I've known my father-in-law for more than twenty years, yet in all that time I never knew of his passion for cycling or his pursuit of a sport that could never be. His story came to light last summer during a visit to our home. A drizzly day and the sweet aroma of Gramma's baking in the kitchen was the perfect setting, finding the two of us at the table looking through the cycling magazines my brother had delivered the day before.
As he paged through the pictures, advertisements and articles, he started to talk about his youth in 1950's East Germany. I quickly learned the leading cyclist of the day was Gustav Adolf Schur who was the winner of the Peace Race, a three day event through Warsaw, Berlin and Prague. With a gleam in his eye and like it was yesterday, he described in great detail his bike and the Goldrad Cologne frame he so desperately wanted to buy. I sat in amazement, wondering how all these details could have remained unknown to me these many years; I pressed for more.
He loved his bike and rode it everywhere. Riding to work as a painter's apprentice he would sling the ladder over one shoulder and the paint pot over the other. Days off would find him riding up into the foothills around his home and down the cobblestone strasses of Limbach.
Hans was fast. So fast, that he wanted to enter a 300km race from Limbach to Berlin. He had the bike, new racing tires, money saved for the entry fee, and a lot of talent. And it was this talent that really stopped everything. A gifted athlete in East Germany was much more than a person to the ruling Communist party. That athlete was propaganda—a valuable commodity, taken away from family and home, trained, fed, and brainwashed to announce to the world the superiority of an inferior regime. Hans' father knew this too well. He wanted nothing to do with the exploitation of his son for the sake of Communism. He refused permission and Hans never went, never competed. A short time later he sold his bike to a fellow apprentice and escaped on the train to the West (a story of cleverness and courage I never tire of hearing).
As he came to this part of the story I looked carefully for any hints of bitterness or resentment. With his noble German accent he gently replied, "Not being able to race—that was only a small disappointment in my life. I just took it and that's that."
And there it was. In all these years I had asked for the intriguing stories of difficulty: when a Polish officer took over their home, when his mother and six siblings walked for nine months as refugees, and when he lost all his worldly possessions –twice over. I had asked about stories of difficulty, but had never thought to ask him about his aspirations-- his dreams. On this day his life story became a richer tapestry than ever before.
And while I may feel remorse that his talent for cycling was thwarted, I will remember what he said on that rainy afternoon. "We must dwell not on what could have been, but what is. One must accept the hand we are dealt."
Whatever hand my father-in-law has been dealt in life he has invariably overcome and succeeded, which makes me question. Had he been born in the free part of Germany, had he been raised at a time when Communism was not in power, I wonder just how far and how fast he could have gone. And when he's in town and those rainy days come again, I hope to find myself back at the kitchen table, learning even more.