Tag Archive: germany

The Temps


“Back in the U.S.S.R!”  But in my case it was “Back in the U.S. of A!”. For we were going home.  Finally and at last.

We’d moved into the “Temps” on the 5th floor of the German military (U.S. occupied) apartments that had been build for the German military back in “the War”.  These were a long string of single rooms, connected by a long hallway.  There were eight rooms on each side, each with it’s own door, and there were no doors on the end of the hallway.  They just ended there in the stairwell.  So while you were living there you were subject to have people walking through the ‘apartment’ that you lived in – whether you were taking a bath, cooking on a stove (in a separate kitchen, of course) – whatever you do.  Fortunately visitors – wanderers, actually – were rare.  Usually you’d just have a gang of kids pursuing one another – taking the forbidden fifth floor route instead of the one in the basement to cut from one long section of armored apartments to another.  We spent some time there – about one or two months, I reckon – living with those walls that sloped up (because you were near the roof) and with the dormer windows.

Gone were the apartments we had lived in below, with their long bay windows in the living room and balcony.  Man!  What can I say: those German soldiers lived nice compared to what I was used to.  And the walls – almost three foot thick, both to keep out the cold and exploding bombshells.  Everywhere: military. Everything green. O.D. was the color of my blood – or part of it.

The rest ran true red white and blue, though I had come to distrust some of the government.  I’d seen too much of it.  I’d lived under the burdens of this world.  I was looking forward to going back to the home of my childhood – if it still stood.

I’d had nightmares all my life, but I’d started to be plagued by this one.  In it I had gone back to the neighborhood, but everything had changed.  Everyone had changed in it; gone were some of the houses, and everyone would be looking at me strange.  As if I was an alien or Martian.  From another world.  Because it was another world, that rural world in Georgia, and this one . . . this all so foreign (and yet wonderfully strange; I wasn’t afraid to explore: I wanted to).  And the Army thing.

But I was ready to go. Gone past ready. It had to be November . . . that’s when dad always got his main orders (there were plenty of TDY’s, too.  And trips in the field.)  And this time we all were to go back home.

As I lay in my room staring at that sloped ceiling (when I wasn’t wandering the base, now stuck on foot, since almost everything we owned was packed up.  Luckily we were on a small one.  It was used to conduct spy missions on and over the border using Mohawks – planes like this one:

Mohawk w Electronics Pkg

They were used to spy on enemy and stuff.  I used to look at the photos some in the hangers.  There was a lot of neat stuff, but not my school.  THAT was over on/near Old Argonner, a base we used to live.  It was in Hanau, Germany, not real far (I think) from Stuttgart.  We wandered all over the place. Sometimes with the G.I.’s, sometimes in groups, sometimes with tours, often with our parents – or just alone.

We had spent a lot of time in the woods.  And in the bunkers doing military stuff.

but this last year had not been good.  First there’d been the fall of one good friend after another – falling away like leaves in the wind; there one day and gone in the next, until I was alone.  Nothing but new kids to play with; kids I didn’t wanna know.  I’d had enough. I was going home.  My last girlfriend has left 3 months ago.

I was ready, more than ready, to move on.

I’d had it with love and stuff.  I hurt inside.  I’d read a lot of grownup stuff.  I’d cruised the books in the libraries and read about everything I could get my hands on.  The administrators who gave tests all said I’d done really good, with a promising outlook.  One even called me a “lazy genius”.  I read and comprehended on a junior college level, and I wrote almost as well as I read, but I sucked in math.

I played the tuba and did art, but this year had been tough.  This year things were short – you won’t be there long enough’ – and they pulled me out some.  Early, it seems.  My heart wasn’t in it.

My heart wasn’t in anything anymore.

I felt burnt out.

And I lay on my bed and stared at the ceiling and wondered, had my doubts.

Everything is about to change which I’m afraid of, but I can’t stand this death I’m in.

The snow’s started.  It’s looking gray outside.  Inside I feel . . . cool.  Waiting and ready and nervous, and listening to the voices down the hall and staring at my room, with its blood red four square tiles, separated by mortar joints.

We’ll be outta here soon.

I hope and pray.

I look around at the bare room.

Its like my life.  Barren and empty except me.

Barren and empty like me.


A Pause for Station Identification

We’ve taken a long pause on this, our blog of our childhood – and beyond. Perhaps this become another’s story; perhaps it is our own – though I know in reality they are intertwined, for ‘I’ am DID and there’s a lot in my life I don’t understand.

This is about “13”, our alter, who more or less took over from the time we left Germany until we came back to the USA – and beyond.  It wasn’t supposed to be that way it appears . . .

This is where “we’ve” been stuck, and is part of the reason for this blog: to work our alters out of our woodwork; to understand our own life, its arc and path – ‘who’ became ‘what’, the reasons why . . .

And that’s why ‘we’ have been stuck for such a long time. We’d sit down to work on this blog – and draw a blank on emotions, memories sometimes. Oh some of them would be there, like glimpses through a fog – snapshots only.

But a few weeks ago we started experiencing a disturbing emotion . . . and it turned out to be “13” – the key to moving on.

So we’re going over what we’ve wrote over the past week . . . documenting 13’s journey, and the steps we – he – ‘they’ took . . .

In many ways this is another alter’s story; not my own, not “Mikie’s”, nor the alter ‘he’ sprang from – an entirely different viewpoint, way of looking at the world . . .

for ’13’ was born when we were 13, and had only a few months left ‘in-country’ before we would go over the the “Good Ol’ U.S. of A.” which we had left a few years earlier.  Change was in the air; our best friend was gone, our girlfriend was fast becoming a thing of history, clouds were on the near horizon – gray ones, whirling and thick in my mind . .


I am 13 and I was born over in Germany but I was fairly prepared.  Gone were a lot of the emotions and outlooks I’d had.  I’d read many books and seen a lot of things, but sex with a girl was on my mind – not that I’d had any, tho’ I’d come close with a cousin once, and then with another girl.

I’d had sex over here but it didn’t take – friends were a thing of the past. I was way more into science and writing and stuff.  I played in the band.  I’d learned not to make friends.

I had learned racism over here, due to a few incidents with some blacks. That’s okay. I’ve very nearly gotten over it, but statistics don’t lie, and the black mobs over there were cruel. Unruly. And ran around in mobs.

That reminds me; I’m supposed to write about dealing with racism over here. (germany – host entry – he’s still a bit lost over ‘here’ in the real world)

Not that that has anything to do with this story. Racism plays a part in my life, but just a little one. We didn’t know nuthin’ as a kid about racism. All were the same in my little kid’s mind. ‘We’ learned better later on.

My host is reminding me it’s time to go on. “How should I write this” he is saying.  Should I do it from first person viewpoint or ‘yours’ (his).  I should be writing a question to my (intended) audience.  I could do it like stories like my Boss wants me, or just cut to the chase. I don’t want to do it either way.

But (sighing) I suppose I should fill in the racism blank. And a few other things over there.  But it was hard.

(Bosses Viewpoint):

Okay here I gotta step in (teen attending).  13 is a highly intelligent kid; apart somewhat from “the system”, although very important.  We’d always kind of ignored him – ‘he’ was like an engine running in the background, quiet, but doing his job . . .

then he began to ‘choke’ a bit last week.  Funny how what you took for granted can suddenly misbehave.  But that’s good. We’re gonna get some work done on this blog.

