A CHILDHOOD FILLED WITH CURIOSITY
BY WOLF VOGEL
Wolf Vogel (born 1942) was a West German author and photojournalist. The following account of his childhood between the ages of seven and fourteen, ie. in 1949/50 to 1956/7, appeared as the first chapter of his Heimliche Liebe: Eros zwischen Knabe und Mann, published by Jahn & Ernst in Hamburg in 1997 and anonymously translated as Secret Love: Eros between Boy and Man in 2022.
For several years now, a lot has been written about sex between adults and children. At the same time, what is striking is that even liberally-minded parents only allow—or at least tolerate—children engaging in sexual activities with similar-age peers. Most adults would react with anxiety at the notion that their child could exchange caresses with a grown-up—even a stranger—below the waist. This topic interests me because I was a child myself, and still retain many recollections of my own childhood. Certain experiences, wants, desires are still very clear in my mind’s eye.
I was born into the chaos of World War II. Therefore, the first years of my childhood were characterized by privation, a fear of air-raid sirens, emergency shelters, flight, evacuations, and constantly changing care-persons. When I was seven years old, my mother and I moved to a city in southern Germany. Now peace and quiet came into my life; from this time forward, many experiences began to indelibly fix themselves in my memory.
I was enrolled in school, and for the first time, was able to establish lasting Friendships. Because I was a newcomer, other children started becoming interested in me. I spoke a different dialect than they did, and also had different ways of doing things. During the warmer times of the year, clothed only in swimming trunks, we played together in the ruins of houses, left behind in the wake of the war. The older boys were always pulling down us younger boys’ shorts, thus leaving us standing there naked. Because no one had asked for my permission to do this, I didn’t like it. But being nude didn’t other me so much because in the ruins, no strangers ever saw us. However, sudden attacks were unpleasant for me—for example, when a bigger boy would shove me into the water or force my head under it.
Beginning at about eight years old my childhood was wonderful. Roaming the streets was fascinating and filled with adventure. During my first four years of school, I can’t recall spending a lot of time doing homework. Right after lunch, I’d meet my friends out on the street. We’d clamber around in the ruins, explore with hearts pounding dark, buried basement passageways, admire the older boys at their first attempts at smoking, or climb over strangers’ garden fences in order to pluck apples, pears, and quinces. It didn’t matter whether or not the fruit tasted good; it was the adventure that counted. For example, the quinces tasted so awful that to this day I still can’t stand them.
I often also roamed the streets of my district alone, in search of new and exciting adventures. I specifically recall one guy doing some street pavement work. He must’ve been about thirty years old. Due to a heat wave, he was stripped down to the waist. Both he and what he was doing fascinated me. For a long time I just stood there, in order to be able to watch him work. As I began to show an interest in him, he smiled at me. I was overjoyed. Had he helped me down into the area where he was working, and then taken my arm and stroked it, I would just about have gone mad with pleasure and pride.
I by no means looked at him as a father-figure, although it is true my own father never returned home from the war. But it is also true that I cannot recall feeling what adults would call an erotic spark. Children do not put such things into words. Children feel with their hearts. When an adult is nice to them, they like him. For children, the only thing that matters is that he doesn’t physically hurt them or cause them emotional pain, like, for example, being put down by one’s own mother. The road worker never did take me down into that hole. Nevertheless, I went down to that construction site every single day. At some point, there came a time when the worksite got to a point where the man was no longer there. I was sad.
At this age, I was also fascinated by steam-shovel operators. In some ruins the rubble had already been cleared away, and sometimes, actual excavators were put into use. To be sure, I was usually sent away with harsh words, apparently out of fear that I could wind up under either the wreckage or the machines themselves. Adults are often unaware—or have forgotten it from their own childhoods-that children are very careful in what they do. There would he a lot more broken arms and legs—or even fatalities—if this were not the case. Most child deaths today are caused by reckless drivers.
Back to the steam-shovel operators. One of them took me into his cabin. I proudly sat on his lap, listening attentively as he told me which lever was responsible for which action, and felt—due to the operator’s hand on my bare stomach—a blissful tingling, which spread throughout my entire body. Had the man removed my swim trunks and stroked me, I would certainly have closed my eyes and sunk down into his arms. But I remained a virgin, and turned to new adventures.
