Alone at the Siemens Apartment Building
“Study hard, for the well is deep, and our brains are shallow.”
In search for a place to spend the next six months Mother had found a mini-apartment in a huge building complex that had been specifically built for single workers in the local Siemens factory. Small it was indeed. The room I called my own covered hardly an area of fifteen sq. m. I shared the hallway, which contained a few basic kitchen facilities, with an older man next door, who fortunately moved out before Christmas with no one moving in to replace him. On the right side of the hallway was the common bathroom with a shower instead of a bathtub. In spite of the limited space I was extremely happy to have my own four walls with a large window and even a tiny balcony facing the rising sun.
It was from here that I wrote my first letter to Biene’s twin brother Walter at the end of August. As promised I included schematics of electronic circuits that I thought might be of interest to him. Of course, I had not forgotten Biene, whose image began to fade in my mind, but whose idealistic afterglow I cherished all the more. “And do not forget to greet your parents and Biene from me,” I ended this letter and all subsequent ones. Walter promptly replied and inserted an advanced RC transistor diagram that was far too complex for me to understand or to be useful for my simple projects. But the desired connection had been made, and before long Biene and I were corresponding with each other. There were two important aspects to the letters, which were traveling back and forth between Velbert and Wesel. One, they opened a window and brought bright sunshine and fresh air into the often gloomy, stuffy interior of my soul; two, due to the physical distance we could write about our thoughts and feelings, wrapped up in a flowery language, carefully worded and lovingly presented. We opened our hearts to each other and discovered that we both had a romantic vein that was rich and seemed to be inexhaustible. In short, the seeds of our developing relationship had fallen on fertile ground. For me in particular, the correspondence proved to be a journey into the wonderful world of self-discovery. I enjoyed creating written tableaus depicting dream-like, often melancholic scenes with fact and fiction imaginatively intertwined. They engendered in a perpetual cycle an ever increasing sense of self-awareness. Reminiscing about a stopover at a railroad station I once wrote her.
Over the railroad station sways the moon. Its pale light flickers through dense patches of fog, and the moist shimmering rails vanish behind the impenetrable wall of uncertainty. I am pacing the empty platform up and down, three minutes forth, and three minutes back. Slowly, hesitatingly the heavy hand of the clock advances from one-minute mark to the next. Lost in thoughts I look up to the moon. The cold, damp forces of nature’s power attempt to snuff out its golden light. But it is not you, good moon, who are eluding me, you, the embodiment of all my happiness. No, around me lurk the cold forces; they seize me with their moist fingers. Oh happiness, you would always dwell among people, if darkness were not all around us that hides you and saddens my heart. Two lights emerge from out of the fog. They have a goal; they glide over solid tracks. I can put my trust in them. In vain the dense fog is clutching to hold the iron vehicle; it cannot delay its course. I step onboard. 22:20
Shortly after I had written the letter to Biene with its sentimental railroad story, I traveled by train to Rendsburg in Northern Germany to attend my eldest brother’s wedding. Karl’s bride was Ingrid Lehmann, born in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad), East Prussia, whose father was a retired sea captain. Karl was making sure that everything was prim and proper for the festivities. He checked out my clothes and appearance very carefully and was quite pleased with the new suit I was wearing. Even though I had shaved in the morning, Karl spotted the beginning of new growth darkening the area around my chin and requested for the sake of the important event another shave. Putting my usual stubbornness aside, I complied with his request.
With almost all close relatives present it was a memorable wedding. At the banquet Captain Lehmann and Uncle Günther solemnly delivered words of wisdom, reflections on their lost home provinces in the East, fine speeches, which were recorded on tape and can still be heard today on audio CD. It was here in Rendsburg that for the first time I was seriously contemplating about what it would be like to tie the knot and form a life-long partnership in marriage. I also began to see that hard work at school and university must come first to realize such dreams. I thought that as an electronics engineer I might have a fairly good income to support a wife and family.
One Drink Too Many
When I returned from my brother’s wedding, I resolved to be more goal-oriented, to study hard, to raise myself above mere mediocrity to an academic achievement I could truly be proud of. On the wall hung the work schedule, which I had imposed upon myself outlining a rigorous timetable: getting up at six, attending school from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., taking some time off till three, doing homework and studying till five. After supper followed another two hours of intensive study. I had a lot of catching up to do. An hour before it was time for me to go to bed. usually around ten o’clock, I critically reviewed my day. And if according to the work schedule I had passed the test, I rewarded myself (and only then) with a small shot of vodka and let the pleasant warmth penetrate my body as a form of instant relaxation. The master allowed the slave to temporarily forget the self-imposed burden. At moments like these I would grab my guitar, play a few simple classical pieces composed by Carulli, or take out the harmonica and strike up a potpourri of folksongs, pop music or my favorite scouting melodies.
At times when I felt in a creative mood, I would open the metal box with a dozen or so water colors and try my untrained hands to paint a picture often with a futuristic theme inspired by my voracious reading of science fiction novels. One picture (see above) depicts a romantic scene showing a young couple sitting on a park bench under the light of the full moon. High above the horizon towers the head of a helmeted space woman of a distant century in the future, whose envious eyes are glaring down on the romantic couple below.
Wilhelm, my classmate, came to school from a neighboring town. His father produced apple juice, with which he tried to compete with the popular Coca Cola product that was making economic inroads into the German beverage market. Wilhelm once demonstrated in our school how corrosive coke was by filling two glasses, one with his father’s apple juice and the other with coke. He then threw an iron nail into each glass. In the following week, when we entered the chemistry lab, we were astounded by what we saw. The nail in the glass filled with coke was completely encrusted with rust, whereas the one in the apple juice was still shiny and unaffected. However, we failed to see the connection to the possible ill effects that the popular drink might have on our sensitive stomach linings.
It was about two weeks before Christmas, when Wilhelm came up to my apartment and brought me a 10-liter jug of apple juice. I placed it on the hot water radiator. Without the aid of a wine making kit with its expensive accessories we embarked on producing a cider by letting Mother Nature do the job. After only a few days I could report to my friends in school that bubbles were rising in the bottle, a certain indication that the process of fermentation had begun. Hans, Helmut, Wilhelm and I were already looking forward to our Christmas break party with the potent apple wine in the making. Soon the bacteria finding ample food in the juice and turning the sugar into alcohol multiplied a million times over generating CO2 at first weakly fizzing, then growing into a crescendo very much like the sound of rushing waters. Finally the bacteria had done their duty, and the homemade cider was ready for the party. School was out. In the New Year the final race would come to the finish line. The dreaded written and oral exams were looming on the horizon. So we four all felt the need to let go and put aside for a while our worries and graduation blues. I had put the jar outside into the wintry air on the balcony to chill the brew into a refreshing drink. We made ourselves as comfortable as possible in my tiny room. My three friends were sitting on the couch that converted into a bed and I sat on the only chair at my desk, whose prominent occupant was the giant jug with its delicious content. I poured the cider into coffee mugs. There were no glasses in the mini-kitchen. At first we had a serious talk about our plans for the future. The classroom genius Hans wanted to enroll at the Marburg University to study nuclear physics; Helmut, the lawyer’s son, was seeking a position in economics; Wilhelm planned to embrace a teaching career, and I had set my eyes on becoming an electronics engineer specializing in high frequency technology.
I poured us another cup of that deceptive cider that tasted like a refreshing fruit drink but carried a powerful punch. Hans tuned my guitar and starting picking a few melodies. Most Siemens workers in the building had gone home to their families. The apartment building was almost devoid of people. So there was nobody we would disturb with our singing. After another cup we had reached the point where singing had become the necessary ingredient for the continued success of the party. The vocal chords well lubricated by the smooth drinks were ready to metamorphose us into a cheerful bunch of young men.
To the great delight of my friends, after we had gone through our favorite scouting and traveling songs, I offered to sing a spiritual to express my sentiments over our oppressive teachers in school: “When Israel was in Egypt’s land, let my people go. Oppressed so hard, they could not stand …”, which I sang with the deepest voice I could muster without floundering. Now Hans injected rhythm into the life of the party and played masterfully one of the Flamenco style pieces with the beats being pounded vigorously on the guitar body. “That was the rendition of our friend and maestro worthy of another drink”, I said. By now the content of the 10-liter jug had dropped to about the halfway mark. Suddenly Helmut got up and said he had to go to the bathroom. The way he staggered into the hallway made it clear that he had already had too much to drink. Someone said, “I hope he’ll find the toilet in time. He looks ‘blau’ (German slang for drunk) to me!” Now one must know that in Germany you locked the bathroom door with a key. Poor Helmut must have taken it out and dropped it on the floor. All of a sudden we heard him call, “Let me out! You locked me in!” We rushed into the hallway and tried to convince him that he was the one who locked himself in and that he would have to find the key. “It is not in the lock”, he complained.
“Then it must be on the floor. Look for it”, we replied. Finally he located the key. What came next is incredible. Helmut’s level of intoxication was so far advanced that his eye-hand coordination was severely hampered. He was unable to insert the key into the keyhole. Imagine the hilarious scene, in which we three friends tried very hard to give him directions how to put the key into the hole. I was just about going to call the janitor for help, when Helmut managed to open the door. He looked pale and disgruntled, whether it was out of embarrassment or intoxication, we could not tell. Without saying good-bye he took his coat and left. Needless to say the bathroom incident had put a damper on the jolly time we were having. Nobody felt like having another drink. The party was over.
From Graduation into Carnival
When school continued in the first week in January, I avoided all distractions and focused all my energies on last minute studies. By now the school administration had let us know the subjects and topics, in which we were to receive our oral examinations. For me it was Charles V in History and Calculus in Mathematics. In the remaining four weeks I emptied an entire bottle of vodka, which one could take as evidence for my industriousness. I rarely missed to fulfill my daily work quota. Indeed I would go sometimes overboard and even skip my time for relaxation with guitar or harmonica. One morning I woke up late. I was shocked to discover that I had forgotten to set the alarm clock. School had already started, so I quickly jumped into my clothes, grabbed my books, and without having had breakfast I raced to school in record time and barged into the classroom, where my homeroom and German teacher Herr Aufderhaar had just begun a lesson on German romanticism. Because he was bald and also taught religion, we had given him the nickname ‘Kahler Jesus’, which means Bald Jesus in English. He took one look at me and instead of being angry about my tardiness showed remarkable understanding for my circumstances. He teased me good-naturedly and remarked to the entire class, “Klopp is not just late for class. He did not even shave!”
For the oral exam in History I was well prepared. The main topic that I was given was the era of Reformation with special consideration to the way Emperor Charles V dealt with the schism that threaten to tear apart the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations. I had about thirty minutes to write down a few notes for my presentation. Then when my turn had come and I was led into the somber exam room, I described in poignant details the political struggles of the emperor against France and the Turks and the frustrations he, as a good catholic, experienced with the rapid spread of the protestant revolt against the corrupt Church of Rome. I was no longer the timid student who once stood trembling with fear in front of our history teacher. I boldly and convincingly expounded all the pertinent factors that determined Germany’s future historical and religious landscape. I took the entire time allotted for the oral exam. So the committee of principal and teachers had no time to ask any unsettling questions at the end. I walked away with the confident feeling that I had consolidated my satisfactory standing in History. Also in Math I was able to prove that I deserved a better final grade. My task was to find a solution for the total amount of work required to dig a cylindrical hole of a certain depth. Herr Müller, my beloved math teacher in the senior division, guided me through this difficult problem of integration. He so cleverly posed the right questions that they contained valuable hints allowing me to bring the session to a successful conclusion. It would have been nice to express my gratitude to an excellent teacher some fifty years later. Unfortunately, while I was searching the school Website I found out that he had passed away the year, before I started to write our family history.
With the prestigious graduation certificate (Abitur) in our possession we had access to many postsecondary programs offered by the German universities. As for me, two years of military service at the Bundeswehr (West German army) had to come first. In those days it was still possible to enlist as a volunteer for a period of 24 months instead of the mandatory 18 months with the advantage of receiving a handsome salary, becoming an officer of the reserve, and being able to choose an army unit in keeping with one’s technical abilities. I opted for service in the signal corps, a choice that definitely reflected my interest in electronics and communication technologies.
It so happened that the graduation exercises had ended exactly at the start of the carnival season. Being together one last time with my friends and classmates, before we would scatter into all directions, I made full use of the golden opportunity to celebrate the great milestone and to lose myself in the relaxed atmosphere of the dance hall, forgetting the trials and tribulations before graduation and not worrying for the time being about the future. When the time of drinking, dancing and attending late night parties was over, I was physically exhausted, but for the moment I felt free as if a heavy burden had been taken off my shoulders.
I had not forgotten Biene. Now with more time at my disposal I wrote her a letter bringing her up to speed on my success at school and the tumultuous days at the carnival festivities. But what mattered the most I found the courage to express my feelings about what was so special about her in my mind. At the campground in the spring the year before I had discovered in her appearance the natural beauty that needed no cosmetic enhancement with rouge, lipstick or artificial hair color. Biene for me embodied the ideal image of a girl. In the letter I gave her my father’s address hoping that she would reply.
Basic Military Training
The soldier is the Army. No army is better than its soldiers. The soldier is also a citizen. In fact, the highest obligation and privilege of citizenship is that of bearing arms for one’s country.
George S. Patton Jr.
The train wound its way through the picturesque Lahn valley to my destination in Koblenz, where I was to receive my basic army training. I had celebrated my 21st birthday in the new home that Mother, Aunt Mieze, Uncle Günther, Aunt Lucie were renting in Watzenborn-Steinberg. After the traditional coffee and cake party we played several rounds of our favorite card game ‘Doppelkopf’ in the evening.
Aunt Mieze was not fond of playing cards, so I had become a valuable game partner now and for all future occasions when I came for a visit. My aunt would rather sit a good distance apart from the noisy bunch in an easy chair and read a book. Often she would fall asleep in spite of the racket we made around the card table. Then the book she was reading would slip out her hands and fall on the wooden floor with a loud thud. Mother suggested to her to go to bed. However, she rather wanted to have the feeling of being part of the family than to give in to nature’s urgent call to sleep. Now on my way to the barracks I had the train compartment all to myself and while passing by ancient castles on the hillsides above the lazily meandering river below I had time to contemplate about the military service that I was about to render to my country. I was now of age, had the right to vote, could do things on my own, I was free, and yet, as I was approaching the city of Koblenz, I felt that I was not. I had simply traded one set of responsibilities for another. And I wondered whether that would always be that way.
