As I read over the June 1, 2011 edition of the Herald POST, which serves the communities in the U.S. Army Garrison Baden-Württemberg, it was a bittersweet experience. The article covered the deactivation ceremonies and contained some great photos and background on BFV. But as I read the newspaper, I was struck with a sense of both nostalgia and sadness.
As a Military Brat, I lived in Benjamin Franklin Village from 1962 to 1966, and for me and many others, it was our home—where we went to school, trick-or-treated, played softball, went to Saturday Matinees or the Snack Bar, or the library and PX.
I first learned about the closing of the U.S. Army Garrison in Mannheim from Prof. Dr. Christian Führer in late January of 2011.
Christian contacted me via email, regarding several articles he had found on Military Brat Life about the four years my family and I spent in Mannheim, living in Benjamin Franklin Village, and wanted permission to include some quotes from my articles in his book.
Christian wrote, “As a German national hailing from Mannheim myself, I have been involved in many German-American activities during the past thirty years, so the recent announcement of Mannheim’s 2014/2015 closure nearly broke my heart, but also gave rise to this project. The project is non-profit endeavor with all proceeds (if any will be generated) going to the Fisher House Foundation – specifically, to the Fisher House in nearby Landstuhl that allows the relatives of wounded soldiers to be near their loved ones.”
Christian was researching his book about how the U.S. Army Garrison and the many families and soldiers who came and went through the garrison were such an influence on the Mannheim community.
“My mother (who was 3 when the war ended) knew what a Hershey bar was, and you can’t find those here, because soldiers shared their rations with her and her family. It is astonishing to think about because Germany attacked the U.S., and here less than five years later, Soldiers are outside tossing pigskins to children, sharing their Cokes and were just generally very outgoing in nature,” said Führer. “The mentality of Americans seems to be, ‘We’ll weather through it all, as long as we stick together.’”
If you talk to any Military Brat who has lived overseas, our lives have been changed as we experience a different country, culture and people. And for me, while Benjamin Franklin Village was a large housing housing area and a microcosm of Americana surrounded by the rest of Mannheim, it was my home for four years, and our family’s base of operation, with the German country side and many quaint towns and castles within just a short afternoon drive.
Late in May of 2011, Elizabeth Casebeer, with USAG Baden-Württemberg Public Affairs, contacted me to arrange a phone interview about a Military Brat’s perspective on Mannheim and the closing of Benjamin Franklin Village for the Herald Post article she was writing, I felt a flood of emotions and I thought about what this meant to me and to others who had lived and worked in BFV.
“Our Town” Disappears—In Plain Sight
It is hard to grasp the fact that what was “our town” will be no more, even if the buildings remain standing for years to come. It is the idea that the housing area where thousands of soldiers lived, their children played and went to school, will be gone, but the buildings will still be there.
In the national news from time to time, I will read about a town that is devasted by flood or tornados, and almost without exception, the town is rebuilt and families who have lived there can return and continue their lives.
For military families, we all have a series of “home towns” and for many soldiers’ careers, the places they called home continue on. But over time the world changes and the mission of the military changes along with it. Bases close, and garrisons deactivate.
Only Memories Remain
As I think about the concept of garrison deactivation, it is like remembering a friend or relative who has passed on to the next life and all you are left with are the memories of that person. The places we grew up, like BFV, while not alive themselves, were alive with soldiers, their families, teachers, chaplains, and everyone needed to make a community whole.
When I was a child and my dad was on leave, my mother would sometimes take us by the place where her home once stood, out in the country outside Decatur, Alabama. All we saw were trees and pasture land, as the old “home place” had been sold before we kids were born and the house my mother had grown up in was torn down.
Now I know what she was feeling as she took us by to visit, and why she stared over at familiar trees and even though the house was long gone, the land was there where she had walked, and played, and the fields where she had helped harvest crops and even to pick cotton.
It is a bittersweet feeling, knowing that another part of Germany which has been occupied for over sixty years, will be returning to Germany—that the cultural melting pot will be no more and that the interaction between the Americans living in Mannheim with Germans will cease.