At age nine I played football [’soccer’] for the first time. We played with a tennis ball diagonally on the street; the cellar entrance served as the goal. Occasionally we had to interrupt the game because of a passing car, but that didn’t happen often. I was the youngest and the smallest of the boys. Because of that, I was only allowed to join in when, due to an imbalance of players on each side, I was needed to even things up.
My sports career began in the unpopular position of left wing. It never failed that, due to a hard kick, the cellar window grating would burst open and the ball would disappear down into the dark basement. And I had to go retrieve it, because otherwise I would be kicked off the team, and I didn’t want that. So, I let myself down a narrow slit into the darkness and searched among partitioned areas with lumps of coal and potatoes and roughly-hewn shelves with bottled fruits and vegetables for the lost ball. It would never have occurred to us to take anything from the cellar, we just wanted to get the tennis ball back so that we could resume playing. Kicking shots at the entranceway was more important than preserved fruit or sour gherkins.
The biggest boy in our group was a fourteen-year-old. To a nine-year-old, a fourteen-year-old is practically a grown-up. I adored and admired this boy. Although it is true that he played only mediocre football, he harbored a secret: he regularly had to purchase these mysterious parcels from the pharmacy for his mother. They were wrapped in newspapers. At my request, he opened one of the parcels. Inside was a cardboard box, labelled ‘Camelia’. It had something or other to do with his mother—with women generally. For some reason she needed it. Because at that age I wasn’t interested in women, I really didn’t much care why she wanted this Camelia. And even in later years, I’ve never understood why the box was always wrapped in newspaper.
Far more important to me was the boy himself. He already had hair, with a glance up his shorts, I could see it clearly. At that time, nobody wore underwear. Therefore, from time to time, I’d let myself fall to the ground with my face twisted in pain. He’d bend over me solicitously, in order to get a good look at my injury. I’d look into his open shorts and be quite content to just lay myself down right there.
In one city park, American soldiers were encamped in small, olive-green tents. We visited the soldiers nearly every day. They gave us gifts of canned corned beef and cigarettes. Since I had no use for the cigarettes, I just threw them into the bushes on my way home. But I did bring back the corned beef. It tasted wonderful. My mother asked where I’d gotten it. A gift I’d received, I told her. Had she inquired further, I would certainly have provided appropriate excuses.
Sometimes we crawled over to the soldiers in their narrow tents. We lay with them arm-in-arm and let them caress us. It was wonderful. The men’s hands even went into our swim trunks or shorts. I made no distinction between appropriate or inappropriate; caresses were simply lovely—it didn’t matter where. The soldiers asked us questions in a language we didn’t understand. Rather than being bothered by that, it actually amused us. One time, a soldier whom I’d allowed to lie down next to me arm-inarm, took hold of my hand and guided it to his trousers. My heart pounded with excitement. But because I didn’t trust myself to open his trousers, I took my hand away. The soldier laughed.
I had never been warned about strange men. In the post-war years, people had more important things to worry about than socalled “sex fiends.” I’ve never warned my own children about strange men either. My two boys have often brought [male] friends over to the house, including for sleepovers. The younger one also has some adult friends. My one condition is that I would like to get to know these adults. There was just one time he obviously wasn’t prepared to agree to this; and my son never spoke about him again either. It is possible that my youngest also had sex with these adults he befriended, because he was allowed to stay overnight with them. I never asked him about it; he was always very open. I believe he would’ve told my wife and myself if he’d been involved in anything against his will. He still maintains friendships with these older males today.
When I was ten years old, I had a bosom buddy; we were inseparable. Whenever we got the chance, we hid ourselves in the bushes, in order to perform careful assessments of individual parts of each other’s bodies. The most exciting thing was examining each other’s penis and rear end. He’d always postpone studying other parts of the body in favor of the aforementioned two regions. In order to be able to see everything better, we stripped off all our clothes; an old rusty flashlight—a gift from an American soldier—provided additional illumination. Although girls would look at us, at this age, we weren’t particularly interested in them. What we wanted to know was how to get a hold of other boys. And though I would have gladly engaged in such extensive explorations with other schoolmates as well, I didn’t dare, because I was afraid of making my bosom buddy jealous.