In the early afternoon of April 1st I walked through the barracks gate carrying my suitcase with the few personal belongings we were allowed to bring during the training period. After I identified myself to the guards on duty as one of the new recruits, I proceeded to the building, where I was told I would find further instructions on the bulletin board located on the ground floor. There were about a dozen buildings all in the nondescript shape of rectangular boxes placed around a huge yard that served as the ‘playground’ for the military practice and drill sessions. The entire area was almost devoid of people. The previous generation of soldiers had been successfully ‘calved’ and been transferred for further training to the three major technical companies of the Signal Corps located in the city. Expecting the place to be brimming with activity where there was none gave me an eerie feeling as if I had erred perhaps on the start-up date or worse had fallen victim to a nasty April Fool’s trick. When I looked through the names list of some 120 men, I found it somewhat reassuring that Klopp was indeed on the roster. I even had a rank, which I shared with the other newcomers. From now on until I had advanced to the rank of a private, I would be Fu Peter Klopp, Fu not standing for a four-letter word, but rather more appropriately for ‘Funker’ (radio operator). I was assigned to Room 203, which meant Room 3 on the second floor in the three-story building. The extremely wide staircase surprised me and I wondered about the waste of space until I discovered that there was a method to the madness of the architect’s design of the overly generous width of the staircase and of the hallways. How else during an alarm could 120 soldiers rush out of the building in the required three minutes?
I was the first to enter Room 203. Although later on I had sometimes regrets about my eagerness to report for duty, my early arrival had the advantage that I could pick and choose the best location for my bed and closet. The room was definitely not set up for comfort. In the middle of the austere room stood a long table, around which 15 chairs were placed. Five bunks with three beds each were pushed against the walls. Each soldier would have for his personal belongings, army clothes and equipment a lockable wooden closet. The placement of these lockers was such that they formed a partial visual barrier between some of the bunks, thus granting a modicum of privacy. I chose the bottom bed of the bunk nearest to the left window and the closest locker for easy access. I was happy about my choice. The window would provide fresh air and the bottom bed would to some modest degree protect me from the disgusting bodily fumes permeating the entire room, especially after the soldiers returned from the local pubs, where low quality beer was being served.
I opened up the closet and stowed away my clothes, toiletry items, Mommsen’s ‘History of Rome’ and a few other books, which I intended to read during the weekends, during which we were not allowed to leave the barracks. There was plenty of room left. The empty shelves were waiting to be filled with army garb from the quartermaster on the very next day. When my belongings were neatly put away in the closet, I locked it securely with a padlock. It was considered just as great a crime to tempt your fellow soldier with an unlocked closet, as it was to steal from it. I put a pocketbook on the pillow of my spartan bed as a sign that I had claimed it as my own. Then I went outside and enjoyed sitting on the retaining wall of large circular pond in the late afternoon sun watching as the other recruits came trickling in at first, then eventually swelling to a human flood, as the deadline of the arrival time was rapidly approaching. Today we were still civilians. Tomorrow we would be soldiers wearing uniforms (derived from Latin ‘una forma’, meaning one form, one shape), individuals still on the inside, but a gray mass of young men pressed into the same mold of dress code, rules, military routines and activities. With the total uniformity of regulated daily life came the assault on our individuality with its profound effect on character and soul. Life in the army became the crucible, in which our character was put to the test, and for me, even though very painful at times, the process brought about refinement, which prepared me well for the many challenges further down the road in my personal life.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Good Samaritan of Room 203
By the beginning of May the intensity of military training increased dramatically. We were going on long marches clothed in battle fatigues carrying heavy equipment on our back and the rifle slung over the shoulder. During the training exercises we were crawling through dirt and mud on elbows and knees. All such activities plainly showed that the honeymoon was over. It is said that the best sleep is the one before midnight. One night we had just fallen asleep, when a piercing whistle blow in the hallway ripped us out of the deepest slumber.
“Get up! Hurry! Muster completely dressed in combat uniform!” Threatening voices were echoing through the hallways. The lights had been switched off. It was pitch dark. If you ever tried to get dressed in complete darkness, you will know the state of utter chaos and confusion we found ourselves in. There were quite a few soldiers who pulled their boots on their bare feet, because they could not find their socks. After three minutes we lined up at the courtyard in a relatively straight line with helmet, rifle, and full marching gear.
“Back in three minutes in your sports attire!” shouted the sergeant. Then we knew that this was going to be one of those ridiculous chicaneries that had no value except perhaps to test our willingness to obey without questioning orders no matter how senseless they appeared to be. The masquerade, as we would call it, lasted till one o’clock in the morning leaving us only a few hours of sleep. The very next morning we marched to a remote hill near the Moselle river where we ‘practiced’ the fine art of lying down and getting up and similar grotesque exercises. Like the rest of my comrades, I found them very tiring and annoying.
More enjoyable for me were the long marches. We had learned a large number of marching songs. They were peppy, they had rhythm and with their frequent reference to a soldier’s sweetheart tended to romanticize the otherwise unromantic world of army life. They lent to a marching column of soldiers the spirit that brought joy and strength to endure the drudgery of marching for endless miles in the heat and dust of the country roads. To make sure that the entire company would know which song to sing the soldier on the left in the front row would holler at maximum volume the title of the song, which would be repeated by the men behind him, until it had reached the very end of the marching column. The soldiers at the rear would then shout, “Song through!” That was the signal to all to start singing on the next step. The singing soothed the strain of the march, alleviated the fatigue, and let us forget the pain and discomfort of the heavy load on our back very much like the spirituals once providing relief to the black slaves working in the cotton fields of colonial America.
After such ordeals we frequently had a party in Room 203, seeking comfort in the merry companionship enhanced by drinking copious amounts of the cheap Koblenz brew available in the large half liter bottles. We sang our favorite army songs and shared the latest jokes not necessarily all clean. The corporal responsible for order on the second floor would occasionally join us and in my view was a freeloader with easy access to free beer. A roommate who had been barhopping returned just as we were cleaning up. He was so intoxicated that he could barely stand. The ten o’clock deadline was approaching, at which time we all had to be in bed except for the soldier on duty that week. The room had to be spick and span for the upcoming nightly inspection. Since the party had produced quite a mess, we all chipped in and helped to wipe the table clean, removed the empty bottles, and swept the floor. Meanwhile our drunken comrade barely managed to slip into his pajamas and then with great difficulty crawled into his bed, which fortunately was at the bottom of the bunk. The corporal who had participated in the drinking and carousing was grateful enough to overlook a multitude of infractions against the rules of cleanliness, such as the ashtray that someone had forgotten to empty. He had just closed the door to move on to Room 204, when a retching sound came from the corner, where our intoxicated friend had rolled out of his bed and fallen limply onto the wooden floor with a dull thud. He was unable to get up. The room was swirling around him. He made a desperate attempt to crawl on all fours to the door hoping perhaps that someone would be so kind to open it for him. He badly needed to go to the bathroom. But it was too late. He gagged in convulsive spasms. The stomach could no longer hold its disagreeable content and ejected it like in a violent volcanic eruption. Presently the stench of the vomit permeated the entire room. If we had not become somewhat accustomed to other unpleasant smells, of which beer farts were the worst kind, we too would have been sickened by this odoriferous environment. Horrified by sight, sound and smell we lay frozen in our beds and did nothing. How quickly could the boozer have received help, the floor cleaned up and the room aired, if we all had been ready to help? Then a miracle of tender love for one’s fellow human beings unfolded before our very eyes. The violinist – I later called him the Good Samaritan – climbed down from his bunk, opened his closet and took out some towels and a washcloth. From the bathroom down the hallway he brought a pail of water. Within the next few minutes he had the poor fellow all cleaned up, had helped him into a clean pair of pajamas and had gently heaved him back into his bed. Then he opened all the windows, wiped the smelly vomit with his own towels off the floor, went back to the bathroom to return the pail and wash up. Finally he came back and quietly climbed into his bed. From that night on, my friend, the violinist had gained my highest respect and admiration for the love that he had shown to one of his comrades of Room 203.
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.’
Sorrows of Young Peter
“The Five W’s of Life:
WHO you are is what makes you special. Do not change for anyone.
WHAT lies ahead will always be a mystery. Do not be afraid to explore.
WHEN life pushes you over, you push back harder.
WHERE there are choices to make, make the one you won’t regret.
WHY things happen will never be certain. Take it in stride and move forward.”
With the transfer to the Falckenstein Barracks in Koblenz things were looking up for me. Our room was only slightly smaller than the one we had at the basic training camp, but instead of fifteen men only ten would share the sleeping facilities. The only drawback at the beginning was that the windows were facing one of the major north-south traffic arteries. The noise from the trucks and cars was considerable and lasted right through the night. At first I thought I could not sleep at all in a room inundated by the roar of engines and swishing of tires even with the windows closed. But little by little I got used to it and like the loud surf at the seashore at the Baltic Sea it no longer bothered me after a few days. I am sure that if the din below had suddenly stopped the silence would have woken me up.
Also the pace of our daily routines significantly slackened. We still had to line up and stand at attention for the morning and noon announcements. But there were now more instructional sessions both theoretical and practical with emphasis on specialization depending to which of three major groups we belonged in the signal corps. The linemen were responsible for connecting the various field centers during military exercises. They had from a physical perspective the toughest job. Rain or shine, heat or cold, their task was to unroll miles of cable and when the maneuver was over roll it back onto the empty drums on their backs. I had the good fortune that I was assigned to the second group. I was working inside a Mercedes truck packed with electronic gear, which I had learned to operate during my training sessions. The linemen would arrive huffing and puffing after a strenuous march through forests and fields. All I had to do was to connect the wires to the carrier frequency sets, call up my counterpart at the other end and tune up the line so that it would be capable of carrying several channels at once. It was the latest technology in those days, but miniscule by today’s standards, where thousands of telephone calls can be placed over a single wire or a wireless connection. The third and most prestigious group consisted of the wireless operators trained to set up and maintain point-to-point, line-of-sight connections. To be useful, the linemen also had to connect them by cable to our stations. I liked maneuvers of this kind, especially the ones that lasted a whole week, and often as a bonus resulting in an extra long weekend pass. It was during these action filled times that I began to reflect on the career proposal the captain had made to me less than a month ago. During guard duty, which I had to do every three weeks or so, whenever my turn was announced on the company bulletin board, I had also some time to do some thinking on the purpose and meaning of military service in a world that lived under the spell of the Cold War and under the threat of a massive attack by communist forces to take over Western Europe. While walking inside the fenced perimeter of our barracks I was searching for answers to those questions that popped up in my mind during those boring two-hour shifts in the dead of night. I composed a poem, which I included here in the hope that not too much is lost in translation.
Drearily the rain is falling.
I am walking in monotone even steps.
Nothing is moving in the semi-darkness.
Radio trucks like monsters are staring at me.
They appear to mock me,
Indeed threaten to devour me.
You servants of men!
To what end are you being abused?
Aren’t you defending freedom and peace?
If you prevent that
For which you have been built,
Then sacred is your presence.
Yeah, just stare at me!
Your power brings me joy.
And I am walking past them
In monotone even steps.
To avoid war, an army must be strong so that an aggressor will understand that nothing would be gained and much more would be lost. It was the balance of power that kept the peace in the Cold War period, in which I was a soldier.
Discussion with a Friend on the Nature of Love
Mother had just returned from a visit to Gerry, daughter-in-law Martha and her one-year old grandson Wayne in Medicine Hat, Alberta. It so happened that I was on a ten-days leave and spent a relaxing vacation with her and Aunt Mieze, Aunt Lucie and Uncle Günther at their wonderful house in Watzenborn-Steinberg (Pohlheim). Mother talked a lot about her exciting trip to Canada. The proud grandmother had traveled with Gerry’s family over the Rocky Mountains all the way to beautiful British Columbia. Gerry described the countryside with its lush valleys, wild rushing streams, spectacular scenery and mild climate as God’s country. True to a long family tradition in the Kegler branch of the family, Mother wrote a report of her experiences of her journey to the land of the beavers.
Biene’s school holidays were approaching. In 1962 her family had spent their vacation on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. Now they were planning to spend a couple of weeks at Lake Ammer in Bavaria. Even though I felt my love for Biene was getting stronger with every passing week, I did not openly declare it to her, because I erroneously assumed that she would already know. When she once asked me if I had ever been in love, I missed the golden opportunity to reveal what was on my heart. Instead I used a ride on my brand-new bicycle as a metaphor to describe in the most abstruse way the chaotic state of my inner being. I described how I got lost in the woods. I did not know which way to choose to get out. I dug deep into my psyche, too deep for comfort. Not yet realizing that the good and the evil lie close together within each and every human being, I criticized the world for failing to give me directions. Blind as a bat to my own flaws and weaknesses, I declared the entire world with its political systems, the church, and the army rotten and corrupt. These pathetic meanderings of my mind did very little to express my true feelings for her and would have been better left unsaid.
For the remaining three or four days I went on a bicycle tour with Dieter, my new army buddy. We traveled first up the River Moselle, then climbed up into the Eifel Mountains and stopped at a beautiful campsite named Pomerania, which reminded me of my grandparents’ lost home province in the east. At nightfall we sat in front of our tent looking at the rising moon in a cloudless sky. The day before I had bought a bottle of Moselle wine, a Riesling well known for its distinguished qualities due to the grapes, which incredibly ripen more fully during extended periods of autumnal fog in the river valley. Gazing at the crescent of the rising moon I remarked, “If me girl-friend in Velbert also looked at the moon this very minute, our eyes would be fixed on the same heavenly object and in some esoteric way we would be connected with one another.”
Dieter chortled a few times, before he retorted, “But my friend, don’t be an idiot. That is not the same as being physically present. When I kiss my beloved Heidi, I know real love, love that you cannot even fathom with your strange romantic ideas in your head.” And that was the beginning of a long discussion on the nature of love. When we had savored the last drop of the wine and were ready to crawl into the tent, we had moved away from our opposite points of view and found some middle ground. We agreed that in order for a relationship to be meaningful both the physical and spiritual dimensions would have to be present. We learned something important from each other. As for me, I resolved to arrange a rendezvous with Biene at the first opportunity that would offer itself in the near future. But you never know to start with, how things turn out in the end.
