Something I felt
Or maybe something I thought
Like yesterday’s over
Something I took
Something I sought
Like yesterday’s gone
— The Cure
I’m preparing to go on a trip that I have been looking forward to for some time. We are going to visit Germany (specifically Berlin, Dresden and Munich) and the Czech Republic (Prague). We will be extending our trip for three days to visit the place I was stationed in Germany for two years in 1986 and 1987. From time to time I have looked in on where I lived via the Internet, and I know that there have been changes and that some places are essentially the same (or at least are still there). I have no illusions about what I will see when I get there. But while I intellectually know what is there, I’m not sure that I’m prepared for what I’ll experience emotionally. Even though it was only two years out of a lifetime, the experience has had an abiding affect on my life.
I graduated from the US Army Military Police School which was then at Fort McClellan, Alabama in April 1986. Every person who graduated the cycle before me and who didn’t have a guaranteed duty station was sent to Korea. I was convinced that was where I was headed also. I was pretty excited about that, because I had an interest in Japanese language and culture (like a lot of people in the 80’s) and thought I could go to Japan on leave. As it turned out, everyone in my cycle without a duty station was sent to Germany. What I knew about Germany then was mainly centered on World War II. I did take some satisfaction in the fact that my grandfather had also joined the army, been trained at Fort McClellan, and was sent to Germany to fight.
The US Army was in what was West Germany in case the Soviets were to try to invade Western Europe. Where they would do this was in a place called the Fulda Gap, which is close to Frankfurt. Soviet spies were present throughout West Germany, we were told, and we should be careful not to discuss classified matters in public. In August of 1985, a car bomb exploded in front of the headquarters building on Rhein Main Air Force base in Frankfurt. It killed two people and injured 20 more. In November later that year another car bomb in front of a PX in Frankfurt wounded 34 people. I landed at Rhein Main in May of 1986, and the damage to the headquarters building was still there. The bombings were attributed to the Red Army Faction, which was a terrorist group operating in West Germany. We were told that the ID used to enter the base was taken from a soldier after he had been picked up at a bar by a female Faction member, lead to an alley, and killed. As a result we were advised that we should be careful when we went out, and to use the buddy system whenever possible.
All this makes things sound much more dangerous than they actually were. In retrospect, if the Soviets had decided to invade, I would have had a ring-side seat for what would have been a third world war. At least for the short amount of time it lasted before we nuked each other to a cinder. It didn’t turn out that way, though. While the Red Army Faction and the Soviets in the Eastern Block were always in the background, things were pretty routine. I took full advantage of the fact that I was in Europe while I was there, and traveled to France, Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg, the U.K. and all around Germany including a trip to Berlin. For the most part, any time I was off I was ‘downtown.’ Downtown was the city of Mainz which sits on the Rhine river, and has been a city since the Romans founded it. I spent this time downtown because my first few months in country were a bit rough. The unit I joined tended to be somewhat insular, and new people were not easily integrated into the existing close-knit group. My first inclination of this was when I moved into my new room to find that my roommate had built a wall out of his lockers and consigned me to live on my side of it which was the opposite of where the windows were. I did know some people in the unit who had gone through basic training with me, and they introduced me to people in some of the surrounding units who knew the city, and I went out with them a number of times.
After a couple of these trips I decided to head into town unaccompanied on a Sunday afternoon. I followed the routes I had followed many times before with other people, but once I got into the “old city” I was lost. Everyone who is stationed in Germany has to attend a class called Head Start in which you learn basic phrases and information on German culture. I decided to employ my limited knowledge of German by asking a passerby where the train station was (“Wo ist der Bahnhof?” is a phrase familiar to anyone who has attended a Head Start class). The man I asked paused, looked at me, and in perfect English said “I don’t know where the train station is, but if I can get you do the Dom (the cathedral), can you find your way from there?” I told him that I could, and we walked on together. He asked me if I was in the military, and without stopping to think he might be a soviet agent or something, I told him yes. He explained that he had lived in Mainz as a child, but they had left when Hitler came to power. He had lived in the U.S. since then, and he had just returned to Mainz that week for the first time. As we walked he told me about what the city was like when he lived there. He pointed out an old building where the butcher’s used to be, another place that was a cafe had been a florist. He didn’t necessarily know where the train station was because the “new” city had been rebuilt after the war, and so he did not know it as well. We reached the cathedral I thanked him and we said our goodbyes. At that point I was hooked, though I didn’t know it.
