Biene’s Moroccan Pen Pal
One Saturday morning, not long before the short weekend leave, the corporal nervously entered our room and told us that the captain himself would be checking out hallway, room and closets. “Don’t disappoint me,” he demanded half pleadingly, half threateningly. We were eager to oblige being interested only in one thing, the pass that allowed us to go home. So we scrubbed and polished the wooden floor, mopped the tiles of the hallway especially well. For weeks I had specialized in cleaning the windows. I discovered that the toilet paper available in large quantities worked best to give the glass that desirable sparkling look. Of course, the closet had to be immaculate. Over one speck of dust a grumpy sergeant could deny your weekend pass or at the very least cause a delay of several hours.
The captain, however, not only represented the kind and benevolent father figure to us, but also had recently become the proud father of twins, the event that among us soldiers earned him the title Scatter Gun (Streubüchse). He now entered the room. We stood at attention next to our closet. It was clear from the way the captain approached the first soldier that he was more interested in passing on a few words of wisdom than in the inspection of our open closets. So when it was my turn, I was quite relaxed. He must have gone through our personnel files, for he said, “Klopp, I see that you are a high school graduate. What are your plans for the future?” Without waiting for an answer, he continued, “When you are young, you must have a dream. Without a dream you are nothing but a hollow entity. Understand me right; I am not talking about a fuzzy dream about getting rich and famous. What I mean is the dream of becoming a valuable member of society and a contributor to the common good.” With about these words the officer, turned philosopher, spoke to me. Now he reminded me that he had not answered his question.
“I love electronics and would like to become a high frequency engineer,” I stated emphatically.
As if ignoring my reply, the captain went back to the importance of having a dream. “A dream is nothing but an idle pipe dream, if you cannot find the means to realize it. You must have a plan backed up by a number of concrete steps. You must always keep your goal no matter how distant before you inner eyes, so you don’t miss your target.”
Then he came to the point, “So you want to become a high frequency engineer. That’s your dream. Well, here is a plan for you to consider. The Bundeswehr (German army) will send you to a postsecondary technical institute all expenses paid. In return, you commit yourself for ten years of service or if you wish, you can opt for a permanent career as officer and instructor. Think about it and let me know when you are ready to talk.” With these words he moved on to the next soldier, who had a picture of a naked woman taped to the inside of his closet door. The captain took one look and to our surprise did not reveal the slightest trace of anger, when he addressed him with a soft voice, “Say, young man, how would you feel to see a photo of your sister in the nude on somebody else’s closet door?” and with that remark he moved on to the next soldier. Needless to say we all got our weekend pass including the one with the pornographic picture. In a general assembly of the company our leader once spoke about his dream to read and understand Immanuel Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ before his retirement. To be sure, it was a far loftier goal than mine of becoming an electronic engineer. The book that he was referring to is to the understanding of philosophy what Einstein’s theory of relativity is to the understanding of physics.
In the meantime Biene’s letters kept coming with the regularity of a clock and brought the sunshine of her empathy for the hardships of a soldier into my heart. We agreed to write one another in such a way as if we had known each other for a long time, to treat each other with honesty so that in the absence of face-to-face encounters no false impressions developed in our minds. Even secretiveness would be a form of dishonesty I noted in one of my letters. Being sincere was the necessary ingredient for the development of a true friendship leading so I was hoping to something more permanent. All Biene and I had for now were the letters, in which we expressed our feelings in the discussions of poetry, movies we had seen, or simply the daily obstacles that fate would throw into our path.
Up to this moment I had also maintained a loose correspondence with my dance partner Margret, who was working as a nurse’s aid in the Wesel hospital with the goal of becoming a registered nurse. The letters we wrote read more like newspaper reports and contained for the most part our criticism of the rotten world around us that we could not change. In short they were devoid of any feelings expressed or implied. In response to the dilemma that could only grow worse over time, I decided to write her a short note explaining to her in keeping with our sober writing style matter-of-factly as to why I did not wish to carry on with our correspondence. She acknowledged receipt of my message in a final postcard. I was relieved that she took my note with a sober mind and in the end did not get emotional about it.
In the meantime Biene was raving about the sunshine, warmth, beauty of a rocky coastline in a distant land in North Africa. I attributed the sudden and unexpected passion for Morocco to the extended periods of rain and depressing overcast skies we had experienced of late. But later she wrote about her grave concern for her pen pal. He had suddenly become ill and wanted her to come and visit him presumably in the hope for a miraculous recovery. The news came like a cold shower and considerably dampened my spirits. I realized that while I had read perhaps too much between the lines, Biene might have read too little. But who was I to assume that just because I had broken off the correspondence with Margret, Biene should do the same with her pen pals? So I did the right thing and expressed my sympathy with the fatally ill young man of Morocco. ‘Thousands of people’, I wrote, ‘die every day and it does not affect us. But if a friend or close relative passes away it is as if our world is falling apart. The bridges we so lovingly and carefully built to reach across suddenly collapse and only memories remain at the end.’
In the meantime my basic training was coming to an end and I was getting ready for the transfer to the Falckenstein barracks. There was a lengthy pause in the flow of mail. Biene’s high school class went on a field trip to Paris, which was intended to be a short immersion into French culture. Upon her return she sent me a long letter describing her exciting adventure with her class in France, but did not mention her Moroccan friend any more. I carefully avoided the topic. Instead, knowing that Biene was taking Latin classes at high school I boldly sent her a signal in Latin: Amor qui non agitur moritur, which means ‘Love that is not active dies.’