Stranger In A Strange Land
(with apologies to Robert Heinlein)

Imagine going to sleep one night and waking the next day to find yourself in a place where you cannot understand what the people are saying. None of the signs make sense – even the street signs are totally different. Houses are different. Cars are different – strangely small, oddly built. The landscape is different. Even the air has a different feel, a different taste to it.

You cannot call home. There is no internet. Mail takes six weeks to cross the ocean, then six more weeks to get a reply – if you get a reply at all. You go into a restaurant but since you cannot read the menu, you do not know what to order. You know the water isn’t fit to drink. Going into a grocery store, you find yourself looking at the pictures on the labels, not the words on the can. There is only one TV station, but you cannot understand a word they are saying. The only radio station you can understand is run by a huge military propaganda organization, but since you cannot understand anything on the other ones, it’s the one you listen to. They play old radio plays from back before TV was born. The National anthem comes on daily – twice, three times a day, if not more.

The cities and towns are kept clean – neat as a pin. The buildings are mostly old, masonry and massive timbers. Most of the roads in the towns aren’t paved – they’re cobblestoned and narrow. You get scolded in a foreign language if you try to cross in the middle. People you meet might greet you in the passing, but all they say is gibberish to you. You try to reply, your tongue stuttering – but what’s the use? They probably won’t understand you any better than you understand them, so you simply nod your head numbly, and continue walking by.

You have no car, no method of transportation besides your own two feet. There are buses, but you can’t read their destinations. You don’t want to get lost in this land. You may never find your way back. A taxi is safest, but you can’t tell the driver where you want to go – and you can’t understand the value of their money – if you have any money at all.

Watching the TV you see pictures from your home land. All you see are riots and angry crowds. You hear words – the “F” words, the “S” words – ones that they would bleep out if you were home. You wondering what is happening, but you can never know. All they show you are the bad pictures, the nasty things while a voice calmly comments in a foreign language. You haven’t a clue. Is this home?, you wonder, touching the smooth glass of the TV set. Is this what’s happening there? There are no commercials – those all come at the end, smoothly packed into a lump. Your memories seem no more real than the ghostly images you see flickering there.

There is a newspaper you can buy. It’s called the “Stars and Stripes”. It’s a military publication. They don’t mention the troubles at home, the ones you saw on TV. The radio station? “Armed Forces Radio”. A biased opinion if I ever heard one. But it’s the only opinion you’re allowed. Followed by those endless almost black and white radio plays from times gone past. Music is censored as heavily as the hand which censors the news. What is really going on back home? Is it as bad as you see on TV? Is that the home you came from? In time you start to wonder, and wonder what is real.

I woke, tired and groggy. Jet lag had encompassed my eleven year old mind, and the top bunk of the military supplied “hostess house” was crammed with crumpled blankets.

“Get up, Mike,” my father said, rousting me with a jabbing hand. “You’re never going to get over your jet lag if you keep on sleeping. Now get UP.” The last words were said more forcefully as he roughly shoved me and grabbed my leg, dragging me from the bed. I almost fell to the floor, and painfully caught myself, still groggy with sleep and fatigue.

“Stay up.” His command was firm and direct. “You can’t sleep through the next four years.”

Four years. The thought went through my head. Four years of THIS. I felt miserable. We had hustled and bustled through airports, buses, and cabs to come to this place – and seeing my small suitcase sitting on the floor, I knew we weren’t done. My head hurt.

Welcome to Germany.

I had been born here – so my parents told me, and I had a German birth certificate to prove it, courtesy of a birth gone awry – the wrong time and place. Had I been born in an American hospital, I would have been able to go on to be President or some other sort of nonsense – but as my first grade teacher had been fond of pointing out: “Anyone can be president – except YOU, you little Nazi.” And she would point directly at me.

My first language had been German – that’s something else my parents told me. Raised by a German nanny for the first year of my life, my first word had been “Nine!” (No.) I guess that was sort of a protest against the life I had been shoved into. No, I don’t want that; no I will not do this; no, give me no part of it. But in the end I had no choice. Children rarely do.

We’d left Germany that first time when I was one, so I don’t even remember it. And here I had returned at the age of eleven. Yanked from my childhood home with barely a month’s notice; leaving a devastated ‘hood behind. My thoughts often went to my best friend, his family set adrift in a world with no father, no way of producing an income. What would happen to them? There was no way of knowing; no way to call and find out. Telephone calls were forbidden, and mail took an eternity to get there. All my friends – my life as I had known it – was suddenly lost to me. And there was no going back. Not for a long, long time.

