I have wanted to get this off my chest for some time now, but if I were to present my story as a factual account, I would lose any credibility I have. No one would want to hire a private investigator who claims the things I will in this document. So by submitting this story as a contest entry to the “Toasted Cheese Literary Journal,” I get to tell my story without worrying about the impact to my career. Problem solved!
That’s what I do. I solve problems. I really love a mystery – at least I love the ones that I can find a way to explain. The ones that I can’t figure out leave me with a queasy feeling in my gut that just doesn’t go away. Avoiding that feeling and the sense of inadequacy that follows has driven me to conclude all my cases successfully. This particular case was resolved but I have no explanation for the physical laws that make such things possible. Well, I guess I don’t need an explanation since this account is purely fictional, right?
I had taken a series of assignments involving lost or missing children. Most of these had ended with a small body being found, a perverse man being thrown behind bars and a family suffering a loss from which they would never truly recover. I took no pleasure from these experiences, but it seemed to be the niche I had fallen into. A man has to find a way to pay the high cost of living and can’t always wait for somebody to offer to pay him to do something fun or fulfilling. Such is life.
That’s why I jumped at the chance to take this assignment. I hadn’t been given the full dope on how strange the situation truly was, but it sounded like this one had at least a possibility of having a happy ending. All I was told was that a dozen children had been found and my job would be to find their parents so that the families could be reunited. If I had been told the full story before meeting my potential client(s) and before seeing the setting for their strange drama, I would have probably decided that my unblemished record was worth more to me than getting paid to chase the proverbial wild goose.
I was to meet my potential client Johann Bower in Heaven’s Gate -- the allotment where he resides. If “Heaven’s Gate” sounds familiar, you are probably thinking of that cult in California that thought UFOs were going to take them up to heaven. This is totally un-related -- although I will admit that UFOs did cross my mind a few times while I tried to figure this one out.
It was early evening when I turned my car into the entrance of Heaven’s Gate. I immediately pulled my car to the curb to take in the view. Normally I am so focused on a task that nothing distracts me, but I had never seen anything like this before … at least nothing on this scale. The Coral Castle flashed into my mind. The Coral Castle is a building and sculpture garden surrounded by a wall and made entirely out of coral. It was carved and constructed by an eccentric immigrant working alone with simple hand tools. Heaven’s Gate was much classier than the Coral Castle but equally out of the ordinary. The homes on this street were built primarily out of stone – at least the outside walls were. Windows were inset so that no glass surfaces were visible from the street. There was no wood trim or painted surface anywhere. The homes were a composite of unusual solid forms that were very organic yet too perfect to have been some accident of nature. The allotment looked like someone’s artistic vision of how a community should look. This was not the product of some team of designers or random builders following an allotment’s building requirements. This was the work of a master designer with a firm control of the people doing the work for him. I made a mental note to return to do some research on the history of this allotment at some future date when I had more money in the bank and some time to kill. I restarted my car and found the house belonging to Johann Bower.
Mr. Bower warmly greeted me at his front door and led me into his living room. The interior of the home was every bit as remarkable as the exterior. A circle of chairs had been set up in the living room for our meeting. A group of eleven men and boys stood to greet me as Mr. Bower escorted me into the room and began the introductions. Mr. Bower was the oldest of the group. He appeared to be in his late sixties. The youngest of them was eleven years old. The men in the room were roughly five years apart in age. Mr. Bower explained that the six youngest were his adopted children.
As occasional chatter broke out in the room, I could hear that they all shared the same distinct German accent that Mr. Bower has. I had noticed his accent when he first called to inquire if I might be interested in taking his case. During that same phone conversation he had verified that I am fluent in German. That had been one of their considerations in choosing a private investigator to research their situation.
After a few polite inquiries as to my comfort had been made, I got down to cases by asking about the children that had been found. I was very much surprised to find that Mr. Bower and the others assembled to meet with me were the lost children seeking to be reunited with their families. Mr. Bower told me that their stories were almost identical in detail. Since he was the first of the children to be found, he would tell me his story. He felt that an explanation of what happened to him would also explain what happened to each of the others. Since he would be the one paying my bill, I felt a strong impulse to agree with him.
It seems that Mr. Bower had lived in the house he now owned since early childhood. One day in 1943 when he was about seven years old, he was outside and was approached by boy his own age. He had never seen this boy in the allotment before. The boy asked if he would like to play and Johann eagerly agreed. Before they could do anything, a tall, dark man showed up and said that it wasn’t safe for the boys to play there. He said that he would only allow them to play in a place where no one could harm them. Then he pointed towards the house at the end of the lane. Again young Johann eagerly agreed and they all took the short trip down the street to the house the older man had indicated. They played for hours in the shadow of that grand mansion under the older man’s watchful eye.
