Now that I have my bicycle I can start riding to school, the fourteen kilometers to Büdingen, during the warmer Spring and Summer months, instead of having to take the train and getting up before six in the morning. From Altenstadt, my route takes me through Lindheim, Düdelsheim, Büches then Büdingen; the beautiful, quaint villages and surrounding countryside did not suffer any air raids during the war.
There is a fairly steep hill on a tight curve before Büdingen and the first few times this hill really takes the steam out of my enthusiasm; I reach the top of the grade breathing hard with thighs aching from taking the last stretch pumping the pedals standing. But after about a week of doing this every day, my legs get stronger, and it becomes much easier. Soon I see some respectable muscles on my thighs, and I can cut several minutes off the time it takes me to get to school.
Sunshine or rain, headwind or not, I really enjoy the ride mornings and home after school. The landscape is dotted with fields and meadows, and apple orchards line the road on one side for long stretches. There is not much car traffic in those years; sometimes I get held up, when herds of geese or pigs are driven out to the meadows right through the main street of a village, and afterwards one must weave around their droppings on the pavement. Usually, one of the village boys has the task of herding the animals out to pasture and staying with them during the day. Pigs have numbers painted on their backs, so they get back to the right farm in the evening. Geese have color markings and are herded with a rattle or a “clapper,” whereas a rod is used for keeping the pigs in line.
When the apples are ripe, I stop on the way home, pick up a few off the ground and eat them on the way. Fallobst, or fruit that has dropped, was not considered harvestable and the farmers usually had no objections to someone picking some up. They always were wormy and would have rotted on the ground.
Sometimes I get caught behind a honey wagon. “Honey wagon” is a term the American soldiers have given this wagon that has a tank of sewage on it, pulled by cows – slowly, ploddingly – on the way to fertilize the pastures. Manure from the stables was stored on manure piles, the run-off collected in a Pulloch, an underground holding tank which also served the outhouses. When being pumped out it was diluted with water and became “manure tea.’ This was what the honey wagon spreads on the pastures.
On the straight stretches of road, I learn to balance the bicycle without using the handlebars; later, I sometimes even keep notes or a schoolbook on the handlebars and refresh my lessons. Only once in all the years do I take a fall, skidding on loose gravel in a downhill turn, taking it too fast.
This is still in the time that girls do not wear pants, and shorts are not allowed at school either – at least not for girls. Most of the time my skirt is up on my thighs, except when the wind is in my back. Only riding through the villages do I try to keep it over my knees. As I get older, I get whistled at by men and I enjoy that. In Düdelsheim, at about the half-way point, my classmate Inge sometimes joins me, and we ride side-by side. She is from a family that has been evacuated from Frankfurt after the air raids destroyed a large part of Frankfurt.
At the end of the street we live on in Altenstadt there is a bike shop. The man who operates it lets me watch as he works on the bicycles. He teaches me how to true the wheels when they had gotten a little wobbly, even shows me how to replace the spokes. I take care of my bike, I learn how to patch a flat, put the chain back when it has slipped off; there is a small bag with the necessary tools and a patch kit attached to the back of the seat; an air pump on clips on the frame. My Rantzen which after a few years is replaced by a pigskin briefcase I received for Christmas, is clamped on the luggage rack over the back fender. Besides books it always holds rain gear as well.
A lot of times my briefcase also holds a swimsuit and towel for spending some time at the pool in Büdingen after school. My bike makes it easy – I don’t have to worry about missing the train. I love to swim. Once the boys’ physical education teacher taught a lifesaving course at the pool and I took part in that, a skill which I later had the opportunity to put into practice.
At some point, Mutti made me some long pants to wear during the cold months and for riding my bike to school. The principal contacted her and told her that it was unacceptable that I wore pants. My Mutti, never too shy to speak her mind, met with him and asked if he would rather have a girl freeze her legs in the winter months, giving the difficult conditions under which we had to get to school – not living in Büdingen – or in the summer months when she was riding her bike, would he rather have her exposing herself?
Mutti won the battle for the winter months, but in the summer, I wore shorts under my skirt and that solved the problem. I was happy with this too, as I could show my legs without fear of exposing anything else.
