Katharina’s Story: Chapter 16 – Wanderings

Circa 1950: Katharina at sixteen

I have always been curious about the world around me. Rarely was I intimidated, and if I was, I forged ahead anyway, just to see what might happen. I was eager to learn about anything and everything. I tried to take charge of my environment; succeeding I think, but at the time of the challenge, it may not have seemed so to me.

As a very young child, when I was told not to lick the iron handrail by the front door in freezing weather because my tongue would stick to it — I had to try it anyway just to see – and it did! It was raw for several days.

My Mutti — Nora — was busy having babies and caring for the little ones that she had little time for us older two, me and my brother Hardy. Mutti seemed to me a robotic parent, tending automatically to the requirements of motherhood, without much holding, loving, or sharing of whimsies. All things were arranged. Clothes were put out for me; I had no choice in what to wear. Everything was done for me. I did not participate in daily incidentals, and I was not asked for input.

When we lived in Allenstein Papa spent time with us, showing us how things worked and explaining the natural world. We worked in the garden, flew kites, and learned how to ski. Even at four and five years of age, Hardy and I had freedom for exploring around the duck pond across the street.

I remember on a warm summer day Mutti sitting on the bank of the River Alle there, in the grass. Hardy and I were catching grasshoppers for Papa’s fishing line — later we played in the water. It was about knee deep to us, and swift. Hardy slipped and fell in face first while trying to catch an eel. Mutti told me later that I pulled him out, “saving his life.”

When I started first grade in Allenstein, and second grade, in Königsberg, life was orderly. Then Papa was conscripted into the war in 1942.

In Kalthof  Mutti was seldom around, there was lots to do. Hardy and were left to pretty much do what we wanted. I had many interests and liked to observe everyone at Gärtnerei Podack at their work. I was inquisitive and followed around with many questions.

In the kitchen I liked to sample things, like the margarine that was used on the bread for the workers, while we had butter. I had to taste it. There was a bottle, it looked like the beer bottles Opa had in the entry hall. This bottle was way back in the corner on top of a high cabinet by the pantry. This kind of bottle had a bail, a porcelain top with a red rubber washer around it. Curiosity about this bottle overwhelmed me. Why was it hidden so far from the other bottles? I took it down when no one was around, opened it and had a small sip. It was like fire going down my throat!! Aaauuugh!! 

When I think back now, it could have been Brennspiritus (denatured alcohol) or some such, that was used to singe hairy feathers off a butchered chicken, that fine fuzz that remains after the feathers have been plucked. I had seen Oma do that once; it burned with a pretty blue flame. In my throat the burning did not seem so pretty!

I guess I was a little wild, not girlish. Obedient in school, a good student. In Königsberg I had been taught to navigate the streetcar system through town, to get to school – even to the dentist once or twice. I was carefree and happy, uninhibited, but I guess I had a little mean streak in me, too. Without hesitation, I followed Hardy’s lead (in the same way I followed him on all adventures and explorations) when we teased the Pflichtmaedchen to tears, or aggravated Oma to the point that she threw her slippers at us.

Hardy was the instigator in most things. Once he got mad and emptied the terrarium out on the carpet, leaving it for someone else to clean it up, and I cheered him on. I have always been a follower, not a leader.

This may not have served me well in the long run.

What does the young Katharina think of herself? She is pliable, accommodating, always trying to make things work out. She has a hard time saying “no,” yet stubborn at times. Trusting, looking for the good in people. Romantic and idealistic in her youth, acting from feelings more than reason or logic.  

With projects, she is practical and realistic, but not very imaginative. Not particularly ambitious, except early on in school and at sports. She is sort of aimless, drifting, going with the flow. Reacting, not initiating. Easily swayed, always doubting, second-guessing herself. She feels she is plain, simple, nothing special, left out.

She is sentimental and loves nature. But has no depth of feeling for religion or a higher power.

She has no sense for direction and a bad memory for names of people and places. She is punctual, though, and skilled in many things, but excellent in none.

And these characteristics, be they attributes or flaws, have remained with Katharina into her elder years. Stumbling along, picking up little snippets of real-life experience here and there. But she has been sustained with a ferocious sense of idealism and complete optimism – I can handle it. Whatever comes. It will work out.

***

I am in high school in Büdingen, circa 1950. It is early summer, and I ride my bike to and from school, 14 km from Altenstadt, where I live. Fritz Lau and his wife Elsa are friends of our family, members of the tennis club, as are we. They also came from East Prussia and had met Mutti and Papa in Frankfurt at a gathering of refugees from our homeland several years back. The Laus live in an apartment in Büdingen on the Bahnhofstraße, second floor up. I have a message from my parents to deliver there after school.

When I ring the doorbell Jutta, their teen daughter, answers the door and asks me in, leading me into the kitchen. Frau Lau greets me, and I deliver the message from my parents. We exchange a few pleasantries and before I turn to leave, I ask to use the rest room. Frau Lau tells me that it is located on the landing a half flight of stairs down, shared with other tenants. Jutta takes a partial roll of toilet paper from the cupboard and holds it out to me. I do not take it, saying I will not need it. Jutta is still offering it, then looks at her mother who almost imperceptibly shakes her head.