He’s all alone in his own way.  “We” had stripped him/it from certain aspects of ‘his’ personality.  He read.  He was well traveled.  He’d seen Berlin, Spain, whatnot . . . and plowed through every book he could get his hands on.  Fluent in English, he had gained a junior college vocabulary and reading comprehension skill level – he was tested for that – and wrote quite a bit (mostly poems).  And he was shy – painfully so. But at the same time big, quite strong, a bit flabby in the middle, but close mouthed and HARD.  He’d lie to you in a heartbeat, smoke a cigarette in the restroom – give a blowjob there – and go on to steal tank parts (or the bullets that go in them) at night.

He knew about nuclear bombs and nuclear missiles; about girls and boys – knew enough about the biology to make a woman happy; the seven erogenous zones (on a woman, anyway) – knew how to drink and hold it, used his bike like a car; was at home in a German atmosphere as the home one, tho’ sometimes ‘he’ would retreat inside while the child was being punished, sparing himself some pain . . .

He’d read “Everything a Boy Needs to Know About Sex” – and the girls version, too – just to be safe.  He’d seen a dog jacked off; done it on his own as his abuser had taught him to do, had loved and lost and loved again – and had lost

until he’d sworn off of it.

“Never again,” he was saying in the back of his mind. “No more pain.”

But ‘he’ didn’t know that, not yet . . .

that still laid ahead in his future . . .

and he was a pretty tough kid.


The Girlfriend

The Girlfriend

“You wanna go together?”

“Huh?”, I said, not understanding the question.

“Girlfriend and boyfriend. You wanna be my boyfriend?”

I looked at her, a mushroom shaped girl with long dark hair draped below her shoulders. Her face was fat, a bit like mine, and she sat on a low bench, scuffing her feet in the schoolyard dirt of the playground.

She was fat, like me. I had gained a lot of weight during my trip to this ‘new’ land. The food was great, and the pastries to die for. There was lots of candy in my diet – I was used to doing a lot of work now, hustling to get jobs, anything where I could earn some money. I cut grass. I watched kids. I hauled garbage on a predetermined schedule – and this was back in the old days before plastic bags, and they put everything into paper. Paper could bust out and drop everything on eight sets of stairs; I had learned to be careful.

I thought about it. I thought I knew just about everything there was to know about ‘sex’ – I’d done some reading, too. One of the most valuable books I’d found was in the school library: “Everything A Boy Needs to Know About Sex” – and it pretty much covered it. I read the Girl’s version, too. I wanted to be sure I knew both sides, including their point of view.

Those books were pretty good, too – a lot better than the coach we had, the one who taught sex education in the basement. It looked like the boiler room: dim and dark, stacked with pipes and dark shapes running this way and that, the boys stacked wherever they could fit in the darkness. The coach sat in the middle (it was a poorly lit place, that’s a matter of fact!) and made a few raunchy jokes – just one or two – and set in with a five minute explanation of everything, as if that should cover it. In his mind, anyway. He sort of expected us to know and we did. So for the next thirty minutes or so we sat there – there was a lot of joking, nothing to be done, sat around and then got outta there.

That was the extent of the Army’s ‘to-the-point’ explanation of a sexual education. If you couldn’t get it on the run, you weren’t going to get it anyway else.

So I’m looking this girl in the eye, trying to wrap my head around my feelings – and I don’t have any, not really, not for her. But I’m lonely and bored. Lonely, in a way. I’ve got three months or so left to go (more or less) before we’re shipping Stateside (back home! My other way of life! If anything is left . . . providing dreams don’t come true . . .)

“Okay,” I say, my voice guarded. “I’ll be your boyfriend.”

Because, to put it quite simply, I am not sure. Cultures are always changing – people are in and out of my life like roses, blooming and fading – and I’m not sure how this ‘relationship’ will go. I’ve been bitten and burned by quite a few of them. I’ve lost all of my friends. Either we or they have all moved away . . . But what else are we to do?

Her name is Debbie, by the way (a wonderful coincidence later, you’ll see. Much later, in one of the stories I’m going to be writing.)

She’s a fat girl, just like me.

And lonely, too.

Her friends have all ‘moved’, she’s a short-timer, too. I had just lost my best-ever friend, DB. Later on I learned it was in part due to a betrayal by my father. I was lonely and bored. No one knew me, nor I them, and no one gave a damn. I hung out at the youth center, or in the bunkers, or over at the airport where the spying went on – hanging out, getting into things then getting out again. There was a lot of ‘snooping and pooping’ with the G.I.’s out in the field, plus our ‘games’ and training in the bunkers. There were several beneath the airport, and we became quite big fans of theirs.

Anyway, here’s this girl, asking me out to something . . .

I guess it was more in name than in something else; love (or even ‘like’) that is, if there were remotely any feelings involved. I didn’t love her, not at all – nor, I think, did she, I. I was something for her to hit on and hang onto – something to take up our time.

Having not had much experience with other kids (they kept on moving, shifting around) – she and I became a partners in the ‘permanent’ scene for awhile – going to the Youth Center, touring the woods, until someone gave up or someone had to fly. I think it was her, transferred back to ‘here’ (the good ol’ U.S. of A). A lot of my friendships (and acquaintances – and enemies) came to an end like that: all of a sudden, with the brute force of an Army Officer’s call (or some kind of Orders, anyway).

So we hung out together – bored in school, sitting around, that kind of stuff. There wasn’t a lot of romantic ‘kissing’ going on. There wasn’t any kissing altogether, not for a long time, not until

The Castle.

We went on a trip, one we had to get our parent’s permissions for. It was for a 3 day trip to a castle where we would be staying courtesy of some sort of Christian Fellowship. I didn’t know about the Christian thing until I got there and discovered this was the source (or one of the sources) of all those little religious pamphlets or “cartoons” that I kept discovering. Sometimes one would find one in airports, or in some restroom – they kept a pile of them by some cash registrars sometimes – and always there were ‘funny’ in some horrible tragic kind of way, featuring some goon or loser getting his just dues, maybe sent to Hell (or some other kind of eternal damnation) – then getting Saved (or else going on into Hell anyway). We liked them because they were kinda funny – in a way. Christ was always the Savior. I found them corny – one I remember featured a boy propped against a wall, smoking. I had been smoking for some time . . .

But Debbie and I had been planning this thing for a long time – or it seemed like a long time for kids like us. About three weeks or so I guess . . .

And so it was that her brother (and her BIG brother I’m talking about, mind you!) took it into his head to remind me that we were NOT to “do” anything with his sister (and this is his “little” sister, mind you, so he’s especially protective) – or he’s gonna “whip my ass.”

Fine, I’m thinking, because I’m not planning on “doing” anything or going there (though I probably would, had the opportunity presented itself). I’d already had sex on my mind. I had since I was eight or so.

So we go on this field trip with her.

And it’s a wonderful place, this old castle and all – and we’re given a tour of it, Debbie and I hand in hand, and they assign us segregated sleeping quarters (a long hallway with a bunch of bunks on either side) and/or a “day room” to ‘play’ in.

Now this day room is kinda cool. It’s in the center of a tower, or an old turret, so the room is kind of round and all, and there’s tall windows letting the light in – nice, big windows – and there’s a hidden circular stairway in the middle goes to the top of the castle turret through a square hole with a trapdoor . . . Nobody goes up in that dark old hidey-hole . . .

Except us.

So we do.