Storm Clouds on the Horizon
In the meantime Biene had an exciting vacation with her family in Bavaria, often went paddling on Lake Ammer with her parents’ folding boat. She and her twin brother Walter almost drowned, when their boat capsized in a violent storm. They traveled to the German Alps and even took a gondola ride up to the Zugspitze, which is with an altitude of 3000 m the highest mountain in Germany. She returned home filled with wonderful memories. There was so much to tell, but the flow of letters began to ebb. The intervals between them began to widen into two-week gaps. Something must have happened that made me worry. Had my letters lost its fervor? Were the thoughts expressed too philosophical, self-centered, out of touch with reality? I could not tell.
Fall was a beautiful time in Koblenz. The park at the German Corner, located at the confluence the Rivers Moselle and Rhine, was ablaze with brilliant red, yellow and orange colors. There I often sat on a park bench alone away from the noisy inner city and read about the fall and utter destruction of Rome’s rival Carthage in Mommsen’s History of Rome. I was fascinated to discover that the cause of the three Punic wars was the same as of most other conflicts in the history of mankind, namely the desire for economic power and growth at the expense of some other country. I gained important insights into the ways in which imperialistic expansions were intertwined with a general decay of the moral fiber of a nation. I saw so many parallels in our modern world that I contemplated writing a novella on the mighty city on the North African shore, if I could only add and weave in some personal experiences to the story to make it more interesting. These experiences were coming my way faster than expected, and in the end I got more than I had bargained for. Indeed I would have preferred not to write the novella in exchange for the pleasant status quo.
I had just settled into the routine of orderly army life with its duties of monthly night watches, sessions of theoretical and practical instructions and the occasional maneuvers, which I enjoyed more and more, because they took place in the great outdoors away from the stuffy barracks in the city. Then a command from the newly formed signal corps at Maxhof in Bavaria went out to all army divisions to provide two truck drivers each. Our crafty commanding officer in Koblenz selected private Gauke and me for the transfer effective October 1st, even though we had no driver’s license for those colossal Mercedes communications trucks. Obviously, he wanted to keep his precious truck drivers for himself. We were told that we would receive professional training and certification that could be very useful later on, when we returned to civilian life. However, it was immediately clear to my that with the transfer to Maxhof, I would lose out on the chance of becoming part of the upcoming officer’s training program. It would upon successful completion raise me to the rank of a lieutenant of the reserve with a much higher pay-out at the end of my two-year term. The wheels had been set in motion. I had no recourse to an appeal process. The decision was final. I was devastated.
One Misfortune Never Comes Alone
I was still reeling under the blow of the unexpected military transfer to Maxhof, Bavaria, when another one hit me like a bolt out of the blue. Biene wrote that she had met a young Dutch man by the name of Henk, to whom she was now engaged. They were dreaming about their own home at the edge of a forest near the city of Arnhem and were planning to get married. The news nearly tore me apart, all the more as Biene described our relationship as merely a nice correspondence between friends. Although my emotions were running high, I immediately responded to her letter and thanked her for being honest. It was a miracle of sort that I agreed to keep writing her. That promise was so terribly out of character, so contrary to what my pride and sense of honor would have allowed me to do that there was only one explanation. I was still in love with her.
Sleepless nights followed. I held endless conversations with myself. At times I would place the entire blame on my shoulders. Dieter was perhaps right, when he said that a kiss is more powerful than words, passion stronger than tender sentiments expressed merely in letters. Then the American folk song ‘On Top of Old Smokey’ was going through my mind during those agonizing hours of wakefulness. The apparent truth of the line ‘I lost my true lover for courting too slow’ hit me especially hard. Suddenly the pendulum swung into the opposite direction. For a short while, I found relief by putting the blame on Biene. ‘Surely, one does not get engaged overnight’, I argued. ‘Why didn’t she write me sooner? Why did she allow the correspondence to drag on so long? What about her other pen pals, the young man from Morocco for example? Does she want to keep all her options open? Is she like a bee, as her name implies, flying in a kind of romantic dance from flower to flower to see where she would find the sweetest nectar?’ Having experienced both ends of the emotional spectrum, I finally settled for a more balanced view. The wildly swinging pendulum was coming to rest in the middle. Concern for Biene pushed anger and jealousy aside; she might have responded to the lure of marital bliss too quickly. These internal monologues went on and on through several nights, at the end of which I was completely exhausted. But I had calmed down enough to finish my letter to Biene with the words, “Just one thing you must promise me. If you perceive a danger for your happiness in that you cannot distinguish between true friendship and love between a man and a woman or if your future husband does not like our correspondence, then have the courage to say goodbye. For I do not want to destroy your happiness.”
With my Phillips tape recorder in one hand and a heavy suitcase in the other, train tickets and army papers in my wallet, I stepped on the Intercity train to Munich. Private Gauke, whose first name I no longer recall, accompanied me to our destination. We were both in uniform, as this was a requirement when traveling on official assignments. While the high-speed electric train was rushing toward the Bavarian capital, Gauke tried to cheer me up by pointing out all the advantages of the prestigious truck driver’s license later in civilian life. But he succeeded only partly in pulling me out of my morose taciturn shell. He did not yet know about the other problem, for which the possession of a driver’s license offered no solution. In Munich we had to catch a local train to Starnberg. Thousands of passengers were milling about the main station. At the crowded automated billboard announcing arrival and departure times I spotted the wrinkled face of my former scout leader, Günther von A. He was as surprised to see me, as I was to see him. What were the chances of this occurring? Once in a million or less. And what were the chances of still being in love with Biene? The question made me think about fate and destiny, a topic that philosophers and theologians great and small have been grappling with for centuries, a can of worms, which I decided in my present state of mind to leave unopened.
Maxhof, a modern army training center, was a pleasant surprise to me. In contrast to the drab sameness of the 19th century design of the Falckenstein barracks, Maxhof impressed me with its pleasant appearance. It had more the looks of a hypermodern youth hostel than of a military building complex. Trees and ornamental shrubs surrounded the sleeping quarters, the cafeteria, and the administration building. There were even flowerbeds at the main entrance. Best of all was the room, where we were going to sleep. With its comfortable beds, its large windows with a view from the park-like setting all the way up to the nearby mountains, its brightly painted walls, a spacious desk for Gauke and me, all I needed was Mother’s fancy tablecloth, a vase with some pretty fall flowers to have the illusion of being at home.
Gauke and I reported for duty the following morning at the main building. There was a momentary kafuffle over us two soldiers from Koblenz. Apparently the officer in charge of the transfer was supposed to have provided certified truck drivers. The officer behind the counter was very much upset over being cheated out of two valuable experienced drivers. But in the end he assigned us to a driving instructor and informed us to show up for our lessons the very next morning. Gauke and I could hardly show restraint in our ecstatic joy over this most fortunate turn of events. Apart from our first positive impressions about the physical surroundings we noticed with glee that there were no mandatory line-ups, no check-ups of room, closet, and clothes; this was army heaven.
After two weeks of enjoyable driving lessons on the big Mercedes trucks, the compass needle of my inner life was no longer spinning out of control. More than three weeks had passed by now. Biene had not yet responded to my letter and I thought that if our correspondence was to end it should at least end on a good note. So I wrote,” … A relationship, no matter how you look at it, which had so beautifully and lovingly developed, is not the kind that we just break off. Something of that, which we shared, will remain open and will eat forever at our hearts. Therefore, I would like to amiably end, what we have so amiably started. Let us if not in reality then at least symbolically shake hands and without any bitter feelings part from each other. I am thankful for all the dear letters and tell you once more that you have given me much during the time of inner trouble and distress. Please do not turn down my last request, dear Biene, and write to me just one more time. One last sign from you, and I will be content…”
But there was no sign, and I was not content.
Destruction of Ancient Carthage
A Metaphor for Emotional Turmoil
There was enough explosive emotional energy bottled up inside me. Having no one to write to, I had to return to the unfinished novella to release it. At the park bench near the German Corner in Koblenz I had most of its content on Carthage written up in my notebook. The personal experiences making the story come alive were missing though. Now they were burning with a searing fire in my heart. My fingers were itching to commit them to paper.
Our driving lessons had unexpectedly ended. We were told that the instructor was needed elsewhere and we would start over together with the next batch of soldiers coming in to render the course more efficient. Gauke and I were delegated to work in the office. The assignment was to catalog the total electronic equipment with all its individual parts down to the last nut and bolt. Thus, we created a giant database for the signal corps stationed at Maxhof. I dictated the names and parts numbers and Gauke typed. One can hardly imagine anything more boring than this. But there was one advantage. We only worked during regular office hours, and we were done with our daily chores of number crunching by 4:30 p.m.
So I had more time than ever before to write in the semi-private room of our Maxhof residence. The historical sections of the novella heavily leaned on Mommsen’s historical work ‘History of Rome’ and to the best of my knowledge they described the power politics and Machiavellian schemes of Rome very accurately. My heart, which had lost two girlfriends within the span of less than six months, was the fertile breeding ground for the stuff that good writing feeds on. I transformed my former pen pal Margret, into Bersika, the daughter of a wealthy member of the Peace Party of Carthage to make the final dramatic encounter in the burning capital of the Carthaginians more believable. On the other hand, Claudia (Biene) and her twin brother received a more realistic description reflecting our first encounter at Lake Baldeney and the ensuing correspondence, which had ended so painfully. On the Palatine Hill in Rome Publius (Peter) and his friend became acquainted with an old sage, who introduced the young men to the philosophical center piece of the novel, which reflected my ideas, in part burrowed from Democritus, on God and His creation and how He lives within it in a mysterious interplay between mind and matter. The destruction of Carthage, the fierce house to house street fighting, the slaughter of tens of thousands of civilians, the senseless resistance of the dictatorial ruling party against the almighty Roman war machine, the burning houses, the stench of unburied corpses provided the background for the final scene symbolizing my chaotic troublesome state of mind.
When I had penned the last line, I felt an eerie calm come over me. For a while I sat at my desk without a thought, without a feeling; it seemed that my inner being had been poured out into the thick writing book before me. Private Gauke entered the room. He had been teasing me about my writing craze for the past couple of weeks and had noticed with genuine concern how I was withdrawing more and more into my crusty shell. He said, “Peter, it is about time that you get off your chair. I just discovered a cozy pub in Feldafing. Let’s go and have a drink of that great Bavarian beer.” Gauke was a fine fellow. I gladly came along. The novella was finished.
New Year’s Eve Party
Chief Günther Kegler provides some much needed distraction
The stupendous outpour of pent-up emotions alleviated the anger and the pain. I began to enjoy the almost daily outings with my friend Gauke. But in spite of the pleasant distractions the visits to the pubs provided by the excellent beer, wholesome food, Bavarian music in the background, and the pretty waitresses in their traditional dirndls, I could not push the troubling specter of my lost love out of my mind. I had asked her for a farewell letter or card to end amiably what had started amiably. Two months had passed. The silence became unbearable. So against my own conviction like a moth attracted to the flame of a burning candle I wrote her another letter from home before Christmas, in which I reiterated how much I appreciated her supportive letters during the hard days of my basic training, Then all of a sudden as if triggered by the emotionally cry of despair on the last pages of my novella, I let the proverbial cat out of the bag, “… Add to that the devastating fantasy, which produced during our correspondence the strangest imaginary flowers. At times I saw you – please don’t be alarmed, dear Biene – in my arms, then at my side travel to Canada, study with me in Marburg or Berlin, and in the more distant, but all the more brighter future spend a life with you through joy and sorrow. All these fantasies essentially destroyed our relationship…”
Again I urged her to reply, even if she had no desire to write, just one more time. Before I sealed the envelope, I inserted a short story, which I had especially written for her. I hoped that it would in allegorical terms evoke the tender feelings we had once felt for one another. I did not mention the novella, which as an unedited rough copy I did not yet consider complete. Within three days and just in time for Christmas a miracle occurred. The letter that I no longer expected, but had hoped for arrived. And what it contained surpassed all my expectations. Instead of a farewell message, she wrote that my story about little Irwin had moved her to tears, but more importantly that she had once entertained similar thoughts and dreamed similar dreams about the two of us living a life time together. Even though she too had also allowed her fantasy to go too far and expressed doubts about the fickle nature of dreams, which often do not bring the fulfillment one had longed for. She placed her trust in the mysterious force called Fate that one day things would work out between the two of us. The way she was wording her sentences I sensed that she had gone through some troublesome times during that long period of silence in our correspondence. Some way or another the anguish was connected to her fiancé Henk, whose father had suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. Nevertheless the news that our friendship at least at the correspondence level had been restored gave me a big boost.
I participated eagerly in the preparations for the New Year’s family party planned by the ‘chief’ of the Kegler clan, Uncle Günther. In the large vestibule of the basement suite we set up a bar, which we dubbed the Flamingo Bar. The good uncle had it well stocked with choice wine and beer as well as nonalcoholic drinks for this festive occasion. We decorated the wall with pictures, photos and old movie posters. I even contributed my painting of the 21st century space woman now looking down on a happy party crowd. Happy and diverse indeed was the crowd ringing in the New Year, young and old celebrating in perfect harmony, Uncle Günther, Aunt Lucie, Mother and Aunt Mieze, Adolf, Eka (Lavana), my cousins Helga and Jutta, two young ladies, the daughters of a pastor’s couple, whose names I can no longer recall, and my humble self. My tape recorder provided the background music for the party, and whenever there was a call for a dance I cranked up the volume and switched the music to a livelier beat.
At midnight we raised and clinked our champagne glasses wishing each other a Happy New Year. With Biene’s letter tucked away in my suit pocket I looked with confidence into the future. I felt that 1964 was going to be a great year for me. However, if I had read Goethe’s autobiographical novel ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ and understood how I, like Werther, was also entangled in a love triangle, I would have been less optimistic. The frayed thread on which our love was hanging was ready to snap any time. Whether I would have shot a bullet through my brain on a night watch in the army, if Biene had married Henk, was doubtful. Eventually I would have found and married another girl. But the oppressive awareness of having lost my first love would have lingered on my consciousness for the rest of my life.
