Category: Military



It was freezing night, a silver sliver of a moon showing through scattered rents in the racing clouds.  Streetlights threw yellow rays across slushy streets, and stark trees threw spidery silhouettes across the road.  We were walking the deserted streets from dependent’s housing section to the base’s amenities area, my family and I, surrounded by the impersonal military buildings, each with an identifying number, and some by symbols on the signs they wore.  We were on our way to see a movie.

What movie, I can’t recall.  It was on Fleigerhorst, a small military base.  It had it’s own little PX, an old theater, and a cafeteria for enlisted soldiers and people like me: dependents, brought with their father as part of his own army while he served the one we all worked for – in one way or another.  All part of earning a paycheck and doing duty to God, Country, and more . . . a tradition we’d been steeped in since I’d been born.

There wasn’t much to do – no internet, no TV, and only one radio station – but we still found things to do.  I ‘played’ with the G.I.’s, was in Scouts; we met in bunkers, and school dragged on, albeit on a different base.  I commuted on one of those old green shuttle buses, slugging through the crunch snow in the morning, coming back in slush in the afternoon . . . and god forbid you were too late for the last bus. It was a long walk from one base to another, though they had plenty of biking paths.

I had already gotten into trouble once about the theater by going to see “The Yellow Submarine”.  My parents had forbidden it.  They hated the  Beetles, didn’t like rock and roll, and were very conservative.  The only music they listened to was “Mystic Moods” (easy listening) and Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass Band.  I had gotten beaten for going to the movie but I didn’t care.  I’d been beaten so much it didn’t matter.  I was tough, used to them.  It was just another in a long string of ‘spankings’ – all my life.  It seemed normal.  I was used to having my ass pounded.  The trick was hiding it all.  My sense of self. The things I’d done – and was still doing.  And the crimes I’d committed, whatever they were (or were perceived to be) at the time.

But it didn’t matter.  During the “Yellow Submarine” the theater had caught fire.  It was a matinee so the G.I’s weren’t there – they were at work, which is how I managed to get there without my father knowing.  Us kids were sitting there in the semi-darkness when smoke began to billowing out from the bottom corner of the screen, and there were low red flickers behind it.  Us kids shifted restlessly; we were waiting for the movie.  Then a voice came on the PA saying “Stay in your seats! There is no cause for alarm.  The theater is on fire and we have it under control.”

I wasn’t dumb.  I sat there thinking this is a classic nightmare (I’d read enough books to know) – where the theater actually was on fire! – and here all us kids were just calmly sitting eating our popcorn and watching the smoke pour around the screen while the red glow grew brighter.  No panic, no popcorn throwing – just rows of quiet kids watching the scene.  Only in the Army would you see that.  In the civilian world there’d been a riot, people trampling each other as they raced to the doors . . .

But not us.  We were Army kids. We wanted our seventy-five cents worth.  We wouldn’t run until we saw the flames were higher than us.  But . . . true to their word they got the fire put out, we watched the Beetle movie, smelling acrid smoke.  I was happy, but puzzled.  I could not figure out why this movie was forbidden.  It didn’t make sense – the ban, not the cartoon, though the cartoon made little sense either.  However, I came home smelling of smoke and talking about the fire. Bad news: my parents knew what was showing, so I got my beaten and restricted again.  Another few days in my room. (sighing)

But this time it was an ‘approved’ movie.  The whole family was going.

We trudged through the snow and slush to the theater . . . saw some movie . . . and then when we came out I rushed over to the cafeteria and spent some of my own hard earned money for an ice cream.  Walking out to the sidewalk in front of the cafeteria I encountered my dad.  He stood there staring at me.  Then he walked up and with a scornful look snatched the cone from me and dashed it into the trash.

“If you can’t buy enough for everyone you can’t have one,” he said as I looked with horror at the pristine, brand new ice cream planted upside down in the garbage.

And I broke down and cried.

Because here’s the thing:

I had been taught and trained – it had been enforced and beaten into me over and over again: you don’t waste food. Not ever! – not a single crumb.  It’s an issue still for me, big time.  I have a hard time controlling myself when someone wastes food.  Why?

Well, when dad went to Vietnam, or overseas, or TDY, we’d go from thick to thin in a hurry.  Food was . . . hard to come by.  Hunger was an issue.  Money was thin.  I had to work for every dime I had, hauling trash and such.  Why?  Because he would give all his money away! – to missionaries to look good, and whores when he thought they weren’t looking.  With the former he was trying to feed his ego; with the second his selfish self wants – while we went without and he knew it.  Lord knows my mom knew how to complain (and we got the brunt of it, him not being there).  We were not with him.  We were a thousand miles, if not half a world away and more.

Why should he care? Except in a most superficial, distant way . . . the way he often cared for us when he was home – or not ‘disciplining’ us according to his needs . . .

As a result my mom always – always – fought to make ends meat, and barely succeeded. He would fight about her getting more education, fought about it when she had a job.  He wasted money at every turn of a dime.  It go so bad when he was away that sometimes our neighbors would come just to make sure we had food.

Meanwhile dad ate steaks – sometimes in front of us – and ate good.  He never knew a day of hunger and he kept his sweet tooth fed.  Sometimes he would eat steak while the rest of us had plain boiled hotdogs. No buns. Boiled in thin tomato soup, served up on noodles.

And that night that was cold as a freezing moon I ‘felt’ something ‘in me’ change . . . harden a little bit more.

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I’ve seen the movie “Hunger Games”, me and my wife.  I wasn’t impressed.

I guess it’s hard to gain an impression of that lifestyle when you’ve lived one as a kid, courtesy of the United States Army and a few other folks.

I grew up in a wartime culture, as lot of my peers did: steeped in the consequences of Vietnam, our father’s fresh from the horror of Korea (and the PTSD symptoms that followed – at the time unrecognized, but visited upon their kids and immediate family sometimes).

I well remember the hunger games.  The real ones.  The ones that WE played – for real.

Kids, gathered or ganged, platooned or assigned, guardian and guerrilla – we came in all kinds, and all kinds of us had our own specialties.  We’d gather in squads or platoons in the woods under the guidance of some counselors, be they military men or civilian, it really didn’t matter.  I even had a Scout Master – Colonel R., from the time I was 14 or so until I grew up and went into the military myself.

We were all a bunch of Army kids – always ‘fighting’, often playing war.  Our Scouts skills consisted of learning a bunch of survival; our overseas training, even more.*

Often the ‘award’ from such a fight was a can of C-Rats – C-Rations, to you civilian folks.  The favorite was fruit cocktail, pound cake (in a can) fell behind as a distant second.

A stack of “Silver Bullets” co-offered by some counselor (gathered from us, of course!) – would be enough for a reward.

To the spoils goes the victor.

They would set the “goody” somewhere (perhaps), divide us into battle groups (divisions, platoons – squads).  Generally the ‘armies’ were divided evenly, but not always.  Sometimes the ‘smart’ kids would be given the little kids to fight with – and the other team would be a lot of big boys.

Very big boys indeed.

I remember laying curled face down in a ravine, knees against my chest as dozens of kids, charging, dove across the ravine, their heels hammering along my spine and ribs.  I served as kind of a footbridge for a lot of them, or so it seemed.  Not that I was there for that, mind you!  I was a spy, and these were my enemies.  They had come up the hill (stealthily, you know), but I had ‘a-spyed’ them, lurking through the bushes, taking little ‘rushes’ from cover to cover, and had sent my young ‘aid’ a runner, about an eight year old kid (I was 14) to go and fetch help, give warning, do something.  Assemble the troops or whatnot.  Set off the alarm.  For I wasn’t the commander – just an infiltrator into enemy territory seeking a few goals.

Often the rules were uneasy.  You were allowed to hurt other kids – but not too badly.  Nothing that needed first aid (and we’re talking here in the serious days, where a small burn or scratch would get you a look of contempt were you to bring it to their attention, much less whine about it.  Kids today are so ‘tender’ . . . but there again, I had such a high pain tolerance (gee, wonder where that came from?  LOL!)

