An Unconventional Engagement
“Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking together in the same direction.”Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Tense Moments on a Train Ride
On January 8th, 1965 I took the train to Cologne, where the Canadian Consulate was located. In those days it was relatively simple to become a landed immigrant of Canada. One had to be in good health, have useful skills or at least demonstrate to have the potential. In addition, one needed sponsors, who were willing to vouch for the new immigrant’s good character. My brother Gerry and sister-in-law Martha in Calgary were willing to take the risk of sticking their neck out on my behalf. So it happened that on that momentous Friday I received the official permission to enter as landed immigrant the country of my dreams.
On the same day I traveled to Wengern on the River Ruhr, where on account of Mother’s kind arrangements I received at her acquaintances a warm welcome, a fine meal and accommodation for the night. Frau Wolpert, a war widow, had a daughter about my age, who was still living with her mother in the small apartment. I was not too happy, when I heard that the young lady was taking the same train in the morning. Courtesy required that I sat with her in the same compartment. Lacking my brother Adolf’s outgoing character and social skills, which he could so easily employ in any situation, I kept mostly quiet except to ask where she was heading. And when she replied that she was attending a trade school in Siegen, I was dumbstruck and became more and more apprehensive, since I had made the arrangement with Biene that I would join her on the train to Siegen with the plan of traveling together to my Mother’s place. The thought of being in the same compartment as Fräulein Wolpert greatly troubled me and a long embarrassing silence followed this shortest of all dialogues. While I was frantically searching for a way out of my dilemma, she may have been perplexed over my sudden shyness or may have wondered whether there was something about herself that I may have found offensive. I would have had plenty of time to explain to her that my girlfriend is already waiting for me in the train from Essen to travel home with me to meet my relatives. But unable to talk about things that I considered too private to share, I remained silent. However, when at the transfer station in Hagen she followed me hot on my heels and boarded with me the express train to Giessen, I couldn’t think of a good excuse to get rid of her and considered it best to tell the truth.
“Excuse me”, I spoke rather timidly, “I must say good-bye now. My fiancée is sitting somewhere in this train and I must go and find her.”
With this more than cryptic remark I hurriedly left Fräulein Wolpert in the compartment where she had just sat down on the bench and was in all likelihood puzzling over my strange behavior and the even stranger excuse. Regaining my calm I ambled from carriage to carriage, until I finally found Biene at the far end of the train.
We were so happy to see each other that we forgot to talk about what was so important to us. On the three-hour train ride to Giessen we missed in our rapture the golden opportunity to make concrete plans, on which we could confidently hang our dreams and aspirations. Adolf picked us up at the station and took us to Watzenborn, where Mother, Aunt Lucie, Aunt Mieze and Uncle Günther gave us the customary royal reception that made Biene instantly feel right at home. She was originally supposed to stay overnight at Philip XI, a small bed and breakfast establishment, but Mother insisted that Biene would sleep in the guest room, thus having a better chance to get to know her. Adolf and I were delighted to cede our bedroom to the finest and most beautiful young lady and we gladly slept on the downstairs sofas instead.
In a mysteriously worded note to Biene I had announced that I would take her, perhaps on a flying carpet, to a distant land and return home during the same evening. The distant exotic land turned out to be a Chinese dinner at my cousin Jürgen and his fiancée Inge. Jürgen impressed me with his sharp wit and exuberant jolly manner, with which he entertained his guests. I could see why he and Adolf got along so well with each other. He cracked a few jokes about the West German army, which I found as a member of the armed forces less amusing. For even though I had had bad experiences until very recently, I felt too much a member of the body to which I belonged to ignore my sensitivities about his jocular attacks. Like many of my friends in Wesel, Jürgen was exempt from military service, because his father Bruno had been killed in action at the beginning of WW2 in Alsace-Loraine.
The Chinese dinner was a great success. Biene and I enjoyed every minute of it. It was here at Jürgen’s apartment that Adolf took the first photos of us two being together. Near the end of the party another guest probably from Egypt said that he had a culinary surprise for Biene. He wanted her to guess a mystery food from his North African country. He asked her to close her eyes and open her mouth. When she complied in great anticipation, he slid the mysterious object into her mouth. All eyes were focused on her facial expression. Having crunched it and tasted its flavor, she asserted that it was quite delicious and pleasant to eat. Great was her amazement when she learned that she had just swallowed a chocolate covered grasshopper, considered to be a delicacy in some African countries. Merrily we returned home to Watzenborn over the snowy wintry roads in Adolf’s old faithful Volkswagen beetle.
Mustering up the Courage to Talk about the Future
On Sunday morning Mother, like always, lovingly prepared a sumptuous breakfast. Then on Biene’s request I played a selection of a few very simple classical guitar pieces composed by Carulli. As I was nervous and excited, I made quite a few mistakes. Going as far back as my early childhood years I had never suffered from stage fright. I had taken on challenging rôles in Christmas concerts and other major school events. But this was different. Biene was the audience. While she listened to my renditions with an understanding heart, she lovingly ignoring my mistakes. The frequent boners I committed bothered me all the more, since I often managed to play the tunes perfectly, when I had been alone. Then it was Biene’s turn to perform. I set up the microphone and the Grundig tape recorder to capture her voice. She recited in her soft, sweet voice the two poems she had written for me at Christmas. Although at the pinnacle of total bliss, I was unable to push away the nagging thought of something unspoken that needed to be said
This had so far been the very best get-together with Biene. Should we again with our hearts overflowing with wondrous feelings miss the golden opportunity for a good solid talk about our future. For the day was dragging on and Biene’s time to leave was rapidly approaching. Resolutely I invited Biene for a walk along the wintry trail behind the house. We were holding hands, as I began to talk.
In just a few months I would be traveling to Canada on the Ryndam, a ship of the Holland America Line. It would not mean permanent separation. I would simply go and check out to see if it was true, as my brother Gerry asserted, that I could become a teacher with only two or three years of university training. If it was indeed true, my next step would be to get admitted to the University of Alberta at Calgary with my German high school diploma (Abitur). If successful in fulfilling all entrance requirements I would devote all my energies to acquire a teaching certificate in the shortest possible time.
