Prologue

With the exception of the native Americans, all the people in the United States have an immigrant/immigration story somewhere in their background. Although immigration stories are common to most American families, each one of those stories is unique. Descendants of immigrants can only imagine what it must have been like to leave familiar surroundings and family for a strange land and the unknown. Finding the Way is the author’s imaginings of what it might have been like for one such immigrant.

For most immigrants coming to America, it was an opportunity to improve their prospects. Most of them came to this country with little more than the cloths on their backs. Most of them took any job they could get, worked hard. They used their talent and energy to improve their circumstances. They started businesses, became skilled professionals, farmers and tradesmen. They established families and homes. As they prospered, so did America.

This process continues with each new generation of immigrants

Chapter 1 - Prussia 1871

He stepped off the train at Flatow into a cloudy, cool March day, wearing a blue Prussian uniform, carrying a rucksack that contained all of his personal belongings. Strands of reddish-brown hair protruded from under the edges of his cockade cap. A fledgling beard did not hide a youthful face with penetrating blue eyes, a face which appeared younger than his twenty-one years “certainly not the face of a veteran soldier. He was not a large man, but strength was indicated in the firm way he moved, in his erect posture.

There was no one to meet him at the train station when he arrived. This was as he expected. He had not communicated with his family for over two months.

Another person got off the train at Flatow, a young man Karl’s age.

The man hailed him. “Herr Karl Mueller, remember me? Reverend Meyer’s son, Martin.”

“It’s been awhile.”

“So, back from the big war. For good?”

“For good. And you, back from somewhere?”

“Wittenberg, the university. My father would like me to follow his footsteps. I think the army might suit me better. How is your family?”

“Haven’t heard for a while. Been moving around.”

“Walk with me as far as the church. You can tell me about the war.”

Karl shouldered his pack and the two walked towards the middle of the town exchanging news of their travels. For the most part, Karl deflected Martin’s questions about the Franco- Prussian War. The experience of war, combat, the battle of Sedan, these were things Karl’s mind had suppressed and it was reluctant to yield up those memories. Karl changed the subject to Martin and his current situation.

Martin expanded on the reason he was returning from Wittenberg. “I loved studying philosophy, things like that, but their application to religion is where I ran into a problem. The ministry and I don’t seem to be compatible.”

They were approaching a large church built with cut white stone. It had a towering square bell tower that was topped off with an oversized crucifix. The bell tower rose five levels above the street and was one of the tallest structures in the town. Beautiful stained-glass windows lined the sides of the oversized church. It was a Lutheran church built forty years previously to overshadow any Catholic church in the area and it succeeded.

Martin turned off at a house beside the church that served as a parsonage. He waved to Karl, smiled and said, “See you in church.”

Karl proceeded to walk to his family home located on the edge of the town. The home was soon in sight, a small cottage set off by itself near an open field. Karl noted the smoke coming from the chimney and imagined the fireplace and the room that it warmed in the only home he had known before being called into the army. His pace quickened as he anticipated being embraced by family and familiar surroundings.

As he drew nearer, he noticed some other people approach the cottage and enter it, and when he got to the door, he could hear the sound of voices within. As was his habit, he opened the door without knocking and found himself confronted by a room filled with neighbors, friends and relatives. The room was large, the only one on the lower level of the cottage except for a small bedroom in one corner. His mother and sister were sitting in chairs against the opposite wall next to a long wooden box that was balanced on two chairs. It was a coffin.

The presence of the young soldier standing in the open doorway with his rucksack at his feet was soon noticed. His oldest brother Walter and Johann, the next oldest, reached him first, grabbed and hugged him. They were followed by his mother Frieda and young sister Katrina.

“Karl, you have a beard!” Katrina exclaimed as she gave him a hug.

His mother put her arms around him and clung tightly. There were tears in her eyes, “Karl, Karl!”

“What’s happening?”

She did not answer. Walter answered for her. “Our father. It was sudden. Sorry you didn’t know.”Karl was stunned. The image he had held of his family moments ago was suddenly changed. Rather than a homecoming welcome, he had walked into his father’s funeral.

For Karl, sorrow was not an immediate reaction. Confusion was what he was feeling. Karl would have liked to turn around and walked out the door, to be by himself, to sort things out; but that was not possible.

Frederick, Karl’s father, had dominated the family; he was der Fuhrer. It might not have always been in a positive way, but he was the leader. That structure was now gone, but the demands of the moment did not allow Karl to ponder how that would affect him or the family.