Lessons go easy, I hold my place, sharing it with a few at the top of the class. We learn English, Latin and French. There are no electives in these times, which comes later to this school. At one point the whole Podack bunch, all five of us, are in this school, and some of the teachers would lament: “Oh another Podack.”
During the high school years, I missed the time I had spent with my brother Hardy, who had always been my closest friend when we were small children. Now, we had grown apart, having little in common and rarely spending time together except while doing homework. He became envious of me for being among the best in our class; Papa had begun to offer small bonus payments for good grades, to encourage Hardy to keep up. While I started collecting pocket change, Hardy opted out of the program, and Papa gave it up. It disturbed me that Hardy and I were drifting apart, but as adolescents, there was little that could change the situation between us.
I was good at writing and sports. In 1951, when I am sixteen years old, I received a book as reward for placing first in a sports contest. The book was “Mein Freund Flicka” by Mary O’Hara, a book to add to my meager but precious library of two other books that I called my own. The fact that it was inscribed to me for taking first place in triathlon and celebrating the 350-year anniversary of the school itself, was all the more special.
I am lost in Math class, however, struggling with Calculus, and Organic Chemistry gives me fits, but I can still hold my own with a good average. I make it up in other classes, I’m beginning to recognize my strong points: languages, writing, arts, sports.
The idea of students’ rights comes to our school, I am elected for Head of Student Counsel and sent to a weekend seminar. There are many discussions among the participants, I listen and learn, though I am too self-conscious to speak. But I come away from it with fresh ideas to share, and Student Counsel petitions for no-homework Sundays. Our petition is granted, but we still attend school six days a week. We succeed in having the school library made accessible to students and set up a system that worked then and for years beyond.
Suggestions for landscaping in that bare spot in front by the street do not find a positive response, however; evidently it would involve some expenses for which there are no funds.
From the Sexta (the fifth year of schooling), we graduated to the Quinta, then would come the Quarta. After that, the Tertia was divided into two years, the Unter Tertia (lower Tertia) and Ober Tertia (upper Tertia), then came Unter Secunda and Ober Secunda and last Unter Prima and Ober Prima to graduation.
Mittlere Reife (medium maturity) was reached if one finished the Unter Tertia (the eighth year of schooling). This was the benchmark where anyone not planning to go to college would leave school, which a lot of the girls did, as well as a few boys. Hardy and I remained.
When we reached the Ober Tertia in 1950, life had become more normal. Our class made the first field trip to the Saalburg, a reconstruction of a Roman fortress, its beginnings dating back to the year 90 AD, when the Romans ruled most of Germania, inhabited by heathen barbaric tribes, if I remember any of my history lessons!
After that, trips were scheduled every year. One year we explored the Marburg, where Martin Luther threw his ink pot against the wall at the devil. We stayed in a youth hostel overnight. The girls and boys had separate quarters and our homeroom teacher, Herr Knorr, had imposed a curfew. Night fell and all was quiet, but it was not totally dark outside yet. The hostel was located right at the banks of the River Lahn. I could hear the water calling to me. I snuck out undetected and started walking down the path next to the water, enjoying the sounds of crickets in the grass and the gurgling of the stream. The steps I had heard on the path came closer and when I turned to see who it was, I recognized a classmate. We walked together exchanging just a few words, until he put an arm around me. Taken by surprise I tolerated it, waiting to see what would be next.
I had never had an eye for any of my male classmates, mainly because there had never been an opportunity to interact with them outside of school. Most were Büdingers or from some other village, so there just was no chance for anything like dating. This boy sort of startled me. But feeling a boy’s arm around me felt good. It stirred the same feelings in me that had welled up when Kurt had kissed me two years ago. But tonight, there was no kiss. I felt no attraction to this boy.
Fifty years later at a class reunion he reminded me of this meeting. I had totally forgotten it was him. I remembered the walk along the river and a boy’s arm around me but not who it had been. Last month, seventy years later I received a long e-mail from him to which I have not yet replied, but I was just as surprised about it as the night he walked up behind me by the bank of the River Lahn.