I accept the key to the facility and head for the door, use the toilet and return the key with my thanks. We only have cut-up newspaper in the out-house in Altenstadt. That is rough enough using it just for the big jobs, and I was unfamiliar with the appropriate uses for toilet paper. Frau Lau had spared me some embarrassment with her discreet gesture. But it also made it poignantly obvious to me how much our home life set me apart from the more cultivated ways of my classmates in Büdingen.

***

For one summer vacation our parents had planned a camping trip that included Hardy and me. Mutti and Papa took the back seats out of the Volkswagen that Papa was using now for his house calls in the surrounding villages and loaded the car up with camping gear. This included a Faltboot, a 2-seater kayak, which came apart into manageable pieces of luggage to be easily transported and then reassembled. This weekend Papa drove us to the Edertalsperre, and we camped below the dam. The following morning, I decided to go for a swim. I put on my swimsuit and dove headfirst into the clear water, only to quickly realize the shock of the almost freezing temperature of the water immediately below the dam! I made a fast U-turn and got back on land blue-lipped and shivering.

After breakfast we assembled the kayak, stowed the tent, a change of clothes, rain gear and some supplies in the boat and – with explicit instructions for do’s and don’ts, a list of camp sites and a map of the river’s locks – were sent on our water-way heading downstream on the river.  We were to meet up with our parents again in Bremen at the end of the trip. Just Hardy and me in one tent, with no way of communicating with home and no escape from each other. I was not yet sixteen years of age.  

Katharina conducts portage of the kayak. This time it was easy, with a cart on rails. Not all portage events were like that.

The River Eder is regulated: the current gentle. It flows into the River Fulda, the Fulda into the River Weser. On the Weser there are eight hydroelectric plants at the dams and locks to accommodate light ship traffic. We had a set goal to reach every day. The first day we found that the camping place planned for us was already full and we had to keep going. With evening approaching we were looking for a likely spot to camp along the bank and finally found such a place, a pasture on the water’s edge that seemed to have easy access. We pulled up on the bank and I was sent to the farmhouse to ask for permission to camp in the meadow. Permission was granted; we pulled the kayak on land and set up our tent close to the water. For dinner we had sandwiches. The farmer gave us drinking water.

After enjoying a swim and a glorious sunset, we crawled, tired from the long day of paddling, into the tent and fell fast asleep. The sound of grunting awakened us next morning, the sun already high above the horizon. We stepped outside and were greeted by happily rooting pigs. What a wake-up that was! Not taking any time for breakfast, we quickly broke camp and got back on the water.

It’s hard to remember now how many days on the water and nights in the tent the trip took us. The paddling was mostly effortless, except a few times when we had to fight a headwind. We learned how to operate the locks and manage the portages. The first time we came to a lock Hardy made me stay in the kayak while he got out to operate the lock mechanism. I kept the kayak next to the ladder, holding on to it while the water was draining to the lower level. I was very uncomfortable and more than a bit frightened ending up in this damp prison, the dark, slimy walls growing taller around me as the water level dropped. After what seemed an eternity, the water stopped rushing out and the gate opened. Hardy climbed down the ladder back into the kayak and we were on our way again! Of course, I never let on how scary the experience had been for me.

Clearly Hardy was the one “in charge” on this trip, he likely had gotten detailed instruction from Papa beforehand. Once we had to go without food for supper; we had finished putting up our tent when it started raining without let-up. This prevented us from walking to town for supplies, for fear the wind would take down the tent. The storm ended, but by then it was too late to find a store still open.

Once we reached the River Weser, the river was wider, and the wind would whip up some white caps which tossed us about. Ship and barge traffic occupied the shipping lane and we tried to keep close to the bank. Keeping control of the kayak and heading it in the right direction decidedly became much more challenging on this busy river!

On one very cool windy day we took our chances, and maneuvered across the river, pulling up behind a barge. They threw us a rope and we were towed behind the barge for a few effortless hours. Nice move on Hardy’s part!

Papa’s aunt, my Oma Hedwig’s youngest sister Trude lived in Bremen, and that was our destination. Finally arriving in Bremen, we were reunited with Mutti and Papa, who had gotten here via the Autobahn. I remember standing in the bathroom at my great-aunt’s house and the floor kept moving under my feet. I did not have my “land-legs” back yet.

From here Papa drove us all to the North Sea for several more days of camping and sailing; Papa’s cousin Erwin and his wife joined us for a few days before we had to pack everything back into the Volkswagen and head back home.

In another year, perhaps I am sixteen – Hardy and I rode our bikes to meet up with our parents at Lake Chiemsee in Bavaria, using youth hostels for overnighting.

Still another youth trip – this time I oversaw my sister Edel and our cousin Inge on a bike trip to the Rhine River. A hostel that was in our guidebook did not exist yet; instead, a farmer let us sleep in his hay loft. There were other kids there as well, boys and girls together. It was dark up there and a lot of whispering and laughing going on.

Was it best to have placed Katharina in charge??  So many adventures for this adventurous girl!

Published by ingridpwrites

Writer of narrative nonfiction, personal nonfiction and memoir.

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