And then … I paused for a moment noticing in Biene’s dreamy eyes the expression of sweet anticipation of words never spoken or written before, which she had been expecting from me, the slowpoke, for such a long time. “And then,” I continued almost choking with emotion, “I will ask you to come and be my wife.” Now she squeezed my hand and her face was beaming. Little did I know that with these words I fulfilled her secret wish, which at home in Velbert had been conceived in her heart on New Year’s Eve! So with all our hitherto hidden desires so plainly revealed with my promise to marry her we huddled a little closer together on our way back to the house. To be sure, this was not entirely due to the ice and snow and the wintry chill in the air.
A most unconventional, secret engagement had taken place. Biene and I did not feel any need to share the joyful news of our clandestine arrangement with anyone. While our parents, relatives and friends saw our love story unfolding before their eyes, they did not suspect anything more than what was normal at our age to do, to have a few dates, to meet at regular albeit long intervals. However, breaking well-established and meaningful conventions, such as a formal engagement, was not without peril, which we in our elevated state of romantic ecstasy did not foresee and whose warning signs we did not heed.
Another danger was lurking from deep within me, the tendency to fast forward into the future, then to look back from an imaginary vantage point and view in horror all the possible things that could go wrong. The worst of these mental acrobatics was that I was afraid that I would have to take the blame for Biene’s future hardships, suffering and pain. These were the thoughts that were passing through my convoluted mind. In simple terms, I was also a bit scared about having the boldness to ask her to marry me in the light of having ahead very little income, an uncertain future, and a long period of separation. So I wrote in a letter:
“Now I recall something else I wanted to tell you. I would very much like, when I am no longer in Germany, that you feel obligated by nothing except by your heart and feeling. Do you know what I mean? We have always striven to be honest even when we found it hard to do so. But it is exactly that honesty, which unites us so firmly. Perhaps you had expected to hear from me more concise plans on our walk through the snow to the old mill and back. See, my dear Biene, this was also the reason, why I found it so difficult to talk. I do not wish to exert any pressure on you. When I tell you, I need you –I really need you -, then in a sense I have already exerted pressure. Therefore, dear Biene, I urge you to let your heart decide.”
The promise we made to each other on our wintry walk was barely one week old. And already I had cast doubts on the strength of our love for each other. I was very lucky that Biene did not take it as an insult. Even though it had never been my intention, one could have accused me of putting her love to the test. Of course, from her response I could tell that she felt saddened by the doubts I still had about her true feelings. But at the same time, my letter had compelled her to say that she loved me so much that she could belong to no one but me. I had to smile when I read the following lines,
“And if you were as poor as a church mouse, I would rather be a church mouse. Peter, don’t laugh, I really mean it. I would also like to give you a sign. May I give you my ring? It is the most precious thing I possess except for your letters and the book you wrote for me. Never would I have parted with it, but with you I find it easy to do. You must not think I am superstitious, but I believe it will bring you luck. And one day, dear Peter, when you write to me, ‘Biene, come to me!’ you can return it to me. Oh Peter, it makes me so indescribably happy to believe in a future with you. I am always thinking of us and I am indescribably happy about our secret. Dear Peter, I am so thankful that you have always stuck with me even though I so often hurt you, because I didn’t know that I loved you so much.”
The ring turned out to be a very precious family heirloom that was being passed down from Biene’s great-grandmother to her grandmother Gertrud and then, after the latter had passed away, finally to Biene. It was symbolic in more than one way. But the meaning as an engagement ring escaped me completely at the time. Of course, I was happy with it as a gift and as a token of Biene’s love. It was a bit too small to wear on my ring finger. To be sure, if I had, it would have raised a few eyebrows in my military environment. But I did wear it on my little finger during the night and turned it a few times to let it do its magic. Alas, in spite of all that talk about talking frankly and freely, I never understood the real meaning of Biene’s gift, and Biene did not have the courage to ask me for an engagement ring. If the reader thinks I needed to be rich and gainfully employed, before humbly falling on his knees to ask for her hand in marriage, he would have been misled by the Anglo-American custom of buying a diamond ring for one’s sweetheart. In Germany, all one needs is a golden ring, which one wears on the ring finger of the right hand for the engagement and on the left hand at the wedding. What a simple and affordable tradition! Yet, I was blind and did not interpret Biene’s gift as her most ardent desire to wear a ring from me, before we separated for a very long time.
In a letter to Biene I wrote: “A long period of time will come, when we can no longer quickly step on a train and come for a visit. We will have to wait for a long time, before we see each other again. Yet I am confident, dear Biene. For you are no longer afraid you could lose me. One day I will ask you to come. Haven’t we written each other for two years without seeing each other? How much easier will I be able to endure everything, when I know for whom I work and also know that you will come! Dear Biene, you wrote so kindly that it wouldn’t matter to you whether I am poor or rich, if you could be with me and help me. I do not yet know for sure what to expect in Canada. But one thing I know; it is a thousand times more beautiful, if we start our life together than if I could immediately present you with a house and a car. The joy will be much greater, when you can say, ‘Peter, we deserve this sliver of happiness, which we were able to secure for ourselves, because we love each other and you without me and I without you would be unthinkable. In my mind I am propelling us so wondrously into the far away country but without danger, because I firmly believe in our future.
Since you have made your decision. I am looking farther still, beyond Alberta, where I will study at the University of Calgary, over and beyond the mighty Rocky Mountains westwards to British Columbia into the land, which like Germany lies between the mountains and the sea. It is not without reason that people call this province God’s country. Far away from the big cities, nature is still unspoiled by city life and industrial pollution. It appears to me incomparably more beautiful than Germany. Dear Biene, do not believe that I shut out our home country from my heart. Not only, because you need to stay behind for a while, do I depart reluctantly, but also because I must depart from people, who are dear to me. However, the world has become too crowded for me. I am searching for freedom, in close contact with nature, and for meaningful work in my future teaching profession. And should I not find them, I would be bitterly disappointed. But dear Biene, we both want to believe that I shall find after an eager search this envisioned, yes, almost ideal world in the reality of our life.”