His mother continued to cling to him. It was not clear if she was expressing sorrow or joy, considering the circumstances. Other relatives and neighbors were now pressing to greet him.

Karl was greeted with unusual warmth. It seemed he was more of an attraction than the subject of the wake itself. It was not lost on these people that the Prussian Army had just achieved a stunning victory in France, and here in the flesh was one of the combatants.

Walter was asking, “Will you be one of the pallbearers? Herr Shultz was going to carry a corner, but you should be the one.”

“Ya, of course.”

The cottage where Karl’s folks lived had served the family for over thirty years. It and all the land around it, and for that matter, all of the land around Flatow belonged to the Hohenzollern dynasty. Karl’s father and family worked as peasants for one of the Hohenzollern estates, and use of the cottage was part of the compensation for the work they did. The Mueller family worked directly under one of the Hohenzollern geschaftsfuhrers. His name was Adolph Schaefer, and he had been the estate manager as long as Karl could remember.

A neighbor asked Walter if Adolph would be attending the funeral.
“I don’t know.”

“Well, he knows your Pa died, at least he should. I told him I was going to take the afternoon off to go to the funeral. Maybe he will come later.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Ya, sure, Herr Schaefer has been a geschaftsfuhrer for so long he thinks he is a Hohenzollern. Not that we are short of people. A lot of people knew your Pa and besides that he made some of the best beer around. Tolerable wine. Can’t blame them for wanting to test some of it. Not to mention all the food the Fraus brought.”

Two farmers, helping themselves to the neighbor-furnished food and the deceased Frederick’s beer, were discussing the departure of their neighbor.
“Died suddenly, working in the barn.”

“Good way to go, don’t you think?”

“Heart stopped; they say. Have you viewed him? Looks just like him.”

“I need to do that.”

“Ya, don’t forget what we are here for.”

The noise level increased as more attendees joined in conversations and as the sampling of Frederick’s beer and wine continued.

Some of the young unattached women were eyeing Karl, who, standing erect in his uniform, seemed taller and more husky than his measurements would indicate.

A neighbor approached. “Karl, is your service time over?”

“Ya.”

“What will you be doing, taking care of the Baron’s fields again?”

“No, not that.”

“What then?”

“I have plans.”

Reverend Meyer had arrived. An average-sized man with no outstanding features, he used the office of pastor to set himself apart from the ordinary. He ran the church and congregation in strict accordance with the Evangelical Lutheran doctrine He would say a few words, then lead the procession out to the cemetery. He used a spoon to rap on the side of a glass to get the attention of those gathered. The room quieted: Reverend Meyer waited a moment for all of the attendees to focus on him. He then said a prayer for the family, one for the departed, and another for those gathered. That accomplished, he then sampled the food and the wine. After a reasonable interval, Reverend Meyer once more got the attention of the group and launched into a discourse regarding the departed. He started off citing the Gospel according to Saint Luke chapter 6 verse 2.

And he lifted his eyes on his disciples, and said, blessed be ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

“Yes, blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Friends, we have lost a father, a husband, a neighbor; a good man. A man who lived a full life, and who had accomplished much. Frederick Mueller had no estate, was not a poet, a musician, nor a man of letters, or a holy man, but he accomplished much.”

The pastor paused, looked about, then continued:

“What did Frederick accomplish, you may ask? You only have to look about and you will see three strong handsome sons and a lovely daughter, all of whom display outstanding characteristics. They are self-sufficient, hardworking individuals who have been brought up in the ways of the Lord. This is an outstanding attainment, shared with his grieving wife Frieda. This is what has been achieved. It is the greatest achievement that a man and woman can aspire to, and Frederick and his widow Frieda have succeeded gloriously in this effort. In this way of measuring, much has been accomplished.

“Families of great means and wealth, men or women with unusual abilities and talents may fail in this endeavor, a most important task for Christians on this earth.

“God is not impressed by the amount of gold or possessions one has accumulated or by a person’s personal accomplishments. God is impressed by contributions to the Lord’s family, the family of man, and to the future generations of the church.”

Frieda and Katrina were weeping softly by this point while the sons maintained the expected stoic demeanor.

