On Sunday morning Mother, like always, lovingly prepared a sumptuous breakfast. Then on Biene’s request I played a selection of a few very simple classical guitar pieces composed by Carulli. As I was nervous and excited, I made quite a few mistakes. Going as far back as my early childhood years I had never suffered from stage fright. I had taken on challenging rôles in Christmas concerts and other major school events. But this was different. Biene was the audience. While she listened to my renditions with an understanding heart, she lovingly ignoring my mistakes. The frequent boners I committed bothered me all the more, since I often managed to play the tunes perfectly, when I had been alone. Then it was Biene’s turn to perform. I set up the microphone and the Grundig tape recorder to capture her voice. She recited in her soft, sweet voice the two poems she had written for me at Christmas. Although at the pinnacle of total bliss, I was unable to push away the nagging thought of something unspoken that needed to be said
This had so far been the very best get-together with Biene. Should we again with our hearts overflowing with wondrous feelings miss the golden opportunity for a good solid talk about our future. For the day was dragging on and Biene’s time to leave was rapidly approaching. Resolutely I invited Biene for a walk along the wintry trail behind the house. We were holding hands, as I began to talk.
In just a few months I would be traveling to Canada on the Ryndam, a ship of the Holland America Line. It would not mean permanent separation. I would simply go and check out to see if it was true, as my brother Gerry asserted, that I could become a teacher with only two or three years of university training. If it was indeed true, my next step would be to get admitted to the University of Alberta at Calgary with my German high school diploma (Abitur). If successful in fulfilling all entrance requirements I would devote all my energies to acquire a teaching certificate in the shortest possible time.
And then … I paused for a moment noticing in Biene’s dreamy eyes the expression of sweet anticipation of words never spoken or written before, which she had been expecting from me, the slowpoke, for such a long time. “And then,” I continued almost choking with emotion, “I will ask you to come and be my wife.” Now she squeezed my hand and her face was beaming. Little did I know that with these words I fulfilled her secret wish, which at home in Velbert had been conceived in her heart on New Year’s Eve! So with all our hitherto hidden desires so plainly revealed with my promise to marry her we huddled a little closer together on our way back to the house. To be sure, this was not entirely due to the ice and snow and the wintry chill in the air.
The heart has its reasons which reason knows not. Blaise Pascal
Biene and I had met twice in the early summer of 1964, each time for only a few hours, as I had a long train ride to get back to the barracks before midnight. Being completely incapable to feel happy for any length of time until then, I was amazed how my restless heart and mind could be in perfect harmony to permit that elusive sensation of happiness during those five wonderful hours I had spent with Biene along the shores of Lake Baldeney. This blissful feeling was further enhanced when Biene wrote that she now knew that I was no longer just a fantasy person, but a real human being she could love and be happy with.
Alas, barely two weeks later, while I was still deeply immersed in a state of euphoria, a letter from Biene arrived with an obscure message out of which I could make very little sense.
You will probably ask yourself why I haven’t written to you sooner. Indeed, you may ask this question. It is strange with me; for I can’t get rid of my sadness. When everything outside looks so peaceful and when I think of you, it is getting even worse. I would rather crawl into my bed being so much in pain and cry. How beautiful it is outside! The sun is shining and the wheat fields have already turned completely yellow and the stalks are swaying in the wind and making a gentle sound. Normally wheat fields fill me with joy and let me dream many a beautiful dream. And now?
I would like to talk to you about everything that moves me. But it is not because of you that I cannot do it. I have a great longing to be with you. But I cannot tell you what I want to tell you. It would increase my sadness, because I would hurt you, and I would like you so much to be happy, if you think of me. Please forgive me that I write nothing that would cheer you up. Normally, I am not like that. Now even beautiful memories don’t comfort me. I don’t want to think about anything of the past …”
I reread this passage at least half a dozen times in an effort to penetrate the veil, with which Biene may have covered a secret of the past. With all the talk in the male-dominated army, where many a room buddy had made himself an expert on what made the girls tick, on how to deal with their capricious behavior, on how to please them, what to do and what not to do, with all that half knowledge of the opposite gender floating around in the gossip mills, not one of the so-called specialists ever mentioned the devastating influence of the monthly period. I was completely ignorant about what most women had to put up with, their mood swings, feeling psychologically and physically down, often bordering on severe forms of depression. More likely than not, the topic was one of the few remaining taboos left in the otherwise rough and tumble world of the military environment. If only I had had an inkling of those terrible days, often labeled ‘the evil days’, then truly I would have worded my reply with greater understanding. But not knowing the true nature of her problem I merely encouraged her to unburden herself of her troubling past.
“Do you really believe, dear Biene, that I could be happy at your expense? I know that so much of your past has been left unexplained and remains shrouded in darkness. Now you write that the ‘before’ oppresses you or whatever else it might be. But you won’t say, because you don’t want to hurt me. How sweet of you! But you must understand me right. If you are not happy, I cannot be happy either. It makes no sense to shield me from your pain. On the contrary, the silence is more torturous. I start to dig in my memories and try to figure out what it is that bothers you. And someone, who contemplates, gets too many ideas. I’d rather be sad with you than to wander about in fateful darkness, where there is no room for true happiness. Does it have to do with Henk? Or haven’t I understood you yet? Are you afraid that I would some day be lost to you forever? A thousand questions that make me sick! Dear Biene, I ask you, be of good courage and write what oppresses you. Otherwise, I don’t feel happy any more …”
Then there was Biene’s question about my brother Adolf.
