“I don’t see so good anymore” he tells me. Karl-Heinz — “Kalle” to his friends — is 87 years old. “I don’t see so good, I don’t hear so good…and when I go out for a drink these days I don’t always make it home.”
His comic timing is as sharp as ever. It’s been a couple of years since we’ve seen him but he’s keeping well, all things considered. He still keeps fit and, despite his bad eyesight, he still builds his boats.
Not real boats of course, but they might as well be. He has just finished his model of the Bismarck. It has taken him three years and it is exquisite to the minutest detail. “I just don’t have the time” he says “she keeps me pretty busy”. He is refering to Rosanna, his girlfriend. “We make love for four hours every day” he continues “one hour for the sex and three hours trying to recover.”
As we enter the house we notice that there are two surnames on the letterbox. “Hasn’t he asked you to marry him yet?” we joke.
“Oh he asked a few years ago. I told him I needed some time to think about it.”
They are quite a pair.
Kalle is remarkable for any number of reasons. He still has a full head of hair and much of it is still black. He walks five miles every day. According to Rosanna, he hears fine well when he’s not supposed to. Oh, and Kalle is the last person I know who fought in World War Two.
He told me this many years ago by way of introduction. You don’t introduce yourself to Kalle, he decides whether you are worth knowing and then he introduces himself to you. He signed up as a fourteen year-old during the last year of the war at a time when the Wehrmacht needed every able body available and had no scruples about employing boy soldiers. He did not need to lie about his age.
He saw action too, although only briefly. He was stationed in the south of Germany, where he originally comes from and was caught up in the fighting as the Americans swept south, convinced that Hitler was planning to make a last stand in the Alps. Little was offered in the way of real resistance and within a few days the Russians took Berlin and Germany surrendered.
And so my last link to the past lived to tell the tale. We all know somebody like this. Or knew somebody: if you’re British then any WWII veterans you know will of course be older, and their role is vital. Textbooks can never replace living history.
My grandmother, the last British person I knew who could remember the war, constantly had to answer my great nephew’s questions about Anderson shelters and digging for victory, things which look good, fun even, in the school history book photos: healthy smiling faces v-ing for victory.
Unfortunately the reality was much different. In the Glasgow tennement block where my grandmother lived, they built the air raid shelter in the middle of the courtyard. “I think they did it so that it would be easier for the Germans to hit us” she would joke. You don’t find things like that in schoolbooks or documentaries.
She didn’t really talk much about the war and neither did my grandad. Come to think of it neither does Kalle. When he speaks about his working life he says that he learned three professions: tailor, miner and road worker. He rarely mentions that he was a soldier but then again I rarely mention that I was a paperboy.
He still doesn’t like the English but he says that the Scots are alright –he has a fine nose for whisky and can tell you the name of any blend from a single sip. Forgiveness is difficult; it was the same for my grandparents, but I sense his attitude is softening. His latest model ship is the Cutty Sark and he reminds me that the tea clipper was a British vessel.
It is slightly strange that the last survivor of the greatest conflict between our two countries should come from the other side of the divide and yet it’s also to be expected now that I’ve been here so long. And actually it’s not the only time that I have found myself in this position.
Every good English ninety minute patriot knows that two world wars do not provide enough ammunition to successfully taunt Germans; you have to add in one world cup for good measure. The 1966 world cup final between England and Germany at Wembley Stadium, London is the stuff of legend –particularly if you’re English.
As a Scot, I cannot accept that England’s third goal actually crossed the line but equally I cannot deny that England deserved to win. I could name the team backwards without stopping to think about it.
Many England fans talk with pride of brief encounters with members of the team that day: a photo taken with Bobby Charlton, an autograph from Gordon Banks, a sportsman’s dinner with Geoff Hurst. I am happy to listen because I too have met two 1966 veterans: Alfred “Aki” Schmidt and Siegfried “Siggi” Held.
I hope to add a third to the collection. Hans Tilkowski, the goalkeeper on that fateful day, lives here in Herne. In the photos of the infamous third goal, the one which may or may not have crossed the line, you can see him stranded in mid air as Geoff Hurst’s shot bounces down from the crossbar before the Russian linesman gave the goal.
That is how he will forever be remembered in England but in Herne they see things differently. 1966 is also the year in which Borussia Dortmund won their first European cup, beating Liverpool 2-1 in the final in Glasgow. The goalkeeper? Hans Tilkowski.
I’d welcome a photo with Bobby Charlton of course, and Gordon Banks was one of my heroes when I was a kid. But a hattrick of ’66 veterans from the German side, that is just fine by me. Somewhere along the way I have crossed a divide.
It would be great to get an autograph from Hans Tilkowski. Or a photo. To have the chance to thank him for that final in Glasgow. I wouldn’t mention Geoff Hurst of course, or that final in London. That’s a line I don’t want to cross with him.