Anecdotes from a German Childhood

My Banana Deficiency Syndrome.

I still vividly remember my mother coming home from hospital with a new baby brother (Horst) when I was just four and a half years old. The following day I was taken to the same hospital for an appendectomy. Visitors asked me what they could get for me from the hospital kiosk and each one, without fail, was given the same emphatic instruction, “Get me some bananas, please!”

This was despite being the son of a wine and fruit growing family. I had all the fruit I wanted at my disposal – except bananas – which were an imported commodity. However, bananas were the fruit for which I craved continually. I often wondered whether the sudden longing for bananas was caused by the removal of my appendix, or because I just wanted to be difficult and ask for fruit that didn’t grow on our farm. Or was it, perhaps, that I lacked potassium in my diet or had contracted an affliction such as the “Banana deficiency syndrome”? No matter where I went, or was taken, I was always looking for a fruit stall to buy bananas. This yearning for bananas never diminished and neither did I find an answer to this enigma – until I migrated to Australia.

On our six weeks journey by ship to Australia in 1954, I was asked if I would help daily for two hours to count the fruit out for the 1500 migrants on board. The reward would not be money, but fruit, I said yes for two reasons: firstly, I was keen breaking the boredom, and secondly, and most importantly I would get extra fruit for my wife and young daughter – and bananas for me.

Although I was skilled in cabinet making and also in every aspect of viticulture, I volunteered upon arrival in Australia to cut sugar cane, I surmised this would take me north to the tropics where the bananas were. After the cane season was finished, I applied through the then CES (Commonwealth Employment Service) to get a job on a banana farm. Luck was on my side; they found me a job on a 16-acre banana farm in Coffs Harbour, belonging to a Mr Murphy.

A Monday morning in March 1955 was my first workday amongst the bananas; I had reached a milestone. In whichever direction I looked, I could only see bananas, I had to ask myself, was it real or was I dreaming? It took twenty-five years to get so close to so many bananas, the cardinal question still lingered in my mind, would I be cured of my affliction? The answer, you’ll find at the end of this story.

Bill (Mr Murphy’s son-in-law) and I started to harvest bananas. He was equipped with a cane knife (machete), and selected the bunches which were ready, I then held the bunch while he cut it off and I carried it on my shoulder to the nearest collection platform. There were about eight such platforms scattered around the 16-acre plantation. All platforms were connected to the packing shed by a flying fox, a mechanical contraption which took the bananas down to the shed attached to a pulley.

When we had cut all the bananas, I manned the platform while Bill stacked the bananas in the shed. In the beginning, I had difficulty finding all the platforms again in the densely planted plantation, often to the frustration of Bill below.

However, for me one of the most pleasing aspects of that day’s banana harvest was when we came across two fully ripened bunches that had been missed previously. We had a feed, and they tasted like all tree-ripened fruit – much better than the ones we buy in the shops. When Bill told me that I could have the two ripe bunches, as they were too ripe to be packed or sold, I thought Christmas had its Second Coming. I was literally in clover, and when a few days later we went harvesting again, more ripe bunches were found and a few days later some more again. In no time, I had accumulated six bunches all hung up in the spare room of the cottage.

We (especially me) had bananas for breakfast, for lunch and for dessert after dinner, and we had bananas in between mealtimes. This went on for about three months, I had a lot of catching up to do, and all those years when I couldn’t get enough bananas were finally over. After three months of a steady diet of bananas, my affliction, the ‘banana deficiency syndrome’ had finally been conquered, and very soon I couldn’t stand the sight of them any more, much less eat one. The new prognosis was ‘banana saturation syndrome’.

After approximately ten months in Australia, and having reached the age of 25, I finally found the cure for this affliction. Needless to say, there is no shortage of bananas now where I live in north Queensland, but the craving has gone.

My Sister Helga.

During world war two, every household was issued with gas masks. Helga was only a few months old, still wearing nappies and lying awake in her bassinet. My mother had to go to the corner shop and enlisted me to keep an eye, or possibly both, on my sister.

Helga started to cry, and I tried to calm her by talking to her and gesticulating with my hands. Leaning over the bassinet and thus being very close by her side, I noticed a terrible smell emanating from the direction of her nappies. I surmised that it could be one of two things. One, that there was something in those nappies, and they were not roses. Two, a distant possibility, we were under a gas attack. Early in the war, the authorities had warned us that the enemy could drop poisoned gas on us any day. As we found out later, the latter conclusion was pretty close to the mark, but this was “friendly” gas and did not come from our enemies.