We “played” hard for that little treat, that can of syrupy sweetness, all swathed in green . . . O.D. green, that is, the color of war and canvas.  (How I like the smell of fresh tinted canvas – that military ‘stuff’, thick, green, and sturdy . . . there’s something about it that says . . . something.  Like ‘welcome home’, somewhat . . .)

I remember (and now this was in my older days, when I was 16 and had learned a lot about survival – and torturing folks) – we caught a kid.

He was from the other team, and he knew where in these deep woods (bounded by a highway and stream on one side, a tremendous lake on the other, bordered by woods and mud, and cut-through with ravines like an old man’s face . . .)

So I had him – or rather my helpers – tie him up.

At the first they were amazed when I took his shoe laces and wrapped them tight around his thumbs.  I tied a noose-knot, one that wouldn’t come unbowed, and would tighten whenever he drew it.

And then I showed them how . . .

to tie him up (to a stump) – and then to torture him . . .

without ever leaving a mark.

(That’s kinda funny, seeing as his name INDEED was Mark; Mark T. is all I’ll say for his own protection here . . .)

He had been boggle eyed and incredulous when I had tied him by his thumbs, sneering and saying:  “I’ll get out in no time!”  He was sure of himself, and that he could break those shoe laces.

While he was struggling with his bounds, I turned to my ‘men’ and began telling them – rather, teaching them what to do.

“We’re gonna tickle him,” I said, glancing over my shoulder.  He was sweating now, and his thumbs were hurting – I could seem them turning blue.

He, overhearing that, stopped struggling (whilst I went over and loosen his thumb braces a bit there) – and laughed again.

“Tickle me?!!”  He barked a laugh again.  “That’ll never work!  You can’t hurt me, you know!  Not really.”  And he smiled with a show of self-satisfaction, and leaned back, confident.

I smiled grimly.

He knew little of what was coming.

Turning to my three or four young charges, I looked over my team and said:

“Like this.”

And we began.  We all took turns in tickling him – him bound against the rough bark of an old (and somewhat soggy) tree stump, and those kids taking turns tickling his ribs, and up under his chin – using every trick in the book, even leaves and soft branches.  We had his shoes off, so his foot soles were bared.  At first he couldn’t stop laughing.

Then he couldn’t stop crying.

Then he couldn’t stop himself from peeing himself.

While we all stood around laughing at him he gave us the information we need . . .

Such is the fate, and the victor’s spoils.

He was only a little younger than me, by a year or two.   After ‘extracting’ our information (and me having two swift young runners go back bearing the news, by different ways should one of them get caught) – we found their camp and made havoc on them, taking care not to snap any of their tent poles, but otherwise ‘destroying’ their tents, and pity he who left a bit of food laying out . . . we would take it, every last drop and crumb . . .

Hunger games.

Yeah.

I’ve played them.

.

.

*We were being ‘trained’ to be infiltrators and ‘helpful little hands’ (in some terms guerrillas) for NBC war.  Those skills included, but were not limited to, learning to fire the minigun from a Cobra’s co-pilot seat using a HUD.  Just in case too many Army pilots got wounded . . . during a nuclear war.

Tank


“Bring up Tank!  Come on, hurry up there!”

I hurried at a run, my two guys behind me, ignoring the flames running up and down my legs.  The squad leader, a youth of about fifteen, stood silhouetted in the darkness of the woods beyond which lay a street light on a road.

I was dressed in shorts – not a wise choice for this kind of mission, but it was what I had been given: shorts and a tee shirt.  My half torn old tennis shoes flopped, one sole half torn lose.  I was steaming hot yet soaked to the bone.

“Tank!  Hurry up!  We need you!”  The squad leader didn’t bother to hide his impatience to get going.

I redoubled my efforts, my girth hampering me some.  I had grown during my years here – mostly around.  The briars and nettles raked me – it was impossible to see them, except when we’d cross the occasional field under a spotlight moon half hidden most of the time by darting clouds.  It felt like it would storm again at any time.

“Where’ve you been?”, he asked, crouching as I came nearer.  A few other guys – kids my age – were crouched down around him.

“I had to pee – and we had to finish setting up the deadfall.  Remember?” I told him with a bit of anger in my voice.  We had set the latrine up as a trap – a pit someone might fall into if they came scrambling over a certain log, and if they missed that there was the deadfall to get them.  Or so we hoped.  Everyone was certain our camp would be raided again tonight; they always did, those raiders like us: other kids who were being trained in the guerrilla art-form of warfare.  But we wouldn’t be there – instead, we would be out raiding them, at their camp.  Or so we hoped.

Our fearless Leader had come up with this: the idea of an early offense, striking earlier than was anticipated, and thereby hopefully taking out their camp while they were there – beating up a few kids (maybe), striking many with the sticks we held in our hands.  Nobody was allowed to actually do anything – the use of knives or guns of any kind was strictly prohibited.  Injuries were to be kept to a minimum.  However, our boobytraps – some of those could be quite deadly, if you were foolish enough to get caught in them.

This was while we were overseas, at a camp – I don’t know, some military camp around there, over in the Eastern part of Bavaria.  We were always moving around, and this was a larger camp I’d found myself – there were plenty of amenities and plenty of woods for the G.I.’s – and us – to ‘play’ in.

“You, Tank – you take the lead,” the squad leader said, pointing his finger at me.  The other boys smiled and nodded vigorously while my heart sunk.  I hated going first sometime.  First was always a precarious position – and they were using me as their ‘Tank’ – someone to take the lead, pushing through all the nettles, briars, and bushes – busting a trail while running, not knowing when someone (or something) might take offense to your actions.  But that was what I was known for: my toughness, ability to stand pain.  I could pick a path out through the dark before I was ten and I never got lost.  If I knew where the target was (or home was) I could keep on going (albeit in a straight line) until I got there.

They depended a lot on this unfailing quality about me.  I could guide them to our campsite in the dark – and I could take them through the brush to the enemy.  (This quality was to come in quite handy – and profitably! – when I entered the Corps – escorting Marines through the brush to the theatres.)

We crept slowly up the hill – me sensing more than seeing the paths ahead.  I had been practicing my Indian walking for a long time – about two years, ever since I’d studied it at about age eleven.  My tennis shoes, worn as they were, offered a hope of feeling a branch before I crunched down on it.  I could ‘see’ in the dark rather well compared to some of my peers (a quality I regret to say has been going with age).  I was a good leader.

And I made a good tank in the woods.

Bursting forth with a run, I ran screaming and waving my club through the last dozen feet of woods.  There, in front of us (my legs still burning from the nettles) sat our startled enemy – sitting down, cans out, food half eaten by a small fire who’s light I’d seen.  Behind me, through the hole I’d carved – I’d intentionally went through the thickest set of bushes, figuring they wouldn’t set any boobytraps in there – poured the rest of my squad, the leader behind them, taking up the tail.  With a bunch of Indian screams we ran around, punching in the tents and snapping some of the poles with our clubs.  The kids, startled, jumped up screaming and ran helter-skelter through the woods – I watched as one of them got caught up in his own trap – a net that swung up from the ground and bore him aloft – all the while raising my club and screaming and shouting . . .

It was great, and it was fun

but I’ll never forget how my bare legs would burn and burn for hours to come . . . the deflation after victory, the long march back home . . .

marching through the nettles, to the place we called home
for now.


Contract Teachers, DoD

The U.S. Department of State Office of Overseas Schools oversees the contract hiring of teachers for teaching the dependent students of American children overseas.  The Department of Defense, a separate U.S. Government agency, operates a school system for the benefit of dependents of U.S. military personnel stationed overseas. Recruitment of teachers for schools at military bases overseas is handled by the Department of Defense, Office of Dependents’ Schools.*

They, in turn, operate the DoDEA, or Department of Defense Education Activity, which was established shortly after the end of World War II.

The problems they faced in logistics undoubtedly were made even more difficult back in the 60’s and 70’s, too – before the days of the internet and cell phone, when it took six weeks for a letter to reach its destination, and then another month and a half back.

