I was frequently in trouble. And always for the same reason.
How old would I have been? Nine, perhaps, or ten? Certainly
I was at an age when I could read – which was at the source of my troubles.
I had been sent to my room to do my homework and an hour later my father would follow to inspect my work. I had written, maybe, two lines. Perhaps not even that much.
“What have you been up to?” he would demand. “You’ve sat here since lunchtime. What’s the matter with you, boy?”
I would not answer. If this interrogation continued I would burst into tears. But no, I would not answer.
What had I been up to?
I was a Red Indian brave, riding with my tribesmen on my coal black steed Riih, just behind Winnetou, the chieftain of the Apaches. We had been fighting off the onslaught of the palefaces in long elaborate campaigns…. always victoriously.
The imagery came from the novels of Karl May – the most widely read children’s author in the German language. 200 million copies of his books have been sold – half in German, half in a variety of European translations. It must have been easy to sink into that dream world. Others had done so. Albert Einstein said all his adolescence had stood under the influence of Karl May. Hitler, too, had been an avid reader – but not only as an adolescent – even as an adult.
Why did I need to be so secretive about this? Because I was convinced I was going mad. There was, after all, eccentricity and even madness in my family. Great-aunt Ella had spent several spells in asylums. Her sister, my grandmother Franziska was certainly odd: When she was not playing the piano – which she did forcefully and well – she would walk up and down her music room, talking to herself aloud – sometimes even shouting in the empty room. This seemed to me sure proof of madness. My father was eccentric – often lost in reverie, ignoring people around him. He did not go as far as his mother – he never talked to himself aloud – but I assumed his eccentricities were an early stage of madness. And that was a worry I could not talk about – certainly not to him.
The long hours lost in my dream world I saw as evidence that I, too, was degenerating into madness.
One day, there had been yet another row. There was a visitor that day – Gerhard Neumann, the painter. My father, in exasperation, turned to Neumann, whom everyone called “Teddy”.
“You’re so much younger, Teddy. Perhaps you can understand this child? I can’t make out what’s bugging him.”
Teddy sat down in my room. He was indeed younger – only 19 years older than I, whereas my father had been 38 when I was born. Probably my father thought Teddy’s youth would make it easier to communicate with this awkward child. In fact, he had another, much greater advantage. Teddy was an artist – a painter and art teacher. Perhaps it was this artistic temperament that made it easier for him to get through to me.
Tears were streaming down my face. Gradually- and with long delays – I started to tell him about my dreamlife. He listened sympathetically. In the end I admitted that I thought I was going mad, though (so far as I remember after all these years) I didn’t dare to add “like my father… like grandmother … like Ella.”
He let me talk without interruption. Only after I had ceased pouring out my soul did he respond:
“But no, little Peter (Peterle) that’s nothing to be upset about. That’s perfectly normal. It is. Everybody has dreams. I dream that one day I’ll be recognized as a great artist. Such dreams encourage us to do better, to work harder. You’re not going mad. You’re a perfectly normal boy.”
He put an end to my fear of insanity, though not to my time-wasting. It took longer for me to grow out of that.
All this happened a long time ago – over 80 years ago, I guess. But even today, two of Teddy’s paintings hang over my desk as I write.
There is a German saying about “die letzte Ehre” about paying one’s last respect to someone– or the last honour – usually by attending the funeral. Yes, I did that when Teddy died at an age of almost 100. But by writing down now how this adult managed to comfort a distressed child, I believe I am paying him a greater respect.