I hope you will see in the next few moments, there’s more to life than what your dolls and toys, your dog, your parents can teach you, tell you. It is full of frightening, frantic, splendid moments that are almost miraculous. Sometimes you can control those moments but a lot of times you cannot. And though you are young and strong, there are forces out there that are ancient, seemingly magical. We can give them names like sun, moon, star, gravity, tectonic plate, tide, lava, quake, anger, jealousy, love, concern, human, animal, vegetable. Often, though we try, we do not understand them, their unpredictable gyrations. Their wild persistent, momentary flourishes raises, lowers your life to levels you never dreamed you could reach.
I cycled to Germany and beyond, five weeks on my own, 3 weeks with your cousins whom I met up with in Munich. Two months before, I had lost your grandma Kit. We’d been together 47 years. I wanted to celebrate that union. Longest job I ever held though I can tell you I came pretty close to being fired lots of times. Nothing is ever all joy and chocolate blueberries. But we were there for each other. We didn’t talk about it much, though we probably should have. I often felt we didn’t have to. I have the feeling she would differ. Conflict is something that can raise you up or kill you if you don’t learn how to ride that bronco, especially with someone with whom you’re intimate. I didn’t want to hurt even when I did. But that’s another letter.
Beyond that there was something else going on that I hadn’t entirely explained to myself. It came to me more clearly at 6 AM in the youth hostel in Hamburg looking through its huge paned, vertical windows at the dinosaur cranes squawking, squealing, caterwauling on the Elbe river edge spread out there before me in the mist forty miles upstream from its mouth where it empties into the Baltic. What a sight that is. A chaotic city of gantries, loading, unloading its prey of freight, swinging, circling. Bizarre how it is possible to maintain any kind of order in this seeming disarray of goods and barges and boats. Who arranged it? Who maintains it? What must the immigrants, coming from eastern Europe on their lonely ways to New York Harbor, have thought amongst these swaying booms and beasts.
That something else had to do with my own fortunate existence. I realized I was a creature of this planet which by sheer crap shoot was on this orbit around the sun, 93 million miles away. And because of its position it had produced everything living on this earth. I just happened to be part of it. For some unfathomable reason, by the grace of all the powers of chemistry, physics, emotion, I happen to be here to share and absorb its wonders. For some reason I was still alive though death almost had a headlock on me numerous times. Yet it had released me so that now I was into my eighth decade, riding my bicycle, camping, sleeping on the ground, talking with strangers in strange languages, imbibing, saturating my innards with the geography and history of far off places with the energy and curiosity of a boy. In many ways, I had trained for it all my life using my close to 450 muscles, over 200 bones in all kinds of ways to maintain them at their locomotor best no matter my age. In other words I minimized the wonders of technology and maximized the natural endowment with which all of us are blessed when we come into the world. You got to eat regular and good. And you got to exercise regularly most of the days of your life to do that. Not crazy like but steady. Then age means nothing. When you do that you don’t need them nurses and doctors and hospitals and all them fancy machines and medicines to keep you going.
Ponce de Leon looked for the fountain of youth throughout the swamps of Florida. All the time they were in his own body, mind. None of the gold and other treasures he and the other armored, sword, halberd, arquebus carrying conquistadors tortured themselves to find in impossible heat, mountains could match the potential for life and pleasure they could have found right there in their own bodies. None of the black gold we are trying to steal from Iraq comes close to what we got right within us. We use the power of machine guns, cannons, rockets to control the world. But we are blind to the human weapons which can enhance each and every one of us as human beings.
