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The autobiography of KD Regenbrecht, a German author born in 1950. He tells his life from the post-war 1950s, through the pubescent pop era of the 1960s, the flower power of the 1970s, his studies and his first literary endeavors. He studied American literature and began his career in the 1980s. This autobiography is a picturesque yet painful, an eloquent yet elaborate, an unsentimental yet sensitive journey into the past and present of someone who experienced a lot and knows how to tell a story. The book also contains more than 200 photos, drawings, paintings, and documents.
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Liczba stron: 626
Also by Klaus-Dieter Regenbrecht:
Tabu Litu - ein documentum fragmentum in neun Büchern
Continuity - Hitchcocks, Pocahontas
Das Camp - Acht neue Erzählungen
Die Reisen des Johannes
AmoRLauf - ein Bildungsroman
Im Goldpfad 10 - ein Schlüsselroman
Jonas von Dohms zu Brügge
Luhmen & Balder: Minimal-invasive Eingriffe
Den Widerspruch zwischen Gelesenem und Gelebtem mit Geschriebenem lösen
I wanna be with you in paradise
And it seems so unfair
I can’t go to paradise no more
I killed a man back there
Bob Dylan: “Spirit on the Water,” from
the album Modern Times, 2006
1971: In the army
1979: In the Country
1979/80: Open House
1980: North America, you may be strong, but are you tough enough?
I have not always wanted to write. As a child, I was unaware of that other world of words beyond my spoken reality. But fantasy did exist, and there was magic all around me, in trees and animals, in woods and streams, and frozen ponds where you could easily drown unnoticed. And your wooden kickboard brought you fame and bloody knees in the summer. Right: Me and my Uncle Frank, who later went to New York City to live. He seems to be holding a mirror to shed some light on my face. My mother probably took the picture.
Many years later, I wanted to talk to my words and sentences, listen to the sounds, meanings, and the stories behind them, and admire all the shapes they can assume, the beauty they boast, and their brutality and obscenity. They have their own history, plot, and purpose.
Now I want to write about some photographs, drawings, and paintings I have made. I have realized that you do not see what you see when you look at a picture. How clear your memory may be. It’s like those fossils that give you a very sharp impression of fish that have completely vanished. They vanished because time went on and the world turned into another world. Fossils belong to our world and times, but those fish and their worlds are gone forever.
This photo above is like a fossil, showing a kid in a world that doesn’t exist anymore. How can you imagine a world when the now we now know was unknown and is then now.
My parents were kids themselves then. They had to run away from home in Prussia, which is now Poland and Russia, and they ended up in Lower Saxony, where I was born. What can I say about myself as a child? I was conceived in post-war hay, as I would put it later; more prosaically, it was August 1949.
Germany and most of Europe were in ashes and cities were in ruins. But my parents’ families, which both came from rural backgrounds, lived in the country on different farms. Farmers were not happy about all the refugees from the east. There were more refugees than Lower Saxons there. The first federal elections were held in West Germany and West Berlin on August 14. My father was 20, not allowed to vote, and my mother was 22.
I imagine them making love somewhere in the warm August air on a Sunday afternoon. They might have borrowed two bicycles, taken a blanket and picnic with them, and lay in the grass with only blue sky and white clouds above them. They had met before on the Bremer Freimarkt––and they were in love. They were poor, and they’d just finished school when the war ended, which means they didn’t have regular lessons during the war. So they worked on farms and helped in the fields to earn their daily bread. My father was the oldest of four sons and one daughter, and my mother had two sisters and two brothers. Her older brother and her father were killed on the battlefields of WW2.
My father’s family was Catholics, whereas my mother’s was Protestants. The Catholic family moved to the Catholic Rhineland, and the Protestant family remained in Protestant Lower Saxony. My parents married later, and my mother converted to Catholicism and was baptized. But my mother and I spent a lot of time with her family before my brother was born in 1954.
There are three early images in my memory, one in winter and two in summer. My mother’s mother, the Osterholzer Oma, lived alone in a room in a cowshed. I can see myself in that frozen landscape, with no snow, everything gray, dead, stiff, and quiet. The other image is in the summer, with me sitting on a horse-drawn cart full of freshly cut grass. Now eveything is vivid and full of colors in the early-morning sun, sparkling with dew. The third is of the baker’s truck which had what we called “Amerikaners,” cookies with a black-and-white icing.
These three images are saved in my memory like stills. There is no movement and no noise––just the impression of colors and a faint hint of fragrance. Nothing else is left from my first three or four years. My parents and I had a tiny flat under the roof on the third floor in a village near Koblenz. My mother told me that she once found me sitting on the window-sill and her heart stood still. She knew that if she cried, which was her first impulse, I would move and fall. She didn’t yell, I didn’t move, and I didn’t fall. She quietly grabbed me, hugged me, and cried tears of joy and relief. But I was always getting into danger somehow.
She also once caught me when I was about to put a bottle of vinegar essence to my mouth. She gave me milk until I vomited. She couldn’t tell if I actually drank that vinegar. But that was when we lived in another house that my father and his father had built. We lived there until my family––my father, mother, brother, and me––moved to our own house which my father built. We moved into that house in 1957, and that Christmas one of my grandmothers died. My Osterholzer Oma was from another century and I don’t think she ever got on a train or into a car. She would never get on a boat or cross a river over a bridge: Water knows no barriers, she used to say. When her people fled on horse-drawn carts from the Russian army and had to cross rivers, it had to be at night and the rivers had to be frozen.