There was more from Reverend Meyer, much more. Karl could not help but wonder what had provoked the pastor down the path he’d taken. Whatever the reason, he was in fine form, and extended his remarks beyond what might seem reasonable for the occasion A number of the mourners, most of whom were standing, were becoming restless. The minister was interrupting the visiting, eating and drinking.

Finally Reverend Meyers completed his remarks. He paused long enough to drink another goblet of wine, then organized the procession to the cemetery. He would lead, followed by the pallbearers, then Frieda with her daughter, followed by the most immediate relatives, then the less immediate relatives, and last the friends and neighbors.

The mourners were wearing their Sunday best, as was Karl’s mother, though she had added a black shawl, the only piece of mourning cloth that she could afford. The pall bearers had added black arm bands, the only variation from their normal Sunday dress. An exception was Karl, who wore the Prussian blue army uniform.

Karl, his two brothers, Walter and Johann, and a neighbor carried the wooden coffin with the remains of Frederick Mueller. The coffin was not heavy. The dead father had been a strong, stout man in his prime, but had shrunken considerably with age.

It was a cloudy day and there was a cold wind blowing from the direction of the Baltic Sea, driving a mixture of light rain and snow across the flat landscape. The small procession moved slowly down the muddy path toward the open grave that had been dug the day before by Karl’s brothers. They reached the grave and the casket was set on two timbers that were laid across the top of the open pit. The procession broke apart and gathered about the grave site where the pastor once again held forth, but to the relief of the mourners chilled by the cold damp wind, he limited his remarks to only the essentials. He concluded by having the group recite the Lord’s Prayer. He then commanded that the timbers be removed and Karl and the three other pallbearers, each holding onto one end of a rope, lowered the coffin into the shallow accumulation of water at the bottom of the pit. The pastor threw a handful of the wet, loose dirt on top of the coffin, pronouncing, “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.” The mourners dispersed while the three sons stayed to fill in the grave with the dirt recently dug from the earth.

Karl’s thoughts were on the pastor’s dissertation at the cottage, which had caused a mixed reaction in his mind. First there was the matter of his father’s accomplishments, which were somewhat diminished in Karl’s mind due to his greater knowledge of the details.

It was true that the children of Frederick were for the most part doing well. Walter, the oldest, was a tradesman. He had a successful butcher business, was married, and had recently become a father to a baby boy. Johann was a blacksmith’s apprentice with only a year left to complete his internship. Katrina was a fine young woman, just turned seventeen, who should have no trouble finding a good husband. He himself might be a bit of a puzzle, but Karl was confident that his future would be successful. No drinkers or serious problems in the lot, but Karl wondered who should get the credit for that outcome.

Walter took a break from his shoveling to ask, “What did you think of the pastor’s little sermon?”

Johann responded, “It was a bit long.”

“But about what he said?”

Karl answered this time. “I hope at my funeral they don’t say that all I accomplished was to raise a bunch of children.”

“He was a peasant. What more could you hope for?” Johann asked.

Walter agreed. “That’s true, hard work is all that you can be sure of if you are a peasant, and you will always have a little less than what you need. Sometimes we only had potatoes to eat, sometimes we didn’t have decent clothes to wear, but I don’t fault Pa for that. Every peasant family has those kinds of problems.”

Johann mused, “Pa was strict, even mean. We all felt the whip and belt. I suppose this is a bad time to say it, but Pa was not a kind man.”

Bringing up the father’s faults as the three sons were filling his grave did seem like bad timing, but Walter had opened a wound and the three sons went on to purge it.

“Ya,( Walter remembered. “He treated us pretty rough until we were big enough to challenge him. Poor Ma never got that big.”

Karl had taken his share of abuse, but that was not all that troubled him. “Pastor Meyer had it wrong on a number of counts, as far as I’m concerned. That the family turned out pretty good was due to Ma, that’s what I think. Ma is the one that made sure we all knew how to read and write, do numbers. Pa didn’t have time for that, but thought he knew everything there was to know. But you are right about the things we didn’t have. Pa worked hard, that is for sure, didn’t waste things. But for me, I don’t want to die owing much and owning nothing. If I work hard all my life, like Pa did, I would hope to do better than that.”

Walter acted surprised. “That is big talk for a little brother. Sure you would like to do better, we all would, but sometimes it’s easier to say than do.”

Karl agreed. “In Flatow, it would be hard. But I talked to men in the army that plan to go to America. Work hard and smart, and you have as good a chance as anyone. You don’t have to be born right, like here. Because I’m Frederick’s son, I have limits. I and everyone else knows that. I’m going to America. In America everyone has a chance to be what he can be.”