From the playground between apartment buildings on Lincoln Avenue, past the fence topped with barbed wire, I could see the rows of jeeps, trucks and other green vehicles and trailers, which were always ready to respond to an alert, like silent, unmoving sentries. It is sad for for me to think that no U.S. Military children will grow up seeing and experiencing life at Benjamin Franklin Village.
While it is sad for me, I think it is a good thing for Germany—that Germans may raise their children without the sight of fences topped with barbed wire, in a country that is no longer divided into East and West.
An Americana Microcosm—Well, Sort Of
While BFV had its own schools, PX, library, hospital, commissary, theatre and everything a U.S. military family needed, as a six-year old, it was the world outside the housing area where English was a second language, money was totally different, and all the candy was in unfamiliar packaging. This was Mannheim, and the entire countryside outside Mannheim was filled with castles to be explored, as well as thousands of small towns with narrow winding roads, cobblestone streets and very friendly people who worked hard and loved living their lives.
As a child, living in what was called West Germany, since the Berlin Wall divided the country at the time, I learned about the history of Germany and World War II, and though we had ongoing warnings about unexploaded grenades, bombs and artillery shells, it was hard to imagine that there had so much destruction and bloodshed all around us.
In 1962, when I arrived in Mannheim, the city had been rebuilt and while there still was a danger of finding unexploded munitions from twenty years earlier, we saw little of the destruction of Germany during the war, except for a few historical sites we visited.
While we were in a sense isolated from German children as we grew up at BFV, Germans came and went daily, working around the garrison and some Germans sold door to door to make a living. From “starving artist” landscape paintings to encyclopedias, the large housing housing area with mostly stay-at-home moms were an easy target for salesmen. One of my fondest memories going with my mom to buy warm bread that from a nice Germany lady who drove through the neighborhood, selling out of the back of her small station wagon.
While my memories are from my childhood, I now realize that soldiers stationed at the garrison had a big impact on the local economy and that many friendships were made between Germans and Americans, and an exchange of our two cultures took place as Americans went off post and learnd about the culture around them.
Many soldiers married Germans and other European nationals, so it was common to hear several languages spoken besides English. After a few weeks BFV was my home. Though at first so much of what I saw was very different from living in a surburban house in Columbus, Georgia, I gradually accepted the apartment buildings and the facilities provided at Benjamin Franklin Village as the norm.
I also learned that we were not in Germany to keep the Germans from returning to military power, but we were there because of a common enemy, the Soviet Union.
The impact of Living in Germany
I had no idea that growing up in Germany would impact my life in so many subtle ways.
All of the Saturday drives to castles and tourist attractions including museums and cathedrals, fueled my interest in art and architecture, and years later in college, while studying art, I could imagine myself back in Germany, looking around a 11th or 12th century cathedral and feeling the cool, stone walls that enclosed the space and created the feeling of heaven above.
In 1973, during my junior year of high school, my dad received orders to report to Friedburg, Germany. While I had spent four years at Fort Knox, and would miss my friends, I loved the thought of returning to Germany, my adopted country.
I lived for a few months with my family in Florstadt, Germany, awaiting quarters, and it was an interesting turn of events to be one of only four or five American families living in the small town. It was great to see how our German neighbors lived, though it was no surprise. Our neighbors worked hard, played hard, raised their families and tried not to worry about the Cold War heating up.
I have not been back to Germany since I took a vacation there 1990, and while I did stop by in Mannheim. I was traveling by train and while I did spend some time in Mannheim, but was not able to properly go down memory lane and walk around BFV. However, just knowing I was in Mannheim was a great feeling.
One day I hope to visit what was once Benjamin Franklin Village, and perhaps walk on the sidewalks I did as a child when going to the library, to school, or to the movie theatre and sometimes to the PX.
It is my hope that the City of Mannheim will keep a few street names the same as they are now, as a gentle reminder of the Americans who once were part of Mannheim, so I can find Lincoln Avenue—and my way back home.