What was “West” Germany like in the 1960s? How did many U.S. military families spend their time?
Visiting small Germany towns and castle climbing, of course!
When my dad was home from “being in the field” and his non-stop training for the impending Soviet invasion of then called West Germany, which would never happen, we traveled back in time by visiting castles around Mannheim and the surrounding towns.
My mother would pack a picnic lunch for all of us and we would load up the 1965 Dodge Dart early on a Saturday morning and hit the road. I’m sure we asked where we were going, but sometimes I think my dad just picked a road or direction at random, knowing that somewhere along the way there would be a castle to explore.
On the road again . . .
The road trips were probably not longer than an hour or two, but just in case, we kids would usually bring along a book or a couple volumes from the World Book Encyclopedia to read or look at the photographs as we wound through the countryside and tiny German towns with impossibly narrow streets, many towns still using the same cobblestones that ox carts passed over 600-800 years earlier.
Dad would finally announce that we had finally found the castle, but when we would climb out of the car and look around, more often than not, we were inside a small town with no castle visible in any direction. My dad was a bit of a prankster, so we assumed were just stopping for some sight seeing, with the castle we were seeking still further down the road.
After parking the car in an impossibly small parking space for your typical American car, my Dad would lead the way. It wasn’t until later that I realized my Dad had mastered the foreign road signs and he was just following the information signs.
Castle climbing 101
Many refer to the process of visiting castles as “castle climbing” because many of the castles were in fact located on mountain sides or at least on top of steep hills and many were built with very limited access as part of the overall defense strategy. On more than one occasion, we zig-zagged, back and forth, steadily going upward, on a narrow, slightly inclined trail with a flimsy hand-railing. It took what seemed like hours to finally make it to the top.
It was quite a chore to reach the top where we saw orange-red/brown streaks running through large rocks, which we instantly recognized as ancient blood (through it was probably just oxide veins in the rock. We could immediately imagine men coming up the same route in heavy armor, carrying iron weapons, battering rams and more, arriving out of breath and being assailed by people behind the walls of the castle. I’m sure many castle invasions were thwarted by the invaders arriving at the castle hungry and exhausted.
Most castles we visited had a tourist information and souvenir stand just inside the main castle entrance, and most of the castles offered guided tours as well. The tours were great, though we kids were often anxious to move on more quickly to the next room or area. At some castles we would all strike off on our own to explore the lower regions of the castle which we imagined to be dungeons, though few of the castles we visited actually had anything that resembled implements of torture.
Imagination running wild
Given our fertile imaginations, and fueled by the movie Robin Hood and typical Vincent Price horror movies we had seen on base, we imagined rings in the wall to be where chains were attached to hold prisoners upright while being interrogated and we could easily imagine stretching racks and hot iron brands being raised against prisoners.
The towers in most castles were also great to climb. Along the way up there were slits and small windows for observation and for archers to take aim at invaders below. The view at the top of the castle towers were usually spectacular, even if the town was only a small farming community.
After an hour of general exploring, we would find a picnic table or area we could spread a blanket and break out the sandwiches, and if we were lucky, some cans of Coca-Cola. We would munch on our sandwiches, breathing in the dank, earthy smell which accompanied most castles and marvel at what we had seen.
It was easy to imagine the horrific battles that must have been fought in the very courtyard in front of us. But the chirping of birds and the lazy, tourist pace of other tourists milling around the castle gave us a feeling of being in a big outdoor museum.
Before we left the castle we would spend some of our allowance money on a souvenir of some sort. Pocket knives, patches and pins were popular purchases. Throughout my childhood, I kept a small box filled with my treasures collected from many outings in Germany and Austria.
My mother would usually buy postcards and sometimes 35 mm slides, even though we didn’t own a slide projector. These have made great memory joggers as I think about our travels and look through the items.
On one of our castle climbing excursions, we attempted to find one of the “Frankenstein” castles. It didn’t matter to us that the book and movie used Transylvania as the setting for the classic monster movie. For some reason (probably my dad’s trying to get us going) we were sure that we could find the very same castle, after all, how common was the name “Frankenstein”, anyway?
After spending the better part of a morning working our way to the top of the mountain, we emerged into a small area outside the entrance.
We were disappointed by how small the Frankenstein castle actually was and the lack of anything that could have been used as a mad doctor’s laboratory, including a tower where someone could be hoisted up during a lightening storm.
The trip back home
The walk back down from the castle was far easier than the walk up to the castle, as the gently sloping zig-zag paths led us every downwards.
Once we found the car and began our trip back to Mannheim, the car was quiet as we watched the countryside slide by and fought the urge to take a nap.
Over the years as I have moved from place to place, I’ve lost a lot of the souvenir knives and patches I had as a child, but I do have many postcards as great reminders of places I have been to. Once in a while I will get them out and see all the wonderful places we visited during our four years in Mannheim, West Germany.
Looking back, I have no idea how my parents raised four kids on sergeant’s pay. While we may not have had a lot in the way of material possessions growing up, today I have a great storehouse of invaluable memories.