For the first five years of my life, my family lived in Ludwigshafen, an industrial city in southwest Germany with a few hundred thousand inhabitants. Most of them worked in the world’s largest complex of chemical and pharmaceutical plants, along the Rhein river. The living quarters of the city reflected the impersonal, practical, modern sensibilities and necessities of postwar construction intermingled with a few blackened red and beige sandstone facades of nineteenth century townhouses. These were unassuming places to which people came home after long, exhausting days of work to retreat behind walls, doors, and shuttered windows. This made Ludwigshafen a somewhat dull twin to the flashier Mannheim on the other side of the river. Mannheim had the fancy boulevards, flower gardens, luxury shopping, gourmet food stores, restaurants, cafes, and cultural events in its concert hall, and a sprawling castle that as of late housed its university.
In the first few years of my life, I knew or cared little about that. My world was much smaller than a city. I had a comfortable, safe home. I loved its contrast to the gray, often foggy and cold outside world and the nebulous menaces I perceived lurking there. But it was exceedingly quiet most days. My dad was working out of town for weeks at a time to set up soft drink production and distribution plants all around West-Germany. He only came home on weekends and often not even that. My mother, a translator of English and French, worked long hours as an assistant to the CEO of a chemical company. I had a brother who was three and a half years older and thus about twice my age then. He went to school and we interacted fairly little. The household was run by a gentle and proper girl from Bavaria. She was the one person who was always there, the source of dutiful nourishment, care, consolation, information, instruction, and protection. Although she was busy with many other chores, she was the director of my life. Because the other family members were in intermittent attendance, they were not as familiar, and I was not certain about their function.
But I was not isolated. We lived on the fifth floor of a new L-shaped, six-story apartment building that filled one side of a triangular, large plaza in the center of the city. The building had a courtyard with a driveway and garages, landscaping with shrubs and trees, a lawn strewn with daisies, and a playground. I, like all other small children in the complex, was regularly sent to the courtyard to run free all day without much direct contact with grownups. Moms and caretakers sporadically monitored us from courtyard balconies, wound down baskets to their children with snacks and drinks, and called them to come up for meals or nap time. We shared our toys and played together, gave others who were hungry or thirsty of our snacks, cared for each other when one of us fell, and discussed matters that moved us. Between the indoors and outdoors of this world, I felt sheltered.
Yet there were signs that this situation was not guaranteed, that there might be threats surrounding our compound. That my parents and brother had to go out into the world and stay there with such intensity concerned me. I worried that what had happened to them could also happen to me. I did not like the outside world and was glad that I could stay home and be safe from whatever commanded them to leave. There was also a general sense of menace embodied by the horrendously bad air quality in the city. The exhausts from the chemical plants, inversion conditions, and the foggy mists wafting in from the river combined to create an otherworldly, dampening atmosphere. The air was frequently laced with intense smells whose particularities depended on the wind direction. Sometimes it had a yellow overcast and stung in the eyes and lungs. At other times, it had more aromatic notes, not all of them bad and some even sweet or spicy. The grownups detested this smog and told us to stay inside when they felt it was harmful. They called it bad air and named its sources. Who were these entities that generated bad air that could harm us, and why did they produce it? What was hiding behind all these interesting smells? And why did the grownups nothing about the bad air if they disliked it so much? They seemed to be afraid of something and apparently unable to counter it. Clearly, there were oppressive beings out there more powerful than they. This was something to keep in mind but not particularly disturbing since the bad air entities kept by themselves and created a fact that could evidently be endured.