From Darkness into Light
Immature love says: ‘I love you because I need you.’ Mature love says ‘I need you because I love you.’
Filing a Complaint
Soon after my return to Maxhof, Gauke and I received the order to report to the commanding officer. I wondered what could be so important that we would be sent away from our very first driving lesson in the New Year. The young clerk in uniform behind the massive office counter told us that the captain was expecting us in his office. With a heavy heart we entered. After the perfunctory military salute the captain asked us to take a seat. I had the ominous feeling that we might have unknowingly broken some rules resulting in a disciplinary issue that the sergeant at the driving school could not handle himself. Without giving any explanation the officer informed us that we would be transferred back to our unit in Koblenz as of April 1st. We were stunned. But when the officer asked us whether we had any questions, Gauke inquired, “Why are we being sent back, if the purpose of the transfer was to have us trained as certified truck drivers?”
The officer was a little taken aback, as soldiers are only allowed to ask questions, but not to question orders. But he must have realized that in this case we were entitled to know. For he said, “Soldiers that were transferred to my unit were supposed to be already fully trained as truck drivers. That was my request. Instead THEY send you! Dismissed!” From the furious tone of his voice, with which he pronounced ‘they’, it seemed to me that he was not angry at us, but at the system that cheated him out of two valuable truck drivers. Because of this ridiculous transfer I had not only lost out on the officer’s training program, but now I would also be deprived of the golden opportunity of getting my driver’s license. But what bothered my sense of justice the most was that we had been lied to, that the promise to provide driving lessons in January had been broken. In a violent outburst of angry words I released my frustration in a ten-page letter to Mother, which she acknowledged in a postcard expressing her hope that I had been able to calm down. In her motherly wisdom she had also destroyed the letter because of its incriminating content that she did not want anyone else to read.
Gauke and I had a good talk over a mug of beer in one of the local pubs and discussed what our next move should be to address the unfairness of our transfers. I suggested grieving the matter at the next higher authority. Gauke agreed and encouraged me to write the letter of complaint, since with all my novel-writing I should have the better writing skills. Then we ordered another beer to drink to what sounded to us as a good decision. Within less than a week our grievance to the major in charge of the signal corps was in the mail.
Challenging Times at Maxhof
In these turbulent days I now and then pulled out Biene’s letter and carefully read it over looking for a sign of encouragement, a key to her heart, but there was none except perhaps that she had written to me at all. Again I was in a dilemma. One side of me said, ‘In view of her engagement and promise of marriage to another, it is unfair for me to keep writing. Let her go! Leave her alone!’ The other more irrational side, which by definition is not persuaded by reason, urged, ‘You loved her; and you love her still. Cling to her as long as you can.’ So unable to keep the two warring parties apart within me, I wrote a short note intended to show that I was still thinking of her, but at the same time emphasizing that we were hopelessly drifting apart.
In a poisonous blend of regret and resignation I wrote, “From month to month our tracks are more and more drifting apart, and what is left, as you write so correctly is the pain. But also pain eases over time. What seemed so devastating at first does not hurt as much any more. Only from time to time when I look at your pictures, melancholy sets in and spreads its debilitating influence. But even that will end like a river disappearing in the parched sands of the desert…”
Picking up Biene’s very own words I continued, “Will we see each other again? Perhaps. But may Fate prevent this from happening! We met, played and laughed at Lake Baldeney. We were dreamy idealists, when we wrote each other! It was good that things turned out this way for you and also for me. We would have deeply disappointed each other; I would have certainly disappointed you. Believe me, there are a thousand sides to my personality, and in my letters I showed only one. Until next time! Farewell, dear Biene! Your Peter.” As soon as I had dropped off the letter in the mailbox, I called myself a fool. For I was sure that Biene after reading these confusing, despairing, heartless lines would not consider me worthy of another reply.
The response to our complaint was swift, and realizing that most things in my life lately have turned out to be a surprise, I began to expect the unexpected. The way the army brass dealt with the transfer grievance was no exception. I wanted the major of the signal corps to deal directly with our problem, invite us to respond to more questions, and eventually serve justice by reinstating us into the driving school or even put us into the officer-of-the-reserve program. Instead, we were called in to see the very same officer we had filed our complaint against. If he was angry at the system on our first visit, he was now openly hostile at us. He resented that we had the audacity to bypass him and that we had gone straight to his superior to complain about him, even though we had not even mentioned him in our letter. With a calm voice calculated to instill fear he told us while pointing to our letter on his massive desk that we had two choices. Either we withdrew our grievance with no disciplinary action taken against us or we foolishly insisted on following through with our complaint before a hearing committee with most unpleasant consequences if it is determined that we had made false accusations. Barely concealing the intended threat he nevertheless spoke matter-of-factly almost in a conciliatory, amiable tone, “You must know, young fellows, we merely spoke of the possibility of getting you into the driving school. The office staff for some reason or other did not inform you of the impending transfer. That’s the whole story, regrettable for you, but true.” Gauke and I looked at each other. The threat had worked. We would have no leg to stand on, even if the hearing committee was going to lend us a sympathetic ear. Thus, we signed the document certifying the withdrawal of our grievance.
“Listen,” the officer said with a triumphant smirk on his face, “Enjoy your stay at Maxhof. You have more than two months left here. Most soldiers would only be too happy to trade with you.” So Gauke and I had accomplished nothing. We returned to our living quarters deeply disappointed.
A Good Friend’s Advice
Gauke and I were dining at the Gasthof zur Post, a small inn not far from the beautiful Starnberg Lake. We savored the tender pork roast served with the traditional dumplings and salad. It was midweek and hardly any tourists ventured out from the big cities to see the lake country in the dead of winter. So we had the cozy dining area all to ourselves in the ideal ambience, where the refreshing Bavarian beer and conversation make a great pair to enhance friendship and companionship. We had decided to accept the captain’s advice and make the best of our remaining time in Bavaria. I was still reeling under the effect of the double whammy of a lost opportunity for advancement in the army and the specter of unrequited love. But the fine food and drink started to ease the tension and made me at least for the moment forget both the headaches and heartaches of the past three weeks. My friend started talking about his sweetheart in a town near Frankfurt, with whom he got together almost every other weekend. The previous summer they had gone on a bicycle tour out from the searing city of concrete and steel. Following the picturesque River Main they found an idyllic spot at one of its tributaries, where they pitched their tent. They had a most wonderful time at the campfire gazing at the stars, listening to the nearby murmuring brook, then huddled together, as the chill of the cloudless night made them seek each other’s warmth. Hearing Gauke so passionately describe his summer weekend with his girlfriend, I almost choked. There was my friend and comrade sitting across from me with a romantic spirit just like me although with one painful difference. What he had so vividly portrayed that I could almost sense their happiness, he had experienced in the real, tangible world in perfect harmony of body and soul. In my dream-like fantasies I had visions of similar experiences. But they were mere figments of my imagination coupled with the hope that somehow or someway, if I waited long enough, they would as if by the stroke of a magic wand become reality.
Gauke not knowing the feelings he had stirred up within me kept on talking. “Now, Peter, do you know what the sweetest moment is when I come home on the weekends?” He was so eager to tell that he did not wait for me to answer. “When the train arrives at my hometown just a few minutes before midnight and I step off the train, I see at the end of that long empty platform behind the iron gate my girlfriend with her long black hair fluttering in the night breeze.”
I wanted to shout at him, ‘Stop it! You are torturing me with your romantic talk!’ Instead I quickly grabbed the stein of beer and gulped down the cool liquid in a desperate effort to quell my emotions. As if Gauke had read my mind, he briefly interrupted his ardent story telling and ordered two more mugs of beer. Then perhaps sensing my embarrassment and uneasiness over all this romantic talk he quickly added in conclusion that he was invited to meet her parents this coming weekend and being only an ordinary soldier he was quite a bit nervous about it. I was thankful to Gauke about his tactfulness. For his talk reminded me of everything I had done wrong in my relationship with Biene and it confirmed what Dieter Krug had already stated on our scenic bike tour up the Moselle valley. To capture the affection of a heart and to desire to be loved, the two need to be together to feel each other’s presence and to experience each other through the five senses. This can never happen in and through letters. Remove the sight of your love walking with you on a shady trail on a warm summer day, remove her cheerful laughter, pleasant voice, her songs, remove her touch, a walk with her arm in arm, remove the sweet taste of her kiss, remove the fragrance of her hair and skin, and you will have blocked the gateway to each other’s soul, doomed to wither and die. We had been drinking our beer in silence, when Gauke indicated that now it was my turn to talk. After a long pause I told him that I had nothing to say.
“I noticed that you were writing a novel about her. And you want to tell me that you have nothing to say?” he rebuked and teased me in a jokingly disarming manner. Then he began to extract bit by bit like an experienced lawyer the details of my relationship with Biene and in doing so put them like little pieces in a mosaic clearly before me. He was surprised to hear that I had met her only once; he was even more surprised to hear that I loved her on the basis of mere letters; and he was most surprised to hear that she was engaged to a young man in Holland. He shook his head in utter disbelief. He ordered another beer for us. The he spoke kindly and softly no longer like a lawyer. With his balding head and the concerned looks on his face he actually looked more like a counselor.
“Peter, I urge you. Let go of her. The love you feel for her has no foundation. The love you think she feels for you is not based on reality but comes out of the make-believe world of sentimental novels or movies. Let go of her. You are heading for disaster. A girl who is engaged to marry another cannot possibly love you. And if she does, she is as crazy as you are, and she too will be heading for disaster. As a friend I give you my advice, let go of her, Peter.”
We sat for a while and silently finished our beer. Gauke was sensitive and kind. He did not speak another word. On the way back to the barracks I thanked him for his friendship and told him I would take his advice very seriously. I slept well that night as if a great burden had been taken off my chest. How could I have suffered so much about something that did not exist? With such rhetorical musings I drifted off to sleep.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
Late Sunday night Private Gauke entered our room after spending the long weekend at his girlfriend’s home. He was so excited about it that he felt justified in waking me up. Even though I was still half asleep I could tell that my friend was beaming with joy. He had good news to tell me. He had met his girlfriend’s parents who were delighted to get acquainted with the young man their daughter had been telling them about so much. He was amazed almost embarrassed how much they knew about him. For them the most important thing was to see their daughter happy. In their eyes he seemed to be the right man for her. My companion would have gone on to share his happiness with me, but when he looked at my sleepy and grumpy face, he stopped. I was annoyed and wondered why he could not have waited with all that chatter till next morning. Then I would have perhaps appreciated his latest romantic tale with a wakeful mind. I made no effort to suppress a loud yawn to indicate that I wished to get back to sleep. However, Gauke had still something else on his mind that was supposed to cheer me up.
“Peter,” he started again with undiminished exuberance in his voice, ”my sweetheart back home has a wonderful girlfriend who is just like you; she loves poetry, even writes her own verses …”
“I’m not interested,” I interrupted him gruffly.
“Peter, don’t get me wrong. You need to break out of your doom and gloom. I invite you to come with and spend the weekend at my parents’. We could go out together and meet …”, I interrupted him again raising my voice just a notch higher to make it clear that I had had enough of his idle talk.
“Well, suit yourself”, he replied. All I wanted is to advise you to keep your options open. It is not a good idea to have just one egg in your basket. In case it breaks, you know.”
Poor Gauke, he tried so hard. He was a nice chap and a good friend. He was truly trying to help. I was stubborn or insanely in love, or both. It took me a long time that night before I managed to catch a few winks of sleep.
In the second week of February, just when I had given up ever receiving a message from Biene again, her letter arrived, which I expected to be the final farewell letter. Instead it contained a bombshell. I read with relative calm that her engagement with Henk had been broken off. Her dream about a life together with him had been shattered through unfortunate events and circumstances, which she was unable to describe except to say that Henk had loved her so much that she for a while believed to love him too. However, what led up to the actual break-up, she left unsaid setting in motion an avalanche of speculations on my part. In vain I tried to penetrate the veil that shrouded the circumstances that she was alluding to. Had Henk revealed an aspect of his character that made her shudder? Had he been too aggressive and demanded of her too much, too soon? Many more questions were racing through my head, for which I found no answer, creating a jumble of mixed emotions. If she had given me a few concrete details no matter how shocking, I would eventually have accepted with love and understanding her tragic experiences. As I continued reading I noticed how much she was troubled by my plans to emigrate to Canada.
“How can we possibly meet again, when you are so far away,” she asked, “and disappoint each other? Do you really believe ‘disappoint’? I cannot imagine it; but I would not be afraid to see you again.” At that moment my heart beat a little faster. The horizon began to brighten up with the rays of hope and eager anticipation. Unfortunately, like a bolt out of the blue, without any merciful transition, Biene continued, “Imagine this, my pen pal from Morocco intends to come this summer to get to know me and Germany. Will he be like I imagined him to be? My parents don’t agree with the idea; for they fear we could fall in love with each other.” I felt that the tenuous thread that so far had held us somehow together was ready to snap. What prevented this from happening was a mental trick that moved my mind to a distant vantage point from which I looked down upon the bizarre soap-opera-like comedy show below. The Moroccan pen pal had miraculously risen from the dead and imbued with renewed zest for life was eager to see her, to meet her, to get to know her, while her poor parents having just been saved from one disaster were heading into the next. I could not help but internally smile and laugh. My friend Gauke would be laughing too, He was absolutely right in his urgent plea to let go of her and also in his opinion to have more options than one. In an ironic twist it was Biene, who obviously had more than one egg in her basket. One broke, but she had two or more eggs left to break. I tried to probe into the possible reasons as to why in this particular moment she would tell me this. Was she trying to goad me into action? Her concluding sentence seemed to confirm my speculation, “Sometimes, even though you wouldn’t like it, I would really like to see you again.” A new seed had been planted. It was now up to me to water it, to nourish it, to make it grow in the fertile soil of reality. To accomplish it, a rendezvous with Biene was the key and time was of the essence. To blaze a trail to the doorsteps of her heart, I made some unusual preparations.