The teachers no doubt faced an even greater sense of isolation, and given that their job were to teach these military kids overseas – ones who were always rotating in and out so much you barely got to know their name before the next one would come marching in; where the kids you started with in school were rarely the ones you finished with at the end of the year.

How to teach in a system like that?  One where the children were constantly changing faces and you were constantly changing places just the same as they were?  How to ensure a lesson taught at this school wasn’t the same one that they learned last year – or last week – by a different teacher there?  Unlike the civilian schools, this school system had to be strictly scheduled – everything kept on schedule, not just across a district or board – but throughout the entire military system!

And what to do with a child who came in – tardy or behind in some subject because he had been going to school with some civilian crowd – and now he’s out of sync with the ‘system’?  As a teacher – especially a military one overseas – I’m sure your choices were limited.  You saw but could not speak.  Or spoke but was not heard – or even more likely, just told “shut up or you’ll lose your job.”

I’m certain that kind of thing happened – and who to report to?  The MP’s?  The American ‘authorities’ on base?  What if they were the ones who were guilty; they were covering up?  What then?

And what about the military’s mission?  What then?

Can you be too afraid to speak up on the part of some small child – recognizing the sacrifice you make, he makes – by protecting the “member’s mission”?  Can you simply bite your lip and move on . . . ignoring those bruises as you turn your back on him; not reporting what’s going on . . . because you’ve seen so much of it and no matter what you’ve told . . .

You march in unison with the rest of the teachers there, doing the best you can.  Struggling on.

Sure, there are those ten-percenters; those ones who either do a great job, throwing their passion into it – or else the ones who are just over there for the sense of adventure, or for the strange few, the chance to engage in their passions . . . their rages . . . their desires which would never go over in some of the civilian schools I’ve been in.

How they managed it – teaching us at all – is bewildering.  I managed to change schools over four times one year – a lot more in the years before and following – and somehow the Army always seemed to have a new school ready for me.  No matter when I arrived – I would fit in with the rest of the strangers and the course – just like taking a step in class.  A few times I arrived I would be a few pages ahead or behind, but never very much.

The only place I got screwed up was in math.  And that I can blame on the civilian schools.  They were behind the DoD system when I got to North Carolina, and that really mucked me up from then on out.  Coming back I found myself in the same old “behind” school again – and the problem just got confounded.  No matter where I went after that I was behind in math.  I had gotten stuck in fractions – fraction conversions to decimals had been missed, skipped completely – and none of the teachers had time for me, time to figure out what it was this boy needed, why he got D’s and F’s – when he got straight A’s in so many of his other classes . . .

But I’ve always held a sense of grudging admiration for my overseas teachers.  They had an uphill battle all the time, no doubt!  Minimal resources, the mainland far away – having to rely upon themselves, arrange everything themselves – and maintain this strict kind of schedule, not just across the land but the entire ‘system’ of military dependent teaching . . .

and I’m sure sometimes they watched us – feeling rather sad.  I’m sure sometimes they were told to “shut up” – and that they had no choice.  Just take it, swallow it down  . . . and continue on.  Sacrificing the child for the greater good.

I hope they know I don’t blame them.  Because I know, like they know: it wouldn’t have made any difference.

No difference at all.

The military system.  Well planned, quite mad sometimes . . . and so were the times sometimes.

 

*http://www.state.gov/m/a/os/c16899.htm

G.I. Joe Scouts


G.I. Joe Scouts

I was about twelve or thirteen when I joined the Boy Scouts. My parents told me about them – they were at the JYC or whatever acronym the Army used for that thing – an Army run “Juvenile Youth Center” where bored teens could hang out. It was worse than the USO, which had fallen into hard times during that period – probably due to the Vietnam war. They had an old dinged up ping-pong table, a couple broken balls, and a paddle or two – the rubber peeling off one side like dead skin. You could hear it flapping and woofing in the wind as you swung it around, batting the beaten balls on their unpredictable trajectories and hearing their dull thumps.

And that was about it.

Us kids were generally bored. We’d seen everything. I read a LOT. We’d scouted out the hangers, hung around in the barracks, stole supplies – you name it.   And we were very good.  Not that we were ‘bad’ kids, just generally bored Army brats with too much knowledge in this world.  So when my parents approached me – practically forced me – into this group, I joined as my brother did.

We were a very small group, this “Troop” of ours.  There were only five or six kids.  They were of various ages and colors – ranging from some small ones (two little black brothers), a medium one (Latino or Hawaiian) about my age, my brother, and someone else.  Race didn’t make any difference; never did, not until the blacks taught me to hate them for a while with their hatred for the ‘white man’ (though I was only a boy at the time).  Sometimes  I still have a problem with it, but then – so do they and they caused it.  At least in me later on.

We had a lot of ‘fun’ with those guys, our G.I. Scout Masters, serving as go-to boys for their beer. They sold it in the barracks in a soda machine – just insert four quarters and you were done – and we’d dutifully trot right on back, bearing their beer. We never drank it. Though German beer was good they didn’t offer it in the machines due to the higher alcohol content – and our Scout Masters always provided the quarters. They were our masters in more than one way, and we were their sons sometime.

They didn’t act like Scout Masters, not much. Nobody wore any uniforms, took any oaths or salutes. I wouldn’t learn those until later, when I joined a real Scout Troop over ‘here’ in the United States again. They acted like a couple G.I.’s who were set on having a fun mission – that of training us kids.   It involved a lot of hiking, quite often in Volksmarching (20 kilometers or more), hard winter camping, and learning survival skills, which included learning weapons and ammo, how to set up a tent, hunt for mines.  We met in one of the underground bunkers – the first of seven  of the rumored underground levels of the base we were on, Fliegerhorst Kaserne (Flying Horse, quite literally translated). These were also the two G.I.’s who took us on trips through parts of the huge sprawling bunker – it seemed to cover acres, and was built like a rat maze with rooms. All the doors were gasketed and vented with chemical ports – small black perforated domed eyes of thickly painted steel – with big dog-legged levers that pivoting in the middle, one on top and one on the bottom. There was a firing range there as well.

We spent a lot of time identifying bullets by their remains. The G.I.’s had us doing it at an outdoor mountain range one time, digging them out of a hill bank that acted as a range backstop, identifying them by name.

“This one’s a thirty caliber, and that one’s a forty-five,” they’d explain, holding up some mushroomed piece of lead, its copper jacket all torn and mangled. You could usually tell by looking at the lands (bottom rim) of the bullet what kind of gun it came from. But sometimes the bottom would be chipped and broken and you’d find yourself digging looking for the pieces, as if there was a story to be told and here were the hidden words. And that was the truth of it sometimes. Sometimes you could tell by small arms caliber fire what kind of bullets were used, and get some idea of the strength of their weapons. They could sometimes tell you the enemy’s – or a sniper’s – direction, though you hadn’t heard where the shot came from. And sometimes, piecing them together, you would learn a little bit about yourself. How to use your own skills to find things like that – those little bits and pieces, piecing them together, and announcing:

“They shot an M-16 from that booth on automatic,” and then pointing to the little holes, be able to explain where the fire came from, where was the enemy’s last known direction when this attack took place. From that you could determine where to go next. We always found ourselves going towards the enemy’s direction so we could track them, or else back to ‘base’ to make your report and stand by for ‘more orders’. A lot of the time those ‘something else’s’ ended up being extended marches – through the snow and woods; along some busy German road in the slush and the rain, backpacks bearing down across our backs. I wished so bad for a frame; mine didn’t have one. It took a long long time, saving up a little as I did, but it was well worth it when I did. My back became hard and strong by then.

One day we were walking when we heard some small arms fire coming from our right. Looking up the mountain, we could see a narrow green swatch of ‘range’ arrowing up on the mountains.  Earlier that day we had been poking for some mines and looking for booby traps and ‘things’ – those long thin wires they would lay out on the ground where a firework would go off announcing your presence to someone and you were ‘dead’.

