Ach du liebe
by Peggy Kean
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Ach du liebe (O, my goodness)
Papa bowed his head in silent disbelief at the news, and Mama could only whisper to herself,
“Ach du liebe - I’m 42 years old and expecting again. God, you must have a reason for this. Help me understand!”
Sure enough, in the midst of the roaring l920’s, without much fanfare, a ninth offspring was destined for the Fred Koch family, a clan of hard-working, first-generation German immigrants. The economic climate made times terminally tedious and tough. Most people would have called the new baby, “just another mouth to feed”, but Mama kept reassuring herself,
“There must be a very good reason for this because we can barely feed the eight we have now.”
Mama’s expecting another baby?” gasped the eldest sister, Selma, as she verbalized everyone’s shock, when the news was announced. They were decorating the cedar tree that Papa and the boys had cut from the pasture for Christmas, 1925. That Christmas Eve was her 20th birthday, and she hadn’t anticipated this kind of birthday surprise
It was the middle of the sweltering heat of July 1926 when the healthy baby boy made his appearance. No one bothered to record his weight or length, and his name didn’t seem like a major priority either; keeping their heads above water did - it was canning season.
Mama breathed a sigh of relief and prayerfully called him, “The End”; the kids called him “Alvin”.
“I’ve been working all my life,” Selma reminded the other girls as she gladly divided her chores among the four remaining sisters, Louise, Rosalie, Margaret and Frances, and then left to get married.
There were duties for the girls in the wash house, chicken house, smoke house, wood shed, hog pen, garden and kitchen. Diapering didn’t rate high on anyone’s list. Much to the other girls’ relief, Frances ecstatically volunteered, “I’ll be the baby sitter”.
Her sensitive maternal spirit gave her a unique bond with Alvin that continued throughout their lives. At that blissful time, she had no way of knowing that she would never be able to conceive a child of her own, or that her baby brother would be her biggest fan when she eventually adopted two children.
Selma went on to become a mother of two, as well as owner and manager of a lumber yard in Temple, Texas. One of her staunchest supporters and confidants was her youngest brother.
The oldest boy, Gus, acutely felt the weight of the traditional expectations placed on the first-born son, but his rather melancholy temperament made it a role he could never quite fulfill. His name seemed to suit him to a tee. Although no one ever called him “Gloomy Gus” he was the one who managed to find the clouds in his life lined with gray flannel rather than silver lame. In later life, he too, found support from the youngest Koch kid when the job market crashed.
The next brother, Fred Jr., AKA Fritz, was a much more sanguine spirit, nine years Alvin’s senior and his soul mate for life.
As a teenager, Fritz struggled to save enough money to purchase an old, dilapidated Model A with a rumble seat. He pampered that car until it hummed like a new top on Christmas morning. No one doubted where his priorities lay whenever a spare penny dared to cross his path.
Dates in that car were his next favorite pastime. One night, however, Fritz was packing more than his ego when he pulled away from his girlfriend’s house.
“What in the world are you doing in that rumble seat?” he yelled in embarrassment when the top of Alvin’s burred head suddenly appeared in his rear view mirror as the car bounced over one of the many ruts in the country lane.
Little brother had stowed away in the rumble seat long before Fritz left home. Now he caught the wrath of Fritz’s ruffled teenaged pride as the discovery was finally made.
“Get your butt out of this car. I don’t care how long it takes you to get home, you’re walking!” Fritz bellowed in his best, blustery, big brother voice, as he jerked Alvin out of that hiding place by his collar. His hour-long walk home under a starless sky gave Alvin plenty of time to revel in his success.
“I can’t believe the way those huge red splotches started up the back of Fritz’s neck then ran down his freckled face – it looked like a bad case of poison ivy,” he thought proudly.
Timid, tongue-tied Roland, the other brother, was two years older than Alvin. His meek demeanor and propensity for stuttering made him a perfect target on which to refine sibling rivalry skills.
Competition took on new dimensions as these two made a practice of peeing through the window screen in their upstairs bedroom, trying to see who could come closest to a designated, suddenly fertile flower pot in the yard below.
It was great tomfoolery until Mama noticed the rusty spot on the screen one day and confronted the two in her fledgling English,
“Ach du liebe. How can this screen be rusty in just one small spot?”
Their confession under threat of a thrashing put a hasty hiatus on that game, but they soon found other ways to pester each other. Needless to say the leather strap kept on the back porch got a workout on Alvin’s back side with regularity.
Alvin’s pranks weren’t limited to the confines of the family compound however. During a trip to a livestock show in Waco where he and Roland showed their hogs, they were sharing a meager breakfast of Mama’s cold biscuits and sorghum molasses one morning when Alvin spied a crowd gathering for the exhibition; he had a brainstorm.
“Let’s latch on to that group of orphans from the Methodist Home in Waco and walk in the back of their line,” he proposed with his typically enthusiastic inflection.
“Wh – Wh- Why?” Roland asked in his timorous, stammering way.
“Why? Because those orphans have it made; they’re getting free admission to all the midway rides, and they’re eating everything in sight too”, Alvin explained, leading the way.
Neither boy remembered how their hogs did at the judging ring; the best part of the entire exhibition was their successful masquerade as parentless waifs. Some people called him “a rascal” and when she finally got wind of their escapades, Mama wondered secretly,
“Ach du liebe. Will this boy ever turn his mischief into something constructive?” Papa just registered his disapproval with several well-placed licks from the leather enforcer.
When real life landed with a thud on the Koch progeny in December, 1941, Gus was the first to volunteer for military service, ready as always to set the appropriate ex ample as the first-born son, even though he already had a wife and two sons to support,. The others continued to labor side-by-side even though a cloud of apprehension hung over them like a velvet shroud. They felt as vulnerable as a worm impaled defenselessly on the bend of a fish hook. Despite it all, Alvin managed to keep life light and livable until his draft notice appeared in the RFD box perched at the end of their road.
Everyone wondered how Mama would handle this development, since they all agreed that regardless of the shenanigans he had perpetrated, this little brother seemed to be the glue that held his folks together with a perfect blend of laughter, tears and high hopes.
Mama had often asked herself, “What if there had been only eight? How dull our lives would have been.”
Now she was faced with a reality that broke her heart.
While Alvin was away she often pondered her far flung offspring, quizzing herself,
“What makes the youngest child such an adventuresome and mischievous character? Could it be because we were simply too pooped to pursue the same discipline that we did with the older kids? Or does the youngest naturally come with a more relaxed, confident attitude about life?”
No matter the reason, everyone in the house agreed that life was never niftier than when Alvin was bringing up the rear!
Even when cancer invaded his life at age 67, Alvin displayed a peace and strength that surpassed human understanding and set another example of triumphant living. The siblings who were still living rose up and called him an amazing little brother, a loyal friend, an endless optimist and eternal encourager!
Languishing under the effects of heavy medication on Maundy Thursday evening, April 1996, Alvin mentioned to his wife,
“I’ll see Selma this weekend.” She sympathetically nestled his listless hand in hers and stroked his careworn brow.
“Honey,” she whispered quietly, “maybe you will” even though she knew full well that Selma had been gone for over six years.
Ach du liebe! He was right. That Sunday brought a glorious Easter reunion with Mama, Papa, Gus, Selma, Fritz, Rosalie, and Alvin bringing up the rear!
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