Chapter 4 - Homelessness
from Herman's Memoir
Heroes from the Attic:
A Gripping True Story of Traumas and Triumphs
With great fanfare we arrived in Rheinfelden, Germany, the city where I had lowered my little head to conquer the world. Our train, powered by a steam locomotive, screeched into the station. Tons of steel shook the earth and sent smoke and thunder into the sky. Clouds of steam hissed through the giant wheels onto the concourse, shrouding the travelers waiting there.
Some of our ancestors knew that we had returned, Siggi and I.
The twin cities of Rheinfelden, one in Switzerland, one in Germany, were a great contrast to Simonswolde. Whereas the North German countryside was flat, these cities straddled the Rhine River that meandered along the hills at the southern end of the Black Forest.
Ma, but not Pa, met us at the station. Her hair was noticeably grayer and her skin was pale yellow. Again, she had spent days in bed with jaundice that was caused this time, or again, by Pa and his frolicking lawyers. She was high-strung excited, not happy-excited, to see us. Since the station was close to the Swiss border, she led us to the Rhine River to give us a closer look before going to our new home. The river was swift with silent, deep whirlpools sucking down flotsam. Quaint old rowhouses snuggled each other on the opposite riverbank, and someone was fishing there from an open window.
We walked to the middle of the bridge, the boundary between the two countries, where Ma pointed back to the German side:
"See that rock outcropping over there? With the steel beams hanging from it?"
We spotted it: "Ja."
"That's where your father’s fishing hut was before the war."
Siggi and I went ballistic.
"We can go fishing there."
"And with our father."
Ma answered with silence.
After our detour, the three of us walked to our new home. Along the way Ma pointed out the buildings that Pa had designed, as well as the manicured parks and tree-lined streets. Even now Siggi and I did not know that Pa had built a house, our home, and that we would be moving in with him.
Siggi and I did not think of Pa as a member of our family. Although he probably had not invited us this time, Ma had moved in with him when she turned yellow. He had invited us numerous times in the past to join him again in the south, even when he had lived in only one room in the hotel Saengerhalle, Hall for Singers, into which he had moved from Bavaria. The Saengerhalle had been the best accommodation that he could be allocated for him, because of the great housing shortage after the war. If we had lived with him during that time, we would have been placed on a list to get an apartment, which was probably why he might have asked us to come back to him before.
Now that Pa had built a home in Rheinfelden, and we were coming, he did not want us, because it would be more difficult to get a divorce. Ma would be close by to raise hell. Besides, no one but a cold-blooded swamp thing could throw out a mother and her children onto the street to let starve.
When the three of us arrived at our new home, Siggi and I were astounded and overwhelmed to find a new three-story mansion that no one had ever told us about. Three families lived here. A small enameled sign near its entrance read: "Herbert Neuman, Free Architect and Engineer."
This was status. And there was not a manure pile in sight.
Our new home was located at the outskirts of the city, two blocks away from a street that had been built by the ancient Romans. It was still used and had far fewer potholes than the crumbling streets in my present hometown in America. This street and our new home were a examples of the stability and permanence that Siggi and I so craved.
The size and luxury of this building astounded us. Its design conformed to the regional uniformity of cubic shapes that were reminders of chateaux without turrets. It was built with reinforced blocks of concrete and fired clay that were finished with thick coats of cement plaster. The red tiles on its steep hip would endure two centuries. Wrought-iron grilles with diamond patterns adorned the windows on each side of the front door, and all the other windows were flanked with wooden shutters that could be closed to keep out light and prying eyes.
And raging fathers.
I swelled with the new emotions of permanence and security when we entered the foyer, where an oaken staircase curved upward. In Simonswolde we had lived in a crowded house, where we had shared one stinky hole with other families, and this one was its antithesis.
I ran up the stairs.
"No, no, come here. We live downstairs. Other people live upstairs," Ma said emphatically.
I turned around as Pa opened the lead-glass double door to the vestibule of our new home. He was smirking and did not say, "Welcome home." We did not hug each other. Instead, Siggi and I dashed around him and looked into the first room to the left.
"Ma, look," I exclaimed, "a bathroom. And the hole is full of water."
It was the first bathroom with plumbed fixtures that I had ever seen. It was so clean and inviting that Siggi and I could finally toilet train ourselves. I knelt beside the white bathtub to twirl the shiny handles. A dull thud drew my attention to the mysterious glow that came from a white porcelain box on the wall behind me, and through a hole I could see dozens of long, blue flames aligned in precise rows. I rose on my toes, drew a deep breath, and puffed into this fiery regiment. A cleft opened and closed with a thump. While turning faucets, I realized that the fire in the box, an instantaneous gas heater, responded to the flow of water.
In the Herrenzimmer, gentlemen’s room, Siggi and I admired the bas-relief curlicues on the plaster ceiling, the recessed lights and chandelier. This room had iron radiators under the double-paned windows like all the others.
Downstairs in Pa’s office, draftsman Sepp showed us drawings of the buildings Pa was designing. His practice had become very successful, because he was very talented and the reconstruction of Germany was in high gear. Every building, including all houses, had to be designed and supervised by architects. It was the law.
Pa was also successful, because he was gregarious, easy going, and was always ready to joke. With other people but not with his family. He was jolly with a balding forehead and drank wine or beer only with his meals and in between also. I never saw him drink anything else, even though alcoholism had not yet been declared a disease in order to gain sympathy and extract taxpayer money.
We enjoyed the first few months in our new home. Now that we were united with our rich father, Siggi and I felt that our poverty had ended. This was the best time of our lives, and it could not get much better. Or much worse. We did not have our own rooms and slept together with Ma in one big bed. I felt a twinge of confidence in myself, secure in finally having a father and a new home, while he owned an automobile at a time when few people still could not afford one. Even so, Ma, like all housewives, walked to the neighborhood stores for our daily needs, carrying her purchases in her shopping net, because she could not drive and, like in all German cities, most stores were within walking distance.
Ma gossiped about her irresponsible husband and the mistreatment of women, while many other housewives did not have husbands or had only partial ones. Some were dead, others partially gone, having lost limbs on battlefields, while still others socialized at their Stammtisch, tables reserved for regulars, in cafés every night. They were also partial the partial husbands.
Pa must have hated Ma or was too embarrassed to be seen with her, because they never went anywhere together. He also was too embarrassed to be seen with Siggi and me in our tattered clothes from Simonswolde. Children often teased us, especially here in Rheinfelden, where people were not so poor and were always properly dressed. Therefore, Pa bought Siggi and me each a new suit with baggy Knickerbocker pants, the first new clothes that Siggi and I ever owned, except for the leather pants that he had sent us in Simonswolde. We had worn them daily for seven years until pee rotted out the crotches, and we grew too big for them.
* * *
Siggi and I slowly began to realize that our parents did not get along with each other. We barely knew our father and did not expect to have one. In the past we had written him only a few times and had received only impersonal notes in return long with a few toys. Now that we were all together in one house, there was still not much contact with him. Our parents argued frequently but mostly in private. Worse yet, Our Trio group was confined to one bedroom, to group in one big bed, while Pa had a room for himself. Siggi and I did not yet know that this was weird. We had always been weird, but did not know that we were weird. We did not yet realize that mothers and fathers played together in bedrooms and that growing kids had their own rooms.
We never entered Pa’s bedroom. But one day when everyone was gone, and I must have felt unusually courageous, I sneaked in to search his dresser that smelled of sour sweat, exactly like Pa. I found Pa’s address book and was puzzled by more than seventy women’s names listed therein. There was a photograph of an aunt to whom Pa had introduced us, Aunt Faessle, who Ma had told us that she was stealing our father. She owned a hat store, was cross-eyed, and we did not like her. This picture showed our aunt squatting in a dark forest, and her pale buttocks were beaming in a ray of sunlight. I inspected them closely, the buttocks, but I could not find New or Improved tattooed on them.
So far there had been only very few people that I really did not like. Now I was beginning to dislike my uncountable aunts, and not because they did not offer me their buttocks. I did not yet know that I would someday also develop a real soft spot in my heart for lawyers.
I searched Pa’s toiletry case and found a rolled up balloon. Because there was no sex education in our schools, and our parents did not teach us anything useful, I had not yet learned about the birds and the balloons. I could only guess what it was and wondered which aunt would ride on it. Pa had a great choice of women that he could ride, because they greatly outnumbered men. Many had been killed while others were hiding in other countries, because they had been Nazis and did not dare to return to be processed in their furious Homeland Security.
Pa brought home many aunts, apparently because he wanted us to be a big family. When he took Siggi and me, but never our mother, to restaurants, he always ogled the waitresses, all of whom seemed to know him quite well. He never failed to tip the young ones generously and pinch their buttocks lovingly to check if they were ready. This was one indication that he was not a real man, but only was a buttocks-loving man.
All of us never went anywhere together, and Ma never learned to drive, because Pa would not let her. She moved about in a very small area around Rheinfelden, as far as her bike could take her. Pa ate most of his meals in restaurants by himself or with one of our faux aunts. Our Trio did not eat regular meals, because Ma did not prepare hot meals, but instead, whenever we became hungry, Siggi and I simply exclaimed, Ich Bin Hungrig. I am hungry. This would be our routine for several more years. Ma would retrieve some bread and cut a few slices, and after she smeared them with lard and sugar, or some other kind of spread, we devoured them.
Someday my dynasty coat-of-arms will depict a chicken brooding on gilded eggs, nestled on a juicy manure pile, because those had helped to keep us alive. My shield will be adorned with a curly ribbon announcing, Ich Bin Hungrig, like the heraldic badge of the Prince of Wales announces Ich dien. I did not know whom he served, but I knew that we were always hungry.
The only other food that Ma fed us included mostly apples and oranges but never bananas. These were too expensive and rotted too fast before Ma could get them. Occasionally, Ma bought lettuce, cucumbers or tomatoes for us from which I prepared salads for myself. Like a rabbit, I devoured bowls full of lettuce that I drenched in milk and sugar that ran down my chin. I could always become civilized tomorrow.
* * *
Siggi and I still were not really aware that Ma was extremely lazy and very different from other people. She was outgoing and often embarrassed us with her loud pontifications in public. She still whipped us but only infrequently anymore. She liked to impose her philosophies on other people, deaf ears, closed minds, tender butts, or not. She talked almost incessantly, and her words blew people away like wind blows paper and plastic garbage. Her way was the only way, and she never seemed to consider other people’s advice. But if it were in print, it was the gospel. She cut out newspaper and magazine articles by the hundreds and saved them. She was a fountain of knowledge, little of which was of any use to us. The wire cord dangling from her waist was still a handy tool to make sure we did everything her way, and it could still help with her catharsis.
Even now that we had a new kitchen Ma never cooked. It was still too much work and still destroyed vitamins. She might also have been too depressed to function normally. In Simonswolde, Aunt Adele had prepared most of our food, while Siggi and I usually did the dishes. Much of this food had to be cooked, to kill or to disguise the things in it; so there had been no choice of not cooking, and Ma also never cleaned house, because she claimed that dirt always came back anyway.
Since we had no washing machine, doing the laundry was a backbreaking job. The clothes had to be taken to the basement to be boiled in a big kettle. Then this heavy load had to be stirred, scrubbed on a washboard, rinsed at least twice, wrung out by hand, and then hauled back up to be hung on a clothesline. Consequently, we rarely did the laundry. In Simonswolde, to disguise dirt, Ma had been able to die the light-colored clothes with dark colors, both of which we received from America.. After Our Trio moved to Rheinfelden, our relatives quit sending us packages, however, possibly because they thought that Pa was now taking care of us.
Ma never did any work unless our situation became more unpleasant for her than having to do something to rectify it. "Besides," she explained, "the more I work, the more I have to eat and we cannot afford to buy anything, because your father never gives us any money."
Pa’s philosophy about work was similar to Ma’s; do as little as possible. I cannot blame them for their some of their laziness, considering they had lived through two world wars and the aftereffects. Pa loved his profession and excelled in it, but he did absolutely no work around the house or on his car. Besides, German homes are not in a constant state of disrepair, and it is even difficult to destroy them intentionally. That is why there are few home improvement centers. This big difference begs the big question: Why has the German middle class greatly expanded and grown much wealthier than its shrinking America counterpart?
Ma and Pa shared no common interests and had grown up worlds apart. She saved every everything, while he did not save anything and spent his earnings faster than he received them. He wore only suits, while she did not care what she wore as long as she could adorn herself with her whip. He always lived for the moment, for the pleasure. When he attended technical college, our grandfather, who at one time was the richest man in his village, deposited six thousand Reichsmarks at a bank for Pa’s architectural study. A few weeks later, Pa had literally spent it all on wine, women and song, even though this was to pay for much of his education.
After the German hyperinflation, grandpa had shown his savings booklet to Pa and had said to him:
"We had over 100,000 marks in the bank. We would never have had to work again if it had not been wiped out completely."