Biene replied: “My dear Peter, do you still remember your words, when you asked me to write to you one last time so that our friendship, which threatened to end in a discord, would dissolve in harmony. Sometimes I have to think about these words; for at that time they touched me deeply. For me it was as if this melody, which had always been in my heart, since I know you, must never fade away. Sometimes it only sounded rather timidly, but now my heart is full of music. I cannot express it in any other way. Was our correspondence during the two years not a good test whether the voice in our hearts that drove us together was genuine and true? Say, was it not also good that we had hurt each other and were saddened over it? I would rather be sad over you than feel nothing for you! Pain often carries the seed of deeply felt happiness. If we had never before been sad over each other, could we now fathom the happiness of having found each other?
I am hoping with you that you will find in Canada the freedom, for which you are longing, to be able to develop your abilities. But my dear Peter, you must not despair if you will be a little disappointed in certain things. Yes, you speak from my heart and soul when you say that it is far more rewarding and satisfying to build a future together based on our own strength than when everything just falls into our lap and one lives like in a golden cage. Through you I can now believe in a future, as I have always desired it. If we firmly believe in it and apply our strength, then our dreams, which we have always been dreaming, will become true.”
Biene had already written her final written exams before Christmas and sensing that she did well on them began the New Year in the knowledge that a major hurdle lay behind her and that her high school diploma was almost certainly within reach, although she still had to contend with a lingering anxiety about her upcoming oral tests in February. In contrast to the previous year when due to the emotional turmoil during her engagement with Henk and its sudden break-up her marks had dropped and for the first time in her entire school life she had been facing the spectre of failing the second last grade, now she was looking with a new sense of optimism into the future. She claimed that our love and the wonderful prospect of a life together as husband and wife in Canada gave her the strength and determination to face the challenges of the six remaining weeks at school.
Of course, the ring, Biene’s most precious possession, which she had sent to me by mail and which I wore on my little finger at night, occupied front and center our thoughts and feelings and gave rise to reflections in our letters on its deeper meaning apart from being an heirloom from Biene’s great-grandmother. The first and foremost meaning, which Biene now openly declared, was that it symbolized faithfulness to which both of us from now on were committed through our love for each other. But there was also a hidden meaning, which I in my blindness for Biene’s subtle and unexpressed stirrings of the heart failed to see. I am certain that my roommates with their keen sense of perception would have immediately noticed the ridiculous reversal of roles I would have put openly on display with the ring, if it had indeed fitted on my ring finger. I was blind as a bat to Biene’s unspoken desire to receive an engagement ring in response to her precious gift. I could have prevented a lot of pain in the months that followed, if I had chosen to take the conventional route and on our next rendezvous in March had bought two rings for us. That way at least privately we would have had a semblance of a formal engagement. Alas, this thought never occurred to me.
Biene’s Dream House
In the meantime Biene had graduated with reasonably high marks and sent me a telegram to the Tannenberg barracks to tell me the good news. Her parents were so delighted over her success that they granted her permission to visit me again in Watzenborn. Before she came, she had presented me with her idea of writing a family chronicle that would later enable us to look back at our roots.
In addition I had tossed in the proposal of starting a book with blank pages, which we would fill with our vision for the time, when we would be together in Canada. A description of our dream house would be part of this endeavour. Biene wholeheartedly embraced this idea and to this end immediately bought a leather-bound book, which could be locked with a tiny key. In spite of the hustle and bustle of the graduation festivities and inevitable farewell parties she had already made her first entry with the full force of her innate romantic creativity:
Our Little Dream House
Now when under the first sun rays of spring the forces of nature begin to stir, I can hardly wait, until everything is blooming and the green, which is still slumbering in the swollen buds, breaks forth. Not too long ago I came across this photo and each time I look at it, dreams of a little home of my desires are awakening. You said indeed that we will set no limits to how far our fantasy will carry us, as long as it won’t do us any harm. This is how I imagine our little fantasy home to look like.
So picture this. It is spring. Only nature has progressed a little farther than here today. For everywhere fruit trees are already blossoming and in the sea of blossoms glimmers the first tender green of rupturing buds. You walk along the edge of a small town and are caught in the intoxicating scent of flowering splendour. All of a sudden you see out of the white shimmer a little house emerge. Sheer happiness makes your heart beat faster, and you believe to dream anew like on every day; for this is our little home embedded by this blooming island. It is as I said only a little house made entirely out of dark wood reminiscent a little of a log cabin. It looks neither opulent nor grandiose, but endearing and inviting instead.
Through the large windows the sun and the fresh aromatic air pours into the small cozy rooms. The sun glides over the furniture, which is not so ultramodern as to appear cold and nondescript, but every piece is reassuringly firm and solid and for that reason snug and comfortable. At this moment I must think of the chairs, which Aunt Lucie had painted. Such a piece of furniture is no longer dead, but in a small way radiates life.
Oh, I forget to mention that every window bedecked by a flower box is overflowing with flowers just like on that little photo. Our little home appears as if one day it would be overgrown by nature’s luscious growth, which should provide protection against the cold months, when icy winds drive us inside into the heated room.
Apart from that we spend most of the time in our little yard and even sleep there, when the summer nights are warm and the mosquitoes do not sting us too much. We sleep in hammocks and gaze at the starry sky before falling asleep.
In the winter when it is stormy and desolate, our large tiled stove or fireplace will radiate warmth into the small rooms just like the sun in the summer. Where the rooms are located, I am not so sure about it yet, but I think it would be best to place our bedrooms under the roof; for the slanted attic walls seem so cozy with a bed underneath. Also your study is upstairs, where you have the most quiet and can work fast. Thus, you can devote a lot of time to us. By us I mean everything that is dear to us, the plants and the trees in the yard, the little house, the animals and – I hardly dare to write it again – our children. I believe, if only a fraction of all this may become reality, I would be the happiest woman of the entire world!
Reading the description of Biene’s vision of our dream house, I was amazed at how far her thoughts and ideas had ventured forth with such precise details as if taken from a prophetic book. What astounded me the most, was how much the slow-moving train of life, in which we traveled together, had accelerated in recent weeks and months. Was is not only eight months ago that my novella ‘Carthage’ so fervently written and presented to her as a gift prompted here to say ‘I believe, we love each other’? And now her heart and soul envisioned us as husband and wife having a family in the home of her dreams.