Finally, Johann said that his parents would worry if he stayed any longer. He said good bye to his new friend, returned home and walked in the front door. He was startled beyond words to find that the furnishings in his home were totally different and there were people in his house that he didn’t know. They spoke to him in a language that he didn’t recognize. For an instant he thought he had entered the wrong house, but the house was too unique to be anything other than the one he lived in – the only home he could remember ever living in. He called out for his parents, but they weren’t there. The authorities were called and they found someone who spoke German to talk to Johann. When asked where he lived, Johann told them, “Ich lebe HIER!” Translation: “I live HERE!” He insisted that he was where he belonged, that his parents were missing and that the strangers who now occupied his home were the only ones who were somewhere they shouldn’t be.
An attempt was made to find any German person or couple in America missing their child, but no such person or persons could be found. Mr. Bower grew up in an orphanage. He worked hard and saved his money. He came back to Heaven’s Gate and purchased the home that he had lived in as a child. He had to pay dearly to convince the owners to sell it to him, but at last he was back in his own home. But still, the mystery of his missing parents remained.
Upon moving back into Heaven’s Gate, Mr. Bower discovered that other German speaking children had appeared in the same fashion as he did. Each child arrived on the 28th of October at five year intervals beginning five years after the day that Mr. Bower returned home to find his parents gone. Mr. Bower sought out and befriended the other five who had appeared as he had. He adopted the last six children as they showed up. A new child was expected to arrive soon if the pattern continued.
I didn’t know what to think. I have never believed that alternate universes exist outside the realm of science fiction ... and I wasn’t prepared to start believing that either! To try to find a place to begin unraveling the mystery, I asked if any of them had ever discussed these events with the owner of the house at the end of the lane. Their answer was that, although each of them distinctly remembered the house, the lot was vacant. It had been vacant since late in 1938 when the burnt out remains of the house that had been there were leveled. No attempt to build a house on that lot since that time had been successful.
I laid it on the line like I always do with potential clients. I told them that I had never experienced anything like the problem they described. I also told them that the odds were against me coming up with an explanation or finding their parents. They decided that they wanted me to try anyway. Normally, I wouldn’t want to take on a job with so little likelihood for success, but the allotment really intrigued me. This was a chance for me to research its history and get paid for doing so.
I began my research in the local library early the next morning. I studied some microfiche of the local newspaper at the time that the allotment was built. The German architect behind the design, Albert J. Huffman, was graduated from the Bauhaus in 1926. He was considered the most likely to succeed of those in the school at the time. He was known to have a very commanding presence. He demanded total cooperation when he negotiated with the city to build his allotment … and he got it. He also must have been quite a salesman because I could find no negative comments about his buildings despite how drastically different they were than anything that had ever been built in the region. My research did however turn up some comments that people were glad that the homes were secluded in their own allotment rather than being intermixed with the traditional homes in the area. Albert Huffman wouldn’t have had it any other way. He didn’t want traditional homes (which he called “mundanes”) anywhere near his “living art.”
Mr. Huffman was Jewish. Before World War II broke out, he could see the growing hatred of people of his faith. He was justifiably afraid of the Nazi movement. In 1935, he showed great foresight by immigrating to the United States with his son Deter. Mr. Huffman refused to discuss what had happened to his wife with the press and I found no record of her fate. Mr. Huffman was very protective of his only son and wouldn’t let him out of his sight for long. The boy was very isolated because he couldn’t speak English and because there was a definite bias against anyone from Germany at that time. It didn’t help that there were very few Jewish people in the area. Prejudice against Jewish people was not limited to the Nazi community or to Germany.
Heaven’s Gate rose out of a field on the edge of town in less than two years. Mr. Huffman had detailed plans for everything including the paving stones. The site was contoured to his specifications. The landscaping was as meticulously planned as any structure. Each tree and shrub was approved by Mr. Huffman before it could be planted … and then he made sure that it was planted in the exact location AND orientation that he had specified in his layouts. The focal point for the miniature community was the grand home at the end of the lane which Mr. Huffman occupied with his son.
The final fittings had barely been installed in Mr. Huffman’s home (the last home completed in Heaven’s Gate) when young Deter ran across the street and was struck and killed by a neighbor’s car. He had been out without permission. Mr. Huffman was shouting for him to return to the safety of their home. Deter ran without hesitating when he heard his father calling for him and paid no attention as he crossed the road. October 28th, 1938 was the day that Mr. Huffman watched his only son die. The neighbors stood aside as Mr. Huffman carried his son’s body inside his house. Within the hour, powerful explosions blew out the windows. The roof and a few of the walls collapsed. A fire gutted what was left. The bodies were never found. Later, for safety’s sake, the walls that still stood were pushed down and the site was cleared.
