The Heinzelmännchen and the strange games they play

It’s a Father’s Day morning in Queens, circa 1948. My mother’s fixing me some French toast and my father’s at the table, eating his — a Father’s Day treat. I come padding out of the bedroom rubbing my eyes and whining. “I can’t find my toy tractor,” I whimper.

“The Heinzelmännchen took it,” Papa says between bites, and I believe him. After all, Papa said it, so it must be true. Within hours or a day, however, the tractor reappears and I forget about the Heinzelmännchen.

It goes on like this for years. Every time I complain that I can’t find something and my father’s within earshot, he says “The Heinzelmännchen took it.” And even after I no longer live in my father’s house, long after he’s gone, whenever I misplace something the first thing that pops into my mind is, “The Heinzelmännchen took it.”

It wasn’t until the advent of Google that I bothered to find out a little about the Heinzelmännchen. I discovered they were actually little gnomes who would do people’s work at night so they could goof off during the day. Today we call them the night shift.

So clearly my father was telling me, in his own cryptic way, that the Heinzelmännchen were cleaning up after me while I slept — and teaching me a lesson.

I like to think that the Heinzelmännchen had some other tricks up their sleeves, which they revealed to me over time. It happened one year in my 30s when I misplaced a tape measure. Of course the first thing that popped into my mind was, “The Heinzelmännchen took it!” Ha-ha.

But I looked for the tape measure for a few days, and as I was looking I found a screwdriver I’d lost a few months earlier.

Well, that was a stroke of luck, but I didn’t think much more about it until a few days later when I misplaced my hammer. And while I was looking for it, I found the tape measure. Whoa. What kind of a game were the Heinzelmännchen playing?

I continued to look for my hammer over the next few days, but I couldn’t find it — and since there was nothing else on the “missing stuff” list, I found nothing but some lint and a nickel under the swivel rocker. I finally gave up and bought another hammer.

And then of course the inevitable happened — I found my hammer, and now I had two.

I’m not prepared to say that the best way to find something that you lost is to buy a replacement, but it’s happened so often that I now own two hammers, three tape measures, and two of every type of screwdriver.

As I share this tale with you, I can’t help but recall a variation of this mysterious phenomenon — when you do something to make something else happen. It might go like this: you’re waiting for an important call, and the moment you begin stirring the delicate sauce on the stove, the phone rings. Tell me that’s never happened to you.