Most people will remember their first car, often bought with paper route or tobacco money. Mine was a white BMW 328 Roadster. Magnificent set of wheels, with functional steering and transmission and an overall length of five and a half inches. It was 1/28th the size and a mere fraction of the price of the 153-inch long full size version that would have let me go on Sunday drives with my girlfriend.
That last point was immaterial because at age thirteen I could no more afford a girlfriend than a real car. Offered a choice between the two I would – in a heartbeat – have opted for the car. Make that any vehicle not equipped with a windup spring motor. A Vespa on life support would have done it.
Two years after buying the toy roadster I was watching a soccer game in a cleared out section of the woods above our village. After the game, two of my classmates and I stumbled on a life-size BMW parked among the pine trees, a just released R51/3 motorcycle. It was the biggest, most badass motorcycle you could buy in Germany in 1951. The sight of two cylinders jutting out horizontally from the boxer motor alone was enough to get your juices flowing.
The three of us had barely begun to admire the bike when the owner showed up. Time has erased whatever image of him I might have had in my memory. I can easily remember his girlfriend, a stunningly beautiful young woman. Her trim figure was accentuated by a simple, stylish outfit suggesting mystery but revealing no secrets. Raven black hair and just a touch of makeup on creamy white skin made clear this was no farm girl laboring under a hot sun all day.
Social life can be unsettling when you’re young and male and saddled with the hormones of a fifteen-year old. As this otherworldly creature climbed up on the passenger seat I couldn’t help noticing that she had recently shaved her legs. Not unheard of in the cities of postwar Germany, but uncommon for village folk. And despite the obvious difference in our ages, oddly intriguing.
Just as I was completing a mental picture of how intensely pleasurable life must be when you have the means to attract such a beautiful woman who wears makeup and lipstick and shaves her legs, the owner reached down and fired up the bike by pushing down on the BMW’s kick starter – with his bare hand!
Oh crap! So that’s what it takes. It was never the expensive motorcycle, though I imagine getting to ride on the back of that gorgeous R51/3 could have tipped the scale. No, if I wanted to someday share my life with the girl of my dreams I’d have to work hard to become good at something. Very good – at something very big. Lots of endeavors in this world don’t require the ability to hand start a motorcycle. This was good news and a relief because the hand starting thing wasn’t happening. The mere specter of it had the bike kicking back and me doing a Nadia Comaneci over the handlebars.
Also not happening in the real world was a fifteen-year old teenager buying a car or a motorcycle, which I would have been too young to drive in any event. But there was something I could do, and soon enough did: secretly attend motorcycle driver’s school and pass the test, wait for the day I turned sixteen and ask for my mother’s signature at the exact right moment during coffee and the marble cake she always baked for me on my birthday.
I wasn’t proud to have gone behind her back like that but there were extenuating circumstances – like, what choice did I have? My dad had gone on to the big Oktoberfest in the sky on a motorcycle years ago. Dollars to doughnuts my mother wouldn’t like the idea of me following in his footsteps. I did get her consent after I promised to never ride a bike in the rain or at night or on the speed-limit-free Autobahn.
You may be wondering why I thought I needed a motorcycle license when I didn’t have a motorcycle. Part of the answer, I’ll admit, was bragging rights. But the main reason was that Fritz Waibel, a schoolmate one year my senior, was beginning to move up in the standings while motocrossing his 175 cc 2-stroke Maico. He asked whether I would consider helping him race it. It would mean working on the bike without a salary and travelling to interesting places now and again. I wasn’t crazy about 2-strokes but they were all the rage and you can see where such an opportunity was impossible to say no to. Especially when all I needed to say yes was a motorcycle license.
Tobacco money? Oh that! Here I’ll have to take you back a few years to set the stage. Wouldn’t want you to judge as peculiar my fascination with American cars in general, those powered by Ford in particular, and why I thought a showroom stock Shelby Cobra needed more power for a run to the post office. I must have had my reasons. Some of which now escape me and – except for why I’m drawn to Fords – may best be left unremembered.
