Life was traditional at the Yellow House. Fathers were soldiers, and mothers were housewives, and we children were down and out and tried to avoid them both.
We played Cowboys and Indians in the forest, went on long expeditions up the mountain or down the ravine, or just sat around the sandbox, the tree castle, or the rock garden. We played football with a half-inflated ball between goalposts that were perpendicular to each other, one goalpost the rack to hang and beat rugs, the other one the frame of the clotheslines. We played street hockey with sticks we found in the woods. We played dodgeball and spud, and forty-forty and What's-the-time-Mister-Wolf. Nothing was perfect, and everything was perfect, and supervision we enjoyed none.
There were accidents, of course. Werner broke his arm when he tried to climb down from the balcony, and another time when we played spud and somebody axed him formidably and he landed on his elbow. Gerold once jumped onto the banister above the boiler room, missed the hold, flipped over the railing, and crashed face first into the concrete floor one storey below. And I once walked away with a haemorrhaging laceration on the back of my head after we rushed up the stairs from the forbidden laundry room and Wolfgang slammed the door in my face. (I was prone to head injuries all my life, which Mutti always attributed to my zodiac sign being Aries.)
Once we organized a bicycle race around the house, five laps, clockwise, of course. Manfred misjudged the number of racing cyclists that could start on the narrow driveway, and instead of a reasonable four bicycles side by side, we had a mass start of twelve. Yes, it was tight, and yes, we had two false starts.
At the third attempt we managed at last, and everybody was pedalling as hard as they could, and then going into the first corner, the one that still had no asphalt on it, one of us on the inside lost his balance and started the cascade, until it was my turn to fall and for the macadam to take the skin off my right knee. We bled and we laughed and we ruled it a racing incident.
Were we feral children? I am not sure if we weren't.
Manfred was our leader, which was natural as he was the oldest of our gang of a dozen or so. He was tall too. Also, he had a dimple in his chin. Manfred was two years older than I was, and he was my best friend.
He was also the proud owner of a counted twelve-hundred comic books, mostly Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, which he stored in boxes in the dilapidated shed next to the community garden, which stood near the northwest corner of the property. I believe the shed was common property, but Manfred's mother Frau Arnold was the building superintendent, and only she had a key to the rusty padlock. Yes, the shed held ground keeping tools, but the Arnolds also used it as their private storage room. On sunny days Manfred would sometimes unlock the door, and he and I would sit on the well-worn doorsill and re-read his best possessions.
I remember Manfred and I once played football, only the two of us. He played goalie, I did penalty kicks. He bet me a comic book that he would stop my shot. I scored. He bet me double-or-nothing. I scored again. He bet me five for two. Twenty for five. One hundred for twenty. I had a lucky day. He never paid up. I never reminded him.
Manfred also owned a picture lexicon which we called the Yellow Book because it had a yellow cloth cover. It was divided into sections like The World of Dinosaurs, The World of Plants and Animals, The World of Tomorrow, and so on. Sometimes he brought the Yellow Book out and we would marvel at the pictures and the short paragraphs all afternoon.
He had two sisters, Manfred did, Manuela and Michaela. Manuela was the pretty girl next door, long blondish hair, tall and slim, long legs. I am sure I was not the only one who was secretly in love with her. Michaela, on the other hand, had a large mole on her back. It wasn't hairy or anything, but I didn't like it.
Michaela and Wolfgang once kissed when they were eleven, I believe. It happened in the middle of the night in the middle of a thunderstorm in an old army tent that somebody had put up for us children to play in. The reason I know is that I kissed her girlfriend in the same tent during the same thunderstorm. It was the first kiss for the four of us, French kiss that is, or tongue kiss, as we say in German. We never talked about it afterwards.
Wolfgang lived on the ground floor in the apartment next to the Arnolds. He was two years younger than I was. Wolfgang had an older sister, Andrea, who when she got older acquired the emotional disposition of a golden retriever. But when we were children, woe betide you when she got angry.
Manuela and Andrea were best friends. When we played Cowboys and Indians they ran the saloon, which even then I thought was a strange role to seek. Predictably in the course of the game they would find ways to irk each other's ire.
Manuela would say something, and then Andrea would say something, and then Andrea would turn beet-red. And then Wolfgang would say something, and Andrea would yank him around, and then Wolfgang would turn beet-red, and he would yank her around. And then Manuela would yank Wolfgang around, and then Andrea would yank Manuela around. Such was the circle of violence. And as long as you were not one of the ones being yanked around, it was all quite comical. Manfred usually put an end to it.
The Kuchner sisters lived on the first floor above the Arnolds. Petra was my age, Eva was Wolfgang's age. They were little children of little parents. Petra had freckles, and Eva had a perfectly circular face. Exciting playmates the Kuchners were not. Of Petra I only have two explicit memories.
Figure: The carpet bar on the left and the old football pitch. Image: Michael Baumann (2015)
The carpet bar. Our first choice for a goal in our football matches. One goalie, two teams. Only when we were enough children did we expand to the clotheslines. The adults did not like that. The goals were at a right angle to each other, but it didn't matter. Neither did it matter that there was an oil tank buried in a hill, which formed one of the sides of our pitch.