Filtering up through the woods we ‘took’ that range strategically (announcing ourselves and surprising some older scouts posted around) and surrounding them, went into the long lean-to that served as wet weather protection and a place to clean arms. We all stood there fidgeting around while the two scout masters met, discussed something real quick, and the boys all laid down their weapons in the pits. I was hoping and praying we were going to get to firing them – you know, shooting the still warm weapons, but we didn’t. Instead the Sargent had us move on – filing out of the building single file. Later, after a long night, we came back and dug some bullets out – again, with our fingers stiff and sore because we had to use them. No one had a shovel, which I find rather strange – not even the two G.I.’s. Or if they had one I don’t remember.

So we walked again – a long time – set up our tents and laid down inside, still on the hard packed snow in our canvas bags because it had started snowing again. We were cold, wet and shuddering, wrapped in army canvas as we tried to stay warm . . . but soon the quilted warmth of our downy “Sleeping Bag, Arctic” kicked in, and we slept in our warm cocoons, our breath frosting our mouth and nose.

It was a long night . . . and just one of many I’ve experienced in my lifetime. And some not so comfortable as that . . .

Says a lot for the places I’ve been.


It was night, not that that meant much. Night came early during those days in Germany, especially in the fall and winter. Dry leaves rustled, stirred by a nipping wind. I could see their dark forms scattering before me like mice, rustling around my ankles and darting away into the darkness.  I stood, eying my target.

It was the Canteen. A low dome rose in the woods.  Cut into the outer edge was a dark ledge of steps going down and coming back up the other side – a line bisecting the dome. It was overgrown with grass; you couldn’t see it was concrete and alive ‘down there’. But I could make out the steam rising from the vents, smell the cooking. Occasionally a man would stagger out, ascending the stairs from the slits which cut into the dome’s great big blister, calling back to someone inside. You would see the yellow light briefly gleam on his face – usually thickset with heavy German features. I stood and watched from my position behind a tree, wondering if I should go in.

It was more of a ‘dare’ than anything, this thing I was about to do. No one had done it yet – no one had been allowed to. It was forbidden to go into the dome, the “German Canteen”. This was an installation on a military post, and only Germans were allowed in there. They were all German contractors, these men – some thick, some thin, and all with that thick guttural German accent when they spoke to us. Some were rather mean, but most were kind and friendly – however, they would be directing you elsewhere, always. With a firm command and a stern face if you hesitated or disobeyed. Their punishments weren’t harsh – they’d just turn you over to your parents. Usually that was all it took. However, in some cases – such as this one . . .

Darting forward through the scattered shadows in the darkness, I could see the bright lights and pinpricks of barracks and military installations all around. In the distance there were some streetlights. While this was ‘in the woods’, technically it was almost like a park – just a few acres around – with the German bunker in the center.  The ring of woods were clean of woods debris, for the Germans kept them painstakingly clean. They also kept their own woods – their own forests – ‘clean’, meaning you as you went strolling through their woodlands and parks you would see cords of wood stacked up, usually between some trees. The woods themselves were bare of scrub and undergrowth, rotting wood or fallen logs. All that would have been ‘cleaned up’ by the Germans – scouring the woods for firewood and stacking what they found. I was amazed by the thing. And it was the same on base. Everything was kept nice, clean, and orderly. Just like the Germans were.

As I darted forward, I became aware of a thumping – soft and persistent.  It it resembled an “omp-pah” band. The German kind. As I grew closer to the underground building the thumping grew louder, resolving itself into music – a lively German band.   The sounds were distorted by the thick steel doors resting loosely against their jambs – and the concrete slots they lay in – but I could hear the music faintly rising from the building underground.

It was an old World War II bunker. Like the base we were on, occupying our former enemy’s installations. Living in their barracks, working in their rooms, and in some cases using their old leftovers and equipment when ‘we’  or the US Army could. Bombs could still be found sometimes when they were doing excavations – they’d find that kind of thing – and explosive device, sometimes in a five hundred pound bomb – just waiting for something to set it ticking with a bump or a thump of some kind. Occasionally stashes weapons were found. like a case of hand grenades.  You never knew – or knew who might find them.  All us children had been trained – both in how to use them and avoid them.  That was part of our job.  It was a well known fact – you didn’t go around sticking a shovel in the dirt until you knew what lay underneath – especially in some places, where the Allied bombing had been good.  Or bad, depending upon your way of looking at it.

But this base – this was the one with seven underground levels (or so we were told). It was a ‘secret’ base for some time, then bombed to hell by the Allies. However, the Germans (it was said) had been prepared for that and had moved their planes underground. And they’re still there (it was said), deep under water – for the Germans had a pipe to a river somewhere, and they used it to flood the field, concealing it from the Allies by pretending it was a pond (it was said) – and then drain it off the shallow lake chase the bombers with their planes from underground – bringing them up on elevators and launching them from the hanger domes.

However, this had nothing to do with the mission I was on. I had been ‘sent’ on this mission by some of my friends – a small group of them, bored boys looking for something to do, myself included. I had a couple marks in my pocket (German money) which I had earned hauling trash for a ‘living’. I narrowed my eyes, looking at the dark opening and coming to my final decision – when to move.

I darted down the stair like a hawk, feet pounding. I didn’t want to miss a step. One wrong move and I might get caught. That would cause problems for my father – who (along with his wife) would cause some pretty bad problems for me.   But I was fairly confident.  I could duck and weave.  We’d already analyzed this, how this mission was going to go. I had visualized it in my head.

Legs pounding, knees high, I came to the steel door. It pulled outwards, its heavy handle a long slashof steel. I pulled on the door as hard as I could. To my surprise, it swung easily open. It wasn’t like the steel doors I’d trained on – the same kind as this – but they had felt much heavier, maybe because they weren’t used as much as these.  I desperately wrenched at it to keep it from clanging against the concrete shaft’s side, but once started, it was too heavy to stop.  It clanged anyway.  I darted in.

The building was moist and warm from all the German cooking, and the smell of sauerkraut and bratwurst hung in the air. The air was thick from smoke and cooking, and there stood about a dozen tables or so – rough thick legged things was my impression, covered by checkered clothes, glasses and food.   The light was dim and yellow.  A jukebox stood along the wall I was on, and already I could see the men turning to see who had come in.  Behind a long bar I could see a heavy waitress – a thick German woman, wide and broad. She was turning from the glasses on the back wall as I paused, looking for my goal.  Spotting it, I sped along the wall like a little rat, dressed in a thick green G.I. jacket and jeans.

I sped to the machine, passing the thumping wailing jukebox with its warm light and chrome. The men were turning back around again, though quite a few were keeping their eyes on me. I could see the German woman looking up in my direction. Quicker than I could say “breathe!” she started to move, coming around the counter with a surprising swiftness for a woman her size . . .

I looked away, and taking two marks in my hand (I had come prepared, shoving the marks from my pocket to my fist as I ran) – I slammed them in the machine – ‘clink!’ ‘clink!’. A moment later after I heard the coins hit some distant mysterious bottom, I grabbed a worn silver knob on the machine and pulled, looking over my shoulder at the woman and measuring her pace as she came on.

She was rounding the end of the bar in the corner of the room and proceeding rapidly my way, her mouth open and her thick arms coming up . . . I could hear her yelling . . .

I turn, looked, saw my choice had arrived – grabbed my purchase and ran, darting towards the equally thick door on the other side. Crashing it open with a big bang, I took those steps flying, two and three at a time, feet pumping, heart pounding, my ‘precious’ purchase gripped in my hand. Distantly I could hear shouting and laughter as the door behind closed, then it popped open briefly again – but I think seeing my shagging behind, the woman turned and went back to her business . . .

I ran through the woods to the edge where my friends stood, and I stopped, bent over and gasping, winded, and looked down at my hand. There it was.  In the palm of my hand. I had done something forbidden – not just once, but four times over. Once in going to get them – two in where they lay – three in having bought them – four in where they lay now: in my possession.  They were forbidden, extremely so . . . they were for me! – for me and my friends . . .

And we divvied it up with my friends the next day.