I was born in a small village in Germany twelve miles east of Stuttgart. My father died in a motorcycle accident when I was a year old while my mother was carrying my sister Erna. Hitler’s ambitions for a ‘Third Reich’ were beginning to escalate into World War II when my Mom became a bride again and bore three more children, my sister Erika and my brothers Eugen and Werner.
Sadly, her second husband was killed on the Russian Front when a bomb hit the locomotive he was driving. Having found marriage disappointingly short on longevity, she decided she’d had enough of it. Not a decision made on a whim. It meant having to raise five young children in the aftermath of a brutal war, with no partner to support her.
Compared to children growing up in big cities during the war, village kids were better off. True, we never saw an orange or a banana or anything resembling a Hershey bar, but most village folk had a small vegetable garden and some fruit trees and bushes with berries. That’s not to say life in the country was a picnic and that we never went to bed hungry. Bread, butter, meat, sugar, and other staples were all rationed no matter where you lived. Apples and berries and even potatoes grown in your garden lack protein and only take you so far.
Did you know you can make your own butter by letting fresh milk stand overnight, skim off the thin layer of cream the next morning, pour enough cream to make a half pint into a Mason jar and shake vigorously? If you shake the jar long enough you’ll be rewarded with a little yellow clump the size of a golf ball. Your arms will get tired but you keep shaking because when you roast potatoes without using butter, even when you flip them over really fast, they still burn and smell bad and taste horrible.
The biggest advantage of living in a small village was the greatly reduced risk of getting killed by a bomb. Village residents mainly had to keep an eye out for low flying planes to avoid getting strafed by some trigger-happy cowboy in a P-51 Mustang. The idea was to spot the idiot first so you could take cover behind a house or a large tree.
In Rohrbronn nobody had to ever make a run for it. My biggest concern was getting trapped indoors while an aerial dogfight was underway overhead and there was a chance I’d miss it. Being within earshot and line of sight of our house was no safer because it enabled my mother to call me inside and I’d still miss it. Yeah right, ma’, like the 400-year old house we lived in would have protected us from airplane parts raining down on us! I swear she had a better sense for when swarms of B-17 bombers were going to leave contrails over our village than the guy in charge of the air raid siren.
Nothing about a war is pretty, but given enough time the mind tends to blot out memories of the raw and the ugly. Acts of kindness will stay with you. I can remember the clip-clop of horseshoes through much of the night as if it happened yesterday. The German Army was retreating on the road behind us, and they needed the horses to pull their trucks which had run out of gas miles ago. Hours passed. With daylight came the rumbling of the tanks of the Americans. We were under parental orders to stay indoors and could only envy classmates who had front row seats because their houses lined the main thoroughfare.
No shots were fired during the conquest of our village, the population of which consisted mainly of women and children and old men at war’s end. Very old men, because any male who could fire a rifle without dozing off had been conscripted into the military. Some of the conscripts had already returned crippled and were now encouraged to join the ‘Volkssturm’ (the peoples’ storm) to defend the fatherland alongside a few aging seniors predisposed to taking naps in the afternoon. Not many did – join, I mean. Even then, their only hostile act consisted of cutting down some pine trees and strategically laying them across the road leading into Rohrbronn, thereby erecting a two-foot high barrier that may have slowed the advance of the American tanks by all of three minutes.
In the end, the only thing the Nazi propaganda had accomplished was to terrorize our parents with images of barbaric acts the enemy would subject them to if they let themselves be captured. What was already killing me and my siblings, on the other hand, was that if we didn’t get out of the house soon the whole show would be over. Watching the American tanks rip up the pavement at the one sharp turn in the village alone would have been good for a week’s worth of conversation. Making us miss that was just wrong.
The American soldiers who came knocking on our front door broke the tension. They checked our house for weapons, raised one hand and said “Hi”, then left with a smile and all the composure imaginable after having painted a big white ‘OK’ on the front door with chalk. No raping, no pillaging, no maltreatment of any kind, not anywhere in the village.
