Monday, April 15, 2013

Horst And His Weichensteller

I play the clarinet in a wind orchestra. We have thirty+  members, and have had several  percussionists over the years, two of whom were called Horst.

The older Horst played the big drum, the kind set vertical to be hit on the left or right side. He was one of our oldest members, more than 80 years old, and was much cherished in the band by young and old. Being somewhat hard of hearing he needed special help in our rehearsals with where we happened to be starting within a piece, or at the beginning which piece it might be. But this was not much trouble and I don't know as if I have ever heard anyone grumble about Horst. He kept the beat admirably, vigorously wielding the big stick with a big fuzzy hard ball at the end, using the cymbal fixed atop the drum betimes, as the sheet music called for.

He was nobody's fool, was Horst, often relating during breaks how life had treated him, early and late; he seemed to wish to pass on experiences he had had, for example during and after the war, eventually as a prisoner of war with the Americans. I don't know how cleaned-up these stories were for consumption by the latter-day generation to which I belong, but harrowing enough they were. I was surprised to find out his hearing trouble came from this time, when another soldier fired an anti-tank weapon, a Panzerfaust, near his head. When finally he ended up in a prisoner of war camp he quickly got a bad impression of his American captors, due to their rough treatment of any SS men who became their prisoners. The first thing all prisoners had to do was to strip to the waist and hold up their arms. The Americans knew that seasoned SS members had their serial numbers tattooed under their arms, and singled this hated group out for special treatment, a fate that Horst sometimes witnessed.

Horst also told about how his musical career had developed and finally brought him to play that big drum, which with its stand made him wheeze to carry any distance. Somebody, anybody who was around offered to give him a hand with it, which he accepted. Yes he seemed to look at the world with a pragmatical eye, yet with a twinkling of humor that reached you through his glasses.

We have a yearly Band Retreat in April, where we as a group take a weekend and abscond to an old vacation resort on a lake south of Berlin. We practise and rehearse our music the whole of a Saturday and much of Sunday. In the evening in between we gather, some lingering longer, some not so long, in the party room of the stone-built three storey barrack-like building where we stay the night, two or three to a room. There are snacks of many kinds, and someone sets up a sound system and CDs get played, and as the evening winds on and various liquids are imbibed the more adventurous might dance. After only a little coaxing Horst would get up too and, grinning, show us a few steps, dancing with one of the ladies.

I think his story I like best was the one about his Weichensteller, as he called his cane.  When time came for us to make our way to the dining hall down the way, he would look around for his Weichensteller, which he needed to support him on the walk over there. In his youth he often rode the streetcars, he explained,  and in those days the motorman at the front of the vehicle had a long iron bar he'd reach down with in front of the streetcar to set each switch the right way as the tram came to it. The switches are Weichen in German and stellen means to set. So his walking stick he likened to that rod, calling it his "switch-setter".

Horst has left us now; this upcoming band retreat will be without him, sadly, as was the last one. I have been quite long in the writing of this remembrance, mulling over what I should say, and maybe what not.  I hope Horst won't mind the delay.  

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