Four Deaths in Four Months
But first I had to endure another blow. Death had given me in quick succession several reminders of our transitory life here on earth. On November 22nd at the Maxhof army residence. I was listening to the American Forces Network (AFN Munich). The DJ suddenly interrupted the Country and Western music and after a short pause announced that President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas, Texas. Later that night it was reported that he had died of his gun shot wounds. I was shocked over the news of this tragedy, as I had taken a liking to this great man, for his fortitude to force the Soviet Union to remove their missiles out of Cuba. I liked the way he had publicly committed himself to the security of West Berlin. His famous statement, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’ will remain in me for as long as I live. Then in January our staff sergeant Wohl had a fatal accident, when his VW beetle collided with a public transit bus on an icy hillside road in Feldafing. Gauke and I and two other comrades accepted the sad task of becoming his pallbearers. I will never forget the heart-rending sobbing of the widow in the front pew, when the officiating priest addressed her with a few consoling words. A couple of weeks later, almost if death intended to remind me again of its presence, I lent sixty marks to a comrade so he could buy a train ticket to attend his grandmother’s funeral. On the morning of February 26th I was called out of the office to see the captain for an important message. This time Gauke stayed behind at his typewriter, and I went a little puzzled and worried to captain’s office alone. After I sat down, he informed me with genuine regret that my father had died of a massive heart attack during the night of February 25th. The officer granted me a five-day compassionate leave, effective immediately. I was numb. I could not respond with a single word. The captain deliberately ignoring military protocol shook hands with me and spoke kind words of condolences. Only a small number of family members, aunts, Erna’s relatives and friends attended the funeral in Michelbach. I wrote and dedicated a poem to my dad. The poem ended with a line in Latin:
Viventium, non mortuorum misereor.
I mourn the living, not the dead.
Grieving Father’s death and attempting to overcome the blow, I wrote Biene that I needed time to respond to her wish to see me again. It also took me quite an effort not to mention her pen pal from Morocco in my letter. Perhaps I should not have suppressed my feelings. For jealousy although often portrayed as a negative force has its legitimate place. Just as we need fear to protect us from dangerous situations, a small dose of jealousy at the very least reveals that you care and are sincerely concerned about your partner’s affection.
Back at Maxhof I began to edit and to copy in my very best handwriting the novella ‘Carthage’ into a thick green covered notebook. I dedicated the more than 200-page book to Biene. As it was not only a historical novel but also a testimonial of my love to her, it turned out to be quite literally the longest letter I had ever written. More importantly it ended in such a way that Biene herself one day could write the final chapter not as a flowery addition to an imaginary tale, but a true story with Biene and me being the main characters in the real world. At the time of my transfer back to Koblenz I was back home to celebrate my 22nd birthday. There I mailed the book to Biene, after I had mysteriously hinted in a previous letter that I would be mailing her a very interesting book portraying us as Claudia and Publius. In the accompanying letter I wrote, ‘Dear Biene, you have sensitivity and understanding, Even though in this book everything had happened over two thousand years ago, its content is so current and volatile that I would not dare to show it to anyone but you. Whoever opens his heart is twice as sensitive and vulnerable. You will read many a chapter filled with blood-curdling details about this fateful city. Just remember what happens here in terms of physical suffering and pain is to be understood at the psychological level. I have been writing the novella for a long time. Personal experience and history went hand in hand to create it. The shock I experienced last fall put a sudden end to the story. You will notice that the form of the narrative lost its formal structure and the story ends in a desperate monologue. About some of the things, which I have written, I think differently today. But I have not lost my idealism. I am searching for a world, where I can turn my hopes and aspirations into reality.’ I felt like a general, who in a last-ditch effort committed all his troops and resources and staked everything on one card to win the battle and claim the prize of victory.
Peter‘s Musing on the Nature of Platonic Love
Fortunately, I did not have to wait very long. Biene had expected a store-bought book that in content and style would bear a strong resemblance to our turbulent relationship, where the ending would perhaps provide an urgent plea to get our act together and leave our fantasy world behind. To put it mildly, the handwritten book had overwhelmed Biene. Never before had she received a gift like this, where every single page had been written exclusively for and about her. She did not insult me in the least (as a matter of fact I took it as a compliment), when she questioned for a moment the authenticity of the book’s claimed authorship. Then came the sentence I had been waiting for, ‘I believe we love each other.’ What all my letters in the lines and between the lines could not accomplish, it seemed to me the novel had succeeded in pronouncing my unequivocal and unmistakable message ‘I love you’ and that at last I had received the long-awaited, if somewhat faint echo, ‘I believe we love each other’. However, when she qualified the kind of love she had in mind, I realized that I had rejoiced too soon and that at best I had only scored a partial victory.
‘But it is a strange love’, she continued, ‘like a dream not bound to reality. I love your words, your soul, which your words express. I love you as a human being, Peter, but I am very much afraid to love you as a man, and I fear that you already love me as a woman. That will bring much pain. How shall I make it clear to you, so you will understand what I mean? I cannot yet belong to a man. It has been my greatest desire for a long time to love a man and to completely belong to him, and yet I know, and I have experienced it myself that I am not yet ready for it .’
‘Therefore, Peter’, she continued, ‘I must ask you, do not love me as a woman, for then we could quickly lose each other again! I would like to write to you the opposite and yet let us this time not go with our dreams any farther than what reality will be able to give us as fulfillment. I find it so hard to tell you this and yet, Peter, grant me this wish, let us be friends just as in the beginning.’
I reread her letter looking for clues in the bewildering plea to turn back the clock to the time, when we had started our friendship. But I found nothing apart from just a vague hint of something horrible that she had experienced in the recent past. It was obvious to me that she had not written the happy ending to the novel in real life, which I had so intensely been hoping for. It was a now-or-never situation for me. I realized that she was in a complete state of confusion and afraid of a man-woman relationship, so afraid that she risked losing the one whom she believed she truly loved. The spirit within me that so often in the past had said ‘one last time, try just one more time’ goaded me to write. I felt completely calm. I wanted to pass on to her that sense of tranquility, which would ultimately provide the pillar upon which she could rest her final decision without regret. It was either a life together with me, or the end of a friendship that could not be maintained. I was one step ahead of Biene in that I had felt the pain of jealousy over Henk and the Moroccan pen pal. She was in my opinion naïve to believe that she could find a broad-minded, speak indifferent husband, who would tolerate another soul mate in their marriage, no matter how platonic such a relationship would be.
So I wrote after some considerable time of reflection, ‘I have the feeling, you want to cut off the roots to a tree, but still want to harvest its fruits. You must not be so fearful, dear Biene. When one talks about love between a man and a woman, one must not think right away of its consummation. What I think about it will perhaps be to you a bit of a consolation. I can belong to only one girl. Then all the others vanish with time. If they don’t, they cause hard to solve conflicts within me. The girl that I mean was and is you, dear Biene. Don’t be shocked if I tell you that the love, which you are renouncing, took control of me from the moment I met you the first time. But in its purest form, as it finds expression through passion, it comes last. Many thousands of steps precede it. But it lives within me not strictly separated from all other human values. It plays its role in everything I am doing and thinking. In every sentence that I write to you it is there. Even if it is never mentioned, it is there. My entire being is woven into it through and through. And I feel happier now than in the times when I tried to suppress it as something evil.
Dear Biene, you have a decision to make. But it is not difficult; I am not getting lost to you, at least not in the way you envision it now with a pure friendship between soul mates. What your attitude will be later does not matter now. The question for you is whether you will accept me with my love as a man. You can keep me just as I am or you set yourself and me free for the ‘love’ for somebody else that fate will bring into our lives. I give you complete freedom with your decision and accept everything. But I must have clarity! Take your time to answer my letter, just as I have taken my time.’
A few days later feeling sorry of having had the audacity to force a decision upon her, I thought it wiser to go back to Biene’s original plea for platonic love between the two of us and describe it vividly with a good measure of irony so that she could see at long last that this kind of love would not be worth pursuing.
‘I think I know now what is troubling you. Recently it stood before my eyes like a vision. It is the relationship between two souls pure, aiming upward, self-sufficient. This kind of love permits no passion; it wishes to be pure. That’s why you were afraid that our friendship would be in jeopardy, if you didn’t warn me. In your eyes we are two souls completely separated from our bodies in quiet distant solitude, eyes open for the wonders of nature and its beauty. Lovingly we exchange experiences we each had suffered from the blows of fate; we mature and rise upward towards ethical perfection. Earth with its horrors is no longer important; nothing bothers us any more. We let ourselves go, when we say farewell to our bodies. The day has arrived; we reach out for each other; the gate to our ideals opens. Who then should stop these innocent souls from entering the land of arts? One admires Spitzweg’s idyllic pictures, listens to romantically imbued poetry and goes into raptures over Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. One meets great spirits: Goethe, Lessing, and Schiller. We take flight and seek refuge at philosopher Seneca, who teaches us to relish contentment and happiness. But we are not so simple-minded as to ignore that even this is a dubious fabrication of human beings seeking escape from this odious world. Shuddering, we rise even higher, leaving everything behind. It feels so warm and fuzzy around our hearts; like a bridal veil our souls become transparent. Nothing weighs us down any more. Indeed, we are being lifted up; we melt into nothingness. You are I, and I am you. How magnificent and glorious! Our contours begin to blur. Eternally happy and content we have been transported into the heavenly realms. Dear Biene, with all that bliss why don’t we just go ahead and die?’
With this bitter-sweet rhetorical question I ended my letter and wondered about how Biene would respond to the imagery of my emotional diatribe.
Career Planning and a Painful Self-Assessment
Art Work Entitled ‘There are many ways’ by my Friend Hans Fricke
My brother Gerry, who lived in Medicine Hat, while I was in the West German army, is not exactly known among family members as an avid letter writer. All the more I was surprised to receive a detailed answer from him to my inquiry regarding teacher’s training in Alberta, Canada. Driven by a youthful desire for adventure but also by a kind of escapism that was getting stronger with each additional month in the army I wanted to explore a possible teaching career in Canada.
Equally important for the understanding of my sudden interest in a totally different profession was that my staff sergeant in Koblenz had taken notice of my knowledge of basic electricity and electronics and had given me the task to instruct the new recruits. This went over so well that I was given more and more time off from regular duty to prepare my lessons and teach. So it happened that I discovered a talent, which I thought I did not have. Gerry accurately explained the current requirements for entering the teaching profession in Alberta. I had to have my German high school diploma validated, had to give evidence for proficiency in the English language, and to successfully complete a minimum of two years university training. With this information I was able to do some serious planning for the future. Suddenly a most fortuitous train of thoughts popped up in my mind that greatly increased my longing to go to Canada. Exciting ideas followed in rapid succession: immigration, teachers’ training at the University of Calgary, a teaching career, an income with the prospect of pay increases with more training, getting married to Biene and having a family.
I am still thankful to the captain from the basic training period for instilling the desire for good planning in order to achieve a dream by visualizing all the necessary steps in-between. The target I aimed for was still years ahead. It was actually a twin target of a rewarding meaningful career and life with Biene at my side. To hit the bull’s eye at such a distance would require a great deal of determination and persistence. Would I have those qualities, but most importantly would Biene support me in something – I am ashamed to admit – that I had not even mentioned to her yet? So this would be a good time to have a critical look at myself. In my own eyes I had become a very mature young man years ahead of my comrades in terms of acquired wisdom and good planning. But when I looked at the erroneous assumptions I had made about the world around me, about Biene and myself, I marvel at the way all my dreams had eventually become a reality.
Firstly, in my letters to Biene I had written about love, but never about marriage. I assumed that my ‘I love you’ would translate into ‘Will you marry me?’
Secondly, what was Biene to make out of my long-winded flowery dissertation on love between a man and woman?
Thirdly, Biene had already been frightened by the painful events leading up to and following the break-up of her engagement with Henk. Now I came and frightened her some more by openly writing about my passion for her without revealing or at least hinting at my genuine intention to marry her.
Fourthly, it was preposterous to assume that just because I was willing to marry her she would want to marry me too. This was truly the mark of an egocentric ass that I was at the time.
Fifthly, twelve months in the army and my comrades’ boastful talk about their amorous adventures should have taught me that being married and making love do not necessarily belong together. How was Biene supposed to know what was on my mind about a topic that had been a taboo throughout our childhood years?
Last, but not least, was the foolish assumption that just because I had broken off the correspondence with my girl friend, Biene in turn should have done the same with her Moroccan pen pal. Or put differently, just because my heart from now on belonged to Biene did not mean that she should also restrict herself to a permanent commitment.
So in summary I had built a dream castle with love, marriage, family and career on the preconceived notion that Biene had read all this and much more between the lines. It was then one of the great miracles of our relationship that no storm tide came rushing in at that particular juncture and made the castle collapse like a deck of cards.
In a postcard Biene briefly assured me that she no longer wanted a mere soul-mate relationship. She wrote that many of the questions and problems that were troubling us would be resolved once we had met again. And indeed we met exactly two years after we had our first encounter at Lake Baldenay. This brought some sunshine into my heart. My brother Adolf contributed a great deal to enhance that joie de vivre, which I felt all the more intensely, whenever I went with him on an excursion in and around the Rhine, Moselle and Lahn valleys.
Exploring the Moselle Valley with my Brother Adolf
My brother Adolf was in the final year of his apprenticeship program at the Honeywell Company in Hanau. This city north of Frankfurt was not far from Koblenz. When the weather was fine, Adolf would make it a weekend practice to pick me up at the gates of the Falckenstein barracks. From there we went on trips in his venerable old VW beetle to explore together the beautiful Lahn and Moselle valleys. The summer of 1964 brought an exceptionally long period of sunshine quite unusual for this western part of Germany, when cloudy skies and rain often drove sun-seeking German tourists south to the Mediterranean beaches of Italy and Spain. On one of these fabulous weekends Adolf suggested a wine sampling tour all the way up the River Moselle to Trier, the ancient location of the imperial summer residence of the Roman emperors.