Looking up I could see an expression on my mother’s face that I can revisit to this day – never before had I seen such overwhelming relief. The reality must have come flooding in. The agony of war was irreversibly over, ending the nighttime carpet bombings of Stuttgart that had made the sky above the city glow and wouldn’t let us sleep because of the relentless thunder of the concussions, muffled by distance but forever burned into memory. No more waiting for the bomb hung up in the bomb bay, henceforth addressed ‘to whom it may concern’ because on touchdown it might jar loose and blow up the plane. Everything was going to be all right. We could stop sleeping with our clothes on. She had endured and brought her children safely through the misery.
“Now can we go out?” I asked. “Yes,” she said, with eyes beginning to get teary from the avalanche of emotions, “but don’t go far and don’t stay out forever. I need to know what’s going on.” With that she gave us a hug and opened the door.
None of us could have imagined the strange world that had risen up during the night and would be waiting for us outside. Some of it would melt away within days. Like the tank parked a few yards from our house with the white star painted on its side and its gun pointed down the only access road into the village. Other less visible elements would irreversibly weave themselves into the German fabric and change that country’s identity and values and way of life forever.
They were already beginning to change mine. Having cautiously stepped around the tank we came onto a scene that couldn’t have been more alien to life amongst the cow stalls and chicken coops of our village. An African American sergeant sat legs crossed at the edge of a circle of children that had formed around him, passing out candy and oranges and Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum. Most of the kids, unfamiliar with gum, chewed and then promptly swallowed it. In the absence of directions written in German, this was predictable.
For the children and their parents, the war had ended. The sergeant would have to fight on. I pray he survived. There must have been children of his own waiting for him back home in America.
If only we could have mailed a photo of this eye-opening event to Dr. Goebbels, Hitler’s mouthpiece. No such kindness and generosity by the enemy he painted was portrayed on any of his posters! Neither was the decency and compassion of the American commander who kept his tanks a humane distance from the retreating Germans. They could easily have wiped out the outgunned and spent convoy. Had they closed the gap, the German troops would have resisted, causing casualties on both sides, but with tanks against horses the carnage on the German side would have been far greater.
I wish I could tell you that the first two years after the war brought much relief. The hardest hit, as they were during the war, were again the large cities. In Stuttgart more than half of all houses lay in ruins. The bombings had stopped but people were still dying from disease and malnutrition. By the spring of 1946 the official ration in the American zone was at most 1,275 calories per day, with some areas receiving as little as 700. In other zones the rations were even lower. The calorie count in a Big Mac cheeseburger – the burger, not the meal – is 530. When there wasn’t enough to go around in families with children, you could count on the parents to be the last to eat. Our family was no exception.
The chaos was made worse by armed and violent gangs of ‘Displaced Persons’ that terrorized the population and made it dangerous for women to leave the house even in broad daylight. There weren’t enough American MP’s (Military Police) to protect them, and when the newly formed German police were given responsibility for it, they weren’t allowed to carry firearms until late in 1945. The unarmed policemen themselves were often victims of vengeful mob attacks. No one could protect isolated farms. If a farmer got caught hiding a weapon he risked being executed by the Allies.
Having developed a more than casual interest in all things American, I was crushed to learn that General Eisenhower, the Military Governor of the U.S. Occupation Zone, had been issued a non-fraternization policy that would make it illegal for American soldiers to interact with German residents. I was getting ready to attend high school the following year and had planned to learn English for the express purpose of what JCS Policy Directive 1067 now prohibited explicitly. Luckily, Eisenhower softened the orders laid down by the Joint Chiefs of Staff by relaxing the ban in stages to where GI’s could talk with German children by June of 1945. In September, the prohibition was dropped altogether – to the considerable relief of a large contingent of GI’s who had been fraternizing with their German girlfriends all along.
Not dropped and continuing in force was one of the more onerous provisions of JCS 1067: No international relief packages could be sent into Germany. The directive had been brewed up in the spring of 1945 by the infamous “Morgenthau Boys.” Universally derided by the in-country military occupation command, the plan exposed not only Germany but much of war-torn Europe to communist ideology and the risk of Russian annexation. Strategic considerations aside, all but the most vengeful could see that the Washington elite were once again out of step with Main Street. When the restrictions on parcel post deliveries into Germany were lifted in June of 1946 – more than a year after the war had ended – 95,000 relief parcels arrived from the United States in the first shipment.
