In the summer of 1960 my Father received orders for a tour of duty in Germany. Our home for the past three years had been the town of Stillwater Oklahoma. Dad was an Army captain in the Engineer Corps who had been one of just a few active-duty personnel assigned to an Army Reserve unit. I had no idea how living in Karlsruhe Germany would be so different from living in the United States of America.
As an adult looking back on that I can only guess who in higher command he’d irritated in order to get stationed to such a backwater posting. But heck, we’d learned to love Stillwater and what’s more, Stillwater seemed to really love us! Mom and Dad had bought a house in town which we were all very happy with and we had also made many friends. Dad was very popular too, likely because many of the towns leading citizens were Reservists and had monthly contact with my Father. Dad had even been approached to run for city council and he did in fact sit in and participate in city council meetings.
At one of those meetings suggestions were being solicited as to how to raise city revenue. Dad suggested they place coin boxes next to the downtown parking places and charge folks a nickel or so to park. The City Councilmen didn’t think much of the idea, “Who in the world would pay to park their car!” Several years after we left Stillwater for Germany, Oklahoma City became the first city in the U.S. to install parking meters on downtown streets. I can’t help but wonder if Dad’s idea didn’t somehow percolate up to the state capitol. Much as we loved Oklahoma we’d known all along that it was only a matter of time before new orders came in. That’s the Army way.
Right about the time the orders showed up I celebrated my sixth birthday. When you are six years old, a parent figures you are not old enough to understand everything that’s going on but parents tend to feel you need to be told about major goings on and so they sit you down and try to explain things. So they did. I was told we were moving to Germany and that it was another country which was very far away, so far away in fact that I would not be seeing my friends for a long time.
Like any parents concerned for the welfare and feelings of their children, my parents too learned to tell little white lies and sugarcoat the situation. “Oh we’ll come back for visits and you can write letters to them as often as you like.” Now I’ll make a statement here that has no basis in scientific fact nor theory but one that I believe to be true nonetheless and that is, “Six year olds know a hell of a lot more than you think they do, in fact they know a lot more than they think they do!”
Much of the knowledge a six year old possesses is gathered through a sort of osmosis. They hear adult conversations and the drone of the newscasts on television. They pick up various nuances in other’s conversations and can tell when certain subjects cause joy, sorrow, fear, anguish or anxiety. I in fact already knew that the current bogeymen were the Russians or as they were often referred to, the “Reds” or “The Commies.”
I mean those guys had folks—intelligent folks—building bomb shelters out in their backyards. We had emergency drills in kindergarten that factored in what to do in case of nuclear attack as well as tornados. I remembered the whole neighborhood gathered outside one night and my 14 year old brother being the first one to spot the slowly moving star which was Sputnik, the first manmade object to go into space and orbit the earth. I heard the adult’s grumbles and worried whispers. Everyone seemed to feel that eventually on one of its orbits Sputnik was sure to drop off an unwelcome package.
So now that you know what I knew then about current events, how do you think I would have reacted if my parents had instead told me we were moving to Russia? Well, I’d of been scared no doubt—correct? “So why,” my six year old brain asked itself, “does no one appear the least bit put off to be moving to Germany!” Hello.—Nazis, concentration camps, the dreaded Gestapo—was no one worried about those things? In fact it appeared that no one was.
Some people may wonder how a six year old boy would come to have knowledge of such things as Nazis and concentration camps? It’s that old osmosis thing. Your Dad is holding you when you are a child, you spot skin on him that is different from your own, you ask “ What’s that, Dad?” He tells you he got hit by shrapnel in the war, which causes a kid to say “What’s a war Dad?” You get the picture.
The questions just keep coming from a kid until he hears enough answers and then becomes an adult himself. If you are a parent and live in a household which is concerned with current events and the adults in the house discuss those events or make comments about the TV News broadcasts, then TRUST ME, if you tell your spouse that a member of the Taliban just moved in next door and your six year old overhears you, that child is going to be a bit worried. The child doesn’t understand what exactly being a Taliban entails nor can the child converse with any authority upon the whole subject of the Taliban, the war in Afghanistan, or the greater worldwide war against terror. In truth the child knows basically all he needs to know about the Taliban, they are bad people who do bad things.
So I knew my Dad had fought a war against the Nazis in Germany, I knew they’d hurt him but that somehow he’d overcome and beat them. I knew about concentration camps and the Gestapo because our family had just seen the movie “The Diary of Anne Frank”. I’d had bad thoughts and dreams about the Gestapo coming to get me with their police sirens making that weird ‘DA DEE, DA DEE, DA DEE” sound. They were as bad as the evil flying monkeys in “The Wizard of Oz”.