Sitting on Mother’s sofa Biene and I shared these wondrous thoughts that have so prophetically crystallized into words written down in Biene’s special dream book. They were clear and easy to grasp and to attach our hopes to. They gave us a sense of purpose and direction, a blueprint for our entire lifespan.
The morning sun was shining brilliantly into the living room. Early spring was in the air and beckoned us to go for a stroll past the meadows behind the house towards the old mill into the nearby woods. There I once almost lost my way in the maze of trails and roads riding my new bicycle. We directed our path to a hunter’s lookout tower, which was overlooking a small clearing in the woods. We climbed up the wooden ladder to gain a higher vantage point for us. Once we had sat down on the sturdy bench, we no longer allowed our mind to dwell on our plans for the future, but had the strong urge to follow the ancient Roman saying ‘Carpe diem.’ We kissed. It was a very long and sweet kiss indeed. And if there were no other needs in this world, such as for food, drink, and shelter, you would in all likelihood still find us there today. So much we were wrapped up in enjoying the presence. The scene would have inspired the illustrious romantic English poet John Keats to compose a sequel to his famous poem ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ entitled ‘Ode to a Hunter’s Lookout’, where our bliss would have been frozen in time for all eternity.
Philosophical Musings on Love, Marriage and Family
Now it was my turn to write and lay out my philosophical musings on love, marriage, and family within the context of their place in society. Just like Biene, I allowed my thinking to go far, even taking a fanciful glimpse into a romantic notion of immortality.
When I think about two people, who love each other, I see two streams that arise from two different springs, wind through narrow ravines and then, free again, pour into a wide valley, sometimes wedged in, sometimes wide, yet steadily growing in power and strength, finally join and from then on flow together towards their goal, the sea. Who can say which is greater, more glorious and more beautiful? Perhaps an onlooker from one region would praise the charm of the first river, while another would be more pleased with the foaming waterfall in a gorge of the second. What the two have in common is not remarkable, because their charm lies in their difference. So it also appears to me between a man and a woman! For with them as well we see their intrinsic value in their being different from each other.
As we both are different and only when united have a common goal, so will different tasks occupy our entire being. Thus, dear Biene, I am certain, you will want to be wife and mother and you will see in this task your greatest and most beautiful role, and I would like to be husband and father and make sure that I put on a solid foundation, what you in your uniqueness will accomplish in the home through love and warmth for husband and children. And should someone ask us about our understanding of equality, we would simply reply that it is respect for each other’s uniqueness. We will then have said much more than if we had spoken longwindedly about the social position of man and woman in the human society. With it we express the idea that we do not wish to distort nature’s laws in our desire to be equal, but in responsibility for each other and for the family we are on par, of equal worth and value.
Each person, no matter how insignificant and low in the eyes of the world, influences his environment by his very being. His parents care for him and draw him into their thoughts and feelings. And so he also influences their decisions, as long as he in some way depends on them. Because of him they postpone perhaps a vacation trip or even cancel it; because of him there is perhaps a car accident or perhaps not. Few people are connected with him with their decisions, but the few are intertwined in a remarkable way with thousands of other people, who in turn have an impact with their actions on others. Thus, everyone makes a small contribution to the history of mankind. One need not be Caesar, Napoleon or some other great figure to change the world we live in. Everyone does it, whether he is aware of it or not. But it is good to know one’s power to this effect.
A teacher, who is ambitious and uses his subject areas to have good students graduate year after year, can say at the end of his career, ‘My knowledge and my thoughts did not remain buried in books or in my head, but have beneficially spread among so many people. He will be satisfied with his life, and after he will be long gone, his ideas and thoughts mysteriously live on in thousands of minds and produce for a long time to come precious results. Would he not catch through his work a tiny sliver of immortality? I find, if one looks at life that way, the world appears much brighter, even death loses some of its sting. Thoughts, ideas, knowledge are invisible and work in the shadow of the human spirit, until they step forth in action and then, even if it only happens on a small scale, change the world. You may wonder, dear Biene, what I’m driving at. I would like to lead a life with you and be there for you and the family. And that is only possible if I enter a profession, which first of all brings joy to my heart and secondly offers us financial security. Later on in my profession as teacher I hope to positively affect young people and, as much as I can, will follow with great interest their life’s journey. The question will always occupy my mind, ‘What will become of them?’ However, in my work I will never forget the family and leave its care and worry to you alone. You know, dear Biene, I believe that we live on through our children. And even if one day we will have become old and gray, part of us will always carry over to them, our flesh and blood, and after years of nurturing certainly also our way of life. I would like to cling to this idea, which in its realization will bring so much comfort to us, and it is my greatest desire that one day all this will become reality.
Sitting on Mother’s sofa, Biene and I shared these wondrous thoughts that have so prophetically crystallized into words written down in Biene’s special dream book. They were clear and easy to grasp, to which we could attach our hopes. They were destined to be the blueprint for our entire lifespan.
Of a Young Man’s Needs and Faithfulness
Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for. Epicurus
Biene’s Second Visit to Gotha
During the last three weeks of my military service I took the time to write a report on my army experiences. I intended to mail it to the ombudsman, whose job was to receive and act on the written complaints from soldiers about alleged abuses and injustices in the West German army. Having gained the much-needed distance from the upsetting transfer episode and having received fair and respectful treatment at my final army post at Marburg, I was in the right frame of mind to describe in an emotionally neutral and objective manner some of the deplorable conditions at the Koblenz barracks, where low ranking army personnel were fraternizing, drinking, and getting drunk with common soldiers and thus tarnishing the public image of the Armed Forces. I also pointed out the errors, which the officer in charge – whether intentionally or not I could not say – committed to bring about my transfer to Maxhof. Furthermore I made it clear that while I lost out on a chance of becoming a lieutenant of the reserve, the army itself would suffer in the long run from such careless and wasteful practices. Biene helped me by typing up the handwritten draft copy of the report. She was quite impressed how I managed to control my anger and yet decidedly communicated my legitimate concerns to the ombudsman. Being aware of the fact that for the first time we worked together to address and solve a problem, she remarked in her letter that all her thoughts were directed to a time in the future with me. She wanted to do her part that our life would not turn to be something, upon which we would look back with regret, rather a life that was perhaps difficult, but would fill our hearts with joy, because we mastered it together.
