HSFTP – 19 The Frozen River

On New Year’s Eve 1962 I was glad the year was almost over. 1963, I was sure, would be different. I would turn 14 in March and in July I would finish high school. It was too late to enter Gymnasium or any other college. Besides, we were broke. My mother complained daily that I should be working and bringing home money instead of sitting in school all day.

When “our lord” entered the living room we were expected to appear without delay. He would sit in his chair, legs crossed, smoking a stinking cigar and pointing to either Nigg or myself and say, “You two, go to the bedroom, your mother has to talk to you.”

First he whistles, then we have to line up like soldiers, just so he can tell us to go somewhere else to talk. Then everyone, including my mother, has to leave the room. I despised the man. Why didn’t he leave the room, or why didn’t she just come into the kitchen and tell us what we had to do? I always thought she needed to demonstrate his power by letting us know that his orders had priority. Of course, it also meant whatever he made us do, he wouldn’t have to do it.

In the bedroom mother started with, “We need heating oil.”

Nigg and I immediately knew that meant stealing. Nigg couldn’t hold his tongue. “We do not need any oil, he does, and if he wants a warm living room, he can go and get it himself. He is the only one who sits there all day long, doing nothing except smoking his cigars.”

Mother looked shocked, but she didn’t hit Nigg because she knew he was serious. “It is not only about heating the living room,” she said, “your father cannot drive to rehearsal and remember, he gets paid today for directing the orchestra. We need this money. I need to feed you kids. Do you know where we can get some oil?”

I suggested she ask her school friend, Hans Lanzer, who was in charge of the oil warehouse. Her face turned into a bitter mask. “I asked him yesterday and he said no. He acts stupid just because we didn’t pay the last bill.” Then she continued in her usual way of calling the man names and tearing him down.

Nigg stopped her by cursing and asking her boldly, “Where do you suggest we should steal it?”

She responded by saying, “There is no one else in town who has oil?”

“Oh no,” Nigg exclaimed, “not from Hans!”

I dared to ask if there was any money left from what our father was supposed to have brought home the week before. “It is none of your business.” She cut me off as she walked out the door. “You two make up your minds, tomorrow is New Year’s Eve.”

Since the bedroom was freezing cold Nigg and I went back into the kitchen. “How much firewood do we have left?” I asked Nigg.

“None,” he said, “and the coal is gone too, tomorrow morning the kitchen stove will be cold.”

The decision was made for us. We either do what we had to do or it wouldn’t get done and we’d freeze. When our mother returned to the kitchen she could read our faces.

“Go to bed, I will wake you when it is time to go.”

Before I could fall asleep I prayed to the Lord for forgiveness and a miracle so we wouldn’t have to steal. It was midnight when she woke us up. When I saw ice flowers on the windows I knew we had to put on an extra layer of clothes. We had no gloves. The only person in our house who had gloves was my father and we didn’t dare touch them. I got the sled from the coal cellar and Nigg picked up the two ten liter cans.

The wind was biting cold and I pulled the sleeves of my parka over my fingers while tying down the cans. The streets were quiet. The houses we passed were dark. The town slept while we were on our way to steal.

“Let’s walk in the middle of the road,” Nigg said, “there is more clean snow.”

We walked side by side for almost two miles pulling the sled. Neither one of us felt like talking. I could tell by the way Nigg stomped his feet in the snow that he was very angry. The moisture of our breath froze on our upper lips and noses.

Nigg whispered, “The river is frozen, let’s go off the road and walk the rest of the way on the ice.” We worked our way down the icy hill to the river bank. “Wait here,” he said, “I have to test the ice.” Carefully, step by step, he slid closer to the middle of the river, but I hear him say, “Not strong enough. Let’s try farther down, where the water is quiet. The ice will be thicker there.”

We trudged back up the icy hill to the street. “Why do we have to use the waterway?” I asked.

“Don’t you remember,” Nigg replied, “the new fence Hans had built in the fall?”

“Oh,” I said.

“The fence starts on the street and reaches down to the water on both sides. There is no other way, we have to enter the warehouse property from the river, just pray the ice there is strong enough.”

When we were close to the warehouse we had to use the way by the restaurant to reach the river. I asked, “What if there are still people coming out of the restaurant? Can we go past the place and come from the other side?”

“No way,” he said, “do you know how far we have to go down to reach another levee to the river bank? I’m not walking more than I have to in this icy wind.”

Since I hardly walked this way and Nigg knew all these places from his secret fishing hideouts, I took him at his word.

Once we made it to the frozen river Nigg said, “Thank God, nobody saw us.” He again tested the ice. “I’m not sure, but let’s try. If we go one by one and pull the sled, carrying one can at a time we might make it to the other side of the fence.”

How encouraging, I thought, but said, “I’ll go first, I’m lighter than you are, I can take the sled and a can.” With the rope from the sled in my hand I stepped onto the ice. Slowly, step by step, holding my breath so I could hear if the ice broke, I slid carefully foot by foot sure I wouldn’t make it. Those 20 feet to the other side of the fence seemed like miles. “I made it,” I whispered the words loud enough for Nigg to hear. The ice cracked as Nigg got on, but he made it without getting his feet wet.