As if our rented half-acre plot and the garden in front of our house wasn’t enough to make us feel bad for the poor city kids, we now began to receive CARE packages from two of the most thoughtful and caring women we had never even heard of: Emma Mooney and Emma Cervini. It turned out they were distant relatives living in Rochester, NY. Only survivors who suffered through the war and then received CARE packages from America can fully appreciate how much the generosity and compassion of the two Emmas meant to us. It was Christmas all over each time the postman delivered one of their packages. Thank you Emma Cervini, and thank you Emma Mooney, for the cocoa and flour and fine-smelling LUX soap and Spam and Nescafé. And, oh yeah, those wonderful toys and Hershey bars. We liked the football you sent, too, but had a hard time trying to play soccer with it.
The currency and tax reforms of June 1948 formally kickstarted Ludwig Erhard’s ‘Wirtschaftswunder’, Germany’s rapid economic recovery, and life began to improve in earnest. As did my English. I was now able to read Life Magazine and The Saturday Evening Post (when I could afford to buy them). At some point I discovered the free ‘America House’ library where I was introduced to Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck, along with ‘Life in these United States’ and excerpts from other writers in the pages of Reader’s Digest.
With each passing year the gulf between the dreary, antiquated village life and the glamour and excitement streaming at me from the advertising pages in American magazines became wider.
What was it like living in Rohrbronn, our village up on the hill? No running hot water, no sewers, no central heat, no flushing toilets. One pay phone, a bakery, and a general store. If you felt the need to attend church on Sunday you had to walk half an hour to a neighboring village. Local news were brought to you by the town crier who walked the length of the village, stopping at the same houses every evening to ring his bell and read the day’s announcements from a sheet of paper he himself had written.
Only a certified back-to-the-earth lunatic would describe as quaint or romantic the straw-lined cow stalls taking up most of the ground floor of a 1940’s Swabian farmhouse, not to mention the dung heap conveniently located in front of it.
Not every house boarded cows, just most of them. Strangely, what bothered me the most wasn’t the aroma – cow dung mixed with straw doesn’t actually smell that bad once you get used to it. No, it was the darkness, the dim incandescent lights that greeted you when you entered a barn after dark to buy produce from a farmer. Just a smattering of fixtures, and no bulb brighter than 15 watts, even years after the war had ended.
Also I don’t like dirt, generally. Freshly organically enriched dirt (think cow manure) in particular. That and the backbreaking field work kind of soured me on nature. So yeah, to this day.
Luckily, we were too poor to own cows, which left us raising rabbits and chickens. We did have a radio, and when I was home alone, it was tuned to AFN, the American Forces Network. We also had something else, something every child should be given in abundance: The undying love and affection of a mother. On a return visit to the old house we all grew up in, my girlfriend Terry sensed the remnants of that devotion when she said “There’s a lot of love in these walls.” Thankfully, despite the hard times and shortages, love was one basic necessity we were never without.
By the summer of 1948, the German currency was in shambles and near useless as a means of payment. Goods were scarce, food was rationed, and going shopping meant trading watches and jewelry and cameras on the black market for food and coal for the winter. We even bartered with the American soldiers, almost from the beginning: Schnapps distilled by local farmers from hard apple cider in exchange for gasoline. Gallon for gallon. I always thought the Americans were on the sweet end of that deal!
I said I would explain tobacco money. Until the currency reform in June of 1948, cigarettes were the unofficial means of payment in postwar Germany for pretty much anything. Because Lucky Strikes, Chesterfields and Camels sold in the PX for just fifty cents a pack, ‘Amis’ (short for American cigarettes) became the most popular form of contraband. Farmers accepted them for potatoes, eggs and butter. Thirty cigarettes would get you a chicken, sixty a pound of butter.
As youngsters we had developed our own version of tobacco money. After school we would comb roadside embankments for cigarette butts tossed out of jeeps and trucks by GI’s. German smokers wouldn’t discard their butts, they’d recycle them into new cigarettes. In time, our buyers grew confident the tobacco we had collected in our little matchboxes was 99.9 percent American.
