Katharina’s Story – Chapter 18: Roland

I was sixteen when I met Roland, in the summer of 1951. Our school celebrated its 350th anniversary, and this event included several days of sports and recreational activities for the students. A special train excursion for the upper classes to the cavern in the Sauerland was part of it. This train, the Samba-Zug, featured a dance car with great appeal for the young crowd to make the long hours go by more quickly. In an otherwise empty car, a disc jockey, a record player and plenty of 45 rpm records of popular music made for a perfect dance venue. It was well attended and, since I loved to dance, I was part of it.

I was standing by the window, looking out at the landscape speeding by, captivated by the rhythmical sound of the steam engine and the tuck-tuck of the wheels going over the joints of the rails, a rhythm that on many early morning train rides to school during winter months would threaten to lull me to sleep. Turning away from the window, I looked out into the milling of fellow students on the dance floor and found a pair of eyes fixed on me from across the way. I held the gaze and felt struck by surprise and a curious interest.

He was standing there next to Helmut, a young man from the Obersekunda, one year ahead of me, with whom I had danced a few times. He was taller than Helmut, had dark wavy hair and a look in his eyes that somehow attracted me. He walked over and asked me for the next dance. I accepted, of course, and learned that his name was Roland, an old Germanic name, a name of legendary heroes. He was eighteen.

I always had a quirky tendency to look for unusual details and noticed that the back of his neck appeared as if it had not seen a washcloth for quite some time. I thought of Mutti, always reminding the boys to wash behind their ears – perhaps they should also be reminded to wash the back of their neck. A thought wandered through my mind: “Would I darn his socks?”

Roland told me that he was in a class above mine – Unterprima – two years from graduation (I was in Untersekunda, four years from graduation). He lived in Düdelsheim, a village I passed through every day riding my bike to school during the warmer months of the year. We talked of mutual acquaintances, and an envy rolled through me — the girls in the class a year ahead of me, always nicely turned out: the twins – Mac and Gies – who dressed the same and were hard to tell apart; Renate, a talented piano player, dark haired and blue-eyed. I later found out that Roland had a crush on all of them but held an especially deep affection for Mac. They were not on this trip, thankfully, as I could not think how I could possibly be more attractive than they. I was dressed in dark-green corduroy Sambahosen – what might be called pedal pushers today. My Mutti had sewn them special for this occasion; they were practical but certainly not very feminine at a time when skirts were still very much the required attire for schoolgirls.

During the remainder of the train trip, I continued to dance with both Helmut and Roland, and the three of us stayed together when we arrived at our destination. Together we went into the cavern in Attendorn, each of the guys holding on to one of my hands.

Caverns at the Sauerland, Attendorner Tropfsteinhöhle

Oh, how special I was feeling! I had no preference for either one at the time, so I kept them both in tow. It did seem a bit strange to me though, like I should choose one or the other; sort of embarrassing, sort of exciting, so very enchanting that I should have them both interested, at a time when I was so filled with an unexplainable need to attract any boy’s attention.

I paid little mind to the guide, who moved through the caverns explaining stalactites and stalagmites, the geology and climatic conditions that create these wonders inside the Earth, and the dangers the spelunking explorers had faced. I was in my own dangerous space, that place where I am trying on boys like clothing, in a puzzling mix of curiosity, anticipation and apprehension.

The train ride back was much the same as the one going up. We talked and danced; Helmut sort of quiet and easy-going; Roland more tense and somehow dark and moody – two very much opposite characters. The arrival back in Büdingen ended the excitement of the day quite abruptly with each of us going back to our own classmates, without having made any other plans.

School resumed its usual pace. The train excursion was a pleasant interlude, now relegated to the back of my mind. Much time passed before I saw Roland again, but one day, as I was coasting my bike down the hill on Hauptstrasse into Düdelsheim on the way to school, I caught up with him. I was not expecting to see him; he was on his bike as well, just leaving for school. We rode side by side, after the first smiling greeting, not saying much. I was very self-conscious and somewhat uncomfortable, not knowing what to talk about. It was not my way to ask questions. Instead, I would wait for a person to share what they were willing to share, and then I would do likewise. He did not have much to say either, but it happened that we rode together many times after that. After school, I would look for him, but I did not find him. Nevertheless, I was glad to see him whenever I did.

That summer I gradually learned that Roland lived with his mother, father and two brothers in a room that had been assigned to them as refugees from Sudetenland Czechoslovakia. All remaining Germans had been driven out of that country by the Russians, after Germany lost the Second World War. West Germans with space to accommodate them were required by the German government to take in these refugees from the eastern regions. The Friese family lived in an upstairs room of a farmhouse in Düdelsheim. Three other refugee families lived in that same farmhouse.

