First Things First

By Patricia S. Laye

Print Share

    Fritz Engels walked into the huge Frankfurt/Main train terminal, his heart pounding so loudly that he was sure everyone could hear it.

    “Herr (Mr.) Schiller, I’ve come to ask for the job as errand boy,” said Fritz, rubbing his damp hands on his best lederhosen (leather shorts).

    “So you think you can load a food wagon and roll it to the train?” the station manager asked. “Can you be prompt? Always on time?”

    Ja (Yes), Herr Schiller,” Fritz answered, nodding his head.

    “Do you know what makes a perfect day for me?” the manager asked, looking directly at the young boy, but without waiting for an answer. “The day no trains are late. You must do your part to help the trains leave on time. A food cart has to be on each train so that the attendant can deliver it to the next station.”

    “I’ll work quickly,” Fritz promised, “and I’ll always remember how important time is.”

    “Good boy! You can start work today.” Herr Shiller called to a boy about seventeen years old. “Ludwig, take Fritz and show him what he is to do.”

    As the two boys walked into the huge terminal where trains waited in long rows, a voice over a loudspeaker announced the departure of some of the trains. Fritz loved to hear the voice switch languages, from German to French to English.

    “When I grow up, I want to be a train announcer,” said Fritz.

    “Then study hard, because you must speak at least three languages well to get that job,” said Ludwig. “Hurry along, now. We have to load the cart for the Berlin D-Zug (Express).”

    The boys arrived at a room where small carts were parked in rows. “Place crackers, sandwiches, chips, soft drinks, and cookies on one of these carts,” explained Ludwig, “then roll it down to the departing train. Turn the cart over to the boy on the train. He’ll take it to the next town, selling as much as he can, then get off and board a train coming back to Frankfurt.”

    “Do you sell much?” asked Fritz. He understood something about the vending process because he had been watching for months, hoping for a job.

    “Most Germans pack a lunch,” Ludwig explained as he filled a shiny cart, “but since few trains have dining cars, the tourists usually buy from us.”

    “How do I know when to load a cart?” asked Fritz, still nervous about his new job.

    Ludwig pointed to the huge white display boards that lined the depot waiting room. “Those are the departure times and the gate numbers for each train.”

    Fritz nodded and recited his duties for Ludwig’s benefit: “I check the board for the time the next train leaves, and I must be at the right gate at the right time with a loaded cart. An older boy, like you, will be waiting to take the cart aboard and ride with it to the next station.”

    Ludwig patted him on the shoulder. “You are a smart lad, Fritz. Now we must hurry. The train I sell on leaves in five minutes. When do you have to be ready for the next one?”

    Fritz’s eyes rounded in shock. “The Amsterdam train leaves in eight minutes!” he cried, grabbing supplies and filling his cart.

    “Good-bye and good luck,” called Ludwig. “See you later.”

    Fritz worked so fast that he dropped several packages of chips and had to stop and pick them up. He glanced at the large clock in the waiting room. He had three minutes to get to the platform. Pushing the cart as rapidly as he could, he steered his way through the crowd.

    The aroma of knockwurst, a thick round sausage served on a yeast roll and covered with mustard, drifted by. Fritz didn’t stop as he usually did to watch the knockwurst twist on spindles over a charcoal fire.

    “Hi, Fritz! So you got the job, did you?” called Fraulein (Miss) Greta, who ran the magazine and refreshment stand. “Want a free knockwurst?”

    “I can’t stop now. I must get to the train on time,” he called back, waving to her with one arm and steering with the other.

    Fritz skidded onto the platform ramp just as the announcer began the last call for passengers to board, Happily he handed the cart over to the blond-haired boy who was anxiously awaiting it.

    “Good work,” said the attendant, lifting the cart onto the train. “See you later.”

    The train whistle blew, and the Amsterdam train began rolling down the track and out of the terminal. Fritz stood watching, pleased that he had not caused it to be late.

    All afternoon Fritz worked, never failing to get a loaded cart to the right place at the right time.

    Fritz enjoyed the sounds of the terminal. Trains hissed, people spoke rapidly in different languages, and everything echoed in the high-ceilinged building.

    “Fritz, what are you planning to do with all the pfennige (pennies) you’ll be earning?” asked Fraulein Greta.

    “Help Mutter (Mother) pay for things we need,” he answered shyly. Fritz could think of many things his mother needed now that his father was ill and out of work.

    Things went smoothly, and Fritz was loading a cart for the Paris train when the stationmaster came by to see him. “You’re doing an excellent job, Fritz. However, don’t get careless and be late,” warned Herr Schiller.

    The happy boy grinned as he wheeled the cart down the concrete walkway. “I won’t,” he promised.

    Suddenly he heard a cry, then the sound of someone falling. He looked up to see elderly Frau (Mrs.) Wagner, his neighbor, lying on the steps. She had slipped and fallen, and oranges and canned goods from her shopping bag rolled across the platform. People hurrying to board departing trains stepped over the food.

    Fritz glanced at the clock. The Paris train would leave in just three minutes. Should I stop and help Frau Wagner, or should I pretend I don’t see her? he agonized.

    Even if he lost his job, Fritz knew that he couldn’t just leave Frau Wagner there on the steps. He stopped the cart, locked the brake on it, and ran to help her. Taking her arm, he asked, “Frau Wagner, are you hurt?”

    Nein, nein (No, no), but I’m going to miss my train. My daughter is sick, and I must catch the train to be with her in Paris.” Tears began to run down her face. “My food! My food! I was taking it to her.” She gestured at the scattered groceries.

    “Don’t worry. I’ll get everything back into the shopping bag,” Fritz said, scurrying to gather the things up. Tossing the last runaway orange into the bag, he took Frau Wagner by the arm and led her quickly to the train.

    “Bless you!” she cried, smiling and waving from the train steps. “Auf Wiedersehen (Good-bye).”

    The stationmaster’s whistle blew, signaling the train’s departure, just as Fritz arrived at the ramp with his cart. He raced along the loading ramp beside the slow-moving train until Ludwig could grab the cart handle and swing the cart aboard.

    Turning to leave, Fritz heard his name called.

    It was the stationmaster. “Fritz, did you cause the train to be late?” asked the man, pretending to be stern.

    Nein, Herr Schiller, but I almost did. I’m very sorry.” He swallowed hard. Am I going to be fired? he wondered.

    Herr Schiller patted him on the shoulder and said, “I saw what happened, Fritz. That was a kind thing you did. Everyone else ignored the poor lady in their hurry to catch the train.”

    “I could not leave her,” said Fritz.

    “That, my boy, is what makes you special. A lad with a kind heart will be good for my train station. That lady was more important to you than your job.” He winked at Fritz. “Who knows, one day you might even be a stationmaster!”

    Illustrated by Dale Kilbourn