The plans for the house still exist, but every time someone purchased the property and attempted to rebuild the house, strange mishaps would keep occurring until the builder would either run out of funds or give up in frustration.
I didn’t have much to show for my efforts, but I returned to Mr. Bower to make sure that he wanted me to continue my research. When he saw the photo copies I had made of pictures of Albert and Deter Huffman, he recognized Deter as the boy he had played with on that day years ago and Mr. Huffman as the stern adult who kept a watchful eye on them. I showed him drawings of the Huffman house and he remembered it as the house that stood at the end of the lane as he grew up – the house that had disappeared on the day that he returned home to find his parents gone. He called his adopted sons and everyone shared the exact same memories. They begged me to continue my research, so I did.
I searched the internet for anything I could find on the work of Albert J. Huffman. What I found confused me. One account jived with my earlier research – that the house at the end of the lane was destroyed by fire. But accounts from German sources described a minor fire and stated that the property had been repaired and restored to original condition. Other details didn’t fit. I saw references to “Gatter des Himmels” which translates as “Gate of Heaven” and assumed that it was simply a translation of the allotment’s name. But some articles referred to both “Gatter des Himmels” and “Heaven’s Gate” and described them as if they were two separate creations of Albert Huffman.
I started a new search specifying “Gatter des Himmels” as the parameter and found a photo of the house at the end of the lane … with modern cars parked in front of it. I threw out my earlier assumptions and it dawned on me that the information I had gathered wasn’t contradictory at all. Still, it didn’t explain how German children had ended up in Pennsylvania.
I decided not to tell Mr. Bower and the others what I had found. I told them that I would be out of town for a few days. They were a little concerned that another child would show up while I was out of town. They wanted me to experience an arrival first hand. I had hopes of experiencing the phenomenon as well, but from a different point of view.
I booked a flight to Germany and packed a bag. When I pulled into Gatter des Himmels in my rented car, I became totally disoriented. I pulled to the curb and got out. This wasn’t déjà vu. I HAD been here before. It was exactly the same except for one difference. At the end of the lane stood a house that was the jewel in this allotment’s crown. Having seen the German version of Albert Huffman’s creation, the American version seemed hopelessly incomplete.
Without stopping to think what I was doing, I ran to Mr. Bower’s house to tell him what I had found out. When an old woman answered the door, I asked to talk to Mr. Bower. She told me that Mr. Bower had been dead for 15 years. She also told me that strangers were not welcome at Gatter des Himmels. When I asked why, she answered that twelve boys had gone missing over the years. A tear came to her eye when she told me that her son Johann had been the first to disappear. She slammed the door in my face.
I walked down the street as if in a trance. I stood in front house that Albert Hoffman had designed for his family. It loomed above me and a terrible sadness seemed to ebb out of every stone that it was built with. I was so absorbed in my study of each detail of the structure that I almost couldn’t hear the small, sad voice that said, “Wurden sie mit mir spielen?”
I looked down into the very real face of the boy from the library photographs. In my best German, I told Deter Huffman that I would very much like to play with him. A stern voice almost made me jump out of my skin. “Sie konnen nicht hier speilen, aber. It’s nicht sicher!” I looked into the scared face of a loving father and nodded in agreement that we could go elsewhere to play – someplace that Mr. Huffman felt would be safer for his only son.
Under the watchful eye of Albert J. Huffman, I played catch for almost two hours with his son Deter. By the time ninety minutes had passed, I had convinced myself that these were simply the current residents of the house. The remarkable resemblances were either a coincidence … or the result of my obsession with this assignment coupled with a bad case of jet lag. Finally I said my goodbyes and earned a smile from the boy by running my hand through his hair. I nodded to the father then turned and made my way back down the street.
I decided to stop again at the Bower house to tell Mrs. Bower that her son Johann was alive and well and living in America. I pulled out his phone number so I could thrust it into her hand before she had a chance to slam the door on me again. I knocked on the door and waited. Soon there were heavy footsteps. The door opened and there stood Johann Bower and two of his sons. I blurted out, “How did you find out? Did you bring all your boys to Germany with you?” Mr. Bower stared at me as if I had lost my mind. In a moment I agreed with his diagnosis … when I turned and saw that there was no longer a house at the end of the lane.
I will never understand the mechanics of how I became the thirteenth person to get from Germany to America by using a shortcut through Heaven’s Gate. But at least I had the satisfaction of reuniting a dozen families. We can’t stop Deter Huffman from seeking out and inviting boys who speak German to play with him. We can’t stop Albert J. Huffman from taking his son and his son’s playmate away from the danger of Germany to the safety of the Americas. But now we know where to return any German speaking children who appear suddenly at Heaven’s Gate.
-- The End --