(This is part 1 of 2.  I shake my head, wondering how I came to that decision and kind of knowing why – and wishing I didn’t – any of it. It affected my life in so many ways – meaning core values, things I do every day – it became a ‘part’ of me.

You’ll see in Part Two.)

Cookoff


Cookoff

As mentioned in “War Games”, us overseas Army brats were hard put in coming up with creative diversions to entertain ourselves. We played war with ourselves and the G.I.’s, rode bikes, explored abandoned World War II bunkers, wandered about aimlessly getting into things, and sometimes getting out of them. We also engaged in dangerous games, one of which should of gotten some unsuspecting bystander killed.

That was one thing about living on an overseas Army post in the early 70’s – us kids had open access to almost everything (forbidden or not). I recall riding out on the airfield one foggy morning, and finding an unlocked communications / radar van – I went in, playfully flipping switches and turning knobs. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be there – that instinctive kid’s knowledge that what you are doing is wrong – but I couldn’t resist all those nifty dials and switches with their red and green indicator lights, their mysterious acronyms and numbers. Had I been caught I have no doubt that I and my family may have been deported – messing with sensitive military equipment is a serious crime in the military’s mind – and my father’s career would have been adversely affected. But if you leave a door open on a piece of military equipment . . . and a kid happens by, well . . . I’m surprised there was no airplane or helicopter crash that day, and I suppose somewhere someone got his butt thoroughly chewed for leaving that van wide open.

Now there were other things on the posts to entertain us kids, and we took advantage of them. There were the huge stretches of woods that the G.I.’s trained in, the unfenced supply depots, and then there was the forbidden zone – the ammo dump. Going to – and through – the first two items on that list were always interesting and fun – you never knew what you would find. I recall spending a lot of time digging through piles of tank periscopes, marveling at the thick layers of plate glass, and us kids “sword fighting” with Jeep antenna (until I accidentally hurt my best and only true friend). But the third item – the ammo dump – was spoken about in hushed tones.

The ammo dump sat on the edge of the base, nestled in the woods. It was surrounded by tall fences and loops of concertena wire. Armed soldiers patrolled its perimeter, and there were signs posted every ten meters or so. “No Entry”, they said, and warned: “Use of Deadly Force Is Permitted”. These bunkers were serious business, for they contained the weapons of war. Riding through the woods, us kids would find ourselves unconsciously speaking in whispers and sneaking through the brush, maintaining a discrete distance from the forbidden zone. Sometimes we would ‘snoop and poop’ – creep through the nettles and bushes to catch a glimpse of the guards, the silvery metal separating us from them. Knowing that they had authorization to shoot anyone who intruded on “their” land, we kept away – for the most part. I know I did. But one kid didn’t.

I don’t know how he did it, except that he said it was at night. How he managed to evade capture or getting shot – again, I don’t know. What I do know is that he came back the next day bearing a long belt of .30 caliber ammunition. And then the game was on.

Now I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a belt of ammunition. It’s a series of metal clips, bound together in a flexible link, which holds bullets. These cartridges – .30 caliber – are a little over three inches long with a bullet that measures almost an inch and a quarter and is a third of an inch thick. You can “strip” bullets off of a belt by simply grabbing them and prying them loose – which we did. And then we’d play the “game”.

I guess it was a good thing we lived in old WWII German Army quarters, for the concrete walls were almost a foot thick. Had they been regular walls, such as you find in a house – well, I shudder to think of what might have happened. As it was we knew we were playing a deadly game with chance – and again, it’s a wonder we didn’t get someone killed.

We usually played “the game” in the evening – twilight, by some standards – after most folks had already cooked their meals and gone inside. We would start by scouting the apartment complex, looking for people who were cooking outside. Finding a grill full of coals, we’d strip off a dozen or so bullets, then throw them into the grill. Then we would beat a hasty retreat around the building’s corner and wait for the fun to begin.

“BANG! BANG-BANG!” Sometimes the shots would come all together, just like a machine gun as the bullets cooked off in the grill’s hot innards. Had someone – a cook who’d decided his steak was too rare, a child released for play – come by, they would have been in deadly danger. We’d wait for a few minutes after what we guessed (guessed, mind you!) was the last round, then we’d go back to survey the damage. The grill would be ruined – shot full of holes as big around as my finger – and there’d be pockmarks on the concrete walls. Where the actual rounds ended up – I don’t know, and we didn’t care. It was just “something to do”, something for fun.

Just another example of how us bored military kids sometimes spent our time – engaging in dangerous games.


Workin’ For A Living: 12 Years Old

That’s ME – Workin’ For A Livin’ for the USMC –
About Ten Years Down the Line

It wasn’t my first job; that was different, but it was the first one I got paid to go to other people’s houses to do. My first job, as my parents were fond of reminding me, was doing my chores. Those chores ‘paid’ for my education, my life, my rent – the food on my plate and the clothes on my back.

“We don’t have to feed you nothing,” my mom and dad were quite fond of warning me, “but water and bread and enough vitamins to survive.” Their way of showing love was giving beyond the basic essentials. You were rewarded when you did something good. You were punished by taking things away – including your liberty and freedom to go outside, venture beyond your room. You learned to take care of things by doing without if they got lost, missing, stolen, broken or anything. There was no second chance with toys.

We learned to do without – on a lot of things. Doing without TV for three years. Doing without any radio station except a foreign one. Doing without your toys – those had been left back Stateside to await your return, they were too expensive – too redundant to take along. Doing without friends.  Do without love.  Do without Stateside.  Do without America.  And make it on your own.  While the US Military might have been there for the adults and all their problems – for us kids?  You were on your own to solve your own issues, your own ‘things’; deal with the daily concerns of life and death and the overhanging threat of a nuclear war . . . with your enemies but a few stones throws to a few hours away, them  knowing your weapons are pointed at them, and you know theirs at aimed at you – a small child of twelve or thirteen.

“Make do, do without, or build your own.”

That was a rule I learned – and took that one to heart. I began to build my own toys, starting with models, and then later (when we got back Stateside) my own stuffed animals. But those things took money – money I had to earn. I could get fifteen cents for taking out the trash – my mom would grant me that, for use on the German roach coach that would come through the apartment complex at about noon to drop off soft drinks at everyone’s house (no one drank the water, or at least not unboiled – the German water treatment system left something to be desired, and an unwary traveler would learn). But you could only take the trash out every three or four days or so – when the can would start piling up. They lined it with a paper grocery bag – that’s all they had back then; everyone used them – and God forbid it got wet. The bottom would simply tear out and you would be left holding an empty paper sleeve, wet and dripping on the ragged bottom – and then you’d have to reach in, get whatever trash had fallen in, and stuff it in a new bag – over and over again. Sometimes we’d use two or three bags to line the can, but it didn’t much matter. My dad wouldn’t think twice about dumping some soggy coffee grounds in, or a mess that would make that bag soggy. My mom, poor thing, was considerate of me to sometimes wrap such things in paper – newspaper, “The Stars and Stripes”, the only publication we were allowed. (There were comic books, but those were almost forbidden things – like they were naughty or something – plus they were expensive at the store.)

We got a bit of allowance off and on, depending on how our father was feeling and how generous our mother felt at the time. Usually it was seventy-five cents a week, sometimes only fifty. That’s a lot of money to a little boy, but not so much to one of twelve in 1970. And I had to work hard for my fifty, seventy-five cents – making my bed, moping the floors, cleaning the bathroom, taking the trash out again – sweeping the bedroom (if it needed it) – sometimes dusting. But at least we didn’t have to clean the light bulbs, ha-ha! That would come much later.

And then somewhere – somehow – I got the idea of hauling trash for a living. I think it was my parents who suggested it to me, but maybe I had come up with it on my own. It might have been I wasn’t the very first kid doing it – it seems to me there were several doing it before I was done, and there was a bit of competition among us to find customers – one staking out one stairwell, another another and so on.