My father worked in construction as a mason and plasterer. He wasn’t even 30 and he had already built two houses: one for his parents and one for his own little family. Germany was being rebuilt in the 1950s, and when I was 15 or 16 I made some money moonlighting as his helper on jobs. I was never really skillful, but my father always hoped I would follow in his steps, which I didn’t. As a student, I also had a lot of construction jobs during vacations. Woods and construction sites were our playgrounds for some years in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
There might have been some tension when my mother took me to Lower Saxony to spend weeks upon weeks with her sister and her family. Maybe she even thought of leaving my father and his Catholic family. I loved living on a big farm, with my aunt Ida, uncle John, cousins Henry and Karen, drinking warm milk fresh from the cow. The meadows were filled with white storks hunting frogs. In the evenings, we lay in the hay barn, warm and lulled by the munching noise of black-and-white cows, listening to the men talking about the war, the homes they had left, and the loved ones they had lost. I don’t recall a single word, but what else could they have talked about? We children only knew something had happened before, something that you could only whisper about and refer to using strange allusions. Later we would sleep, my cousin and I, at the foot of my aunt and uncle's bed. At night, it was dark and quiet. There was nothing but darkness and quiet, nothing but a distant call of the screech owl or a creak from the wooden stairs.
This is what I recall of the years, 1950 through 1953. I was born in Bassum, Lower Saxony, and my name was Klaus-Dieter Kurt Siegler, because my parents weren’t married yet. It didn’t take long before we moved to a little village near Koblenz on the River Rhine, where my father’s family went since they were Catholic. This needs some further explanation. Family was, of course the most important thing in the days after the war, when the family was refugees, and they had nothing left except the things they could take with them on their horse-drawn carts.
Family or families, my mother’s. There were her two sisters, Ida and Charlotte, her younger brother Kurt, and her mother, who died in 1957. In my father’s family, both parents were alive, and he had three brothers and one sister. But there was my grandma’s family, the Weisners, represented with great dignity by my fragile white-haired great-grandmother, many sisters and brothers, their children and their children’s children. That made my family background big and very Catholic.
There were also nuns, priests, and missionaries. Some were widows, whose men had fallen in the war, and they smoked cigarettes because they were a part of their ration. One of them, aunt Trudy, actually looked like Gertrude Stein, as I learned much later. During the first 10 or 15 years of my life, travelling meant visiting family.
Uncle Alo lived with the aborigines on New Guinea, we called them cannibals. He died there in an accident when he put diesel into his Jeep’s tank. He would bring us cowries, and you could hear the waves of the Pacific Ocean when you put them to your ear.
Those were my early places: a shabby post-war lazaretto in Bassum, some farmhouses, a small flat under the roof and then a flat with a tiny kitchen, and a living room and a bedroom in my grandfather’s house, which was built in a settlement on a church-owned property where only refugee families lived.
“Home” for all of them was, of course, in the east, in Prussia, Silesia or Pomerania, and I do not know when they gave up their hope of ever going back home. Some sooner, some later, and some probably never did.
From 1950 to 1953.
Checking the internet, I can see that the winters from 1952-53 until 1955-56 were really severe, which corresponds to my personal recollections. I was small, yes, but the snow towered high above me at the roadside. I could feel it on my skin, because I had to wear camisoles made by my mother. Those camisoles felt like strait-jackets with spines made from wool that had been a pullover and another pullover before that. Unraveling was the secret. In the very early days, young boys didn’t even have long trousers; they had short ones and long stockings made from wool. We had woolen gloves that were held by strings, and they didn’t take long to get frozen stiff as long as your fingers were warm enough to melt the snow. There was maybe a stock of a few pounds of wool that would be used and reused for many different parts of your garment. Mother spent hours knitting almost every day.
There was a plethora of intricate handmade garments to put on in winter, and we used to have dressing competitions. My mother would dress my little brother, and I would dress myself. She was quick and nimble, just like Jack. My little brother was born in May 1954, but I don’t remember much of him in those early years. My mother told me I danced in the street, singing “I have a brother, I have a brother.” It must have been something special. But I didn’t dance and sing, “We are the champions,” when Germany won the soccer World-Cup then.
You played with boys of the same age, more or less. Only later when I was 12 or 13, did I have some friends who were 16 or 17. I remember an invitation to a party in an attic with boys and girls who were 16 and 17, when I was just at the beginning of puberty. I felt terribly uncomfortable. I didn’t even dare to ask for the washroom, and I almost wetted myself before I could reach the street.
Well, the winters. Before we could afford sleds, we used cardboard boxes, which were good for maybe ten rides down the hill. The older kids made skis from boards of herring barrels. Winters were hard then. Father was unemployed for weeks on what was called “bad weather money.” There was no construction going on in the winter. He must have worked 12 hours or more and six days a week as long as the weather permitted.
I remember him sitting at the Sunday dinner table on Sundays with trembling fingers, hardly able to manage his cutlery even though he was a young man in his early 30s. The phrase I think of when it comes to my father is “humble, humble Humbert.” He was hardworking and humble. He didn’t have dreams, he was shy and full of doubt, so my mother had to push him. And she did, but not in a very ambitious way, it was more from mere necessity, or else we wouldn’t have survived. She encouraged him to build another house.
She was unbelievable because she always encouraged me: “Klaus can achieve anything.” And I believed her. But I also had to learn that I couldn’t achieve everything I wanted. People made me think I was different, that I was special. Aunt Ida used to say: “Klaus is unique.”