About a week before my birthday Biene and her twin brother Walter traveled to Gotha to visit their sister Elsbeth in the GDR behind the Iron Curtain. In those days, when a fence heavily guarded by the National People’s Army (NVA) divided the two Germanys, a person needed a traveling visa and a residence permit in order to cross the border and visit close relatives. What made the application process so frustrating for so many West Germans was not the hefty fee they had to pay, but the arbitrariness in the approval process by the East German authorities. Only in the event of a severe illness or death of a close relative could one be fairly sure to get that all important entry document. So Biene and Walter were lucky indeed to make their journey to their former hometown Gotha and to be together with sister Elsbeth and her family at their birthplace. The apartment, where Elsbeth, her husband Paul Werner, and their two sons Norbert and Christian lived, was located in a beautiful house that had escaped the destruction of the Allied bombing raids during the war. The home offered the warm, cozy feeling of a secure harbour, where the family found refuge from the desolation of the outside world, the depressing sights of dilapidated houses all around the neighbourhood. While West Germany had experienced an incredible economic boom with an unprecedented growth in prosperity during the past twenty years, not much had changed on this side of the border and large parts of the major cities still lay in ruins. There was a shortage of the most basic consumer goods that forced shoppers to buy, whenever and wherever they happened to be available in the drab city stores.
On Biene’s previous visit in the summer of ’64, the two sisters had already formed a close bond with each other. Now Elsbeth was jealously watching that nobody spent too much time with her cherished guest. Together they traveled to Erfurt to visit the famous cathedral, where Martin Luther was ordained in 1507. Inside the 1200-year-old Gothic church they marveled at the beauty of the altar. Biene was impressed by the rich colors of the stained glass windows that let the vibrant light stream into the interior. In the evening the entire family would sit around the table and play a round of the German card game Doppelkopf, which was also our favorite game at the Kegler Clan. Of course, her two nephews were delighted, when they were allowed to spend a little bit of time and go for a sightseeing tour around town with their elegantly dressed and pretty Aunt Biene from the West.
Elsbeth had watched on East German TV many interesting documentaries on the landscapes and people of Canada. She confided to Biene that if she could live her life over again and had the freedom to travel, she would immigrate to this fascinating country with its magnificent scenery and its promise of a better future. When Biene told her that I was going to Canada in a matter of a few weeks and that we had promised to be faithful to each other, Elsbeth voiced her skepticism and did not mince words in sharing her opinion on what a man of my age needed. She warned her younger sister that I would be looking for a girl who would offer more than she had been able to give. Biene was quite troubled by her sister’s pessimistic views on men’s desires for sex and their potential lack of faithfulness. True to our promise of always sharing our thoughts and concerns with each other, she immediately communicated her worry regarding these disturbing insights in a letter directly from Gotha and asked me to respond and hopefully reassure her.
A Delicate Question Answered
On my 23rd birthday with less than a week left before my release from the military service, I sneaked away from the electronic maintenance job, which had been completed long ago and only existed for one purpose to keep us busy and to kill time. I sat alone at the table of Room 328. No sergeant, drillmaster or officer would bother me here. The carrier frequency equipment, for which I had been responsible for its smooth operation, was in top shape and my absence would not be noticed anywhere at the Falkenstein Barracks. I wanted to do something special on my birthday. The daily celebrations, the drinking and carousing to mark the remaining ‘glorious’ days in the army were not that special anymore.
I longed for quiet, a time to reflect on this idle Wednesday morning. I wanted to respond to Biene’s anxious questions and genuine concerns. Here at the soldiers’ simple living and sleeping quarters no loud talking and singing were distracting me, I found the ideal space to grapple with the contentious issue raised by Biene about faithfulness. It was good to know that Biene trusted me to provide an honest answer. I was proud of her courage to touch on the topic of sexuality, which we two had been too shy to discuss at our few encounters. I took out from my closet pen and paper and began to write down my thoughts. It turned out to be a very long letter, in which I, trusting Biene as much as she trusted me, did not hesitate to truthfully lay bare my innermost feelings. The following are excerpts taken from my lengthy reply.
“March 24th, 1965
My dear Biene,
Yesterday I received your letter from Gotha. Your sister seems to have a rather strange opinion on men. I am glad that you broached the delicate subject of sexuality. But I found it a little troublesome that you let yourself get so easily misled. But I don’t want to reproach you; for I myself had often to deal with opinions of young married and unmarried men who asserted that a girl could only be faithful and true to her partner, after she had gone to bed with him. Please forgive me this drastic manner of expression, but why should I beat around the bush? You see the accusations are coming from both sides. As for me, I refuse to accept any form of generalization, when people say, that’s how women are, that’s how men are.
But now to your concerns! You would like to know how I think about it, dear Biene. Like in all men there is undoubtedly a force that drives me to the opposite sex. Yes, furthermore I concede that the drive is not necessarily directed to a particular person. Dear Biene, you must absolutely believe in what I am writing you now. Let no ever so bold opinion throw you off balance again, if you truly love me. Sexuality does not stand on its own, otherwise we would be like animals, but it is intertwined most intimately with the entire personality of the human being. There will always be tensions, in which we have to struggle to maintain the balance and keep this vital force under control.
Whoever surrenders in this battle and needs to run to a woman to relieve his tensions is in my opinion a weakling and a coward no matter how assertive and self-assured he might otherwise appear. And in what comes now, you can totally put your trust. Since we love each other, this battle for me is over. I have been able to have this uncanny force coexist in harmony with myself. It is always there, lurking behind the scenes, surprising me at times, but it does not bother me any more. When I read a book, look at pictures, walk in the streets or watch a movie, it often and unexpectedly flares up, and then in full awareness of control I have to smile at myself. Don’t you think that one has overcome much, if one can smile at oneself? Do you still worry about me, even when I tell you that I am strong enough to wait for you and through you alone I have become so strong? As long as I can hope for the fulfillment of my ideals, which I have set for myself, you may chase your worries away. You stand in the midst of this sphere, dear Biene, whether I am in Canada or at the end of the world.