In January of 1921 the wage of a worker was about two and one-half Reichsmarks per hour. By April 1923 it had risen to 1,200 marks and by October, it had exploded to 25,000,000 marks. Twenty-five million marks per hour. Rarely had so many people become multi-millionaires, and simultaneously paupers as well, and so fast.
For example, a builder in Boennigheim had contracted to build a three-story house for a fixed sum. It took, and still does now, about eighteen months to build an average home in Germany. When he finished this home, his contracted sum could then only buy one carpenter’s pencil. A three-story masonry house with a basement for one pencil. Deals like that could get people excited and make them seek revenge on somebody, and not necessarily on the guilty parties.
When Ma was fourteen years old, Oma kindly had packed her suitcase, had given her some money, and then had thrown her out of their home. In one of her letters to me, Ma recalled that her mother had told her:
"All of your belongings are in this suitcase. Also 1,000,000 marks. If your suitcase gets too heavy, give the money to someone to carry it for you."
For ten years after her eviction, Ma worked as a maid in Pomerania and Tyrol for room and board only. She learned to save, because she earned nothing to save, while Pa who had his college paid for and earned a lot after the war, learned to save nothing. Nothing at all. Deals like that could make mothers seek revenge on somebody and not necessarily on the guilty parties.
* * *
A few times Pa drove with Siggi and me to nearby little village of Wollbach, where he had been born and raised. There we visited his brother, Uncle Fritz and a few of our cousins, one of who owned a house that also had a grocery store. The date carved into the stone lintel over its entrance read 1732. Its walls were massive, and all of its rooms had very low ceilings and small windows that shed little light into the darkness of ages. But I felt comfortable here, because of the comforting smells and auras of its long history and tradition.
Next to this store, which was located near the highest point in the village, was an old stone and stucco church. Two time-blackened stone plaques carved with text and coat-of-arms adorned its front wall near the entrance. One of these belonged to our father’s lineage and depicted a spoke wheel with teeth, split in half by a staff held in a fist. Its inscription referred to one of our early ancestors who had been blessed with eighteen children.
Daily church bell ringing was a very old tradition in all towns throughout this land. The tower of this church housed three bells, the largest of which weighed nearly a ton. Our grandfather had rung them several times a day for many years. To do so, he sat on a seat tied to the end of a rope and pulled himself up on a second rope and then let go of it. He then dropped back down like counterweight. on a cuckoo clock. He continued this exercise for up to fifteen minutes, depending on the hour and day of the week.
In spite of this heritage, the Nazis had removed many bells without permission. They had melted and forged them into cannons and other tools of destruction. Killing and conquering had been more important than calling God, or His flocks to Him. But after the war, new bells were cast and reinstalled again.
During this post-war period, Western Germany, with a severe housing shortage, even built a lot of new churches. Fortunately, no one cranked out "mobile homes" or "double-widens" to accommodate the homeless masses. Instead of quickly pasting together toxic immobile huts, Germans crowded into other people’s remaining housing, often bunching up in compressed boardinghouse style. They were thus forced to get along with each other during their mandatory hands-on, in-house diversity training.
* * *
"This will one day be yours," Grandpa told Siggi and me.
"This orchard has been in our family for generations. We supplied products to the Count von Roetteln," he continued.
This count had a castle, now in ruins, a few kilometers away.
Not to be outdone in generosity, Pa told us:
"If you are good boys, you will someday inherit my house."
Siggi and I shrugged off his statement and said nothing, but as always, we reported to Ma what he had said and what he had done. She always wanted to know what he was doing, and we were her spies. Now we did not believe him, because we were taught the old German adage, "He who lies once, cannot be believed again, even though he may speak the truth."
Long ago he had destroyed his own credibility, because Ma had often told us that he lied a lot. Therefore, we did not get excited about Pa’s wonderful news.
When Grandpa died some time later, Pa alone attended his funeral, leaving us behind, and when our relatives asked him why his sons had not come, he told them that their mother would not let them. Ma told us that this also had been a lie, because he said anything about the funeral.
Ma had indoctrinated Siggi and me, and we knew next to nothing about the firefights on the battlefields of our Progenitors’ War, even though we had to suffer its consequences. However, there was one relative who did seem to take an interest in us, Aunt Helene, but she was in America. She had even invited Our Trio to move there after the divorce became final, and Siggi and I did not realize that anyone was after the spoils of our war. However, a few years ago Siggi found one of Helene’s letters and sent me a copy. Apparently she had known that we were a divorced family, and the three of us might be on our own:
"Dear Katje and boys,
"We have a house for you to live in at the other end of our farm. You should live there and earn your living by picking berries with the boys, etc. We have many possibilities this summer because our daughters want to continue their studies. The boys can help us make hay. You will say that is a good idea. I think every few days, what will happen with Ami and Siggi…"
* * *
Possibly to fill the void that would be left in his soul by our leaving the country, Pa brought home a more permanent aunt, named Elfi, who moved into our home. Siggi and I still did not know if our parents were now divorced, or would soon be divorced, or if Pa had already married her. Privately we called Elfie "Teufi," a derivative of Teufel. Little devil. Ma did not have to tell us, "look what the old tomcat dragged in," because we noticed his drag-in immediately and were very uncomfortable with her. She had come from Austria and seemed to want to rid us from our own home. Like Miss Faessle before her, Elfi was also a hatmaker, even though there were not many hatmakers left on this side of the world. Elfi’s eyes were not crossed, but we did not dare to cross her path, because they glowed with a light that made me suspicious.
Pa liked to make hatmakers. He went mad for hatters. Elfi pressured him to throw us out of our home, but Ma refused to leave even though she would soon be divorced, or was already divorced. No one told Siggi and me about the status of our beloved family, and we would not leave, could not leave, even though, as Ma would later write me, the judge had shouted:
"Out, all of you!"
Pa’s frustration grew unbearable at his inability to remove us, to enforce the court’s judgment, and also because he was caught between two women. To get out of his bind, to encourage us to leave, Pa pounded Ma with his fists, and when she dropped to the floor he kicked her. That’s how her father had apparently cuddled her when she was a baby, our poor mother. I just had come in with my beebee gun and watched Pa vigorously practicing soccer on Ma. Even though he had a heart condition, caused by his unhealthy lifestyle, he had to enforce the judge’s order. He was breathing hard now, and I was worried about his heart; I was worried about my mother. My papa was oblivious of me, even though I wished that he would enforce the judge’s order on me instead, because I was used to that kind of enforcement. Ma had often practiced it on me.
Siggi and I never had any thoughts of aggression, even though we had been at the receiving end of immense violence most of our lives. We might have benefited from a little tele-violence, reenacting its fantasy as reality, to send messages to guilty parties, parties who did not peer into our eyes to reach our savaged souls. Now I stood frozen and in tears.
Nobody ever visited my soul in its lonely dungeon.
Ma yelled for the police. I ran out, jumped on my old bike and pedaled to the police station as fast as I could. Pa yelled after me to come back, but I ignored him.
A pot-bellied, ruddy-faced policeman, possibly a leftover from the superior Aryan armies, followed me back on a taxpayer’s bike to the beating scene. He was important, I was a mass of scrambled matter. He was on his way to rescue a damsel, a white knight in a proper blue uniform, but I had to go slow he could not keep up my pace. I was young, he was old. I had a wonderful life ahead of me, and I could tell by his rotund physique and pasty, capillary face that his had been less than wonderful. Very-cold-in-the-blizzard-dash-to-privy-like wonderful. I would never allow my life to be thus.
Pa answered front door and completely ignored me. He asked the policeman to come in for a beer, and they celebrated his victory in yet another fight with a defenseless mother.
* * *
Whenever she met him somewhere in the city, Ma complained about our irresponsible father to the very same minister, whom she had extorted Siggi and me away from many years before. She explained that Pa did not provide for us, and that he and his new wife were mistreating us. However, as always, her complaints fell on deaf ears. Siggi and I very rarely, if ever, talked about our pain to anyone, and nobody ever asked us.
No religious or any other organization offered us any assistance, nor did anyone seem to care about our private disaster. Yet Germans were required to pay church taxes, which could amount to more than seven percent of their regular federal income tax. I only learned this a few years ago when I visited my cousins in Germany, and they said to me: "Let’s visit the tax office." This confused me, until they explained about the church taxes, and that they really wanted to show me the beautiful old, but newly-restored, church in their village.
* * *
When Pa married Teufi, as had been discovered by others, he obviously did not know that it might be better to stay with the devil that he knew, than to run to the devil that he did not know. But he would find out, and soon, but too late. Much too late. Was the minister reluctant to provide us with a second mother, because Siggi and I were growing up as heathens? Was this his chance to add two more sheep to his flock, because we had never been baptized with water. Because of the highly coincidental timing, Pa must had made a deal with the minister that if he would marry him to Teufi, Siggi and I would be baptized by him. So at the ages of twelve and fourteen, we were besprinkled at the altar of the church that Pa had designed and supervised during its construction. This warm remembrance should have soothed our savaged souls, Siggi’s and mine.
After we received the reverend’s water, we would be required to pay church taxes as soon as we earned enough money. This was not separation of church and state. This church, and this state, helped in the separation of mother from father, and father from children, and children from life. Siggi and I did not know that we would not be around to pay those taxes, because we would be separated from this state. Two battered boys would be tricked into leaving this state.
Pa invited some of our relatives to be our godparents, although Siggi and I did not know some of them. Ma was not invited to our baptism. Defiantly she and her fat Swiss friend, Mrs. Grob, came to the church anyway and sat in the front pew off to one side, while everyone else kept to the other side, like Brahmins and Untouchables. Like men and their inferior wives.
The Very Right Reverend Mennicke, wearing a black robe, came in to perform his function. He surveyed the assembly and asked Ma to leave his church. There was a pair of snow-white, starched rectangles of cloth under his chin. What for, I did not know, but when he spoke, they moved with his lips as if to emphasize his words. A man of the cloth asked the mother to leave the baptism of her own children.
Instead of leaving, Ma and Mrs. Grob climbed up high to the huge pipe organ loft in the back of the church. However, they kept quiet when they should have been quacking hearts and souls with the powerful pipe organ.
Ours was a poignant scene. Siggi and I giggled as the minister solemnly sprinkled water on our heads. Because of our bizarre, conflicted state of affairs, this ritual seemed silly. For us life was serious and we had no traditions. Besides, had not we already been baptized by fire during our first war? Now we were baptized with water. Water is easier but fire is everlasting. Pa must have buttered up the minister to marry him to a sinner. And a robber. She robbed us of the remnants our father. Eventually she would also take all of our inheritance, Siggi’s and mine.
After our water ceremony we had a celebration. We had never had a ceremony after our baptisms by fire, even though these had been very hot events, where people were scorched, and freed from hell. Or burned in hell. We had remained in hell. Now everyone walked to a nearby café where Pa was hosting a dinner. Ma and Mrs. Grob followed us at a distance.
Pa physically barred Ma from coming to our celebration, where we had a magnanimous dinner with mountains of food and gallons of wine, burps and beer. This was not for us; we longed for our mother. We longed for our father and all the others that make a family. We longed for all that had been denied to us.
* * *
Reverend Mennicke married Pa to our second mother, but Siggi and I did not know when or where. We did not know when one of our many aunts became one of our mothers. Ma would write me many years later that she had walked on a blustery day, blistering her feet, carrying a bouquet of flowers, several kilometers from Rheinfelden to Wollbach for their wedding, and I suspect that she went there to raise a scene.
Teufi’s move into our house had been easy. She had little more than the clothes on her back. She had wormed her way into our house, probably on her back. Now Siggi and I had two mothers. Our new mother wanted to throw us out. Our first mother still used us as objects for catharsis. Neither mother cooked any meals for us or did our laundry. Our old mother spoke long monologues about how men had mistreated her, while Pa did not seem to mistreat our aunt-turned-second-mother.
Up to this time, since our mothers did not cook for us, Siggi and I were barely aware that people ate regular hot meals, because we had not had such for years. We were young, dirty, and had little social contact with our peers, especially since there were absolutely no extracurricular activities in our schools. Schools were strictly for learning serious subjects and discipline and nothing else. Absolutely nothing else.
Ma brooded at all hours about the court battles with her ex-husband. We did not know what occupied our new mother. We rarely saw her. She played the upper class architect’s wife, with lipstick and haute coiffeur. Our first mother fought for justice and stubbornly continued to fight for child support and alimony in our continuing legalized screw jobs. Our new mother found a pot of gold, and therefore, fought against justice during this endless mockery of the most universal moral standards and laws.
* * *
Unbeknownst to Siggi and me, Ma had disobeyed the judge’s order to move out of our own home, and therefore, we were in contempt of court. With Pa threatening to beat us, the three of us became prisoners in our bedroom. Our father and our aunt-turned-second-mother became our guards and occupied the rest of our home. The judge did not send us to jail, because we were already in prison, and Our Trio ventured out to the bath and kitchen only when we were home alone.