It was around this time that I joined a Christian youth group. I’d heard of such get-togethers. The word was that the group leader or chaplain would take one of the boys into his tent with him at night, and they’d do all sorts of things with one another. Much to my sorrow, I was no longer having such experiences. One thing was clear: I had to be a part of such a group. I wanted to participate in the camping trips, wanted to be with an adult in the tent, wanted to do all sorts of things with him. Though I wasn’t able to imagine exactly what this meant, the adventure was calling me—that much was clear.
After two years I left the youth group, completely disillusioned. Nothing—and I mean absolutely nothing—had occurred, not with me anyway. Perhaps I wasn’t good-looking enough, or maybe I’d set my expectations too high. Whatever contrary attempts I made, I always had to spend the night with people of the same age as me.
Whose nightly games I was already familiar with from my daily street activities. Even the campfire lacked the hoped-for fascination, given that we’d often set small fires in the ruined houses. Therefore, the youth group had nothing dramatically new to offer. I would have to seek out men in my city, not in virgin nature. In the meantime the American soldiers had been withdrawn, never to come again.
There was a tennis court in our neighborhood. At that time, only a few people had the time and the money to play tennis. They were probably young professionals who got together for a set after work. I watched them for hours, until it was time for me to be getting home. To this day, my love for this sport can be traced back to that.
One day, I was asked whether I might like to serve as ball-boy. I was ecstatic. From that time on, I was able to earn a bit of pocket money for myself at the tennis court. It was my first job. I wouldn’t take excuses from anybody. After all, I was almost twelve years old. It was fifty cents an hour, a fortune, because outside of the Sunday visit to the cinema, there was no place for me to spend the money.
Following his set, one of the tennis players invited me into the showers. He was something akin to the groundskeeper, and—as the last one there—had locked all of the clubhouse doors, so that we could be alone. Fortunately it was Saturday afternoon; I still had enough time. It was only a shower, and the water was more lukewarm than hot. I stood naked with him under the shower, and he soaped me up. It was pleasant for me. After drying off, he gave me a kiss on the forehead. I saw him as a close, bigger friend. Unfortunately we only showered together one more time; usually, he had to quickly return home.
As to his age, I can no longer rightly recall. Anyway, for children, the age of an adult—whoever he might be—is really of no importance. The only thing that matters is how he interacts with children. When I was in the sixth grade, we had a German teacher who was probably quite close to retirement. Although this teacher was unusually strict we—as his pupils—trusted him implicitly. In our judgment, he was strict, but fair. Because he gave us more detentions and other punishments than most teachers, we did make faces at him. Children have a sense of fairness which is often very difficult for adults to understand. Perhaps we felt our German teacher was fair because we always had to serve our detentions during the sixth period, as opposed to in the afternoon. Because of that, our parents never found out about our school pranks.
I retrieved balls at the tennis court for a year. Then my mother found out about it, because one of my classmates squealed on me. She indicated that she was not entirely happy with these activities. She feared that I might neglect my homework; in fact, already in the sixth grade, I was having to deal with a ridiculous amount of it every single day. But it was only when I joined a football club that I quit my job as a ball boy. I felt that the time had come to get involved in athletic activities.
As a twelve-year-old, I did not go to school gladly. In my later years, I’ve known of only a few twelve-year-olds who happily went to school, my own sons included. For me, the best that can be said is that there was at least occasionally something to enjoy between lesson periods. Equilateral triangles and French vocabulary were tedious enough.
In the breaks between lessons, we searched for treasures in the school’s coal cellar. On occasion we’d find stamps from school correspondence, which lay in the cellar to be burned. And we found one particular treasure; namely, our French teacher’s written vocabulary test. Without any announcement, like a bolt from the blue, she’d given most of us low marks, and said she was going to send the tests home for our parents to sign as a warning. So, here they waited to be burned, without our parents having seen them; from that time on, we no longer believed a word this teacher said.