Eventually we end up making out – going on top of the turret where she shows me how to ‘do’ things (like rubbing her breasts, which were, I guess, just kinda budding – kinda hard to tell when you’ve got a fat girl there) – and she has me stick my tongue in her mouth, right between her teeth (something that I hadn’t realized, since it wasn’t covered in the book I’d read). So . . . I went along with it . . . but memories of her brother kept popping in my head.

But it was quite beautiful there on the turret in the spring air. And my friend taught me to play cards as well – “War”, it was called, the first card game ever I learned with standard playing cards. I ate my first ‘raw’ egg there – or rather, it was undercooked, or at least by ‘my’ standards (and my momma’s, so therefore I had judged it underdone) – and it was one of the best eggs I ever ate in my life. Boiled, and slightly done, cracked in butter and a whole lot of salt – stir it up . . .


But we spent a lot of time in that turret . . . in the darkness under the trap door, groping, fondling, finding one another, not that a lot went on . . .

and discovering the beautiful countryside from on high, between the stones of the turret,

I found a little peace and beauty, holding hands with a girl who wouldn’t cry when I left her.

The Dick Knot

“It’s a dick knot,” the boy was explaining to me, swinging it in loose circles between his fingers.  Then he threw out a challenge.  “Nobody has been able to untie it.  If you can – ,” his eyes rolled towards the gray fall sky, “you’d be the very first one to do it.”

I examined the thing.  I had come across it while wandering the playground – a small one on a small base we were on.  This was the last base we would be on; after this we would be going back overseas.  Stateside. We were far from being “short” (that is with only a short time to go) but we could sense a change over the far horizon.  Only about a year left to go . . .

I sighed, taking the knot.  It was huge, the size of a soccer ball, tied in a rope which hung from a massive tree on the playground’s edge .  Facing us was a row of identical apartment buildings, each five stories tall, with identical windows, balconies, and curtains.  The upper floors were more desired, but no one wanted the top one.  That was for “transients” – people who were either coming or going – and consisted of a long hallway the two stairwells, with eighteen identical rooms with 18 identically slanted roofs.  They each had dormer windows.  There’d be a room with a stove and a W.C., but there was no way of locking the doors at the end of the hallway.  As a result kids would occasionally run through, playing chase or escaping foes while a family was cooking dinner or going about their business up there.

Around me stood the playground – one slide, two teeter-tooters, and not much else.  There was, however, the eternal jungle-gym which haunted every playground – a huge cube constructed of pipe iron, set into smaller cubes.  The ends were joined with plain crosses and fittings, and if you fell through – woe to the child who did! – you would crash through all that iron, maybe breaking a bone or your head.

There was another playground once, on another base.  The way the military constructed their toys back then – this time one took off a girl’s fingers – almost took her entire hand – chewing it up in the center pivot of a merry-go-’round they had made out of old sheet iron, a post and some fittings.

But this dick knot – I studied the knot, then looked up.  The rope was tied high on a distant branch.  Looking down, I picking at the knot.

I was about twelve and we’d already been “here” (overseas in Cold War Germany) for two years.  I was tired of moving, the constant changing of schools and ‘friends’.  I appreciated this move – we were on an air corps base now, where my dad belonged and worked.  I had just arrived this afternoon, and dark came early in late autumn.  The rope was easily an inch plus some in diameter, stiff and strong.  I fought the tag end, finding where it looped under a tight coil, and began unraveling.  It was harder than it looked.  The kid who had been encouraging me suddenly turned wandered off . . .

I stood toiling.  Below my feet was sand.   I had become used to kids wandering off – disappearing in and out of my life until it was just a blur in my head.  Not knowing, I was depressed.  I felt it, but didn’t know the word for the situation I was in.  After all, life seems ‘normal’ while you’re living it.  It isn’t until you get to the end that people tell you it wasn’t so . . .

We were on the ‘outskirts’ of the main military bases around Hanau, a region in Germany.  Isolated from the other ones by about five miles through ‘Krautland‘.  There was a shuttle bus that ran from one base to another – old civilian Bluebirds converted to military use, and our school buses in the winter.  Now I was five miles from school, and I’d have to get up even earlier to get on, whereas before I’d lived right across from the school on Old Argonner.

I looked around.  There was no one in sight.  I felt lonely, tired, and bored.  It was best to stay out of the apartment while my mom got things settled, and she’d shooed me outside, telling me “go out, explore!”.  I was beginning to make progress . . .

There was no one around me when I had begun, but after awhile a few kids came up.

“What have you done?!” one of them exclaimed, almost in horror, as the last few kinks in the knot fell away.  “You unraveled the dick knot!”  He came up and grabbed the rope from my hand, glancing between it, me and his companions.  He looked frustrated, looking up at the tree.  “Now we can’t swing on it!”

I felt confused.

“What?” I asked.

“Dumbass,” the kid said, thrusting the rope back at me.  The other two kids (there were three of them) glowered at me expressively.  “Tie it back.  TIE IT BACK!”

Somewhat alarmed, I began redoing the knot again while looking him.

“I thought – someone told me – that this knot needed undone – ,” I feebly protested.  It was going to take a little while – the knot had been huge.

“No it didn’t.  It’s for riding this thing.”  And with that he shook the rope, making my task a little bit harder.

After I’d gotten done, then he showed me how – and why it was called a “dick knot”.

“You ride it like this,” he said, grabbing the rope and jumping up, putting the large knot behind his butt.  The rope disappeared between his legs in the front.  Then he bounced against the tree – feet first – told us to stand back, and took off.

Shoving himself hard with his feet, he spun around in circles while going around the tree.  “Thunk!” – his feet came down on the trunk just as the rope got too short to support another go-around.  Then he took off again, only this time in the other direction.  Shooting past his original starting point, the rope coiling around the tree – his spinning on that knot – then his boots came down on the trunk again; the rope was all wound up, ready to go again, and he did.

“The trick is!,” he yelled as he spun around, “to come down with your feet!”  And with that he smacked his shoulder in the tree as he attempted to turn around.  He winced, fell, and stood rubbing his shoulder.  As I watched another kid got on.

“The trick is: who can get the most go-arounds while you’re going around the tree,” he said, pointing at the kid who had replaced him.  “One-two-three-four – ,” the kid smashed, back first, into the tree’s rough bark, and he groaned, falling to the ground.

“Ouch,” he said, standing up and rubbing his back.

I stood and watched for awhile.

Then after awhile, they left.

Then I tried it on my own.

It grew to be one of my most favorite things – spinning and twirling around that trunk.  I’d go for hours and hours.  I got good at it after getting busted up a few times – sometimes good! – and I’d taken my share of scrapes, bumps, and bruises – but I loved it!  The sensation of flying through the air at speed, the world whirling and spinning around you – the perfect (and careful) timing that was required.  I got to where I would win those ‘contests’ – where you had to get off if you messed up on the landing – going around and around until my audience would get tired.  I kept testing my limits – how wide I could take off, how many rolls I could complete before having to come in for a landing – until the other kids learned it was useless in challenging me.  And I’d be far off in my head – thinking about back home, thinking about the woods; the ‘games’ we played ‘playing’ war – our fears and desires and the great unknown, back home, waiting over that far horizon.

Berlin: 1972 – Behind the Red Wall

We weren’t supposed to go to Berlin.  The Army forbade it.  They were afraid due to my dad’s job and security rating the Reds might kidnap us and hold us for “intel” ransom – therefore any trip to, from, or through a Warsaw Pact country was strictly forbidden.  This held true for a lot of dependents, something we were constantly aware of.  After all, the enemy was “right over there” with their forbidden chemical weapons, atomic bombs, and engines of war.  Just as we were.  At least one base I know had atomic warheads – and in my late research I found an entry by a G.I. that confirmed it.  And I’m quite sure those were Pershing missiles I saw cruising through our neighborhoods – packed on the back of some old flatbed semis, and covered with green canvas.