I suppose the way I overcame my trepidations about moving to Germany was that my parents, especially my Dad, would watch out for me. In my six year old pea brain I just assumed that we were going to the part of Germany where the war was no longer being fought. That was more true than I realized at that time—ask an East German.
My modus operandi became that which is true of most young kids—I just forgot about the bad stuff and went on playing as usual until the big moving day came. The actual departure from Oklahoma is a bit of a mental stew for me. I can remember saying goodbye to my friends Joe and Jay Fennel and Johnny Williams but I do not recall any real sadness. I guess by that time I was caught up in the overall hustle and bustle and excitement of the move.
After the movers left we headed off to Ypsilanti Michigan where we stayed with relatives long enough where I remember starting into first grade. I’m not sure how things worked then. I imagine it was a sort of extended leave to allow us to say goodbye to our relatives as well as allowing enough time for our household goods to arrive in Germany. When the time came to leave Michigan the family loaded up in our Studebaker Lark station wagon and headed off on a drive to McGuire Air Base in New Jersey for our flight overseas.
It was very exciting for me. I was going to get to fly in a JET! The brand new Queen of the Air in fact, a Boeing 707! I had in fact flown once before on a Lockheed Constellation but was a bit too young to remember it. But a 707 was a jet! It’s difficult today to imagine a person getting all excited by a jet but in those days if you saw a jet contrail way up in the sky you pointed it out to whoever was nearby. You said “Look! A jet!—yeah I know, it was all very Mayberry R.F.D. Bet a lot of you younger readers don’t know what R.F.D. stood for. It stands for Rural Free Delivery, yes Times change. So although this was not my first flight or for that matter my first trip out of the country it was still all new to me.
We boarded the aircraft well after dark and took our seats. I would be embarking to points abroad armed with all the usual preconceptions, misconceptions and pre-dispositions that only us Americans with our seemingly profound grasp of only that which is the most obvious, seem to be able to pull off so well. There was a book written in the late fifties titled “The Ugly American” by Eugene Burdick. The book revolves around American involvement in Southeast Asia. It was very prescient. It was very controversial as well. The author sort of pointed out the fact that regardless of how friendly, altruistic and well intended that Americans tend to be we also have that nagging habit of being a bit too proud, arrogant and self important.
Of course we like to point out that we wouldn’t act that way if it weren’t all true! So like all Americans heading overseas the possibility hung heavy that I would soon be stepping in it, on it, and when it was all over my foot, inserting said foot in mouth. I would have plenty of opportunity to be the “Ugly American” and like most of us, I would not waste it. My being six years old at the time, you’re going to have to go easy on me though.
I like to think that as an adult who spent his first 15 years as an Army Brat that I’m a little more worldly than those Americans who’ve not gotten to go overseas. As a Brat I have to say that sometimes my country does embarrass me. One only needs to go to a foreign country where one does not speak the language and have a native speak to you in your own tongue, to come to the realization that “Yes, not only is there a Santa Claus Elizabeth, but we didn’t invent him and he drops gifts in other lands as well! ”
We taxied, took off, and left the states for three years in Germany as American Ambassadors for Freedom. The flight over was great. The stewardess took me up to the cockpit and I got to meet the pilots and look around a second. One of them gave me a set of metallic TWA pilot’s wings. The plane landed at Rhein Main Air Base in Frankfurt as was par for that time.
Dad’s duty station was located on the outskirts of Karlsruhe Germany not far from the French border. An OD green van picked us up and drove us to the base in Karlsruhe. I know part of the base was called Smiley Barracks but I’ve never been clear as to whether that referred to the whole base or just the old German Caserne at the west end of the base. We were put up in some kind of B.O.Q. type building for a few days while the Army arranged our quarters. Turned out there was no currently available housing on base and the Army had arranged quarters for us in a German family’s home. The home was located in a small village beyond the built up area on the opposite side of Karlsruhe. The name of the village was Killesveldt.
I have many early memories and impressions of Germany. One of the strongest involves the sense of smell. Sure, Germany looked different, no doubt, the architecture, the lay of the land and farm fields, the autobahns and castles and towers up on the hills. But what was more vivid to me was that it smelled totally different. I would be much older and long gone from Germany before I came to the realization that it was the fumes from all the coal, coke, and diesel that the Germans used for fuel, as well as the hot musty ozone type smell of rooms heated by radiators. Get me next to a tractor trailer belching diesel smoke and a lot of memories come back.