However, I thought it would better to err on the side of caution and be safe rather than sorry, so I fetched my gas mask from the cupboard and put it on. Then, I approached my little sister again, to deal with her crying and tried anew to calm her.

To my horror, however, my sister was not impressed at all with my strange headgear, and her crying went up quite a few octaves and became high-pitched screams. She gave the impression of being a budding opera singer, with the exception that her face took on hues of red and blue. Patting and softly stroking her only made matters worse. I was at my wits’ end, panicked, and ran to the neighbour’s wife, Anna, for help. She stopped immediately whatever she was doing and we raced back to my distressed sister.

Anna lifted Helga out of the bassinet and the crying stopped immediately, then she went to the source of that terrible smell and quickly rectified the situation. Then, Anna noticed the gas mask still hanging around my neck. “Why on earth do your have that gas mask around your neck?” she wanted to know. I explained the reason for it, to which she exclaimed, “Oh my God, no wonder the poor girl was screaming!”

Some time later, Helga was unwell with a fever and mother called the doctor. In those days, doctors made house calls. In due time, the doctor arrived. He was a locum tenens and he was led by mother into the loungeroom. I was promptly sent to the kitchen, as there was no way that my mother would allow me to witness the medical examination of my sister. Such things were considered inappropriate. However, inquisitive as always, my ears were pricked up and close to the wall which separated us.

Suddenly, there was a bit of a commotion in the ‘examination’ room and I heard my mother apologizing for something. After a little while, mother and doctor came marching into the kitchen, mother walking beside the doctor and wiping his face with a clean nappy, and the doctor looking extremely shocked and undoing his tie, and at the same time saying, “This has never happened to me before.”

Mother went to the sink to wet the nappy and gave the doctor a few more wipes while still apologizing for whatever Helga had done, and all he could say again, was, “That has never happened to me before.”

By now I was dying to know what it was that had never happened to him before, but I had been well trained not to butt into adult conversations and ask questions.

The doctor finally left, still indicating some distress about whatever it was that had never happened to him before, and my mother put an end to the mystery and told me what had happened.

The doctor had decided to give Helga an injection and asked mother to turn the baby on her stomach so that he could insert the needle into the cheek of her little behind.

As the needle went into my little sister’s bottom, Helga retaliated in a skunk-like fashion firing an accurately directed salvo of a very smelly substance at the doctor. What would normally be called a ‘bullseye’ would have to be called, in this instance, a ‘doctor’s-eye’.

My Inquisitive Trait.

I have to admit I was a very inquisitive kid. Some of this curiosity fell on the learning side and some on the “sticky beak” side of human nature. This inquisitive trait has stayed with me throughout my life; always eager to learn, to find out why and how. Needless to say, this characteristic brought me trouble as a child, precisely because I was so determined about finding out why and how things worked. I was already wise enough to know how to avoid a negative answer. I just went ahead and did things without first asking whether I could. Simple.

In 1938, the army came to our village for a four weeks’ stint of manoeuvres and we had two soldiers billeted with us. One day, when my parents were working in the vineyards and the soldiers were out in the forests and fields playing war games, I felt it was a good time to have a closer look at the camera belonging to one of the soldiers.

Just looking at the outside didn’t tell me much so, with the help of a screwdriver, I soon obtained an ‘inside view’ of this fascinating piece of apparatus. I had the time of my life and was in a world of my own, amazed to discover that there were so many parts in a camera.

The roll with a kind of plastic on it, I learned later, was the film. What were once the internal parts of the camera were now lying in a heap on the kitchen table. With the exploration finished and my curiosity satisfied, the time came to put the thing back together again before everybody returned home. It took only a short time for me to realize that the task was impossible for me to carry out.

My thoughts started to focus on the consequences that would follow my short career as a camera demolisher. I took the heap of camera parts and put it in the same spot where I had found the camera. In those days, kids had not yet learned the advantage of running away from home, otherwise I would have taken the opportunity to disappear. The only option left open to me was to go to bed, feign sickness – my reasoning being that sick children would not get a hiding – to await all hell breaking loose when the heap of parts from the camera was found.

I did not have to feign sickness for long. It became reality and I was “sick” all over, especially the rear component of my body inflicted by the hand of my father. In retrospect, regarding the punishment meted out to me, today’s kids, by contrast, could take their parents to court for assault and battery. The severe corporal punishment did not cure my inquisitive nature, but it did curb the urge to take things apart – for a while – until I found my mother’s watch.