But somehow my dad wrangled it – he was good at getting his way sometimes.  He held a position of mid-level power in the field where he worked, a Chief Warrant Officer – WO3 or 4, I believe.  And he was always doing things – strange things, like taking off for a week or so – or months at a time (after we’d come back to the United States) – and the oddest thing of all was how career-wise he didn’t seem to deserve it – though I suppose he did.  However, he had quite a few bad marks on his record during his first decade or so of beginning his career with the Army, including getting locked up in the psych ward on an isolated island where they kept “people like him” away from the general world.  They were often considered too violent – or messed up – to even associate with the Army.  So they kept him locked up for a year after Korea, plus he had numerous complaints and dings on his record, as well as a reputation for backstabbing and random betray (because he could, he said, explaining why he screwed over my best friend’s dad) . . .

And before I knew it I got the news, and we were on a train bound for West Berlin – “the free country” within an enemy state; an isolated segment of the country, like an infection locked within the enemy’s side – for a tourist trip.

I’ll never forget that ride . . .

The German trains were always on time, clean, and friendly.  The coaches were warm, even while the snow fell outside and our breath fogged the windows.  Sometimes when you’d go to the “W.C.” (the bathroom) when you ‘flushed’ you’d see a trapdoor open up under your turd and it would drop out on the ties flipping by – toilet paper strewn, sometimes, especially near the cities . . .

But the dining cars! – the rich thick coffee, bordering on expresso, souped up on caffeine cut with sugar (and heavy on the creamer, please!) – confined to walking the narrow isles of the train watching the landscape go by – the cold blustery winds on the platforms between trains (when there was not a ‘tube’ joining them) – cheeks red like apples while tears frosted in our eyes . . .

But this trip was a little bit different.  For one thing, we had to have our passports.  For another thing, the soldiers got on.

These were the East German soldiers – grim faced men, all of them frowning, running up and down the corridors with Uzi’s in their hands.  Their uniforms were strange to me . . .

We had come to a stop in the middle of the night.  I, asleep in my bunk, was awaken by some commotion and the lack of movement.   I could hear gruff voices in the corridor beyond the wall, and my mom sat up, looking shaken.

“It’s just the East Germans,” she said, opening the door a crack.  This was when I watched the soldiers running by.  They passed, checking the train (but mostly putting on a show, I was to later learn – to impress the Westerners with how tough they were).  They passed, and we moved on . . .


What can I say?  Kennedy went there – and declared himself a doughnut.  Comes from not knowing the language, I know – but when he said “Ich ist ein Berliner!” he was saying he was a doughnut – since a Berliner was a specific type of cream puffed pastry there – however, the Germans understood what he was trying to say – tthey are very good – and tolerant of our attempts at their language – and they applauded him, if not for nothing else than the fact he was trying . . .

We saw the Berlin Wall, Check Point Charlie, and the museum that was there.  There was an old car with more bullet holes than Swiss cheese, and lot of stories about people who had come over, through, or under the wall – and even more poignantly, those who didn’t make it.

I saw that wall – high, hugging a neighborhood in the distance – blank windows, all bricked up, the dragon’s teeth in the ‘no-man’s land’, curling barbed wire . . . knew there were sensors (and mines, it was rumored); there were the East German sentries staring (hard again, as usual) back at us – the curious milling civilian crowd, for the East German wall and Checkpoint Charlie were tourist checkpoints as well – places to go if you were going to see Berlin – and we did.

After that – indeed, during that trip a feeling of sympathy began growing in my heart towards these people, the East Germans across the wall.  You could see – practically smell! – how gray and hard, how restricted, regulated it was.  There were very few people, if any, that I could see.  The buildings were all either brown or grey.  There was none of the color and glamor of West Berlin.  Just what seemed a dismal dull and somewhat lifeless city ‘over there’ that the people who lived there were desperate to be rid of.  But there was nothing they could do – they were powerless – and so was I.  And so I read their stories – wished them luck, wistfully wished that I could help them . . .

and we left East Germany behind.

Big Red

Big Red

It stood before me in the dank basement storeroom, its chromed edges glittering in bare bulb’s dim yellow light.  It was huge – an American Schwinn bicycle – fire engine red with a thick padded seat.  I stared at it, my heart pounding with excitement.  To me, a twelve year old boy trapped on an Army base in Germany, it represented freedom.

It was Christmas and my first bike – ever.  We’d had a bike before in the old neighborhood, but it was my brother’s more than mine.  It had been cobbled together from parts of old bikes us kids had found.  We were the only kids in the neighborhood without a bike and it had taken a long time to gather the required parts.  It had been my brother’s pride for awhile until a year or two later when I learned to ride the thing.  I still have a scar from trying once when I had decided to try to ride it before I knew how.

But this one was MINE!  All mine.  I stood, admiring the thing.

I looked the bike over.  It was larger and heavier framed than the German bikes I was used to seeing.  Its frame spoke of American strength and steel, and its handlebars were curved boldly back – unlike the many of the German bikes which had just straight bars, and ended in thick black grips, ones that would have saved me once upon a time.

It was equipped like all German bikes – a reflector, rear light, head light, generator, and bell.  It was required by law.   It also had a basket, which, while not required, was handy since bikes were more or less the universal method of transportation – both on base and off base, by Germans, boys, and grownups alike.

Everyone used a bike or had one.  I already had been here a year.  Unlike my brother I was dependent upon the Army shuttle buses – converted Bluebirds painted green – to get around.  It seemed we were always on the little satellite bases surround some main base where you would find the commissary, PX and public goods.  We lived for a while on Old Argonner, then after a few months moved to “New Argonner”, which was virtually identical to the old except it had the school there – before moving to Fleigerhorst, which was some distance away.   I’d had to walk home from time to time) from the school, doing the forbidden hitchhiking thing only once – a good five miles.  This was while we were in the Hanau area.

I looked at the bike.  I pushed it a bit.  There was no way I could get this big thing up the stairs were my parents were.  We had received our swords upstairs on the third floor – me a big old broad sword made in Toledo, Spain – famous for its steel – and my brother a  rapier with a cupped hand guard – which I learned to my dismay was much faster and easier to lunge with.  I still have those swords – the broad sword, its guards broken; the rapier with huge creases in its black hand bell.  Both the blades are heavily nicked, but the ends are still sharp enough to run you through.   Then my parents had sent me down to the basement to our storage room – always empty – with the vague excuse about getting some boxes.

Unable to get the bike out and being a little kid – and a little boy – I did what came most naturally.

I took the bike apart.

I took it down to the last bearing and wheel.  Then I put it back together, lubing the parts and studying how it worked.  A few round bearings were all that were left over.  While a bit stiffer in the pedals, it still rode proud and tall among the lithe German bikes.  Its padded seat was comfortable compared to some of the lean machines I had seen – not racing bikes, mind you, just ‘normal’ bikes the Germans used.  And boy, did the Germans ever use them!

