Going Native

It was called, “living on the economy“, and depending on your viewpoint, it was either a great experience—or not.

For our family, and from my Military Brat viewpoint, our second trip to Germany in 1973 was a great experience.

Household Goods
The day finally came when we received our familiar furniture, dishes and TV. My sisters were very excited about the TV, thinking they could get all the shows they missed. We fired it up but it only received a picture—no sound, as it was a US TV and only partially compatible with the signal being broadcast on the German network.

I got my stereo system unpacked and hooked up, and was disappointed to learn the turntable speed was a bit slow due to the difference between 50 cycles which the German current had and 60 cycles which US current had. I was missing my Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull record albums.

The radio worked fine and I found a number of FM stations especially which broadcast top 40 hits mainly, playing a mix of British and U.S. groups, most of which I was familiar with, but also many German bands I had never heard of, with announcements and comments between tunes in German which I did not fully understand.

I missed my favorite station back “home” Fort Knox. The radio station played “progressive” rock and often played entire albums, which was a godsend as record albums took a huge chunk out of my allowance and the extra spending money I earned cutting lawns. Here in Florstadt I was able to pick up Armed Forces Radio and there was a couple hours of radio programming I could listen to each day.

“Gutten Tag, Ken.  Wie gehts?”

My sisters were very happy to have access to their toys and books that were so familiar. Ken and Barbi were unpacked and released from their plastic cases, then set up so they could explore Florstadt too.

My youngest sister, Nanci, who was six at the time, made friends with a girl her age up the street. Her name was Gabriel, an only child, and soon they were playing Barbis together, and in a couple of weeks they chattered back and forth in German.

My other sister, Jan, who was eleven, made some friends with our next door neighbors, where a girl lived who was about, who was about twelve. They were not as much into playing Barbies, together, but my sister’s friends had white rabbits which they played with.

It was a bit of shock to my sisters when one day they saw small white rabbit pelts hanging out like laundry next door and learned that our neighbors were fond of rabbit meat. Thank goodness Easter was a good eight months ahead of us, and hopefully we would be in quarters by then.

We gave our neighbors a container of ice cream, and a few days later they gave us a cheese cake—the best cheese cake I have ever had, and against which all cheesecake since has been measured.

Stretching Our Housing Allowance

Living on the economy meant that we received a housing allowance from Uncle Sam each month, which was a fixed amount, according to Dad’s rank. Unfortunately, the 1970s was a period where the German Deusche Mark was very strong against the U.S. dollar. The U.S. dollar would buy about 1.30 Deusche Marks, but this fluctuated from about 1.20 to 1.50, so month to month our rent, which had to be paid to Carl in Deusche Marks, would often take more than the housing allowance we were given.

The balance had to come from my Dad’s regular pay.  This was a far cry from the 1960s, when we could get 4 Marks to the dollar, but a sign that the German economy was strong, and also a sign that the Nixon Administration was too busy trying to woo the Chinese and not worrying about our own economy.

Dad’s found out that Carl had a fondness for vodka, and he would make up the difference in rent with a couple of half-gallon bottles of vodka which Dad could get for few dollars at the Class 6 store in Friedburg.

Vodka and other hard liquor was subject to large luxury taxes. A bottle of vodka Dad could purchase for about $5 would easily be over $35 on the German economy. Carl was quite happy to receive partial rent in vodka.

German beer and wine, on the other hand, was considered to be a necessity, and was quite reasonably priced.

The Painting Easel

I had started painting in art class about a year earlier, and I wanted a real painting easel, not a tabletop toy that was prone to tipping over and was good for very small canvas boards only.

I worked up some plans for nice easel based on some easels I saw in American Artist magazine at the library, and armed with my allowance I had been saving, I drove Dad to work one summer morning and was the first customer at the Friedburg Craft shop.

The shop was tiny in comparison to the enormous shop we had back at Fort Knox, but in this case, I just needed access to a table saw and some help with turning a couple of 6 foot pine boards into my new painting easel.

The man in charge of the shop was German, with excellent English, and he looked over my plans and helped me with my wood cutting. I had taken shop classes in junior high school, but our instructor never let us actually use the table saw by ourselves, so I had little “hands on” experience.

The craft shop manager worked closely with me, and he cut my boards to the correct width, but let me do the cross-cuts on a radial arm saw and I did all the sanding and the drilling of holes and finishing work.

I did not complete the assembly of the easel at the shop. It was easier to transport the strips of wood in the car, then to assemble the easel back in my room in Florstadt.

It was a basic “H” design, that is, it had two upright pieces that had short cross pieces to give them stability. This assembly was hinged at the bottom to a base. Two strips of wood angled down from from the assembly to the base.

The easel had a series of holes drilled on the front upright strips, and two short cross pieces of wood which used dowels to fit into the holes on the front, allowing me to accommodate any size canvas and to move the canvas up and down if needed. It was not my most elegant design, but it was sturdy and worked well.

