The Peter and Gertrud Klopp Family Project

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Chapter 20 of the P. and G. Klopp Story – Part II

10

Getting to know my Army Buddies

We did not have much time to really get to know each one another in Room 203. But before we settled down for the first night, I had learned that most of us came from the same region in Northwest Germany. However, nobody came from the same town no matter how big and, as I discovered later, no more than two were high school graduates. It seemed to me that someone in the personnel department had done a good job in creating groups from social and regional backgrounds as diverse as possible. This was to prevent cliques from forming and to promote harmony. The other high school graduate was a violinist . He planned to further his musical talents after his mandatory 18 months by studying at a music conservatory. He had applied for a transfer to the band division of the army before he arrived in Koblenz showing convincingly that regular army service would ruin the dexterity of his delicate fingers needed for becoming an accomplished violinist. I took an instant liking to him and, enthused about his virtuosity, recorded on quiet weekends many of his solo pieces on my tape recorder. Overall the troop in Room 203 fitted nicely together. Perhaps the only thing that made me feel slightly uncomfortable when conversing with my comrades was that in contrast to the heavy Low German accent of the Ruhr industrial area (the Ruhr Pot) I spoke the standard High German, which made me stick out like a sore thumb in the otherwise very congenial group. But that did not seem to bother them in the least. They would often good-naturedly tease me or would say, if they had a problem or question, “Let’s ask the professor. He will know.” In short, I had the good fortune to be among a good bunch of people. And if there was any misery coming our way– to be sure there was going to be lots of it -, it would come from the drill sergeants, whose job was to toughen us up for the tasks ahead.

Old City Center of Koblenz - Photo Credit: wikipedia.org

Koblenz at the Confluence of the rivers Rhine and Moselle – Photo Credit: wikipedia.org

At the morning line-up we were standing on the pavement neatly arranged in a triple row from the tallest to the shortest. I occupied a fairly safe position from the critical eyes of the corporals in charge of the inspection. I stood in the third row on the left being one of the tallest in the company. The soldiers in the front row were the most vulnerable to harassment, where a missing button on the uniform, an half-open fly, dirty boots would come under an instant scathing rebuke peppered with such earthy language, were it not delivered half in jest with great exaggeration, it would have scared us right out of our wits. We at the back internally chuckled, when the sergeant noticed that we were not perfectly lined up and scornfully shouted, “You are standing there like the bull pisses!” or at the fly that a soldier had not completely buttoned up, “You pig, it smells like leather around here!” If one had learned to develop a thick skin, these verbal assaults were of little consequence. They simply put you on the alert to make sure that at line-up time you looked prim and proper by military standards. If you were found with dirty boots, the consequences were of a more serious nature. You usually wound up losing a weekend leave over such an outrageous crime against the honor of the army. On rifle inspection days you could expect similar punitive action, if you allowed a few dust particles to settle inside the shiny barrel of you rifle. Comments describing in most hyperbolic terms the lack of care for our most precious weapon were quite common like, “It looks like a herd of elephants has been stomping through your gun barrel!” Finally the captain as if on cue arrived. After his noncommissioned underlings had done the dirty job of whipping us into shape, he could afford to play the nice guy. With his kind, encouraging remarks he radiated the image of a loving surrogate father. He even suggested during one of the assemblies that, if we had a problem, which kind of problem he did not care to specify, his door to his office on the ground floor would always be open to us.

Army Buddies of Room 203 - Peter at Center Back (1963)

Army Buddies of Room 203 – Peter at Center Back, the Violinist at the Far Left

I was always looking forward to the afternoon line-up. Not only did I feel well rested after the noon break and pleasantly drowsy with a nutritious meal in my stomach, but also I was also full of anticipation that there might be a letter from Biene. At least once a week the sergeant would call out my name, and I would happily emerge from the back row to receive my mail. If a red wax seal adorned the backside of the envelope, I knew it was a letter from her. I buried it deep into the side pocket of my army pants, so I could secretly read it during the boring afternoon lessons on the organization and structure of the fifth tank division, to which we belonged.

Gertrud (Biene) with Papa Panknin in the Gruga Park

Gertrud (Biene) with Papa Panknin during a walk in the Gruga Park

There was only one other soldier, who received letters with the same frequency as I did. One evening, when all the other comrades were out for a beer, he proudly showed me the content of his girlfriend’s letter, which I was not in the least interested to see. From the top to the bottom of a piece of foolscap she had written repetitively just one single sentence: I love you. My roommate looked at me with that special kind of vulnerable expectancy that warned me to be careful with my response to this rather bizarre love-letter. He had to share his happiness with someone like me of whom he was almost certain, but not quite certain that I would not mock his tender feelings apparently so out of line with the rough environment of our life in the army. After a long pause of hesitation, which must have heightened the young man’s tension almost to the breaking point, I simply remarked, “A very powerful message!” Of course, I kept Biene’s letter in my pocket, her words were so precious to my heart that I would not have shared it even with any of my best friends. For it contained her responses to the world of thoughts and feelings about each other on a more elevated plane, where the word love had not yet surfaced and its presence could only be fathomed on second and third reading somewhere hidden between the lines.

 

Chapter 20 of the P. and G. Klopp Story – Part I

8

Basic Military Training

 

The soldier is the Army.  No army is better than its soldiers. The soldier is also a citizen. In fact, the highest obligation and privilege of citizenship is that of bearing arms for one’s country.