That’s one of the things I loved over there: the transportation system was built with bicycles in mind.  There were racks and lanes, paths made for them.  Everyone respected them, and everyone rode them, from the big old fat German ladies (some who would look ridiculously funny, their buns hanging down along the sides, dwarfing the bicycle under them) – to the boys who would come rocketing by.  Everyone was polite.  You were expected to obey the rules of the road, and ring the bell (a thumb operated affair) whenever you came up behind someone to give them warning.  At dusk you’d throw the little lever on the generator, engaging its rough splined wheel against the tire’s sidewall so the light would come on.  The faster you went, the brighter the light would shine – slow down, and it would dim.  Stop and it would die entirely.

And then five or six months later someone stole Big Red, as I had taken to calling the thing.

It happened at a German pool we used to go to near a lake where the tanks would swim (and we would skate on thin ice some of the time).   I know we were still living on Old Argonner (this was before I moved – again) because the pool and lake were near there.  As soon as the weather permitted – usually June – the Germans would open the swimming poo.  It cost fifty phennings to get in – you parked your bike in the long racks, locked it up, paid your dues, went through the turnstile and went in.

When I came out one day – it was still early in the season – my bike was gone.  I circled the racks several times, but there was no denying the sheered cable on the ground.  I was dismayed, mad somewhat, and I glumly walked home, wondering how I would explain to my parents.  You took care of your stuff or it was gone.  I had taken care of my bike – and yet it was gone.  I knew I wouldn’t be getting another one; not from them.  But while I was walking – it was a long walk ‘home’ – I made up my mind.  I would get another one.  Somehow, some way.

I didn’t get into trouble – my parents were stern – but to them (and us, now) it was fairly apparent that some German had been envious of Big Red – so unlike the German machines, it screamed “American!” whenever one looked at it.  It stood above the other bikes – quite literally! – and since I took such good care of it, it had been practically new.

We moved.  I worked hard.  It took a lot of saving at twenty-cents a job, but I finally was able to afford a used one – eighteen dollars from some G.I. rotating home.  It was a German brand.  It rode easily but had the straight bar handles I didn’t like, and was worn out.  Even the paint was worn – a sheer gray.  But the wear made it pedal easily and it coasted well.  The bearings where all but rattling in its hubs, and the steering was a tad loose – something I fixed with my previous experience from disassembling Big Red the first time.  It was all I could afford between my allowance and the work I did.  It takes a long time to save when you work for low wages (or none),  plus I had my own expenses: snacks from the roach coach, models from the PX – tanks and planes – and the Testor’s paint, glue, and brushes needed to assemble them.  And sometimes I had to take German buses – because I’d lost my bike!  It took months, weeks to find – but when I finally got it – I breathed a sigh of freedom.  With my bike I could truly wander and roam, get into things.  I could join my ‘friends’ (casual classroom or playground acquaintances, changing like the wind) – on long rides through the woods, or along German roads.  It was so ratty nobody wanted it – and once again, I owned the poorest bike in the neighborhood.  Not that it bothered me any.  I was just glad to have a bike to ride.

There’s a lesson in that, I suppose – one that I learned early on.  Something about being content with what you’ve got – it’s working – and not needing the latest nor flashiest thing.  About being happy with what you’ve got in live . . . and not wanting much more than you need to survive.

It can make you happy some of the time.

I know I was – despite my crappy bike and all.  Happy some of the time.

The Germans

The Germans

The first word I learned during my visit to Germany (1969-73) was “Entschuldigung”, or “Excuse me”. In a way it symbolized how I felt being among our German ‘hosts’. An intrusion, a bother; a useless gnat fluttering across their vision, whispering in their ears. The next words I learned were the ones of politeness, like “Bitte” (please) and “Dankeshern” (You’re welcome). After that the ones for ‘bathroom’ (which was more difficult; “W.C.” was the common term). I learned these were the first things one should learn when arriving in a foreign culture – the words for politenesses and requests for basic necessities required for human life.

I learned those basics and learn them quickly enough though not well. At first I was intimidated by the Germans with their gruff grunts and growling language that seemed full of hard S’s, R’s, K’s and G’s. The men seemed big and burly in their overcoats and most wore hats. The women seemed large to my ten year old eyes. The Germans kept their distance and we kept ours – for the most part. There was always some interaction – you had to. Unless you stayed on base all the time (and some Americans did, being afraid or uncomfortable around their German hosts.) And over time I found the Germans were generally friendly, helpful, and kind, albeit in a brusque kind of way, especially the older men, and they were polite, fastidious, clean and orderly – a meticulous brand of people who functioned like social robots, with a little bit of individuality hanging like fringe from the edges of a well sewn hem.

They were a strict people – not so much with us, the Americans. We were forgiven our sins since it was well known us Americans were like dumb children – but not so much with and amongst themselves. They held themselves and other Germans to a high standard of social behavior, especially the pubic ones. Everyone obeyed the rules, kept things smart and orderly, and walked fast! I learned to walk much faster than the average American. You had to do it – or get run over from behind!

Once on a business trip in the late eighties I was in a mall where I saw two teenagers horsing around rambunctiously when a little old man and woman came up to them, hunched over and frowning, and said a few hard things. The teenagers, two boys, just laughed and kept on. In a flash the woman whipped out her umbrella and began beating them right there! The two hoods scampered, stuck between the couple and a wall as the blows rained down around their head and shoulders. They did the avoidance dance, not fighting, while the old man shook his finger in time to their steps. After a moment the woman stopped and looked at them sternly while the man scolded them. They left much subdued, heads down meekly, as if recounting their sins with every step . . .

Sometimes I think it would be good if we here in America did that kind of thing for pubic good – for when their parent’s won’t teach kids proper behavior, then society should. And much better an umbrella thumping in some mall than ten years in jail – especially a German one. (I’ve heard their strict, but not bad – if you don’t mind having your civil rights violated on a daily basis if not more.)

The Germans seem to have a holiday for everything – still do, last I heard. In part this is because of their history. Compared to America, it is very long, well documented (unlike our Native Americans, who didn’t write), and complex. Each village and hamlet might have a festival based upon their traditions, and then there were the greater ones: the region and the country, and the traditional Christian ones – Christmas and Easter, especially. In one place I stayed at in 1978 they had an Asparagus Festival – and it was really fun. And like all festivals, it had a beer hall (a tent, actually) with a German oomp-pah band! It ran for a week – and I had great fun. An interesting time, to say the least (though the value of the dollar had gone down).

Their children attended school five and one half days a week, earning us American kid’s respect. Us Army kids had very little do do with the German kids, anyway. They were outside the fence – in “Krautland”, so to speak, and not on ‘American’ territory (thought the military was leasing the land). The ‘feeling’ of avoidance I think was strong on both sides. We” were the invaders; we had invaded their – the land of their parents, aunts and uncles, and rare was the German family who hadn’t lost some relatives, suffered some privations during the war. Not that I ever heard them griping. We would see the German kids from afar, even when standing right next to them. Only on the parks and their play grounds did I see them playing gleefully with their parents watching on, or walking dourly, soul-faced and somber, hands tucked behind them as they followed their parents obediently through stores and streets. Not like over here with kids running helter-skelter hither and skither here and there, yelling and wild armed waving. No, the Germans were quite a different breed.

They kept their towns orderly, their trains orderly, their buses on time, and everything well kept. Each Saturday morning like clockwork the ladies would appear – going into the cobblestone streets in front of their houses and sweeping everything – including the sidewalk. By each person taking care of their own section of land, the entire countryside was kept up – as clean as a garden it seemed. Even walking through the woods was an experience in ‘orderly’ to the point of strange. Odd stacks of wood would appear in the middle of nowhere where the citizens, going through the woods, would ‘clean them up’ by removing all the old deadwood and stacking some. Their woods were like parks there.