Our prison contained one double bed, a free-standing wardrobe, a wall-hung sink, and our meager belongings were strewn all about. We had no privacy. We spoke in whispers and referred to Pa as Buskohl, Cabbage, in Low German, a language that he did not understand, because he had never lived in the lowlands, where it is a spoken-only language. We were afraid of our guards and tried to avoid them at all cost. Whenever they were home, the three of us had to climb in and out of our window like burglars in the night. And after about a year, the white paint on the windowsill became gray and polished, except at the sharp edges where the wood wore bare.
The three of us continued to sleep together in one bed, whose sheets turned almost as black as our souls. Ma did not, could not, wash our laundry, and we rarely had the opportunity to bathe or shower, there never being enough time, because we were always under siege by our father.
Often, when Teufi and Pa went somewhere together, we could not draw hot water, not even from our prison sink, because the instantaneous heater would not ignite. We assumed that Teufi had shut off the gas somewhere so that we would freeze when we took showers. Since there were no bath facilities in the schools, Siggi and I could rarely clean ourselves to our satisfaction.
The potty-bed combination in our prison was the center of our universe, the basis of our modus operandi. The bed: We slept in it, rubbed dirt in it, dined on it, read on it, wrote on it, were sick in it, cried in it, and kept our potty under it. The potty: Our white enameled chamber pot was antique, and useful, because I have seen them in antique stores in America. If only it came with a tight cover. We did big business in this potty only when it became urgent, and Teufi and Pa denied us access to our bathroom. Only when they left our house did we dare empty it. After we would fill it to the brim and our pressure became unbearable, Siggi’s and mine, we let fly into the sink, the same sink where we also washed our hands, faces and apples. In the meantime, our room reeked more impressively than the privies in the Simonswolde cow barns. However, and this is significant, over time we barely noticed, and there is a global lesson it this.
People can slowly evolve into dung beetle, and dung beetles feel at home in dung, and therefore, do not feel an incentive to escape from it.
Had I not been in a permanent state of dung, and intimidation by Ma’s subtle waist décor and related human affairs, I would have thought of where to planted our piss and it. I would have hidden little samples in our house, so other people could enjoy them also.
* * *
One day when I was home alone, I sneaked into the Herrenzimmer that was outfitted with heavy dark wood furniture. Someday we might inherit this elegant opulence and someday we might have class, Siggi and I. One of the pieces was a tall cabinet that also contained Pa’s important treasures, such as liqueur, cigars, and a set of encyclopedias. I opened its glass doors to find a metal box hidden in the back corner and tried to open it, but it was locked. I searched for its key, and when I found none, I tried the key to the cabinet instead.
Surprise! Inside this box I found bundles of Deutsche marks banded together with official bank ribbons. I had never seen so much money before and suddenly became very nervous. I did not take anything and immediately put everything back into its place, because I was afraid that I would be punished.
When Ma returned home, I informed her about my discovery. She wanted to look at this treasure herself. When it appeared that our guards had left for a longer period of time, she asked Siggi and me to be sentinels to warn of their return. I guarded the front yard, and Siggi stationed himself in the back of our house. It was not long before Pa arrived in his car, alone. I was too frightened to move. If I ran into the house, he might get suspicious and come after me. I froze in place, while he stopped, glared at me and squealed away again. I will never forget his face, which was contorted by anger, frustration and shame.
I ran into the house and told Ma that Pa had returned. Biting her lips, she quickly locked the box and put it back in its place. Then we rushed back to our prison and locked ourselves in, scared, but relieved that Ma had avoided a certain and furious beating.
I never touched that box or thought about that money again. I also never learned if Ma ever removed anything from that box, but I believe that she might have retrieved information that she used in her court processes.
* * *
Since I always had a difficult time in school, I did not want to attend a Gymnasium. Even its Latin name intimidated me. After I finished the fourth grade, however, without discussing it with me, Ma signed me up to take the entrance examination for the regional Gymnasium, the academic high school, in Loerrach. But my scores were so low that I was immediately placed on probation. Most students did not branch off to a Gymnasium but remained in primary school for eight grades and then continued in a trade school to become apprentices to learn a vocation. In stark contrast, a Gymnasium required nine years of intensive study before one could graduate.
If a student failed one major course during a semester, without earning a very good grade in another one, he was required to repeat all other classes as well, even the ones he had done well in. And if he failed yet another semester, he flunked out of school. He most likely had to return to the elementary school or a vocational school.
Even though I studied very diligently every day, I did not do well, because of the physical and psychological convulsions caused by our quiet Progenitors’ War and the after-effect of the world war. Test taking also frightened me. To protect my sanity, I kept my mind closed to everything except for the necessities for survival that mostly consisted of avoiding getting my ears pulled and getting spanked.
After my first semester I flunked out, even though I studied very hard. However, I was accepted in the Scheffel Gymnasium in Saeckingen and Siggi was now old enough to enroll there also. While we were commuting to school by train, we often studied or played cards with our classmates. I was now essentially repeating some of the courses of our fifth school year, the first year in the Gymnasium.
Students had no choice of courses. All were required to follow the prescribed curriculum that was almost purely academic in nature. Our main subjects were German, French, mathematics and sciences, while English and Latin were added in later years. These main courses were taught several times a week, while other classes such as music, art, history, geography and physical education were offered once or twice a week. Since we could not choose subjects that we might have enjoyed, and there were no extracurricular activities, we found little relief from our problems at home.
There was also little distraction inside the school buildings, and unlike in today’s classrooms, all the walls were devoid of posters or displays of any kind. The starkness of the spaces forced the attention of the students on the teacher, and only the artworks of the students were displayed on the walls of the art room.
Our schools also instilled us with a great amount of discipline. We had to write everything with pen and ink. We never used pencils except for drawing. This forced us to think carefully before writing anything on paper, and when we made an error our only choice was to cross it out. Neatness was also graded. All lining had to be done with a straightedge, because freehand ruling was not allowed. If a student ignored this rule, the teacher would be likely to embarrass him with an unkind remark.
We never used preprinted forms for homework or tests. Multiple choice and true or false questions were completely unknown. Instead, for example, our teacher might dictate sentences in German, and we had to write the translations in ink in a foreign language. Our pressure was enormous, because we had to respond to the speed of the dictation, and we could not return to re-read questions or think about our answers later. Ten to twelve spelling or grammatical errors on a language test resulted in failure.
Even though several hundred students attended this school, it had no valedictorians, school board, logo, school colors, mascot, advisors, counselors, nurses, librarians, cafeterias, vending machines, copy machines, newspapers, reader boards, bands, sports teams or coaches and clubs. There was not a single club. Or gang. Resource officers, with or without guns, did not exist, because each teacher had the ability to mete out immediate deserved punishment, along with its associated shame, which no student wanted to suffer.
There was only one non-academic employee in our school, a janitor to keep the facilities clean. We had no study hall, teacher’s aides or tutors. If students needed assistance with homework, their parents would help them. And if they still could not meet the academic standards, they simply flunked out, because there were no alternative schools, or "GED" (General Education Development) programs. There were absolutely no programs whatsoever.
There were no loudspeakers, radios, telephones, movie projectors or sound equipment to distract us. We had no invited speakers or demonstrations, seminars or parent-teacher organizations. There were no courses in self-esteem, sex or social agendas. Instead of learning to mix drinks, we learned French and students taping school principals to walls with duck tape would have been classified as insanity. We were not taught how to roll on and knot condoms. We were deprived and unprotected in this cruel world, but we were taught all the basics, including sciences, mathematics and foreign languages. We learned at a much smaller cost than it does today. Therefore, because we had to study so hard some of our textbooks often fell apart and became severely dog-eared and dirty.
There were no school buses even though students came from far and wide. They commuted by public trains and buses, and bikes or on foot, and they had to pay for their own transportation, textbooks, and all other school supplies.
Our school taught facts, logic and no hocus-pocus of any kind. We had no entertainment such as dances or assemblies in our boot camps. In other words, we were totally deprived but were taught and were intimidated to have absolute discipline and obedience. We actually had too much discipline and obedience, Siggi and I. Even before we had entered school, we were paragons of obedience and urgently needed some hocus-pocus. Unfortunately, our school did not provide us with such relief from our torments, which ironically, were caused exclusively by the people closest to us.
There were no organized or coached contacts between the students after school. Kids pursued individual hobbies, and all intercourse between them was mostly spontaneous socializing, which included a lot of outdoor activities, such as biking and soccer playing. There was no alcohol drinking, no shopping mall loitering or TV watching, because there were no shopping malls or televisions.
There was not only no hocus-pocus in our schools, there were few, if any straight A students and no honor societies. No one was publicly recognized for outstanding performance, and there were no accounts in the news media of achievements by teachers or students. Teen age crime was nearly unheard of. Our motivation to do what was expected of us, was not the carrot but the immediate stick.
The teachers in our Gymnasium were a motley collection. Some were friendly and helpful, others grouchy and mean. Mister Danner was boorish and frustrated by his lack of vision, because he had one glass eye. When he talked, his false teeth helped showered the students with spit as he walked among them. We called him Muni, colloquial for "bull," because of his broad forehead, stout neck and lack of refinement.
One day, Muni was showering a student, while intensely boring his eye into selected individuals. A student on the side of his glass eye, Siggi, slowly lifted a finger next to it. It was his index finger as the bird had not been imported yet. A titter went through the room and Muni wondered why. Not knowing, he flew into a rage, and with his powerful ham he beat the head of the student whom he had been showering. His head recoiled from the desktop and this surprised even Muni, while announcing "That was a multiplication of the whack on the head."
Professor Asal, much more polished and cultured than Professor Muni, did not beat us but left his mark through memorable discourse. Regal, with a mane of white hair, dressed in an almost-white suit, he advised not that I was dumb, but that I would become a Guellefahrer, someone who spreads human effluence over the fields. This prediction would come true in a way, because I would someday be in what would be called nutrient management, spreading similar stuff over a soggy pasture in America.
* * *
Speaking of stuff, at this time my ear became so productive, that when I was in deep dream mode, smelly green goo would ran down my neck. Since Ma had no money, Papa Buskohl kindly suggested to take me to his friend, Dr. Lupfer, so it would not cost anything. Since Dr. Lupfer could not help me, Ma took me to Dr. Metzger who also could not stop my infection. Finally, she traveled with me to the ear clinic in Freiburg, where I was diagnosed as also having proud flesh.
I grew wild meat in my head.
Surgeons sliced out my wild meat, not through the big old scar behind my ear, but through my ear canal. However, when they removed my bandage sometime later, there was bloody goo in it. The doctors did not guarantee their work, and soon I began oozing again until such time, several years later, when someone could somehow pay for another wild meat harvest.
* * *
As the months passed, our guards increased their harassment to expel us from our prison. Pa became increasingly abusive, and in a rage pounded its door and bent its handle. We quickly blocked his entrance with furniture and secured our window shutters as well.
Suddenly I suffered powerful peeing pressure.
When Pa could not get in, he went outside to shake our shutters while screaming insensibly. I held on to my nozzle and aimed for the sink and just in time. However, it is difficult to aim when you tremble. I splashed all over the place. What a relief it was to splash all over the place to release and relieve pressure! However, I should have hosed Pa through the slats of the shutters, but did not think of it. Finally, Pa’s shouting faded into the distance. I could see him stomping down the street waving a pistol. I was more relaxed now; he was still uptight.
Some time before, I had surprised him when I had walked into the Herrenzimmer, while he was buying this pistol from a salesman. Pa’s face had turned beet-red with embarrassment. He obviously did not want me to know about his purchase. Never let your enemy know your strength or weaknesses. However, afterwards he took Siggi and me out to a field and festively shot colorful flares into the sky, to show us that his pistol was harmless. He did not tell us that it could also launch teargas.
We were always alert and suspicious of our father, Teufi and their whereabouts and stayed away from them as much as possible. Siggi and I were spies and developed distrustful personalities. We moved about like guerillas in enemy territory, always out of sight, always gathering information. We kept looking for facts that could help Ma on the judicial battlefields. What projects was Pa developing? How many miles did he drive? How many cigars did he smoke?
At this time, we still did not realize that the court system was a farce, that the biggest guys with the biggest lies and the most money always seemed to win. Just like today and also in other countries. Ma never told us anything about the court decisions and the activities of the jurists, puppeteers and bombardiers. Siggi and I only knew that Ma was always fighting with Pa, invisible judges and lawyers, and we were barely able to survive.
* * *
We lived under siege in our crowded toilet prison for about one year after the almighty judge had commanded our exile from our own home. No one ever told Siggi and me why we had been forced to live this way. Our father committed the crime of child abandonment, but we, the children, were punished. Had I dared to think about this at all, I would have been very confused as to what is right and what is wrong. Murderers can get only five to twenty, while Siggi and I could get life?
Nowadays evermore people seem to be confused, while I have become ever less confused. I learned the hardest way possible. I know much of what is wrong and what is morally-correct and politically distorted.
It was a rainy day before Christmas when Siggi and I returned from the train to our prison home. Even though this was the start of our vacation, and a time when people are especially joyous, we dwelled in deepest gloom.
"Think we’ll get any presents?" Siggi asked me almost cynically.
Never said much.