Some time had passed since the dismembered camera episode, when an irresistible urge told me to have a closer look at my mother’s prized possession, a wristwatch, to find out what made it tick. She wore this watch only on special occasions; otherwise it was kept in a ‘safe’ place in a cabinet. As usual, I waited until my parents departed for the fields or vineyards, and then proceeded to take the watch apart. After I found out what made it tick, I was faced with the same predicament as with the camera. I was unable to put it together and make it tick again.

Remembering only too well the consequences of my camera misadventure, I decided to bury the loose remains of what was once a beautiful wristwatch, in a remote spot in our vegetable garden. After a few months, when my mother wanted to wear the watch for a special occasion and could not find it anywhere, she thought it had been stolen by one of the housemaids we used to employ every summer. When I returned to Germany in 1976 after an absence of twenty-two years, a lot of reminiscing took place and the subject of the missing wristwatch, the one allegedly stolen by the housemaid arose. This time, not fearing corporal punishment, I owned up to my mother, and exonerated the housemaid, and told her what really happened to her wristwatch, and where I had buried it.

The Non-Permissive society.

My early life was spent in a non-permissive society; we had all the urges and passions of the human race since the dawn of man, but those were sacrosanct and not for display. It was the time when my grandmother’s undergarments were bloomers; my mother was already a bit more progressive in that department and her knickers had been shortened considerably to well above the knee.

How did I know? I spied. Even my father was very reluctant to remove his shirt in summertime and walk around ‘topless’. I recall one hot August day just after the war when we were harvesting wheat and a neighbour’s daughter, then about 18, who was helping with harvesting in the nearby paddock, was wearing a full-length swimsuit. Schmidlin Oma (God bless her soul) was so disgusted with this openly scandalous display of human flesh that she wanted her arrested for indecent exposure. Yes, those were different times.

Sex was a taboo subject, never discussed openly. Even explicit pictures of the male or female anatomy, then only found in the so-called “doctor” books, were hidden from the prying eyes of the children and we were warned that looking at such pictures would render us blind. My parents possessed such a “doctor” book, and hid it deep inside the linen cupboard, buried under stacks of bed linen and blankets.

When my parents were in the vineyards or fields my inquisitive nature sent me exploring and one day I discovered the wonderful book with its detailed, full-colour pictures of every part of the human anatomy, male and female. Despite the risk of blindness, I went back to the cupboard many times to peruse and ‘study’. My parents never knew that I secretly educated myself in their absence, and after every learning session I put the book back exactly as it was in its ‘safe’ hiding place.

In due course, I started to give ‘lectures’ to my friends, sharing with them my newly acquired knowledge, and soon they too wanted to know more about this interesting and fascinating subject and insisted that I lead them to the source of my knowledge. Unlike school, learning suddenly wasn’t drudgery anymore. Why, we asked ourselves, don’t they teach subjects at school like the one found in the linen cupboard?

The French Connection.

My propensity to make unilateral decisions as a youngster often resulted in undesirable consequences. My self-assured thinking and my tendency never to ask questions, whether I could or should, in order to avoid a negative response, was more than often a great concern to my parents and grandparents.

The time was 1945; the end of world war two, and our State was occupied by French occupation forces. We were a farming community and each farm had its own distillery to make schnapps from grapes and fruit, such as cherries, plums and apples, the sale of which brought in extra income.

Through my occasional riding around on my pushbike, I became acquainted with a French soldier with a somewhat dark complexion, who often went for a walk along the road when off duty. He conversed with me in very limited German and sometimes asked for a short ride on my bike. Perhaps, I was a bit naïve and gullible – or both – and I never suspected that there could be an ulterior motive behind his quest to befriend me. One thing was certain; I would never have trusted him in a dark alley.

One day, like a bolt out of the blue, he asked me if I could supply him with some Schnapps. “Schnapps?” I repeated with some surprise and incredulity. “What’s in it for me?” I asked myself. Hold on a second, though, we need petrol for the spray pump. “Can you supply me with petrol?” I asked him cautiously. “Yes,” was his emphatic reply.

We agreed to exchange four litres of Schnapps for twenty litres of petrol. This was a clandestine operation and he suggested that he deliver the petrol in bottles so that the ‘trading’ remained inconspicuous – after all, he had to pilfer the stuff, and keeping the action quiet was paramount. Taking Schnapps from my family without their knowledge (which in the end would be to their benefit anyway) never caused me to think that what I intended to do was tantamount to pilfering – never, because I was part of that family.

