Life is made up of relationships between people. The way we connect with one another is through thoughts and actions that determine how we relate to life. As people we are either related to each other through blood or marriage. We can also extend our relationships to friends, customers and business partners. A voluntary and reciprocal relationship brings prosperity through exchange when actions are based on a response that respects and values the life in each other. It can build layer upon layer of trust that knits the fiber of a society. Trust in relationships is essential for a functional and free society to exist.
People passed on the need for these relationships from one generation to another. It’s as if these bonds were a part of our material inheritance. The way people remember this truth is captured in stories of our ancestors. Every family, city and nation has a story to tell on how history started for them. It speaks of people who arrived at places and began building a new life by trusting in these relationships. I am often reminded of this way of life when I recall the few years that I lived with my grandparents in a small Bavarian village in Germany. It was a simple life where reality was reflected in how people associated with each other in their daily living.
I trusted these relationships, because there was neither crime nor poverty where I lived, and I felt protected. I remember one particular day when heavy rain pounded against the windows of the old school house. A severe thunderstorm had moved into the valley and settled over our village. Barely awake from my afternoon nap, I sat in my chair at a small table and stared out the window. Fräulein Bertel, our elderly Kindergarten teacher, desperately tried to divert our attention from the storm by reading a story out of her big black bible.
As is typical for a 5-year-old child, I was scared. I kept looking through the tall arched windows, watching as the weather raged outside. We referred to these rains as Wolkenbruch — literarily meaning the breaking of a cloud. I often overheard grown-ups discuss the troubles these storms could bring for our town. The heavy rains cause the creek to swell with water and spill over its banks. This would flood the barns and cellars of nearby farms.
I could hear men shouting in the street, which made me wonder if there were problems. The volunteer fire department was right next to the old school house. The garage stored the pumps to put out the fires and the equipment to pump water out of flooded cellars. I have often watched these men when they performed their drill in case of a fire. They used the water from the creek and performed their exercises with a great sense of urgency. They knew their town depended on their readiness.
The creek contained a small mechanical dam to maintain an adequate water level in case of a fire. Farmer Kunner, an old bachelor whose humble farm was adjacent to the creek, was in charge of the mechanical levee. He often got drenched in his nightshirt and galoshes when a storm came through during the night to raise the levee. He was a jolly fellow with a pleasant sense of humor who often stopped by my grandparents’ tavern for a beer to tell his stories. I always remember him as the man with the ox cart and keeper of the dam.
Mostly the men handled emergencies that happened during the middle of the night. It could be anything from a flood or a small fire to the birthing of a calf. Men were following up with their chain of command who to contact by knocking on the door of every house if there was a flood. I would wake up sometimes, because I could hear their shouting. The storms scared me, but knowing that these men were there to handle whatever needed to be done gave me a sense of safety. Farmer Kunner’s stories contained at least that much information and not quite without a sense of pride. They were able to handle their problems on their own.
Men had a purpose to protect their homes and families, since it was expected of them to be responsible. No person took advantage of someone else when a crisis came upon a town. Rather than plunder and rape, men actually went to work and organized. In the 1960’s most cities and towns were still under self-administration. The fire department was made up of every available man in town; volunteers who were able to do the work. Those who could not volunteer because of their jobs were asked to pay an annual minor fee. The elders were exempt from fees.
Bad weather conditions can also threaten the process of the harvest. Timing is everything in agriculture. People pulled together to bring in the harvest if bad weather was on the horizon. If a neighbor had a better threshing machine, he would offer to thresh a neighbor’s field to speed up the chore. The favor was always returned as labor to one another.
The community also owned the surrounding forest. Each landowner had a rightful ownership to the lumber depending on how much he originally purchased. My grandfather also had part ownership that my great-grandfather probably purchased years ago. Even there the men would help each other out so each owner can receive their purchased share of the wood. People depended on each other for cutting down the trees and preparing the lumber. The division of labor was based on the tools and skills that each owner was able to invest in the project. Nowadays owners can pay others to do the job for them. During my grandfather’s days, it was labor in exchange for labor.
As I watched the water run down the windows from where I sat, I wondered how I would get home in this weather. The voice of the teacher drifted further and further into the background. I was too busy counting the seconds between the lightening and the thunder to see how close the storm was. According to my calculations, it was not as close as I thought, but it was still raining heavily. The storm engulfed every bit of light making the outside appear like nighttime. I just wanted to be home.
Suddenly there was a knock on the backdoor. Tante Bertel, as she was affectionately known, barely gave her verbal permission to enter, the old wooden door slowly opened with the familiar squeak. Every kid turned toward the door wondering who could possibly be visiting us now. A tall figure appeared from behind the door cloaked in a black raincoat. The face was not visible from behind his hoot. The water that dripped off his coat began to collect little puddles on the floor. Who is this man?
Tante Bertel seemed to have recognized him by the looks of her face. As she approached this mysterious man he removed his hoot. I knew this face. I recognized it instantly. It was my paternal grandfather. What was he doing here, I wondered. He doesn’t even live in this town. He looked over to where I sat, and motioned for me to come over. I got up from my chair and ran into my grandfather’s arms.
With his familiar deep voice he told me that he was working nearby. When it started storming he decided to visit with us kids. Since we lived close to my school, he wanted to put me under the protection of his big raincoat. As he whisked me up in his arms he threw his big raincoat over me. I put my arms around his neck, pressing my face against his chest and closed my eyes. He held me securely in his arms as he headed out the backdoor, passed the church and down the stairs into the street bringing me home.
These are the rare moments that make storms and fears disappear. I felt protected under the covering of my grandfather’s coat. No bureaucracy will ever be able to establish, maintain, and protect a functional community. It is only in relationships between people where the covenant is continued to bring prosperity and freedom to man.
Sabine Barnhart [send her mail] moved to the US in 1980 and lives in Fort Worth, TX with her three children. For the past 15 years she has been working for an international service company.