Having finally moved by two rendezvous with Biene at Lake Baldeney beyond a mere fantasy world to a more solid relationship, I felt carefree and cheerful. I readily agreed to Adolf’s proposal, and off we rolled into a westerly direction. Small towns and quaint villages, medieval castles on hill tops, the meandering river, the hills covered with the light green carpets of vineyards offered a magnificent view. At the town centers often located near the local fountain, vintners with samples from last year’s vintage were catering to the traveling tourists in the hope of selling their fine bottled wine. The labels on the bottles were just as alluring as they were their precious content. Some had grotesque, unusual, even titillating names, such as Zeller’s Black Cat, Bare Bottom, Dear Woman’s Milk, just to name a few. Adolf and I took full advantage of the incredibly inexpensive samples of the finest wines in the country. In high spirits we drove on to the next ‘watering hole’, sampled another exquisite wine, and kept on going from town to town, from sampling station to sampling station, like bees flitting from flower to flower savoring the delicious nectar. We happy-go-lucky brothers were singing, joking and drinking all the way to Trier, where Adolf feeling generous invited me to have dinner in a cozy restaurant not far from the historic Porta Nigra and the famous ruins of the Roman thermal baths.
It felt good to enter the cool premises of an inn after such a long ride through the sweltering summer heat. After a hearty meal we lingered over a cool refreshing beer while waiting for the heat in the valley to come down to a more tolerable level. Air conditioning in a VW was virtually nonexistent in those days.
There I sat, a bit sleepy and drowsy from the wine and beer, listening half-heartedly to Adolf’s tirades against the American imperialists, the war in Vietnam, the killing of innocent women and children perpetrated by the American ice cream soldiers as he contemptuously called the GI’s, the exploitation of the working people, the advantages of socialism for the common people and the evils of capitalism. When Adolf was talking politics, a passionate fervor seized his entire being; his words poured out as if he had experienced all these real and imagined injustices himself. When the verbose eruption of truths, half- truths and lies had finally subsided with no notable effect on me, the apolitical person that I was at the time, Adolf returned to his congenial and humorous self again, ordered another beer for us from the pretty and courteous waitress and described her benevolently as a ‘nice kid’. Now it was time to introduce me to the kind of vocabulary that would definitely not be very useful for my later academic career. The stock of swearwords coming from the oil patch environment was quite impressive.
When he changed topics and began to talk with extravagant enthusiasm about Canada, I was all ears, even though he described a totally different country from the one I had learned from books. Adolf’s opening line for almost anything that had to do with Canada was, “Peter, with us in Canada things are like this.”
Before coming to Germany for a three-year stay, he had worked in the oil fields at Swan Hills in northern Alberta, where work was hard and money was plentiful. He loved to tell me stories of the rough-and-tumble of camp life. At payday many workers would rush to Edmonton, the capital city of Alberta, to spend their hard earned money on booze, women, and cars. Adolf having a good grip over his finances was not entirely immune to the lure of owning a shiny new car. In a sudden wave of nostalgia for the good old days at camp he described how he had once walked into a car dealer’s showroom and pointed at the latest model of an eight cylinder muscle car that he wanted to purchase on the spot. When the delighted salesman asked him how he intended to pay for it, Adolf’s moment of glory had come, which he now revived by telling the story to his kid brother.
“Why,” Adolf answered, “in cash, of course!” And with these words he pulled out a bundle of hundred dollar bills and counted out the full amount of the purchase price on the counter of the astonished salesman. Adolf never failed to make critical remarks about the painfully slow German bureaucracy that he had to put up with, when he bought his VW beetle in Germany.
“Peter, with us in Canada things are like this,” he used his opening pet phrase again. “With all the paper work done and the registration and insurance papers signed I drove that beauty of a car out of the dealer’s parking lot within less than an hour.” Having learned how things were done in Canada, I remarked that it was time to return to my barracks. The evening sun flooded the eastern mountains in a sea of gold. When Adolf and I arrived in Koblenz, the sun began to set and only the pinnacles of the volcanic Eifel Mountains were still reflecting the last rays of the day.
The Romantic Soldier
I often wondered how it was possible that at certain times all troublesome events seemed to come together to create one powerful drama. Such was my deplorable situation between Christmas and Carnival, when I could barely stem the tide in a string of fateful events, such as the fatal accident of Sergeant Wohl on the icy roads of Feldafing, the loss of my father, emotional upheaval over the injustices caused by red tape in the army bureaucracy, and above all the almost certain demise of a shaky relationship with Biene. And now barely six months later, emerging from an apparently bottomless pit, it seemed as if all favorable currents had joined forces to lift me out of my deep depression into the blissful realm of true happiness in quick succession of small but significant steps: a book written exclusively for Biene, clarifications of the intentions of my heart and their acceptance albeit somewhat hesitatingly by Biene, two rendezvous to show that we were real human beings, not phantoms of our distorted imagination, the discovery of the joy of teaching, the instructional sessions in the afternoons, and the recognition of my newly discovered talents by my superiors. All these events in combination raised my self-esteem so much that I almost regretted having requested a transfer to the Tannenberg barracks in Marburg.
The most enjoyable outings with my brother Adolf on the weekends tore me away from my history books. With his congenial companionship he gave me a renewed spirit with emphasis on the social aspects of life that I had been neglecting far too long. When Adolf was unable to come and I for one reason or another wanted to spend the weekend in the barracks, I would still read Roman history books, but with a focus on topics that were more relevant to my own life and closer to my heart. Instead of dwelling on Roman conquest with the inevitable theme of death and destruction, I now learned about the importance of values, particularly of those pertaining to marriage, family and the raising of children. On sunny days I would find a cozy spot on the lawn near the 400 m oval racetrack. There I would open Mommsen’s chapter on the status and significance of the family in the Roman Republic and would read with increasing interest about the family as the smallest unit, upon which the entire state depended for its health and its very existence. I marveled at the role that the wife (domina) played in running a large and complex Roman villa and in nurturing and imparting values onto her children, while her husband (dominus), being still intimately connected to the soil, would work the fields to provide food and income for the family. Like myriads of individual healthy cells make up a strong body, so the Roman family units protected by law and honored by society provided the moral fiber, which made the early Roman republic so strong and powerful. After such undisturbed moments of contemplation on matters so distant and yet so relevant I returned to my room with the distinct realization that I had received valuable clues for the unfolding of my own personal life in the not too distant future.
If there was ever a period in my early adult years that reflected the spirit of 19th century German Romanticism, it was during the summer months of 1964, while I was awaiting my transfer to the Tannenberg barracks at Marburg. My new friend Josef Hegener and I made use of every free moment to escape the stuffiness of the poorly ventilated barracks rooms. Away from the noise and heat of the city we found refuge in the nearby wooded hills, where hiking trails invited us to explore nature in the cool of a Sunday morning. We delighted in the colorful sight of a mountain meadow bedecked with innumerable wild flowers. The buzzing of bees and bumblebees, the happy chirping of birds at the edge of the forest, the murmuring of a brook, the croaking of an army of frogs making their presence known from a pond were together with all the other joyful sounds music to our ears. From a footbridge we gazed at the athletic performances of water striders skimming gracefully over the surface of the gently flowing waters. Joyously we followed the trail to a hilltop, where our eyes feasted on the magnificent mosaic of woods, fields and villages below. Down in the valley a church bell was ringing inviting us to attend the church service and give thanks to God for His wonderful creation. As we entered the village church, the congregation had just started singing ‘Now thank we all our God’, a hymn that became one of my favorite songs of praise both in German and in English. I felt elated after having been granted such a rare glimpse into the connectedness between the grandeur of nature and God’s presence in it. In my exuberance over this wonderful experience I quickly wrote a postcard to my folks back home in the form of a wedding announcement: We have been united in marriage signed Nature and I.
The following Monday I met Sergeant Otto Schmidt, as I was crossing the huge center yard on my way to the building, where I was going to deliver another lesson on basic electricity. The sergeant was beaming with pride, because he had just received praise and recognition from his superior officer for his success in running an outstanding instructional program for his unit. He was actually very generous in giving me some of the credit. Then I noticed how his facial expression suddenly changed. Otto Schmidt about a head shorter than I was no longer looking up into my eyes, but gazed straight ahead in utter amazement and bewilderment at my uniform jacket. Had a button come off or had I left the shirt collar too casually unbuttoned? No, these minor flaws in my outer appearance had never been a problem with this friendly sergeant. There was something that he had most likely never seen before. In total disbelief his eyes were fixed on the humble head of a dandelion flower, which I, following my current romantic inclinations, had placed conspicuously on my uniform. Sergeant Schmidt was almost speechless. All he could do was shake his head and stammer, “Klopp, Klopp, what is the meaning of this all?” To his great relief I removed the objectionable flower and hurried off to my electricity class. A symbol of love, a symbol of peace was on the uniform of a German soldier!
Vittorio’s Entanglement in Sex, Love and Marriage
In our room there was a 17-year-old volunteer with the Italian sounding name Vittorio. At this tender age he was the youngest soldier in the signal corps. He had committed himself to a five-year service in the army and was obviously seeking a life long career with the Armed Forces. As a government employee in uniform he had a sizable income at his disposal, which he squandered with his buddies in the local bars and in establishments of questionable reputation. So it was no surprise to any of us in the room that eventually he fell victim to one of the ladies of the night that was plying her trade in the lucrative barracks city of Koblenz. What I found bizarre, even shocking was that he was openly bragging about his amorous adventures with a prostitute, who had apparently singled him out as an easy target. Even the most hardened comrades in our room gave him contemptuous looks when he treated his sordid affair as if it was true love. At the end of a long weekend he felt especially inclined to proclaim from the top of his bunk his progress with the most wonderful woman he had ever met. I wondered how many women he could have possibly met considering that he was only seventeen. A more outspoken roommate asked him in a sarcastic tone, “Are you paying for her services?”
“Not any more than what you would if you took your girlfriend out on a date,” Ramona was quick to reply.
“Well, well, you don’t seem to understand. Let me put the question to you a bit differently. Are you paying to have sex with her?” Everyone in the room was itching to know how the argument about this hot topic would end.
Vittorio was not easily intimidated. He knew how to fight back. He was aware of the saying that a good offense is the best defense. So he countered, “If you were a volunteer soldier and had a tidy income like me, wouldn’t you make her gifts and give her money because you love her?”
I was sure that our roommate must have felt a bit nettled by Vittorio’s suggestion that as a draftee with a mere pocket-money he would be in no position to argue with him on this matter. Unable to respond to this powerful argument, he resorted to the most obscene and offensive language I had ever heard. If this had been the end of the story, I would not have considered it worthy of being part of my autobiography. As a matter of fact, the story was just beginning.
In the weeks that followed Vittorio was getting more and more quiet and was no longer bragging about his most wonderful woman. I thought that he was afraid of our unnamed roommate. But I was wrong. One Sunday evening he returned much earlier than usual to our room. He appeared to be in a very agitated state of mind. Not caring whether we wanted to listen to him, he started ranting and raving about the woman he once loved so dearly. We were stunned by the complete reversal of his opinion and wondered whether or not we heard him talk about the same woman. His language now was just as crude and offensive as if his antagonistic roommate was still lecturing him on the definition of women of ill repute. He described the most wonderful woman in the world as a crooked slut, who first was content with twenties, then wanted fifties, and now demanded his entire monthly income.
“I am finished with her,” he screamed, “I will not see her again; she is a whore; she can go to HELL!” Then he threw himself on his bed and cried like a little boy that he actually still was.
It was near the end of the summer shortly before my transfer to Marburg, when a woman walked through the barracks gate and requested to see the commanding officer of the second company of the signal corps. The above lieutenant learned that one of his soldiers, Private Vittorio to be exact, was the cause of her being with child. The officer concerned about the honor and respectability of the army in general and of his unit in particular had Private Vittorio called in and confronted him with the woman he had vowed never to see again. The officer after having established the truth of the woman’s claim suggested in unmistakable terms – one might say he decreed that Vittorio marry the woman who was expecting his child. Upon proof of marriage Private Vittorio would receive two weeks of paid leave for their honeymoon.
Vittorio told us later how things had been arranged in the office and that he was going to get married. Having flip-flopped once more he proudly announced that he was the happiest man in the world to have such a wonderful woman for a wife and soon to have a family. His words were gushing out in a sentimental torrent. This time nobody dared to interrupt him; even the quarrelsome roommate kept quiet. Vittorio had chosen a dubious path. I felt pity, even compassion for the young man who had in my opinion such a small chance of success in his upcoming marriage. I never found out what became of him and his wife to be.
Shortly afterwards I was on my way to Marburg. I left Koblenz with mixed feelings. Not aware that with the recommendations from the commanding officer I would soon be teaching again I looked back with regret at the rewarding instructional sessions, which I had enjoyed so much. I would also miss Josef Hegener and our nature excursions into the local hill country . On the other hand I felt relieved to get away from the revolting environment that our room had become of late. Even though I had been open-minded about listening to and jokes, I knew that Vittorio’s story was not a joke. It was a personal tragedy that shocked me to the core. If there was one good thing that came out of this sordid affair, it made me more determined than ever before to seek and strive for a better world. While an ideal by its own definition remains unobtainable, it nevertheless provides a vision and a goal worth aiming for. To the extent we struggle and make the effort to approach the ideal, we define our human character. With a fresh new sense of optimism I was looking forward to spend the remaining 180 days of my army time in Marburg. I promised myself to meet Biene again, as soon as an opportunity would present itself. For me she represented the embodiment of the light and the hope for a better future.
The Complexities of the Heart
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.
Biene’s Visit to her Birthplace in Gotha
and her Vacation on the Island of Majorca, Spain
In the meantime Biene traveled to Gotha, where her half-sister Elsbeth and husband Paul Werner with their two children Norbert and Christian lived. Biene grew up in Gotha, until her parents and family escaped to West Germany. After a lengthy ordeal at the refugee camp in Aurich her parents eventually succeeded in receiving a decent apartment in Velbert.
Biene reported enthusiastically about her former home province Thuringia. They made many excursions into the surrounding area of Gotha, even visited the famous castle, the Warthburg, where Martin Luther within the safety of the massive walls translated the Bible into German. But what mattered most to Biene was that she and Elsbeth became close friends. They spent as much time as possible together.
