When summer approached, my parents announced a hard-earned vacation, just for the two of them. They planned to visit Austria and the Tyrolian Alps. My sister’s girlfriend, Ilse, as suggested by Ilse’s mother, invited her to sleep over at their place during my parent’s absence. I needed a sitter, and my grandmother, my mother’s stepmother, volunteered to be the caretaker. Grandma had a modest apartment in a small town in Pommern, a northeastern province of Germany. I was to live with her for the duration of my parent’s vacation. I was more excited about my trip to my grandma’s, than my parents were about their trip to the Alps. For the first time, I would leave the city behind me, and to boot, I was going by myself.
My father took me to the railroad station, and introduced me to the locomotive, a monstrous machine with steam blowing in spurts from its flank, similar to the snorting of a horse and ready to take off. After seeking out the conductor, my father turned me over to his authority. A tag with my name and destination on a string around my neck assured that I would not get lost. The conductor selected an agreeable window seat and assured this five-year-old not to worry. Who was worried?
Less than two hours later, the train stopped at my destination, a town called Schivelbein. The conductor delivered me to my grandmother. I called her Oma. She was a petite woman with a sharp mind. Her light hair had just a tinge of gray, combed back and secured at the back in a chignon or bun. She had visited our home in Berlin a number of times. I thought of her as the greatest grandma anyone could have. She was the only person in those days that called me by my given name, Hubertus, and not Buby (pronounced “boobie”). For some strange reason, someone tagged me with the silly name Buby, and it stuck. The whole neighborhood and my friends knew me as Buby. It was not until I celebrated my 14th birthday that I could shed this name successfully.
Grandma took my hand and we walked from the railroad station through an ancient portal into a picturesque town. Enormous granite boulders, stacked and aligned, formed a wall, extending from the portal, left and right, and appeared to be part of ancient defense structures. The cobblestone streets with narrow sidewalks, flanked by a series of small houses, gave the town a quaint appearance. I can still see the swallows flying closely around us, collecting insects. As we walked, grandma pointed out the butcher shop, grocery store and a mill powered by a small but fast running creek. After crossing some railroad tracks, we arrived at my grandmother�s two-bedroom apartment. She occupied the upstairs of a two-story house at the edge of town.
All water needed for cooking and washing required hauling from the hand pump in the courtyard. It became my job to carry buckets of water upstairs. Even a half-full bucket of water was difficult for a 5-year-old and I remember the relatively steep, creaky wooden staircase. Using the toilet was a disagreeable experience for a city boy. The wooden two-hole outhouse across the yard with its flies and country smell was not my idea of a pleasant situation. During the night, a chamber pot had to do.
Grandma trusted me not to get into mischief and allowed me to roam and explore the neighborhood. The railroad crossing had a special fascination for me and received my first attention. As soon as a train approached, the crossing guard in his dark blue uniform used a hand crank to lower the crossbars, stopping whatever street traffic might be coming. It was fun watching the railroad cars go by so closely, waving first to the locomotive engineer, listening to the clicking of the wheels on the rail, counting the number of cars, and waving to the brakeman in the caboose.
Next to the railroad crossing, a blacksmith performing his trade caught my eye. I watched him shoe horses and observed how he made steel rims for wheels and fitted them onto wooden spoked wheels. The blacksmith looked just like one would expect; a big man with muscular arms, wearing a leather apron. His round face always looked as if he grinned all the time with a twinkle in his eyes. A full beard completed his bearish appearance. With all his strength, I never heard him swear or lose his temper. Naturally, I declared that I would become a blacksmith when I grew up, ignoring my earlier pledge of becoming a railroad crossing guard. Not to mention that I would surely be a locomotive engineer.
The blacksmith fabricated horseshoes from scratch, including the nails to attach the shoes to the hoof. The fitting of a red-hot shoe to the horses hoof emitted a scorching smell not easily forgotten. Once he had the horseshoe sized, he cleaned the hoof and hammered the nails in a way so that the tips protruded through the side of the hoof. After turning the protruding nail tip, he made sure no sharp edges existed by using a rasp to smooth everything.
Another time, I saw him literally weld two pieces of steel by bringing them to a bright heat and pounding the two pieces together. If you have ever seen and heard a blacksmith forging iron, you will never forget the rhythmic clang of the hammer on the anvil.