From that day on, whenever I had a chance I was in the city. Nights, weekends, days off. I also spent a lot of time going to clubs and partying. I made a lot of friends in places I went to, both who worked there and who those who were also regulars. At some point some of the employees from one club left to work at a new one, and I would be invited there. I made a point of learning as much German as I could. I spoke it, badly, whenever I had the chance, watched the German version of Sesame Street, and asked my German friends how to say things. I made friends with someone who had grown up in Germany as an “Army brat,” and who was fluent in German and English. This helped my German improve a lot. I ate German food, drank liters of German beer and attended festivals. Once a friend and I met two girls who were into dance halls and got dressed up in suits and went with them to dance badly to old standards. Some of the people who were in my unit who I had not gotten off to a good start with, became my friends and I introduced them to ‘my’ Mainz. Don’t get me wrong, my time in Germany wasn’t all an episode of Cheers. I made a lot of stupid mistakes while I was out there, mostly stupid kid stuff. I think i was trying way too hard to be a rebel, and I opened my mouth a little too much and too loudly. I over partied, and didn’t give much thought to the consequences.
Before I came to Germany I was a nerd. Back then the word nerd was not what it is today. Being a nerd in the 80’s was a one-way ticket to butt-kick city. I was bookish, and into things like comics, role-playing games, and fantasy and science fiction. Now being a ‘nerd’ is cool, and a lot of things I was teased for are considered cool, so a lot of people owe me an apology at this point, but that’s another blog post. Germany taught me I could be accepted for who I was, and that there was a whole world out there that was much bigger and wider than the little town I came from. It was the time when I began to become the person I would be. Now this story is nothing new. Most people go through this once they’re out of high school. For a lot of people it’s when they’re in college, or move away from home for the first time. For me it was in West Germany in the 80s during the Cold War. A lot of people were stationed in Germany during that time, but in my daily life is it a rare occasion for me to meet someone who was there and who shares the same life experience. I can tell people what it was like, but they really don’t understand.
Now that I’m getting ready to go back, I’m been working hard at refreshing my German. I’ve been studying using podcasts, and books and online resources. I’ve been reflecting trying to figure out why this is. Part of it is my goal-oriented OCD tendencies, but that’s not all of it. On a trip to Spain and Portugal last year we flew on Lufthansa and, as it is a German airline, the first language is German. We had layovers both going and coming home in Munich. While I was there, I realized how rusty my German had become. Now that I’m going back I’m not comfortable with being in Germany without being able to communicate in German. Even more than that, because I spent so much time learning and speaking German during that time in my life, it is also my pop music. Certainly my experience is strongly tied to the music of that time (especially The Cure, Depeche Mode, The Smiths and many others), and there are many songs that I hear now that bring me right back. Hearing and speaking German also takes me back to that time as surely as a song, and that is a strong motivator to for me to learn it again.
Another aspect of living in Germany was that I was able to get to know Germans. Sounds basic I know, but you’d be surprised at how many people in the service live in a country and don’t know any of the actual people there. I saw and heard the effect World War II and the dividing of Germany had on real people and their families. Even having that experience, I don’t really know what it’s like to live in a country that has been wracked by two world wars, and split in two. But I have known people who do. When the wall came down, I rejoiced along with most of the world, but not just at the idea of reunification. I rejoiced for my friends. I’m interested to see what this country is like as a united country now. I will be visiting parts of it that I never could have when I was there before (or at least not easily). I will be speaking German at every opportunity again, probably badly, and trying to get to know real German people like I did before. This time, my wife will be with me. She has, of course, heard all the stories more than I’m sure she’d like. Now I can show her where these things happened, and probably remember things that I have long forgotten. That part is the thing I think I am looking forward to the most.
Once I get back, I’ll have a lot to say about it, and most of it will probably end up here. If only to have a place where I can find it again later.