Tag Archive: travel


Homecoming


Home.  “Home is where the heart is,” they say.

But what if you have no heart? What if it’s dead and buried?

Ripped

“Home is where you are at; wherever you stand.”

That’s I learned moving around so much.  Home is where you hang your hat – whether it be a tent, a house, apartment, or truck.  ‘Home’ is where your stuff is.

Home.

It was early winter, 1973.  We’d finally arrived.  ‘Home’.  Back in the Good Ol’ U.S. of A.  Coming down the gangway stair from the jet to terra firma, solid ground, and not the four thousand miles of ocean we’d just covered . . .

As per custom and sworn duty, I got on my knees and kissed the dirty white tarmac, then looked up, wiping sand from my lips and spitting grit out.  My mom and dad scolded me for doing that as they attempted to herd us toward Customs in a low white hanger.  There wasn’t much – just long white stretches of concrete lined by pine forest, burned jet fuel’s acrid stench wrinkling your nostrils; the shrill scream then thunder of the distant jets laboring airborne, burning off precious gallons of fuel in dark swirls and leaving acrid  haze behind them . . .

My brother and I struggled across the open tarmac towards the building with our carry-on bags, our parents in embracing us like brackets.  I was 13; we’d just arrived from Germany, and the future was a big blank – just like the blank white wall in front me with the man-door.  The straggling line weaved towards it,  passengers in bunches and gathers, separated by social graces and grim tired faces – making a rather unsteady beeline for . . .

CUSTOMS” it said in plain black block letters over the door in English on a white sign.  Like everything military in which I’d spent the last three years of my life . . .

Customs.

Customs were about to change, that was for sure.  My whole world was about to get different. And I knew it.

I had been briefed going in.  We weren’t going to be living in our own house anymore.  That had been sold. Rather, we were going to be living in our next door neighbor’s house – now a rental, and the one . . .

the one . . .

even then my mind had stumbled.  Those last days were a daze in the ‘hood – Mister W gone: dead. Sarge, his trusty sidekick and companion: gone, dead as well.  My entire family, life, and childhood had been upset in a rapid series of transitions.  Things that had gone wrong.  It has been like shock therapy to my mind.  Then the move . . . nearly four years gone . . .

The Hood.

Our car was waiting for us. A family friend – the people who lived across the street from us – had gone to pick it up from Customs.  She squealed her delight and gave me a good hug, Southern style.  She had always been like a second or third ‘mom’, only much more loving and kinder than my own – and also a lot more sympathetic.  Towards everything.

Then:  The Drive . . .

The change in scenery: we had been in winter, here it was like fall. The Southern pines were green and tall, the grass visible, though splotched brown.

Where was the snow?

I was calm, but also upset.  I had had this Dream . . .

The Hood.

The miles rolled under the tires like a tolling bell.  Not many, for the airport off Tobacco Road, not far from our former home.  The sand hills rolled by, decorated in scrub and barrens.  I saw the run down clapboard houses with shingle and metal roofs, a hunkering trailer park, roads lined with trash and weeds . . .

Not at all like the Germany where I’d been twenty-four hours before.

The Hood – the neighborhood I associate with my childhood (between 5 and 10). When I left, it was a single dirt road lined with a few tract houses sheathed in clapboard or siding, or, as with our former house, redwood. Only one had brick, and it was the envy the neighborhood. It was across from ours and belonged to the family which had befriended ours so many years ago.

As we made the turn, our family friend still chatting about the changes ahead, I tried to access what I knew.

Most of my friends (or former friends, anyway) were gone. The army family up the road – friends I had known for years – had followed us overseas, coming to visit us while on duty. They were still gone, would be for another two years. They were the “other Army family” in the ‘hood. The rest were civilian, having lived civilian lives, and would continue to live them for as long as they lived. Others were gone, teens grown up, moved out . . . scattered to the winds.

My best “childhood friend” was gone – they’d moved soon after we’d left.  Their father was dead and I’d heard their mom had gotten a new husband soon after, and they’d went to live somewhere over in South Carolina.  We were going to be living in their house, renting it next door to our old one.   As we pulled in – on a paved road – I could see it.  Gone was the barn where my girlfriend and I had cuddled and kissed after getting ‘married‘ one day. Gone were the relationships. Gone were the ditches where we used to sink in cool sand while water ran in clear sheets around our knees. . .