We had always received something for Christmas in the past, even if it were only a few pieces of candy. This was one of the few years that we did not have a real Christmas tree, with tinsel and real candles of fire. We even had them in Simonswolde, even though Ma and Aunt Adele were devout atheists and believed in the devil in a human form, although they never swore to call on him.
Now we had Teufi.
When we arrived at our mansion, we found our biggest Christmas present ever. Mountains of clutter in our front yard. All of our worldly possessions from our prison.
Someone had scattered the sum total of our lives out on the precisely manicured lawn. In the rain.
We walked around to inspect our belongings and went to the window entrance to our cell. It was locked. Siggi and I never had keys, and we tried to open other windows and doors, but they were all locked, and nobody seemed to be home. Always keep your doors locked or your children might find you. Our courageous father had left the scene and could not face us: His ten and twelve year old children, his enemies. I stuttered when I told Siggi that I thought that our father had thrown us out. Just in case he had not noticed. It was better to bawl now, in the rain, than later when people would notice. They would think that we were weird. We did not want to be weird. We wanted to be proper.
Ma was nowhere to be found.
We sat down in the shimmering clutter and waited, because we did not know what to do. We did not speak. Nobody ever listened to us.
While we were getting soaked in the gray evening light, a few people passed by but did not see us. Or pretended not to see us. No one offered us help, nor did we expect any. No one called the authorities to find missing children or missing parents. It was a holy time to give presents, but we had no beer to offer to a policeman.
Thirty-five years later, I would learn a few details about this episode in a letter from Ma that I had saved. At the time I had received it, I must have read it quickly and promptly forgotten it. I would never think about it again until writing this memoir. Even though the divorce court had ordered our eviction a long time before, Ma had refused to move out. She wrote me that she had yelled at the judge when he had issued our eviction:
"We need a shelter for two abandoned boys. There is central heating in the double garage and a water faucet. Now the products of Ford are stored there."
"No, no," the Saeckingen judge had said, "you cannot live in this house."
Ma also wrote me that two bailiffs had executed the judge’s order. In less than two hours they had dumped everything from our room onto the lawn, piss pot and all, and locked us out. The products from Ford remained home, while we did not have one.
While Siggi and I sat basking in faux euphoria on our veranda, Ma arrived with a borrowed quaint little handcart. With a Christmas-spiritless face she confirmed that we had been evicted and told us that she found another place to live. See, miracles do happen. Now our lives could only get better. We piled our mattress onto the cart along with a few other things. Ma pulled our load through empty streets, and Siggi and I followed behind. All was quiet, except for the squeaking and rumbling of the cart’s steel-treaded wheels. My feet were freezing and squishing inside their worn out boots.
"Where are we going?" we asked her.
She mumbled something while looking away from us. This could be a signal of our future. About twenty minutes later she stopped at an old three-story apartment.
"Here we are," sniffled Ma.
"You mean we will live here?"
We lugged our wet mattress into the building.
"Top," she said.
We grunted up the stairs, one step at a time. Our world was heavy, but our spirit became lighter as we were approaching our new home. On the second floor a tenant peeked through the curtain of his apartment door, and I pretended not to notice.
When we arrived at the top floor, Siggi and I were anxious to see our new home and turned to open the door to that apartment.
"No, no," Ma said, "this is not it. One more floor, to the penthouse."
With renewed adrenaline we heaved our mattress to the top of the staircase, where Siggi ceremoniously opened the door to our penthouse.
My digestive system convulsed.
Surely Siggi’s did too.
This was an attic.
Fathers live in mansions. Bats in caves. Children in attics.
At the far end Ma opened a door to our new aerie. It had a plank floor, a steeply sloping ceiling, a dormer window. That was it. Fortunately, we were able stand up in one half of this room.. We dropped our mattress, and it covered nearly one fourth of our eagle’s nest.
"I have to pee," I exclaimed and began to dance.
Whenever I was nervous, or frightened, the float valve in my bladder suddenly tripped and urination became urgent.
"I will ask the people downstairs if you can use their toilet," graciously offered Ma.
"Nooooo," I moaned, while I continued to dance.
I would have cussed but might get whipped. Instead I began to bawl.
Siggi thought this to be a good idea and joined me. Ma joined our chorus. Our glee club must have confused the tenants below, because now there was agony in the carols of Christmas.
Silent Night, Tearful Night…
Dancing and bawling, I splashed into, and around, the neighbor’s one-holer on the stair landing two flights below.
We holed up in our attic for the night. The owner of the building was out of town, and Ma had not asked for permission to live here. We prisoners became squatters now, without electricity, water, sewer or heat. And we were without a father and without hope, because a judge had decided that we still had no right for life.
Ma had planned ahead for our celebration by bringing a candle and matches. The three of us curled up on the floor around our flickering light, while our mattress was drying, slowly, forever, in our cold room. Bundled in clothes, we tried to ignore our exhilarating imbroglio the only way that we knew how. We searched for old magazines, stared at the paper, pretended to read and did not talk. We dwelled in separate voids during this silent night. I kept my soul locked in a deep dungeon but did not know where Siggi’s and Ma’s were stored. There was nothing we could do short of slashing tires, start big fires or throw flaming Molotov cocktails through windows to get attention.
But we did not think of it, because all nonsense and thoughts, thoughts of self-defense Siggi and I may have had had already been tortured out of us long ago. We simply continued to exist with empty-brained patient endurance, while our lonely candle cast flickering shadows on the narrow confines of our new prison.
And forever in our souls.
A day or two after our holiday celebration, the bailiffs came back and loaded our remaining possessions into a truck with the order to move us to the city of Schwoerstadt. However, Ma refused to leave Rheinfelden, because she wanted to stay close to her ex-husband. Why this was so, we did not know, Siggi and I. There was still a housing shortage, and only a few of Ma’s precious possessions could fit into our new cell. Therefore, she must have directed the executioners of justice to distribute our belongings among about fifteen different acquaintances around the city.
I was certain that during this time the other remnant of our family was faring much better: Pa and Teufi were celebrating their liberation with fine wine under the baroque ceiling of the Herrenzimmer. They crawled under their goose down blanket and fluffed it up and down frequently, until they pumped out the start of a baby, who developed into Oliver. It was at least his fourth known product. Ma had miscarried one, with circumstantial evidence of more from other mothers. Oliver was Teufi’s first, she claimed.
During the months following our eviction, Ma would order Siggi and me to retrieve some of our stuff from the places where it had been stored and haul it up to our attic. Years later, she would write me that some bedding and a suitcase full of stuff turned up missing, and that she would worry forever as to what might have been in it. We piled most of our belongings outside of our room and did this obediently, always following orders from adults. Carting this stuff through town was a humiliating experience, but Ma still had her control device pinned to her skirt, where it still was mostly a permanent fixture. It did not have to be used much anymore, because it activated us into action by its mere presence. The thought of not obeying or rebelling never occurred to Siggi or me, even yet.
Our minds had been perfected and primed for slavery.
* * *
Ma was out digging in garbage, or packing people’s ears with garbage. Everyone always thought that what she had to say was garbage. Siggi and I were alone and lounging on our mattress, when there was an unexpected knock on our door. I opened it and a white-haired stranger, dressed in a suit, handed me a cake and wished us a merry Christmas. That is all he said and we thanked him. We never learned who he was. Siggi and I discussed whether it was safe to eat this cake. We were drooling but could not be sure if the devil had sent it, because Ma had told us that she had threatened to poison us.
Coincidentally, my during the last few years I was developing worsening symptoms that could not be diagnosed by several doctors. Then I met a poisoned stranger, who recommended a doctor, who immediately diagnosed me to have arsenic in my body. And thanks to my gradual and lengthy detoxification routine, I am now feeling better mentally, physically and spiritually than since my youth.
When the owner of the building returned from her vacation, Ma informed her that we had moved into her attic and had an electric outlet installed. However, Mrs. Braun had it removed again and demanded that we move out immediately. We could not even be stored in the attic of a stranger. But Ma refused to leave, because we had no other place to live.
After we shivered through our vacation, earning our doctorate degrees in heroism, Siggi and I returned to the Gymnasium to pursue more trivial studies that were supposed to enhance our lives. However, we tried to keep our accomplishments to ourselves and became totally withdrawn. Snobbish.
"Now everyone knows about our divorce," I said to Siggi.
We had heard people talk about "the divorcee," namely Ma. We sensed the stigma. None of our classmates had divorced parents, or they kept it secret, because in this society everything followed rigidly established mores and divorce was still strictly taboo. Siggi and I were ashamed about our dilemma, even though we were only innocent victims in idiots’ battles. A book on the teacher’s desk in our classroom listed the names of the students and their fathers, and their professions. Our father was an architect. A more appropriate entry for us would have been "Abandoned by Father," or "Never Had One."
Germans were so formal that people who had known Pa for decades still addressed him as Mister Architect. This was to show respect for his person and his position as a highly educated man. There were not many higher up the social ladder than architects, because they designed most of our environment. Lawyers, maybe a little higher, created our hell. They were addressed as Esquire and Your Honor. Was it an honor to send people to hell?
* * *
Our predicament became all consuming.
We had not had a shower since long before Christmas and did not even have water to wash our hands after relieving body pressures. The three of us slept in our clothes that we did not change for days, because the temperature in our cell often barely rose above freezing. We had been taught that it was fiery hot in hell, but we also learned it could be very dark and very cold as well. One could shake there and shiver.
On the morning we returned to school it was particularly cold. Around seven o’clock Ma lit a candle and shook us awake. We grumpily crawled out from under our blanket. I sat up, thump, whacking my head against the sloping ceiling. With dripping, cold noses puffing mist, we did not take long to get ready as we tied our shoes with freezing fingers and combed our greasy hair. Ma went through her usual feeding routine by cutting a few slices from a loaf with her gloved hands to serve our standard meal, bread with lard and sugar, and cut up pieces of rescued apples.
"I need a drink," I said coldly. "This bread is dry."
Ma reached for our bottle of water that had begun to freeze and handed it to me. I drew a few sips and gave it to my little brother. After we quietly finished our continental breakfast, Siggi and I brushed our teeth, because Ma always insisted on this. We gripped our brushes and sawed without toothpaste. Since she always bought the hardest brushes, I eventually would saw grooves at the gum lines. My teeth are inordinately hard, and maybe because I absorbed fluoride that some factories spewed into the air and dumped into the ground around Rheinfelden. They provided this community service free of charge, except for ever-more cancers and myriad of other man-made illnesses far in the future.
Thirty minutes after waking, Siggi and I were on our way to school. Two flights down the stairs, we stopped at the neighbor’s toilet hole that did not have a cover. A hint of dawn barely lit the unheated three-story high privy. While wishing that it had at least a light bulb, I struggled to unbutton my fly.
Afterwards, I dried my hands and the bench as best as I could with newspaper and went back out to let Siggi take his turn getting pissed off for the day, in case he was not already. After he also enhanced his attitude, we continued down the stairs, ready to face the challenges of a new semester.
"Are my ears clean?" I asked the usual morning question, knowing well that they were dirty, because I could feel my dirt. I could feel it in my ears, I could feel it in my eyes. I could feel it in my soul.
"No," he said.
I pulled a handkerchief from my pocket and looked for the cleanest spot between dried ear gunk and snot. Stretched it over my little finger and reamed out my good ear. Moved to another place and gracefully reamed out cheese dip from my other ear. At times, I could feel, and even hear, a whooshing in my ear-less ear as if it were coming from the waves of distant shores.
Siggi also spit-cleaned himself with his private handkerchief decorated with crusty stuff. Everything in our lives was always crusty, gusty, dusty, fusty, musty, or rusty, and rarely lusty or trusty. And worst of all, Siggi and I could never get close to someone busty. Ma did not count. We inspected each other to make certain that we looked clean. It was important to look clean since we were upper crusty; our father being an architect and we went to school with the elite.
"You have crud in your eyes," Siggi told me. How uncouth he was, to tell me that I had crud in my eyes. He had crud in his eyes too, in both eyes. However, spit showers quickly woke us up in the mornings, although I resented the smell of spit. I especially resented it when Ma cleaned her brood with her spittle. During our younger days, she even had used the seam of her skirt to wipe us our dirt around. Now we that we had grown into self-reliant self-spitters, we did not allow her to preen us anymore and certainly not in public.
* * *
Winter continued to be bitterly cold, and wind blew though the attic roofing tiles. When the streets became icy, Siggi and I strapped on the medieval skates that we had brought from North Germany and skated around the city. This exercise warmed us until we ran out of steam. Then we returned to our attic to shiver on our communal mattress, our entertainment center, where we spent much of that season together under a down blanket together.
To counterbalance our freezing, this attic boiled us during the summer, especially because it also had a Mansard roof just like our former tuberculosis ward at Doebele’s. Therefore, Siggi and I spent little time there during the hot afternoons but roamed outdoors as much as possible. I always expected to be shrouded in a cloud of flies, buzzing to get into my head. But even with my luscious bait, flies would not help me, to lay eggs there, to hatch maggots, and maggots again into flies. Strangely, few showed much interest in me.
