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.
The day of our official release from the West German Army had finally arrived. For the last time we stood in attention in front of the main building. One could easily spot the reservists and distinguish them from the soldiers on active duty by just looking at their clothes. We wore civilian clothes, while the others were standing in their uniform. In spite of all the drudgery during the past two years, it now felt good to have served one’s country. To prevent a war through the presence of a strong army as a deterrent to a would-be attacker was in my opinion far more important than being involved in a conflict with its horrors at the front line and with its casualties among the civilian population. I was grateful for the opportunity to spend my final six months in Marburg. I felt enriched by the outstanding technical training, blessed with a company of cheerful comrades, respected by a competent staff of officers and sergeants. Last but not least I was awarded a fine testimonial, which gave credit to my successful teaching assignments. Soon after the brief farewell speech and words of encouragements and good wishes by the commanding officer we walked through the open gate into momentary freedom until new duties and responsibilities – some of our own choosing, others forced upon us by circumstances beyond our control – would limit our choices all over again. But at this very moment we were truly free. I took the very first available train to take me home to my mother in Watzenborn. In an almost nostalgic mood I hummed in my mind: Parole heißt Heimat, Reserve hat Ruh!
Biene’s reply to my long-winded exposition on love and faithfulness was very encouraging. She also confided to me that only two years prior to meeting me she was not even allowed to step outside the door. Her mother, to whom I will remain for ever grateful, worried a lot about her, kept a watchful eye, and thoroughly investigated, where she was going and with whom she was getting together. At that time quite a few dramas were rolling over the home stage. Biene admitted that during that time she was often in danger of being swept up by her impulsive and passionate feelings. Mother Panknin kept her from getting lost on the wrong path and made sure that her precious daughter would not be led astray by false emotions. But now it seemed that she had trust in her daughter. And even though she had never really got to know me, through the eyes of her daughter she seemed to have developed a favorable image of me. How else, so I asked myself, could she let her travel to me and allow her to stay overnight at a distant location? On Biene’s last visit, before I departed for Canada, with full support of her parents, she came to visit me for an entire week. Perhaps Herr and Frau Panknin shared Biene’s older sister’s view believing that once I was off to another country far away from Biene, our relationship would eventually fizzle out and die a natural death.
On Monday, April 5th, Biene arrived by train in Giessen, where I met her at the station. From there we traveled together to Michelbach near Schotten at the foot of Mount Vogelsberg. The week before I had given Erna, Father’s second wife, advance notice that we were coming for a visit. She knew that this would be the very last time Biene and I would be seeing each other before my voyage to Canada. Even though she was still mourning over Father’s sudden and unexpected death the year before, she did her best to make us feel welcome in her so typical cheerfulness. Everything was prepared for a comfortable and enjoyable stay for us. I was going to sleep in Father’s bedroom upstairs, while Biene was sleeping in the guest room.
After a good night’s rest and a hearty breakfast, Biene and I decided to hike up to the Hoherodskopf, one of the higher peaks of the Vogelsberg Mountains, a 2500 square km terrain that was formed totally from volcanoes some 19 million years ago. This volcanic region has been long extinct. It had created one of the most amazing basalt rock formations anywhere in the world. But on this wonderful April day we were not going to study geology, we had better things in mind. We were more interested in each other’s company, living in the here and now, savouring each precious moment. It was cool, but the sun shone brightly over the park like landscape. Thunderclouds arising above the western horizon lent the vernal panorama a dramatic effect. We were grateful that we encountered very few people on our leisurely stroll, as it was early in the season. There was nothing that would disturb the warm, tender feelings we felt for one another. This was also not the time to look back at all the obstacles, challenges, and problems that we had to deal with in the past. We had mastered them and had set them aside not allowing them to interfere with our blissful state of mind.
There was no need to talk. Our hearts and souls felt at one. We reached the top just in time to find some shelter from a heavy downpour that was threatening to spoil our outing. Near the peak of the Taufsteinhütte we stepped into a cozy restaurant by the same name, when the first raindrops began to fall. The dining area created that special kind of ambience so conducive for a romantic get-together, each table place at a window with a view over the spectacular scenery. Just then lightning lit up the dark clouds. Then followed the rumbling of thunder in the distance. I ordered a bottle of Mosel wine to celebrate and drink to our love that had carried us so far and would help us bridge the long time of separation ahead. For on this day we had not only climbed Mount Voglsberg, but even more importantly we had also reached a new pinnacle in our relationship. The rain was now coming down in buckets. Thunder and lightning engendered an electric atmosphere. In a strange mixture of fear and passion it made us move closer together. In the spirit of ‘carpe diem’ we did not gulp down our wine as if in hurry, instead we sipped the sweet wine from the Mosel valley to make the moment last. We almost wished that the storm would last forever. At least for the moment, time appeared to stand still. When we tasted the last drop, the storm and rain had subsided and had moved on. Erna, having worried about us, had sent a neighbour to pick us up in his car. We reluctantly got up and with a feeling of regret let the neighbour drive us back to Michelbach.