So the isolation would remain.  The nearest store – a 7/11 – had been built about five miles away. There was a book mobile which would come around about once a month, but it was slim pickings compared to what I was used to – a real library, PX, and a whole lot of freedom.  Gone were the bus and train.  The only ones left – the only ones I played with as a former child – were the kids across the road.

Worst of all:

We were in HIS house – the same house – as the guy who had groomed and sexually abused us kids.  Sure, he was gone . . . but I remembered, him and his little brother,  my former best friend . . . still I didn’t know it was ‘abuse’, but the pain of his final rejection and betrayals still stung, that whole mess  near the end . . .

Gone – but unresolved.  It was still there.  Fresh, like a wound that bleeds that you can’t see.  And it was affecting everything I was, everything I felt, along with everything else I’d experienced.  As it would for years . . . all of it.

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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 . . .

Berlin.

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 . . .

Castles In The Sand


Castles In The Sand

While we were overseas one summer in Europe, my parents decided to take the Green Eggs and Ham down to Spain for an extended stay on the beach. Rattling our way through Luxembourg and France, we avoided most of the major cities, sticking to back roads and small towns. Trickling down through high Alps, then across the rolling Spanish hills, we found ourselves at a large Spanish campground located on the Mediterranean.

The countryside was poor by American and Northern European standards, but rich in diversity. Ancient architecture, grand cathedrals, and Roman aqueducts competed with woman hauling buckets and baskets full of straw, rough paved roads and low slung rows of dirt colored buildings. Colors were either extremely bright or earthen, depending on whether you were looking at the people’s clothing or the houses they lived in.

The campground we found ourselves in abutted the Mediterranean shoreline, and was filled with a mix of gaudy tents (folks from Germany and France), mid-sized shelters, and lastly us in our ghastly green VW camper with its bright yellow bumpers. Pitching the Army pup tent outside, we settled in for a protracted stay.

I spent the first few days turning red as a lobster, then the remainder of the week shedding my skin. I’ll never forget the extant of that sunburn – how my shoulders and back were covered in huge blisters, how the tears would run down my face as my mom applied the “standard cure” – a sponge bath with cooling vinegar, which would leave me stinking and reeking for hours on end. This was long before the advent of sun-block, and before they made the connection between sunburn and cancer.

We lived simply, feasting on sandwiches and hot dogs and sampling the local fare. Most of our cooking was done next to the van on an old Coleman stove – an explosive affair, given to unequal scorching and bits of raw meat. But eventually my mom mastered the thing, allowing us boys to “pump up” the tank, and producing reasonably fried eggs in the morning and hamburger based meals in the evening. During one of our forays across this foreign land we slipped into the local restaurant where, gathering my courage, I tried what was to become one of my most favorite of seafoods – fried calamari. After a single bite I was hooked.

It was strange, yet beautiful, living there in the sand beneath the trees. We didn’t have anyone to talk to except ourselves – I didn’t know a lick of Spanish – and the cool blue waters of the Mediterranean beckoned just beyond the edge of the campsite. One thing I didn’t like about the Mediterranean was that it sometimes smelled like sewage, especially near a breakwater that had been erected near the far end. I suppose this was due to the practice of releasing untreated sewage into the ocean. Even as a kid I knew this was bad, and we tended to stay away from that particular part of the ocean. But the water – bluer than the Atlantic, with gentle crashing waves – called me from morning until night, and I found myself staying on the beach, day after day, diving through the surf and riding the rolling swells. I turned brown – a deep brown which reminded me of my days in the ‘hood, and lost some weight, trading in my fat for some muscle.

It was during our last week while I was there, sitting in the sand on the beach while struggling to build a sandcastle, that I met her.

She was a small Spanish girl with skin the color of aged bronze, and long black hair that fell down her back in curling locks. She was a few years younger than I, with thick black lashes and big expressive eyes, and she squatted next to me, watching what I was doing. Having no “beach toys”, not even a plastic shovel, I was scooping up handfuls of sand and clumsily attempting to form an outer ring of walls. She would look at me, look at my hands, then look at my ragged construction as though it was something to be pitied. And then she showed me a better way.