How beautiful it is that we are so frank with one another! This will not only keep us together, but also bring us ever closer together. Do we want to show this spiteful world that one can wait for one another for years without so-called ‘side leaps’, do we want to, dear Biene, do we want to?
Finally I would like to say one thing, your sister will one day have to concede that there are some exceptions among men, who will turn out to be ‘miracle men’. Now you will smile; thank you so much! Be completely reassured!
The modern reader may scratch his or her head over the outdated notions about love and faithfulness expressed in our letters over fifty years ago. Yet, in our mind they remain completely unchanged and have been our beacon of hope even through the darkest and most turbulent times in our life-long relationship.
Last Rendezvous in Germany
The day of our official release from the West German Army had finally arrived. For the last time we stood in attention in front of the main building. One could easily spot the reservists and distinguish them from the soldiers on active duty by just looking at their clothes. We wore civilian clothes, while the others were standing in their uniform. In spite of all the drudgery during the past two years, it now felt good to have served one’s country. To prevent a war through the presence of a strong army as a deterrent to a would-be attacker was in my opinion far more important than being involved in a conflict with its horrors at the front line and with its casualties among the civilian population. I was grateful for the opportunity to spend my final six months in Marburg. I felt enriched by the outstanding technical training, blessed with a company of cheerful comrades, respected by a competent staff of officers and sergeants. Last but not least I was awarded a fine testimonial, which gave credit to my successful teaching assignments. Soon after the brief farewell speech and words of encouragements and good wishes by the commanding officer we walked through the open gate into momentary freedom until new duties and responsibilities – some of our own choosing, others forced upon us by circumstances beyond our control – would limit our choices all over again. But at this very moment we were truly free. I took the very first available train to take me home to my mother in Watzenborn. In an almost nostalgic mood I hummed in my mind: Parole heißt Heimat, Reserve hat Ruh!
Biene’s reply to my long-winded exposition on love and faithfulness was very encouraging. She also confided to me that only two years prior to meeting me she was not even allowed to step outside the door. Her mother, to whom I will remain for ever grateful, worried a lot about her, kept a watchful eye, and thoroughly investigated, where she was going and with whom she was getting together. At that time quite a few dramas were rolling over the home stage. Biene admitted that during that time she was often in danger of being swept up by her impulsive and passionate feelings. Mother Panknin kept her from getting lost on the wrong path and made sure that her precious daughter would not be led astray by false emotions. But now it seemed that she had trust in her daughter. And even though she had never really got to know me, through the eyes of her daughter she seemed to have developed a favorable image of me. How else, so I asked myself, could she let her travel to me and allow her to stay overnight at a distant location? On Biene’s last visit, before I departed for Canada, with full support of her parents, she came to visit me for an entire week. Perhaps Herr and Frau Panknin shared Biene’s older sister’s view believing that once I was off to another country far away from Biene, our relationship would eventually fizzle out and die a natural death.
On Monday, April 5th, Biene arrived by train in Giessen, where I met her at the station. From there we traveled together to Michelbach near Schotten at the foot of Mount Vogelsberg. The week before I had given Erna, Father’s second wife, advance notice that we were coming for a visit. She knew that this would be the very last time Biene and I would be seeing each other before my voyage to Canada. Even though she was still mourning over Father’s sudden and unexpected death the year before, she did her best to make us feel welcome in her so typical cheerfulness. Everything was prepared for a comfortable and enjoyable stay for us. I was going to sleep in Father’s bedroom upstairs, while Biene was sleeping in the guest room.
After a good night’s rest and a hearty breakfast, Biene and I decided to hike up to the Hoherodskopf, one of the higher peaks of the Vogelsberg Mountains, a 2500 square km terrain that was formed totally from volcanoes some 19 million years ago. This volcanic region has been long extinct. It had created one of the most amazing basalt rock formations anywhere in the world. But on this wonderful April day we were not going to study geology, we had better things in mind. We were more interested in each other’s company, living in the here and now, savouring each precious moment. It was cool, but the sun shone brightly over the park like landscape. Thunderclouds arising above the western horizon lent the vernal panorama a dramatic effect. We were grateful that we encountered very few people on our leisurely stroll, as it was early in the season. There was nothing that would disturb the warm, tender feelings we felt for one another. This was also not the time to look back at all the obstacles, challenges, and problems that we had to deal with in the past. We had mastered them and had set them aside not allowing them to interfere with our blissful state of mind.
There was no need to talk. Our hearts and souls felt at one. We reached the top just in time to find some shelter from a heavy downpour that was threatening to spoil our outing. Near the peak of the Taufsteinhütte we stepped into a cozy restaurant by the same name, when the first raindrops began to fall. The dining area created that special kind of ambience so conducive for a romantic get-together, each table place at a window with a view over the spectacular scenery. Just then lightning lit up the dark clouds. Then followed the rumbling of thunder in the distance. I ordered a bottle of Mosel wine to celebrate and drink to our love that had carried us so far and would help us bridge the long time of separation ahead. For on this day we had not only climbed Mount Voglsberg, but even more importantly we had also reached a new pinnacle in our relationship. The rain was now coming down in buckets. Thunder and lightning engendered an electric atmosphere. In a strange mixture of fear and passion it made us move closer together. In the spirit of ‘carpe diem’ we did not gulp down our wine as if in hurry, instead we sipped the sweet wine from the Mosel valley to make the moment last. We almost wished that the storm would last forever. At least for the moment, time appeared to stand still. When we tasted the last drop, the storm and rain had subsided and had moved on. Erna, having worried about us, had sent a neighbour to pick us up in his car. We reluctantly got up and with a feeling of regret let the neighbour drive us back to Michelbach.