But still, my life consisted primarily of playing. You didn’t care about your parents’ troubles as long as you were free. And you were free because we lived outdoors as long as there was enough light until mother called us in. Inside was for eating and sleeping. You stayed at home when you were sick or if there was rain all day long. That was boring. My occupation was living the life of a boy in the 1950s, and that was adventure.
Do I have to mention that there was no TV or any other media but a radio receiver? What we had was nature: trees and sticks, ponds and frogs, cherries and apples. We had kickboards and self-made bows and arrows. Mother’s kitchen consisted of a hearth fired with wood. There were hardly any electrical appliances. You used handheld tools to whisk egg whites or make sweet cream. We had a coffee mill, and I was allowed to grind the coffee beans.
We had no fridge, just a pantry. Mother didn’t have a washing machine. There was a big copper laundry put with a fireplace underneath, and a long stick shaped like a small paddle to move and stir and beat the laundry. It was also used to threaten bad boys when the wooden spoon didn’t work. Washing was hard work, and that steamy laundry room was a dangerous place.
My friend Harry and I were the youngest in that settlement on the outskirts of the village, and it was quite natural that anything small was ours such as the meadow with apple trees. There was one small tree, and that was ours––only we were entitled to pick the apples there. At least, that’s what we thought. The farmer didn’t think so. Once there was a very small car parked a few hundred yards away, a Lloyd 600. We jumped around and sang, and we were proud and happy. We thought someone had brought us a car. We waited in vain for him to hand over the keys.
There were those summers as well. When everything was green and ripening, when the days were long and you could eavesdrop on the adults talking. Because we were small, we were everywhere and nowhere. Playing hide and seek was one of our main concerns. But most of the time we were on our own. The adults were busy, and didn’t care too much about us. The neighbor’s runner beans were an ideal hiding place and an ideal racing course. We ran slaloms through the poles, and the neighbor ran amok. Everybody had big gardens then, with potatoes, peas, beans, carrots, cucumbers, onions, lettuces, and cabbages. Left: Me feeding the chickens.
That one neighbor had five daughters, I think, and he had a rather violent temper. So he was naturally the one we loved to play tricks on. The settlement wasn’t connected to the public sewage system then. Every house had a soaking pit that had to be emptied when it was full. Then the trailer with the slurry barrel was parked in the backyard. When you put a hose into the barrel and sucked hard enough the liquid would start running. And that’s what we did. One of us would be left with a very bad taste in his mouth.
Every house also had a kind of small barn or a shed housing the laundry room and the chickens and rabbits. Wood and tools. We didn’t actually have toys, but you could play with anything there was. Of course, we also had a little spade, children’s buckets, wheelbarrows, cars and tractors. When there was sand for construction, it was our sand for the time being.
“This is your grandpa’s sand. Harry is not allowed to play here,” Ken, an older kid from the neighborhood, said.
“This is my grandpa’s sand, so get away, Harry.” Harry was my best friend, and he didn’t go.
Ken said: “Hit him.” So I hit on his head with my spade. Harry had to be taken to the hospital. When we meet nowadays, he sometimes shows me the scar. What was I thinking? I don’t know, and I don’t remember. That’s the story I was told, and I believe it’s true. At least, the scar is.
I would also get hurt. The older boys practiced throwing javelins with self-made spears, which had iron tips. One hit my face next to my eye. The tip slipped down my cheek away from my eye. Just a millimeter closer to my eye, and it would have been damaged forever. The older boys gave me two pennies to stay quiet. There was only a very thin red line on my face, hardly a scratch.
There was a kind of brutality, a rawness, in those years, but it was somehow natural. It was something you had to deal with, but you could reckon with and react to it. It happened especially at school, but parents would also regularly beat their children.
So, yes, in a way it was paradise with some black spots and bruises. It was the quiet after the storm. Everyone was lulled into peace after the war, scarred and scared. The older boys sometimes found relics from the war, helmets or even ammunition. Our plates and dishes still had that brand design similar to a swastika and many men from the village were still prisoners of war, in Siberia, or missing. All around there were men missing one or two arms or one or two legs or with only one eye or ear. But as children, we were born into that world and for us, that was the only world that had ever existed. The past was something adults talked about. “War” was just a word, and the word “Nazi” was never heard.
Future? There was no future, we only cared about the present. We may have cared about tomorrow, when we would travel all the way to that clearing beyond those two wooden valleys and hills. We had Fix & Foxi, a German version of Donald Duck, and in one episode, the two of them made a journey to some hidden treasure in the forest. We knew where that was, and we packed all our belongings and what we could get for food in our little handcart, which took us hours. The less you have, the longer it takes to get all your stuff together. And then we were on our way. We went a few hundred yards, and then we decided it was enough for the day, maybe tomorrow, no, surely tomorrow! But tomorrow never came. When we woke in the morning it was today.
When people asked, “When will you start school?” you were proud to say, “Next year,” but you thought they were crazy. When did you learn the days of the week and when did you learn to count up to ten? I don’t know. Sundays, of course, were different as were all the holidays, like Christmas and Easter. And that was a first time every time.
“Do you remember last year?”––“Last year?”––“But there is that little tractor you got.”––“Oh.”
That little tractor was always there, wasn’t it? How could a three-year-old child’s brain and memory adapt to the brain and memory of a two-year old? It’s as impossible as adapting to the brain and memory of a four-year-old boy.
1955-1957, I went to kindergarten just across the road. Accidents with casualties sometimes happened on that road. Whenever my mother heard the sounds of screeching tires and crashing metal, her heart stopped because she always feared it was me, especially the day I didn’t come home from kindergarten, although she hadn’t noticed any suspicious noise. She went to the kindergarten but everyone was gone, it was lunchtime. When they returned, she asked, “Where is Klaus?” They didn’t know. They were nuns from the cloister in our village who ran the kindergarten. Then they remembered that they had banished me to the cellar where the coke for the heating was stored. It seemed like a deep, dark dungeon.