Without a word, she began to dig, forming a shallow hole. Unable to speak a single word of Spanish – and she evidently knew no English – I settled back to watch, curious as to why this girl had chosen me, my place, to dig a hole. Glancing up at me from beneath her eyebrows, she waited until water began to seep into the hole, then she began dipping her hand into the water, stirring it around. I watched as she withdrew her hand, the water sheeting from her fingertips in a shimmering cascade, and then she did something amazing.

Pulling out dips of mud, she began “pouring” a sandcastle. Letting the mud flow along her graceful brown fingertips, she showed me how to make a drip” or “dribble” castle” – one in which you let the mud flow out of your hand – soupy and thin – and wherever it would land, it would start to build up. One by one she constructed miniature minarets, graceful towers, and moving her hand back and forth in a steady line, built a connecting wall. Encouraging me with her other hand, she guided my clumsy movements until I, too, began trickling sand in the appropriate fashion, learning the proper consistency of sand and water to make these marvelous tool-free creations grow. And after that I was hooked.

We met each day at the same time and place – I don’t recall a word ever being spoken between us – letting our love of building sandcastles bind us together. She couldn’t talk to me, nor I her, yet we did not let this barrier to our communication stop us. Silently we would work – her smiling when she saw me (for it seemed I was always the first one on the beach) – and me smiling back as she ambled over across the hot sand, my heart warming at the sight of her. Yes – she was much younger – perhaps eight or nine? – and I was thirteen, but after what she had shown me, I knew but did not feel any disparity in age. She was teaching me something – and something more than just building sandcastles – for I grew quite fond of her presence there at the beach, teaching me, guiding my hands, and sometimes softly laughing at my failed attempts. We worked together constantly, sometimes for hours on that beach, listening to the waves crash and silently enjoying each other’s company under the blue sky and blazing sun.

Since then I’ve sometimes wondered about that little girl who taught me so much; what happened to her, how I may of affected her life – for she surely affected mine. I learned that it doesn’t take words to form a relationship; that nationality and ethnic background makes no difference when it comes to certain things. Forming a common goal, and working towards a single creation has more to do with life and loving than anything such as words can describe; she taught that to me, as well as teaching me to build sandcastles using nothing except my hands.

As a result, when I go to the beach, I build sandcastles – even to this day – in the way that that little girl taught me. (I wonder if she’d be surprised to know how highly I regarded her, our relationship – and that I still build sandcastles now, here some thirty-seven years later.) I’ve since learned to construct bridges and and balconies, and using my hand to support thin arches of sand, make those famous flying buttresses I had seen in Europe. People come from all over the beach to take pictures of my four foot high towers, the sweeping turns, the miniature minarets; kids wander about amazed, peering down into the hollow towers, wandering around the mud formed walls. And all the while in my mind I’m taken back to those days on the Mediterranean, building sandcastles in the sand – with a little girl beside me, showing me the way.

 


Changes In Behavior:

Living With The Folks Overseas

When I was little, we gotten beaten a lot. I won’t go into everything – the moral crushing words, the ego scathing attacks. Beatings usually consisted of us going into our bedroom – or just one of us – waiting for a half hour or so, which is why I have the phrase “Waiting is painful, too.” I credit those waits for allowing me to prepare myself for what was to come – waiting on those footsteps to approach, the closed door opening, my father coming in. Tapping his belt on the palm of his hand. Gently explaining what we had done wrong. And then the punishment.

My brother says he could hear me scream and scream from his bedroom room with both doors shut and two walls. I don’t know for certain. You reach a certain phase when you are getting beaten where you just sort of blank out. I would sit there waiting . . . waiting . . . fading away inside of myself, hardening; preparing for what was to come. I hated crying; I couldn’t stand it, especially among myself. Or Selves, if that’s the way you want to put it.

Then the old man would have us stand and bend over, grabbing our ankles. Of course our pants would be pulled down – or our shorts – though later I learned (rather quickly I imagine!) to take them off. They just would trip you when you started dancing, and that would be seen as an attempt to escape – falling on the floor – which would be punished even more harshly.

I learned early on to face the bed, too. That first shot would often launch you – and the best launch was onto something with a soft surface. It was best to have all your toys picked up, or at least nudged out of the way so you wouldn’t end up dancing on them, too.

My dad had a favorite question to ask (I think). “Have you learned your lesson yet?” And no matter what the answer was, it was wrong. A yes or no would earn you more of a beating. I think he just asked it to see if you lied or not. Or not, most likely. Maybe. I don’t know.

