The soft, warm breezes of spring once again caressed the land and the low-lying mountains, promising new beginnings, refreshed colors and fields of green warming in the sunlight. Patches of white still remained, snow on yet frozen fields, piled high in many corners, and, at the edges of rooftops icicles melting, dripping their history to the ground. Clumps of accumulated snow could be seen falling from the limbs of bare trees and pines and in their falling, a small curtain of snow would follow, the rising morning sun glittering and reflecting off the flakes as they descended to earth in their last dance.
This was April 1949 and our travel took us, my father and me, into the wine country of Southern Germany. Since 1945, he had made this trip repeatedly but this was a first: I got to take the trip with him! The excitement of it made me ignore the wind which must have made my nose a rosy pink while my hands firmly gripped the handlebar attached to the seat in front of me with my father in it. I was sitting in what can only be described as an over-large bicycle seat which did nothing to absorb the impact of the wheels entering the never-ending potholes of 1949. But clearly, I did not care. This vehicle was a motorized version of his hand-propelled vehicle and had a two-cycle engine which translated its power to a chain from its transmission to the rear wheels. The single front wheel was steered through a long metal bar which ended at my father's hands and also contained the controls of the gearshift, the accelerator and the brake. No protection from wind and weather whatsoever, those type of improvements were reserved for a later age and time.
And this truly is food for thought, at least for me. Had he lived today, steel-alloy legs would have enabled him to walk with much more ease than the wooden legs he strapped on each day, an automobile could have been adapted to control all its functions at the steering wheel and provide shelter, and so many minor inconveniences would not have been the major obstacles he had to overcome. But conquering such obstacles were a fact of life to him; after all, he survived WW1.
As we thundered along the narrow, winding roads at a hair-raising speed of about 25mph, I recall asking myself how we could possibly store all the bounty with which my father typically returned from these trips to feed his family. No one had warned me that I would play a literally pivotal role in such transport. Why else bring help along? And where were we going?
The farms in those days operated mostly on animal power which, to a large degree, also decided the layout of where and how a farmer's family and their animals be housed. The residence would typically be situated in small villages, fronting a narrow road which winds its way through the village. The term “as the cow wanders” appears very applicable and to this day is still everywhere in evidence, no matter that is is now accommodating motorized farm equipment. The rest of the frontage will be an at least six-foot high fence with a double gate. Once entry through this gate is obtained, a court-yard is in the offing which is totally surrounded by barns, storage areas and animal enclosures. And, of course, the crowning glory of the courtyard will be the humongous manure-pile, right in the middle. The taller the pile, the more respectable and wealthy the farmer was said to be. These “marks of excellence”, however odoriferous, were so valued that the farmers with the biggest piles might even put them in front of their property, should the space allow.
Come spring, however, the real value of this fertilizer becomes very evident as the farmer transports it to the fields where a variety of vegetables will be grown: potatoes, cabbage, turnips, one kind of corn for animals, another for humans, and whatever else what needed to be grown.
Today, few of these piles remain visible as village ordinances attempt to regulate them and hide them from any tourist who may visit their “dorf”. But a careful tourist with a good nose can still find them, if that is on their agenda. Besides, the mechanization of farm implements has rapidly replaced the oxen, cows and plow horses and subsequently the visible wealth indicators. Enter the “Stammtisch”, an eternally reserved table at the local pub, where important German villagers get bragging rights, but that is another subject.
Entering the village, it seemed another world. On the left of the main road flowed a wide creek, embe dded in stone walls, swollen with runoff from melting snow and ice. A few Oxcarts were laboring through the road as well, laden with fertilizer and straw, heading for the fields surrounding the village. A few of the older houses, older than the late 1800's that is, could be seen visibly leaning to one side or another, occasionally with massive wooden beams cracked in places and repaired with mixtures of compound of some sort. This phenomenon can be seen even today throughout Germany since the preservation of such old buildings represent a serious and worthwhile effort to preserve history, however dented.