By the fifties, cars shipped over by American soldiers were a common sight on the Autobahn. Because their size made them unwieldy on the narrow, winding streets of medieval German towns and small country villages, they were quickly dubbed ‘Straßenkreuzer’, which literally translates to Street Cruiser but is closer to Land Yacht by meaning intended.
The Americans took as much pride in their cars as the Germans did. In postwar America some people would judge you by the car you owned, the ‘Joneses’ thing. It made sense in a perverted way because you couldn’t lease a car unless you needed a fleet of them; you had to buy your car and put money down and pay off the rest in no more than thirty-six monthly installments. Point being that an unskilled laborer wouldn’t be tooling around in a brand new Chrysler Imperial without having won the lottery.
That went away for a while when cars began to all look alike on account of aerodynamics but now seems to be making a comeback. I have no idea why. In the fifties when you drove a Cadillac, people could see you were rich from a half mile away. With today’s cars I can’t tell a Ford from a Chevy until I’m close enough to touch bumpers and read the logo on the trunk lid.
In between the status symbols were the cars that showed the world you were different. The bullet nose ‘airplane’ Studebakers did that in spades. I saw my first Stude while stepping off the train in Stuttgart, a white 1950 Starlight Coupe sitting on a flatbed railcar on an adjoining track. I’m nearly as big a fan of airplanes as I am of automobiles. For me, you couldn’t have brought the two worlds together any closer.
Another make and model that belonged squarely into the ‘doing it my way’ category was the ’55 Ford Thunderbird, a car I first spotted in a suburb of Stuttgart while walking to work. Thunderbird Blue, which is really more like a turquoise, with turquoise and white interior. I mean c’mon, you gotta admit, American fifties cars had style!
As I’m writing this, both cars are sitting in my garage in upstate New York. Maybe I am a little different. I’m an introvert who writes software but doesn’t own a cell phone because I don’t feel the need to be that connected. And I hate texting. So what if people think I’m antediluvian. My friends know better. As for anyone else, I’m fortunate to have discovered early on that once your reputation is ruined you can live life quite freely.
My very first ride in an American car came while I was hitchhiking from one youth hostel to another in Germany during summer vacation. Two GI’s in uniform driving a yellow ’51 Ford convertible stopped to pick me up on my way to Heidelberg. Top down, sun shining, radio loud enough to hear Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald and Glenn Miller in the backseat – God, it was heaven.
Hey Jerry, do you think maybe that memorable ride in the yellow Ford convertible tipped me to becoming a Ford man? You’ll meet Jerry in another chapter. He’s a close friend and a Chevy man. His cars range all the way from a 1921 Brewster Town Car with leather fenders to a 1955 Austin-Healey powered by a 350 Chevy engine – with a 1920 Model 48 Locomobile and a fifties Fairmont Railroad Speeder somewhere in the middle. Raising nary an eyebrow among his friends, there are no railroad tracks leading to or from his garage, and the Healey may be the only Chevy-powered vehicle in Jerry’s eclectic collection. Makes perfect sense when you factor in that he also hates to fly and so enlisted in the Air Force.
I can’t hold the Chevy thing against him, he’s always been a true car guy. Fact is, I too own a Chevrolet, a ’56 two-door 210 powered by a 480 hp 350 GM short block, the one with the distributor in the back where it’s hard to get to instead of in the front where it belongs, like in a Ford for instance. Engels Gualdani, another friend who owns Great Lakes Classic Cars, built it for me from the ground up with the help of Bert and Jon. There’s really no better choice for building a fifties car from scratch than a tri-five shoebox Chevy. There, Jerry, I said it.
My girlfriend Terry owns a ’65 Thunderbird and used to own a 2008 Z51 Corvette, both convertibles, so she’s either in the middle on this or a traitor to both marques, depending on how you look at it.