On the following day Biene and I promenaded down to the quaint town of Schotten with their timber-frame houses so typical of this region. Biene was quite excited and full of anticipation. For I had announced that I would buy her a mystery gift. Of course, I could not tell her what it was; after all it was supposed to be a mystery gift. Biene behaved as if she knew the secret. Therefore, she kept her innate curiosity for all things unknown to her in check. If I had a picture of us two walking into town, I would in a comic-book-like fashion place two speech bubbles above our heads. The one above Biene would say, ‘Today is the day Peter will buy me an engagement ring. I will be so happy!’ And my bubble would say, ‘Today is the day I will buy her a genuine Hohner harmonica. She will be so happy!’ Had I not played the mystery game, had Biene said just one word, I would have bought the ring and put it on her finger for everyone, her parents, friends and all would-be suitors to see that she was engaged. Instead she was now in possession of a fancy harmonica that could be played on both sides in keys C and G. Biene looked pleased and even appeared happy, but I am sure that deep inside she was also a bit disappointed. What I could vaguely at the time was that we could have saved ourselves a lot of pain and agony in the not too distant future, if we had been able to communicate with each other just a little better.
It was the night before we had to head back to Mother’s place at Watzenborn Was it the moon, or the noisy cats prowling and meowing in the attic, or fear of the unfamiliar surrounding, or romantic passion stirring in us? Perhaps all of these things! The plain fact, however, was that we could not sleep. With the two upstairs bedrooms so close to each other it would have been so simple on any of the three nights to yield to temptation. But we did not. I would be a hypocrite, if I was going to explain our conduct in terms of a moral victory. It just happened, almost certainly for our own good.
It doesn’t matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was.
It had been more than five years, since I had seen Father. He had left one day looking for work at friends and relatives. Considering his poor health and age, he was faced with the dilemma of having to return to Wesel, where he would be dependent on Aunt Mieze’s financial support or else be content with the odd casual work, which barely supported his livelihood. Furthermore considering his intensive pride as a former successful agricultural administrator and the pain he must have suffered from the dismal failure of his farming venture in Southern Germany, I can understand his anguish and feelings of having become utterly worthless in his own eyes and in the eyes of his family. Pride and failure have never been good bedfellows in a man’s heart, and Father was no exception. As for me, I missed his presence a lot, but I was too timid to ask as to when he would come back and did not know what was going on behind the scenes. Much later I found out that with Uncle Günther’s support Mother had initiated divorce proceedings. On the basis of the law that required common residence and conjugal relations Mother was able to get a divorce in exchange for waiving any rights to financial support from Father. So to make this sad and depressing story short, Father after the divorce joined and not long afterwards married Erna Krämer, an old acquaintance from the Warthegau days, who lived in her rustic and cozy home in the village of Michelbach at the foot of Mount Vogelsberg north of Frankfurt.
The last summer holidays before graduation were only a few weeks away. It was also to be the last year Mother and Aunt Mieze would reside in Wesel. Uncle Günther and Aunt Lucie had invited them to live with them in Watzenborn-Steinberg (now Pohlheim), where all four would share the rent of a brand-new house that had been built by a teacher as a retirement home in the distant future. Naturally there was a lot of joyful excitement among the three Kegler siblings having been raised together at the parsonage in Grünewald and now having the chance of living once more under one roof. There was just one problem. How would I fit into the grand plan of bringing the family members together? A transfer to a high school in another province with different graduation requirements was out of the question. The solution was an obvious one. I had to stay behind and continue my studies later on in the fall, while they would move to the land of the Hessians. The decision to finish my secondary education in Wesel proved to become one of the great milestones and turning points of my life.
But for now at the beginning of the six-week break from school I had other things on my mind. I had to think of visiting Father. One of my old scout buddies sold me his moped for DM 50.00, a true bargain at the equivalent of ten monthly allowances. It had a peppy engine and in spite of being quite old was in excellent shape. The best part was that I did not need a driver’s license. Having always envied Klaus for his scooter, I now had my very own motorized transportation with which I could travel to Michelbach to see Father and his new wife Erna.
At a maximum speed of 50 km/h it took me all day to reach the scenic hill country around Mount Vogelsberg. Father and Erna gave me a warm welcome alleviating immediately all fear that Father 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.