Knut Winkler, Castrop-Rauxel, Germany
19 March 1957

The Beginning

I was born on 19 March 1957 in the German industrial town of Castrop-Rauxel in the heart of the Ruhr valley, an area affectionately referred to by locals as the Kohlenpott, meaning coal pot.

I don’t know if my Papa was able to witness my earthly arrival, since it was Tuesday, and he may well have been at the coal mine making the wheels go round, but I know for a fact that my Mama attended the happy occasion. She must have liked me a lot, because she even took me home with her when she left the hospital, an act of kindness she has never regretted despite all the heartache I was to give her in the years to come. Truly a remarkable woman.

I remember a carefree childhood, playing in grimy backyards between chicken coops and rhubarb patches, and sliding down the dusty coal dumps by the power station behind our house, which was of course strictly prohibited and therefore twice as exciting. My horizon consisted of smoke-belching coal mines, coking ovens and steel mills, and the sights and sounds of those massive green electric locomotives with endless coal trains in tow left a lasting impression on me.

“…but I was confronted with the devastating truth upon our return. In my absence my Mama had betrayed me!”

Among the performers in this industrial drama I had one hero: My Papa! Not only did he have the guts to go into the belly of that fire-spitting dragon every morning, but he came out again in the evening to bring home a sandwich left over from his lunch, just for me. The aroma of coal, oil and welding grime that impregnated those sandwiches made them the best in the world, and I loved them because they smelled just like my Papa after work.

In 1962 my Papa took me on a holiday to the Baltic Sea. We went there every year, but this time my Mama didn’t join us. I wasn’t offered an explanation, and the excitement of a trip to the sea overrode my desire to know why she was staying behind, but I was confronted with the devastating truth upon our return. In my absence my Mama had betrayed me!

In her arms she held a baby girl, whom she introduced as my sister Astrid, and to whom I was supposed to be nice, despite the fact that this little brat had just invaded my territory. I swore a solemn oath by all the smoking chimneys of the Kohlenpott that I would make my sister’s life as difficult as possible, and by her own admission, I did. Mission accomplished!

The Exodus

Sometime in the mid 60’s my Papa was sent on a job to South Africa, and our lives started taking a new and exciting course. He had accepted a permanent job offer there, and soon he was on his way to start work and to establish a home for us, while my Mama, Astrid and I followed in December 1968.

My expectations of my new environment were high: Flimsy grass huts in the savannah, ferocious lions in the backyard, poisonous snakes in my hammock and bloodthirsty crocodiles in the bathtub. It was to be another rude awakening: I was welcomed by high-rise buildings in a big city, a friendly little dog in our garden, a bed in my very own room and – completely new to me – a shower instead of a bath tub. In fact, the entire image of South Africa that had been planted in my mind was ruined. Goes to show that you can’t believe what it says in the brochure.

“The warning lights of my coming lifestyle were flashing for all to see, except for me of course.”

I quickly adapted to my new circumstances and learned two new languages, namely Afrikaans and English, with no effort at all. In fact, I discovered my flair for languages, poetry and singing, and at school I excelled in these activities, and in these activities only.

The observant reader will have noticed that this is the first time I mention school, and I can assure you that it will be the last. My interest in discipline was (and I suspect still is) inversely proportional to my age, and if it wasn’t for my guilty conscience towards my Papa, who was a very disciplined man, I would most probably never have finished my schooling. One thing is certain: The warning lights of my coming lifestyle were flashing for all to see, except for me of course.

The Catalyst

I cannot remember the exact year, but I guess 1971 would be close to if not spot on the mark. It was Christmas, and under the tree was a present for me which, to the best of my knowledge, I had never asked for: A guitar! It was a nylon string model and it was out of tune, but I didn’t realize these things at the time, nor did they matter, because it was the very first day I ever held a guitar in my hands. It wasn’t going to be the last.

As of this writing, roughly 45 years down the track, I can hardly remember a day that I haven’t. Of course these sentiments weren’t on my mind at the time. My brain was in overdrive with the anticipation of playing my favorite songs around campfires and wherever else they would be appreciated. But first I had to learn to play this new baby, so I started taking lessons, which I attended religiously, at least in the beginning. This was maybe the only discipline I ever exercised out of my own free will, and even then only until I had mastered the basics.

In any case, I got to play and sing in various school concerts, where I could learn on the fly and reap the benefits of admiration simultaneously. The desire to study had just taken another giant leap backwards.

The Launch

Actually it was more like a bumpy take-off, but to me it was a roaring launch – my first paid gig. An old hand on the German music scene had taken me under his wings, and I performed with his band at the ‘Deutscher Keller’ in Johannesburg. It was a sleazy watering hole for a rough and noisy crowd of mainly German origin, and a pick-up place for ladies of questionable profession.

It was a good thing that my guitar wasn’t even plugged into the system, because the other guys in the band were professionals, and I would have ruined their music. But I could sing, and it thrilled me to see people dance to our songs and bang their beer mugs on the heavy wooden tables. That night I went home with a song in my heart and cash in my pocket that felt like a million dollars.

Before long I bought my first PA system and started playing either solo or with a band in the ‘Deutscher Keller’, and as my skills and confidence grew, I picked up gigs at other venues, too. The money started rolling in, and I laughed at my friends who were broke because they had chosen to study. Me? Study? Broke? No way! I got myself a daytime job as a draftsman, and in the evenings I sang my lungs out, drank free beer and met plenty of girls. For the next 20 odd years this was my self-made heaven, and I loved it, at least for a while.