My second ride in an American car was in a 1950 Chevrolet Deluxe Coupe when a GI gave me a lift from the roller skating rink to the movie theater at Patch Barracks, an American Army garrison near Stuttgart. I had joined the German-American Youth Club to meet American teenagers my age. Nearing the cinema, I said “Nice car.” “Thanks,” he beamed, leaning back – “Powerglide.” Automatics were new on the options list that year. Told you the GI’s were proud of their automobiles.
My uncle Eugen had been drafted into the service at the outbreak of the war and spent several months in a ‘Rheinwiesenlager’, a provisional POW camp in the American sector along the Rhein that initially provided very little food and water, and no housing or tents or sanitation to speak of. After Germany had capitulated, many of its soldiers deliberately sought out American captivity in the hope for better treatment. The U.S. occupation forces suddenly found themselves with 2.6 million POW’s, a logistical nightmare for which they were unprepared.
When my uncle was released he was put on a train to Winterbach, the village down the hill from us with the church and a railroad station. Too weak to walk from starvation, he now fit easily into the small handcart we normally used to carry supplies to our half-acre plot, and he was light enough so we could pull the cart up the hill. My mother was boiling potatoes in the kitchen which my uncle was ready to inhale ‘as is’ as soon as he spied them. A neighbor quickly covered the pot, sharing from her personal experience that his emaciated body couldn’t possibly digest them. Not without repercussions.
During the war, his wife Helene had lived with her two children in Kőnigsberg, a city in East Prussia, while her husband served in the military. Kőnigsberg was annexed by the Russians and is now known as Kaliningrad, making my aunt one of the many thousands of persons displaced by the war. She arrived at our doorstep months after her husband’s release with their son Peter and daughter Brigitte and a tattered baby carriage filled with personal belongings. It had been an 800-mile trek and I remember seeing the wheels of the carriage worn down to bare metal, the tires shredded.
When my uncle was well enough to work they all moved to Winterbach. He had been trained as a gardener for which there was next to no demand after the war, so he drove a truck hobbled together from bits and pieces of other trucks that in a million years couldn’t have been made whole again. Stuff happens to trucks in a war zone.
Eventually my aunt and uncle decided to put all their furniture out on the lawn with price tags and start a new life in America. None of them spoke a word of English, not uncommon for immigrants, but within a year, Peter and Brigitte were fluent enough to switch from German to English whenever it was to their advantage to keep their parents from listening in on their conversations. All the while my uncle tried unsuccessfully to get people to spell his first name Eugen instead of Eugene, a reasonable request since Eugene is a girl’s name in Germany.
In the spring of 1956 news arrived from America. When my mother handed me the letter, I could tell from her eyes she’d been crying: My uncle had found someone who would sponsor me to come to America and, no less essential, a bank in Rochester that would loan me the money for the ticket if he cosigned.
This was big, a life altering event, and I knew right away how crushing the letter must have been when my mother first read it. I was the oldest, her firstborn. If I accepted my uncle’s offer, it would be the fulfillment of my wildest dream, the chance of a lifetime. For her it would mean extra hours of field work on top of the many late night hours she already spent knitting socks for the village residents, on an ancient hand powered knitting machine passed down to her by our grandmother.
She could easily have asked me to stay. I was still a teenager and would be unable to get a visa without her consent. But I already knew what she would say. We had both in our own way defied a war, standing together once I was old enough to offer support. This was going to be a decision I alone would have to make and then live with whatever came of it.
Overshadowing it all was the prospect we might never see each other again. Historically, few immigrants ever revisited their country of origin. Her brother Karl had gone to America in the twenties, never to return. Even telephoning had to be prearranged and cost nearly a dollar a minute. No private phones existed in the village. The one bright side was that I could assist her financially with money earned in America, the way many immigrants do to this day.
A visa to enter the United States as a legal resident was granted in May of 1956 by the American Consulate in Munich. My uncle had originally booked passage for me on the Italian liner Andrea Doria that was scheduled to arrive in New York on July 26, then changed it to a KLM flight arriving on July 7. Crossing the Atlantic by air was more expensive but would put me into Rochester three weeks ahead of the Andrea Doria and my uncle was in the midst of an upstairs remodel of their house on 14 Wooden Street for which he said he could use my help.