The village itself was very neat as most things German are. If I were to guess I’d say there were about 50 to 60 buildings in it arranged how you’d picture an old fashioned telephone pole with three cross spars laying flat on the ground. The pole and spars representing the street layout. The house had a dark and narrow staircase leading up to our apartment. The apartment itself was pretty primitive compared to the prevailing U.S housing standards of 1960.
Heck, it was primitive compared to the then current army base housing standards of the time. There were about 5 rooms as I recall. There was one room that served as a kitchen/dining/living room, three small bedrooms and a cramped bathroom. All of the electrical wires in the apartment were visible, either stapled to the walls or drooping from one place to another. Bare light-bulbs hung in sockets suspended from the ceiling near the middle of each room. The kitchen was that in name only.
There was a hot plate instead of a stove, and no oven. A bare sink stood attached to one wall. The refrigerator was a tiny little box good for storing a minimum of stuff—maybe a couple quarts of milk, a head of lettuce and a plucked chicken. The bathroom had an old, rust streaked, claw foot styled tub, with no shower. No laundry machines were present nor were they available for our use elsewhere in the village. Mom ended up using a wash board in the bathtub and the whole apartment ended up with clotheslines strung hither and yon to air dry our clothes. There were clotheslines outside if the weather was nice. We had transformers to be able to plug our electrics into, but the fuses were blowing all the time. I thought the toilet was cool because you reached up and pulled a chain and the flush water came down from a tank near the ceiling.
What heat we had came from a few wall mounted radiators. They tended to be fussy and act up and I remember it was pretty cold in the wintertime. All in all it was a pretty dreary, drafty and sort of depressing place. Of course Mom was determined to make the best of it and turn it into a home for the five of us—yeah there were five of us—I haven’t mentioned my 11 year old sister yet, “sorry Sis!” Hey what do you expect! She was a girl and what six year old boy cares about an ole’ girl anyway! Being the youngest family member I think I was the least affected by the primitive living conditions. Boys just want to play and have fun.
It was probably around mid to late October when we got settled into our new digs, and being fall, one of my parents first priorities was to get us kid into school. This was quickly and painlessly accomplished. We attended the base school which covered grades 1-12, the elementary and high school grades being in different wings. An army van picked us up in front of the house and brought us back after school.
As I remember, we three were the only passengers on that van the whole time we lived in that village. We would be in Killesveldt for around six or seven months. It got dark pretty early at that time of year, especially with what I reckon was a 30-40 minute drive each way. Our route essentially crossed the city. I can remember crossing what seemed to me at the time to be vast rail yards loaded with belching trains. I recall how smoky it was especially if a train was directly beneath the viaduct as you crossed the train yards.
During our first month or so in Karlsruhe, we were pretty stationary, as our car had yet to arrive from the states. Naturally us kids took the opportunity to check out the village and its surroundings. We wandered up and down the streets checking the place out. Most of the buildings were pretty close together by American standards, maybe just a driveway between houses leading to a small backyard which might have a small flower and vegetable garden, and usually some kind of small little shed.
Towards the ends of a couple of streets were a few bigger and nicer homes that had front yards and behind them out back it was as if the village ended in fields of grass or crops, with sections of woods visible beyond. We discovered that there was a small bakery right as you entered the village. The bread was wonderful, and we all came to love the rich and dark black bread as well as the small white flour rolls we called brochen—I have no idea if I spelled that right. On the western edge of the village beyond a field, ran an autobahn. It was while exploring that side of the village one day with my older brother that I encountered my first Nazis and barely escaped incarceration in a concentration camp.
I must interject at this point what a marvel the German autobahns were to us. They had four lanes with the opposing lanes divided by a grassy median. The pavement was virtually blemish free. In the States most of the freeways we see today were still being built in the sixties. Most long interstate trips usually involved a significant portion of the trip being taken on two lane state and federal highways replete with all the slowdowns encountered as you passed through town after town.
I have memories of a drive through portions of Illinois and Indiana where to look out the back passenger window brought to mind one of those little home-made movie books where you flipped through the hundred or so pages like you would a deck of cards and each page was just a slightly different image of the previous page. In this way you could make it look like a car was moving or something. On that trip when you looked out it was corn,corn,corn,corn,corn, corn,corn,driveway,corn,corn,corn,corn,corn,driveway. So fast that if you weren’t paying attention you’d miss seeing those driveways leading to those farm houses with corn up to their side walls. In 2007 I made a trip through the same area but on freeways—heck, it wasn’t a whole lot different.