There was a closer source of apparent danger about which we were often warned. This was the entryway for cars to the courtyard, a tunnel at the corner of the building. My friends and I were repeatedly told to stay away from this opening and to never venture beyond it. In my case, these admonitions were illustrated with scenarios of getting lost or strangers taking me away. I was also warned that I might be hit by cars in the outside world that apparently had free reign there. Every now and then, vehicles appeared in the mouth of the tunnel and I was admonished to always stay away from those as well. I was further told that it was possible for bad people to come in through the tunnel and that they might be oblivious to or even targeting children. I was cautioned to only trust people I knew and to run away from strangers, especially those who wanted to give me candy or to have me drive in their car. So I kept on guard and kept my distance to strangers and cars. The various warnings we received from grownups were frequent topics of discussion and imaginary stories among us children. Since our only reference for evil were characters from fairytales, we typecast bad people as a motley collection of wizards, goblins, giants, witches, ghosts, the devil, and other monsters. Together with this informational background, the cautionary statements and their common acceptance by the plenum of children confirmed to me that the outside world was not my friend and that it was in all likelihood dangerous and evil. Some of the older kids who had been in the streets adjacent to the courtyard reinforced our imagination and fear with tall tales to fill us with respect. We younger children did not buy all this malarkey. But we still believed that there were grave dangers waiting beyond the tunnel. The fact that nothing ever happened in our little enclave did not make us less concerned. Why was this gateway to danger left unguarded? What kept evil from entering and getting us? We concluded that the vigilance of our mothers and caretakers was protecting us to a great extent. There was also talk of policemen walking the streets. We further believed in the intervention of God, Jesus, angels, and possibly other good characters about which we had been told in fairytales. But for safe measure, we were committed to watch out for one another. I remember that we prepared a stash of sticks, rocks, and iron rods we found for the event that purported defenses were breached.
I was least afraid of cars because their threat could be credibly explained. I noticed that cars that entered the courtyard regularly transported people who lived there, my dad, and even my entire family and me in and out of the courtyard. I knew that the people piloting these cars meant no harm. Getting out of their way was simply a precautionary measure to avoid accidents. Further, since we all always came back when we took a drive in a car, I thought of cars as a safe utility that allowed people to venture out into the world. I regarded them as muted, gliding cocoons that provided effective shelter from whatever danger was surrounding them. Driving in cars thus seemed like a good way of finding out about the world. I remember trying to spy what was going on out there while sitting on the lap of my nanny or my mother when we drove. But I could not see anything much beyond the rim of the doors and the dash, and this loss of bearing made me regularly motion sick. Still, I imagined taking adventurous trips with my toy cars and encountering the world of evil from fairytales. Having a car seemed like an extremely useful addition in building an arsenal to bail out of dangerous situations or to run down and hit bad characters. Realizing that cars could be used for good or bad depending on who was in command of them took away my fear of them.
The second least likely threat was getting lost. That concept was so unfamiliar it had to be explained to me. I was told that I could go so far away that I would not remember how to get home. There was some truth to this. I had been to places far away from where I could not have found my way home. But these trips were with my family in our car. I just had to stick to them to be safe from that problem. Getting lost on my own seemed like a danger that I could prevent entirely by not venturing beyond the tunnel. By far the biggest threat to me was the possibility that strangers might abduct me. The idea that there could be people or other entities who were intent on doing harm to me struck terror in me. Although I believed in a way that my parents wanted to protect me from these threats, I suspected that I could be easy prey because they were so chronically absent. Even my nanny might not be able to do much when I played outside. More than that, I was uncertain whether they could be trusted to intercede. That became evident on occasions when my father came home. My brother and I were often too excited about finally having both of our parents present to go to bed right after dinner, or to stay in bed if they arrived home after our bedtime. Even though we were sent to bed, we would sneak out of our room and sit in front of the beveled glass door to the living room where the grownups were talking to be close to them. As careful as we tried to be in avoiding detection, someone would catch us sitting out there. Our nanny or our mother would bring us back to bed, but if we were caught again, my father got angry and would yell at us. He would warn us that if we did not stay in bed the “night grabber” would come and take us with him. We never were told who exactly this monster was or where he would take us. But it was extremely disconcerting that this stranger could apparently enter our apartment at will and do so seemingly with the permission and maybe even on call of our parents if we pushed things too far. We made certain to keep our heads, arms, and feet tucked in and covered in our beds so that we would be more difficult to find and grab. Since I slept on the lower level of bunk beds, I figured I would be taken first. To confuse the night grabber, I regularly made a dummy outline of a child’s body with my stuffed animals under the blanket on the outside and moved over to the wall where I lay as flat and motionless as I could.