Nowadays we have antibiotics and spaceships, electronic spies and Frankensteins. We have machines that transform virtual reality into reality and reality into virtual life. An elderly man I know recently had an ear infection and to cure it, his doctor placed a maggot in his ear. While it grew roly-poly it healed his infection. Had I known this, I could have raised organic maggots under a corporate umbrella, to clean rot out of my ear, as well as sell them to the world to achieve a normal lifestyle with my obscene profits and also help forestall the anti-bacterial-caused bacteria evolution that seems to be gaining the upper hand in man’s battle against them.
One of my teacher’s must have detected that something was rotten about me, and that I was very shy. His name was Mr. Haecker. He was always jovial, never punished anyone, and I really liked him. He asked me to be the class speaker. Every grade had one student who held this position. It only required collecting money for our two annual excursions and donations for the cemeteries of the war dead. It involved no paperwork and all payments were made in cash. I was happy to do this, because this teacher had shown faith in my ability and my honesty even though I was rather dumb and somewhat dirty.
* * *
We were squatters in the attic for one year and continued to survive at a subsistence level. We commuted to the Gymnasium to get educated for what reason I did not know. Since there was no study hall, the students were assigned enough homework to keep them busy for up to several hours after school. After Ma made sure that we had finished it satisfactorily, we could go out and escape. But our main diversion was reading and more reading, especially when it was raining. The only other hobbies that we could pursue and would not cost us anything were to vandalize, burn, steal, rape and murder. But these activities were not yet in vogue, we had not read about them, and did not think of it.
We borrowed books from two libraries, a dozen at a time for each of us. An American bookmobile passed through Rheinfelden every two weeks, and we read most of the books in its youth section and many of the adult books as well. Many were about America, such as Gone With The Wind, The Egg And I, My Friend Flicka and The Naked And The Dead. We also read Cheaper by the Dozen and about Manitou and Tecumseh, and traded comic books, such as Hopalong Cassidy and Donald Duck with other students. Almost every day we lounged on our comfy mattress to develop our minds as Americans.
During winter evenings we lit a candle, and the three of us huddled around it, to let our minds wander to faraway places. Our severe eyestrain was the cost of relieving our severe soul strain. We swung from vines in the jungles of Africa, fought gangsters in America, and sailed around the world with Magellan. We learned a lot, except how to improve our own plight.
We found no self-help books in these libraries. Few had been written, mainly because up to this time in Germany the masses did not pursue higher education, thereby not producing scores of social scientists who must research and publish, or perish. We would have greatly benefited from publications such as: Waterless Personal Hygiene, How To Duck Lawyer Attacks, and Surviving Parental and Judicial Terrorism.
Besides a lot of reading, Siggi and I spent much of the earnings from our weekly magazine routes on movies to further relieve our ever-present gloom. Over the years we saw dozens of them, most of them American, many of them about cowboys and Indians, which helped create our American Dream.
* * *
As time went by, we grew evermore apathetic from the complete absence of hope. There were no prospects of finding jobs for Siggi and me, because school kids were only expected to study and play. Ma was an architect’s ex-wife, and at this time it was generally unacceptable for women to work outside the home. Even so, she did a little work when she gathered special treats for us: oranges, apples and other fruits that she retrieved after dark from the garbage pile of the nearby wholesaler named Buehrer.
Aunt Adele’s intense etiquette training was still of no use. Siggi and I remained social klutzes until our girlfriends would fine-tune us in later year. In the meantime, we continued using Mrs. Lenz’s high-rise privy, instead of standing on the edge of our roof to pee down on the city. We were modest children and did not want somebody to build bronze statues of us, nude, in the middle of Rheinfelden, like the one of legendary Manneken Pis in the middle of Brussels in Belgium.
Apparently Pa provided us with a few marks now and then. But we could not even afford to rent a room somewhere. Ma and Pa began officially sparring with each other with his filing for divorce in 1949, but I suspect, unofficially many years earlier. Pa would waste more money on lawyers, in attempts to evade his obligations under the law, than he would ever pay for the support of his sons.
Again, this is what our father did, Siggi’s and mine: He gave more money to lawyers than could be squeezed out of him for us to live on.
After our father and his judicial army exiled us from our prison home, I saw him only once, when he stopped his shiny car, while I was strolling down the sidewalk. He rolled down his window, spent ninety-two seconds of quality time with me and gave me one Deutschmark to get a haircut.
During the year that we had been under siege in one bedroom in the Hardtstrasse and our subsequent year in the cozy attic, not a single relative contacted us, helped us, or consoled us. Since none of them lived in Rheinfelden, except our father and our two mothers, Siggi and I could not contact them and barely knew them anyway.
* * *
In February, the Catholic holidays of Mardi Gras offered a break in our dreary existence. There was no school and few people had to work during this celebration. It started one morning, even though there was barely a sign of it the day before, because it was not commercialized. There were no decorations in the stores or in the schools, and there were no annoying, aggravating, mind-numbing, insulting noises to suck bucks out of these affairs.
Adults did not make fools of themselves. They became fools, kings, queens, wild men and shysters. There were permanent clubs, whose members became and dressed as barbarians and court jesters, wise men and idiots. But no one knew who they were, because they disguised themselves with the themes of their clubs or as self-designated free spirits.
There were parades, music, drinking and dancing.
Siggi and I dressed up in makeshift costumes and joined the crowds in the city. Since Ma did not sew, and we could not afford to buy anything, Siggi and I improvised our own disguise and clothes. We made cowboy hats out of cardboard and hid in crud-crusted scarves like in the movies, to roam the city as gangsters and cowboys. We scared the crowds with our cap guns, while robbing, raping and pillaging. An official religious time for mayhem. We robbed little old ladies and threw them through store windows. Women became pregnant, whether they chose to or not. We cut up babies to eat them to cure our poverty as suggested in 1729, by the Irishman, Jonathan Swift, in his still popular A Modest Proposal essay.
But we did not think of it.
It was all make-believe. There was little crime even though robbers could move about unrecognized during Mardi Gras. We also never heard sirens or screams for help and rarely saw a policeman. And when it was all over, everything went back to normal, and there was not even any vomit or litter in the streets.
* * *
One warm day spring day, the three of us sat on our beloved mattress by our open, screenless window. The air was unusually warm and still. I was in an unusually light-hearted mood and became a cowboy sitting in the shade of a lone tree far our on a prairie. A swarm of vultures was buzzing around the epicenter of our quiet savanna. This caused Ma to have a quiet conversation with judges and lawyers about the court documents that she had received earlier. Deep in thought, she whispered something about the "heartless children’s judge Blaersch" and was unaware that I was observing her. Cowboys and Indians always keep still to watch and listen.
I fell off the cliff of sarcasm into the chasm of her brooding. My discourse went something like this and was a spontaneous outpouring akin to gallows humor, the kind that comes when one’s situation is completely hopeless. It comes when it was easier to die than to live. I mimicked the judge I had never seen before, visualizing His Honor, Judge Blaersch, in his black robe addressing Mrs. Neuman in the serene courtroom with its fine furniture.
Suddenly I spurted forth in a judge-like voice:
"You are looking mighty chic today, Mrs. Neuman."
Proudly Mrs. Neuman rose, "Thank you, your Honor."
"But what is that thing dangling from your waistband."
"Oh dear, I forgot to take it off," I screeched with embarrassment, imitating Ma’s voice. "I’m sorry Your Honor. I’ll take it off."
By now Ma’s face lightened to a smile, surprised that there was still one gram of humor left in me. Humor powered by desperation.
"Don’t take it off here. We’ll take it off tonight. But please remove that silly strap," I continued as His Honor. "What is it for anyway?" I added, imitating the dignified judge.
"To protect my boys, Your Honor. Don’t you protect your children?"
"How do you protect them with that? Do you wire them? And please be civil. The court always treats you with respect," I continued, encouraged by Ma, who was now laughing hysterically, tearfully.
"It protects them from themselves. Prevents them from getting silly ideas. Like seeking revenge on mothers, fathers and judges. And then they’d go to jail," I continued as Ma.
"Thank you, Mrs. Neuman. I will wear a whip also. Like a tie over my fly, to protect my children. I’ll even kill two birds with one stone. It will also help me take a swing at the ladies."
I continued my imitations until Ma was gasping with belly-shaking laughter. When she regained her composure, she looked at me in wonderment as if thinking there is an imagination in Ami that he has been hiding. I always thought he was dumb. Perhaps there is still hope for him.
Clouds hid the sun, and I crashed back down into the attic. Reality shut off my discourse. Once again we squatters were still squatting on our beloved mattress in our forgotten prison.
* * *
One hot day during the following summer, after living in the attic for more than a year, Ma announced that she had found a real apartment two buildings down the street. It also had a dark tile Mansard roof, to boil the people inside. Anxious to move, Siggi and I carried our stuff to our new home and discovered that it really was an apartment. We moved down four stories and back up three stories, below its attic. Around noon, we slouched down to rest on our mattress back in our old home that we had grown to love. Siggi and I grunted out our battle cry, "Ich Bin Hungrig". Ma sat down with some bread, cut off a few slices and smeared on some spread.
While I was wolfing down some cottage cheese, I dropped my spoon and reached for my trembling jaw. My entire body began to shake. I fell back. Ma screamed. She grabbed me under my arms, dragged me out of the attic and down the stairs, because I was paralyzed and my body was trembling. I could hear and see Ma screaming, but I could not spit-clean her face or move or talk. I wanted to assure her that I was all right and felt no pain, as she continued to struggle with me, screaming hysterically:
"Mrs. Lenz. Mrs. Lenz. Ami is dying!!!"
No such luck.
By now I must have weighed more than she, and I will never know how she was able to drag me down the stairs.
Someday, someone else would drag me down some other stairs in some other country.
Mrs. Lenz came rushing out of her apartment and helped Ma carry me into a bedroom and onto a bed. Soon my tremor ceased. A doctor came to examine me and gave me some pills but did not tell me his diagnosis. The afternoon sun streamed through the delicately embroidered curtains as I was soaking in quiet luxury. I remained there alone until evening, nestled in heavenly fresh goose down and brilliant white sheets.
I questioned Ma about my paroxysm, and she told me that I had suffered heat exhaustion. I believed her. Only many years later would I learn that this could not have been true, but that it probably was a seizure caused by too much parental affection, combined with heat, dehydration and malnutrition. I felt no chills, fever, perspiration and the shaking attack passed within minutes. It would never recur, even though I would pursue my intense post-doctorate studies of heroism for many more years.
* * *
Slowly the three of us settled into our new apartment at Werderstrasse 3, Rheinfelden, West Germany. It was like most others in our neighborhood in that it had a dark central vestibule with glazed double entrance doors, from which other doors led to a kitchen and three identical rooms.
Our kitchen had a sink, a cold water faucet and an electric stove but had no built-in cabinets. So far Siggi and I had slept mostly in hallways, railroad stations, boxcars, beer halls, and bomb shelters, or had shared a bed with Ma. At first we were excited that we finally would be able to have our own rooms. But as we gathered the rest of our belongings from where they had been stored throughout Rheinfelden, it became evident that this could never be. We discovered many things that we had not seen before, because Ma had busily acquired a lot of stuff and saved it with various families. In retrospect, I realize that she must have asked them to add their throwaways to her reserves that Siggi and I had to retrieve to outfit our new quarters.
Ma’s packrat syndrome continued to intensify. She had to do something to fill her desperate time, while amassing irreplaceable heirlooms for Siggi and me. She acquired clothes, furniture, bags, broken and unidentifiable items and hoarded them in our small apartment. Maybe she thought that she could someday barter these items as she had done during the wars, hyperinflation and depressions.
Over time, our agony, Siggi’s and mine, slowly crawled up the walls. Dust accumulated and it became more and more difficult to find anything. Ma’s packrat syndrome tangled with her laziness syndrome. Lugging stuff up three stories took some doing, because she kept doing it mostly herself while we were in school. Siggi and I realized that our small world slowly densified, and our space kept shrinking to the point that we could barely move or open doors.
Mother’s entangled heirlooms were her heaven.
They were our newest hell, Siggi’s and mine.
However, we now had our own toilet, and it was located off the stair landing, half a flight down from our apartment. It had a small window and was an exact replica of Mrs. Lenz’s toilet that we used so lovingly before. After two years without a toilet, or one that we had to sneak to under duress, a toilet was a welcome addition to our family. We had become acutely aware that a toilet was even a basic implement for man’s survival.
When I dropped bombs down the tube, they resonated back up the three-story-high stool pipe. During cold and windy days, a frosty breeze caressed my bottom, creating a shivering, shriveling response. At times, the wind played a mournful tune in the twelve-meter high pipe organ with grand finales, when duds tumbled to the bottom to land with a kerplunk. We now had it made. We had our own kitchen and high-tech privy, freshly vented and sound enhanced during performances.
I mention this private subject only because I thought that it is important.
