Peter, if someone offers you money, not dishonest money mind you, but money earned for work you did, do not hesitate to accept it. For you not only cheat yourself out of the reward that is rightfully yours, but you also insult the generosity of the giver.” To such a powerful argument I had nothing to reply and took the twenty marks.
At times when Father’s back pains were hurting too much, he stayed in bed for most of the day. Adolf and I were sitting at his bedside to keep him company. Then Father and I would often talk about the great empires of the past and the lessons one might learn from the causes of their decline. I really warmed up to this topic as I had recently taken a keen interest in the history of the Roman Empire. We came to the conclusion that if one allows foreign religious and ethnic elements to penetrate the cultural core of the nation, it will sooner or later lose its identity, its values and strength and will eventually have to face first decline and then total collapse. Germany according to Father has not learned her lessons and was headed in the same direction. He pointed to the record player on the night table remarking, “The record is turning, the needle appears to be progressing even though it is running in circles, but in the end it will be starting all over again symbolizing the eternal recurrent of the same in world history.” Adolf feeling a little left out in this highfalutin talk said he would buy himself a couple of history books to study up on the things he had missed in school.
Before the end of my vacation in Michelbach I gave Erna my moped. The engine of her better looking moped had completely broken down. Adolf, the skilful mechanic and jack-of-all-trades, took the good engine out of mine and installed it into Erna’s moped. As reward for my generosity Adolf drove me in his Volkswagen beetle back home to Wesel, where he was going to spend a few days to visit with Mother and Aunt Mieze.