George S. Patton Jr.

 

The train wound its way through the picturesque Lahn valley to my destination in Koblenz, where I was to receive my basic army training. I had celebrated my 21st birthday in the new home that Mother, Aunt Mieze, Uncle Günther, Aunt Lucie were renting in Watzenborn-Steinberg. After the traditional coffee and cake party we played several rounds of our favorite card game ‘Doppelkopf’ in the evening.

Chief of the Kegler Clan, Mother, Aunt Lucie, and Aunt Mieze- Pohlheim near Giessen 1963

Chief of the Kegler Clan, Mother, Aunt Lucie, and Aunt Mieze- Pohlheim 1963

Aunt Mieze was not fond of playing cards, so I had become a valuable game partner now and for all future occasions when I came for a visit. My aunt would rather sit a good distance apart from the noisy bunch in an easy chair and read a book. Often she would fall asleep in spite of the racket we made around the card table. Then the book she was reading would slip out her hands and fall on the wooden floor with a loud thud. Mother suggested to her to go to bed. However, she rather wanted to have the feeling of being part of the family than to give in to nature’s urgent call to sleep. Now on my way to the barracks I had the train compartment all to myself and while passing by ancient castles on the hillsides above the lazily meandering river below I had time to contemplate about the military service that I was about to render to my country. I was now of age, had the right to vote, could do things on my own, I was free, and yet, as I was approaching the city of Koblenz, I felt that I was not. I had simply traded one set of responsibilities for another. And I wondered whether that would always be that way.

German Corner (Deutsches Eck) Koblenz - Photo Credit: wikipedia.org

German Corner (Deutsches Eck) Koblenz – Photo Credit: wikipedia.org

In the early afternoon of April 1st I walked through the barracks gate carrying my suitcase with the few personal belongings we were allowed to bring during the training period. After I identified myself to the guards on duty as one of the new recruits, I proceeded to the building, where I was told I would find further instructions on the bulletin board located on the ground floor. There were about a dozen buildings all in the nondescript shape of rectangular boxes placed around a huge yard that served as the ‘playground’ for the military practice and drill sessions. The entire area was almost devoid of people. The previous generation of soldiers had been successfully ‘calved’ and been transferred for further training to the three major technical companies of the Signal Corps located in the city. Expecting the place to be brimming with activity where there was none gave me an eerie feeling as if I had erred perhaps on the start-up date or worse had fallen victim to a nasty April Fool’s trick. When I looked through the names list of some 120 men, I found it somewhat reassuring that Klopp was indeed on the roster. I even had a rank, which I shared with the other newcomers. From now on until I had advanced to the rank of a private, I would be Fu Peter Klopp, Fu not standing for a four-letter word, but rather more appropriately for ‘Funker’ (radio operator). I was assigned to Room 203, which meant Room 3 on the second floor in the three-story building. The extremely wide staircase surprised me and I wondered about the waste of space until I discovered that there was a method to the madness of the architect’s design of the overly generous width of the staircase and of the hallways. How else during an alarm could 120 soldiers rush out of the building in the required three minutes?

Peter as Civil Servant in Uniform 1963

Peter as Civil Servant in Uniform 1963

I was the first to enter Room 203. Although later on I had sometimes regrets about my eagerness to report for duty, my early arrival had the advantage that I could pick and choose the best location for my bed and closet. The room was definitely not set up for comfort. In the middle of the austere room stood a long table, around which 15 chairs were placed. Five bunks with three beds each were pushed against the walls. Each soldier would have for his personal belongings, army clothes and equipment a lockable wooden closet. The placement of these lockers was such that they formed a partial visual barrier between some of the bunks, thus granting a modicum of privacy. I chose the bottom bed of the bunk nearest to the left window and the closest locker for easy access. I was happy about my choice. The window would provide fresh air and the bottom bed would to some modest degree protect me from the disgusting bodily fumes permeating the entire room, especially after the soldiers returned from the local pubs, where low quality beer was being served.

Crest of the Fifth Tank Division - German NATO forces in Koblenz

Crest: Fifth Tank Division – German NATO Forces in Koblenz

I opened up the closet and stowed away my clothes, toiletry items, Mommsen’s ‘History of Rome’ and a few other books, which I intended to read during the weekends, during which we were not allowed to leave the barracks. There was plenty of room left. The empty shelves were waiting to be filled with army garb from the quartermaster on the very next day. When my belongings were neatly put away in the closet, I locked it securely with a padlock. It was considered just as great a crime to tempt your fellow soldier with an unlocked closet, as it was to steal from it. I put a pocketbook on the pillow of my spartan bed as a sign that I had claimed it as my own. Then I went outside and enjoyed sitting on the retaining wall of large circular pond in the late afternoon sun watching as the other recruits came trickling in at first, then eventually swelling to a human flood, as the deadline of the arrival time was rapidly approaching. Today we were still civilians. Tomorrow we would be soldiers wearing uniforms (derived from Latin ‘una forma’, meaning one form, one shape), individuals still on the inside, but a gray mass of young men pressed into the same mold of dress code, rules, military routines and activities. With the total uniformity of regulated daily life came the assault on our individuality with its profound effect on character and soul. Life in the army became the crucible, in which our character was put to the test, and for me, even though very painful at times, the process brought about refinement, which prepared me well for the many challenges further down the road in my personal life.

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