Part 41: Herring Hustle

My school dismissal was coming up. The locals were not particularly religious, but weddings and school dismissals without church were unthinkable. So I was to be confirmed like all the other school leavers.

I had only been to church a couple of times because I had to substitute for the sick church usher. There was no one who wanted to blow the bellows for the organ, so I stepped in. I would have preferred a youth consecration, but that was a foreign word in the community. In the hierarchy in the village, a wedding celebration and a confirmation came before Christmas.

For all to see, green garlands with white ribbons had to be placed over the front doors of the confirmands. As far as possible, nothing should be lacking for the celebration. People came with gifts and expected generous hospitality. But where to get it all?

On the illegal market, which was still flourishing, a new currency had appeared: Fish! More precisely: herrings. The landlocked people wanted to eat a fish again, in addition to their oatmeal soup and syrupy bread. Consequently, you could get anything in exchange for herring. The plan was quickly made. A backpack with two pairs of silk stockings and three bottles of schnapps as well as some marching rations was quickly packed.

Thus equipped I set off in the direction of the North Sea to exchange herrings. The way there was long, arduous, and not without danger. The trains ran when there was an engine and enough coal. Moreover, they were always full to bursting. Timetables were smoke and mirrors. People hung on running boards – in those days, the wagons still had long running boards on the outside – and clung on. Anyone who was caught sneaking across the demarcation line between the East and West zones in the dark was out of his or her goods.

I was lucky, reached Hamburg after more than a day and slept dead tired on the bare floor in a high bunker. Women from the DRK gave me a dry roll that looked like a horse apple and a cup of hot forest-and-meadow tea. The women impressed upon me not to take off my backpack at all while sleeping. The other day, looking for a coastal fisher willing to barter, I experienced low tide for the first time in my life.

I somehow managed to barter about 50 salt herrings for the liquor and stockings. The trip home and the nighttime march across the border were just as dangerous as the outward journey, but with one very unpleasant and annoying difference: the crushingly crowded trains did not smell, no, they stank horribly of fish. After all, I was not the only one who had a backpack full of herrings with me. The trains that went from the coast to the inland at that time were therefore popularly called ‘the herring tamers.’ After four days, I arrived home with my slider goods a little dirty, but unharmed.

Aunt Else had come from town and hosted the party. She could bake and cook wonderfully, and Mother had procured all the necessary ingredients through the herring exchange. So, the party could go ahead. For a cartload of wood, the village tailor had made me a suit of brown rayon made to measure. The suit looked good. However, when sitting, the trouser legs could not be pulled up as necessary to avoid fist-sized bulges in the creases. Matching the suit were the borrowed brown loafers from Uncle Edmund, who had now been missing in action in Stalingrad for five years. 𝓣𝓸 𝓑𝓮 𝓒𝓸𝓷𝓽𝓲𝓷𝓾𝓮𝓭

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