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, with our seven months of living in a tiny Germany town being the highlight for me.
Early in May of 1973 we were living in Fort Knox, Kentucky, and Dad finally arrived home for dinner, quickly changed out of his uniform and joined us at the dining room table. We never knew exactly when he would be home. Dad was well into his fourth year as a Drill Sergeant at Fort Knox. Each batch of recruits under his care in basic training was different, with each cycle requiring a different amount time and attention—and sometimes things happened at the end of the day and he was late for dinner.
We sat down and began to pass around the serving bowls of food my mom had tried to keep warm and fresh for over an hour. We started to eat and it was quiet around the table.
“I’ve got orders . . .”
Dad put down his fork, cleared his throat and said, “Guess where we’re going?” This caught all of us off guard. “I’ve got orders for Friedburg, Germany.”
There was silence for about 10 seconds. Dad looked at me and said, “Don’t sit there like a knot on a log, Vann, pass the green beans!”
We knew this day would come—we had been at Fort Knox right at four years . . . an eternity if measured in military time. But we were not prepared to hear the words right at this moment.
I was both disappointed and excited about the move. We had moved to where Uncle Sam wanted us to go as long as I could remember—I was used to the moving, but it was the sudden realization that something new and dreadful and wonderful and scary—all at the same time—that I never got used to.
Conversation at the dinner table was typically very minimal, unless dad was in a good mood, and this evening he was in a great mood. Prior to our coming to Fort Knox, dad had served a tour of duty in Vietnam and he had thrown himself into his work as a drill sergeant and we saw little of him and I only saw him smile a handful of times.
Dad was barraged with questions such as: “Could I keep more personal items (since my brother had moved on to college the year before)?” or, “When would the packers be here?” and, “What day would we report at the airport?” as well as, “How long was the list for quarters?” and “Where will I go to school?” He answered some and said that we would know more details once he knew more.
All through high school students came and went, so it was to be expected. Only this time, I was the one letting my friends know that had orders for Germany, and I would be the one that would be gone in a few short weeks.
Leaving Fort Knox
Everyone took the news well. In some cases, like me, my friends had lived overseas and they reminded me about how great it was going to be.
During my junior year of high school at Fort Knox High School, I had come out of my shell considerably, even going so far as to join a theatre group, mentored by a wonderful English teacher, Mrs. Heirs, and I acted in a one-act play.
I didn’t have a girlfriend so there was no angst of ending a romantic relationship, but I had made several friends during my three years of high school, in my art class and from our theatre “troupe” which was as close knit as you could get being Military Brat. I was looking forward to being a senior, and having some of the status that comes with it, but it was not to be.
Now I was heading to Germany, to a new school, Frankfurt American High School, and would have to start all over with making new friends and finding new points of reference.
While I had formed some great friendships during my high school years at Fort Knox, it was time for a change. I was glad to be leaving Fort Knox. I felt the school was too strict and there was definitely not enough creative outlets for me.
My older brother had been Valedictorian the year before and involved in just about every club and organization during his junior and senior years. It was difficult living in his shadow and trying to live up to pre-conceived expectations by teachers who had taught him.
We had lived in Mannheim, Germany, just a few years earlier, from 1962 to 1966, also during what is now called the Cold War. I had fond and vivid memories of our time in West Germany, and this, combined with the adventure that lay ahead of a new school, and being a senior, made it difficult to think about much else as the days started to drag by.
Dad went on ahead of us, in mid-April. Dad wrote my mother, who then relayed news and information we needed, such as “Stay out of trouble at school—or else you will have to deal with me.” Or, “Be sure to help your Mother.” These were things I did not really need to be reminded of, but the reminders did not hurt.
We had moved up the list for post quarters by a few names, but we would have to live on the economy until quarters became available. We might be stuck living in a town near Friedburg, living on the economy for as much as seven or eight months.
This news didn’t really register with me—I was trying to finish out the last grading period early as I would be on a jet to Germany a couple of weeks before the end of the school year. I was also in the middle of helping a friend with an “underground” newspaper—a protest paper—that probably would get both of us into trouble when it came out, but that is another story.
My mother, myself and two younger sisters were left to deal with the movers, cleaning of the quarters, passing inspection, and our final transportation from Fort Knox to McGuire AFB, then on to Germany.
Over the next few weeks we got through the packing, the cleaning and inspecting of the quarters, getting our shots up to date and all the other requirements for the move. Finally, there we were, with just a few suitcases between the four of us, our airline tickets and passports and then we were boarding our flight and leaving the U.S. behind. We flew to what was then called West Germany, as at this time Germany was still divided into East and West, with the Soviets controlling East Germany, and posing a threat to the rest of Germany and Europe.