This is something else I was told later but that I never remembered. I was never scared of going into a cellar or basement––at least no more than any other child is. I could obviously take it. I closed my eyes and waited. Did I whistle or did I cry? I don’t know. Nobody can give me an answer.
I actually don’t have any memories of my kindergarten days. Perhaps one picture, a round dance while we were singing and somebody was always excluded. Oh yes, we would wear aprons, girls and boys.
I always had to cross that road when I went into the village itself. I would go shopping to get milk from the farmer and bread at the baker’s, I would buy meat at the butcher’s, things like feet and ears, pigs’ noses and tongues, cheap meat and meat that still looked like it was alive. My walk home wasn’t even half a mile. The paper would start to get softer and softer from all the wet meat, but I would never have touched any of the pork with my hands and fingers. So I tried to balance the delicate parts on the sleeves of my forearms. My mother had to go back and collect what I lost.
Above: Aunt Charlotte with me and my cousin, Lower Saxony. Below: In front of the house in the parish settlement. The French: Madame and her three daughters, aunt Charlotte, my parents, my brother and me, again in my favorite Bambi shirt.
My aunt Charlotte must have left her family as well and lived in Koblenz for some time. She was a kind of nurse in a French general’s household. The general had three daughters. The family lived in a very nice mansion situated in the parks along the River Rhine. The French Army took all the best houses in Koblenz. The American Army had occupied the Rhineland, but then it handed the region over to the French, which had happened before after WW1.
The French were actually not one of the victorious powers, like the American, Russian or British forces. France had been occupied by the Germans and had their Vichy Regime. One might imagine that the French had more feelings of revenge than the Americans did. Koblenz had been occupied by a multitude of forces. Even if you do not go back more than 200 years from today, you’ll have Napoleon’s Army, the Prussians, and the Russians after WW1; the Americans after WW1 and WW2. The French Army didn’t leave Koblenz any earlier than 1969, when I was 19. One of the French barracks was hardly a mile away when we lived in the parish settlement.
When we were kids we used to call the French Un Deux because the soldiers counted out loud when they marched saying Un Deux Trois. Un Deux with a heavy German accent. The late French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was born in Koblenz 1926. Koblenz’ French connection is as strong as its Prussian.
The general’s family came to my grandfather’s house for coffee and cake one afternoon (see page 19). I have some pictures in my mind of a balcony, a backyard, and the girls. I think I was in love with one of them.
I probably went to Lower Saxony with my aunt then in 1955 or 1956 and not with my mother. She might have picked me up at the end of the summer. My aunt didn’t stay in Koblenz. She went back to North Germany. I probably never saw her again after that. You were not told when there were quarrels and arguments in the family, or you didn’t recognize them as a child. Your perception wasn’t adjusted to that. You only registered that something was wrong or strange. Some families in the neighborhood had that vague kind of stigma. Later you learned that one of the spouses had been divorced and remarried. Then you understood, but you would not believe it. You would also have an explanation for why one boy in the village had a slight north African complexion. He lived with just his mother. A lot was kept secret in the 1950s and 1960s, but a lot of it was obvious.
For February 26, 1957, my father’s personal planner says Ausschachten, which means excavation of the ditch for the foundation of the new house. But it was actually digging with spades. My lifelong love for digging might have started here because I would also use my little spade and my iron wheelbarrow. That was the spade I had hit Harry with. The soil was piled high on the plot. There was a hill to climb and race down and defend against the enemy. The personal planner entry says, “March 31, 56 Deutsch Mark for gravel, Müller. April 3, received 8 sacks of cement from Müller for 34 DM. Two bills from Engel & Co sent to Heimstätte (which means homestead) 321.35 and 58.25 DM. April 4, 1000 bricks 25 DM. April 5. 30 DM cartage costs bricks. April 6, 5 sacks of cement 22 DM, Alex 10 DM, Heinz 10 hours, basement ceiling concreted. 48 hours, 93.80 DM advance.”
Our new house was under construction. It was another settlement for miners in another part of the village where we lived. Arenberg had two mines for ore and lead, but not too much silver as the name of our street would suggest “Silberstraße,” “Silver Street.” This settlement for miners was organized by Homestead, a cooperative, and comprised five houses, three semi-detached, and two detached at the beginning and the end of the settlement. My father was no miner for sure. But the designated owner of the last lot got qualms about the financial risks and backed out. Work wouldn’t start until all the future homeowners had signed in. So my parents were asked, even though they definitely had less financial background than the miner who had declined. But again, my mother encouraged my father saying, “Yes we can.” So they did.
Ours was the last construction site, and my father had to keep up with the settlement’s construction schedule. A lot of the construction work was done through the settlers helping each other, but some tasks like plumbing, electrical, or carpenters’ jobs, were done by contractors. They moved from the first house down to ours. In the evenings the settlers had those carbide miners’ lamps which could be quite dangerous. I still have one.
My father strangely only noted the costs for materials, hours, payments, and wages paid and received. There wasn’t a single remark noting when we moved in. There were no birthdays, no weather conditions noted, nothing but construction details. My father wasn’t a man of many words, whether written or spoken. What he left was mostly numbers, calculations, drawings, and handcrafted things like a Christmas crèche. He gave it the same design of the big village church using similar materials.