Roland also had a sister living in Düdelsheim, married to a local man, with whom she had two sons. His younger brother was still in grade school. Roland himself was working after school on the American Army Base, setting pins at the bowling alley there, to help his family with money. That, and the fact that he smoked American cigarettes made him seem very grown-up to me. He had become quite friendly with some of the soldiers on Base, and his school English was colored with an American drawl. He was altogether alluring to an adventurous girl with a head and heart filled with dreams.

Roland’s station pass for the American Base in summer 1951.

Frau Rauch, one of my English teachers, had been making class more interesting by introducing us to some American music hits from the 1940’s, songs like “The Old Lamp Lighter,” a song about “the moon above the Wabash,” and others. This sparked my curiosity, and I started listening to the American radio channel late at night, after my parents had gone to sleep and I was the only one up doing homework. Papa abhorred this music, terming it “hillbilly” music, but to me it sounded so new and different. With Roland being in such close contact with the American ways, well, I suppose that was something else that made him more attractive to me, igniting that spark of daring spirit.

We saw each other at the swimming pool during summer vacation, where many of Roland’s classmates where present. Helmut was there too and another friend of Roland’s called Sheriff, and the stunning girls. One young lady, one of the Von Hollenbens in her bikini, tall, small-hipped, lithe but chesty, seemed to excite the boys to the point that they would have to get up from where they lay on the grass and, in a sort of bent-over posture, head for the pool to cool off. Sometimes I felt an intruder in this group of friends, but Roland’s closeness comforted me.

A few times that summer we rode our bikes out on one of the country roads out of Büdingen, where we would find a sunny clearing in the woods to lie down. I felt wanted, and Roland satisfied a great need in me for touch and physical closeness. In this state of mutual dependency, we fell in love.

It was a glorious summer that too soon came to an end. The Friese family had decided to emigrate to the United States. Emigrating families were required to have sponsors in America who would guarantee them work and housing. Roland’s parents had applied and were matched with a sponsor through the Catholic Church. To be eligible, the family must have been born behind the Iron Curtain, must have lost everything due to the war, and must have three men over the age of eighteen who were able to work. The Friese family qualified; Roland’s sister, however, now married to a West German, was not eligible to come along. Roland would be leaving the country in the spring.

He left school after the summer break and took a room in Büdingen to work full time at the American Base (presumably what was known as Armstrong Barracks). It was during this time that the family’s paperwork was being processed. They would need more funds for the journey.

Now nineteen years of age and independent from his family, and in steady association with the American soldiers, Roland seemed to develop a taste for alcohol. I did not see him much during the winter months of 1951/52, but one day, when we were meant to get together, I was told that he was very sick with alcohol poisoning. I found out where he was rooming and went to see him. It was a narrow room with just a bed, a small table, and a chair, with some hooks on the wall. He lay in bed, the room reeking, grey as ash, a sorry sight indeed. But he seemed to be getting over it and was obviously very embarrassed to see me there. Not knowing what I could do for him, I did not stay long.

In the spring of 1952, the time came for the family to leave Düdelsheim and move to a facility in Hanau for processing. Roland offered me his bicycle for 80 Marks. It was a man’s street bike with 26” wheels, small diameter tires and three gears, of which only the largest gear was operable. I asked Mutti and Papa if they would get it for me, and they did, to help the family financially. I passed my own bike to Edel, and started riding the bigger bicycle to school, swinging my leg up over the saddle just like the boys did. The gear ratio built more muscle in my thighs and shaved off some time to get to Büdingen. I suppose this would be an indication of how tomboyish I was, even then, as a young lady, now seventeen.

I took the train several times to Hanau to see Roland before the family left in May. We had promised to write, and we did so regularly. Each letter took about a week by airmail to arrive.

The family traveled by sea on the USS General Harry Taylor. It was a seven-day trip across the Atlantic. During the voyage, Roland and his older brother worked as interpreters, while his parents worked in the kitchen. The passage was free, but the transport of luggage – although a very spare amount of belongings – would cost the family $600 to retrieve. Upon arrival at the train station in Manhattan, the Frieses were told they were going to Bandera, Texas, and each member of the family was given ten dollars.

Roland’s departure to America did not seem to change much between us. Certainly, knowing him filled a void in my life. I had no girlfriend and did not know of anyone in whom I could confide about the beliefs a girl holds, the dreams and hopes for the future, the visions of husband and family, a life beyond school and parent house. All these things I kept to myself, only knowing that I would be willing to invest myself completely, adjust where necessary and be tolerant. Roland and I had made no real plans, had had no deep discussions in the limited times that we spent together, yet we figured somehow things would work out for us, even if it seemed unlikely at the time. We would write – and I would dream. I was seventeen, naïve, full of ideals and oh-so-confident.

Published by ingridpwrites

Writer of narrative nonfiction, personal nonfiction and memoir.

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