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.
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, 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 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.