While everyone was sound asleep, Elsbeth, twenty years her senior, would share her most precious memories with her. The two would often talk into the wee hours. Biene learned that Elsbeth loved to pen stories and even contemplated writing a book. After the wedding she was deeply saddened that her husband did not share her passion for writing. He was a very practical man with both feet on the ground and was focusing only on what had to be done to survive in the postwar communist society, where most basic consumer commodities were scarce. Paul ignored what was dearest to his young wife’s heart and treated with contempt what was in his eyes useless, sentimental tripe. He callously burned her entire portfolio of creative and much cherished writing leaving her nothing of her priceless collection except for a very few stories, which she managed to save from the senseless destruction. Their son Norbert kindly contributed for my blog one of her story in German entitled Sein Letzter Besuch (His Last Visit – Christmas 1942). Overall, Biene had spent a wonderful time at her birthplace, that quaint house and apartment, where little had changed, since Biene and her family had escaped from the socialist ‘paradise’ in 1954.
Within barely a week upon her return to Velbert she was getting ready to fly with her friend Gisela to the Spanish Isle of Majorca. There in the company of other young girls and boys she enjoyed two relaxing weeks at the sandy beaches of the Mediterranean Sea. This was the first time Biene was allowed to travel alone without parental supervision. Her mother had always kept a watchful eye on her stunningly beautiful and romantically inclined daughter, who had given her in the past much grief with her dangerous, almost fateful attractiveness she exerted on her male admirers. But as it turned out, Biene returned home safe and sound, tanned by the southern sun so dark she could have easily been mistaken for a Spanish senorita.
Apart from lounging at the beach and going swimming, Biene had once gone scuba diving in the crystal clear waters to explore the mysterious seascape, which gave her quite a thrill. However, as she soon discovered, diving and depending on the vital air supply from the oxygen tank on her back was not entirely without danger. While she took in the wonders of the strange world under the sea, the air supply suddenly dwindled forcing her to quickly surface. There was plenty of oxygen left in the tank. Perhaps Biene had put a kink into the connecting hose. Fortunately she had kept her cool and after being confronted with imminent danger did not panic. After this scary experience Biene decided that it was safer to stick with the more relaxing beach routine. Their flight back to Germany had been delayed by more than a day due to the loss of a plane, which the small tourist airline had suffered in a plane crash elsewhere. When they finally arrived in the dead of night at the Düsseldorf Airport, no busses were running any more to take them home. Biene and her friend were stranded. They were waiting at the dreary railroad station for the morning to come. Then a small miracle happened, which I let Biene describe in her own words.
“In the bungalow village was also a young girl who was teased by all, especially by the boys. She was strutting about in an extravagant attire entirely too dressed up. Nobody liked her. I had only once exchanged a few words with her. When Gisela and I were now waiting at the station for the morning and had gone outside to catch a little bit of fresh air, she suddenly walked up to us. She knew that our plane had landed late. When she learned that our bus would arrive only in the early morning, she took us without hesitation to her place not far from the station. She gave us each a couch, where we totally exhausted slept until she woke us with coffee and buns. You wouldn’t believe how lovingly she cared for us. I had never before noticed so prominently how much one lets outer appearance deceive oneself. I was really stunned by such kindliness.”
The Pain of Indecision
Love that is engulfed by fear is not perfect. It cannot grow in the darkness of uncertainty, where doubt enters the heart and where there is no commitment. In my excessive sensitivity towards Biene’s past distressing experiences of love coming too early and too suddenly, but also out of the horrid fear of rejection, I never found, as I should have, the courage to ask her point-blank to marry me. With a clear yes or no, we both would have been able to carry on with our lives and make plans for the future with or without being together. There is infinite wisdom in the convention to have a formal engagement when both partners gather with their families, relatives and friends, exchange rings, and promise before witnesses to marry each other. In as much this formal coming together was lacking, doubtfulness and its evil ally distrust cast a dark shadow on our relationship in spite of our declared love for each other. Until we met again in November, the pretense to be happy with a mere friendship on my part caused us both to sit on the fence. Frustrated with the regression to a mere amicable correspondence between two very good friends, I responded to Biene’s lamentation over the power of Fate, which was threatening to separate us,
“Leave Fate, dear Biene, out of the picture. Fate in our case is not a blind, impersonal power, to which we must submit. We all create it with our own desires and action. When you say that Fate will one day separate us; that we have to knuckle under; that we have to be happy with what we have given to each other, then you don’t mean Fate, but you yourself and your hidden wishes. What should separate us? Is it perhaps my voyage to Canada? This is not Fate’s power, but my own wish. My wish is also to return if necessary, and yours could be simply to follow me. Why am I harping on it so long? Because I remember all too well our agreement right from the beginning to be honest and truthful, even if it meant to hurt one another. Please don’t be angry with me that I am writing to you so openly… I do not stand terrified and inconsolable before this mysterious force called ‘Fate’. No tyrant, nor any distance, nor any ocean can separate us. We alone separate each other.”
There is some truth in my reflections of some fifty years ago. People do indeed use this irrational force as a pretext to excuse their own lack of courage, inability to act when action is required, their self-doubt and uncertainty about that portion of their personal life that could be given direction and purpose if there was a will. However, truth becomes tarnished when mingled with disingenuous motives and intentions. Such was the case when I accepted the boundary that Biene had set for our love, although in reality I had always wanted to cross that boundary. Instead of giving a pedantic lecture on Fate, why didn’t I tell her that I loved her, asked her to marry me, and then, if she said yes, point out that we needed to make plans to turn our dreams into reality? With horror I look back and realize how much I had been willing to risk with my provocative letter, in which I had renounced my true intentions. But I was young and inexperienced, only a little over a year out of high school. I was groping in the dark. I had nobody to turn to for advice. I only had Biene’s responses and reactions, which were often just as bewildering and confusing to me as were my letters to her. The problem was that we were so much alike in our fear of the pain of permanent separation, which was looming more and more ominous with each passing month that we were erecting walls to protect ourselves, when we should have been busy building bridges of love and faithfulness. Thus, it is not surprising that Biene shrouded in darkness about my true feelings for her would not be writing very encouraging words to bolster our relationship.
“Alas, I also hope, as you do, that everything will work out nicely between the two of us, before you depart, although then the good-bye will be even harder. I thank you that you want to grant me my wish (respecting the boundary) and imagine, sometimes I even wish the opposite. Oh Peter, it is so confusing. Please forgive me! I don’t understand it myself. The more I want to free myself from you, the more my longing for you increases.”
Weren’t these lines popping up sporadically in her letters as an urgent plea to me to make a move, to take the first step to reach out to her, to comfort her with a word of commitment? In the culture of traditional values and conventions of the mid-sixties Biene expected me to take the initiative and break the stalemate. But shy like a little schoolboy I kept beating around the bush. The word marriage was not part of my vocabulary. However, mindful of my good friend Dieter’s advice, I began to arrange another rendezvous with Biene. She was eager to prepare our meeting and combine it with a visit to the Wuppertal Opera House. We both were looking forward to it. We sincerely felt that seeing each other again would chase away those gloomy thoughts and ominous forebodings about our impending separation and potential break-up of our tenuous, yet so cherished relationship.
A Wall Comes Tumbling Down
But love is much like a dam: if you allow a tiny crack to form through which only a trickle of water can pass, that trickle will quickly bring down the whole structure, and soon no one will be able to control the force of the current. For when those walls come down, then love takes over, and it no longer matters what is possible or impossible; it doesn’t even matter whether we can keep the loved one at our side. To love is to lose control. Paulo Coelho
Having a Good Time in Marburg
In the afternoon of October 1st, 1964, I stepped into Room 328 of the Tannenberg barracks named after the place in East Prussia, where Germany defeated the Czarist Second Army at the beginning of WW1. The room was fully occupied by ten soldiers. To accommodate me, another bed was brought into the room for the newcomer from Koblenz. Even though I felt like an intruder in this close-knit group of young men, they gave me a cordial welcome into their circle of friendship and camaraderie. We had many things in common, which greatly facilitated my acceptance by the group. All of us were near the end of our army time with 180 days or less left to go. We shared the same know-how of carrier frequency technology and were looking forward to more technical training on the latest communication devices. But best of all there was a love in the entire group for music, singing, even dancing in a wholesome, man-centered environment, which gave me a big lift in optimism and morale. There were three buddies in Room 328, who could play the guitar. They were delighted to see that I had brought my six-string with me. I gladly let them use it, as they were so much better in the accompaniment of our favorite army songs, whereas I was just a beginner and concentrated more on playing simple classical guitar pieces. We celebrated the major countdown dates of the remaining days, first every month, then every week, finally the last ten days every single day.
As part of the ritual we marched through the hallway past the rooms where the new recruits were just beginning their lengthy term of duty. Boisterously, mockingly, but mostly joyfully singing, our voices reverberated throughout the building with the intoxicating line, ‘Homeward bound, the reserve has rest.’ Then we returned to our room for more celebration and merrymaking. On one of these occasions, having already consumed a good quantity of the fine Marburg beer, I felt emboldened to demonstrate to my room buddies how beer can travel upwards from the mouth to the stomach. To accomplish that feat I assumed the typical yoga headstand position. To everyone’s amazement, I drank a glass of beer, which a roommate was slowly pouring into my open mouth. Klopp, the yoga man from high school, had just added a new twist to the ancient Indian system of physical exercises.
There must have been some favorable mention of my instructional abilities on my transfer papers. For it did not take long before I was asked to resume my teaching duties in basic electricity and electronics. To deliver effective lessons to the new recruits, I was given preferential treatment. For the preparation of the instructional units I had more time than I needed, which I often used to write letters to Biene instead.
Maneuvers and military war games were more frequent now and occurred on a much greater scale often involving several divisions drawn from the various regions of West Germany. The exact starting time, scenario and action plan were kept secret by the high command to make the exercises more realistic. Our commanding officers at Marburg were also kept in the dark and fretted like little schoolboys over their involvement in the upcoming operation. For achieving success in the eyes of the army top brass they heavily depended on our cooperation and technical expertise. Gone were the days of the master-servant relationship of former days at the basic training period. It felt good to be truly respected as citizens in uniform. I remember one particular military exercise very well. Many days ahead of time the Tannenberg barracks were put on high alert. Weekend passes were cancelled. Maintenance crews feverishly worked on the trucks to make sure that they were ready to roll out at short notice. I had to verify that the electronic equipment was functioning properly in the truck that was assigned to my driver and me for the impending maneuver. Alluring promises were filtering down the ranks. If we did well during the seven to ten days of the upcoming manoeuver, we all could count on a pass for an extra long weekend as a reward for our efforts.
Then one day in the early morning hours the long-expected order came. Within less than an hour a column of heavy-duty Mercedes trucks was heading west. The purpose of the operation for all the army units in the northwestern region had finally been revealed. Our mission was to throw back an imaginary enemy across the River Rhine. At a location unknown to me, the truck and electronic gear for which I was responsible was parked in a small clearing surrounded by dense woods. These were tiresome days. My partner and I often worked through the night ensuring that the connections were establishing telephone contacts by the cables, which the linemen were rolling in from all directions. But there were also lulls in the frantic activities, when we took turns sneaking in a little bit of much-needed sleep. The only noise then was coming from the 220 V generator, which provided power for light, electronic gear, but also heat for those chilly November nights. I found the entire experience challenging and rewarding to be at the controls of one of the centers of a complex communication’s network. Tired, but satisfied in the knowledge of having made a small contribution to the success of the Marburg contingent, I took the extra long weekend catching up on some much-needed sleep and enjoying Mother’s excellent home cooked meals and hospitality.
A Tale of Two Castles
In contrast to Koblenz soldiers relatively small in numbers did not overcrowd the medieval city of Marburg. The only barracks was relatively small and like Maxhof in Bavaria served as a technical training center. To go to the city center I had to descend from the hilltop where the Tannenberg barracks was located on steep roads or if I wanted to take a shortcut on even steeper stone staircases. In the narrow streets below there was hardly enough room for cars to pass each other. It was not uncommon to see vehicles parked right on the sidewalks as not to impede the traffic flow. On my free late afternoons and evenings I often strolled by the many quaint shops. Sometimes I dropped in at one of the numerous bookstores, which always have exerted a special attraction for me. With shelves upon shelves reaching all the way to the ceiling these stores looked more like libraries, which is not surprising, if one considers that Marburg is a well- known university town. Here I discovered and bought a copy of the New Testament in Latin. The young saleslady might have thought that I was a first year student enrolled in the faculty of theology rather than a common soldier from the local barracks.
In the downtown area there were also many cozy pubs. In one that was catering to the students of the nearby university my friend Hans and I frequently got together for a chat and a refreshing local beer from the tap. Naturally in such congenial place we did not limit ourselves to just one drink. After the third beer I felt ready to give my old friend a progress report on my relationship with Biene. Through our correspondence Hans was well aware of the trials and tribulations, but also had also been very skeptical about my love to her. He shook his head in disbelief when I told him that I had met her only two times earlier in the spring. Having gone through several love affairs, all of which have ended in disaster, he could not believe that I was still on my first.
“We are planning to meet again in November,” I said noticing the same doubtful expression that I had seen so often in Dieter’s face.
Ignoring my statement, Hans bluntly asked with a sardonic grin, “Have you kissed her yet?”
“Yes, I have,” I answered curtly getting quite a bit uncomfortable with the direction our conversation was taking.
Making use of his own peculiar metaphor, which he had used in his letters before, he ventured another question. “Have you conquered the castle or has she voluntarily open the castle gate to you?”
I felt quite annoyed with the embarrassing questions, which so glibly popped out of his mouth. With a hint of rising anger I managed to reply firmly, “Whether it is open or whether it is locked is none of your business! But to satisfy your juvenile curiosity, I will wait to marry her if and when she is ready.”
“Ede,” using my nickname and almost shouting now, “you must be kidding me …” He stopped in mid-sentence, when he glanced at my angry and determined face. Whatever was his opinion on this delicate topic, I did not care to hear anymore from someone so disillusioned as my friend was through all his failed relationships. Fortunately I had the presence of mind to change topics, before the matter would escalate into a real fight. I told Hans that I still had the set of walkie-talkies, which I had bought from a roommate and had occasionally used in Koblenz to transmit music within the short range of the barracks environment.