“We have to find another way out,” he said. “The ice will not support the cans when they are full. Let’s find the tanks first.”

The wind whipped stronger and the snow froze. Climbing up the icy levee while pulling the sled was impossible. We held onto the fence with one hand while climbing up the levee and pulling the sled with the cans. When I saw the tanks I pointed up the little hill.

Nigg whispered, “I’m glad I brought the hand pump so I don’t have to suck the hose.” He knocked on the first tank to find it empty. The second tank was full but he couldn’t open the frozen valve. “I need a bar, go look for one.”

I could hardly see my hand in front of my eyes. “How can I find a bar? At least hold your hand on the valve so it will get a little warm.” We were both tense and edgy. “My hands are cold,” I said.

“What do you want,” he snapped, “to go back without oil?” He walked away.

I put both hands on the valve until he came back with a metal piece in his hand. We finally got the barrel open and Nigg stuck the pump into the opening. I stuck the hose from the pump into the can. The pump squeaked when we moved the handle.

Nigg suddenly stopped. “If anyone hears us we go to jail.”

“So what,” I said, “then we don’t have to steal anymore.”

He took off his parka and wrapped it around the pump to muffle the noise. When we finished filling the cans for my father’s much needed comfort, I said, “How do we get back? The cans are too heavy to lift over the fence and the ice is not strong enough to hold them and us.”

“I have an idea,” Nigg said and ran off. He came back with two very long ropes.

At the river bank Nigg tied both ropes to the sled, loaded and tied a can to it. He gave me the end of one rope and said, “Go. When you get to the other side pull the sled over to you, slowly, take the can off and give me a whistle.”

I did just as he suggested. When I was on the other side of the fence I whistled. He pulled on the second rope and the sled moved back toward him. Then he came to where I waited and we started pulling the sled. One of his feet got wet which did not improve his mood.

Nigg cursed our father all the way back, calling him everything but a good man. I realized then we had done all this much too fast and logical, making us feel like real criminals. We didn’t have the time to be afraid.

Before we reached the house I thought I heard something and turned around. There was nothing there except our tracks in the snow.

“Nigg, look, we are leaving sled traces.” The snow was old but the tracks were clearly visible. “If anybody is looking for the thieves, this is the best way to find us.”

We agreed we could not just pull into our courtyard of our house. “We will use the long way home,” I said.

“Do you know what that means?” Nigg asked.

“I know. Just a little bit longer and we are home. We’ll go six houses farther down there are steps leading up to the pastor’s way and we could come into the house through the back yard.”

Our worst nightmare became reality. The fifteen steps carved out of rock leading up to the pastor’s way were covered with ice and impossible to stand on. At first we thought we could pull the cans up the steps, but the noise would certainly wake up the sleeping people in the houses on both sides.

I pulled up the sled, hooked it onto a fence so we could use the rope as a handle. Meanwhile Nigg split the second rope with his Swiss knife and tied it around the handle of the oil cans.

“The steps are nothing but black ice,” I told him when I came back down. “We cannot go together in case the can in front slips.”

With one oil can tied on his back, Nigg went up first then I followed with the second can. I was exhausted by the time we reached the pastor’s way. I sat down on the sled to rest.

“Get up and let’s go,” Nigg urged, his anger was now turned against me. “My foot is frozen.”

The pastor’s way was dark and narrow so we could not pull the sled together. Nigg pulled from the front and I pushed from behind. After a few hundred yards of slipping and sliding we reached the back gate. It was locked. Before he got any angrier I volunteered to hop over the fence and get the key and our mother to help us.

The stone steps down to our house were just as icy. It took several minutes to reach the house. “What took you so long?” My mother said angrily. Ignoring her questions, I grabbed the key and said, “We need help.”

Nigg and I were so tired we left the cans where they were and went to bed. We didn’t care who went to get them. After a night of twisting and turning I woke up and it was still dark outside. I went to the window to see if the tracks were still there. It was snowing! I couldn’t believe it. Everything was covered in white, with beautiful thick white snow. All I could say was, “Thank you, Lord.” Even though I was not sure he did it for us or not. I was relieved. I ran up the steps to tell Nigg. “Wake up, look outside!” I shook him.

“I know,” he said sleepily, “I saw it earlier.”

I went back to my room and stood there looking out the window. Across the street, where Miehlemom used to live, the dentist Brezel and his family had moved in. The house next to it was still the butcher Buser, and the house to the right was Hans, the barber. On our side of the street, Kunzmann Oma died and the Reischel’s moved into the second floor. The baker Graf still baked his bread and the good rolls, but I didn’t get anymore rolls after grandpa moved out. It was very cold and I went back to bed thinking about all the people who respected my grandparents. At that moment I lost more respect for my parents. Honesty, morality and love were strange words to them. We children got more hatred and beatings than daily bread.