One of those times when death came stalking was in February, 1945. I wasn’t even nineteen. I was an infantry rifleman. At home, I never had been fifty miles away from where I lived. Now I was in some unknown land with boots, wool khaki, draw string jacket, helmet, M1 rifle, ammunition, small field pack of canvas in which there were wooden pegs and folded pup tent plus a small folding shovel which point was triangular so it could be used as a pick. Also in the pack were three K ration meals: one of American cheese, one of ham, one of pork. On my belt hanging on precariously was a quart canteen for liquid. I was dirty and I was lonely and I was scared. We crossed the Rhine in darkness so deep we might as well have been blind. Not only blind but I had no idea there was a river below. The only lights were the cannon flashes from our side. The only sounds were the cannon roars and their shells whistling overhead and some of the rustling leaves in the trees. The cannons never stopped. Though they were miles away their sounds and flashes were like all the thunderstorms of several Junes, Julys, Augusts rolled into one. I wondered about the people receiving the brunt of those exploding shells.
I awoke at dawn from my fox hole. It was quiet. The entire world about me was deciduous, pine, all dense green as was the tall grass, and wet. I was on the side of a buxom hill surrounded by many others falling away to meadows way in the distance where there were several farm houses smoking from which screams seemed to be coming. I had never seen such natural beauty. Beauty incongruous with the smoking houses and screams.
I had heard running water during the night. I hadn’t washed in weeks. I looked about. Saw no one. Without putting on my jacket or taking my rifle, I moved quickly down the side of this mountainous hill toward where I thought the rush of the stream could be. I wanted to feel clean again. If only I could get to the water. The grass was high. It mingled last year’s tan stalks with this year’s fresh spring growth. It soaked my boots which shushed, shushed as they plowed through the grass. As I proceeded, I noticed some things in the grass that seemed like trousers, then bent knees in trousers that weren’t moving not more than twenty yards ahead of me. I approached cautiously. Soon the knees and trousers became attached to torsos clothed in German uniform. I was stunned as I realized there were six or seven of these soldiers with the smooth, pale skin and the striking blond hair of German boys. They were on their backs, marble eyes to the sky, some of their heads cradled in German helmets. They were beautiful even in death. They could not have been more than fifteen or sixteen. I did not realize it then but I have since learned they probably were some of the last of the Hitler Youth who were determined to fight to the last. In that gorgeous landscape they were like misbegotten snowflakes soon to be absorbed by the early spring of the Ruhr. I felt even more alone though I knew I must find that stream I could hear more loudly hurtling through the forest.
When I found it, I trembled. Because now I knew I had to shed my clothing and soak myself in the roaring water barely ankle deep throwing itself against the rocks and stones. It seemed as though there were only it and me on the planet as I plunged my nakedness into its cleansing rush. To this moment I cannot remember how cold its runoff must have been I was so pleased with its freshness. And though I gloried in it, I knew that any moment a shot could ring out and I would be dead. And yet I had to do my wash, to replenish my youth, to feel whole again. I somehow managed to wipe myself with my filthy clothes, redress and quietly return to where I had been. Not one person seemed to have missed me nor do I remember mentioning my frightening yet rejuvenating escapade.
So that was another reason I had to do this trip by bicycle. I wanted to see where I had crossed over the river which I had determined was the Rhine with the help of maps and inquiries and I was determined to do it by way initially of Hamburg where I wanted to explore the life of Wolfgang Borchert, another boy soldier, who was supposed to be my enemy, who had somehow survived several years on the eastern front while invading the Soviet Union, being repulsed and then driven back toward Germany in some of the most gruesome fighting of the war. He was thrown in prison for daring to write home expressing his opinion that the war was insane. He somehow managed to stay alive though he was so ill that he only lasted two years after the war finished. But in those two years he wrote some of the most moving, lyrical stories filled with black humor I have read.
Though I made numerous inquiries I could only find mere remnants of Borchert’s existence. Disappointed I took a late train to Bonn. I determined that would be high enough upstream on the Rhine so I would not get caught in the heavy traffic of the large industrial cities of the Ruhr. I had already determined that Remagen was the place most likely where my crossing took place. I had read somewhere that the bridge at Remagen had been the last bridge over the river. I arrived in Bonn at midnight and tried to find a youth hostel. The students with whom I conversed did not know English. My German was anything but polished. It became clear I was not going to find an inexpensive place to stay because of the confused language and the darkness.