I spent many summer hours painting away, listening to the radio, and while I did miss my friends back at Fort Knox, I knew that some of them were themselves moving on.

This was the first of many easels I have built over the years.

First Day at Frankfurt American High School

Summer waned, and soon it was the first day of school. Because we lived on the economy, a passenger van would come by to collect me and others who lived in and around Friedburg, who were also students at Frankfurt High School.

In order to deliver us to the bus stop at Friedburg at 7:00 or so in the morning, I had to be ready to be picked up at about 6:00 a.m., which meant I had to get up at 5:30 to get ready. I could have ridden in with my Dad, but I didn’t want to have to freeze for an hour or so waiting for the school bus in Friedburg.

It was pitch black when the van arrived. I managed a “Guten Morgan,” to the driver and climbed into the warm Ford Econoline van. I could understand now why my Dad had to have his coffee, also called “lifer juice”, so early in the morning.

I was the second passenger, and over the next forty-five minutes or so the van wound through a number of tiny Germany communities, collecting six or seven Military Brats who also lived on the economy.

We were let off at the bus stop with plenty of time to spare; in fact, we were the first to arrive at the bus stop. Over the next ten minutes or so, more students arrived until we had some forty or fifty people. The bus already had some students on board, and we filed on.

I had not ridden a bus since junior high in Columbus, Georgia, when I went to public school for one year, and this bus ride was as rowdy as I remembered, and then some.

A short, petite blond girl sat down next to me and asked cheerfully, “Do you do dope?  We can can get you anything you want.” I politely explained that I did not, but thanks for the information. I did not explain that my Dad had just ended a four year gig as a Drill Instructor, and while he was few inches shorter than me, his hand-to-hand combat skills were far superior to mine and I knew he would beat me to an inch of my life if he even thought I tried any illicit drug. Or worse yet, I would have to set through a thirty minute lecture/tirade.

As the bus lurched forward and began it’s journey from Friedburg to Frankfurt by way of the autobaun, some of the younger students were being hazed as part of “initiation day”. Shaving cream was sprayed on shirts and applied to collars and lipstick was applied to faces.

At Fort Knox High School we had some very mild name calling for freshmen, but nothing like this. It was also interesting to note that Frankfurt High School did not have freshmen. It was full of sophomores, juniors and seniors, such as myself.

Somehow we made it into downtown Frankfurt, and I got a closer view of what we had flown over earlier in the year and driven through one one time.

The school was in the middle of Frankfurt and had an open campus, consisting of a main building and some annex buildings in easy walking distance. I was not prepared for the size of the student body—some 1800 students with the main building having two stories, I believe. In contrast, Fort Knox High School only had about 600 students, and the school was on one level.

Somehow I made it to all my classes and by the end of the first week I was settled in and looking forward to the rest of the school year, even if it meant a four hour bus and van ride every day.

Holidays
While the town of Florstadt was usually very quiet, during soccer season, the town came alive when a rival team played at one of the schools. Cars lined all the streets near the school and we could hear the spectators roaring loudly for an entire afternoon as the game heated up.

During Octoberfest, a large tent was set up in town and for several days and into the wee hours of the morning, the sounds of accordians and tubas carried through the town. Even with the windows closed you could hear the faint beat of the music, which sounded like Polka music to my untrained ears.

It was amazing how the Germans could party until two or three in the morning, then get up and start their 45 minute commute to Frankfurt and surrounding towns at 6:30 the next morning.

We celebrated Thanksgiving by inviting over Nanci’s friend Gabrielle for Thanksgiving dinner. We introduced her to our family tradition of Turkey and all the traditional fixings, including pumpkin pie. She smiled politely and tried a little of everything, and Nanci translated and explained what she was eating.

We did have a small Christmas tree that year, and we brought out our Christmas ornaments. My older brother was attending Auburn University, so we had our first Christmas with just my two sisters, myself, Mom and Dad. It was a calm and peaceful Christmas, and quite enjoyable.

On New Year’s Eve Florstadt came alive again. We were quite surprised first by the huge fireworks display that lit the town brightly for what seemed like an hour, and we heard partying continuing on in the night. In a day all evidence of the grand celebration including hang-overs were gone, and then it was back to work as usual.

Saying Goodbye to Florstadt
In February of 1974, our family moved to the top of the waiting list for quarters, and we were assigned quarters in Bad Nauheim, a town that is about 15 minutes away from Friedburg.

I had grown accustomed to living in Florstadt and I had caught the eye of a neighbor’s girl who was about my age, and who knows. If we had stayed in Florstadt longer, I might be driving a tractor today, hauling my sugar beets to market.

I was looking forward to shortening my school commute and it would be good to live some military families again.

The packers came and boxed all our belongings, moved our household goods and unpacked us in one day. This was definitely the most unusual moves we had ever made.

Living on the economy was a terrific experience and gave me a glimpse at everyday life for the Germans who shared their country with Americans, and would continue to do so for decades to come.

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