* * *
To stay away from our paradoxical space as much as possible, Siggi and I learned to become great outdoorsmen without the coaching that abnormal kids received from their fathers or club leaders. We learned this avocation by rumbling and rambling around the city. Day in, day out, we walked, biked, climbed, kicked, crawled, and played spontaneous soccer, with caps and coats marking the goal posts. Just like in Simonswolde.
We squirmed around in a transcendental world that we could not fathom.
We joined the city orchestra but had no idea what we could play. The instructor-conductor looked at our lips and teeth and told me that I would play the clarinet and Siggi the trumpet. He would be able to toot his own horn and I would squeal. The orchestra provided us with instruments, and the conductor taught us twice a week along with two other boys, and after a year and a half, I began to practice with the band to perform in concerts and other fun functions. Siggi was still too young to do so, because sometimes our music mixed with beer and wine until late into the night. Or maybe there were already too many tooting their own horns.
All of the band members wore identical light gray suits during our public performances, but Ma requested that I would be furnished with a blue wool suit instead. Therefore, this orchestra bought me one that I could wear for personal use also, and this made me stick out in our band when I wanted to hide. But I greatly enjoyed playing at funerals, weddings and Mardi Gras parades. When I was sixteen we played at a New Year’s ball in Swiss Rheinfelden, where hundreds of costumed revelers drank, smoked and danced to our music. Before long, the air in the dancehall became so enhanced with tobacco and digestive gases that it burned my eyes and throat and impaired my breathing. During a break I pushed through the crowd to go outside.
"Ma! What are you doing here?"
I recognized her even though she wore a mask and had nothing dangling from her hip, except an unman.
Our band’s music deteriorated from head-splitting gases and free beer. By midnight, I was the only one to usher in the New Year. My lonely clarinet attempted to keep this dance in motion, because my cohorts had also filled their instruments with beer and pretended to shave with its foam. One hour after midnight I drank my first beer ever. When our melee finally ended my world had become wobbly. So I ambled through dark and empty streets back across the Rhine River to Germany, back to my rat’s nest to fall asleep in my dusty lair.
And the last thing I remembered was, burp.
* * *
At this time I entered puberty. This further helped strengthen my character during my hero formation. I was forced to endure its ultimate test of extreme of self-discipline. Suddenly, I wanted to compose the whiniest of country music songs. Songs about falling. Falling into cow pies. Songs about losing my girlfriend. Before even getting one.
But I did not think of it.
I was conquered by a new emotion, more intense than the depression that kept me hostage for so long. I fell in love. Deeply. One day I turned the corner of a building and almost collided. And not with a cow pie.
My eyes locked into her liquid brown eyes. I felt the sizzle. I just wanted to kiss and hug her and never let go.
We stared and said not a word. We passed each other. Bouncy, golden, curly ponytail. I bumped into something. She smiled. She entered my mind. And stayed there. Over the next year our paths crossed often, on trains and on streets, always evoking the same intense passion in me. I followed her to a park, where she sat down with a girlfriend. I sat down nearby and stared so hard that our souls seemed to merge.
I was so bashful, and my feelings about her were so intense, that I was afraid that if I talked to her, I would blabber, because so often I stuttered. I wore threadbare clothes, could not bathe and did not have the courage to show off my hideout. I dressed my best. My best was a long-sleeved black shirt with a bright yellow tie. Ma had carefully selected them from her favorite store, Quack’s Fifth Alleyvue. Pa had his tailor; I had my slick, rancid hair. I was so ashamed and timid that I never said one word to my girlfriend while, in my mind, we went steady for more than one year.
Then I would leave the country and would never even learn her name.
I was so befuddled during this time of my life that when Ma asked me to buy a newspaper, I asked for the Nordwest Zeitung. The clerk told me that he did not have it. I realized that I had made a mistake and asked for the Nordost Zeitung, then Suedost Zeitung, whereafter he volunteered that he also did not have the Suedwest Zeitung. That was the one I wanted, and I did not know if the others even existed. He probably sold this particular newspaper but thought that I was just playing a game.
If I were to design hell, my unending dilemma would be its leitmotif.
After I met this girl, I became extremely conscious about my looks. I was going to be a real man, a strong man and a handsome dude. I checked myself closely to see if I had big muscles, to see if I looked clean but discovered that I was a very greasy guy. There were blackheads sprinkled on my nose, and when I squeezed them, tiny spaghetti oozed from my pores. I also grew an impressively big carbuncle on the back of my neck and as it became shiny, purple and ripe, its pain stopped the motion of my head. Ma squeezed it. I screamed. Therefore, she sought advice from the eighty-year-old neighbor below us, who then operated on me instead. She looped a rolled up handkerchief around my boil and applied peripheral pressure to force out a nice stream of deceased blood cells. This did not hurt nearly as much as Ma’s method of operation, and therefore everyone should learn how to do this properly.
* * *
Ma must have noticed a change in me and decided that it was time to teach me about sex. She was going to teach me something that no one ever seemed to talk about in this society. During this era, people did not say "sex." There was something taboo about this word and probably also about its deeds. This society was pure. Had it been purified by the torments of its past? Or had this subject simply gone under cover? The best that we boys could do was to bore our stares through ladies’ blouses and hope to burn through to get a glimpse. When I bored, I could feel my eyeballs crowd into the cleavage of their breasts and wanting to remain there like baby birds in a nest.
In spite of our lack of privacy, Ma had always kept her body hidden from Siggi and me. Body-exposure privacy was easy, because there was no reason for us to run around naked. We had no tub or shower, and we washed our few clothes only when we nearly fainted. And when we were cold we also slept in them.
The sheets of our beds were gray with grime, body fat, dead skin, bed bugs and live and dead dust mites. I had an advantage over others in that my pillow was sometimes especially adorned. With organic goo spots from my ear. My pillow case may have seeded the vital new movements in the organic visual arts and music that is still thriving today.
It was not long after I became immersed in my powerful new emotion, when Ma casually shed her clothes and sponge-bathed in my presence. A suppressed instinct struck her to wipe off body odor, teach her pubescent son preening and educate him about the birds and the girls. If she could not talk about sex, she could maybe drop a hint, to hint that a woman had different parts than a man, and that these got tangled up with each other if one were afflicted by a lack of self-discipline to resist the most powerful heavenly bodies attraction in the universe.
I already knew about the interesting parts and their functions. However, I learned one of Ma’s secrets. She had no belly button to collect fuzz in. In Simonswolde she had had it replaced with a nice fifteen-centimeter horizontal scar, pouched out at the ends. She had bulged out a hernia, while manually spading and fertilizing our survival garden. A doctor had opened her up and had put her innards back into their proper places. This condition had been very painful, and she already had more pain than she could handle. Siggi and I had never known this. Courageous Ma had not told us that a doctor had rummaged around inside her. Therefore, dear Ma, I thank you for sparing us your agony.
* * *
Suddenly there was going to be lot of nakedness in Rheinfelden. Concentrated nakedness. The advertisements showed that there would be naked boys and naked girls. I did not care about the boys, but I wanted to squeeze naked girls. So far they had been impossible to find and here was my chance. The theater posters advertised Dangerous Love, and there were no clothes on the actors. But the important parts, those necessary for the continuation of the species, were just out of sight.
I had to show identification that I was sixteen to be allowed to observe such important functions in action. I was barely old enough to join this orgy. Before the curtain rose everyone waited anxiously inside the dim theater. I played cool. I was a connoisseur and did not want others to see when my eyes would bug and my tongue would hang out, therefore, I had to keep myself under control.
The movie started and soon a doctor dressed in a white frock appeared on the screen. He lectured seriously about the growing sexually-transmitted diseases, and he was here to frighten us. He told us about the causes of the scourges of mankind. He showed us the results of sin, of lack of self-discipline during the heat of passion. He introduced us to stark naked boys and stark naked girls in sterile hospital rooms. They looked cold and sad. They were not hot. They had sores all over their pale bodies, faces and groins. My eyes bugged out but not for the reasons that I had anticipated, and this movie dampened my desire somewhat. I would have to be careful if I ever could get very close to girls.
There was no whining or convulsing in this society if, how and who was to teach sex. Social mores strictly forbade juvenile sex and one movie like this would teach boys and girls to be cautious when entering the minefields of passion.
* * *
Ma realized that Siggi was also growing up fast and that now was her last chance to provide him with one final lesson, to make sure that he would be MC, morally-correct, and would remain a hero for life. I cannot remember what he did, but it was inconsequential, if he misbehaved at all. Ma ordered him to bare his buttocks and to lean over the foot of the bedstead. He willingly complied, as always, because if he did not, he would get spanked. Even so, now Ma whipped him with the braided electrical cable that she had brought from Simonswolde, which after many years of vigorous use refused to unravel.
I stood by frozen, suffering the same inner-body, out-of-body experience as when Pa had beaten Ma. I also felt each lash as much as Siggi and wondered if she had lost her mind. I counted twenty rhythmic vigorous swishes across his young behind.
Twenty sharp lashes sliced through our souls. Swish! Scream! Swish!
After she seemed to have exhausted herself, she threw him out and told him never to come back. He ran out and I followed. I tried to convince Siggi that she did not mean to hurt him, and that she was just frustrated with Pa and his lawyers. Siggi and I wandered around aimlessly until we became hungry, and therefore, returned to the coziness of our nest. Recently I asked him about this incident: "Do you still remember when Ma really whipped you in the Werderstrasse 3? And then threw you out?"
His faraway gaze signaled great pain; the greatest pain I had ever witnessed in anyone’s eyes, as he responded: "No. I guess I must have blanked that out too."
* * *
Whenever Ma decided that my ear was becoming too biohazardous, she sent me by train to Basel, Switzerland, to a world-famous ear clinic. Doctors took turns gazing into my head with great interest through a funnel, as if there were a peep show inside. They also squirted water into my head to flush my filthy peep show. To test my balance, I had to close my eyes and walk a line on the floor. They decided that I was quite stable, never had a shot of booze, and would be amazed if they only knew how unstable my life had always been.
After my treatments, my infection usually cleared up temporarily. But it always returned vigorously, mainly because of neglect, poor nutrition and hygiene. Even though I have forever been told not to stick anything into my ears, a few years ago I started cleaning my defective ear out with cotton swabs. When I visited my long-time ear doctor again, he looked into my head with his microscope, ready to suck out money, ah, pus, and blurted: "What did you do?"
"I kept dry by not taking any showers," I teased him.
He replied: "I hope not."
He warned me that the bone to my brain was as thin as an eggshell. This was hopeful, because someday I might still be able to hatch great ideas. He then advised me to pour a fifty-fifty mixture of white vinegar and rubbing alcohol into my ear, especially after showering, to prevent infections. I have visited many doctors many times over the years, and in three countries, and this was the first time that someone informed me of such a cheap, effective preventative treatment. My decades-long rot and embarrassments could have been very easily stopped at its very beginning, because now I can even go swimming without getting an ear infection.
During my previous visits, this same doctor had even suggested that he could remove a bone ridge inside my ear canal that caused stuff to accumulate. This ridge had formed over the years in response to infections. After I asked him for details, he explained that it would be a two-hour operation and that my face could get paralyzed. I was glad to have declined his indulgence, especially because not long thereafter, he died under the influence of some sort of popular mind-twisting self-indulgence that might have misguided his brain and his hands.
* * *
After Ma threw Siggi out, I became totally withdrawn. I brooded, did not talk for hours and did not respond to Ma, who tried to cheer me. There was nothing in my life that could do so, except being able to love my girlfriend, but I could not get near her. Ma seemed to have no clue that I needed a crumb of normalcy, or she would have at least let me have my own room. I also had no clue about normalcy, because I did not know what such was. But I also I felt so sorry for Ma that I did not even want to kick her like Pa had demonstrated this for me, to make her understand that my rot and her junk might be dampening my zest for life.
My brooding caused Ma to take me to a specialist in Basel. She did not tell me where we were going, and I assumed that she was taking me to another ear doctor. But as we entered the waiting room, I realized that this was not a medical clinic, because it lacked the disinfectant smells that were always present in medical buildings. There were also no white-gowned nurses and doctors. Instead, a man in a suit showed me ink stains and asked me of what they reminded me. I saw animals, trees, faces and airplanes but had no idea what meaning could be extracted from what I saw in these blotches.
Oddly, he never not ask me any questions, such as "What is bothering you? Were you abandoned by your parents? Do you ever smile?" However, he must have concluded that I was not going to kill anybody, at least not for the time being, because he did not give me pills or lock me up but released me again into the jungle without a compass.
* * *
Our magazine routes were our first and only jobs, Siggi’s and mine, when once a week we delivered magazines on our old bikes. What earnings I did not spend on movies, I put into my savings account, which slowly grew to the equivalent of over twenty-five dollars, a huge sum for me. Ma must have noticed this, because she informed me that I was going to have another ear operation. She checked me into the Citizens Hospital in Basel, where I was carved out again for the third time. This time I was not cut through the big old scar, but through a new cut in front of the ear.