But I remember the day when we moved from the parish settlement to the miners’ settlement. It was a cold November day. One of the village farmers we got our daily milk from had come with his tractor and trailer. The sky was covered with a grey drape that was dense and shining to me. I said it was snowing, but nobody believed me. It took hours for those microscopically small flakes to leave a visible white skin on everything. I was right.
One of the things I was and am good at seems to be watching, seeing, and recognizing the essence, core, and characteristics of moments and in people’s faces and movements. I still utilize this gift often to imitate, mock, and caricature people and current issues. My mother would say, “don’t!” Because she warned me that I might not get rid of that mocking habit and thus handicap myself for good. Even now, in my 60s, I sometimes feel the urge to move like someone who had a stroke or something, joking, “look, I can already do it. I won’t have to exercise.” Your repertoire of movements and behavior is much, much bigger than you actually use.
Here’s just one example from my childhood involving my aunt Gertrude. As I said, she was a widow, a quite stout person who wore long, dark dresses, and always kept her gray, probably long hair in a bun. The adults would ask me, “How does aunt Gertrude walk, Kläuschen?” Then I would put my hands on my back, tilt my tiny upper body forward and start walking in her swaying gait. I’d get laughter and applause. It wasn’t and isn’t about acting. I do not want to be somebody else. It’s really about my fascination when I recognize something and discover something new and unique. And what is learning but repeating and imitating? I might have been a slow learner, but I am a lifelong learner. Learning and teaching, reading and writing. Perception and making fun of. Showing what I recognize often turns into criticism when people realize what I see.
I was really small, and I didn’t have to go to school until I was seven. There is a quite clear picture in my memory of me, my mother, and a female doctor, in a white starched dress. They talked about me and came to the conclusion that I should wait another year before starting school. That must have been my medical examination for beginning school, probably late 1955 or early 1956. As memory in a way paints pictures by putting parts together, this picture might be put together from different experiences because the examination room was a classroom I attended later. Examinations were also quite frequent, for example, teeth were regularly examined in school, and you got your vaccinations.
Healthy nutrition was a problem in the early years––well, maybe not for everybody. The war left deep, deep scars. Half of our classes were filled with children from the orphanage we still have in our village. Other children lived in our Caritas-Haus, charity home, which was run then by the nuns as well. There were all kinds of physical and mental handicaps. We were taught together in big classes, and the differences were big and baffling. We weren’t exactly tolerant. We could be brutal, but we lived, learned, and played together quite naturally. Recognizing differences is brutal.
Back to washing and bathing. The laundry room in our new house was in the basement, still with that copper tub. The bathroom also had a big water tank with a fireplace underneath it. We had a bath tub, and we didn’t have to wash ourselves in the sink or washing bowls anymore––what a comfort! We were also used to an outhouse, also known as the shit-house, which was really scary when you had to pee in the dark. There was no light but the moon and the stars above. But everything was state-of-the-art, considering the sobriety and frugality of the late 1950s. As everybody knows, Saturday was the day when the bathroom oven was fired up, and everybody climbed into the tub. My brother and me bathed together. But we still didn’t have central heating. You had to fire up an oven in every room. We had to chop wood, bring up coal from the basement, take out the ashes, and use them on the snowy pavement.
That was the first part of my childhood. From 1957 on, I was a schoolboy, and we lived in our new house and had new neighbors, I had new friends. I was getting ready for the 1960s.
I am writing this on October 8, 2016, my mother’s 90th birthday. She died on October 22, 1981, at the age of 55. My father was buried on October 8, 2001, her 75th birthday.
I just got up from bed. I slept in the very room she died in. This period between October 8 and 22 is special for me every year since her birth and death were just two weeks apart. I have 14 days to recover and two weeks of quiet inner reflection. Although I have not yet gotten very far in telling the story of my life, I know I will not go any farther than October 8, 2001. My life since then has been completely different. The break was so final, the truncation so painful, everything from that day on so completely different that I felt aborted from my former life. That was harder than any of the many crises I had gone through before. I found myself in a world changed so deeply and dramatically that it felt like another universe. I was now responsible for my children, yes, and I had also sole responsibility for the house. These two responsibilities probably saved my life.
I do not think that there is something like an identity in one person for his or her entire life, and science seems to prove it. There isn’t even continuity. There is some kind of history, though. And there are all those photographs, all the documents over the decades, all the people you can share your memories with. Of course, there will always be the question of responsibility. Am I, 66 years old now, responsible for all the feats and failures of little Klaus, such as hitting Harry with a spade, or any other mistakes I made when I was 20, 37, or 51?
Sentencing a 90-year-old man for something he did when he was just 19, helping kill Jews in a concentration camp, is just and necessary. But I have no doubt that in most cases, the punished man is not identical to the man who committed those crimes. I also think some people only change their outer appearences. They just get older, but they don’t really develop or mature or change. Others meander through a plethora of personalities, adjusting their characters to the landscapes surrounding their lifetimes. Some have to go down a water-fall, disappear in a grotto, dry up in a desert, flow into another river, or be swallowed by a lake.
To commemorate October 8, I have invited my son and daughter to dinner. They were both born after my mother’s death. Coming to terms with your past can be no small feat, but it is feasible. My mother would have been the proudest and happiest grandmother ever. My parents both died of cancer, as did Osterholzer grandma, my mother’s mother. We received a telegram on Christmas Eve in 1957. We had just moved into our new house on Silver Street. My grandmother must have been in her early 60s. I think she also died of cancer, but she didn’t go to a hospital. She just died in her room in the cowshed. She might have moved to some other place in the meantime, but I do not know.
