Krautland

When living in Germany on an Army base in 1969 there was a very strong sense of “us” and “them”. Notice I didn’t say “us versus them”, though only thirty years earlier their grandfathers had been sorely intent on killing our grandfathers and vis versa. And we lived on “their” former military bases, occupying our former enemies’ houses, and using their facilities. We depended upon “them”, and perhaps they depended upon us – or at least they liked our American money.

This was a time when a dollar bought you four German marks, and a mark bought about a quarter’s worth of goods (unlike today, where a dollar buys you about fifty cents worth of goods – if you’re lucky!). The Germans would send a “roach coach” around every day where you could buy candy (and where I first saw Gummi bears) – and there were the various sundry other services the Germans provided. And the Germans even had a place of their own on the base, the German “canteen” – a bit of their “country” within our “country”, which lay within their “country”. Americans were forbidden from entering the German canteen, though there were a few times we did. If this seems somewhat strange, then you can imagine what it was like living in it. Strange, sometimes stranger, and sometimes just downright bizarre, leaving you to feel like you were tottering on the edge of the twilight zone. Throw in the sudden appearance and disappearance of individuals – Army families in transit, friends come and gone – the combination of seemingly randomness coupled with the perfectly predictable world of the military – well, to us kids it made that “Twilight Zone” feeling even stronger. And then sometimes it got really weird – especially when we’d venture off base, out of our “own little world” – and into the world of the Germans.

“Krautland”. That’s what us kids called everything beyond the fence, just as a prisoner might refer to everything beyond the walls as “The World”. There was “the base” – and “Krautland”. Home was overseas – “Stateside”, and we lived in quarters. Over time “Stateside” became more distant in our memories, like a treasured dream fondly remembered. The reality of our situation was in the “now” – and that “now” was life on a military base overseas – a literal island of Americanism in a foreign land.

There was only one official way off the bases: through the gates. But unofficially it was different, and us kids were always keeping a sharp eye out for a means through the fence – whether it be a hole through or under. One of the first things we’d do upon arriving at a base was to make friends with other kids and we’d gather in clandestine meetings, staring at Krautland through the fence and finding out where the chinks in the American armor were. And invariably they were there. And we weren’t the only ones who used them.

I remember on one base us kids had discovered a hole in the fence – a tear near a locked gate that no one seemed to use. Beyond lay a farmer’s field, dressed in green, and a jagermeister’s hut (a hunter’s hut high on poles) – set in the middle of the field. There was an unusual “hill” next to the fence – not far, just a few hundred yards – with a twisted old tree growing next to it. We weren’t brave enough to widely explore the field and woods that lay beyond – we knew we did not belong there, we belonged on “our” side of the fence, and not “theirs”. The only sanctioned way off base was through the gate – but being kids, that did not stop us.

That hill – it was one of many such strange places we found in our explorations – turned out to be an old German WWII bunker. A metal hatch on top opened to reveal a ladder down the wall, and stinking of piss and ankle deep it water, it didn’t hold our interest for long. But there were other bunkers . . .

One gray, overcast day we were sitting like vultures in that tree – a group of about six of us. We’d crawled through the hole, mounted the bunker – given it our now disinterested and precursory inspection – and then climbing the tree, just sat in it. (Entertainment being what it was – rare – this was about as exciting as it often got on base.) As we are sitting there we spy a couple of G.I.’s worming their way through the hole.

Hunkering down, we watched them, gathering our coats around us. It was unusual for G.I.’s to do this – they could get into serious trouble for leaving the base in an ‘unofficial’ way – and we knew something was up. It was late fall or early spring – no snow, I remember that. And these two G.I.’s, not noticing their audience perched in the tree, began to do something that . . . well, we were caught between emotions. You could say they freaked us out, scared us, and made us laugh all at the same time – but being the careful vultures we were, we remained quiet – for a time.

These guys pull out a sheet, then undressing, go chasing each other for a short way across the field, naked as jay-birds. We are already in shock, looking at each other and suppressing our giggles. Then the two G.I.’s wrap themselves up in the sheet and begin rolling around on the ground. That was when we realized what was going on. These two guys were gay.

I don’t know what set it off – whether someone laughed a bit too loud, or made a comment, but suddenly the G.I.’s become aware of our presence in the tree. Leaping up, they begin running towards us.

Well, that was all it took for us vultures to decide to fly. Realizing we’d been caught in an act of voyeurism, we scrambled down from that tree – falling over one another and jumping from low limbs – with cries of “Book! (which meant run like mad in our lingo) Book! Run!”. And we scattered, all with the same intention: don’t get caught and head for the hole.

I think as I (one of the last) hurried through that hole in the fence I heard on of the G.I.’s laughing.

It was strange.

Germany itself was a strange and wonderful place. I loved “going to town”. Walking out the front gate you could often catch a German bus, and from there go anywhere you pleased. Figuring out the German bus schedules and signs, however, was quite a different thing. Whenever I traveled I felt half-lost – probably the same sensation you might get in a strange city – with one difference. You can’t read anything. Everything is a half-guess, an exercise in scratching your head – reading the few words you can understand – and wondering about the rest. You hoped you were picking the right bus; you hoped that it would drop you off at the right destination, and you prayed that you could find it when you got back. But the German towns, like their public transportation systems, were wonderful.