I do know that I was stupid sometimes. I would not cry. And my dad liked crying children – he loved to hear you scream; see ‘the dance’. Sometimes he would take you by the hand and whirl you around – you are running in circles, the belt or something else pursuing you – going ’round and ’round his towering legs with tears streaming down your face as you ran. Those kinds of things hurt; sometimes the blows kinda went wild. It was unusual to get hit about the hips and shoulders; or on the arms.

We always ate on a regular schedule – the Army one. Breakfast (if not served before leaving for school and whatnot) was served at eight. Lunch at twelve. Supper (or dinner, if you prefer) at five-thirty pm. Meals were usually fairly simple, and at school I ate with the lunch crowd – getting my tray and food from the school. Later on I would start brown-bagging it, but this was early on. And days were fairly quite easy.

The morning would begin in the ‘hood – I get up, get dressed (usually just a pair of shorts and underwear) and go out into the kitchen. There my mom would often be cooking breakfast (eggs, toast, bacon, milk – orange juice or some other kind of juice if she would afford them – the frozen kind; made from concentrate). Then if not to school, then outside. We’d spend the entire day outside from morning to noon – and then we’d hear that big old triangle ring, and we’d come home for some bologna sandwiches, peanut butter & jellies – something like that – and milk to drink. I remember we used to get milk in those long cartons the PX sold – dark green with white lettering, and a heavy wax coating on them. They were very valuable to me, those cartons! With them I could make boats and toys to play with, either in the tub or out of it. Those heavy waxed cartons would last a long while – several floatings in the tub – until after about a week later the edges would get soft and fuzzy and we’d have to throw them away. Many a G.I. Joe took a ride in those boats – all naked (just like me) in the tub, swimming his way to freedom when the boat sunk.

But things changed when we got overseas. It was like the physical abuse suddenly just stopped. I seem to recall my mom telling us: “You’re too old for anymore whippings. From now on we’re gonna be punishing you different. With restriction and such. Taking away your privileges.” I wish it had been like that. The truth is – they still continued to beat us from time to time – with as much frenzy and hatred as before – and they would impose these new rules on us. But overall the beatings diminished. LOL, I guess the moral of the crew improved or something. But the fact is: we were getting beaten with a lot less frequency than before, when we were young children.

However, the restrictions started to get a lot longer and more frequent. That’s not to say we made bad grades – we didn’t. We generally managed to keep it between a C and an A. However, those few times we made an F or a D were bad. (I made my first F in 5th grade, failing math because I had gotten caught up and lost in the system. Somewhere between North Carolina and the ‘hood decimals got lost. Or rather, the ability to change them from one thing to another (say fractions or percents) got skipped over. I can only assume that in North Carolina the military school was behind while in Georgia the civilian school (I am talking about Windsor Springs Elementary here) was ahead. As a result there was a gap in my education that the teach failed to detect – or correct – or she just didn’t have enough time to do it. Promising students weren’t granted any special considerations and favors back then; not like today with their “Magnet Schools” and schools for accelerated children. So I was just left to thrash along on my own – without any success at the thing. My father’s explanations were confusing, and my moms? She always sent me to my dad.

A ‘D’ or an ‘F’ would mean restriction to your room. How long depended on ‘you’. However, while we were overseas there was so much to do – my parents were constantly touring and we were moving around – that restrictions were usually of a shorter duration – may a few weeks or more, but sometimes just a couple of days (depending upon our behavior during the restriction time). Asking to be ‘let off’ or ‘get out’ would buy you a week or more, so you had to be careful about asking. You had to catch them in a good mood. And even then you’d better come bearing some proof you were doing better – a string of A’s, I presume. I rarely got off restriction early, however. Often we would come back from some ‘vacation’ touring over there only to find I was still on restriction, still confined to my room.

The belt fell out of favor except for with my dad – my mom preferred a wooden spoon. She had a wide bladed one with a thick handle that she used to beat us with – and you stood, just stood there taking it. Fighting back, it was understood, was forbidden. My brother tried ONE time. After that he never tried again. Reaching behind him he grabbed the belt from her hand – and when she got the gun he realized: that was the wrong thing to do. So she beat him with the belt in one hand, gun in the other until he was singing his tune and dancing, too. I think he was about fifteen, sixteen years old at the time. He never challenged her again.