That these might not be empty threats was made dramatically clear to us every year when Christmas time came around. By local tradition, St. Nicklaus visited on the sixth of December. He brought with him a sidekick by the name of Knecht Ruprecht who was dressed in a monk type burlap cloth with a hood and carried an iron chain that he rattled when he walked. According to a large book from which St. Nicklaus read, he kept detailed information on the behavior of each child. If he found you behaved well, he would reward you with sweets. However, we were also told that Knecht Ruprecht was going to take children away who were judged to have misbehaved. Although we never saw this happen, the fact that both were willingly let into our house mounted a credible menace that this could happen to us with the consent of the grownups. I was deathly afraid of this duo of terror. I despised them, and I grew ambivalent toward the grownups for allowing me to be exposed to such danger instead of protecting me against it. But I also thought that maybe they were powerless against this intrusion, that they had to let it happen to avert worse consequences. Their deferential conduct toward St. Nicklaus and Knecht Ruprecht seemed to point into that direction. I also had heard that these were agents of Jesus and his father, God, who could see everything and would judge all humans one day and decide whether they would go to heaven where they would be rewarded or hell where they would be punished. I had also heard in church that this God character had done and was threatening to do bad things to people who did not praise or obey him. I therefore figured that my parents might be under similar surveillance and might have to face a grownup and apparently more severe equivalent of my annual encounter. Still, there was a risk every year just as Christmas approached that I might be taken away. Although I was an overall well-behaved child, I was squirming when I was made to face St. Nicklaus because he always knew of a number of my failings and recited them with a grave demeanor, warning me to improve before he finally relented, dug in a big hundred pound burlap sack he had brought over his shoulder, and placed into my trembling hands a whip made from a bundle of twigs about two feet long to which chocolates and ornaments were attached. Even this bundle represented an implied threat that children who misbehaved would be disciplined with such an instrument and receive no chocolates. I remember the great relief I felt when this fiend and his helper left.
The apparent threat of abduction with unspecified further ramifications gained substance from and added credibility to fairytales that contained similar and other detrimental themes and described possible nefarious consequences. For a child that had just arrived on this world and was trying to obtain information on its workings, these fairytales told by trusted persons were just as real as the direct warnings by my father, and they interleafed. Both seemed to be part of an instruction effort. My innocence was demolished when I learned that there were seemingly various beings threatening to catch, abduct, torture, imprison, or eat us or to turn us into something nonhuman. My impressions of an apparently dangerous and vicious state of the outside world made me determined to remain within the safe world of the apartment complex and to stay on the good side of family members and other people in my surroundings to gain as much protection as possible. It seemed that I could control the situation to a large part by my demeanor, at least to the extent my parents and God and his minions were concerned. Even the creatures in fairytales could usually be subjected to strategies to avoid them or their attention, or to outwit or overpower them. However, I soon realized that the evil of fairytales paled against the evil that had visited my surroundings.
My hometown had been utterly destroyed during the systematic bombing of industrial facilities and civilians in World War II. Although the war was long over and the city had been largely rebuilt, there was one lot with a gutted building and another adjacent that had been reduced to rubble just around the corner from where we lived. I saw the devastation from the car when we left our compound for weekend trips. One could still see bathroom tile and other wall finishes separated by breaks in naked brick where floors and ceilings had been. When I asked about this, I was told that the buildings had been destroyed in an air attack. My first guess was that God was responsible. I knew from church he was doing similar things when he thought people misbehaved. But I was told that men had dropped fire from planes. This upset me much. I realized that children like me, families like mine, had lived there, just a few steps from where I lived now, and that something horrible had happened to them although I had no idea what death was. I had no concept when this had happened. I worried that the planes that had destroyed these buildings might come back. I was continually, directly, and viscerally confronted with the seeming reality of this peril. Every now and then and unpredictably, sirens on a long pole about the height of our apartment would go off across the street in the plaza with deafening whining. This sound alone was exceedingly disturbing and made me cry in fear. I was told that this was part of an exercise to prepare for a possible air attack by the Russians. I had no idea who the Russians were, where they were, or why they would attack us out of the blue. I remember watching on television that a man named Kennedy had been killed. People on television were upset, and I heard them talk about Russians and the likelihood of war. I did not know what exactly war was, but it seemed to involve beyond air attacks going to other people and fighting with them. I had heard my dad say that he had fought the Russians in the last war. All these elements convinced me. Even with limited evidence and grasp, I was in apprehension that the Russians would come any time now, that the sirens would go off for real, and that they would throw bombs on us. I did not believe when grownups claimed this would not happen. I could read concern in their faces and hear it in their voices.