We immediately returned to our favorite activity in the school cellar: sex between schoolmates, up until the end-of-term break. At that time, girls were not admitted to our school. Some of my twelve-year-old friends already had pubic hair. It seemed right to me to stay down there, even given the nature of the activities. The others were much more brash, much bolder and more active than I was. I probably would not have been so shy as a child if I’d had more sexual experiences, including with adults.
For a long time, I’d wondered how I’ve been able to retain so many details from my childhood, going back more than three decades. But then it hit me: these events were bound up with a particular school class, or even more so, with our teachers of the time. I had one teacher for first and second grades, and a different one for the third and fourth. And from the middle school onward, we had new teachers every year. That may be why I’m able to place so many experiences in their exact order.
One time, for his birthday, my bosom buddy received the princely sum of five marks from his aunt. We discussed what we should do with so much money. First we went to the cinema. “Love’s Fanfare” was the title, and it was only approved for audiences eighteen years of age or older. But we pulled it off anyway, by outwitting the box-office ticket clerk. We told her we wanted to buy the tickets for our fathers. Later on, we sneaked into the theater under cover of darkness (the “Fox Talking Newsreel” had already started)—evading the ushers—and sat down in a corner. It was a love story, horribly boring for us boys, and we would’ve fled the theater after just a few minutes, if we hadn’t been acutely aware of the forbidden nature of the film. And so, on the following day, we were able to quite casually ask our classmates: who has actually seen “Love’s Fanfare”? Of course, no one had seen the film, and we reported condescendingly that it wasn’t bad. Many sex-scenes and so on. My classmates were green with envy.
Nevertheless, one of my classmates was able to come up with something worthwhile: his aunt had a garden plot with a wooden outhouse on it. The fact that there was a three-meter-high wooden fence around the garden was—for twelve-year-old boys—of no importance. The fence could be climbed over easily. Mind you, it wasn’t the fruit that was appealing to us—after all, we were no longer children—but rather the wooden hut. It saw my first attempts to acquire a taste for cigarettes. At the time, four cigarettes cost thirty cents. We had money: I still had my tennis court business, and some of the five marks was still there also. Although we didn’t like the cigarettes, they did make us feel grownup. Two years later I saw the error of my ways, and have never smoked since.
My academic performance went downhill as I got older. In my later adult years, I’ve often thought about what effect an adult friend might’ve had on my motivation to achieve. With my son, it’s my experience that at this age he doesn’t study up on mathematical formulas and English vocabulary for himself and his future, much less for his parents. He does it for his adult friends of a given time, God-sent teachers who, in addition to imparting factual knowledge, probably also possessed the right tone.
The football club occupied an important place in my early youth. I had become a good football player, and never had to worry about being relegated to second string. I was even allowed to express a desire as to which positions I would most like to play. At the beginning I contented myself with the less spectacular midfield; with growing self-confidence, henceforth I played offensive line, scoring the most goals in my team. I felt like the hero of the football field. Who cared about stupid school and silly homework? I also had an excellent relationship with the coach. He was in his mid-thirties, and worked us pretty hard. If I hadn’t had so much success on the team, all of those drills would hardly have been worth the effort.
In the wintertime we practiced in a school gymnasium. We could even get a shower there. But my teammates usually hotfooted it right after practice, leaving me to help the coach put the equipment away. One evening, he asked me whether I felt like taking a shower with him. I thought this was a fantastic idea. As we stood naked under the shower, my eyes never left his body. He asked me if I liked what I saw. I answered in the affirmative. “I like you too,” he said. I was mighty proud of the fact that, in the meantime, I’d sprouted a couple of pubic hairs, and a few weeks earlier, was able to experience my first proper ejaculation. Anyway, since I hadn’t brought along any soap, he soaped me up. I did the same to him. After we dried ourselves off, in the changing room, we had sex for the first time. In my eyes, this was simply the next logical and natural step. At nearly thirteen years of age, I had the right to my own body and my own desires. This first sexual act grew into a real relationship, which we kept secret from the rest of my teammates. I believe also that no one ever noticed anything, because my coach carried on treating me just as he had before. In the following year, I played on a higher youth-level, and got a different coach. I really wasn’t sad about the end of this romantic relationship: it marked the end of one particular phase of my life. A teenager’s life awaited me—my childhood was finally over. Once again, in school, I was one of the best.
