When Father’s back pains hurt 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 Roman Empire’s history. We concluded that if one allows foreign religious and ethnic elements to dominate the nation’s cultural core, it will sooner or later lose its identity. Its values and moral fibre will undergo first decline and then total collapse. Germany, according to Father, has not learned her lessons and was headed in the same direction. Pointing to the record player on the night table, he remarked, “The record is turning. The needle is progressing in its groove. 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 utterly broken down. Adolf, the skilful mechanic and jack-of-all-trades, took the working motor out of mine and installed it into Erna’s moped. As a reward for my generosity, Adolf drove me in his Volkswagen beetle back home to Wesel, where he would spend a few days to visit with Mother and Aunt Mieze. In this joyful summer of 1962, I saw Father for the last time alive. I am so glad that I did. How great would have been the loss if I had missed this golden opportunity to see him!
With my first visit to see Father after such a long 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 temporarily to learn a trade in an apprenticeship program at the Honeywell Company at Hanau. 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 humour and an extroverted personality, was the life of the party no matter where he went. In formal or informal gatherings, in a suit or jeans, with academics or factory workers, he was the born entertainer who made people cheer up when they were depressed and got things rolling when they appeared to be stuck. Everybody liked him. There was just one problem with this gregarious, likeable 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 he called marriage.
Then my sister Erika dropped in for a brief visit. When she heard that I had been going out dancing with a girl from the village, she contemptuously commented on her in Father’s presence, “Ho! Ho! Going out with a 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 honourable 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 correctly grounded. It made me feel good that I was not just there to enjoy a relaxing summer visit but also 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. I showed some reluctance to take the twenty marks Father wanted to 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 to and took the twenty marks.
Right from the beginning of my visit, Erna, Father’s second wife, 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. Even though I was reluctant to admit it, I could even see 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 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 you have 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 to 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 Miele mopeds. With a lunch pack clamped to the rear luggage rack, we were ready to dart off into the magnificent Hessian landscape. A little overweight for these light machines, Father 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!” Too soon, my vacations came to an end. 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 graduation, I had already created a new base to drop in as son and stepson, a place I could truly call home.
After supper, we three would sit in the living room leisurely sipping homemade apple cider in the long summer evenings. We would talk until it was time to go to bed. More accurately speaking, it was Erna who did most of the talking. She certainly had the gift of the gab. With the unerring memory for minutest details spiced up with colourful expressions and peppered with her village’s melodious dialect, 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. 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.
Children in general are flexible and adaptable in dealing with the pain of separation and divorce their parents create, as long as they can live in a sheltered and loving environment with their remaining parent. So although I was initially missing my dad, I did not find it too disturbing that I was going through a major part of my teenage years without him. Now more than fifty years after my parents’ divorce, looking back, I find it outrageous that it took more than five years to see my father again.
How Father met his second wife is shrouded in darkness. I could have asked him on my first visit about the circumstances under which the two met and came to know each other. And later on, when my father had passed away, his wife would have gladly given me a lot of information about it if I had only cared enough at the time to ask her. I was simply not interested. I had more important things to do than to dig into my father’s past. Having missed quite a few opportunities to find out an important part of my father’s life, I can only conjecture that he may have known Erna Krämer from the ‘golden’ years in Gutfelde, where so many people flocked during the war to seek refuge from the never ending bombing raids of the German cities.
Finally, as a twenty-year old young man during the summer holidays in 1962, I hopped on my used Miele moped and drove from Wesel to Michelbach, which is now part of the municipality of Schotten. At a maximum speed of 50 km/h, it took me all day to reach the scenic hill country around the Vogelsberg region. Father and Erna gave me a warm welcome alleviating immediately all fear that my dad 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.
Great was my joy, when Father arrived. After two years of living only with Mother and Aunt Mieze this was a welcome change for me. What I didn’t know at the time was that my parents were drifting apart due to circumstances beyond their control. Mother having no employable skills had allowed herself to be bound completely to Aunt Mieze’s generous arrangement by taking over the housekeeping duties in exchange for room and board, all expenses for herself and me. Father suffering from periodic back pains and other health issues could no longer find meaningful employment. His former administrative talents in agriculture were not in demand, especially not in the city of Wesel. Mother expected him to take up any employment. Even sweeping the streets or working for the sanitation department would have been all right in her eyes, she once confided to me. So as time went on, Father was facing a dilemma, either to continue to depend on Aunt Mieze’s charitable hospitality or to seek work completely out of line with his agricultural expertise.
