My name is Josef Müeller and I can remember when I was a child and used to run the path behind the town where I lived in Germany. The town was called “Bischofsdhron” and was named such because it was located near the ruin of a castle that had, in centuries passed, been occupied by a bishop of some renown. I can’t speak to the town’s acreage or square-kilometer coverage, but I know we entered the town after crossing a stream at the bottom of a hill and proceeded up the hill, taking the main road, to an intersection of sorts where we could proceed or turn one of three different directions and exit the town into the various meadows and hillsides or forests that were found along the town’s borders.
If one were to continue in the direction of the main road, which my memory of the various awakenings and settings of the sun would indicate to be southward, one would take a lesser-used road, Idarwaldstrasse, past the sportsplatz and into the forest where one would encounter even less-traveled logging trails that led to only god-knows-where. I do know that my friends and I found a set of railroad tracks and more forest in that southern direction during our several wanderings, but we never came upon another town or settlement of any sort.
Proceeding westward from that particular intersection, we would pass what my parents and other adults referred to as “knob hill.” I don’t know that I was ever made privy to the reasoning behind the rubric, and it doesn’t make any more sense to me now than it did then…unless the people who lived up there were a bunch of dick-heads…but, I don’t know. The road or street we lived on, Sonnenstrasse, which led to a neighboring town named “Morbach,” passed several other homes where the Americans lived. It also passed the house of the Burgermeister, or mayor, of the town. If I remember correctly, the man was rather old and stooped and gray-haired. He was also something more of a symbol than an actual participating entity in the town’s affairs. I was told that his daughter did more governing or directing than he did.
I have wondered how strange I might have appeared, as a German nine year-old, wearing my cut-off blue-jean shorts and a yellow t-shirt, pulling an American G.I. Joe jeep and trailer by a string, as I headed out of Bischofsdhron one summer morning, walking the Morbach road. I think I may have seemed a bit odd. I might have looked rather “American” in my German-ness…or maybe it looked like my mother was German and my father was in the American military, stationed at the base nearby…whatever it was or appeared to be, it was just me wearing American clothes that I had gotten from the charity box at church and playing with American toys that I had received at the German-American community’s friendship toy-drive Christmas party a few months earlier. Anyway, the G.I. Joe was dressed in full camouflage gear with his black combat boots, shiny green helmet and plastic brown rifle, sitting behind the steering wheel, and appeared to be driving the WWII jeep that was pulling a trailer that contained a tripod-mounted rocket or bomb launcher. I don’t remember if there was another G.I. Joe in the passenger seat or not, but we were going to Morbach. I don’t know why I chose to make the journey, either, but it was summer and there was little else to do. Another little tidbit is that the road to Morbach passed through a forest where rabid bats were known to live. Whether that was a rumor supported by truth or entirely fabricated is unknown to me. What I do know, however, is that I spent several long minutes looking skyward, craning my neck and squinting my eyes to see if I could find any bat-like creatures hanging in the branches of the oh-so-tall pine trees that lined the Morbach road.
Anyway, again, I’m telling a story here, or making a confession, really, and it has nothing to do with the Morbach road or my pulling a jeep anywhere with a little string. It also has nothing to do with that time my friends and I stole two kilos of bratwursts from the metzgerei, or butcher-shop, and ran off into the woods to roast them wonderfully and deliciously over a fire made of pine branches…. Ahh…we stood there watching their skins split and turn dark brown and then black as the juices dripped into the fire and made that greasy smoke that clings to your hair and clothes for hours afterward, telling the world and our parents and the metzler’s son what we professed we didn’t do on a certain springtime Saturday afternoon. That’s another story and one that doesn’t deserve much in the way of confessing. Not today, anyway. I’m just giving you the setting, that’s all, so you can understand or see where I was, maybe.
So, there was a path that ran the length of what I understand to be the western edge of Bischofsdhron. In some places it was cobbled, but mostly it was a white-ish crushed rocky kind of sandy stuff that had broken slate and shale mixed in with the dirt. Maybe it was decades-old construction detritus that had been swept in between the buildings and crushed and worn into a walkway over the years…I don’t know…but it started as something like an walkway or narrow alley behind or near the town’s primary school and led to the bottom of the hill, again appearing as an alley or pathway that came out from between two buildings that fronted another road that also led to Morbach. This road took a course at a lower elevation and entered the town from the northeastern to slightly northern border. The majority of the path skirted our town, having the backyards and gardens or backs of houses to the right (east) and empty fields or rolling hills on the left, or western side. As the path re-entered the town proper, it passed between a couple houses and a rickety, aged storage-shed that resembled more of an out-building from a no-longer existent barn or farm complex.