And it was hard work, too! Sometimes you had to run up to the fifth floor. All that way up – and then back down, clutching this bag of trash in your arms – you all along hoping they didn’t just stuff another wet and soggy bag into a new one because it would leak out and wreck the new one before you could get to where you were going, which was the huge dumpster at the end of the row of apartment buildings – four buildings in all, sometimes six, and one time eight – going all that distance to drop off some trash, for these buildings were long! They were the German base apartments, built for them in the past – pre-WWII. They were big buildings, hulking and ‘square’ – not that they were square – they were long, thick, huge rectangles, like slabs of meat with windows cut in. But everything about them was squarish in a way – squared windows with little squares within them in their metal frames – set in a bit so they looked even more cube-ish. The balconies on some – long slots cut into the rectangles, stacked like cord wood one over another. And the long roofs go marching on and on with their rows of dormer windows peering out over them like so many square frog’s eyes.

So I set about setting up business, going from door to door – knocking at each one, making my offers. If you lived on the first floor, it was fifteen cents; twenty-five cents for the second, thirty on the third, forty on the fourth and two quarters for the highest points in the building. I would come by every two or three days a week, depending upon my customer’s preferences. I didn’t keep any notes, any track of them. Once the deal was set, it was my job to remember them – where they lived and what time to come in. Since all the buildings looked the same, it wasn’t always hard – but it wasn’t easy, either. Sometimes I’d knock at the door to find my customer gone – swept away by some Army order – and another potential customer staring me in the face, wondering what was going on with this young kid in his jacket and boots standing there. And I’d make my offer again. I would point out how far away the dumpster is; what a bother it is in the morning. Or I’d come by later, taking off my hat (I often wore a stocking cap) – and making my offer another time, if they were were still in the process of moving in or out. I used to get ten cents a box for hauling them down to the trash – that was quite a boon! – finding someone who had just moved in, secreting their boxes somewhere, and then notifying some kids I wanted to play with, or selling them to some other – either way, making money hand-over-fist as best I could.

Not that it was a lot of money. Funny how money goes out of your hand as quick as you take it in. I became a firm follower of the German roach coach, buying candy for me and some kids. Or I would go down to the base theater and take a movie in. Often you could find me at the E-Club, playing pinball games or ordering a soda, a float – anything to take my mind off my loneliness and pain. And quite often I would go over to the PX to buy some model, usually a plane. I was quite fond of the ones from World War Two, buying endless bottles of various Testor’s paints and painting them up in ever increasing detail as my skills got better and better at this thing. I remember long hours sniffing model glue – not intentionally, I hadn’t a clue that it could get you high – I didn’t even know what ‘high’ is. That all would come later – much later – into my teenagehood.

I also would ‘go to town’ once and awhile, exchanging my dollars for marks and phennings. There I could buy something worth a dollar, and it would only cost one-hundred cents. Later, when the dollar plunged (another trip later on) I found my dollar was worth a quarter, and us Americans were considered poor.

There in town I would buy me candies and walk around; spending my marks on bus fares and stuff, touring, taking the trains. Often I would ride my bike into town to save the fare, and simply walk around. There the Germans would often greet me as one of their own – they always said I would make a good German! Some were kindly, some were cold – all of them strict in a way. A very German way of being: following the rules (some), not getting too wild, obeying all the laws (normally), and behaving in an orderly, logical fashion – and they were quite proud of their heritage, minus World War Two. That they seemed very embarrassed with, as if Hitler had let a fart and a bomb had gone off. Which they should be. It was a very shameful period and part of their history.

But that job ran out when we switched bases; after a couple times, I just got sort of heartsick about going on. The run of new faces, me pitching my pitch – how easy it would be for them, no more forgotten garbage sitting by the door, no more running through howling snowstorm or blizzard or thundering rain – I just felt sick at heart.

There’s a big difference between being ‘sick at heart’ and ‘sick of something’. ‘Sick of something’ implies you just don’t want to do it; that you may even feel some nausea at the idea of doing it again. But sick at heart? That implies a whole other level. That’s when you look down that row of apartment buildings, knowing what you have to do – and instead of just feeling nauseous, you feel down and depressed. Where it’s more than not just wanting to do it, or facing the same old task time and time again. I find myself hard put to put my finger on it – that pulse of emotion, that dread and sinking feeling I started to get each time I’d stare down a new street, trying to prepare for a new beginning. One that seemed to never come.

After awhile it seemed the apartment complexes began blending – each one different, but so much the same as the one we’d left behind that it did not matter. All the buildings were the same, the streets were the same – the endless blend of faces, all of them unknown – the same. And facing facts, I was getting quite tired of banging on doors and finding a new face staring out at me, wondering what was going on.

Eventually I gave up my job as garbage hauler, leaving it for the younger (and more ambitious, I presume) boys to employ. Instead I got me a job during the summer (at one place) mowing the center courtyard – the ‘big yard’ that stood between the building’s backs. Each row would face a street; behind them would be another row, facing another street beyond. Inbetween there might be a thin strip of land, varying (depending on where we were) – from one hundred to two hundred foot wide, and about as long as a football field. These were hard jobs to find, because they were in most demand, and we didn’t own a lawn mower – and essential tool for the job. Instead each community had one – just one – to do the job. And it was a tight position – always jostling with the other kids, making deals with the grownups – the grownups making deals among themselves, so that you never knew whether you got the job or not until the last minute. And then there was the mowing to be done. It was about thirty dollars a ‘whack’ or session – pushing that mower around and around all afternoon, pacing through the summer’s heat while the other children got to play. And it was one I didn’t get very often – no one did. It was sort of shared among the grownups and the kids (which meant just that much more competition) – although the grownups didn’t get paid (I think). They just did it for the enjoyment of mowing the ‘quad’ – something that would remind them of their time overseas and what they had left behind. So it really wasn’t a very good job.

I bought my first bike – though it wasn’t really the first one – using that money I made. I got it for ten buck off a G.I. who was going overseas – back Stateside – and needed to get rid of it. It had straight handlebars and was of foreign design, unlike the Schwinn I’d owned and that my parents had given me.

But that’s for another story – how I lost my bike not just once but twice – once to myself, and once to a thief over in a German town.

Flying Lessons


Flying Lessons

The Mohawk came in, hanging on a wing, one engine running. It hung vertical in the sky, that single engine not humming, but howling as its turboprop fan beat the air. Above the sky was cloudy and overcast, and a long long strip of black tarmac striped the emerald green grass below. We stood on the edge of the airport by the domed hangers, watching it come in. It was part of the air show.

The only thing is: every day was an air show of some kind. Living next to a military airfield guaranteed it. There were hangers on the ground and craft in the air. Gliders and hangers. Helicopters – all kinds, the fat round Huey UH-1’s, and the lean mean Cobra attack machines with their narrow head’s on profile. The “banana” chopper with its massive twin blade rotors on each end, bent in the middle just like a banana would be. They were Chinooks, I later learned when I got my nomenclature right. Everything is in the nomenclature in the military culture, from the language to the slang. “Fubar” comes from a military source, so does “C.O.” – another word for God, or a demigod if I’ve ever seen one. Add to that “crispy critter” – and know you never want to see one (or smell one, too).

Living on an Army airbase as a kid – especially on a “spy base” where certain planes were kept – offered opportunities not available to every kid – not even the military ones. I know I often wandered the tarmac and hangers along – me and my straight handle barred bike (for it was a German one) touring the facilities and talking to the men who were working on one project or another.

There were benches piled with electronics junk, and I rapidly learned to tell the difference between an oscilloscope and an airplane radar dome. I learned what the electronics looked like, and peered at optical lenses – and the photos scattered about. Often they were photos from our enemy’s land, and the G.I.’s would peer at them and whisper excitedly, showing me tanks, bunkers, and guns. There was a lot of emphasis put on ‘learning the land’ and learning all about them – what they ate, where they fed, where the mess halls were as opposed to those other things: armed emplacement, ‘hidden’ hills nestled in some farmer’s garden. Areas near the border were pointed out and marked as ‘mined’. Huge anti-tank emplacements studded certain areas of the border – huge ‘crosses’ shaped like jacks jinks and balls. Concrete trenches wide enough to swallow a tank whole. Lots of things – over and over again.