The flight from the U.S. to Frankfurt was uneventful. I brought a couple of paperback books to read and someone had left several tabloids in the seat pocket in front of me, The National Enquirer, Star, Tattler, and several others, which I found to be quite amusing. I had seen these tabloids in the PX at Fort Knox, but I had never actually read them. After an eight-plus hour flight, we finally landed in Frankfurt.
Welcome to Florstadt
Dad met us at the airport and helped us get through customs and out to the airport parking lot in record time. He was excited about seeing us and he seemed to be a lot more relaxed than he had been at Fort Knox. I think it was both the change in job and being back in Germany again that made him happy, and I know he missed us as well.
His white Dodge Coronet 440 had made the trip over to Germany without a scratch. It seemed out of place at the airport parking lot, and was almost as wide as the parking space itself. Fortunately, most of the German cars around him were small and we were able to get into the car without scratching the cars on either side of the monster American car.
We left Frankfurt, and soon found ourselves on the autobahn. I was hoping dad would floor it so I could see what the car could really do, but he kept the car at a modest 65 miles per hour and everyone was passing us. Later, we turned off the autobahn and we were out in the country, winding through several towns on our way to Florstadt.
Dad’s new HQ and office was actually in Friedburg, but there were no quarters available yet for us. We were on “the list” and dad was told a family was rotating back to the U.S. early in the next year. In the meantime, we were going to be living in a small town called Florstadt.
Living on the economy meant we would live off-post, away from the conveniences of post such as the PX, commissary, hospital, movie theater, barber, library and other amenities we had grown so accustomed to at Fort Knox.
Dad had found a small rental house. It was a one story house, with your typical red tile roof, and our landlord was a friendly German man in his fifties, named Carl. There was virtually no back yard and only a couple of strips of grass in the front yard.
This was a far cry from the huge yard we had in Fort Knox which took about forty-five minutes to mow. Cutting this lawn would take all of of five minutes. I liked it this sort of German efficiency.
Driving through Florstadt, I was remembering the large apartment buildings we had lived in a decade earlier, when we lived in Mannheim. Mannheim had dozens of large apartment buildings for the American families, and no small, single family house that I knew of.
This sleepy little town, nestled between large farms was made up mostly of one and two story houses, with typical small town winding streets—a totally different look from the U.S. housing area in Mannheim, and very different from the sprawling housing areas scattered over Fort Knox.
I learned later that we were one of about four American families living in Florstadt. During the 6 months we lived in Florstadt, our paths never crossed though I kept an eye out for obvious signs such as large American gas guzzling cars, or German cars with the obvious Army green car tag with black lettering, but I never saw anyone.
In Mannheim, all the military families lived on the “post” behind fences which contained a small PX, commissary, movie theater, schools and everything we needed for daily life. We only encountered Germans who were let into the post to work in maintaining the apartment and office buildings, and a few vendors, so my exposure to Germans was more like a tourist experience when we would go out on day trips in the early 1960s.
Florstadt was totally different. We lived as the Germans lived, in a sense, so it was a great experience to observe daily life, and the people we were potentially defending if World War III were to break out.
Dad would take the car into work, stranding us, but like most German towns, whatever you needed was within walking distance. We discovered a bakery a couple of streets over and a shop that sold lunch meat.
There was a nearby church, which we heard—frequently. The church bells rang at all hours of the day, a far cry from the many different bugle calls that were broadcast over Fort Knox throughout the day. The bells clanging seemed so loud at first, but after a few days it was just part of the town’s ambiance, and eventually I figured out what time of the day they were marking.
My room, which was at the end of the house, had a roll up metal shutter, which most bedroom windows had throughout Florstadt. The shutter made a metallic scraping noise as it was raised and lowered, but allowed you to block the light and let some air in.
As the town woke up each day, you could hear shutters opening, and along the street we lived on, down-filled comforters were hung out the windows to air out.
Unlike Fort Knox, where we had window air conditioners to help us through the heat of the summer, in Florstadt, the house was cool and there was no air conditioning. As the summer wore on, we opened windows and usually a breeze would blow through the house.
During the first few days in our new home, we adjusted to the time difference, and my sisters and I took walks through the town, and found the local bakery and what we considered a deli, where all sorts of unfamiliar packages and perfectly delightful smells which invited us in to spend what few Deutsche Marks we had.
I bought a large loaf of dark German bread, and treated my sisters to some Gummi Bears, which I had not seen for many years. I looked for the “sour sticks” I enjoyed as a child in Mannheim, but they did not have any, but Tic Tacs were all the rage.