No doubt, there was horrible danger lurking out there, danger of appalling viciousness and unpredictability, danger that was very difficult to understand and pinpoint in its motives and often poorly described in its occurrences. This made it all the more inexplicable that both of my parents spent so much time out of the house. I noticed fear in my mother’s eyes when my dad was late to come home without calling and she got increasingly frantic. He always laughed it off when he finally arrived, but I had the suspicion he just tried to protect us from knowing about the dangers he endured. I suspected that he might be waging battles for our safety, probably still against the Russians. I thought he did not tell us about them because he did not want us to be scared. I also thought that my mom would have to be fighting evil, although maybe evil of a different kind and closer to home. This, I imagined, was what they took so seriously, the work they referred to that was so important they had to leave us and each other most of the time. They had to be struggling against something because I noticed and overheard that they loathed to go out there.
However, as I was getting older, and for some time parallel to my growing concerns and rationalizations of information I gathered about threats, some incongruities began to raise doubt in me. None of the threats ever came to pass for me, anybody else in my family, for any of my friends in the courtyard, or anybody else I knew. I could not help suspecting that someone was trying to sow fear. I was not sure who was an instigator, perpetuator, and victim or whether these categories overlapped. Even if there were real threats behind the disconcerting representations, I resented that I was not told about their true probability of materialization. I also became quite certain that some threats that had been raised to me had no basis in fact whatsoever. I quickly found that St. Nicklaus and Knecht Ruprecht were fictitious. I noticed that their beards were moving oddly, that they were not made from real hair, but from a cotton-like material and that they had different impersonators each year. As fraudulent purported representatives of God, they cast doubt on his existence as well or at least on his nature. I began to suspect that there was no night grabber because he was completely unknown to all my friends in the courtyard. I noticed that the circumstances of fairytales differed markedly from the conditions of my surroundings and heard from friends and by admission of grownups that these stories were untrue. I also gathered from outings that the world was a lot friendlier than I had been led to believe. The weekend trips with my family to visit people out of town or to a place my parents owned out in the wine country were not enough to discover much useful information. Arguably, these destinations could be classified as safe similar to our apartment. Maybe they were even safer because they lacked the threats surrounding our home. None of these trips were therefore representative of the real world that might be different. But that we could take such trips in various directions and distances without dangerous coincidences was encouraging.
An occasion for more intense study arrived when I first became able to look down from our living room balcony onto the unsheltered, open side of our apartment. Stepping out on this or any other balcony alone had been strictly forbidden because the grownups feared that I would climb the railing and fall. But I was eventually allowed to go out onto the front balcony under supervision. My older brother could see over the railing or at least the cladding underneath. I was not tall enough, but somehow managed to peak through or over somewhere. I had been reluctant to venture out onto this ledge. This was closer to the sirens and potentially less protected against incursions by sinister forces. I had expected that this was a side of the building that could not be trusted. Yet, as I observed what was going on below, I realized that it was not scary, not evil at all, and that there was much to learn out there. The view from the front balcony was an intriguing display of all kinds of people, objects, activities, and motion on the busy plaza. Immediately below was an avenue on which I could see trucks, buses, cars, motorcycles, and bicycles drive. On the walkways by the road and crosswalks, I saw all kinds of people. Some of them were children and mothers with babies. There were many more people across the street in a park that had grassy areas, flower beds, shrubs, and areas with trees. Some of the trees were surrounded by cobblestone pavement, some stood in grass. Paved pathways also crisscrossed the park in several directions and converged in a central area on the left side. That area housed a bulletin drum covered with all kinds of colored papers, a kiosk where people stood to pick up papers, food, and drinks, as well as a small streetcar station. The tracks of several lines crossed but the streetcars never collided. Up on the right side, the plaza was framed by a street similar to the one in front of our building. There was also a busy overpass with billboards where cars and trucks drove quickly and a parallel railway overpass where trains whizzed by. On the left of the plaza, I could see older, three- or four-story buildings with sculpted facades and black slate roofs as well as interspersed square, modern buildings with larger windows. Some of their ground floors had store fronts. People were going in and coming out, carrying bags. On the very left, parallel to the balcony, an avenue branched off. I could see parked and driving vehicles, trees, and house fronts far into the distance. I was told that my brother was going to school there in a building whose brick facade I could only faintly discern. He was not too excited about going to school. But after he kept coming back every day, even when he walked unaccompanied, I had reason to believe that it might not be all that bad in our vicinity. As I got older, I accompanied our nanny to shop for groceries and other things in the stores I had seen on the left flank of the plaza from the balcony and even in a few more distant stores. The shopkeepers were friendly, and I often got some candy from the cleaner and shoe repair man or a slice of sausage at the butcher shop. The idea that we could pick up what we needed in the neighborhood and that people freely gave it to us was reassuring to me. In a way, this was similar to the basket on a string from which I got my snacks in the courtyard. Somebody deposited what we needed in these stores for us to pick up. The only difference was that we had to give them money. I began to understand after some questioning where money came from that its acquisition seemed to be my parents’ purpose in venturing out into the world beyond our neighborhood. I was familiar with the practice of earning a reward if I behaved in a requested manner and with the practice of trade from bartering snacks and toys with other kids in my courtyard.