On the following day Biene and I promenaded down to the quaint town of Schotten with their timber-frame houses so typical of this region. Biene was quite excited and full of anticipation. For I had announced that I would buy her a mystery gift. Of course, I could not tell her what it was; after all it was supposed to be a mystery gift. Biene behaved as if she knew the secret. Therefore, she kept her innate curiosity for all things unknown to her in check. If I had a picture of us two walking into town, I would in a comic-book-like fashion place two speech bubbles above our heads. The one above Biene would say, ‘Today is the day Peter will buy me an engagement ring. I will be so happy!’ And my bubble would say, ‘Today is the day I will buy her a genuine Hohner harmonica. She will be so happy!’ Had I not played the mystery game, had Biene said just one word, I would have bought the ring and put it on her finger for everyone, her parents, friends and all would-be suitors to see that she was engaged. Instead she was now in possession of a fancy harmonica that could be played on both sides in keys C and G. Biene looked pleased and even appeared happy, but I am sure that deep inside she was also a bit disappointed. What I could vaguely at the time was that we could have saved ourselves a lot of pain and agony in the not too distant future, if we had been able to communicate with each other just a little better.
It was the night before we had to head back to Mother’s place at Watzenborn Was it the moon, or the noisy cats prowling and meowing in the attic, or fear of the unfamiliar surrounding, or romantic passion stirring in us? Perhaps all of these things! The plain fact, however, was that we could not sleep. With the two upstairs bedrooms so close to each other it would have been so simple on any of the three nights to yield to temptation. But we did not. I would be a hypocrite, if I was going to explain our conduct in terms of a moral victory. It just happened, almost certainly for our own good.
There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
Travel Preparations and a Farewell Speech on a Vinyl Record
The day after Biene had returned home, Adolf took my sister Eka and me on a whirlwind tour to Berlin, where we saw for the last time Aunt Alma and her family. On the way back we dropped in at the apartment of our brother Karl in Braunschweig, where he had recently embarked on a banking career at a local bank. There in the beautiful apartment we spent a few days with our brother, his wife Ingrid and their little baby daughter Annekatrin.
Back at home we directed our attention to the task of getting our belongings packed and ready. Our tickets for the voyage to Canada included the shipping charges for the wooden crates that contained all our personal effects. Almost too late we found out that we were responsible for moving them to the travel agency in Giessen. Almost instantly arose a heated argument among the hot-tempered siblings, myself included, as to whose fault it was for having overlooked such an obvious problem. Accusations were flying back and forth. It seemed that each one of us was on a faultfinding mission. Of course, no matter how hotly we debated the issue, the heat of the arguments would not move our big, heavy crates to Giessen.
Fortunately our cousin Jürgen arrived just at the right time and helped diffuse a potentially explosive situation. He suggested a cooling-off period for the enraged brothers. In Giessen we dropped in at the ‘Vienna Forest, a popular restaurant, where they served us grilled chicken and beer. Tension and lingering hostility abated quickly at the same rate as our stomachs filled with delicious food and copious amounts of beer. Now we were ready to tackle the shipping in a more amiable environment. Jürgen had just made the acquaintance of a fellow student, who would be willing to provide his old and dilapidated VW bus for the crates. After a few more drinks at a roadside fast food outlet we were going to announce the good news at home. However, the pub, ‘The New Homeland’, was still open in Watzenborn. We thought a few more beers would not hurt and would definitely clear away the last little bit of rancour, before going home. So we finally arrived in a fairly boisterous mood. Everybody had already gone to bed. But this did not prevent us from loudly announcing to Eka that we had found a solution to the shipping problem. We all withdrew into the furnace room, which with its excellent sound-proofed walls offered a modicum of protection against the noise. Befuddled by all that beer I played the guitar rather poorly often missing the correct fret, while Adolf sang the song merrily out of tune with the chords I was playing. In the meantime Jürgen and Eka had an animated discussion on the poor timing of our nocturnal arrival. Not receiving the appreciative reception that we were expecting, we decided to spend the night at Jürgen’s place in Giessen and slept for want of something more accommodating all three in one bed, but not before having a taste from the bottle of whiskey that happened to be there for this crazy occasion. Next morning (or was it noon?) Adolf and I, feeling somewhat remorseful for our rambunctious behaviour the night before, drove home quite willing to accept any criticism with a repentant heart and to make amends by getting the crates ready for shipment.
In the turmoil of the endless visits of well-meaning relatives and friends, who all came to say good-bye, I still managed to keep up the correspondence with Biene, although it was almost impossible to find a quiet corner in the house. I had made a recording of a few simple classical guitar pieces that I felt were good enough for her to listen to. In addition, I recorded a farewell message on tape and mailed it together with the music to a company in France to have it pressed onto a vinyl record. A few days before our departure date the record arrived, which I embellished with some pretty labels and redirected it to Biene’s home address. It so happened that on the very day we boarded the Canada bound vessel, the ‘Ryndam’, she received my gift.
The recording sounds a bit scratchy. But what do you expect from a 50-year old vinyl record?
Farewell to Germany
Career planning for his daughter was on Papa Panknin’s mind, when he asked Biene to have a serious talk with him. He was not fond of seeing her becoming a teacher. He felt that it would be too stressful for her. Sitting endless hours in lecture rooms, bending over and studying textbooks would lead to even getting more stressed out, when after her university training Biene would enter again the educational treadmill. In his opinion the best thing for her to do would be to get a job and earn money as quickly as possible. Being a little tightfisted and in control of the family purse strings, he may also have been thinking of the expenses, which a prolonged period of university training for his daughter would incur. In contrast to North American practice German law required that parents were at least in part financially responsible for their children’s post-secondary education. In addition, there was probably on his mind his son Walter, Biene’s twin brother, who was embarking on a six-year program at the Institute of Engineering at the University of Hanover. Biene, with her eyes firmly set on getting married, agreed to a compromise that her father had proposed. She would start immediately her teacher’s training at the university of Wuppertal, but at the same time apply at the German airline Lufthansa to enter a training program to become a stewardess at the age of twenty-one. In my eyes this was a good plan. I really wanted her to become a teacher. So I took comfort in the fact that thousands of young girls were dreaming about becoming a stewardess and only a few had their applications accepted every year. Therefore, I had no difficulty of sending my wholehearted approval and let Biene romanticize about working for Lufthansa and flying to Calgary, where she could visit me on her stopover flights to Western Canada.