We stored our distilled alcohol in big twenty- to thirty-litre glass bottles, protected on the outside with a wicker basket-like cage, and taking out a few litres of Schnapps would not have been easily detected. Since this was a top secret operation we needed a ‘drop zone’ where this covert exchange would take place, and we decided that the spot would be under a certain thicket in the nearby forest. I know it might appear that I plagiarized an episode from a popular spy thriller but this was certainly not the case.

Like a chess player, I was thinking a couple of moves ahead, and I anticipated that my family elders ultimately would have wanted to know where on earth I got that petrol from, and what it had cost. I would be ready with my answer. “I received the petrol in return for letting the French soldier ride on my bike.” I already visualized the pleasantly surprised look on the faces of my parents and grandfather. On the other hand, perhaps I was just kidding myself. The thought that I might be engaging in a game of brinkmanship with unforeseen consequences never entered my mind. The desire to surprise my family with the much-needed petrol overrode my capacity for rational thinking.

When nobody was home, I filled up four bottles of Schnapps – that clear-as-water liquid which was drunk for different reasons – the most common being for medicinal purposes, such as helping with digestion, getting intoxicated to forget all your troubles, and of course at the same time killing your intestinal worms.

The bottled and corked product was now put in my long trouser legs – two bottles in each leg – with the shoe end of the trousers tightly fastened together with string. Thus I was able to kill three flies with one stroke: the secret operation stayed secret, I didn’t lose the bottles, and I could ride my bike to the ‘drop zone’ without arousing suspicion. With my trouser legs emptied of the secret cargo, and my ‘deposit’ placed in the pre-determined hiding place, my part of the contract was fulfilled. In due course, I would be in possession of my petrol. Or so I thought.

When I returned a few hours later, full of expectations to see some ‘bottled petrol’ where I put the Schnapps, I discovered to my shock that the Schnapps had disappeared, but no petrol had appeared in its place. It was a case of the nest being empty and the bird having flown. I wondered if the fellow was caught pilfering and was now under arrest or perhaps he hadn’t found an opportune moment to do the ‘bottling’, or perhaps he was just sick. Regular checks of the thicket over a few days produced the same result – nothing. I found it odd that the soldier didn’t seem to go for walks anymore, and despite riding my bike back and forth in front of the army compound never saw a glimpse of him. Asking for him was out of the question for obvious reasons. There must be a reason I thought, perhaps he had drunk all the Schnapps in one hit and not only killed his worms, but himself as well.

Gradually, however, I started to suspect a con with a capital C, when suddenly after a week or so I ran into him while walking on the road. “What happened to my petrol?” I demanded angrily. He was able to convince me with his spurious excuses that he had been sick and unable to get the petrol, but he assured me “I’ll get it for you in a day or so.” Unfortunately I hadn’t yet learned to mistrust people – even a former enemy. So when he asked me once more if he could have the bike for a ride I foolishly consented, and watched him disappear out of sight. After waiting for some time for him, to return the bike, I somewhat dejectedly walked home. When I hadn’t got my bike back by nightfall, I decided there was no alternative, but to tell my parents and my grandfather what had happened.

Having given some consideration to the situation I found myself in, I decided that the time had arrived when I had to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the affair. Knowing quite well my capability to pull off such capers and make decisions on my own, the family ‘executive’ was not unduly shocked, and afforded me some allowance for my good intentions. Grandfather reported the matter to the local constable who was stationed in the next village two kilometres away. The man in blue duly arrived on his bicycle at our place and asked me a series of questions, and subsequently reported the matter to the local French Commandant.

Soon afterwards, the local Commandant turned up at our home with two officers, one being the interpreter. He was really friendly and the whole matter was discussed in an amiable atmosphere. They showed me a few photos from which I identified my would-be petrol supplier. From their body language, it appeared that particular soldier had come to their attention on previous occasions. As they bade us goodbye, they offered to supply us with some petrol. We found this amazing: what a nice way to foster good relations with a former enemy. I don’t know what happened to the soldier, but I never encountered him again.