The Integrity Crisis

As unlikely as it may seem, at some point during these wild years I became a Christian. Not just once, but many times, because I kept swinging back and forth between opposing poles. Every time I turned to God, the lure of fame, fortune, women and beer got the better of me. Every time I got myself into trouble with any of the above, I ran back to God, and somehow I sensed that the moral values of these two opposing poles were incompatible. When I was on stage, I momentarily forgot about these inner battles, but when I was alone at home, they played tug of war inside me.

“Every time I turned to God, the lure of fame, fortune, women and beer got the better of me.”

During this time of inner conflict I met a wonderful young lady, and we got married. I really believed that our marriage would make me settle down, but it didn’t. One often hears the expression ‘It takes two to tango’, but in our case it was different. Despite all my pathetic self-justifications I knew very well that I was the rotten apple, not she. I was the one who wasn’t prepared to give up my illustrious life style, not even after our sons Stefan and Christian were born.

I tried hard to be a good dad, I really did, but somehow I always managed to screw it up with my erratic behavior. I don’t know how my wife could have put up with me for so long, but eventually she simply cracked and left me. Well done, Mr. Wonderboy!

Then the lights went out.

The Darkness

I can’t remember the exact time of my wife’s departure, but it was in the early 90’s. All I can recall is a long and horrific darkness setting in, consisting of numerous dismissals from work, cancelled gigs, drunken comas that lasted for days, if not weeks, broken relationships and countless other calamities.

“All the while I kept on hurting and blaming the very people who loved me and cared for me.”

I started to go to AA meetings, but I continued to drink because I wouldn’t get honest with myself. All the while I kept on hurting and blaming the very people who loved me and cared for me. If I could, I would press the ‘undo’ button, but since that doesn’t exist in the real world, I prefer to cover that part of my life with a big black blanket and let it rest in peace.

The Night of the Generals

It was 20 July 1997. I emerged from the mother of all comas. After having established that I was still on this side of eternity, I managed to crawl off my bed, which was covered with dried blood. I made it to the bathroom and looked in the mirror where I saw more blood, some on the mirror itself and some in my face, if you could still call that a face. Inevitably I had to kneel before the white throne to bring up my offering, and it was blood. The alcohol had started eating me from the inside, and I was certain I was about to die right there and then.

“…suddenly it dawned on me: This is your handywork! This is nobody’s mess but yours!”

Somehow I managed to have a shower and a drink of water, after which I regained a bit of stability. I inspected the devastation in the house, and suddenly it dawned on me: This is your handywork! This is nobody’s mess but yours! Though I can’t remember the exact sequence of events, I know that somehow I managed to get the place shipshape again, but more importantly: I prayed, and this time it was genuine! I don’t recall what I prayed, but I do know that I gave this whole mess to Jesus.

Miraculously the AA program started working instantly because I worked the program. I don’t want to keep rambling on about the details of my recovery, mainly because it might re-hurt people whom I have tormented enough, but also because I can hear you ask: Why the ‘Night of the Generals’? Well, this is why:

One evening down the track at an AA meeting I mentioned that my sobriety date was 20 July, and someone said: “Oh, the Night of the Generals!” I was puzzled, but he explained: “That’s the name of a movie about the famous assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler on 20 July 1944 by General Graf von Stauffenberg”.

It certainly wasn’t my choice, but every year this event in German history reminds me of the first day of my sober life. God uses the weirdest stuff for His purpose.

The Ride

When you become a Christian, and especially a sober one, your troubles will cease, the sky will turn rose-coloured and your bank account will get an incredible boost, right? Keep dreaming! There is no such thing as a prosperity gospel, no matter how convincingly certain preachers may propagate that idea. Jesus makes it clear that if I want to travel with Him I must be prepared for a rough ride. The difference is that He is at the wheel, and although He sometimes lets me steer just to test my navigational skills, His hand is always close by to correct my collision course.

“I think in God’s dictionary the word ‘responsibility’ is spelled b-l-e-s-s-i-n-g.”

 Yes, my salvation was instantaneous, all-inclusive and eternal, and not even the tiniest part of it was of my own doing. But the God who gave me a new lease on life has also given me hands, feet and a brain (what’s left of it), and as long as I’m on His ship, He wants me on deck, not in a deck chair.

I don’t know whether I started trusting God because I changed my attitude, or whether my attitude changed because I started trusting God, or maybe a mixture of both. One thing I know for certain: My dislike for discipline has met its match. Not that I am a shining example of this virtue. I still dislike it, but I practice it to the best of my ability because I have undergone a change of heart.

As I grow in this Christ-conscious way of life, God gives me more responsibilities to handle. Some of them are the continuation of my previously neglected responsibilities, like building a healthy relationship with my sons, and I thank God for these two fine young men in my life. Some are new responsibilities, like my present marriage, which I believe is the last opportunity that God has granted me. And to top it off He gave me Monique, my stunning daughter, too. I think in God’s dictionary the word ‘responsibility’ is spelled b-l-e-s-s-i-n-g. The song “I’m drinking from my saucer cause my cup has overflowed” is certainly true for me!

At the time of this writing it’s been 19 years of purposeful living. A lot has happened during this period, good and bad, ups and downs, exciting and dreary, always exhausting, but through it all God has used me for His intentions, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. To travel with Jesus requires effort, and sometimes the biggest effort is the struggle against one’s own rebellious will, but the journey is exciting, and the destination and the rewards are out of this world – literally.

So… why not join me for the ride?

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