At last, the day arrived when Adolf, Eka and I were on our way to Rotterdam, where we would board the passenger ship Ryndam that was to carry us to Canada. Mother woke us at 3 a.m. to make sure we would have ample time to enjoy a solid breakfast before we parted. One hour later we sat at the breakfast table. Aunt Mieze read from her devotional booklet and included us in her morning prayers, with which she had been greeting the day for as long as I can remember. The outside world was still shrouded in darkness, which put us all into a somber mood. The thought that we would not be seeing Mother and all the other dear relatives for a very long time was weighing heavily on our mind. Later on, we were occupied loading Jürgen’s car with our possessions, five suitcases, my tape recorder, guitar and a gigantic duffel bag with personal belongings too valuable to be trusted to the wooden crates. The heavy work made us forget a little the pain of leaving home. We even managed to put on a cheerful face, when we said our good-byes adding comforting words like ‘We’ll meet again in beautiful Canada!’
The Trans European Express train (TEE) was racing at an incredible speed towards the Dutch border stopping only at major urban centres. At Wesel, my previous hometown, which had grown into a city of almost 50,000, the train did not stop either. Shortly after noon we arrived in Rotterdam, where a taxi took us to the harbour, which was and still is one of the biggest and busiest ports in the world. There our ship was waiting for her passengers to come on board. In the harbour inn Adolf and I sat and drank beer, while Eka had a coffee to perk up with after such a long train ride. We were quite annoyed at the delay of our departure caused by the much larger sister vessel of the Holland-America line bound for New York, which happened to leave port on the same day. Finally we were allowed to embark. Before heading out into the Atlantic Ocean, the Ryndam, for the next ten days our home, hotel, restaurant, and entertainment centre, had to make two ports of call, Le Havre and Southampton. From England I mailed Biene my first letter written at sea.
Two Letters and a Poem
April 28th, 1965 Le Havre
My dear Biene,
We just left Le Havre and are heading towards England. Thousands of impressions hit me all at once. I feel as if I had already been on board for a very long time. It is like paradise. Yet, I am restless, because you cannot experience all this with me. I’d like describe to you how a typical day is panning out for us travelers. The tinkling of bells wakes us up in the morning. It is also reminds us in this gentle way to show up for breakfast soon. Then I climb down the ladder. For I sleep in the upper bunk, while Adolf sleeps below. We can shower or take a bath for as long as we like. Then we march off to the dining room. Never before have I seen a greater variety of food. When we return to our cabin, the steward has already made our beds. The cabin is very small, and if one had to share it with a stranger, that would definitely not be a pleasant experience. We all have our own peculiar habits, which someone else would have to get used to.
The entertainment program is so rich and varied that one does not know which item to choose first. You can watch English movies, go to the library, play all kinds of games. The big hit here is Shuffleboard. After lunch you can attend a concert, go dancing in the evening or have a beer in the bar. And now I experience all this without you! That makes me a little sad and pensive. When I turn melancholic, I gladly withdraw from all these fun activities and write in my travelogue.
Oh this heavenly weather! People are presently sun bathing and there is no rough sea, not even a trace of a swell. I wanted to experience a real storm. But my brother said that it would come soon enough, if I were really that keen on getting seasick.
Your picture stands on my little desk. When at night I look down to you from my bed, I feel infinitely happy. I wished I could do the voyage all over again with you, when I have enough money to pick you up in Germany.
In a few days you will begin your studies, whereas I while away the time here doing nothing. Tackle your academic work as if you never applied for the stewardess program and as if you pursued a life’s career. You should know that you can help me also as a trained teacher, perhaps later assist me for a little while, in case my own studies should be dragging on.
What would I give to be able to kiss you now! Until next time greetings to you and your parents!
On the same day Biene also wrote me a letter, which of course I was unable to read, until I arrived at my brother’s place in Calgary. I only included excerpts here to avoid breaking the chronological order of the family history.
April 28th, 1965 Velbert
My dear Peter,
Again you have made me cry. But don’t you worry, Peter. I did not have to cry out of sorrow (it was only lingering at the back of my mind), but from an overwhelming feeling of joy, happiness and unfathomable love. I listened to your guitar music and to your voice on the record you had sent me. I could not grasp it! I just sat there, and tears were streaming down my cheeks. I once read that only a few people really understand how to say good-bye, and you knew how, Peter. Never will I forget this!
Dear Peter, now you have been on board for one day and with every minute you are getting closer to your destination. And when you read this letter, the long sea voyage and the road trip across Canada will already be behind you. Tell me Peter, isn’t it an incomprehensible feeling to be on the high seas and to experience the vastness and beauty of the ocean? When I experienced the sea for the first time, I was deeply moved. It was in the year we had met. My family and I were spending our vacation on the island of Corsica. Toward evening we had landed on the island. It was night, when we reached after an adventurous trip through the mountains our vacation village at the sea. Completely exhausted we immediately fell into a deep sleep, from which I awoke unusually early in the morning. In eager anticipation to finally cast my eyes onto the sea, I quietly sneaked out, because my brother Walter was still fast asleep. Outside the air was cool and still. The sun had just risen above the horizon. The beach spread before me still completely untouched. I went a few steps down the slope and then I took in the full view of the sea! Somehow I was like in trance and could not move another step forward. Although the view was overwhelmingly beautiful, the infinite vastness also instilled in me a little bit of fear. I sat down very quietly in the sand and remained there, until the first beach guests, who frolicked in the water, broke the charm that had kept me spellbound. You alone, dear Peter, would not have dispelled the magic atmosphere.
Inspired by her memories Biene wrote the following poem and entered it into the Book of Dreams.
I will forever love the sea,
Even when the gulls scream
Above thousands of storm-tossed waves.
I love the play of colors in the surf,
The billowing clouds, the sun, the warm sand, …
How much would I like to sit with you
On a lonely beach, at the sea
With its music
Rather than being
Separated from you
So infinitely far away
On the other side of the ocean.
On board of the Ryndam I also romanticized the sea as if in response of her letter that I had not even read yet.