Suddenly a tall dark man whose thick, partly gray black, slightly oily hair tied in a tail sitting in the bus stop began talking to me. Initially in German. After about five minutes he broke into English. Originally from Sri Lanka, he’d been in Germany 20 years. He would prefer to return to his native land and plant orchards but didn’t because of all the killing and the troubles which had infected it because of the civil war between the Tamils and Sinhalese. He invited me to share his apartment which I gratefully did the next two nights during which we had numerous discussions and walked forever through Bonn.
Anxious to be on my way, I followed the cycling path up the river which is close to a mile across closed in by thickly forested highlands rising only fifty to an hundred yards from the water on both sides. About noon, as I sat in a park like opening eating a sandwich of eggs and cheese I had purchased before leaving Bonn, I saw what appeared to be a steel span cantilevered from a stone tower on the west bank, the bank of my cycling route close to a mile in the distance. Looking to the east bank all I could see was a stone tower meant to support a bridge. But there was no sign of a span coming out of it. I wondered if that could be Remagen. A woman assured me it was. I was perplexed. I thought by this time the bridge must have been repaired and functioning.
I looked again and saw a large opening above the east tower, high above the bridge. I surmised that the cannon overlooking the bridge must have been emplaced there. Then I remembered the story of my comrade soldiers telling me how the 88 milimeter howitzers had continued to shell the bridge at predictable intervals allowing our troops to time the shots and run to the other side between safely. I had been fortunate enough to escape all that. Because by the time I got there the bridge had been taken.
When I got to the west tower I was in for a few surprises. The west tower was now a museum. A peace museum which told the story of Remagen during and after the war many years later. Those interviewed many years later after the war had been children during the bombardment. Teary eyed, scared children. They now had families, smiling, giving interviews what it was like to live in those terrible times when the Allies were driving the Germans toward Berlin and the end. When thousands of vehicles and planes filled the roads, bombing and destroying all the bridges. The Allies were surprised to find the railroad bridge at Remagen intact. That meant they didn’t have to establish a beachhead on the east bank with pontoon boats, a lot more risky than crossing over the trestle of the bridge even into the mouth of the cannons trained on it.
And then I realized more than ever one of the motivations for coming. And that was to salute the soldiers who were my companions and with whom I had played poker not more than an hour before, but who died on the other side of the Rhine with bullets meant for me, deep into the hills and valleys of this beautiful country which became Hitler’s stronghold. Hitler, whose distorted view of the universe, made him enforce perverted policies which destroyed and maimed millions of people from his own country as well as millions of others whose religions and nationalities and origins he spat upon. His power was disastrous and cataclysmic.
But the museum that had been the west tower of the bridge was now bedecked in the symbols of peace: quotations of numerous writers, philosophers; delicate, colorful mobiles follow you everywhere as you climb the winding stone staircase; lovely paintings and hangings, some by children; historical photographs with audios to explain their significance. The bridge was started before WWI. The German General Staff wanted it completed so that they would be able to get to France quick and overwhelm it. As it turned out, because of the current of the Rhine and its width it proved impossible to be complete until practically the end of the fighting. Paradoxically, it served only to bring home the defeated troops in 1918. Terrifying to me was that within twelve days of its capture in WWII it collapsed taking vehicles and men with it. I had no idea. It was never rebuilt.
I tell you all this because I still have the life and the energy to reveal all of it to you. When you are my age you will be able to do the same for your grandchildren. It is a privilege to share your life with people. Do not hesitate when the right moment comes. Relish it. Tell them who you are, where you come from, where you’ve been. Be generous. They want to hear from you. I want to hear from you. Much joy, much pleasure, much health, much satisfaction in everything. Your DaPa, Alfred