The Germans themselves – well, the colors were fascinating to me because it seemed everything was done in these bright primary colors – the crockery, the appliances, the toys. Tomato red, canary yellow, and sky blue. Even some of the cars seemed cartoon-like with their funny lines and bright colors. But they were fast and the Germans were good at driving them, though you would see the occasional fatal pileup or plunge in the mountains where they’d get to driving too fast for some turn. The streets in the towns – too narrow for one car, much less two – were often marked for going both ways. My dad would struggle to make a turn that only a chariot could have made; sometimes I could swear a car drove up on the side of a building to get around!

And those buildings: huge timbered frames, some overhanging the streets until the streets were practically enclosed; the strong smell of old wood and masonry, with just a touch of pine; those Alpine villages with their graceful filigrees and gold domed churches – we were constantly going places whenever we could, and I, when I owned a bike, would often go out on my own, making for the nearest bus station or train station and going “to town”, meaning the local German neighborhood or village we were in or near.

I remember one store: the Haushoff (meaning “head house”, literally translated) which was a towering department store. In it were the most amazing (to me, anyway) appliances, tiny things – washers and dryers and miniature ovens – and all the items were bright and shiny and painted in those primary colors. How many times have I wished and wondered why the American appliance market doesn’t offer more of these things – a two pants load and two shirt load washer, with a dryer to boot, that plugs up to your faucet and doesn’t take half a room. Efficient machines.

At the time I was there – “this time”, from the ages of about 11 to 13-1/2, the mark was worth a quarter, and bought a quarter’s worth of ‘stuff’. It seemed fair. Later on when I went over there to work with an engineering company for awhile (interfacing PAFACS CAD with AutoCAD ‘style’, including doing some pressure work on a special electrical vessel to be made) – the mark would buy you about ten cents worth of crap. The changes in attitude were there, too: the Americans, made poor by the devaluation of the dollar, were something to be pitied and charitied, not honored as heroes anymore. “We” had become a ‘burden’ on them; our welcome had worn out.

Yes, Germany has much changed over the years, but some things, I am sure, remain the same . . .

The Beirhall festivals being one. Beer was the most popular beverage (the water being considered untrustworthy to drink) – and is considered a ‘food’. They serve it for lunch, though nobody gets drunk. They save those occasions for their nights and their festivals. And boy! – what traditions they have!

The burning of the Heidelberg Castle was one I’ll never forget; nor a voyage down the Rhine. The endless castles and their ruins and secrets to hide. The graveyards so ancient their stones were black and ruined; the endless visages of statues with their blank eyes; cherubs and virgins carved there – frozen in time, their love never to be consummated, though their stone hearts were hard.

I remember another thing that will always stick with me, and that’s how Americans were (and still are!) prudes. The naked statues of children; the Madonna, nude – those the Americans would gasp, clutch their mouths, titter about . . . while the Germans just walked by, staring at them. I remember the bathrooms – just a wall in a park, set at an off angle to the path, where men could go to relieve themselves. Once I saw a fat German woman hike up her dress in front of me and take a squat to pee right there on the sidewalk. Stuck behind her we could do nothing but pause and wait, and then without a word she stood and walked on. Everyone ignored her, as did we – most studiously ignoring her and wondering at this kind of behavior which opened our eyes to things – and ways to behave in this country, though we didn’t go around peeing on the street. Even that was somewhat frowned upon. I gather that this was some country woman who had been suddenly overcome by the need to go. In which case in this land it was acceptable to do that. Apparently.

There were a lot of things to see and do, but the Germans – they were good. Just strange to my twelve year old eyes at the time. As I learned it all seemed normal, until I was being accepted by them – which is good.

But we always stood out – Americans always did. And it seemed no matter where we went – we did not ‘belong’ there. We were there for a reason, and that reason was leaving . . . all the time.

And so it went on . . .

Oh Say Can You See

Oh Say Can You See

I suppose most people find out they need glasses when they go to the eye doctor, but as an overseas Army brat, I didn’t see the doctors a whole lot.   The military medical establishment is set up to treat soldiers.  Dependents come second.  As a result, we didn’t go to the dentist or optometrist on a regular basis – only when and if needed.

Senses are funny things. There is no way to know for sure that you see things the same as I do – that what you call “red” is “red” to me. As a color-blind (or red cone weak) person, I’ve had a lot of reason to think about things like that – the differences in how we each perceive the world around us. For instance, what you “see” as blue I may “see” as yellow – but we’ve both learned to label that particular part of the visual spectrum “green”. I know it’s a hard thing for some folks to wrap their heads around – but after learning that certain colors are “brown” – though I may see them as green (part of that colorblind thing) – I’ve come to hold most people’s perceptions as somewhat suspect. And I suspect that how we see things differs to some degree for each of us.

Which brings me to my point. Vision is perhaps the trickiest sense of all – in part, perhaps, because we rely so heavily on it. We often assume that everyone sees things the way we see them (and not just physically, but metaphorically as well). But I was to get my first taste of just how untrue this was when I was eleven.

My dad had always wore glasses, and sometimes my mom wore them, too. As a kid I found glasses desirable – an adult apparatus, much like cigarettes, coffee, and beer. So, as a kid, I found myself wishing I had glasses, thinking they would make me that much more ‘grown up’ looking. Never mind that other kids wore glasses and it didn’t change my perception of them – I figured that having glasses of my own would “mature” me in some way. How little I knew!

I was sitting in the bedroom of our military apartment getting ready for school – the bedroom I shared with my brother – when I noticed I couldn’t read the words on a card taped on the opposite wall. A thought started tickling the back of my mind, and I asked my brother to read the card.

“Happy Birthday,” he said. I looked at the words. They were a fuzzy blob. I glanced towards the kitchen where my mom was getting our lunches ready.

“Mom!” I yelled out, already knowing what the problem was. “I think I need glasses!”

She stopped what she was doing, came in, and with a puzzled look asked why. I pointed to the card.

“He can read it,” I said, pointing at my brother. “But I can’t.”

She quickly had me look at a few other things in the room, asking me to identify them. Some I could, some I couldn’t. She frowned. I was happy. I was about to get my wish!. (Silly child!) Little did I know what my wish entailed, not truly.

A few weeks later I was tested, and it was determined that yes, I needed corrective lenses. I could have told them that. They said if I wore them consistently, perhaps in a few years I wouldn’t need glasses anymore. I was thrilled with the prospect of wearing some. But the Army wouldn’t provide glasses. That was up to my mom, so we ended up going to a German optometrist and getting my prescription filled.

I’ll never forget getting that day.

It was winter, damp and snowy outside, and the inside of the small shop was warm and humid. It felt good after walking the cobblestone streets outside where the wind blew drifting snow down the narrow roads (more like alleys). Tackling the language barrier, the optometrist and my parents fitted me with a nice pair of brown turtle shell brown glasses with lightweight plastic lenses. After checking the fit over and over, they had me get up.

I felt like I was walking on eggshells as I walked across the carpet towards the door. The world suddenly looked much different – stranger, smaller, and sharper than before. Apparently I had needed glasses for some time, and I felt dizzy as we approached the door. I was happy as a clam, proud of myself (like the little fool I was). I had finally got what I wanted after so many years.

It wasn’t until we stepped outside that I began to realize what a horrible thing this could be.