That Christmas was very gloomy and depressing. There was no festive mood. Construction on our house wasn’t finished; just the first floor, where we lived, was done. The second floor was still empty and unplastered. There was an overwhelming feeling of loss and uncertainty.
I also very clearly recall another Christmas Day morning, maybe seven or so years later. I was the first one up, and I went down into the chilly living room with the Christmas tree, with the sweets and fruits, and all the gifts. I had a new portable radio, and I can still feel the gratitude, awe, admiration, and inspiration I felt. You always connect your hopes for the future with things like lying in the sun, listening to the radio, and feeling happy because there is a girl right next to you on your blanket.
Construction was going on in the neighborhood for at least three or so years, and construction sites were some of our favorite playgrounds. They were dangerous, though. Roads were also under construction, and there were ditches for all the utilities. But we used them as trenches and threw stones at each other from one ditch to another. When we moved in, there were meadows, pastures, and fields all around us. Then we were in the middle of the suburbs.
Getting older and growing up also means becoming self-aware, gaining confidence in not only your family but also your neighborhood, kindergarten, and school, which is a really big step into the world. You get more and more connected and that makes it easier to remember the older you get.
There are so many rather precise pictures in my early memories of houses, places, and people. Uncle Dorner lived in a decent antique house with very fine tiles on the floor and some stained-glass windows. The plush, dark curtains, sofas, and armchairs muted any noise. Everything was quiet. He had a well in the garden with clear, fresh drinking water, and an outhouse.
He used to put me on his knees and tell me about little Klaus, who went into the woods all alone and got lost. Uncle Dorner fell off a ladder picking cherries and never really recovered. All these memories are disconnected. Each memory carries a complex impression. I might have first visited there when I was two or three years old. I might have gone there more often later. After that, I might have gone there every once in a while. One of my visits there was my last visit there, when the first visit was a memory. All those things you told and were told. All those memories of memories and those stories told of stories make up what we call legends.
Let’s flash back to the parish settlement and the kitchen in Harry’s parents’ house. There was, of course, the sink, the hearth, a cupboard, a table, and some chairs. There was also a chaise longue that was already very old then, and some of the springs were gone or sprung, but they weren’t coming through the worn cover yet. When we didn’t use it as a trampoline, his mother used to take her nap there under a wooden cuckoo clock from the Black Forest. We would sneak into the living room, where there usually was some dry cake.
I had new friends then and a new neighborhood that was growing because the settlement had expanded steadily into the farmland for the next 10 or 15 years. Every house was a family home with at least two children. In the beginning, I was the oldest of the kids under 14, and I was a natural leader. There were caves to explore and dams and tree-houses to build. We had a gang of up to 10 boys. I was quick and I was courageous, and I was a reckless daredevil at times. Our repertoire of games was enormous, such as climbing trees and roaming the surrounding woods and hills. Later, when we had bikes and skates, we enjoyed bicycling and roller-skating. We even ran long distances up to five kilometers. I was the fastest, but later I hated long-distance running. We played soccer and hockey on roller-skates. We had a team, and there were competitions with other teams from the village. Nobody stood a chance against us when it came to hockey on roller-skates.
Long jumping was great down the heap at one of our mines. They pumped out the water from the shafts deep down. That water contained a lot of fine sand from drilling and mining. That pond grew higher and higher above the surrounding area because of vaporization and the drainage to a stream nearby. It was very dangerous to get close to the pond since you could get stuck in the mud and lose your boots. But the edges of the heap were maybe seven or eight meters high, and they had steep slopes. Jumping down from there was an unbelievable experience. You would fly in the air for what felt like minutes. Your tiny body would be weightlessly airborne.
During our summer vacations, we sometimes cycled to a bathing place at the Gelbach, which was about 20 miles away in one direction. The last leg of our journey home was uphill for three miles. Or we would walk to the Lahn River, which was about six miles away. We never learned to pace ourselves. We were always late and completely exhausted after these trips.
Later, when the tram from Arenberg was gone and we could take the bus to town, we went to the municipal pool on Oberwerth, a peninsula on the Rhine River. That might have saved our lives on one sunny afternoon. Otherwise, we might have been playing in front of our house in Silver Street or sitting on the wall and just chatting. Our street was sometimes busy because trucks transported the ore to another facility, where it was smelted and processed. Sometimes army trucks did that job.
The German Army was now in the barracks where the French used to stay. One of the young soldiers driving a truck had maybe drunk too much, and he lost control. The truck toppled over in the bend, and the big load of ore spilled into our front garden right behind the dry-stone wall my father had built, where we usually sat. That young soldier died right in front of our house. He was still there under his truck when we came home. I remember people talking to him. That must have been very hard for him, lying there for hours without anyone who could really help. They tried, but heavy machinery to lift the wreck wasn't available fast enough in those days.
There were also some ponds around. We built rafts, and I even managed to ride my bike into a pond. No, it wasn’t my bike, and it took some time to fish it out.
We played games together with girls who were also quite nimble on their skates, like hide and seek, dodgeball, and marbles as long as our sidewalks were unpaved and we could make holes in the ground. In the winter, skiing was great, and we would go down the hills on sledges and across the frozen lakes on skates. The winter of 1962-63 was very long and cold with lots of snow. But that time, it was absolutely great. We were much better off. It was the 1960s, and things were really getting much more comfortable.
I think the age of 12 or 13, just prior to puberty, feels good, because you won’t get any older as a child. Pubescence is lurking just around the corner. From 1957 to 1963, I attended the primary school in my village. The schoolhouse was on the same street as the kindergarten so it was at the other end of the village, and we had quite a walk. It wasn’t too long, a little more than a mile, but it took us at least half an hour with all the distractions along the way and all the disputes and fights we had.