As for me? Always the stoic person, I might have complained from time to time – did my crying when I’d get beaten – but I just sort of lumped it up; ‘forgot’ about it – rubbed my ass and went on. I had learned crying did no good. Indeed, depending on who was beating you, it could actually be bad. My dad would give up beating on you once he’d gotten his thrill. My mom, on the other hand, would be encouraged by your crying and whining to beat you some more – for crying and whining! – and then you would be sent to your room to finish it off. My dad? It always started in the room to begin with, so we left it there. (The pain & anguish I assume. “We” left ‘something’ – or someone – there to ‘take it’, deal with it, be done with it, et all.)

I assume that’s where my ‘high pain tolerance’ came from – all those beatings and all that waiting. Because that waiting gets you ready for the pain. You learn to control it – how to ‘turn it one’ (that pain tolerance), and ‘turn it off’. There’s a difference in sensation when I – and ‘we’ – do that. It’s like someone else is sucking up the pain for us. Little Mikie, I assume – since he was one of the ones built to do that. As a result ‘he’ has a lot of pain built up on the inside. On the other hand – ‘he’ is one of the sweetest human child(ren) I’ve ever met. There’s a little bit of artificiality to him there, too – which is what led me to suspect ‘he’ was a creation of Little Michael, the ‘real’ boy inside – the one who made all the decisions about who was to ‘come out’ at what time; who was to ‘do’ what, when and how – a whole lot of other things.

Anyway . . . just another story about how things ‘changed’ when we went overseas. How the discipline changed. I don’t know if that’s because we had new neighbors all around, or they were afraid of thin doors (what the neighbors may hear). I don’t know for certain it was our age at all. I certainly suspect it had more to do with other people being around – living so close to them, jowl to jowl, cheek to cheek so to speak – that they didn’t want anybody staring at them when they went to the commissary or PX, or simply stepped out the door. Noise levels were to be kept down in the apartments – in the houses it didn’t matter. So I reckon I’ll never know. Perhaps it was a combination – the parents realizing their children had gotten a little old for their ‘beatings’ – coupled with the instinctive knowledge they may be heard.

After all, you don’t want your neighbors to know you’ve been beating your kid. None of them.

(shhhh!!!)

Secrets have been told.

(big smile).


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.

Skiing Lessons


Skiing Lessons

Avoid the barn, I told myself, squinting against the cold. Watch out for cow patties. The snow covered landscape slid past the corners of my eyes with increasing speed, and I could feel my heart pattering with an undercurrent of fear.

 

We had arrived at the Austrian ski town in the dead of winter, which, of course, is the logical time if you want to learn to ski – and my parents did. Trailing a horse drawn sleigh down the snow covered road, I looked at the thick drifts piled like downy blankets across the fields. Watching the horse drawn sleigh continue onwards, we turned into the parking lot of the local hotel where we’d be staying. After carrying our heavy winter gear to our room, we finally relaxed in the roomy restaurant on the first floor, watching the Austrians put on their version of what we here in the South call a “hootenanny” while the shadows of the mountains slide the valley into twilight. Broad chested women in richly embroidered blouses danced while men dressed in lederhosen and white shirts clapped their hands and slapped their thighs in unison. We sipped hot chocolate before the roaring fire as darkness descended. Despite the cold, it was warm and humid inside, and the noise was deafening.

This town we’d found ourselves in – a quaint little Austrian town known for its skiing – was beautiful in the snow. The timber framed houses featured intricate wood filigree patterned shutters and balconies, and the streets seemed open and wide. Beyond lay the Alps in all their glory – I had been amazed to see a cross planted on nearly every mountain peak, reflecting the depth of their religious dedication. We’d passed a church or two with tulip shaped towers; one, nestled in a valley was so beautiful it nearly took my breath away.

We started the very next day, meeting our instructor on the bunny slopes. A manly sort of Austrian woman, she started us out with the basics – how to side-step up a slope, and then snowplow back down. Mastering the rope tow was next on the agenda – I found myself riding that thing like a little kid’s merry-go-round. Flopping in the snow was a common enough feat, and one I seemed to master with minimal effort. As far as doing a “Stem Christie” down the slopes, carving deep turns in a spray of snow – well, that was something yet to come, and even though I tried, I was always a clumsy skier.