One day I fouled Petra, and she was awarded a penalty shot. She ran up to the ball and kicked it with the tip of her shoe. The ball hit me right in the face. But that was not the worst of it. After the ball had hit me, it bounced right into the goal. I was furious and went after Petra. Manfred held me back. Manfred always intervened for the good of us all. At least that's how I remember him. He would have made a good diplomat.
Then there were the Hanaks. They lived over in the annex. They were four, two boys and two girls, but only Irmi and Werner were young enough to be part of the gang.
There were other children at the Yellow House that joined us rarely because they were getting too old or their parents didn't want them to roam about the forest. It was too bad. And a few children resided at the Yellow House only briefly and thus never became part of the core -- Konstanze and Poldi, for example, whose mother was American, or Christoph and Markus, who moved away from one day to the other, no forwarding address left.
Last there were three more that belonged to us but didn't live at the Yellow House.
Flo. Pale, blond, lanky Flo. He was Wolfgang's and Eva's age, and he always had too much spittle in his mouth. He was the rich boy. His father was a wealthy lawyer, and they owned a large house two or three lots up the mountain. They also had a large kidney-shaped swimming pool, which for some reason we were never invited to use.
Flo was a latecomer. Whether he was a surprise or an accident no one knew, but what we did know was that his parents pampered him. To say he was pampered implies that I find fault with it, which I don't and didn't. I was pampered myself, and Flo was a welcome distraction from my own excesses -- I did have a real ice hockey stick.
On the other end of the financial spectrum were Christian and Claudia, son and daughter of Old Herr Willi. They lived in a little run-down house down in the ravine where the sun never shone.
Old Herr Willi seemed too old to be their father. His walk was heavy, his spine stooped, and his head bald. He was a retired mail carrier who had to supplement his meagre pension with the meek agricultural production he was able to squeeze out of his orchard in the shade. Apples and plums mostly, but also eggs, and chickens, and rabbits.
Christian was my age, but taller and stronger, with a grey face and a hard chin. He always seemed older than the rest of us, older even than Manfred. Claudia was his younger sister. She had dark hair and was pretty. Claudia was very shy and spoke very little, and never to me, and everybody said that she was in love with me, because whenever she saw me she looked happy. It was just the thing for an eight-year-old boy to wish to never be alone with her.
When I think of Christian and Claudia I always see them in dirty old rags that are too small and dirty old gumboots that are too big. And I don't say this lightly. They called them their work clothes because Old Herr Willi made them work. Christian helped on the outside, and Claudia helped her mother in the kitchen. Christian mended fences, and Claudia made preserves. Christian fixed the roof, and Claudia cooked the dinner. Claudia fed the rabbits, and Christian killed and skinned them. (I never saw him kill one but I saw the carcasses hanging in the shed.) And when the plums were ripe, or later the apples, they spent their days in the trees. They didn't have much time to play, but they never complained.
That’s how we grew up at the Yellow House. But of all the children at the Yellow House, I was the odd one out. The others all lived there because their fathers were soldiers. I lived there because of my grandparents.
How my grandparents ended up living at the Yellow House, I don't know. I know they met in Vienna when my grandfather was a captain in the Luftwaffe administration and Grandmother was a medical assistant in a doctor's office. They got married in 1939 or 1940.
I never met my grandfather. He died of cancer two years before I was born. Colon cancer. Oma, as I called my grandmother, always insisted that he had "brought it home from the Caucasus", the colon cancer, it is.
The last person who saw my grandfather alive was Mutti, sixteen years old then. It was her turn at his bedside, and he woke up in the middle of the night. He propped himself up on his deathbed, and Mutti was crying, and he told her to take good care of her mother. Promise? Promise.
I knew my grandfather only from photographs, and in those he always was in uniform. There were other pictures too, pictures I never saw and that Mutti sometimes mentioned. I don't know if these pictures ever existed, and if they did, what had happened to them. But I know every time these pictures were mentioned Grandmother started to cry.
Grandmother told me that at the end of the war my grandfather became a P.O.W.. Judging from Mutti's birthdate, his imprisonment couldn't have lasted long, and he must have been home by July 1945. Where he had been held, why he had been released, and how he had smuggled the money he was said to have smuggled across the sector borders, nobody ever told me. The Russian Occupation Forces invited him back into their sector for him to claim his property. Wisely, he declined. Oma had a great dislike for Russians because of this ruse.
I remember my grandfather's belongings. His dark oak desk and his black typewriter, the service binoculars Oma said he had used in the war and which she usually only called "the glass". I always wondered what he had seen through them, tanks, soldiers, villages. Occasionally Oma showed me my grandfather's parade dagger, which she said he wore proudly with his dress uniform. It had a beige handle, and the crossguard was formed by the wings of an eagle. She never wanted me to hold the dagger and always covered up the eagle's talons and the symbol they held.
I spent twelve years, the first twelve years of my life, at the Yellow House, and looking back from the distance of half-a-century I can only say: It was paradise.
Figure: The demolition of the Yellow House on 22 Dec 2017. Image: Irmgard Rüdel (2017)
The end came earlier, of course, much earlier. The last time we went out to play. The last time we went on an expedition into the woods. The last time we raced our bikes around the house. Maybe it is better not to know when you are doing something for the very last time. All you know is that there was that day.