I remember one store we used to visit – sometimes I would go it alone, a boy of twelve or thirteen in a foreign city. It was called “the HoffKoff” – literally translated as “the Head House”. It was a huge department store full of the neatest goods – little washers and dryers for the German apartments, odd kitchen appliances unlike anything I’d ever seen before – all in bright, primary colors – and food. Food was a wonderful thing in Germany – so many new things to try, and a lot of times you didn’t know what you were getting into.

Food. The markets. The open air markets in the city squares on Saturday. Those were my heaven. There was nothing like going to the market early in the morning. The vendors would set up their wares – rabbit carcasses strung up in one stall, layers upon layers of colorful vegetables in another. But my favorite thing of all were the small carts which sold “bratwurst mit brochen”.

There are many types of bratwurst – one for almost every district in Germany. In northern Germany they sell “weissewurst” – white, fatty sausages which to my American palate were totally disgusting. But in the south they sell meaty red bratwurst with crisp skins that burst with juices when you bite into them – and serve it on freshly baked rolls with a hard, yet almost flaky crust. I’ve yet to find anything comparable to it over here in the United States – and served fresh with German mustard . . . eating in an open air market while admiring the beautiful splays of flowers in one vendor’s table – or eyeballing the mysterious corpses hanging under another vendor’s tent – was a sensation not to be denied. I could not visit a market without getting my favorite – bratwurst mit brochen, and a squirt of mustard on the side.

And the towns themselves – every town had at least one bakery, maybe two, sometimes more. And the delicacies they baked! Cakes and cakes galore – there is nothing quite like true Bavarian chocolate cake, loaded with cherries and creme fillings – and scones and tarts, pies – more cakes – German bear claws, candies . . . the list goes on and on, and I added many of them to my favorite lists of things. But I learned a hard lesson in one bakery. . . .

Going in I spied what seemed the most beautiful cake of all. Richly textured, kind of red, kind of brown, with sort of blue-black speckles in the batter, it called my name. Begging my parents, who had come there for . . . what? Something, no doubt – I bought a slice.

I don’t know what that cake was made of – but it was one of the more disgusting tastes I’ve ever had in my mouth – and I have eaten a lot of things. (Snake? Lizard anyone? How about ancient C-rations which are three times your age? Been there, done that.) But . . . my parents had a rule. You order it: you eat it. So I ate it – choking down every beautiful bite.

Germany is an old country. A lot of Americans are awed when they run across a building built in the 17 or 1800’s – but that’s nothing! In Germany there are structures that go back eight hundred, a thousand years, making our American landscape look positively juvenile. The massive cathedrals, cobblestone streets, and roads so narrow that only two horses can pass – the castles with their massive fortifications, breweries that go back to before America was founded. And we traveled – a lot. I was constantly amazed and awed by the architecture – sweeping buttresses inside of churches so large it seemed you could fit a football field in them – ornately decorated, with every surfaced carved and painted. And castles – their diminutive doorways because people were so much smaller then – literally of a smaller stature, so that even as a young teenager I sometimes found myself ducking through the entrances. And every village seemed to have some statuary, a center plaza, and an ornate fountain. Some were positively grotesque – I remember one which was fascinating, featuring gaunt emaciated people, all nude, dying from the Black Death – the bubonic plague. One was a withered woman, her breasts sunken dugs dangling down her chest, her mouth gaping to the sky; underneath her a plump child writhing in pain. Death was no stranger to our ancestors, and was frequently referenced in their ancient art and sculpture. From what I saw, apparently it wasn’t uncommon for our ancient ancestors to come across human skeletons from time to time – and they simply accepted it as a matter of course.

I remember one town we lived near. There was a church near the market square where we often walked. It was one of those hundreds of year old churches, and the Germans decided to do some work on it. Pulling up the floor stones paving the center aisle, they found . . . hundreds of skeletons, all thrown down into a large pit-like room. They apparently were monks or religious acolytes, and instead of burying them, the church clergy would just toss the bodies beneath the floor. We had visited this church before, and it was bizarre knowing that for so long people had been walking and worshiping over this cache’ of skeletons. Of course the Germans being the orderly people they are, and on intimate (if somewhat ashamed) terms with their histories, they promptly threw a ribbon barricade around the pit and opened it up to visitors. The last I saw it was still there: a big circle in the middle of the church, in which there was an immense pile of bones.

There were a lot of other things about Germany which to an eleven, twelve, and thirteen year old boy raised in the humid South were strange, weird, wonderful, and interesting. Coming from a dirt poor rural neighborhood, raised in the sand hills among the scrub pines – I found myself suddenly surrounded by a world rich in art, museums, and items of interest. The German people were wonderful as well – courteous, though strict in their own ways; being helpful when they could, and laughing good naturedly at all of our mutual embarrassment when they couldn’t. The world outside our world – the world beyond the fences – Krautland – was an experience which opened my eyes and made me realize: there was a world beyond the world I’d known, the one back in “Stateside” – a place of different values and culture; beauty and wonder – a strange and fascinating place.

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