I have no memories of my first school day––nothing. I know two grades were together in one room with one teacher, so grade one and two, grades three and four, grades five and six, and grades seven and eight were together. From grade five on, boys and girls were taught in different rooms by different teachers. In grades one through four, the boys and girls were together, but the girls were on the left side of the classroom, and the boys were on the right. During the first two years of school, we had a female teacher, Fräulein Raabe. We used to sing a lot and play our flutes, and she was afraid of mice. She was rather fat, but she was unbelievably quick to jump on her desk when she’d see a tiny mouse.
Was I a good pupil? I don’t know but I think I wasn’t. I was the oldest because all the other kids of my age, like Harry, were one grade above me. Maybe I was demanded slightly too little. But school wasn’t my main interest. One thing I do remember is that I had to jump out the kitchen window at home. I made my father promise not to touch me before I went back into the house. It was freezing cold outside.
My father could get quite angry at me, which was easy given my nature and behavior. But I was fast. I don’t remember all the reasons, but I know he might have killed me once if I hadn’t been able to run away, leaving him behind. I had a clear edge, and he gave up after 150 feet. That gave him time to cool off or time to be cooled off by my mother. I had been given a new knife with a sharp edge. I was so fascinated that I cut small edges into the soft wood of our new doors. My father went berserk.
I was a lazy pupil, and one morning Fräulein Raabe took my exercise book and wrote into it, “This is your son’s Klaus work of four lessons.” These were more words than I had written. She ordered me to have it signed by my parents, but I signed it myself. Since I was just a beginner, and a lousy one, I made a spelling mistake. After that, the exercise book with my few words, her words, and the signature faked by me was sent in the mail. That was when I had to jump out the window.
There are some more memories of grades three and four. We had a very old teacher. I guess he was over 60. He was tall and skinny with a bald head and a bad temper. He had a special way of punishing us, as any teacher did. He used to pinch the boys in the inner side of their thighs or get us by the ear and screw it, extending his long arm until we stood on our toes and on our desks.
It wasn’t just beatings. The teachers were really cruel. Another who had lost the thumb of his right hand in the war would put his four fingers under your chin and then hit you hard leaving four red marks on your cheek. It was a sizzling sensation for at least ten minutes. Even the pastor had his own style, using a bamboo rod. When that rod was in frays, he would send the pupil to get some adhesive tape, make him repair the bamboo rod, and then proceed to beat him. One of the older pupils threatened to jump out the window. His classroom was on the second floor––he didn’t have to jump.
But we had also a very young female teacher fresh from university. She was a real blond, I think, and she was a real beauty. We boys went crazy. She must have felt like she was in a zoo or a madhouse. The early 1960s were when the first TV sets appeared in the neighborhood, and we saw actresses like Gina Lollobrigida and Ursula Andress––impressive women with big busts. It was a highly confusing time for boys like me. We were first paralyzed, and then we suffered spasms. This teacher Fräulein Unger looked just like those movie stars.
Do I remember any content that I learned in school? Yes, I do. In grade three or four, we were taught the water cycle, where rain goes from the clouds into the streams, from the streams into the rivers, from the rivers to the sea, and from the sea up into the sky, where clouds were formed that brought us rain. I do not remember any calculations or writing exercises, if you forget that one with the faked signature. But I can read and write and do math. And I am still quite good at calculating sums in my head. I never used a calculator. Well, today I do, and I use the one on my computer if it’s something more complicated. So, even if you don’t remember how you acquired something, you might still use it all your life. I guess you are not aware of where most of the skills and properties you utilize come from. Yes, I can still walk, although I don’t run that fast anymore.
TV was becoming a part of our lives. It must have been the mid-1960s when we got our own set in the living room. Laramie with Robert Fuller as Jess Harper and John Smith as Slim Sherman was a series we watched from the terrace of a neighbor’s house. For us, it was a silent movie. I was Jess Harper and my friend Manfred was Slim. I could already watch the TV series Sea Hunt with Lloyd Bridges, father of Jeff and Beau Bridges, on our own TV set. I remember when the main character was stranded on an island with a blond girl. Girls at school and girls in the neighborhood were also fire for my imagination. I think I fell in love on a very regular basis. Even today when I see some women, I spontaneously start imagining lives with them or at least some adventures––and they are not only sexual adventures. I remember Christine. She was a little older than me, and she was the best on her skates. Her movements were gorgeous, elegant, daring, and skillful.
Isn’t it natural to have sex with children––when you’re a child? We were on our way home from school when we noticed that girls and boys had different ways to pee. That’s when we started discovering the opposite sex. We boys sometimes had erections but no ejaculation. Houses under construction were the not-too-romantic places we met. It was never just one boy and one girl; we always played together and quite innocently. And I know how it ended. It was a Sunday morning after the Holy Mass. We were in a neighbor’s house that wasn’t yet finished, and I refused to engage in any of our usual interactions, having just swallowed the Holy Bread. And that was it––no more sexual activities until I was 18. Well, we’ll see.