Telephone. They had one line (it seemed) for all the military to use to call back home. “Stateside” they called it. And the line, appropriately enough, was called “MARS”. It was appropriate because it seemed that making a call on it took about as much effort as it would to call the planet Mars on a phone line. First you had to make an appointment. Then you had to wait – weeks sometimes. Then – if the military wasn’t using the line – you could make your phone call. But only for a few moments; a minute or two – for there was always someone else standing in line, anxious to make their call. Thus you didn’t call home. Not unless you really needed to. And by then it was usually too late. Needless to say I don’t remember us making a call for the first two years or so.

Cut off. That’s a good way of putting it. Cut off from everything you ever knew, and thrust into an entirely different situation. Not so different you cannot survive – but different enough to remind you: this is not home. Not by a long shot.

Anyone who has traveled overseas, in a country where they cannot speak the language will find much of this familiar. Not so much today: internet and phone communication is so much better. But prior to the mid-eighties or so – or in this case, 1970 – it was a different world. And for a dirt poor Southern boy, age eleven, who had been raised mostly in an equally dirt poor, rural neighborhood – it was a massive transition.

I was too overwhelmed at first to think much about the ‘hood I’d left behind. That would come later. At first we were moved around – a LOT. Due to the nature of my Army dad’s specialty, we were bounced from base to base. Sometimes we would stay just a month or two – sometimes a bit longer. I remember we moved about five times that first year. Trying to keep up in school was a lost cause: they were either way ahead of me, or way behind. My grades suffered, but my parents were to busy with the sudden transitions to care – or if they cared, to help me. There were times I would get a homework assignment in one school – and find myself completing it in the next. A flash of towns and cities and scenes races through my mind; those first few years were so confusing. It’s hard to make sense of it all. To this day I cannot put it all together in a logical order; talking to my mom, I find she cannot, either. We were bounced from towns ranging in names such as Crailsheim, Baden-Baden, Dinkelsbühl, Garmisch, and Wiesbaden. Kaiserslautern, Karlsruhe, Darmstadt. The towns were old and beautiful, even if the places we sometimes lived were not. Gone was the sweltering heat and humidity I had grown up with, the rolling green hills studded with pine. Instead there were the Alps, mountains, and endless small towns nestled in their valleys. Gone was the warm weather to be replaced by snow – snow so deep it came up to my neck sometimes; sometimes even deeper. I luxuriated in some of the changes: snow was one of them. The food, I found, was wonderful – as long as you ordered the right thing. Sometimes in my ignorance, I did not.

One of the first words I ever learned was “Entschuldigen Sie” (ent-SHOOL-de-gen zee). It means, quite simply “excuse me”. It seemed I was always having to excuse myself – for not knowing German ways, the German language, my own way around. For help figuring out a menu, a sign, where I was, and where I was going. “Entshooldegenzee, bitte”, I would plead (excuse me, please). Excuse me for being here, in your country. Excuse me for needing help. Excuse me for simply being, taking a part of your time.

The Germans are a very particular people; that is, they are very particular about how things should be done. There is a right way (their way) – and every other way is the wrong way. They keep things extremely clean and organized. They often view Americans as you would a slightly crazy, disorganized and immature child. They can’t believe they lost “the war” to us. How could they possibly lose a war to such poorly organized, immature, illogical, crazy people? But they did, and sometimes I think they were ashamed of it. We would watch them coming out of their houses like clockwork on Saturday and Sunday mornings – each wife with a broom in hand, sweeping her particular section of sidewalk, tidying her particular section of street. No one told them to do that: they just did it as a matter of course. It was as if some invisible clock dictated their lives, and it was unmovable, unchangeable. The rules say “do this” – so you do this. The rules say “do that” – so you do that. Perhaps that was part of their downfall. Even their children are born into this clockwork: they play in an orderly fashion, each one taking his turn. There is no pushing and shoving, no giggling and turning around in line.

It was a confusing place to me.

This is just to give you a hint of what I found myself dropped into, pulled from those sandy hills in Georgia into . . . this world. Away from all my friends and all I’d known . . . into this. Was it wonderful? Yes. But . . . I cannot put it into words, not as an eleven year old, nor as the adult I am today. The sensation of wonder and confusion; of isolation and confusion; of change . . . and more change.

It was both a terrible and a strange time, full of wonders and curiosities.

I was truly a stranger in a strange land, and beginning to enter that strange part of childhood, when one is no longer quite a child – but not a teenager, too. An influential time; a time of change, both inside and out.

I had become not only a stranger in a strange land, but a stranger unto myself.

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