On the weekends, especially during soccer season, the town came alive and it seemed the whole town turned out to see school matches.
In a few days the jet lag wore off. While we were glad to finally be in Germany, the culture shock began to set in. Dad left each morning during the week, and while our neighbors were friendly enough, we were a bit isolated by language.
We had lived at Fort Knox for 4 years before this move, and we had grown used to having access to the PX, Commissary, libraries and other recreation facilities, and with my dad being both Father and Mother to his recruits, we saw little of him during the week and on Saturday. On Sundays he napped and rested. We did not travel off post very often, except for a brief excursion to Elizabethtown, about 20 minutes away.
My mother was always able to make new friends and looked at the bright side of life, no matter what the circumstances. But living in Florstadt with a language barrier, we felt a bit isolated from the other Americans who were also living in Germany. In Mannheim we lived in an apartment building where 6 families shared a stairwell, so there was always a neighbor nearby and the PX and Commissary was a few blocks away. In Florstadt, we were a full twenty minutes away from Friedburg, but since we only had just one car, and I did not yet have my driver’s license for driving in Germany, we were stuck.
Finally Saturday rolled around and Dad took us all to Friedburg, dropping me and my sisters at the library while Mom and dad stocked up on some pantry items at the tiny commissary on post in Friedburg. There was something comforting about the library and the Dewey Decimal System. It was a lot like the Army itself—always the same, no matter where it was assigned. I spent the afternoon reading a few magazines and finding several books to check out.
When we arrived home in Florstadt, mom handed me the Stars and Stripes and Look Magazine she had bought at the P.X. For the next few days, we enjoyed quiet days, reading books and magazines, waiting on our household goods to arrive.
A letter from a friend
I did receive a letter from my good friend, Tom. Our underground newspaper was printed and distributed around the school, and copies were confiscated. The principal and vice-principal were upset of course. Much as I wanted to see everyone’s reaction to the paper, I was glad to be in Germany, and glad my Dad had a new commanding officer in Friedburg.
I learned recently after re-connecting with Tom that his father, a Chaplain at Fort Knox, did get called in front of his C.O. about the incident. I am sure this went in his military record and looking back, I am not sorry I helped to put out the paper, but I am very sorry that my actions affected someone else who had no knowledge of what we were up to.
Household goods and diversions
We received our household goods after a few weeks. It was just the essentials such as pots and pans, a black and white television set, my stereo, clothes, a few lamps, towels, pillows and other household items. The tiny house seemed even smaller with the boxes, but in a few days we had everything unpacked and the house was tidy again.
My youngest sister who was 6 at the time, had made friends with a girl her age who lived across the street. In no time they were playing with Barbi dolls together, and my sister quickly learned German.
I was happy to have my stereo again. I had missed listening to music and I spent an entire afternoon exploring all the radio stations I could receive. I found myself listening to Armed Forces Radio as it gave news updates and had a wide range of shows on during the summer days and into the night. I was disappointed in not being able to play any of my vinyl records at the correct speed due to the U.S. using 60 cycles per second current, and Germany having 50 cycles.
One of my boxes from the U.S. contained my painting supplies, which I had carefully packed back at Fort Knox. During my junior year I had begun painting with oils and I now that I had an entire summer ahead of me, I wanted to get started again. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a painting easel.
I sketched out a drawing of a simple but sturdy easel I had seen in Artist’s Magazine and asked my dad to drop me off at the Friedburg craft shop so I could buy some pine and build the easel. The craft shop manager, who was German, was very helpful, but wouldn’t let me use the tablesaw. I had taken shop class in junior high school and my dad and I had done several father-son projects at the craft shop in Ft. Knox so I had some experience with woodworking.
I did get to do all the sanding and drilling of holes in the easel, and by the end of the day I had all the pieces ready for when my dad picked me up. The next day I assembled the easel and resumed my painting.
Driving in Germany
I had taken Driver’s Education during my junior year and I had easily passed my driver’s test and had been driving for several months in Kentucky before we came over to Germany. While I was only seventeen, and you could not get a German driving license until you were eighteen, since I had a valid state-side license, I could get a driver’s license, provided I passed a written test.
I studied the road sign book and the written rules of the road, remembering how terrible many of the drivers in Germany were during the early 1960s. It was common then for drivers to make obscene gestures at other drivers or to honk their horn and flash their lights if they felt you weren’t driving fast enough.
I can remember us traveling on Saturday day trips when we lived in Mannheim, and my Dad using his cussing “code.” Since we kids were in the car, my dad would say, “You dirty so and so!” and other coded phrases so as not to invoke the ire of my mother. Once in a while he would let slip some German cuss words, which my brother and myself immediately learned and filed away for future use, having learned what they meant in English from our friends or on the playground.