The French Commandant was not the same loquacious firebrand who gave my father a lecture for failing to remove his hat at a flag-lowering ceremony. (That is another story.) Interestingly this friendly commandant, after retiring from the army, settled in the neighbouring village two kilometres away with his German wife. His hobby was bee keeping and, incidentally, so was mine. Our mutual interest brought us together again and we formed an excellent relationship. Over many cups of coffee and glasses of wine we talked ‘bees’ and reminisced about the petrol and Schnapps affair. It just goes to show how situations, circumstances and attitudes can change within a short timespan – former enemies can become friends.

What Next?

My parents and Grandparents, would have started each day with some trepidation, pondering what sort of trouble I would cause for me or them.

One day I brought my grandfather in conflict with the law and a government department regarding our distilling facility on the farm. The Department of Customs strictly controlled distilling alcohol. Notice had to be given when distilling was commencing and when it finished, and the quantity of material that was to be distilled had to be declared and was inspected by customs officers constantly. Distilling was carried out a couple of times a year and lasted about 10 to 15 days. We made Schnapps from cherries and plums, pressed our grapes and fruit.

When not in use, the cylinder of the distillery, was attached by a special string to a wooden beam in the attic and the two ends of the string were bonded together with a lead seal. The seal of the cylinder was broken by a customs officer just prior to commencement of distilling and put back into the attic and sealed again as soon as the task was finished. The reason was clear for this, to prevent farmers “moonshining”.

When rummaging in the attic one day, the red and white seal string around the cylinder caught my eye, and I decided to cut it off with my pocketknife as I had an excellent use for such a piece of string. When, after a few months, grandfather wanted to distil again, the customs’ officer came back to break the seal, but there was nothing to break because the seal and string had completely disappeared.

Grandfather was summoned into the attic to explain the missing seal, to which he had, of course, no explanation. Breaking a seal warranted not only a heavy fine but also a jail term. All hell broke loose as grandfather did some quick thinking. Suddenly it occurred to him that there was only one little person who could have broken that seal and taken the string. I was quickly found and summarily put before the intimidating looking customs’ officer. When the seriousness of the situation was made clear to me, I confessed to my act, thus letting the grandfather off the hook.

I wasn’t to be intimidated by bigger boys.

This story happened during the war, and in those days kids did not have the luxury of videos, computers or transistor radios, so they had to do other things to kill their time and eliminate boredom.

For young people, Sunday afternoon was a time when we boys might decide on the spur of the moment to do something to kill time. We might decide to go on an excursion around the countryside, go to the forest and play “cops and robbers”. One day, we discovered a couple trees on the edge of a steep slope with vines dangling from them. At first, it was a challenge to test everyone’s courage to imitate Tarzan and swing out over the precipice. The Tarzan game became quite popular and more and more boys came for a swing, but then an argument started as to who should have first turn. I was the smallest fellow in the group, and always being pushed aside and having the least swings, started to get me down a bit. Just because I was a little fellow didn’t mean that I was stupid, so I decided on a plan to fix this problem once and for all.

During the week, equipped with my sharp pocketknife I went up to these two trees. First I set about building a pile of rubbish and rocks under the vines, high enough to reach well above the point where everybody grabbed the vine for the swing. Then I cut the vine halfway through with my knife, got rid of my “height adjusting” piles of rubbish and went home. I looked forward with anticipation to Sunday’s swinging event. By now, we were using a ballot system to decide who would be the first two to swing, while the rest jumped according to the sequence of their numbers. I was a bit uneasy before the draw. What would I do if I drew position one or two? I would have to decline, wouldn’t I?

Luck was on my side, and I did not draw one or two – but to my horror, my best mate, Richard, was the “lucky” one. Dear God, I prayed, what shall I do? To my chagrin, He never gave me a reply. Should I tell them what would happen when they jumped? And waste all that effort I put into it a few days before and so and miss the “show”?

My suggestion to my mate that he should let somebody else jump in his place fell on deaf ears. This helped me to decide that the “show” must go on after all; I had suggested to him not to jump first, so it was his bloody fault if he went downhill “unattached”.

The show began with a countdown. When zero was called out, two fellows began their free fall down the slope, still gripping the severed vine. Everyone was racking their brains as to what could have “weakened” those vines when they had been so strong only a week ago. When I saw the two blokes crawling slowly uphill, indicating to me that they were alive, I felt relieved, and my mate said to me when he finally reached the top, “I should have taken your advice not to swing!”

This, of course, ended playing Tarzan, and I kept my trap shut for a long time, before I finally confessed to Richard that I had weakened the vines.

– Werner Schmidlin
Yorkeys Knob, Queensland, Australia.

One Comment:

  1. Denis Kassabian

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