“ Wouldn’t it be exciting if we tried them out over a longer distance between the castle and the barracks?” I suggested to him. He happily agreed. And so we turned our attention away from the contentious issue of a few moments ago and focused on the number one common interest in electronics that had once formed the foundation of our friendship. Opposite to the Tannenberg barracks was an even higher hill, on which the Marburg castle and the Museum for Armory were located. Three kilometers or perhaps even four separated the two hills with a direct line of sight high above any obstruction, which might have impeded the radio signals. We agreed to test the radios at five o’clock on the very next day. To add an air of adventure, we recalled from the time before we joined the European scout movement our old code words we had used in our twosome secret society ‘The Black Hand’. However, what we in our excitement did not consider was that the fantasy world of our boyhood adventures was not so far removed from the reality of the Cold War era, where spies and agents from East Germany were roaming about looking for valuable information of military significance in West Germany. Precisely at 1700 hours Hans and I established a communication link with our walkie-talkies between the two hills. An exchange of short and snappy statements ensued taking on a distinctly clandestine character and went approximately like this.
“XU73 calling Ede Wolf. Over.”
“Ede Wolf acknowledging call from XU73. Over.”
“XU73 to Ede Wolf. Confirm validity of call by providing code word between XU73 and Ede Wolf. Over.”
“Code word is: ‘The Black Hand’. Over.”
“Roger from XU73. What is today’s message? Over.”
Now came the moment when our game reached its climax. Even though we had rehearsed the script in the pub the day before, I felt just as excited as if the whole scenario was for real. “The message for XU73 from Ede Wolf is: Five black umbrellas in Italian ice cream parlour. I repeat …”
I could not repeat the sentence. In the twilight of the early November evening hours I saw a police car with a directional antenna on top racing up the winding hillside road. Almost in panic I pressed the send button one more time and warned my friend, “Danger! Turn off your radio at once. I explain later.”
While the police car navigated a few more switchbacks, I had barely enough time to jump off the road and hide in the dense brush below. A minute later I heard a car passing by at high-speed no doubt in search for that elusive radio signal carrying those mysterious messages. If I had been caught, Hans and I would have been in a real pickle as to how to explain that the conversation between a student of the local university and a member of the Armed Forces was just a juvenile game apart from the disturbing fact that we had been using a communication device without a license.
Rendezvous at the Wuppertal Opera House
On the Sunday morning of November 15th, I boarded the train at Giessen and was on my way to Wuppertal, where I was to meet Biene at the train station.
During the three-hour train ride I had ample time to reflect on the strange nature of my relationship with Biene. In the angry exchange of words with my friend Hans I had allowed the word ‘marriage’ to slip out of my mouth, which must have seemed totally ridiculous to him and seemed to me now as well. Hadn’t she set new boundaries for the two of us? Hadn’t I acknowledged them in my letters and promised to respect them? And what was the purpose of friendship in the light of my planned emigration to Canada? Hadn’t I lost within less than a year friends and classmates, who were living closer than a half-day’s train ride from me? Would any of my friends sit for hours in a train just to attend an opera in a distant city on a Sunday evening and then in a grand loop, including annoying late night transfers, return home at eight o’clock in the morning? Why was I doing this? It seemed to me that in spite of my promises to the contrary I still wanted to climb over the wall that Biene had erected between the two of us.
As the express train was approaching my destination, I put myself in Biene’s shoes and began to ponder what had made her so eager to meet me. Why would she go through the trouble of traveling to Wuppertal to buy tickets and then exchange them a few days later, because I had postponed the date of my arrival? Would anyone do this for a mere friend? In spite of my disagreements with Dieter, Gauke and Hans, they had been right in one thing. An actual face-to-face encounter is worth more than a hundred beautifully written love letters. I remembered how annoyed I was in my grief, when Private Gauke romanticized about that happy moment when he saw his sweetheart waiting for him at the end of the platform with her hair undulating in the evening breeze. After our transfer back to Koblenz we had lost sight of each other. I felt thankful now for the care and compassion of a true friend and for the romantic image that was almost identical to the one that I envisioned now. It had vividly come back through Biene’s instructions in her postcard, “I will be standing under the railway clock near the exit behind the ticket gate.”
Then we met. During the afternoon we immersed ourselves into the mellow sensation of togetherness that resisted any attempt to spoil it with talk about how we felt about each other and what destiny held in store for us. In my memory the exuberant feeling, which I experienced while being together with her so powerfully dominated my heart that all else was drawn into a blissful blur. Later on I could not tell where and how we had spent the twilight hours before we entered the opera house to take in the sights and sounds of Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’. For me, who had never gone out on a date before, the experience was almost overwhelming. We were thankful for the silence imposed upon the audience by the theater’s etiquette. Any casual conversation would have ruined our sense of happiness. Instead we communicated the feeling of physical closeness to each other by the gentle squeezing of our hands. Too soon the three-hour long opera came to an end. I had to catch the last train to take me home in a veritable odyssey. By German traveling standards the round trip of more than ten hours with its many stopovers and waiting times had been an ordeal. Although I arrived at Mother’s place tired and exhausted, I felt happy. I sensed that our late night rendezvous at the opera had sprung a hairline crack in the invisible wall that Biene had erected.
While the monotonous click clack of the train lulled me into sleep, I was blissfully unaware of the profound sadness and feelings of desperation, which had gripped Biene the very moment my train had vanished like a phantom into the darkness of the night.
The Wall Comes Tumbling Down
Excerpts from our Correspondence Half a Century Ago
After the night-long train ride I was physically exhausted, but somehow refreshed in mind and spirit. In the next couple of days I felt like I was riding high above cloud nine.On my walks to the nearby derelict mill the dreary landscape shrouded in dense fog did not conjure up depressive thoughts. On the contrary, I let the new-found tender feelings guide me. I was whistling and singing bold scout and army songs and offered Mother a cheerful good morning, when I arrived at our home’s doorstep. A few days later I received Biene’s letter.
November 16th, 1964
” My dear Peter,
I would so much like to ask you: Come back right away and stay with me and no longer depart from me. Alas, I know that it is not possible and that you would come immediately if you could. I felt so miserable, when I walked off the platform. What would I have given to step on the train with you to travel anyplace with you no matter where. I feel so unspeakably lonesome, and the question gives me pain: For what do I live and for whom? I am so distressed and it hurts me so much in the terrible knowledge that you can only come to go away again and soon forever. Dear Peter, please forgive me. I don’t want to reproach you for anything. With your visit you brought me much joy and you undertook the long, strenuous journey, and yet I am sad and my longing for you is even greater. I would like to love you so much and be with you and make you happy. When I have calmed down a little bit, I will write you again.
No rhyme nor reason will ever explain why during my reading of her lines a dark cloud would cast a shadow over my entire being. Instead of rejoicing over her letter, I was deeply disturbed, not so much by her pain, suffering and longing for my presence, but rather by my own stubborn refusal to wholeheartedly accept her declaration of love. I was stewing over Biene’s sudden turnaround regarding the wall, which she had erected for whatever reason and which I had so foolishly and cowardly accepted. After I had brought the emotional stew, a mixture of confused anger and painful stubbornness, to the boiling point, I rashly wrote her a response. I told her that I had gotten used to the wall as a sort of protection against another blow of fate. Distrust had entered my heart and I was unwilling to start all over again. I had barely thrown my letter into the mailbox, when I felt sorry. I had a broken a promise I once made to myself, never to reply in haste and thoughtlessness. I was expecting the worst. Within 48 hours her reply arrived in the mail.
Something in your letter has frightened me. For I have again recognized how much I had hurt you at the time when it appeared to you as if I wanted to erect a wall between us in order to protect myself against your affection. Oh Peter, believe me that I had never wanted this, instead I had always longed for your affection. Perhaps you had also felt it. For why did you write in spite of everything and were so kind to me? But you are distrustful, because you could never really understand me. Maybe you don’t know or just cannot believe how I cling to you and how much I love you. For the longest time I myself did not think it possible that it is so, and therefore I wanted to warn you in order not to disappoint you; for I really did not know whether I really loved you as much as it seemed. Dear Peter, this is one reason; alas there were also many other reasons, which I cannot so quickly explain to you. Only after you had come to me did I dare to admit how much you mean to me; and now, Peter, I know it for sure. And now it is certainly too late; for you yourself say that you have resigned yourself to the limits of our friendship and no longer have the same longing as before. It oppresses me very much that it no longer means as much to you that I love you, as it would have meant to you before.
And now, when I want to dream something beautiful about us, this thought destroys it: It will not be! How much I wished now you would still dream about us studying together and be together every day. See, dear Peter, such thoughts are entering my mind and many more…
How I’d wish that I could bewitch you and give you a love potion just like it happens in fairy tales so that I won’t lose you…
Not waiting for a response from me, she quickly sent another letter making a last ditch effort to save what appeared to have already been lost.
“My dear Peter,
Guess Peter, what I did last night. I took all your letters out of the portfolio and read them all once more. Alternately I became quite sad and quite happy. How strangely things have come to pass with us, if I think only about the past year! In my subconscious I must have always loved you. When I look back, I recognize it, this feeling had to struggle first through much darkness and confusion to the light. And now Peter, it is the most beautiful feeling that I have ever experienced. I believe that if I could really be every minute with you, I would fall apart experiencing so much happiness.
To you dear Peter, I send a secret Christmas kiss, which you would get under the Christmas tree.
After reading Biene’s Christmas letter, the realization hit me with stunning clarity that if I could not see a wall, could not feel a wall, then in all likelihood there wasn’t a wall. Indeed, at the trumpet call of love from deep within her heart the wall had come tumbling down. The dam had been broken, and I found myself swept up by the torrent, against which no further resistance was possible and would have been sheer foolishness. Willingly I went with the flow and felt the tug carrying me unerringly into the direction of my dreams.
Of Good Luck Charms and Love Potions
The wall, which had caused so much grief, had finally collapsed. A fresh breeze of lightheartedness entered our hearts and prompted us to write more cheerfully about our feelings towards one another. We felt safe to joke and banter about our relationship. For example, when I referred to Don Giovanni, the lover of over a thousand women, and boldly declared that my favorite line was ‘but in Spain already one thousand three’, Biene teasingly asked if she was perhaps Don Pedro’s 1003rd. In that case she would plan her revenge and demand that for me to be forgiven I would have to sing her an aria to demonstrate my true repentance.
At the end of our visit to the opera Biene managed to slip a good luck charm into my coat pocket. It turned out to be an effective substitute for the originally intended love potion. This talisman was a little man made out of wood with lots of hair spreading profusely into all directions. Biene truly believed that he would do its magic and completely surrender my heart to her. While I was less inclined to lend credence to such superstition, her strong belief proved her right. The little man with its exuberant hair both amused and endeared me to Biene all the more so, as my army buddies knowing its romantic origin and loved that cute little fellow and constantly teased me about it. Of course, I reported back to Biene how much I loved her good luck charm. When she feigned jealousy over Don Pedro’s love affair, I lectured her good-naturedly that since my cute new friend was a gift from her I considered him part of her and therefore incredibly she would be jealous of herself. Of course, I relished the excitement and bantering Biene’s gift had generated in Room 328. One morning I discovered my roommates had braided his hair. When they threatened tongue-in-cheek to cut it off, I made them all sign a written promise in a letter to Biene that they would not utter such threats again. Just to be on the safe side, from that moment on I kept the little man locked up in my closet.
It was also during the weeks before Christmas that my roommates being aware of my expertise in electronics started bringing their broken-down radios to me. Fortunately the radios suffered only from minor defects, such as blown fuses or tubes needing replacement and similar problems, which I was only too happy to fix. At home I began to assemble from a still functional transistorized tuner and electronic components from my parts box a little radio that I planned to use as a farewell gift for Biene before leaving for Canada.
Amid all this happiness there was just one fly in the ointment. Every once in a while with the regularity of the lunar cycle Biene would feel depressed and so miserable that according to her own words only I would have been able to comfort her, if only I had been present at such time. She would wake up in the middle of the night or even cry in her sleep. Quite frankly, not knowing anything about the so-called evil days that were often used in the German language as a euphemism for the monthly period, I was quite bewildered by the disturbing lines about her distressed state of mind. I felt an uncanny foreboding and wondered why the great joy she felt would not be strong enough to carry her across the occasional ups and downs. Afraid to walk across an emotional minefield, I chose to ignore such sentiments. I still had to learn that avoiding a problem was no way of solving it.
For Christmas I mailed her an LP with excerpts of the best musical pieces from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which immensely delighted her. She quickly regained her balance. Listening to the familiar tunes recreated the imagery of us two sitting together and holding hands. She in turn sent me a guitar booklet with easy to learn hillbilly songs, such as ‘My wife and I live all alone in a little hut we call our own’. Chords, which I learned and practiced to accompany the songs, supplemented the tunes.
At Christmas I had guard duty at an ammunition depot deep in the woods of unknown location. On my lonely night rounds along the eight-foot fence with the stars shining brightly from a cloudless sky above me, I had ample time to make plans for the future. That’s when I made up my mind to talk to Biene about them on our next rendezvous in the New Year. Indirectly I had prepared her for this by presenting one more time my thoughts on what according to my opinion fate was and perhaps more importantly what it was not.
“December 24th, 1964 – one hour before guard duty
My dear Biene,
… For I believe that we have still a lot of things to talk about. You know, a great decision will have to be made. But no matter, what it will be, it need not mean our permanent separation. Look, dear Biene, this is also the point, in which I have always voiced a different opinion. Fate can bring us death, turn us into cripples, take away father and mother, drag us into war, but we have in our hands the tender threads of happiness, and fate will take them only out of our hands, if we are incapable or unwilling to make use of them. I can promise you, ‘I come back again’. You can promise me,’ I will follow you’. This is our decision and not one of fate. And whether we both abide by it and act accordingly will be the proof of our love for each other. Now it is getting dark, and I must soon put on helmet and uniform. Have a wonderful holiday and always believe that I think of you often!
Amidst feverish preparations for our next get-together in the second week of January Biene mailed along with her Christmas letter two beautiful poems, one of which I like so much that I made an attempt to translate it into English.
Eyes gleam like a sea at night,
And softly your gaze submerges.
But your gaze is only a weak glimmer like the starlight,
Which on the dark sea winks and blinks
And yet does not fathom the mystery of the deep.