The blacksmith had to have his fun with this city boy. I had shown my eagerness to help, and when he asked me to bring him a red piece of iron lying in the middle of the yard, I complied. I hurried over, looked at it and it appeared to me that it was not just a red piece, but a red-hot piece of iron. I looked at him. I saw the twinkle in his eyes and he said: “Just testing the big city boy.” He thought it to be funny while I learned a lesson. I ended up spending a lot of time watching him, and even helped to operate the bellows to bring hot coal to a real white-hot condition.
About 100 yards down the road from the blacksmith, I noticed a cooper�s workshop. Naturally, I just had to watch the making of wooden barrels and tubs. The cooper, a very friendly elderly man, appeared to work even harder than the blacksmith. I did not ask him if I could watch, but he allowed me to hang around. Here was another master at work. Like the blacksmith, he knew his business. Compared to the blacksmith, the cooper had a slight build with long, slender hands. His back, slightly bent forward, appeared frail, until you saw him work. The frail-looking man changed to a wiry man with quick hands and unending endurance when I saw him making barrels for butter, for pickles and for liquid manure. When he worked at the manure barrel, a long cylindrical container, he asked me to get inside and insert a coned wood plug. He lowered me through a manhole and I followed his instructions. When I talked inside the barrel, my voice sounded quite strange. I guess that is where this old-fashioned saying came from. I found out that I had no claustrophobic tendencies. Getting out, however, was a bit difficult. Since I was only a little fellow, the cooper had to reach down as far as he could, and even then, I had to jump so that he could grab my hands.
Grandma apparently wanted me to get close to nature. On a beautiful sunny day, she took me to the nearby forest for blueberry picking. I had no idea that blueberries grew in the wild. To my great surprise we collected about a quart within a few hours. However, I did not know that little flying critters hide in the woods, and I believe, that for every blueberry we picked I had one mosquito bite. Although my enthusiasm for nature waned, we visited the woods one more time. My grandma pointed out wild cranberries, wild strawberries and numerous types of wild mushrooms. We brought home some chanterelle mushrooms, enough for a meal. They are still my favorite, sautéed in butter with a little onions and parsley.
Almost daily, I spent time with the railroad crossing guard, the blacksmith or the cooper. Even the town’s butcher has a warm spot in my memory. About every second day, my grandma visited a store, including the butcher’s. From the first day, after my grandma told the butcher who I was, he would hand me a slice of sausage then ask my opinion of its quality. Naturally, I looked forward to every visit. Once a week we visited the cemetery, and left some flowers at my grandfather’s grave. Quite often, I think nostalgically back to those days, innocent days, learning days, happy days and once-in-a-lifetime days.
Unfortunately, my summer vacation ended sooner than I wanted. I returned to Berlin by train. When I got home, my parents had a surprise for me. I became the proud owner of a pair of genuine alpine leather shorts, the most functional peace of clothing I ever had. They did not require washing or pressing and were virtually indestructible. I wore the shorts all summer and most of the winter, day in and day out, until they became too small for me. Either they shrank, or I had grown.
Hitler had promised to create public works programs. When he announced the creation of a highway system, reaching from border to border, it certainly was one of the most impressive projects. Building a highway system across the country would inevitably have to go through forested areas. That is how my father got involved with the building the Autobahn.
One time, when he visited a work site, he took me along. I thought I had seen a lot of interesting things when I had watched the blacksmith and the cooper, but this certainly topped it. Here, I saw large, and I mean large, earth moving equipment. While some machines cleared a passage of trees, by extracting the entire trees, roots and all, others would level the ground. A great number of different machines followed one after another, until the final operation of smoothing the poured concrete and covering it with straw. My father told me that they could complete a section of 300 yards per day.
On my arrival back home I was overflowing with all the things I had seen, using my mother as a listening post. In spite of her busy schedule, she would patiently give her full attention to my rambling. We had no idea that the building of the Autobahn system was not only a jobs creation project, but also a requirement for our Führer�s ambition to provide easy movement of Germany’s future military might.
In my neighborhood, I do remember being envious of some older youngsters wearing Hitler Youth uniforms. I had to wait until I reached age ten to join the Hitler Youth movement. For my sixth birthday, I begged my mother to make me a Hitler Youth style uniform. She made me a look-alike uniform, fitting for a small child.
I had no idea that the uniform would soon create such a memorable event.