Anyway, there we were wandering near the freeway, when my brother Richard, spots some woods on the other side. He says “come on, let’s go check those woods out.” So we edge onto the freeway shoulder and look to our left towards the oncoming traffic. Seeing the coast was clear, we dashed across to the grassy median. We approached the two opposite lanes and were looking to our right for a good break in the traffic when all of a sudden we hear the dreaded “DA-DEE, DA-DEE, DA-DEE” of the Gestapo siren.
We turn around, and rolling to a stop in the grass median behind us, is a VW Beetle with dark green fenders and a white body with a flashing blue light on top. The electric blue flashing light was especially sinister, nothing like the normal red dome lights we were familiar with from back in the States. Two Gestapo agents jumped out screeching at us, in what we supposed was the German language.
Their uniforms looked almost exactly like those I’d seen of Gestapo and SS in movies and T.V. I’m pretty sure I remember seeing guns. What I was hearing coming out of their mouths was a lot of aaachhhs and oohcchss, and duuus and God knows what all. It sounded so harsh and guttural. I do not remember what I said in return, if anything at all!
I seem to remember my vision became all black around the edges and I know my heart leapt up into my mouth! If I did indeed speak, I likely spoke the words my brain was thinking, “RUN RICHARD! IT’S THE GESTAPO COME TO TAKE US TO THE CONCENTRATION CAMP!”
The two Gestapo guys came up and grabbed our arms and yelled at us and I remember Richard saying stuff, like what had we done, and what was going on. Well next thing you know they are stuffing us into the back of the car, I’m most likely crying and screeching both, and my brother is trying to calm me down, and I’m saying, “What do you mean calm down—they’re going to gas us!” I couldn’t believe Richard didn’t see what was fixing to happen. After a couple of miles in the car I could sense my brother’s confidence was wavering when he yelled, “Where are you taking us!” He even pulled out the American “Get out of jail free card” which most Americans have tattooed on their foreheads in invisible ink. It goes like this—arrange a look of total shock and outrage on your face and yell, “You can’t do this, we’re American citizens! You’ll be sorry!”
After a lengthy ride during which I may have peed my pants (I don’t know if I did or not—if so I’ve repressed it which no doubt adds to my ongoing problem with PTSD) we arrived at the provost’s marshal’s office on the Army base, where the Gestapo, who had turned out to be plain old Polezei, turned us over to the M.P.s.
Turns out it was illegal to cross the autobahn on foot or to even walk along on the shoulder. Who knew? If the German officers were conversant in English, they never let on. Dad picked us up, and since it was an honest mistake he determined no punishment was warranted. However, we were told to stay within the confines of the village unless under adult supervision. It was that ruling which set in motion the opportunity for me turn into reality the chance to become one of what is called “An Ugly American” Remember about the Ugly American? I hope so, it’s what all this story is about.
Soon after the autobahn episode, I was outside the apartment and some German boys approached me, probably five or six of them, all within a year or two of my age. They proceeded to spout a higher pitched, junior version of the Gestapo men’s speech, so I told them “I can’t understand you—I’m American.” A couple of them cut me down or made fun of me in German. I know this because it’s all in the tone of voice, you don’t have to be a linguist.
One of them, after a glance at the others started speaking to me in English. We introduced ourselves and I found out his name was Wolfgang. Wolfgang told me they were going out to a field to play football and I was welcome to come along with them and play. I said okay.
Within minutes I found myself looking like a total dork. I had discovered football in Germany had no relation to American football. Those kids were bouncing the soccer ball on their knees and passing the ball with their heads. If the ball dropped they somehow scooped it up onto their toes and lofted it up to their knee again. Needless to say the less charitable boys in the group got a lot of laughs at my expense. My tender American Ego had been bruised. I did not like it. Through it all Wolfgang remained appropriately polite and respectful so I could see we’d become good friends. Whew—playground dynamics!
One of the next times we played together I brought a baseball, a bat and a mitt. “We’ll see who the dork is now” I thought. The German kids were interested in the unfamiliar equipment and I explained how the game was played and Wolfgang translated some for me. I gave the glove to one of the older boys who’d been acting rude to me and poking fun.
I showed him how it went on his hand and that he was supposed to catch the ball with it. I then stepped back and tossed the ball to him. He stood there with both hands at face height and about two feet apart and I believe he watched that ball all the way to the point where he lost it right prior to the ball beaning him on the forehead.
He was pretty mad but a number of other boys laughed, this time at his expense. TA DA! Mission accomplished! In future we all learned to play together quite well.