I arrived in America with $25.00 in my pocket. That’s all my mother and I could scrape together. I owed Lincoln Rochester Trust Company in Rochester $343.88 for the airline ticket. The helicopter ride was free: KLM had me flying into one airport (Idlewild, later renamed JFK), and out of another (Newark) for the connecting flight to Rochester. It was all on the same ticket so they had to shuttle me between the two airports at their expense. My first flight ever on an airplane and a helicopter. What a country!
Sadly, the Andrea Doria never arrived in New York that July. The ship sank off Nantucket Island on the 27th, having been rammed in dense fog by the MS Stockholm. Although 1,660 passengers and crew survived, 46 perished as a result of the collision.
I became a citizen of the United States on November 20, 1962, after the mandatory waiting period. My tipping point to become an ‘American’ by ideology had been reached seventeen years earlier, at age nine, somewhere between the night of the horses and the CARE packages and the black sergeant extending his hand, holding out an orange.
It would be nine years before I was able to fly back to Germany. Two stateside stints in the Army, a marriage, and the birth of our son Raymond made it difficult to get away or pay the high air fare of $328 one way in 1956, the equivalent of $2,775 adjusted for inflation. Not to mention trying to carve out a career. In April of 1965 I was asked by Bausch & Lomb, my employer, to travel to Paris and represent them at an optical exhibit. Travelling by train to Winterbach when the show was over took but a few hours.
My mother and brothers and sisters and I had talked on the phone from time to time, and always at Christmas. But seeing them in person again was wonderful. I had vacation time coming so I stayed in the house I was born in for nearly two weeks. A lot of catching up to do, and so much had changed. A few cows were still around, but Germany’s unexpectedly quick postwar recovery had paid for underground sewers and flushing toilets which for me was sort of a big deal. Many residents of Rohrbronn now had cars that allowed them to commute to Stuttgart, home of the Porsche and Mercedes-Benz auto plants. The village was beginning to become a rich people’s suburb, with swimming pools and all the accouterments.
During the next thirty years my visits would become more regular, first with Effie, my spouse, then with Terry after Effie had passed away. My sister Erna got married and moved to Tacoma, Washington. Erika and Eugen also married and both moved to Plȕderhausen, a town close to Rohrbronn, where Eugen is living with his wife Elisabeth. Erika’s husband Erhard succumbed to cancer. I sponsored my youngest brother Werner so he could come to the States as a legal resident. He joined the Army, became a citizen and then served in Korea.
Once air travel became more affordable, our mother decided she too wanted to see America. She visited both me and Erna on separate occasions and stayed with my sister twice, for several months. Turns out she loved America and flying and was particularly fond of takeoffs. Outstanding!
In November of 1996 this courageous woman departed an often harsh, demanding life on earth after a short illness. Terry and I had already scheduled a trip to Germany to see her one last time. Then my brother called to say “you need to come now.” Three days later I was at her bedside. It was the last time I would hold our mother’s hand.
The guilt of having deserted her and my brothers and sisters diminished over time. It would never melt away into the unaware. In my final telephone call I thanked her for not trying to talk me out of leaving. “Oh it’s alright, Helmut, let it go,” she answered. Then she asked: “But were you happy?” Sensing that this would be the last time I would hear her voice, I had a hard time keeping it together. But, I had made the call from the office phone during working hours and the shop was still open for customers.
Hours later, having pried open a door to a forbidding and rarely visited place in my mind filled with deeply buried memories, I lost it. “Damn’ you, Ma’,” I cursed out loud in the now deserted print shop. “What unholy law of God’s creation made you give up the best years of your life so we could find happiness in ours?”
My eyes welled up to where I could no longer hold back the tears. What should have been grief was exploding as anger. I wasn’t berating our mother. I felt rage against a world infested with indifference; a lingering hatred of man so quick to surrender to the dark angels within his nature. The war had finally taken its toll.
“In love we find out who we want to be. In war we find out who we are.” Kristin Hannah
By the time Terry and I arrived two weeks later on our originally scheduled visit, my strong, kindhearted, and fiercely independent mother had passed away.
Copyright 2016 Helmut Heindel