 

Don’t go near the barn, I reminded myself. The snow was packed, hard from the multitude of skiers whom had gone before me here on the “fast slope”. Off to my left ran the T-lift, it’s inverted iron tees pulling couple after couple towards the mountain peak. The first few times I rode it, it had thrown me down, leaving me with a face full of snow. The angle of the slope was increasing, and I could feel the wind whistling past my cold, stinging ears. Go left, I thought, seeing a gap between the sparsely scattered skiers ahead. Stay clear of the barn.

 

After ‘mastering’ the bunny slopes, our instructor had introduced us to the T-lift. We had practiced turning, cutting slow swaths on the mildly angled slopes below – our skis angled in sharp V’s, leaning forward, poking our poles into the snow until our thighs hurt from the effort. The T-lift was an intimidating beast at first – catching the inverted T-bar beneath your buttocks and letting it drag you towards the top of the mountain; the push-off-let-loose dismount, ducking slightly so that the bar wouldn’t hit you in the head. After that you were presented with a variety of paths to take – some easy, some hard. The intermediate path – soon to become my favorite – wound through some small pines, over a series of moguls, and had a small ski lodge set midway between the top of the mountain and the bottom. I don’t know why I preferred it – perhaps because it allowed me to control my speed, perhaps because of the moguls – but mostly I think it was because it was one of the lesser used of the paths, often offering a free run down the mountain without ever being passed – or passing – another person on the way. I recall skiing from mid-morning to twilight, seeing the yellow light from the small lodge windows spilling across the snow. Being mostly broke, I rarely stopped there, preferring instead to save the money my parents gave me for the ski lift instead.

 

Crap, I thought, spotting a brownish stain underneath the snow ahead. During the summer months this ski slope was a cow field, and underneath the snow crust lay brown hazards. For the most part you could simply ski over the frozen piles of poop, but beneath the warming rays of the afternoon sun, the top layers of such piles would become warm and somewhat sticky. Our instructor had warned us against them, and I had already found out the hard way a few times over the last few days. Your skis sticking, you’d find yourself catapulting forward, head over heels when you hit one. Cut right, I thought, my mind suddenly focused on the hazard ahead. I turned the points of my skis inward, trying to slow while simultaneously turning sideways.

 

My family had been amazed by the little Austrian kids on the slopes. Some, half my twelve year old size, seemed to have been born with skies instead of feet, and it was rumored that they began skiing before they started walking. I could easily believe it, having had swarms of them swoosh by me like a flock of darting sparrows, passing the clumsy American on the slope like he was sitting still. I’d watch them, gape mouthed, wishing I could do a Stem Christie the way they did, cutting sharp curves in the snow and racing at a breakneck speed down the mountain. For the most part I found myself sticking to my snowplow, easing into the turns and avoiding the faster slopes. And, believe it or not, one of those kids was to change how the world looked at me for the next decade and a half.

It happened on the T-lift late one day, edging in towards twilight. The sky was hung with iron gray clouds pregnant with snow and I was looking forward to another run on the intermediate slope. I had found myself falling in love with the moguls; the sensation of flying through the air between each one, and passing the dark wood planked lodge with its empty ski racks outside. Mounting the T-lift on the bottom of the slope, I found myself partnered with one of those young Austrian kids. Dressed in a form fitting black outfit, he didn’t look to be more than seven. Grabbing the center bar for support, we let it pull us up over the well worn trail between the pines, my long black overcoat flapping in the wind like a crow’s wings. I was enjoying the ride through the twilight, anticipating the fun ahead, when the little boy turned and said something to me. Not understanding a word, just I grinned and nodded – and then with a surprising abruptness, he suddenly turned, jumped, and swooshed away. The last I saw of him was his butt swagging back and forth as he cut sharp curves through the pines; the next thing I saw was the end of the T-bar, relieved of its load.