“Going to America!” Walter exclaimed. “Are you sure? That place is a wilderness. They are fighting with the Indians all the time.”

Karl was warming to his subject. “Many German people are going to America. In America you can become the owner of land, just by claiming it and living and working on it. There are no peasants, no counts or barons, no Adolphs. You should all come with me. There is room for everyone.”

Walter demurred. “I have a business, a family. Why give that up for something I don’t know, thousands of miles away, completely cut off from what I do know? Maybe for you Karl, that is all right, but for me, no, that is not a good idea. I can tell you that.”

To Johann, the idea was more interesting. “Karl, do you think they could use a blacksmith in America?”

“They can use everything,( answered Karl, not knowing for sure, but the possibility of his brother joining him was reason enough for a positive answer.

Johann dug his shovel into the dirt and continued, “That is something to think about, but first I have to finish my apprenticeship.”

The conversation about their father had left Karl feeling guilty. The man being criticized was in the coffin they were covering with dirt. Whatever his faults, this was not a good time to discuss them. Yes, Walter had led them into this conversation, but Karl had jumped in willingly, helping take it into the direction it had gone. Despite their father’s faults, or maybe because of them, Karl did feel grief for this imperfect man who had left them. There is loss in death, there is no other way to figure it, and Karl was feeling the loss. The misty rain hid tears that welled up in his eyes, and he felt a need to wipe his nose.

The three brothers finished filling the grave, picked up their tools, and headed back to the cottage where their mother, sister, and Walter’s wife would be waiting and where they would eat supper.

***

At the burial site, Karl had described to his brothers his plan to emigrate to America for the first time. It was a plan that had developed and taken form while he served in the army.

Being required to serve in the army had been traumatic. That period in Karl’s life had changed him in ways that even he did not understand. The world that he knew had been enlarged. He had seen places and people that he had not been aware of and was trained to do things which he had never imagined himself capable of doing. The army experience also opened his mind to possibilities that he had not considered before. He had been part of a unit of twenty men who, through training and finally combat; had become like a family. They were like brothers. They shared many things, including their plans for the future. A number of the men talked about emigrating to America, where they said there were unheard of opportunities for ordinary men. Karl’s best friend Hans had planned to emigrate to a place called Omaha, where his sister and brother-in-law lived. Hans had planned to start from there and then homestead land in America. Hans wanted Karl to join him, and Karl had agreed to do that. At Sedan, half the men in his unit were killed, including Hans. After recovering from the distress of battle, Karl decided that he would still go to Omaha, and eventually homestead land in America.

There had been concerns about his plan to go to America. There were concerns about the funds he would need to get to America, the approvals, concerns about leaving his family and the community where he had spent his young life.

He reached into the pockets of his army coat, and felt the solution to his money problem. Sewn into the lining inside the pockets were seventy two thalers. It was money collected when he was discharged, money that had accumulated in an account kept by the army in his name. Karl had only drawn a small portion of his pay while in the army, knowing that whatever he drew out would be spent in one way or another. He hadn’t been saving for any purpose, but now it would pay for his ticket to America. He had heard that passage on a ship cost fifty thalers, and it seemed reasonable to assume that he could get to Omaha with twenty-two more.

Now there was another concern his mother and her welfare. What would happen to his mother if he left? If Karl did not stay and work for the Hohenzollern estates, as he had before he went into the army, she would likely be turned out of the cottage she now lived in. His family would be replaced by a younger family that would be more useful.

That was one problem. Another was that Frederick had died leaving no estate, but leaving debts in the form of advances by the Hohenzollern estate. Debts to be paid by services to be provided by his family.

If Karl left, and did not work for the estate, it was not clear how that debt would be repaid. Karl’s mother worked in the Hohenzollern mansion, two kilometers across the field from the cottage, but she earned so little that it would take forever to pay the debt. The seventy two thalers sewn into his coat could help settle the debt, but that would be the end of his dream to emigrate to America.

Karl loved his mother. She would do anything she could to help her children. Now she needed help, and Karl could provide that help. How could he even consider not doing whatever he could when she had this need?

Fiction / Historical
Author: Alfred Wellnitz
248 Pages
ISBN: 0-595-31590-9

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Copyright Al Wellnitz. All rights reserved.