Those warm plastic lenses, hitting that cold clammy air, immediately fogged over. I couldn’t see a thing. Complaining, I turned to my mom.

“You’d better get used to it,” she warned, taking them off and showing me how to wipe them. Then she warned me in that sharp voice how to take care of them. Turns out plastic scratches quite easily. “And you’d better take care of them. You’re gonna need them for a few years.”

What a lie. I ended up ‘needing’ them for another fifteen years, up until I got “The Gift of a Lifetime”. And I hated wearing glasses. When you work sweat falls on them; in the rain everything turns to a blur. They needed constant cleaning and wiping, and if you weren’t careful, they’d get so scratched up that eventually they’d need replaced. There were a few times when they saved my eyes – keeping foreign objects away, absorbing liquids and blows – but for the most part they were just a huge pain in the ass. And now I’m needing them again – mostly for reading, though I can tell bifocals aren’t far off.

Just goes to show: be careful what you wish for. You might just get it.

There’s blessings in curses, and curses in blessings, too.
And you don’t always need glasses to find how they apply to you.

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.

The Canteen: Part Two

It was a chilly early afternoon. Gray clouds scudded across a slate plated sky, broken by occasional shafts of sunlight marching across the verdant green land like golden lances. The tree shuddered and moaned under the wind’s brace, shaking its branches against winter’s advancing chill. Leaves shook with a delicate rustle, some tearing awayto go dancing down the hill and disappearing into the farmer’s field like mice among the grain.

My buddies and I sat on the grass covered bunker, a left over from World War Two. It was outside the fence in the ‘forbidden zone’ – Krautland – and we had gotten there through a hole in the fence. It seemed no matter where we went we could find an escape route – a hole in the fence, a poorly guarded outpost – sneaking out and sneaking in again. You weren’t allowed to do that. It was strictly against regulations. You were required to leave by the main gate if you meant to go, presenting your ID upon re-entering the base to the always present MP-cum-sentry there. Going through the fence was strictly forbidden and it was farmland there – farmland followed by stretches of woods where the tanks and we ‘played’.

We’d go there when we’d get bored, looking for something to do. It wasn’t that weren’t other distractions on the military bases, though we did a lot of things which were illegal, such as sabotaging an airfield’s radar installation, or stealing supplies from the supply depots – and the ammunition no less! – being another. Oft times we would go ‘play’ with the G.I.’s who were on maneuvers, lying and deceiving to our own parents about where we had been, and lying to the G.I.s commanders as well. It all depended upon whose side we were on at the time.

And of course there was the PX, theater, and snack bar – and if you were really lucky, a bowling alley or a pool. Most of the bases didn’t have the latter. That was about it. No TV or radio, no phones to use and play on, no internet, no . . . nothing. Us kids road shuttle buses like flies following a garbage truck. They were long green ones, driven by a German driver, with the classic folding doors and hard seats – Old Bluebirds painted green and recommissioned for the military’s uses. They also were our school buses when the time came, though you had to be on your toes to catch one. The Germans ran their schedules like everything – strictly on time, though God bless them, they would wait for you if they thought you were in trouble or something – on the military bases only.

But us kids were bored. We’d seen it all. We’d scouted the hangers, hung around in the snack bar, played the pinball machines – a costly expense for me. I was always hunting for one that was broken, whether by dropping my quarters back into the return slot like a loose drunk’s grip (while award a credit for our effort) or like a benevolent god, granting us kids our wish for endless credits in return for us sharing the thing and keeping quiet so the snack bar operators wouldn’t catch onto the free games. Once we kept a machine going for almost a week – gathering around it and shielding prying eyes from our gain.

This time we were on a mission, albeit one of our own making. We weren’t hanging out simply because we were bored. I had my purchase from the German canteen; another had the necessary items. We all hoisted ourselves into the tree that stood on the shoulders of the bunker, climbing its branches. We had already checked the single squared opening we’d found in the bunker – near the top, with a square runged ladder leading down. We’d gone inside a few times, but it just stunk of piss, like old beer, and there was always a thin film of water from one to a few inches deep at the bottom. A few G.I.’s had come out one time – we had hidden from them in the tree, not even knowing we were hiding – and then they had engaged in gay sex right there before us, in the weeds below the sharp rise of the bunker. It had grown funnier and funnier until we all started laughing like a bunch of crows – and then screaming “Book! Book!” we’d taken off running for our hole in the gate. The G.I.’s, all tangled in their embraces and the bedsheet they had brung had found themselves tripped up by their nakedness and the sheet they had wrapped themselves in. I was laughing so hard I was barely able to make it – ducking low as I slid like a baseball runner under that scornful lip of the bent chain link curling in the ditch near the bottom – scuffing up the dust as I went ‘in’, back on the base safe and sound, still grinning and looking at my friends . . .

We often came there where when we were bored. It was always quiet and peaceful once we’d get settle down. A Jagermiester’s hut stood out in the field – across the grain you could see fences of wooded land marching down across the horizon. It often brought me a smile, being in those woods . . . away from everyone and the base we were on.

I drew out the package I had purchased the night before and tore the top open. There were the German cigarettes I had bought and I hadn’t been picky about the brand. They were rough and unfiltered. I wouldn’t have known what brand to get anyway since I hadn’t smoked. My father owned a pipe – several well aged Meerschaums as well, but he had given up smoking some time ago. How I loved the aroma of a good pipe tobacco! How my mom hated those things – including the cigarettes I held in my hand. She hated a lot of things with a passion, insanely so some times. Including us because she hated men – hating them secretly and then vomiting out all her own fears and hatreds on us, her own children. There was a lot to be said about that woman, some of them good. But most of them are not.

This was a first for a lot of us, smoking. There were six of us in all that morning or afternoon. With the cloud cover it was hard to judge the time sometimes, but watches were rare. I had a Timex strapped to my arm; some of the other kids owned one as well – small white faces with thin black straps, each one a windup. They were for telling us what time to be home. Others relied on Taps sad siren’s song which would sound promptly at five o’clock pm to announce when it was time to be going. It was like a command from God himself, only more reliable and much more punctual.

One of the boys in our group said he had tried smoking before, sneaking some from his father. Another one chirped that they made you ‘high’, but nobody was quite sure what that meant. After all, what is ‘high’ when you are a kid and only twelve years old? You don’t associate it with some drinking that you did; that was “getting drunk” in our minds. And nobody talked about what others were doing, not much. Sometimes there were traitors in our groups, though usually we were best of friends. You never knew when a knife might fall – the knife of Army separation, or from a small group of friends, or from the disappearance of one individual by himself. Sometimes it would be the fathers who were in conflict – and then everyone would suffer. Sometimes the whole base would feel the wrath of a particularly mad and powerful C.O’s anger. Sometimes we were punished as a group; sometimes all alone. Sometimes it hurt, sometimes it didn’t; but as time went by I just quit feeling this ‘thing’: this sense of loss and separation. By withdrawing into myself I could feel myself ‘keeping myself whole’ in some way as I tried not to fracture into more pain I could bury, more parts than I was capable of keeping going at the same time.

“Here’s the matches,” said one of my friends, dragging one of those paperbacks from the PX, it’s logo small and round. It was a plain white rectangle, stamped with “PX” in black letters in something round. They burned, though, and that was the thing.