It hit me with a sharp crack in the mouth; thank God it was so cold, or else I’m sure it would have hurt. As it was I was too intent on maintaining my grip on the T-bar to care; thrown off balance by the sudden redistribution of weight, all I could think of was keeping a hold on the cold iron. As the bar tried to reel itself back into the sky, I grabbed its bottom, relieved that I hadn’t lost my ride. I was low on lift tickets, it was late, and I had anticipated this as being my last run of the day. However, when I opened my mouth to take in a quick gasp of the frozen mountain air, I felt a sharp pain – and a pebble in my mouth. Hanging precariously onto the bar with one hand while it dragged me up the mountain, I spat into my mitten. A tooth lay there. Probing my front teeth, I found a gap where there should be none. Weeks later, after we’d returned to the military bases, an Army dentist outfitted me with a stainless steel tooth – a temporary thing which, like all things “Army” and “temporary”, was to last for another fifteen years. When I was in my mid-twenties, people said I looked like a cross between a pirate and a biker, with a silver tooth shining in my grin and long hair trailing down my back. Some even thought I got it for vanity reasons, but the truth was I sort of hated it, and couldn’t afford to get it replaced with something more realistic.

 

The barn was approaching, the pile of melting poop safely past. I struggled with my skies, knowing I was going entirely too fast for my comfort or skill level. I had discovered on the “fast” slope that speed was not my friend. I’d get going down it’s wide open run, traveling across the hard packed snow, until the wind was pressing against me, slowing me down – and then I’d wipe out. It seems I almost always did – getting up to that nerve wracking speed, I’d attempt to throw the brakes on – snowplowing for all I was worth – and then everything would go to hell and I’d find myself sliding down on my side, my skies all tangled together, poles flopping uselessly in the snow. The barn wasn’t a big thing – just a narrow wood planked building hovering in the middle of the slope – and a concrete ramp ran into it. An old man – the Austrian who owned the land, I assume – often sat in a rocking chair by the entrance of the barn, watching the skiers go by. I guess when you’re a farmer and your meadows are covered with snow, there’s not a lot else to do. And after all, I’m sure us amateur skiers gave him plenty of entertainment – something to smile about as we’d go tumbling by. Right, right, right!, I screamed at myself, trying to aim past the corner of the barn. It was looming much too close for my amount of speed and skills – though the Austrian skiers didn’t seem to have any problem swooshing by, cutting sharp little Stem Christies – and the fear in my heart was turning into panic.

 

Despite its hazards, I found a love for snow skiing, especially on deserted slopes through the pines. Later we would visit the Zugspitze, the tallest mountain split by the countries of Germany and Austria, and I would find myself skiing down its wide flanked slopes (though the trails I was on, on that first mountain, were much more challenging). Later I would snow ski in Georgia, of all places (another story behind that), and later in the Colorado mountains (where me and a tree had a Bugs Bunny encounter.) But the first slopes I learned on, practiced on – those were always the best, for that’s where I discovered the enchanting sound of skies whispering across the snow, a cold wind blowing in my face, and the green, green pines sliding by. That was where I found a modicum of peace, away from the hustle and bustle of the ski lifts, the press of shuffling people, the feeling of buildings closing in on you. Twilight was my favorite time, for that was when the skiers would thin, the crowds on the slopes diminish, and you could feel like you had the whole mountain to yourself. The stinging of cold bringing tears to your eyes; the feel of wind rushing past half frozen cheeks – ears numb as frost – I would find myself transported over the snow, feeling my knees flex automatically, absorbing the bumps in the snow, my face thrust into the wind. What can I say? Its a feeling that goes beyond sensation, one of freedom, wonder and beauty that strikes you to the soul. And that’s a feeling that you cannot describe.

 

The barn was approaching rapidly – too rapidly. I knew if I put on the brakes – threw my skis into a full snowplow – I would go end over painful end, thumping in the snow. Around me other skiers were breaking to the left and to the right – effortlessly, it seemed. Watching the concrete ramp approach, the old man sitting there in his rocking chair on the left – watching me now, a slight smile frozen on his face – I did the only thing left to do.

I skied into the barn.

Up the ramp – past the startled old man – into the hay, my speed finally slowing – I found myself surrounded on both sides by bucolic cows who, pausing in mid-cud, looked up at me with warm brown eyes. Coming to a stop, I wavered, my poles swinging in wide circles as I looked around. The inside of the barn was surprisingly warm – warmer than I expected it to be – and I could hear the old man laughing hysterically behind me. Carefully gimping around on my skis, I turned as our Austrian ski instructor had told me – first flopping one ski to the side, then the other – and with loud flapping thumps, made my way to the door. The old man was doubled up in his rocking chair, his hands across his belly, laughing so hard I thought he was going to be sick. Looking up at me, his wizen cheeks reddened, he waved towards the slope and said something, his voice breathless – as though he couldn’t stand the sight anymore – as though simply the idea of seeing me would kill him with paroxysm of laughter. Flapping past him down the ramp, I couldn’t help but smile as well.