I remember staring at contour maps – maps of the land – and hearing that I should learn about them. “Topo” was what they were called. I have a ‘very scary’ memory – why it scares me? I don’t know. All I know is I don’t know how I got there or when I left – it was just a dark room, and from the feel, a cement one. There were some officers standing about; in the center, lit by a single overhead light, a table. On the table stood a map. Later on it would become a model – or perhaps I got so good at visualizing those topos that I could ‘see’ it as one. Mountains and hills rising, valleys, rivers, and the direction of the sun was indicated by the North arrows . . . it seems to me there were some other children there; just two or three, part of a ‘crowd’ I may (or may not) have been in. And the officers were instructing us on how to ‘read’ the maps, know our way around – and what to look for. Gun emplacements in the hills – those were always hard to spot – the paths and cobblestone roads. I place this memory in my ‘recovered’ pile, because I am not certain about what was going on. Just that single ‘snapshot’ and feelings of being . . . I don’t know.

The Mohawk flew past, its trailing wing nearly scraping on the tarmac as the pilot showed off his skills. I was used to seeing gliders pulled up into the sky, but I hadn’t seen much ‘trick flying’. This guy was illustrating how his plane would stay up with one engine gone. How he could fly it “on its side”. As though that might be a useful skill. Given that the belly cams were there – I suppose it was. He could whip through an enemy area and given his cameras, take a picture of everyone and everything there. There was also the electronics “pod” or package which eternally hung off some of the aircraft – for snooping through the airwaves, looking for enemy messages and eavesdropping on some.

Next came the jato rockets. They had strapped some to a Mohawk’s side – four of them if I recall; making for eight of them assisting in takeoff. That bulky old plane seemed to simply lift off the tarmac – jumping forward with a flash and a roar. I don’t think the wheels ever really rolled on the ground. The jato rockets were for short takeoff assists – and this was the shortest one I saw. I don’t think that airplane made more than a hair’s length before it jumped into the sky, jato rockets thundering in a cloud of smoke and flame. That one they made us back off from – standing way off the tarmac, watching it take off. Even then you could feel the heat from the flame. And those powerful turbofans running; the sound the props made – it was awesome. But nothing like the jet planes.

Those were the Phantoms, which rarely came in, for our airfield was too short for them (for the most part). They would swoop down low, thundering over the airport and base – so close you could feel the heat of their engine’s blast as they would sweep past, only a stone’s throw – and a child’s one at that – above the emerald land. Then a moment would pass and you would feel the ‘whoosh!’ of them – the air running behind them, pulling you along. And the sound was so awe-full, so loud – it would leave my young ears ringing for minutes, sometimes hours if there were a lot of them.

Then there were the helicopters, the most common of the crowd. The UH-1 – the ubiquitous “Huey” – which was the mainstay of the Army’s air force, not counting the DC-10’s, C-130’s, et all – most of which could not land our our air base – again, due to their size. However, occasionally one would see one – parachutes out and deploying, or taking off again – using those jato rockets to make it. I remember standing next to the Hueys as they would land or take off. Nothing else sounds like a Huey, that’s for sure! The deep “whomp-whomp” of those blades; the downblast showering you with dirt and pebbles – it’s a sound which still draws me outside when I hear it, though that has become more rare. The Army dumped its Hueys in favor of Apaches, America’s “newest” helicopter – though I saw one fly before I left there. And that was back in 1973 – long before the world had heard word of them. It was a “trial” flight and a demonstration of the machine’s abilities. To me it looked too large, sounded too wrong, and the fact that it could fly upside down failed to impress me – even as a child. I fell more in love with the Huey Cobras – a fast and lean machine built for war.

Living on those bases – it didn’t matter. I felt at home on them in some ways – especially around the hangers, with the smell of oil and grease and exhaust fumes, the constant rattles and roar – the G.I.’s loafing around or working on this or that; the pilots, heavy in their jump suits and gear, those big white helmets with drop down visors on their heads – a place that was always busy – and yet eternally slow paced. They were waiting as I was waiting as America was waiting as the Russians were waiting as everyone was waiting . . . for war. A time that (thankfully) never came.

And I’ll never forget that roar – those thundering machines taking off; landing – standing right there next to a helicopter as it came down; the G.I.’s taking me if not by the hand then by curiosities nose and showing me how things worked, what they were for, and where I would fit in to them should it come down to it, the arts and crafts of war.


Fliegerhorst – The Flying Horse Kaserne

 

Fliegerhorst Kaserne – Just So You Know I’m Not Joking

 

“Depants! Depants!” The cries echoed through the ruined bunker. I was only slightly annoyed; this whole game bothered me. Why would some kid want to ‘depants’ another kid? I didn’t understand it. And they never tried to depants me. I would’ve whipped their asses for doing it – even threatening to try was enough to get a hard warning look at my buddies, my fists balled. I wouldn’t run anywhere when it came to a fight though I didn’t like fighting anymore.

The lights where scattered and yellow, hidden behind glass domes protected by armor shields which were supposed to keep them protected in case of a blast. Loose rubble lay here and there in the corridors; this was the ‘abandoned’ side of the bunker complex we were in – there was a firing gallery somewhere, complete with sand banks and lots of bullets us kids would dig out some of the time. However on the ‘other’ side the Army was still using things . . .

It extended 7 levels down, though only three of them were useful. It was said the other ones were flooded by the Germans when the Americans took over the base during the final days of WWII. It was rumored there were German airplanes down there; Junker bombers, Stukkas and tanks. Maybe some of it was usable being underwater for so long, for as the Allies were coming the Germans had stored all their equipment down ‘there’, down in the deepest levels, booby trapped the place, then opened the valves between them and the river – allowing water to rush in. It filled the bunkers up to level with the river sometimes. Which was about three stories down.

You see, supposedly the Germans had this plan. They’d built this base in the basin of a shallow field, digging down (again, supposedly 7 stories down) – and putting an airfield there. When the Allies would send over their bombers, the Germans would flood the base, making it appear as a lake – and the Allies would just fly on, hopefully missing it that way. As the Allies would fly on, they would drain the ‘lake’ (apparently it was just a few feet deep), roll out some fighters to chase the American planes while sending some bombers out on their own. That way they could surprise the Allied pilots on both ends – as they were approaching their targets they could come up from behind – while the bomber had his sight laid on and couldn’t move anything. The bombardier would be the one driving – locked on his path, not straying – not one fraction of a degree one way or another, sighting those bombs in (using the Norton sight, I suppose) – and the fighters could rake them on the way there, or on the way back (when their guns were empty from fighting some fighters over the target area) – and then arriving at their home bases to find that their airports had gotten bombed – depriving them of a place to land, and (hopefully) causing many of them to crash . . . or at least wrecking some landing gear and propellors (no quick turn-around time for them guys!) . . .

Anyway, I’m reckoning that was ‘the plan’, based on what’s been told to me, history lessons that I’ve read, stategic training (as in “what I would do if I was them” – and the Germans always said I’d make a damn fine German as well . . .)

Didn’t matter in the end anyway: their bases got found out; they got bombed to Hellenbach*, and then the Allies just kept going, seizing what assets they could (ever hear of one called “Operation Paperclip”? It was a good one . . . but kinda makes me sick . . .)

 

However, the Allies couldn’t shake the secret from the last man alive who knew about those booby traps and things, and he wouldn’t reveal the intake on the pipe. Pump as they might, the mighty Army (supposedly; this was the tale that was told) – couldn’t pump those lower levels dry. So they sealed them up and left them alone . . .

And they made it a base of their own, complete with spy planes and the like – mostly Mohawks, which were an ugly twin turboprop that looked somewhat similar to the Warthogs of today – flying these big old mothballs (or meatballs, depending on how you were looking at them) – over the paths of our enemy, doing some electronic snooping on them and lots of photographs. (I know; I got to look at quite a lot of them, but for different reasons in a different way.)