But while he stayed with us, half a year or more, he did his best to create a sense of togetherness between himself and me, a kind of late bonding between father and son. He took great interest in my studies at the high school. He had heard of my difficulties in Latin and devised a motivational scheme to help me with grammar and vocabulary, which he himself had never learned. He also noticed that if I did get into trouble at school or at home it was primarily due to the fact that I, often wrapped up in my dream world, lost track of time. His plan, which I immediately embraced with great enthusiasm, was that I should earn my very first watch by studying Latin with him. For every exercise from my text-book, for every successfully completed vocabulary drill, for each translation into Latin he awarded me one point and recorded it meticulously with date and type of work into a little writing booklet. Once I had obtained the grand total of 500 points, he would give me the promised brand-new watch. When he left, I was not only the proud owner of a watch, but also more importantly my marks in Latin had soared to the second highest level one could get on the report cards. Moreover, I had accumulated so much knowledge that I was coasting along for four more high school years before slipping back to the more common satisfactory standing. It was also during Father’s short stay that he taught me how to play chess. His legacy was not only that I had developed a lasting passion for the ancient language of the Romans and the royal game of chess, but also that I harbour only the fondest memories of my father. Little did I know that I was not going to see him again for six long years.
Father feeling useless and totally dependent left our apartment one day, perhaps with the decision never to come back. Not long after his departure, my mother being prodded to act by Uncle Günther initiated divorce proceedings. She must have felt very secure with her sister providing the means for a comfortable living. So to accelerate the rather lengthy process of divorce prevalent in the German bureaucracy, she waived all her rights for support and governmental assistance programs associated with her marriage with Ernst Klopp. This turned out to be a grave error in judgment. Later down the road after an initial period of pleasant living, after her sister Maria passed away, she became virtually penniless and had to spend the rest of her life in a senior citizen home run by the welfare department.
Who can read the signs, when the fabric of family unity begins to unravel, when the glue that once held the clan together breaks loose under the load of stressful times? It is easy to answer such questions as we are looking back more than sixty years into past events. But at the time when the eldest son left the house, it appeared perfectly normal. After all, grown-up children with a few exceptions have always abandoned their nests to assert their independence and eventually have a family of their own. Yet, with hindsight we can probe a little deeper below the appearance of normalcy. Why would Adolf, the second oldest son, choose to immigrate to Canada, which turned out like the promised land, which however he did not know at the time he made the decision to emigrate? Or was it not rather the desire to escape his financial obligation to support the little farm in Rohrdorf with his meagre income? And why would Gerhard, the second youngest son, follow in Adolf’s footsteps if not for the same reasons. But most importantly, we children had no clue about the strain that the failed farming venture exerted on our parents. Ernst Klopp, once responsible as manager and director for a 3000 ha farming operation, utterly failed in turning the puny farmstead into a profitable venture. The psychological blow to my father must have been devastating.
In 1954, Father in search for meaningful employment moved to Haren at the Ems River in Northwest Germany. He worked in the office of the weaving factory of his nephew Georg von Waldenfels. The manufacturing plant was primarily producing cloth which was in high demand at the time. The newly created West German army (Bundeswehr) turned out to be a lucrative market for the son of Anna von Waldenfels. Unfortunately, Ernst Klopp and his meddlesome employer’s mother-in-law did not get along very well. The friction often resulted in unpleasant scenes, which wore him out and caused him to leave in 1957.
In the meantime, my mother Erika Klopp had taken on a supervisory position in the kitchen facility of a senior citizen home in the town of Rudersberg northeast of Stuttgart. Her sister Maria Kegler, an elementary school teacher at the small village of Brünen near the city of Wesel took the 12-year old Peter under her wings. From there, he took the bus to attended the all-boys high school in Wesel, a city that ten years after the war had still many parts lying in ruins.
Rebuilding the city in the mid 1950s was in full in swing and the pressure of the extreme housing shortage was beginning to ease. Through some fortuitous connections, aunt Maria, also endearingly called Mieze, was able to find an apartment. An invitation went out to her sister Erika in Rudersberg to run her household in exchange for free roam and board. So it happened that in 1955, while Father was still doing office work at the cloth factory in the Ems Country, Peter’s mother finally found a place she could call her home again.