I just wish I could do it again.

 

 

Kneebread


Kneebread

It was a holiday – a holiday for the Germans in the local town, but not for us kids. We still had to attend school. Arriving at our warm class and shaking off the cold, we settled into our desks – boots and mittens piled against the back wall, coats hung in disorderly rows.

 

A woman was there – a LARGE woman. Almost as wide as she was tall, she beamed at us as the teacher stood a little ways behind, eyeing us nervously.

 

“Gute mor-gun!” the large woman said. I noticed a pile of strange cup-like things piled on the desk behind her. “I’s ist cumin’ to tell you a-boot our holidaze!” She smiled, her cheeks like round, wide apples. Reaching behind her, she lifted the pile of things from the desk and started going around, handing us each one. Taking mine, I looked at it carefully – and cautiously. It was a thick piece of what appeared to be dough, flaky baked and covered with powder. Shaped like a bowl, it was bigger than my fist – almost big enough to be called a hat. Looking up, I could see all the other kids turning them over and over, looking at them curiously. Finishing her distribution, the lady drifted like a large cloud, primly dressed in a flowing print dress, to the front of the room. The teacher smiled nervously, undoubtedly approving of our wary silence.

 

“Dis ist der ‘knee-bread’,” the overly large woman explained, holding up one of the ‘cups’. “Ve make it on – vit? – der knees.”

 

We looked down at the formed pieces of bread. It didn’t take much of a stretch of imagination to see where it had been formed over a knee – especially one as big as hers.

 

“Der ist a legend mit our history fear (for) dis bread,” the woman said, sitting down on the corner of the teacher’s desk. You could practically hear the desk groaning underneath her weight. “It goes back hunrets of years, to der year six huntredt.” She looked around at the class, her smiled starting to sag, then picking back up.

 

“Go ahead! Eat! Eat! It ist fear de celebration! Try it!”

 

We nibbled at the bread – slowly at first, and then more rapidly as the sweetness hit us.

 

“In dis legend,” the woman explained, leaning back, her smile once again regaining it’s former glory as she watched our reaction to the sweetbread, “Der village vas unter seige. Many bad men had surrounded it, and there was no food in, no food out. Der people were starving. De enemy, he knows. He is waiting until the people are too starved to fight. So dey wait many many months.”

 

She smiles again as we picture the quaint little village surrounded by snow and bad men lurking outside – the hungry villagers waiting their doom within.

 

“De prince’s wife – she is fat, no?” She beams at us as if we should know this fact. We are too busy munching on the bread to pay much attention. I try to ignore the strange name: knee bread – and how it was made.

 

“She vaits – vaits until at last the men of the village, they are ready to give up. Der people ist hongrey. Dey ist starvin. But . . . “ Here she leans forward with a conspiratorial tone, her smile turning into a smirk of satisfaction.

 

“Der fat princess, she goes to the wall. She turns around and bares her butt to the troops outside. And do you know what they zee?”

 

We have all stopped eating our bread, finally caught up in this bizarre turn of events. I can picture it: a big wide butt poking out over a castle wall. A chill goes down my spine. A sight like that would’ve probably scared me.

 

“Dey see a FACE. Dey say – dey think: dee’s people, dey are not starving! Look at de fat face! Dere people ist FAT and well fed! Despite the long wait! And so dey give up and go home.”

 

Settling back on the desk, she beams at us again.

 

“And THAT is how a fat lady saved our town. Ve make der knee bread to – celebrate? – comismerate? Dat time. Ve make it by forming it over our knees. Ve bake it und powder it mit der sugar – and now you eat it! Do you want some more!”

 

And we do. We eat that bread and think about this strange tale, this strange foreign land – and all the while I’m thinking about how it was formed; the event it commemorates – and how strange and unusual this place is.

 

Welcome to Germany.

 

Land of the strange and weird, legend and tales going back through the mists of time.

 

So much unlike the land I had come from: the land of pine and wood, humidity and rain.

 

I nibble my bread and wonder.