Although the secret boys’ games did continue at school—above all in the darkened projection room, where we burrowed in our neighbors’ trousers—at age thirteen, I was just as fascinated by men. I wanted to see what they looked like naked. I was wellacquainted with my school-friends—they had no new insights to offer me. I wanted to see naked men—wanted to know what I would look like once I myself became a man. At swimming pools, I’d try to peak under the changing cubicle partition when a man was changing next door. I wasn’t able to see much. I also feared being discovered. The thought of getting hold of a man in the changing cubicle and being allowed to watch him undress aroused me to the point that I would often lock myself in a cubicle in order to sexually pleasure myself.
In the summer months—occasionally wearing only a pair of gym shorts—I would ride my bicycle through an overgrown, semi-woodsy park in our city, hoping that a man would notice my skimpy clothing and invite me to a rendezvous. But my bicycle tours did not have the desired results. Men either didn’t notice my secret desires or feared discovery. In my hour of need, I eventually approached an older boy—he might’ve been 18 or 20—and lured him into some dense brush under the pretext that I had a terrible tummy ache, and had him massage the lower part of my body until I attained my goal. Even today I can see in my mind’s eye the thunderstruck expression on his face, as I suddenly achieved orgasm. He immediately bolted, and I was quite pleased with the result.
At age fourteen, I had a five-month-long sexual relationship with my (male) art teacher; after that, I was mostly interested in girls. My own gender was now quite familiar to me. I had followed my physical development had become intimately acquainted with many of my male classmates, and had seen how a boy becomes a man. Therefore, that chapter of my life had drawn to a close. Now, I got tingly whenever I saw how delicate girl-breasts indicated their presence under clothing, whenever a long-haired girl got close to me. I discovered how quickly a teenage boy could blush, and how words fail you when you want to express so much love and tenderness. Actually, my quick-wittedness never failed me in school or around my mother. But girls were good at something no one else could manage: totally turning my head.
When I think back on these experiences today, I often can’t help but smile. By no means do I have the impression that I was somehow exceptional, having experienced so much while others came away empty-handed. Quite the contrary: for a long time, I felt bashful and left behind. I always had the feeling that others were experiencing more than I was. Whether that was actually true, I don’t know. Anyway, this no longer plays a role today. Through my own experiences and the accounts of my own children, I have found that the boys of today are scarcely any different from what lads were like back then.
They are certainly confronted with many more details about sexuality. They have sex education in school. They know virtually everything about sexuality. At the time—in theory—we knew almost nothing; we simply tried out a lot of stuff.
I do not believe there is a boilerplate method for how parents should react when they find out that their child is having a relationship with an adult. In many parents’ evenings at school, I’ve seen more helpless parents than resolute ones. Announcing outright bans or warning about sex fiends can be absolutely appropriate in certain cases. But most of the time, in my opinion, what helps is investing trust and confidence in children. When children know and feel that they can tell their parents anything without having to fear a moralistic finger being waived at them, they will share with their parents all that is important to them. Children have an immense need to talk with other people. Experienced parents are also familiar with this: they know how it is when mother is focused on the cooking and father is bent over his desk, and the children run in with the great and small adventures of the day gushing out of their mouths, so that the parents have trouble listening without letting anything get scorched.
Much of what—to adults—seems significant and worth mentioning is—for children—of secondary importance. We should allow children to choose what they would like to confide to us and what they would not. Children too need a few secrets, even from their parents. When they are not accorded this freedom, they themselves create secrets in spheres outside of the family, and actually keep them secret as well. I know this well enough from my own childhood, a childhood full of curiosity and thirst for action, full of longing and desire.
My mother never said: “Child, I have trust and confidence in you.” She lived this trust. And I never would have abused this trust. But I did take advantage of this freedom, just like kids today do. Many adults would do well to recall their own childhoods!
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