Neither Siggi, Pa nor anyone else contacted me in the hospital, and I was not sure if they even knew that I was routed out again. Siggi was probably happily miserable at home or in a secondhand store, while Pa was probably miserably happy drinking fine wine and doing women. However, a friendly Dutchman, who was also a patient in my hospital room, gave me a banana. I was astounded that a stranger would give me something to make me happy.
After about ten days I returned to the mother of all rats’ nests, the headquarters of our magazine empire. When I made another deposit into my savings account, I discovered that Ma had blown it on hospital bills. I had been saving to get out of hell, and I still remember this well, to travel to Peru, to live in the jungle by Lake Titicaca, away from people, white people, but now it had been wasted to cut rotten meat out of my head.
Pa was so concerned about us that he wanted to do radical surgery himself. On all of us. I did not know this at the time, or had suppressed it in my conscience. However, I found copies of one of his letters entangled in Ma’s heirlooms during my last visit with her. My father’s letter to an attorney stated:
"Very honored Counselor Laule!
"With great disappointment I found out that the support for the children was increased by DM20 (Deutschmarks) for each child, that is DM40.
"I see no other possibility anymore, except to cause a total catastrophe, no matter what consequences it will bring. I will grasp the final and heaviest means, to cause an end to this shameful situation. This I will do, if the court does not comprehend my situation as a provider of the divorced family and the founder of a second family. I will not let my honor be so dirtied, inasmuch as I am so indebted that my creditors are pushing me to fulfill my responsibilities. If it has to be, I am ready to eliminate the entire family, before I will take this shame on me. Afterwards the court will be responsible for this, which this decision has brought about."
Our father proposed to kill us in order to avoid the shame of having to support us. He wanted to kill us in order to save ten dollars a month, less than he spent on his cigars. Big, expensive, imported cigars, singly packaged in gilded aluminum cylinders, which probably cost more than their contents, to protect them from a mean environment.
* * *
Ma was so distraught that she even wanted to grab the bull by his horns. She did the most reasonable thing one could do. To make soap. Soap? Why, I did not know. She could have been suddenly blessed with a gift, like the charming of cobras. This was on an ethereal level that we did not understand, Siggi and I. She started to make soap in her usual fashion. Big time. Like big time bed sitting, big time butt whipping, big time house stuffing, big time court battles. And now big time soap making.
From somewhere she got the ingredients for her project, enough for at least several dozen bars of soap. Carefully she measured and mixed them together, opened the oven door and set the mixture on it. And let it sit there. By the next day, this sticky concoction had oozed out or fallen over, thus ending her project. She left her project that way for months on the open door, while the hardening blob was nicely fusing to it.
Ma lost her inspiration. Finally, I de-blobbed the oven myself, because I had an inspiration to start my own new project.
A friend had discovered a chemical that burned rapidly under certain conditions, and it was sold in granular form at a local pharmacy. My creative impulse went to work. After dissolving this substance in water, I soaked newspapers in this mixture and dried them. Since I was too impatient to spread them out on the kitchen décor and wait for them to dry, I placed them in the oven and turned on the low heat. When the window of the kitchen began to steam up I opened it.
While I was waiting for the drying to complete, there was hissing in the oven and smoke came belching out. The papers were smoldering and the kitchen became very hazy. I closed the window to a narrow opening and frantically smothered the papers, hoping that no one would think that our building was on fire. I scanned the neighborhood to see if anybody was staring up at our apartment, or rolling on the ground laughing, and saw no one. After the smoke cleared, I continued my fuel production more carefully, by air drying them instead. Then I rolled them up tightly inside sheets of untreated paper to make solid-fuel rockets, with strips for fuses that burned with a sizzle.
When I was finished producing my weapons, I stored the leftover fuel paper in the dark and dreary basement laundry of our apartment building and then searched out a vacant lot to launch my rockets. I lit a fuse and ran for safety. As it burned it generated an unbelievable amount of white smoke. My paper rocket blasted off with a swish, trailing a random smoke pattern, while bouncing repeatedly off the ground. I noted that future rockets needed pointed noses and tail fins to control their flight paths.
Siggi and I experimented with rockets, fire crackers, smoke bombs and hand grenades. Over the next few weeks we spent our spare time developing an assortment of peacekeeping materiel that also included pipe bombs. We discovered other chemicals and even mixed our own black powder. One dark red concoction boiled in a slow chemical reaction that also created a lot of bloody red smoke that scared us.
Our explosives acquired ever-greater force until we realized the danger of our hobby when we detonated a pipe bomb next to the Catholic church. Shrapnel whistled around us, chipping stucco off the wall. Oddly, no one ever paid any attention to our activities, even though we made loud noises, while simulating urban warfare in the middle of Rheinfelden. No one seemed to care that we might be terrorists or become our own collateral damage.
We decided to discontinue our hobby when we came home from school one day and a fire truck with flashing lights was parked in front of our apartment. Spectators were lined up across the street and were looking up to the top of our building. Some seemed to be thrilled by the smoke that engulfed its roof, while Siggi and I worried that we could lose our home again. However, it was not long before the firemen departed, because they could not find the source of the smoke or must have discovered that it was only coming from a chimney. After the smoke diminished enough, I confirmed this to be the case. I realized that someone must have burned our treated newspapers in the laundry boiler and went down to the basement to find this to be the case.
* * *
I accidentally discovered that Ma also pursued a dangerous hobby that could result in collateral damage, when I opened the door to the "wardrobe" in her "bedroom." A limp, long, whitish balloon was hanging from its clutter. I was overwhelmed by its stretched out size and wondered if it was a "time-share" condom?
I confronted Ma about her fatigued condom, while wondering why our parents could not pursue the world’s most popular hobby together.
She squealed: "I found it in the city park."
Famous humorist Dave Barry would say, "I’m not making this up."
This condom proved that Ma was one of the world’s foremost expert in cautious recycling and hoarding. When she found treasures in garbage cans, she would confiscate them, but Siggi and I did not realize this yet, because she tried to keep her mining sources a secret. Once a store sold wool/synthetic, knitted swimsuit-style pants. They were not swimsuits or underpants but were in a classification not yet recognized by the fashion world. Their price was greatly reduced, and for good reason. Nobody wanted them. She bought all of them for Siggi and me. They fitted tightly, itched magnificently and colored our privates liberally, literally and metaphorically, but fortunately, in my favorite color. To wear them imparted a singular wisdom that is never be taught in the hallowed halls of universities.
Ma also bought dozens of loops of dried figs beaded on real vines, like the ones on which Tarzan swung through the jungle, while yelling, aahhaaa…eeuaa. As other fruits came into season, such as cherries or grapes, she bought them by the box full, and we ate pounds of them in one session. She also continued her raids on the food wholesaler’s reject pile, where she collected fruit under cover of darkness after Siggi and I were asleep. Fortunately by this time, we had developed a healthy immunity to post-vintage-fruit and fine fungus overindulgence.
Since Ma never cooked, Siggi and I were surprised one day when we came home from school to find her locked in the kitchen.
"What are you doing? Do you need to be rescued?" we asked through the door, expecting her to be indulging a man.
"I am cooking," came back her reply.
"Cooking? Why are you cooking? What are you cooking?" we wanted to know.
"A rabbit," Ma’s strained voice muffled through the door.
I began to drool about a delectable rabbit with dumplings and Strudel.
"Unlock the door," we ordered Ma.
"I can’t, I am busy," she replied.
Cooking odors soon overcame the musty odor in our dark vestibule and confirmed that Ma was indeed cooking.
"I can’t believe it, Ami, Ma’s cooking."
"This cannot be, there’s something wrong."
Siggi and I anxiously waited in the dark. We peeked through the keyhole but saw no light. This heightened our suspicion.
Finally, without fanfare, Ma unlocked the door, pushed aside some artfully arranged junk on the table, fished a critter out of the boiling pot and dropped it on a platter without looking at us. There it lay, pinkish and steamy, lonely, without head or potatoes to keep it company. Its guts and hide had been removed and hidden somewhere. Siggi and I sprinkled some salt on it and tore away at it.
"Not bad," Siggi mumbled with his mouth full, "tastes fresh," forgetting the table manners.
"Why is it so pink, is it female?" he wanted to know.
"But what is this? A claw?" I wanted to know.
I spat out a mouthful of rare delicacy.
"This is a cat, isn’t it?"
It was Ma’s secret recipe, a legacy to be cherished. After some prodding she confessed that she had served us a cat.
"Whose cat is this?"
"I don’t know," Ma replied meekly.
"Where did you get it? Just asked the little pussy to come up and jump into your pot?" I asked with great interest.
"Then where did it come from. Who butchered it?" we demanded angrily. We could not believe that Ma would kill somebody’s pet. Besides work always scared her.
"I found it on the road," she said with tears.
"You mean it had the guts squeezed out?"
We said no more. Unlike our father, we felt very sorry for Ma. He always ate mountains of warm, delicious food, and I almost devoured a flat cat-rabbit. This episode reminded me again for the ten-thousands time: Parents stink. Lawyers stink. I stink. The whole rotten world stinks.
* * *
To grope for something that did not stink, Siggi and I joined the YMCA of Germany. It did not own any facilities like in America, such as swimming pools and dormitories, and our group pursued only religious studies and not much else. We met weekly in church with other boys to study the Bible and pray. We were told that if we prayed things could only get better.
Our group vacationed four weeks in Caslano in the Italian Alps. Even though this would cost only about fifteen dollars per person, Siggi and I could not afford to go. Neither the YMCA, nor the tax-supported church, nor our father offered to pay for our trip, although this vacation would have sent us temporarily to heaven. Ma would write me years later that she never thought of borrowing our trip money, and that she had never paid one cent of interest in her life.
Like she, I also had a very narrow outlook on life. I observed it as though through a crack in an outhouse, seeing only a tiny sliver of a better life outside, and for months I considered how I could escape from my privy. Ma must have realized that I wanted to check out of our privy, because I rarely talked and never smiled anymore. To improve my mood, she arranged for me to spend my vacation with the owner of a last-hope, secondhand store in Basel, Switzerland, and for this I needed a passport. I remember that when the photographer asked me to smile for my picture, I forced a grin from ear to ear. Later I discovered that instead of a smile, I looked as sorrowful as the people in old photographs.
My hosts were poor by Swiss standards and lived in an apartment above their store in the Totengasse, Alley of Death. But I felt comfortable there, even though the air was pungent with old cat pee. The husband was in the armed reserve and kept his weapons at home. When I was upstairs alone, I aimed his unloaded, I think, rifle out of the window. None of the people that passed by paid much attention to me, because Switzerland was armed to the teeth, and even boys belonged to the military. Interestingly, there were never any shootings even though there was a gun in almost every house.
When I had to return again to the Gymnasium, Ma asked me to live for several months with the Grobs, who had no children. Mrs. Grob had been an organ loft witness to my water baptism and was the owner of a secondhand store in Swiss Rheinfelden. It was close enough to the railroad station in Germany for me to walk there. To keep me fully occupied and further enhance my mental health during my stay there, Ma made arrangements for me to work a few hours every week in a nearby bakery mopping floors and putting ice cream bars into wrappers. But I received no pay and did not think that Ma collected it, because I would have needed a government permit to work in this country. My reward was that I liked it there much better than all other places where I could have been stored by my parents.
But having to return to school every day did not do much to ease my consternation. So to make myself feel better, to be macho, I bought one or two packs of cigarettes from a nearby vending machine. Naturally, I got immediately hooked on smoke bullets. However, I had to quit shooting myself, when I ran out of money, and to steal never entered my misguided mind. I had not yet discovered the key to becoming a top executive. To reward my honesty, and my chronic exemplary behavior, Mrs. Grob informed Ma that some day I would become a murderer. Or rapist. She did not say why she thought so, and I did not ask. Did she think this, because I was so forlorn and never smiled? Up to this time, I was still very naive and believed everything that people said, including that I was stupid. They had made comments that I still remembered:
"I don’t understand how you got into the Gymnasium."
Or: "You will someday spread feces."
No one could get much lower in society than a feces spreader, except maybe child abusers and killers.
Up to this time, I had sojourned away from home only with families who were unrelated to us and were secondhand-store owners as well: in Aurich, in Basel and now in Swiss Rheinfelden. Ma had arranged all of my stays, and I only met my keepers for the first time when I was deposited with them. Siggi also stayed at the Basel store but at a different time from my visit there.
While we were in hell, our father played with his young wife and kept guzzling fine wines to celebrate his lost sons. He continued to dwell in an opulent home, drove a luxury car, dressed in fancy suits and professional pride and continued to do whatever people do in an earthly heaven.
Even though Ma did not guide us anymore with her whip, Siggi and I always tried to do our best and behave well, because we had been trained to be neurotically honest. Unfortunately, nowadays few people seem to appreciate such a character trait anymore. We never thought about drinking alcohol or sniffing fumes. Only adults drank and sniffing had not been invented yet. We never took even one aspirin to deal with our haute cuisine and parental torture. We did not, and knew of no children, who imbibed, even though it was legal to drink beer and wine in this country.
