Hopfstadt’s Cabin

Hopfstadt’s Cabin

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

Hopfstadt’s Cabin

Love is all we have, and the only way that we can help each other.

Euripides

The summer of 1944 was the most memorable of my life. It was the year I had my tenth birthday and the last year we lived on the farm: It was the summer when, for the only time in my life, I saw a man cry and the summer I learned der Fuehrer’s secret.

The stony quarter section my family owned near Darwell, Alberta, was good for nothing but grazing. To make a living my father followed his trade to the city, leaving my mother and me alone on the farm. My father is a shadowy memory to me, a tall man in a blue serge suit who came home at Christmas and on an occasional Sunday.

I was a shy and lonely child, and I think that’s why I liked Hopfstadt so much. Hopfstadt was a big stolid man with a red complexion and blond hair that bristled every which way. He had emigrated from Germany in 1936 and settled about three miles from our farm.

It was my job, twice a week during the summer, to walk the five miles to the post office, pick up our mail and Hopfstadt’s, and deliver his on the way home. I vividly remember that he wore ordinary overalls and a denim smock jacket instead of the bib overalls and bulky sweater the other farmers all wore.

And of course, there was the dog: a great German shepherd, kept on a tether chain in front of the granary that served as a home for Hopfstadt. The dog would bark wildly and lunge on the chain whenever anyone approached. Hopfstadt would quiet him by speaking in German and calling him a strange guttural name that no one was ever able to catch.

I loathed the dog. My greatest fear was that he would break the chain and attack me when I came with the mail. I could never understand why a kind man like Hopfstadt kept a vicious beast like der Fuehrer.

Der Fuehrer was the nickname the neighbours had given the dog. A real killer they all said. Dogs like that are trained to kill.

When the war started, the neighbours made bad jokes about Hopfstadt and der Fuerhrer. The more patriotic ones would have snubbed Hopfstadt if they had been given the chance, but he seldom left the farm.

He worked like a demon from dawn to dusk, eking out a living on the muskeg quarter section he farmed. He’d been a carpenter in the old country; farming was new to him, and he was not good at it.

Whenever I came by, Hopfstadt would smile and hiss a few words I didn’t understand. Then he’d disappear inside the granary for a moment and return with a small horehound candy. He’d press the amber circle into my hand, pat me on the head and say, “Iss gute boy,”—along with a few other words I could never understand.

Hopfstadt had a tractor, a huge, steel-wheeled monster that sat in a shed by the gate. One day he was starting it when I arrived. We had no tractor, or car for that matter, and I must have been wide-eyed with curiosity.

“Rhide,” said Hopfstadt, taking me under the arms and lifting me onto the iron beast. Four times we rode around the small ploughed area behind the granary, dragging the harrows behind the tractor. The wind was brisk and we were both choked with dust. When we finished, we shared a dipper of cold water from the well. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.

On one of his infrequent visits to our farm, he told my mother that a girl was coming from the old country to marry him. A childhood sweetheart—as near as mother could understand. Shortly after, in the scrub pines behind the granary, there emerged a large, comfortable looking cabin. Hopfstadt continued to live in the granary, apparently saving the cabin for his bride. After the war began, however, the pale purple, parchment envelopes, postmarked Berlin and addressed in a small, neat hand to Herr Eberhardt Hopfstadt, stopped coming. Then one day a dozen of Hopfstadt’s letters to Germany were returned in a bundle. Across the top letter were several words written in German, in red ink.

When I approached the farm with the package, all was quiet. Hopfstadt and der Fuehrer were nowhere to be seen. I set the mail on the granary step and walked around to the cabin. The door was unlocked, and I looked inside.

Never had I seen anything like it! The kitchen had a full set of cabinets, polished and decorated in the most ornate manner. Tiptoeing in, I peered toward the living room: there were chairs, tables and bookcases, each piece lovingly carved and beautiful beyond belief. In the bedroom was a large, elaborate, four-poster bed, and beside it, a cradle with kitten faces carved on either end. They were so real I had to touch them, just to be sure.

A low rumbling sound came, and there in the doorway stood der Fuehrer, with burning yellow eyes. I froze. The fearful growl came again.

Desperately I looked around for Hopfstadt.

If only I knew the dog’s name, I could talk to him. Rooted to the spot, I watched him advance. He reached me, his head thrust out, and licked my trembling hand. He was as gentle as his master was.

Hopfstadt appeared a moment later, the package of letters in his hand.

He must have just come from in the fields, and I could see that his dusty cheeks were stained with tears. He tousled my hair with his huge hands, put one arm around my shoulders and pulled me close for a moment. He repeated over and over again a few words in German, his voice so plaintive, so yearning that I was on the verge of crying, too.

Hopfstadt was strong and he smelled like work. I wanted to share his sorrow. I knew at that moment we could have fended off the whole world. We were comrades who together could face anything. In that moment I loved him, but the words of comfort and courage did not come—and what had his words meant? Our moment ended when he turned and slipped from the cabin.

He returned with the remainder of the bag of candies, which he handed to me in silence.

I cried all the way home.

I carried Hopfstadt’s parting words in the back of my mind for many years. A short time ago I made a call on a German-Canadian businessman. I repeated the words to him as best as I could remember.

“It must have been someone who admired you very much,” he said. “The words mean, ‘A son like you’. . . . I wanted a son like you.”

William P. Kinsella
Chilliwack, British Columbia

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