One quick right turn and we had arrived at our goal. Though still early in the morning, the gates were wide open, men and some older boys could be seen working in the courtyard. The sudden silence of my father's motor vehicle alerted me that I must have suddenly gone deaf or that there was simply nothing much to hear: the creaking of leather harnesses, the subdued mooing of a cow, some persistent grunting which I assumed to be coming from more than one pig rooting in a troth. In the back of the courtyard, I could see some horses in stalls but they were simply munching hay, every now and then bobbing their heads up and down. And the men talking, I could hear them now as well, murmured conversations at best. One called out and after a couple of minutes, two women appeared to welcome us. Obviously, they had expected the visit.
Both women were less than 5 foot tall and, based on the fact that I saw them again nearly 50 years later, must have been in their late thirties. As young as I was at the time, I would have described them as, well . . . solid and weathered. Farm life, then and now, leaves behind evidence of hard work and long hours spent in the care of others, whether animal or human. Their welcoming smiles, however, brushed aside all other observations and remained a re-occurring theme every time I had the privilege of a visit in this seemingly magical place.
Behind the front house, a stairway climbed to a narrow platform the length and breath of the buildings on this second floor. Several doorways branched off this platform and, as we entered the first room which turned out to be a dining room of sorts, I could not help but notice the low door frames which would not, in anyone's lifetime, accommodate a 6-foot person without some serious head-ducking. In later years, I would observe this apparent anomaly throughout Germany, whenever we viewed old houses or castles built in the 1800's and prior. People do now grow older and taller and thinner and healthier – I suppose in 300 years, we may look at our present abodes as quaint and declare them to be national treasures. Most likely, they will long have disappeared in the dust of time.
It was now apparent that the 1st floor under the residence was a large segmented root cellar where harvested crops were stored behind walls made from stone and mortar. The dining room contained a rough-hewn large table, a bench or two and some chairs which would yield today a pretty penny for their originality. The main source of heating was a wall of ceramic tile, behind which a large stove and chimney were built into the wall which could be accessed from other rooms as well. We spent several hours here of relative comfort and cozy companionship – while I explored some of the animals in their stalls.
“Stone-baked” was invented here, I am sure of it. These farmers' hospitality brought forth a huge 3-pound, round loaf of bread still white on top from sprinkled flour. They showed me the oven next door which produced these monsters promising full bellies. It was obvious that at least two of them had been baked to take with us on our leaving. That alone would have been worth the trip. Then came the freshly churned butter in large slabs, various cheeses and a chunk of bacon the size of which would make a mother pig proud. Some bottles of wine were served as well but I only received milk and I could have sworn that, as fresh and warm as it was, the cow must be standing right outside.
A word about the dairy products, in particular butter and milk: in later years, it became an issue of health to homogenize and pasteurize these products and, thus processed, they never tasted the same. To this day, I can recall the taste of it, bringing me visions of cows grazing on flowery, grassy fields and meadows and I doubt not that the cows enjoyed that as much as I enjoyed the taste of their butter. Despite the work involved, I can recall churning that milk into butter, which took hours of muscle-taxing effort, and subsequently drinking the resulting buttermilk, none of which could have been labeled 'fat-free'.
In the afternoon, right about the time a nap would have been a fine thing, we prepared to leave so we would be home before dark. After my father was, once again, seated in his vehicle, they packed food stuffs, all kind of vegetables and dried fruits, all around where his wooden legs rested on the platform of the vehicle, tying it all down with the comments that we should not have an accident along the way for obvious reasons Another crate, narrow but long, was filled with butter, bread, smoked bacon, cheese and whatever else they had at the time. Now I knew why I could be useful since I was tasked with balancing this crate on the backseat where I was supposed to comfortably ride. And balance I did, all the way, and on returning home came the sense of elation that I had contributed towards our family's welfare and nothing had been spilled along the way. What an adventure! Tired as I was, I know I asked: “Can we go again tomorrow?”
I never knew how it came about that our family had this life-saving relationship with this farm-family and I also do not know if they received payment for these 'gifts of life'. I do know that the scurvy two of the younger children in our family experienced during the late '40s would have been a lot worse had it not been for the generosity of these people.