However, Siggi and I were chips off the old blocks and would soon be men. Would we follow the footsteps of our parents, our primary role models? Would we be lazy like our mother and become vigorous fornicators like our father? Would we drink in excess and torture our wives and children? Would we excuse our misdeeds by whining "I am a victim, I had a bad childhood, society made us do this?"
* * *
Our Melancholic Trio did not visit its relatives. When we had done so in the past, it had always been with Pa, but only for an hour or two at a time, when we first moved back to the Black Forest, and Siggi and I were still new and shiny. We were now old and tarnished. Our relatives had never invited us or visited us, except once, when we had hosted one of our cousins, while we had still lived in the Hardtstrasse before the arrival of Teufi. Friederle, Uncle Fritz’s son, had come from Wollbach on his big motorcycle to ride with us to the wedding of his sister, Lotte, in Switzerland. The only reason that he had joined us was that he might have thought that he might have to recover before riding home on his motorbike.
After the wedding ceremony, a bus or two took the guests to a hotel by a lake. There, a dance band played for the party, and Siggi and I also rowed around the lake. In the evening, Pa played the piano, allowed us a puff or two from his cigars, and let us sip his wine. For all the guests he appeared to be a loving father, and for Siggi and me this wedding was the mother of all parties. Having never been to one, never having met so many friendly relatives, never having eaten so much delicious food, we were in belly-bursting heaven.
When we returned home, Friederle crawled into bed to sleep off his pain. While he was recovering from his overindulgence, I coasted down the hill on his shiny big motorbike and left it there, because I did not know how to start it. After Friederle came alive again, I confessed what I had done. He never offered me a ride, nor did he scold me as I had anticipated.
* * *
Ma, Siggi and I continued to struggle along, subsisting on next to nothing, as always. She would write him many years later that for a while we had received only about fifty dollars a month from a welfare agency, and that she was supposed to repay all of it from Pa’s intermittent court-ordered payments. However, during this time, an American visited us and lit up our dungeon with brilliant hope. Siggi and I were now fourteen and sixteen years old and did not know him or knew that he was coming. His name was Maxo Harman Hinderk Schitzma. Very impressive.
He was the brother of our American uncles by marriage, Fullo and Deepo Schitzma. They had migrated to the United States in the twenties or before. Thereafter, they had imported and married two of Ma’s sisters from Germany, Helene and Houwke.
Maxo, who was visiting us now was still single.
Houwke and Helene had sent us the packages in Simonswolde after the war that had helped keep us alive. Thank you very much, dear relatives, because there had been so little to eat that the new German government had issued rationing vouchers that permitted each citizen only as few as two hundred calories per day. I suspect that any additional calories had to be acquired on the black market. This calorie allotment might have been even less if the Soviets had not improved this situation by sinking war refugee ships in the Baltic Sea.
During Maxo’s visit, Siggi and I became infected with a glimmer of hope, partly because our visitor took a lot of interest in us. This was a waving red flag, but Siggi and I did not notice. Whenever a stranger gets friendly, watch out, but America was special. It had cowboys and Indians, mountains and prairies, wealth and freedom.
During the course of his visit Maxo casually asked us: "Would you like to come to America?"
"Jaaaa," Siggi and I responded in unison, without considering the hows and whys. We had learned to like American GI’s, and Amerika itself from many books and movies and could not wait to visit there. But Ma did not answer Maxo’s question, and we assumed that she would come with us. She had never hinted about such a trip and voiced no objections about it now. She suggested a walk around our neighborhood, and when we came to a park, Maxo took a picture of us. An acquaintance happened to be strolling by and scolded us with an authoritarian tone, "You can not walk on that grass. It belongs to the city,".
Always this damned "Don’t Do This." Always this damned "Do that." Always, "This Is Verboten."
No one ever said: "You poor, innocent little bastards! You try so hard. You can live in garbage like maggots. You are neglected, beaten, tenderized, chewed up again and again. Yet, you never rebel, steal or kill. You are heroes."
Along with the constant emotional and physical pummeling from our parents, Siggi and I received no recognition for our unending endurance marathon and no empathy from our next-of-kin and not-next-of-kin. Instead, we were set up for a different kind of hell, my little brother and I.
After Maxo left, Ma informed us that we were going to Amerika alone. She had always kept us on a remote-controlled leash, pinned to her waistband, but now she willingly sent us into an unknown void. The red flag kept waving, but Siggi and I were too naïve and too inexperienced to see it. We now had outgrown our use for mother’s catharsis and were now strong enough to reciprocate any proffered whipping with interest.
If Siggi and I would have been able to spend a few weeks in today’s violent, faux-reality culture, would it have triggered a self-defeating defense or violent offense mechanism in us, or were we too set in our shy and squeaky clean ways?
* * *
Many months after Maxo’s visit, Our Trio traveled by train to the American consulate in Frankfurt. An official questioned Siggi and me separately about our political beliefs. We did not have any, and this helped us qualify to visit America. When he asked me if I were married, I giggled. No one married at such a young age. But the official remained serious, and I was hoping that I would not blow it, causing him to not let me go to America. When he then asked me if I had children, I found this really bizarre, but I tried to remain earnest. Children did not have children, and during this era, German mores allowed boys to barely look at girls. These ethics developed long ago to keep them from connecting, to prevent the untimely creation of unwanted babies. This was a fail-safe method of birth control that also taught intense self-control.
The consulate also gave us thorough medical examinations. While we were waiting there for many hours, I observed people. I could tell which ones were Americans, even if they did not speak, because of the comforting aura that surrounded them. They wore bright colors, had light-hearted moods and casual demeanor. Even the marine guard, dressed in a blue and tan uniform and white cap, was casually chewing gum, and I could not remember ever seeing someone so nonchalant and self-confident.
We received our visas weeks later, and "Uncle" Maxo made arrangements for our passage to the United Sates of America. Even during this interim period, Siggi and I did not discuss our upcoming voyage. We had no idea why we were allowed to travel ten thousand kilometers by ourselves at such a young age. I barely thought about our upcoming adventure, because I was still living from minute to minute, even though our future now could only improve dramatically.
We remained totally uninformed about our trip, and Siggi and I did not even know about the different types of visas, or which kind we had received. Important questions that we should have asked never entered our minds: Why are we allowed to go to America all alone? How long will we stay there? Who is paying for our trip? Would we be able to continue our education? How will we get along with so little English? Would we play in a rock ‘n roll band? And most important of all, why was Ma not coming with us?
* * *
We had not seen our male forerunner for months even though he only lived about a kilometer from us. On the day Siggi and I were leaving to board the train for our long voyage into the unknown, he arrived at our apartment building when we were exiting from it. We mumbled good-bye to the jolly fat man in the suit and kept walking. Our father stood there, dumbfounded but smirking, and acted as if he had only now learned that his sons were leaving the country.
No hugs, no kisses, no good-byes. He could have been thinking, "Good riddance. Now I won’t have to kill you."
Three stories above, Ma was leaning out of her bomb-making, soap-making, rat’s-nest, road-kill, cat-house alternative kitchen window. I heard her say, "We will never see them again!"
The lesson then is, when you send your children, alone, to the other side of the world, to give them courage and confidence, and strengthen their character, your last and only suggestion to them should be that you will never see them again.
* * *
In about the middle of March, at the ages of fifteen and seventeen, Siggi and I would leave behind everything, including shame, cold and hunger, parental affection, nice relatives and one of the world’s best educational system. We also would leave behind our judicial umbrella, which had greatly prolonged our Progenitors’ War, the war of our silent torture. Amazingly, the court battles between our father and our two mothers would continue for another seven or eight years.
Siggi and I had never met, nor talked to even one bureaucratic soldier in our war. We had never met or talked with one single lawyer, judge or social engineer, because they had been invisible to us since the very beginning. Not one of them had ever asked us, do you have enough food and water? Not one of them had questioned us, do you want to live with your father in a mansion or live, and get whipped, in your mother’s rat’s nest?
And worst of all, no one knew that we had been little heroes, Siggi and I. Heroes among skeletons. Heroes from a stranger’s attic. Not even Siggi and I knew that we had been forced to become heroes, because no one told us and we did not think of it.
* * *
The two of us traveled by train back to East Frisia where Maxo met us. He bought us some new clothes, and we spent a few days visiting his, and our, relatives. While he was driving us to the Port of Bremerhaven to be shipped, and he might have thought that we had reached our point of no return, he casually asked us:
"What are you going to do in America?"
Siggi and I still had no idea what we would do, but hoped for a better life. Siggi, ever submissive, wanted to accommodate him and simply guessed:
Maxo was quiet.
Maybe Siggi remembered the German adage: "Arbeit macht frei." But we know better now, we learned it the hard way, it is this: "To think makes you free. To act on your thoughts makes you free." Slaves are told: "Work makes you free."
I did not answer Maxo’s question, because I never wanted to impress anyone with my quick wit. Had I done so, I would have told him that I did not know what we were going to do in America. I was sure that in America you were either a cowboy or an Indian, and I wanted to be friends with the Indians and hunt buffaloes with bows and arrows and spears. Many years later, Siggi would send me a newspaper interview about himself, which stated that when he came to America he had looked forward to hunting buffaloes. Our dreams had been the same, even though we had never discussed them.
We boarded the "MS Berlin" amid great fanfare. A brass band played happy melodies, while colorful streamers and confetti fell from the gray and drizzly sky.
On crossing the Atlantic, our ship pitched and rolled through a hurricane and was blown far off course, and also because one of the ship’s propellers ceased to function. The ship’s crew thoughtfully decorated the handrails in the hallways with brown paper bags to help celebrate this event, this lack of control. When passengers suddenly lost their contents, they could quickly unload into one of these bags. Siggi spent most of this festive period in his bunk in our tiny cabin, far-out seasick. I was frightened to death, because I was convinced that we would sink. Even though the whole ship smelled of vomit, I was spared the agony of seasickness and this may have been because of a damaged balancing system in my right ear.
* * *
The "MS Berlin" limped into Halifax, Nova Scotia. Two days later, after eleven days at sea, we arrived in New York City, where thousands of brightly colorful cars cruised through deep man-made canyons. This and the Statue of Liberty made me shiver. It was the first time in my life that I shivered from thrilling pleasure and not from brutal cold or terrifying fright.
After disembarking we followed the crowds through customs. Since we spoke little English, we had no idea how we would be able to find our way around New York, much less across a continent without getting lost. However, we were so overwhelmed by what we were experiencing that we were not the least bit worried. Our great hope for heaven overcame most of our concerns. After passing through customs, a friendly lady informed us in German that she was with the Travelers Aid Society and was here to take us to the train station.
The three of us rode a taxi to Grand Central Station, where she ordered us bread and butter sandwiches at a snack bar, because she knew that bread with such spreads had been the main food in postwar Germany. She had bought our tickets that must have been prepaid by an interested party and guided us to our train bound for Chicago.
When we arrived in the windy city, another Traveler’s Aid representative informed us that we had to change trains ten hours later. She said that she would leave us and requested to remain in the railroad station during that time. But after Siggi and I explored the huge station, we disregarded her advice and ventured into city. We passed a building that displayed a sign: "Hamburgers." To us a Hamburger only meant a person from the German city of Hamburg. Since we were hungry, the smell drifting from that building drew me in. Siggi waited outside in order to call for help, in case that should become necessary.
All the people in this restaurant were all extremely well tanned, had curly hair, and kept looking at me with great interest. Their stares made me very nervous. But they also fascinated me. I meekly said to the waitress with a thick accent: "I like two Hamburger." I did not understand what she said to me, but I guessed that she was asking me questions, so I responded by nodding affirmatively. After she handed me my order, I gave her several dollars and received some change. Back outside, Siggi and I savored our huge hamburgers and continued sightseeing as much as possible before leaving this interesting city.
A few weeks later Siggi still remembered our meal, when he wrote our friend Juergen back in Germany:
"…courageously Ami went into a store and came back out twenty minutes later, pale and sweaty. Yes, it took a long time for Ami to explain to the clerk what he wanted to buy."
In this letter Siggi also wrote:
"To describe a railroad station like New York or Chicago would take too long and I don’t have enough room for it. By the way, Ami is already attending school. I will start maybe in a few days. Ami says there are one hundred twenty subjects that one can choose. For example, to give speeches is a subject. I mean speaking before a crowd…
"…the girls put on make-up, and even during class. The teachers don’t have much authority here…"
* * *
As we traveled across the continent, we spent much of our time looking out the windows, because we did not want to miss anything. We absorbed the vastness of America as we passed through mountains, plains, deserts and cities. We quickly learned that Americans were different from Germans. The people on our trains smiled a lot, wore colorful clothes, were relaxed and light-hearted, and not harried as the Germans had stereotyped them. We liked Americans, and we could hardly wait to meet our relatives at the evergreen coast.
We had it made, Siggi and I. By coming to America we could quickly crawl from the bottom of the deepest pit, where we had dwelled all of our lives. We were heroes heading for greener pastures and our future looked rosy. We were going to be cowboys and as such, our lives would soon get much better!
* * *