I had passed the houses and shed dozens of times on my way to and from the bus stop on schooldays and during the innumerable weekend and summer-time forays throughout the town and its surrounding countryside and hills and forests. The wooden planks that comprised the sides and door of the shed had been bleached gray by the elements and were barely held in place by a remnant of rusted nails and twisted wire. The bottom edges of the planks had been gnawed by rodents or had otherwise been chipped and were rotting away and any passerby could see some rags or old clothes or other manner of fabric material that was being stored or had been discarded in the shed.
On this particular day, as I was hiking up the path, I turned and looked into the window of the house on my left and saw an older man in a faded and dingy whitish gray tank-type t-shirt holding-on to a little boy’s arm with one hand and hitting him with the other, bashing him in the head and shoulder and arm as the kid ducked and thrashed and squirmed and tried to block the assault. The man’s free hand wasn’t open…the fingers were curled into a fist and his arm was cocked-back as his eye caught my movement through the window. He lowered his arm and turned to face me full-on…watery, red-rimmed eyes swimming in their hate and rage, glaring at me now, forgetting for an instant the little boy in his other hand. He yelled through the window at me – “What are you looking at, arshloch?!” The boy turned, as well, and I saw his crying and pleading eyes and reddened cheeks and bloodied nose. I felt his heart pounding in mine and could smell the old man’s rage and sweat and filthy breath filling the tiny room, suffocating the little one’s desires to do anything but survive the moment. In that instant of wondering why the man had called me an ass-hole, I kept my eyes fixed on his and started to turn my body to walk away, but my foot slipped on the slate and sandy dirt of the slanted and sloping pathway and I lost my balance. I fell sideways and back and crashed into the ancient shack on the other side of the narrow track. A board broke and my hand slid along the rough surface, picking-up splinters and scraping the skin from my palm and forearm as I tried to keep myself from falling full-length onto the slate and other rocks in the pathway. I regained my balance and looked back into the window as I reached blindly for my school bag. All I could see was the boy’s back as the man dragged him through the doorway and out of my view. There were muffled shouts that came out from the other room and back into the little kitchen where I had first seen the man and boy. As I stood there and looked through the window at the remnants of sausage and potato on their dinner plates, I couldn’t understand anything that was being said, but I heard the boy cry-out a couple times after particular shouts from the man and what I thought was the smacking of a hand on flesh. Memories and sensations of dread and having done something wrong crashed through my mind and added to the pounding in my chest. My father had done the same to me many times and I’m sure it wouldn’t have sounded any different if some passerby had been close enough to our house to hear it when it happened. Their rage was the same, the other man and my father…and it looked the same as it fell on the boy and me…from our fathers.
A few days later, I happened to pass through that alley pathway again. I walked slowly and listened carefully before I rounded the corner and turned up and into the walkway that led between the boy’s house and the shed. I don’t know where the thought came from…other than from having witnessed the boy getting a beating those few days before, but for some reason, I decided to light a match to the cloth that was sticking-out from beneath the worn and tattered edge of the shed. Aside from my anger at the boy’s father…and my own, I’m sure, I can’t imagine what other motive would have possessed me to do so. I knew the dangers of playing with matches. I had received a couple beatings for merely lighting them in the house while my parents were outside or somehow occupied and out of my sight. I was nine years-old and knew what fire could do, yet I lit the rags anyway and sped off, pumping myself up the hill as fast as I could, out of the alley pathway and beyond.
I don’t remember the events immediately following that particular afternoon’s misdeed and I can’t recall how long I waited to make a trip up or down that walkway again, but eventually I did. There were no longer any rags or clothes visible from the path side of the shed, and given the fact that I was the hoodlum who had started the fire, I knew well enough not to linger too long or show too much interest in whatever I happened to pass in this particular juncture of the alley or passage. My hasty survey of the damage showed that the bottom 18 inches of the shed door had been burned in a near triangle-shaped pattern that didn’t seem to have burned very long. The man, or boy, or someone must have seen the smoke from their back window and rushed outside to extinguish the fire.
One might say that I’m lucky I didn’t get caught. I do feel a certain level of doubt that I would have survived the beating I would have received if I had been discovered. That’s probably too strong of a statement regarding my father’s harsh treatment of me when I was a child, but it might be more accurate than I’ll ever know. I feel fortunate, today, to have found that the fire was no more extensive than it was those many years ago. Considering the proximity of the other buildings along the path, the results could have been much worse. And I wonder, still…what does it mean that I set fire to the shed? What outcome was I hoping for that afternoon? What was I looking for…why did I do it? Could it have been the desire to burn those images of hate and rage from my memory, or was there some deeper drive or force that compelled me to do something that I knew was so wrong?