It was also a time of accidents and injuries. I had a tendency to hurt myself because I was a daredevil. I think it only got better when I was in my 30s and 40s. As I said, construction in the neighborhood went on for years. There was a narrow pass, a kind of ravine that the road ran through, and oak trees grew on the ridges above. The farmers sometimes felled the trees themselves before a meadow was turned into a construction site. The old oak trees lay there, and a farmer boy five or so years older than me was chopping off branches while we smaller children played around and did our climbing gymnastics there. That farmer boy wanted to scare me, and he tried to hit a branch with his axe just above my fingers. He missed. Not much, but enough to cut two of my fingers. The middle finger of my right hand hung by a thread. Even the bone was cut. I put my hand into my pocket and went home. This is something I very clearly remember. My mother was in the garden. It was a warm, sunny day. I didn’t cry. I think blood wasn’t visible. I just came home, and she was alarmed, asking, “What happened?” I said, “Nothing,” and slowly, very carefully pulled out my right hand. My mother almost fainted. I also recall the operation. I was fully conscious as I watched the doctor sew my fingers together with cat-gut.
Another time I broke my arm when I jumped down from a tree. I had a very painful night before my mother took me to the hospital, where they diagnosed the fracture. It was great to have that plaster. I was the only one at school with one. It was on my right arm, so I couldn’t write. That wasn’t the only fracture in my life. About 12 years later I broke my leg, a tibial plateau fracture that was also painful as hell. That was the trigger for writing my very first poem “On my Back” (“Auf dem Rücken”), when I was in the hospital in Tübingen in 1974.
In those days “neighborhood” still meant helping each other. One day we were out in the woods to collect some firewood. My father and some men had borrowed a tractor from a farmer. We were on our way back home when they stopped the tractor to collect a few last logs. The vehicle was parked on the shoulder of the road, with the left wheels in a small channel for rain water. There was a slope. The adults and the children were all around and collecting the wood while I climbed on the tractor. Maybe I touched the brake, or maybe it wasn’t applied properly and the weight of the trailer full of wood was too much. The tractor started rolling down the hill, very slowly and still in the channel on the left. Everyone was suddenly around the tractor yelling, but nobody could stop it. There was a pear tree about 30 feet away and a steep slope that led onto another road. So, the tractor was stopped by the tree and nothing happened because the brake wasn’t completely loose. That tree saved my life. Even if I had survived the ride down the steep slope, the logs from the trailer would’ve rolled over me when the tractor came to a stop on that road. But the axle of the tractor, which was a red Porsche tractor, was broken, and that cost my parents and the other neighbors some money. Some neighbors didn’t like that.
I remember another much earlier day out in the woods. The whole parish settlement neighborhood was together out there, children, men, and women. It was a very cold day, and a fire was burning where we could warm our hands and backs. Suddenly, the adult men became alarmed. A sounder of boars was scared up, and I will never forget the men with their axes chasing the wild animals while we kids and our mothers gathered around the fire. They didn’t get their game, so there was no roast.
I also had another bad injury. My head was always prone to taking a beating, and I was proud of all my beatings once the pain was gone. We were on a short holiday trip to the Eifel tripoint where Germany meets Luxembourg and Belgium. I was there with three classmates. It was 1972, and we had just graduated from high school and started our college studies or joined the army. We stayed at a campsite that was very small and more or less empty. As far as I remember, there was only one other tent. There were two boys our age staying in it, and they were gay. German paragraph 175, which made sexual acts between men a crime, wasn’t yet abolished.
Anyway, there was a little river, the Our River, which flows into the Saur, which flows into the Moselle River, which flows into the Rhine River. We were that far away from home. There was a little dam at another bigger campsite not too far away from our remote, lousy site. The water in front of the dam might have been a little deeper than four feet. The water was deep enough, I thought, to take a flat little dive onto the surface of the water. But it wasn’t. A rock was small enough to hit my head between my open arms. It must have looked like a movie rewinding, although I didn’t get back on top of the dam. I just stood there in the water holding my head. And my classmate Arthur started performing a wild dance and shouting something I didn’t understand. We went to the shower room and tried to stop the bleeding. I was bleeding like hell. The whole room looked like someone had slaughtered a boar, only it was someone who didn’t know how to do his job and massacred it. So, when the bleeding eased, we went to our campsite and saw the woman who ran the site. She cut off some of my hair, applied iodine, and that was it.
When I started scratching off the dried blood a few days later, I noticed another scar on my head. The rock had hit my head in two spots. Every morning, I woke with a very bad headache. That headache was also caused by heavy drinking. It was a god-forsaken campsite and there was only one miserable pub with a jukebox. There was obviously only one song on it, a very sad, cheesy love song by Christian Anders “Es fährt ein Zug nach Nirgendwo”, (“A train is travelling nowhere”). We were exactly in that place: nowhere. The menu at that pub listed only one dish, chicken, and there was only one regrettable woman to dance with. Right: Me at my brother’s First Holy Communion, 1963.
My parents also had a radio now and a turntable in the early 1960s. My mother loved German Schlagers and Volksmusik. We had some records with funny episodes that were spoken in their East Prussian dialect. I still have her collection. I wasn’t brought up on classical music, and we didn’t have any books that weren’t schoolbooks. The first books my parents had were books my brother and I gave them for Christmas. Books that dealt with their “Heimat” they had to leave. But my mother bought a cheap piano that was out of tune. I think she didn’t even know you have to tune an instrument. But when I had my first guitar, she heard me tuning it. She even paid for my lessons. It was always her foremost concern that we boys got everything we needed.
She was brought up as a Protestant, she converted to Catholicism, and she took care of our religious education. There was a prayer before our meals and before we went to bed. Religion, especially the Catholic religion, was very conservative and strict in the 1950s and early 1960s. The Holy Mass was held in Latin and you had to be sober when you swallowed the Holy Bread. So on Sunday mornings there was no breakfast until you came home from church. Left: I used this picture on the cover of Goldpath 10. Circa 1959.
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