With mandatory driver education courses required to get driving licenses, and a very strict point system for both speeding and driver behavior, most of the drivers were on their best behavior, except for Autobaun, where there was a need for speed.
Though Dad warned me not to expect to pass the test the first time—it was tough and the test failure rate was about 65%, with a few of my Dad’s friends taking the test three times to pass—I passed it the first time and got my license.
Of course I had to endure almost weekly mini-lectures from Dad about not exceeding the speed limit with the car, his beloved Dodge Coronet 440, which was paid for and our only means of transportation.
I would take Dad into work at Friedburg, and then take our laundry to a laundromat, and read some Robert Silverberg or perhaps some of Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, which seemed quite appropriate, and in a few hours I was finished with laundry and on my way back to Florstadt, enjoying the bright sunshine and cautiously passing farmers in tractors hauling manure, which you could smell before you could see them. I would then drive back late in the afternoon to deliver the car back to dad.
As we drove along he would give me driving tips on how to negotiate curves in the road the hazards of trying to pass a slower moving car. Dad missed his calling as driver’s education teacher, but the Army gained one hell of a drill sergeant.
Housing allowances and horse trading
The Army gave my dad a set “allowance” for housing and he had to make up the difference in rent money that was lost due to the fluctuating exchange rate. Our landlord, Carl, often received a few bottles of Vodka and a couple of cans of Maxwell House coffee to make up for the shortfall in rent money some months when the dollar dipped from 1.4 marks to the dollar to 1.2 or lower. My dad’s German was about as good as Carl’s English, but somehow they managed to negotiate a deal each month so everyone was happy.
I can remember that in in 1962-1966, the exchange rate was about 4 marks to the dollar, and U.S. currency was accepted everywhere. Not so in the 1970’s, during the Nixon years of wage and price controls and the strengthening of the Germany economy where German banks bought and sold U.S. dollars to manipulate the value of the dollar every month on payday.
Getting to Frankfurt American High School
I looked forward to school starting in the fall, and found out that I would be attending Frankfurt American High School, which was in the middle of Frankfurt, Germany. Frankfurt was a combined Air Force and Army school, with about 1,800 students—three times larger than Fort Knox High School.
During the summer of 1973, my mother and I had made a trip to Frankfurt to meet with my high school counselor and get formally enrolled for the new school year. It turned out that by avoiding “study hall” at Fort Knox, I had enough credits to graduate early, if I wanted to. However, when the counselor informed us that there were three art teachers and that I could take additional art classes as electives to fill out the rest of the school year and then graduate along with everyone else in 1974, it was a no-brainer.
The down side was that I also learned that there would be an early morning transportation van to take me to the bus stop in Friedburg, This meant I had to be up and ready to go by a little before 6 a.m., but I also got to see my dad every morning. He would smoke a cigarette and drink his coffee as I made a lunch bag. We didn’t have conversations beyond, “How’s school going?” but I know my mom relayed to him that I was very happy with Frankfurt American High School, even with the long commute.
One the first day of school I learned that there were 6 or seven other other Frankfurt American High School students scattered about in other tiny towns around Florstadt and our van trip took about an hour.
The van deposited us at the bus stop at Friedburg about fifteen minutes before the green Army bus appeared to take a full load of high schoolers on an hour trip to Frankfurt. In the afternoon the process was reversed and for a few months I spent about four hours a day on the road getting to and from school.
Goodbye Florstadt, hello Bad Nauheim
Dad received notice that we would be moving to Bad Nauheim early in January. I spent New Year’s Eve with my window open, listening to the celebration that had begun across town earlier in the evening. I could hear music from the town square and listened to Armed Forces Network radio that carried a music program with news and commentary. At midnight there was a loud roar from across the town, and the church bells began ringing and fireworks lit the night sky.
The party across town went on into the night, and was still going strong when I went to bed sometime after 2 a.m. I was awakened at 6 a.m. by one of the neighbors starting his car, as he did every morning.
The packers arrived a few days later and by late afternoon we were in our apartment in Bad Nauheim, surrounded by the rest of our household goods that had been in storage while we lived in Florstadt. The housing area was tiny, but it had a PX, Commissary, and AYA center all within a quick five minute walk.
While I was glad to be able to reduce my school commute by two hours a day and having a quick walk down to the bus stop each morning, I really missed the small town feel of Florstadt and the rhythm of life that was so different from a large town.
I will always remember the town and the people we met and what it was like to live “on the economy.”