Wolfgang was a great kid. He invited me to his home for afternoon tea several times, and it was impressive. His home was about the nicest in the village. I can remember it was filled with beautiful furniture and Persian style carpets over lustrously polished hardwood floors. They had a decorative oriental pond out back, and I loved looking at all the colors of those goldfish. Tea consisted of a triple tiered pastry stand filled with sweet baked goods like little cakes and strudels. It was obvious they were a quite well to do family. Like any kid would, I too wanted to impress my friend Wolfgang so I brought him American sweets like candy bars. I even got him chewing double bubble.
There were things the Germans liked and envied about the Americans and vice versa for us. One of the American things that was popular with Germans was American music. Top- Forty stuff. Evidently new pop music was harder for them to get than it was for us. The base PX kept all the latest tunes in, and my brother and sister sometimes bought 45’s there. One day, in attempts to impress Wolfgang and further seal our friendship, I grabbed some of my sibling’s records and took them down to his house.
He was real excited and we went upstairs to a sort of parlor/living room where there was a phonograph. We proceed to listen to a tune that was a hit back in the States. It was a tune written by a singer named Johnny Horton. It was titled “Sink the Bismarck.” It was a long balled about the British chase and destruction of the Nazi pocket battleship Bismarck. It was a real catchy tune whose verses ended in lines like “and we’re gonna put her down” or “we’re off to sink the Bismarck to the bottom of the sea.”
I’ve told you before that although at some level I knew about WWII, I nonetheless had no idea that playing that song in a German home was a bad idea. In fact Wolfgang’s knowledge of WWII was on par with my own and it didn’t mean anything bad to him either. All we knew was that no one around us was acting like enemies, so wherever and however WWII was proceeding, we all were obviously on the same side.
So there we are, listening to this song over and over again, like only kids do, and both of us singing along with gusto. “SEA, SEA, SEA . . . WE’RE OFF TO SINK THE BISMARCK TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA!” All of a sudden Wolfgang’s Father who I’d never met before comes into the room and asks Wolfgang to introduce him to his American friend. Wolfgang does so, and everything is going well until Wolfgang’s Dad says “What’s this song you listen to.”.
Whereupon I promptly volunteer that the song is about the Americans (I had it in my mind it was us instead of the British—typical American thought process) chasing down and sinking the Nazi battleship Bismarck during WWII. Without waiting for a reply, I further state,(obviously hoping to gain prestige through association), that my Dad also fought the Nazis and killed “a whole bunch of them!”
I then ask Wolfgang’s Dad if he fought in WWII. He responded “No I didn’t, I worked in a shipyard building boats.” I said “WOW, NEAT! what kind?”
Yeah, you’re already there, aren’t you? Now after finding out Wolfgang’s Dad had built the Bismarck, a ship we were just singing about sinking, I had one of my first adult moments. Although I had likely never heard the French term “Faux Pas” I nevertheless somehow knew that I’d made one. Wolfgang’s Dad, not impolitely I must add, suggested we’d had enough music for one day, and Wolfgang and I went outside to play.
Wolfgang and I remained friends, however I never recall being in his house ever again. My brother became good friends with Wolfgang’s older brother Gerhardt and we even would get together after we moved on to the base. We’d meet at the huge public pool in Karlsruhe and swim, or we’d pick them up and go hiking. Looking back I realize that Wolfgang’s Dad may have been telling a fib about his working on the Bismarck, only doing so to put an idiotic, thoughtless, and arrogant American kid in his proper place. Then again he could have been telling the truth. I’ll never know for sure.
One thing odd about the male German adults was that if you could even get one to admit to having fought in the war, then they always told you they fought on the Russian front. Dad was convinced that all the German troops who faced the Americans must have been killed in battle, because he never met a live one in the three years we were there.
I know the German people were sensitive about the war years, and for good reason. We were instructed in school to never speak the word Nazi in public, or draw or refer to swastikas. I violated both those rules. Once while snooping in the basement boiler room, the German who worked in there caught me and grabbed me by the arm. Evidently other kids had been bothering him (probably because of a pronounced limp that was likely a war injury).
All I wanted was loose, so I yelled “Let me go you Nazi!” I can still see in my mind’s eye the anger in that German’s face, as well as the hurt, confusion, and possibly fear as the surprise of me calling him a Nazi caused him to lose his grip and let me escape. Looking back on things such as this, and the seemingly compliant and non-confrontational attitude among many Germans, maybe they were just trying to teach us by example.
Maybe they just didn’t want to come across as “The Ugly German”.