The more I studied the plaza, its traffic, and its people the more I realized that it was not unlike my backyard, just a lot freer, changing, and open. But nobody got hurt, abducted, or lost. Cars drove in a disciplined fashion and stopped at crossways and intersection lights. Despite intense activity, everything seemed to be orderly and normal. There was nothing to fear and nobody displayed any of the concerns that had been portrayed to and instilled in me. People peacefully went about their business. When the sirens went off, these people did not interrupt what they were doing either, except maybe for holding their hands over their ears. Thus, I doubted that the Russians or anybody else bad was about to attack. I suspected that the world as a whole was just a larger amalgamation of houses, courtyards, and plazas connected by streets into towns and of towns connected by highways. I also knew from our overland trips that these towns were separated by forests, rivers, and by fields from which our food came. People all over were going about gainful pursuits of which I increasingly learned. The mundane triviality of the world was reassuring. I did not completely discount the warnings I had received about the possibilities of danger beyond the boundaries of my experiences. Just in case, I decided to be careful and not trust people, objects, and places I did not know. However, I also determined that the trust I had placed in grownups in my family to tell me about the world had been largely misplaced. What they had implanted into my imagination or allowed to fester contrasted too much with what I found to be true or likely. I had been lied to.
I did not fully understand why grownups around me were making up stories about dangers or did not explain them properly. I considered the possibility that they wanted to protect me and instill caution in me. I also suspected that they wanted to scare me so I would behave according to their liking. Maybe they wanted to intimidate me so I would look up to them. I was also willing to believe that, at least with regard to the less obvious parts, they were scared by someone else for any of these reasons and might be similarly impressionable as I was. Maybe the threat of bad people or monsters was an engineered ruse to keep not only children but also grownups in fear, was a pretext to control all of us. In any event, the dishonesty and the unnecessary distress this fearmongering had caused me made me angry. These lies had almost succeeded in suffocating my openness and my drive to learn, to find out about the world. They had depressed my joy of life. From now on, I would not let grownups scare me anymore because I realized that this gave them undeserved power over me. I would be my own judge regarding reality. I would invest some trust if I experienced sufficient reasons but remain vigilant to attempts of manipulation and would question what other people were claiming to be true.
I also came to realize that whatever threats were real and any unreal fears might be eliminated if the world behaved like the children in my courtyard. There was no deception, fighting, or intimidation among us. There was also no insulting, exclusion, or hierarchy, no taking of property. Why was our relationship so harmonious? Although I think the perception of common threats was a part of the reason, our days were not dominated by fear. We tried to understand and cope with our world together through information and actions we contributed. I think it had much to do with the fact that we were, apart from sporadic supervision from balconies, left alone. The continual group setting incentivized us to get along. Shortly after I turned five, my family moved to a suburban house in a town an hour away. With one rare exception, I never saw any of my friends again. Although I missed them, I did not know at the time what I had lost. I had assumed that children at the new place would be similarly friendly. Instead, I mostly met with estranged introversion, rejection, and hostility that, as I later found out, often reflected attitudes of parents. I sometimes wonder what the world would be like if children everywhere grew up like I and my friends back then in the courtyard.
© 2013-2021 BY MARTIN JANELLO