The truth of it was, several somebodies probably knew quite a lot about what was ‘down there’ in that hidden darkness, and the military was still using several of the underground bunkers while I was there. This was right underneath the airfield and the hanger wings – a maze of light bubbles, gas tight doors, concrete walls, and an endlessly oppressive atmosphere that seemed to weigh down on you and make you feel safe, both at the same time . . .

It was there that we met some of the time, us kids and some of ‘the guys’. The guys were a couple of G.I.’s.

That’s all I’m going to say for this about now . . .

except that we played in them and they were dark sometimes.

 

The Fliegerhorst Airfield Kaserne (“flying horse” in German, “kaserne” means ‘base’) was important to me. That is where I had my best friend, Donald; and ‘most’ of my memories are from there. “Things” happened there; some of them I am really not quite sure about . . .

We seemed to stay there the ‘longest time’ though we were in “Old Argonner” nearby. (Argonner Kaserne, Hanau (closed in 2008). There was “New Argonner” as well. However we got moved a couple of times, though we all went to the same school. It was the last base we lived on – away from the cluster of other military bases in the area, separated and alone. It was a ‘secret’ military base in some ways – they stored nuclear missiles there, as well as being a base for the Mohawks and spy planes. Us kids were allowed to roam freely and mix around; however, you had to take a shuttle bus away from ‘camp’ to get to the outside world, or else you could ride your bicycle. Riding your bike meant going through Krautland for a long long ways. It was five miles to the nearest base – a long way in German terms, especially for some young kid on a bicycle.

There was public transport – if you had the money. The German buses and trains ran on time – and frequently, I might add. Clean and efficient transportation – if you were going somewhere in Germantown. However, getting onto an American base might be an entirely different matter.

You had to have your I.D. with you at all times – something new to me as a kid: carrying an identification card that said who I was and who I belonged to. (The US Army – it said so right there across the top and with the great big seal they had on it.)

I spent a lot of time alone rambling around by myself at first. For a long time, actually – those first two years, maybe even. It’s hard to grasp. So many of the memories are gone. Flashes of bases and kids . . . a young lover . . . a very deep swimming pool I was in; a merry-go-round (where I met my young lover) . . . cloudy skies and dark bases, endless airports and planes; helicopters thundering overhead . . .

I remember I spent a lot of time out over at (and on) the airport, learning some things. I don’t know what all . . . just ‘things’. I remember walking into the hangers and locker room areas; equipment rooms, storage rooms, G.I.’s taking me by the hand and showing me something or other. These are all ‘recovered’ memories for the most part; I can’t really be sure of them.

But some things I am certain of . . .

For instance, sitting in the co-pilot’s cockpit on a Huey, having a Captain show me ‘the ropes’ – how to engage the machine gun (the little minigun that hangs down in front); explaining to me the purposes of the switches, gyros and things – putting the helmet on me and talking about the Heads Up display (HUD) – how the machine gun would be tracking your movements, and you used the helmet to aim – basically firing wherever you looked or wanted to by simply looking at the object, flipping the cover, and pressing down . . .

It was also explained to me that this was the “co-captian’s” seat; that the pilot would be doing the driving – I might be required to keep my eyes on the dials and things and read some numbers out to him – but other than that I would be shooting the gun . . . if it ever came down to it . . .

I think it was him who explained to me their greatest fear: that us kids would be unarmed, or the Americans so under-armed, undeveloped, and ill prepared that the Soviet forces would be sweeping over us like a crimson wave; a tide of blood, and that any “American” should fight for his republic . . . that that was the reason why we were there . . .

And somewhere down the line it was explained to me that we wouldn’t have time to make an attack. The “Soviets” (actually, the East Germans – but it didn’t matter because they were using Soviet made MIGs) – could be over our base in a matter of minutes; there probably wouldn’t be any kind of warning until the bombs started to go off. If you heard them in time. Chances were you weren’t going to hear anything. The world would end in a great big flash and that would be the end of it – and you – and everybody you had ever known, and everything American made . . .

Atomic bombs were what we had to watch out for, we were told (this was somewhere in survival class). “Look out for the big flash in the sky!” the instructor said over again. “Be ready to duck and hide! At ALL times!” And so I spent a lot of time surreptitiously looking over my shoulder, looking on the horizon – watching for that great big flash that would mean I had to duck and hide if I wanted to stay alive. . .

The rules were rather simple: dive towards a ditch, a low wall; a bank of dirt – put anything you possibly can between you and the oncoming blast. Then get ready to get out of there – but be aware! The wind’s gonna blow in both ways . . . first it’s gonna come with smoke and fire – a virtual blast furnace (and hopefully passing over you . . . meanwhile you are hoping and praying like hell that it doesn’t suck all the oxygen out of the atmosphere – and YOU – if you wanna stay alive) . . . and then the wind is going to reverse, throwing things AT you if you haven’t gotten on the other side of the wall . . . or deeper down into your hiding place. The only thing is: they are going to be burning things and humans on fire. Half of them if not all are going to go blind. The rest may suffer from radiation burns, sickness, death . . maiming, mutilation . . .

Real good kind of trick to play on a 12 year old kid. Get him ready for a war that’s never coming. One in which he’s supposed to be a ‘leader’ of some kind; getting the other kids to gather ’round him – using him like a general would, and him using those kids for . . . whatever. And binding them to him in all kinds of ways; emotionally, rationally, through loyalty, fakery, or betrayal – all in order to “do this mission” of killing some Russians and keeping them (the kids and any Americans we’d find) alive.

To this day I don’t know how or what happened at that time; those times. So much is ‘gone’ out of my mind – a complete blank in some cases, lasting for months and months it seems. Flashes like still photographs; scenes that play out in my head; some of them are unjointed, disconnected – don’t correspond to anything “I” was doing . . . maybe their parts of a dream? If so, it was a dream that went on for a mighty long time – and there again, it’s so disjointed and spread out through time – a little bit took place ‘here’ and a little bit over ‘there’ . . . little hints of something every once and awhile . . .

I have my own theories, of course. One of them (and the simplest, easiest, by Occam’s Razor) is that I simply ‘made it up’ in my mind. That there simply was nothing going on. That I read some facts and made it all up in my mind. But on the other hand there are certain things that I do remember quite well – for I’ve never quite ‘forgotten’ them. The levels beneath the base – why can’t I find anything on the Internet about them? They were there – there’s no doubt about that! And the German’s dug them; of that I’m quite sure. But why no mention in (most**) of “it” (the nukes, the missions, the planes.) Was the Army doing something ‘down there’ that those bunkers – because they were using some of them (for storage if nothing else; I found a comment a former G.I. made about nuclear warheads being stored there) . . . and the CIA was around – I found another document on the Internet that makes mention of Fliegerhorst . . .

Who knows? It was the Cold War and they had a lot of secrets to hide – and a lot of fear on each side – so who knows? Maybe ‘they’ were teaching us kids somewhat how to survive . . . maybe it was an official program; probably not; maybe so . . .

I only recall a few kids ever being there, where I was sometimes. Six or seven at the most; sometimes down to as few as five. (Kids were always rotating out of my ‘group’ of friends, just like I was in their lives due to the military constantly moving families around . . . and I think my dad had a hand in it, too – especially that move from the ‘regular’ kaserne (Old Argonner) over to this new ‘neighborhood’ on this so-called “American Spy Base” of ours . . .

 

Anyway . . . there’s more to come on ‘this base’ and place, one of several I was on. But of all of them . . . this was the hardest in some ways, the best, the worst, and (in some ways) led to the culmination of all my nightmares in the end . . .

 

 

*Helenbach – a wry sounding play on the name of the Georgia made to look like a German village, and “bach” which in German often means “river” and hence was the suffix of many towns . . . and the American slang term: “To hell and back” – which in many senses of the word they were bombed back to.)

**I have found a few references indicating that there were underground facilities there; perhaps more extensive than I thought – including references to the ME jet plane that Hitler was developing . . . as well as a website comment by a G.I. about some nukes that were stored in there; and some data that suggests the CIA had some folks stationed there – perhaps because it was a reconnaissance base on the forward lines of Cold War Europe . . . or who knows? Perhaps it was something more.