“Sometimes I think of your brother from Canada. I cannot understand that no girl would want to be his wife. If two love each other, it does not matter where the two are together, and if it were at the end of the world. Don’t you think so?”
It was obvious that Biene used the example of my brother Adolf to indirectly tell me that if I was going to Canada and stayed there, she would be willing to follow me and be my wife. However, dense as I was then with regard to her hypothetical questions, I failed to read between the lines – the very same ineptitude, of which I had often accused Biene in the past. Or was it that we both suffered from the same tendency to back off whenever we came dangerously close to making a commitment? So I lamely replied as if Adolf had truly been her main concern.
“You wonder, dear Biene, why Adolf can find no girl, who is willing to follow him to Canada. Have you ever put yourself into this position? Think about what a girl would have to give up: her parents, friends, dear acquaintances, her home country, etc. Girls cling much more to matters of the heart than boys. Adolf knows this …”
So we two continued to beat around the bush. We only indirectly described to each other our innermost desires and hopes and out of fear of appearing too bold, we foolishly held back and failed to openly state what really was important to us, our love for each other.
As a math teacher I have always been fascinated by numbers. Today, May 21st, on our anniversary, I see a special meaning hidden in the number of years Gertrud and I have been married.
7² = 49
For forty-nine years Gertrud (Biene) and I have been traveling through life’s pathways, some smooth, some rocky, but mostly straight with God’s help and guidance, who blessed us two with a wonderful family that over the years grew to seven members. We have been married seven times seven years.
The number seven is one of the most significant in the Bible. Scholars say it denotes completeness or perfection. After creating the world God rested on the seventh day and the seven-day week has been adopted by all human civilizations. The word “created” is used seven times in the Book Of Genesis in reference to the making of the world. Seven also symbolizes the unity of the four corners of Earth with the Holy Trinity. The number seven occurs more than 700 times throughout the Bible and 54 time in the Book Of Revelation, which refers to seven churches, seven angels, seven seals, seven trumpets and seven stars. Israel captured the city of Jericho after marching around it seven times, Solomon took seven years to build his temple, Job had seven sons and the great flood came seven days after Noah went into his ark. In the story of Joseph in Egypt there were seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. The list is almost endless. In all cultures the number seven has special meaning and is viewed as a lucky number.
I am happy that I found and married such a loving wife and caring mother of our five ‘boys’, Robert, Richard, Anthony, Michael and Stefan.
Now the path can finally be cleared to all sorts of government offices. First of all the application form for the passport needs to be procured. By this process the first decision regarding the success of this undertaking would be made. We are at the end of February. I am so bold and book at the travel agency the flight for the 24th of August – of course totally without any obligations; for I do not yet have any official confirmation or permit at that time. Meanwhile the application is being processed at my work place. I figure that my chances of success are good. After all, I am leaving a wife, two children, a house and property behind as ‘security’. That should convince the comrades at the State Security Service (Stasi) that I would definitely also take the return flight! With Walter and Peter’s help I request the necessary papers: the official invitation and confirmation of the school administration in Fauquier. To obtain these documents is no problem for Peter. Of course, they are written in English, so I need to get an officially certified translation with seal and signature.
In April I submit the application and receive the passport at the beginning of May. Now my departure has been secured. Now I need to get the entry visa to Canada. That would take up to 8 weeks, for the closest Canadian embassy is located in Warsaw. I am using the waiting period to plan the journey and the program. Walter and I arrange with the relatives in Toronto that we would spend the first week (Robert would be joining us later) to get to know the city. Walter is taking care of the tickets from Toronto to British Columbia.
In July the moment has finally come. The visa arrives. We all are informed, for now everything has been settled and the last round of preparations can begin. Twenty kg of luggage is quickly put together, for there should be a little gift for everyone. The special school candy bag (Zuckertüte) for Stefan is going to be the highlight. The ticket has been paid and I exchange 15 mark of GDR currency at the rate of one to one into West mark. More than that I am not permitted to have. Can you imagine? I am starting this journey half way around the globe with only 15 marks in my pocket, modest command of the English language, without cell phone, etc. ?
On August 24th my journey begins, first to Belgrade with overnight stay included in the price (remember I have only 15 marks), then on the next day on to Toronto. These are going to be four weeks filled with adventure and great experiences. Walter documented this in three big photo albums. I made hundreds of slides, which I could show later on many occasions to marveling GDR citizens.
The impressions and experiences I had on this my very own ‘world trip’ are going to be another chapter. In the contribution to this blog I just wanted to create an impression of the travel (im)possibilities in the German Democratic Rebublic, which nowadays one can hardly visualize.
And the best part comes here at the end: Up to the last moment I believed that there would be a big family celebration for Stefan’s introduction into the school system, as is the custom in Germany. I was greatly disappointed, because Stefan had been in school for over a year, just like his brothers in the Fauquier Elementary School, where their father had been the teacher for grades 4 to 7.