Passing the cigarettes out, I took one in my hand and put the pack back in my pocket, carefully balancing. I was sitting on a limb; we all were. Eventually I would learn to stretch out on them and take a nap – high up in the sky, unbeknownst to anyone below – sleeping and catching some breeze, one leg propped against a branch or in a vee, or if the branch was wide enough, cupping it between my shoulders and down the length of my body and letting my legs hang down.

I looked at the cigarette. It was small and round, its ends firmly packed. I was nervous. I had been warned again and again about this thing. How they were not good for you, how they could give you certain types of cancers and things. How your lungs would turn black and fall out in a violent fit of coughing (my mom’s threats on the stuff, including how she would cut our throats if she ever caught us smoking – and she had a good nose on her, that woman! She could smell a package of cigarettes a few yards away, hidden in the back of a drawer under some laundry. I should know as she caught me a few years later when I had the habit going, along with the habit of trotting up to the store where they sold those kinds of things in a machine. Marlboro became my favorite brand and you could get them for fifty to seventy-five cents, though they later went on up to a dollar, which nearly broke me of those things – and my paycheck.

They sold them in a machine over here, too, in Germany, and it had been by the machine the lady in the canteen had been guarding. It wasn’t uncommon for some Army brat to come in, and try to use the machine. But most of them had been caught and then marched away, maybe never to be seen again. You never knew. It depends on what other infractions they had been caught doing, what they were admitting, their own father’s career track and history – their future, everything, was up to second guessing. You never knew about Army command. Sometimes there were politics, deep and personal. Sometimes it just went by the book and regulation. Sometimes it depended on how much trouble the kid had got in – who had seen him do what to who’s or what things. It always depended upon your powers of observation, making sure no one was ever around. Sometimes your entire life was hinged on a word, a look; accurately guessing what others were thinking or which way they would look. We were sneaky as all get-out. You had to be.

For the most part, Americans being Americans, we were American kids. But then there were those special things, those things that set us apart from the groups of school children we were in and with. There were smaller groups among them, of course – there always are: loose groups of losers and friends, the popular ‘cliques’, the jocks and the ‘guys’. But even those were constantly changing, being revised as families shipped off overseas, or to or from somewhere. Our circle of friends was constantly rotating, the faces never remained the same. A few did. A few stick out in my mind with a burning intensity, some of them quite sad, but a lot of them are a blur. And so was this circle – all but one. He was my friend – my best one – and yet he was missing from that thing; this ‘group’ of rougher kids – and more daring kids. Of course his father mistreated him as well; expecting perfection and beating him when he was stoned drunk – sometimes beating him badly and violently in my mind. But not being there for this was good for him, for he went on, much later in his ‘career’, to become a fighter pilot of some kind. An expert in his field no doubt – he had a sharp mind, where mine was muddy as hell sometimes, even back when I was a kid.

“Here, I’ll take one,” I said as the kid, opening the pack of matches, struck one. He applied it to the cigarette he held posed between his lips. Drawing a deep breath he choked on the thing, nearly falling from the tree while simultaneously holding the pack of matches out to me.

“No! I’ll show you how to do it,” said the other kid, the one who had first spoken up about smoking to begin with. He was the one who had stolen some from his father; him and his friends had set me up on the dare; I had been the one to plan a night advance (when the canteen would presumably be at its emptiest, which it was not – it was in full gear when I came in!). He took the still smoking cigarette from his friend, and drawing on it a few times, got the coal red hot and glowing. Putting an unlit cigarette in his mouth, he touched it to the coal and lit up off of it. He handed the burning cigarette to a friend, then lit up another one. Taking mine from me, he lit that one up as well disappointing me – I had wanted to imitate what he was doing; he was saving matches, even I could see that.

As we all sat around – discussing smoking and how it should be done – I found myself growing dizzier and dizzier on the branch I was sitting on. My friends also complained about some vertigo.

“Maybe we should get down,” I said, wisely advising them in my best way. I didn’t want anyone falling and getting hurt out here. That would be sure to bring disaster down on our heads – beyond the fence, the fence would be mended, and we would all get our asses chewed for sure, beaten in some cases beyond a doubt. Mine was one of them for which I feared.

We all clambered down, still discussing this thing – whether to inhale them, or simply puff them away in spurts of smoke. At first we were just puffing on them, but as we grew stronger in our desire to try this thing – getting higher and higher all the time, we began inhaling on them, at first choking until we grew our brown wings and started getting the knack for holding them down. Then we smoked another – and by that time some of the boys were complaining about feeling like vomiting – and we headed towards the fence.

After that I never did give up smoking – at first sneaking a pack a week, sometimes getting them at the PX, but always with my own money. I usually stored them outdoors in some location – down in the community basement room system of supplies and locked doors, and maybe an old machine ‘laundromat’ of some kind – usually consisting of some old worn out machines scattered across a concrete floor in a cold damp room covered with slime from inadequate ventilation, and drain hoses snaking across the floor.

Later on I would go onto being a much more prodigious smoker, though I traded brands from time to time. For instance, I would smoke “Mores” later on during my high school days because cigarettes had gotten so much more expensive (I think they were about a dollar and a half by that time) – and I was always paying for them myself – working for my money and then some. I had an old bike for transportation – I got my first one when I was twelve (and often envy you ‘American kids’ who seem to get one every year or so, though I was an American child). We were just that poor sometimes. I only had three bikes as a ‘child’ – and I bought two of them with my own funds. I had to. My parents weren’t going to get them for me – and they said I would value them more if I worked for them, which I did.

I worked for everything in my life. Hard times – they do that to you. Instill in you a work ethic for life. And a good one, too, given my military background and training, though I don’t use it anymore, having become disabled due to my long stint in the Corps.

And smoking? I wish I had given it up; hadn’t even started back then. I’m still not quite up to a pack a day, though there have been times I exceeded that. I’ve been known to quit – two times. And then I gave up on the thing.

I shouldn’t have. I’ve got enough Nicorette – I worked for the company that makes them; hell, I even helped design the Commit factory – but oh well. We smokers would take breaks outside of that thing, that long tall brick building – smoking and discussing our commitment to this thing – both the building and the habit we would be breaking. Though none of us did it – not a single one.

They ended up hiring smokers for that thing (as much as possible, anyway) just in case someone got addicted to nicotine – which by the way, is an extremely poisonous drug to the system. It’s the plants way of keeping insects off of it. Think of it as a chemical insecticide – that’s what you all are smoking, and so am I. A chemical insecticide produced naturally by some plant, as is THC, by the way. Turns out bugs don’t like getting high any more than teetotalers do, especially when it comes at the risk of taking one’s own life. Which nicotine will do, especially when combined with the hundreds of other chemicals a cigarette is ‘providing’.

So . . . I urge you all NOT to take up smoking if you haven’t; and to give it up if you do (you will live a healthier and longer lifestyle), you will be happier, have more energy (due to lowered CO2 levels if nothing else); take more walks, have fresher breath, no more burn holes in clothes, no more stinking around the house . . .

While I go on smoking my own damn cigarette.

And think about giving up the habit, too.

(I am almost 53 years of age right now. I have been smoking continuously for at least forty of them. It’s really about time I did something for myself, if it isn’t too late by now. But even then I’m going to give up smoking sometime . . .

might be when I’m dying from ’em but I’m gonna have to put ’em up one day, maybe in my grave.

Speaking of which I left my lifelong friend and a guy who could’ve been my grandpa with five cigars – and a lighter – in his front pocket when he got buried.

One of the Boatman, one his well being, one for the Christ he believed in, and one for God the Being.

And one left over for me, when I come up there.

The End.