Reinventing Myself: the Internationalist

I lived an insular life during my first 18 years, although I did not know that at the time. When your horizons are very limited, you simply cannot see larger ones.
The Army sent me to Arkansas and then to Texas, but even so, my early friends shared much of my own culture. Call it Americanism; we soldiers had that. The Army encouraged that mindset.
I drifted for two years between my first and second hitch, finally becoming exposed to college education via a course at Fullerton Junior College in California. When that ended, I went back into the Army. The things I’d disliked about the Army were also present in civilian life, in spades. And with less security, something I sought because of my impoverished early life.
This time, the Army sent me to Chicago. For the first time I left the Sun Belt. It was a revelation in many ways, but not what I expected. Southerners believed that the north was a bastion of liberal equality. Surprise…it wasn’t so. My own attitude continued to evolve.
From Chicago, I went to Germany. I’d been a part of a custodial team that kept federal custody of weapons assigned to the Army’s Illinois National Guard. The first overseas deployment handed me the same job, except that this time it was the German Luftwaffe rather than the ING.
I had no knowledge of Germany other than that it was in Europe and we had fought a bloody war that had ended just 20 years before. I married in Chicago, and both my wife’s parents were veterans of WWII; she, part of the British armed forces and later a war bride, had been a radar operator who via the Chain Home stations watched the raids from German bombers as they formed up in France. He was a combat vet, infantryman, who had made all three of the big assault landings by the famed 1st Infantry Division. He’d gotten severely wounded a number of times and still suffered from what’s now called PTSD. One of those happened on Omaha Beach; he’d been shot by a German. Getting the picture? I was ignorant and suspicious. Not that the Army cares; unlike the German services who come to the US for overseas deployment, the US just dumps soldiers in to sink or swim. I learned to swim.
Green, trying to figure out just what I was supposed to be doing and where I was, I was handed a train ticket for four and told I was in charge. Specialist 4 is a rank equivalent to corporal as far as pay is concerned, but you are actually more of an overpaid private. You have few responsibilities other than to do what you’re told. Now I was responsible not only for myself but for three others, all of us equally bewildered. We couldn’t read the signs or even converse with people. Complicating this, we were going away from the zone of Germany where Americans were common; instead, we joined a German batterie, several hundred airmen and about 25 Americans attached to them. I got them safely to where they were supposed to go, an astonishing feat in a way!
My wife could not accompany me there, but I would be able to bring her over later. Sp4’s aren’t provided family support, or weren’t then.
Fortunately, the German airmen I worked with often spoke excellent English. For the first time, I got to know well people who weren’t American. The airmen had trained at Fort Bliss, just as I had. Germany had a base on that post. So we began with something in common.
Germans considered most of our issues to be quaint and thought we’d work our way through them. Politics? They loved it, but of the European variety. I began to widen my horizons because of the contrast. I was curious and began to pick up a few words of German. A promotion got me permission to bring my Wife over and we moved into a temporary apartment owned by a widow. She had two adult or near-adult children.
At that time Americans didn’t ask what had happened to her husband. I was still a bit suspicious, but I was learning.
Frau Tigges couldn’t have been sweeter to us. We couldn’t converse, but by sign language and a few words we gained understanding. And if I was bewildered by this strange country, my wife was even less equipped to deal with the strange customs and restrictions that the military authorities placed on how we acted in this host country.
Frau Tigges became her second mother, and a grandmother to our small family after my son was born. We adjusted to our new addition. Frau Tigges might say nothing; a knock, and then an arm comes in and takes a pail of dirty diapers out for washing, to come back later clean and folded. We didn’t ask for her to do this; she understood. Forty five years later, I still hold affection and gratitude to that sweet old lady.
Back to the states for a tour at Fort Bliss, then back to Germany. That was the pattern of my remaining career. During the second tour, I met a German family. Our tiny custodial team put on the traditional Thanksgiving feast of turkey and the usual trimmings. We were allowed to bring one guest each, but I was by now a senior NCO and Team Sergeant, what would be First Sergeant in a battery or company sized unit. So I invited two guests and their families. We had become friendly and I’d kept working on learning German.
One of my guests pointed out the failing of our security sergeant. He’d decided it was his duty to invite the First Sergeant of the German batterie we supported, and had then abandoned him and his wife. Essentially, he’d pointed them to the dining hall and ignored them thereafter. So Wolfgang and Gisela joined us.
They essentially adopted me from that point on. Wolfgang became my best friend, and they decided I shouldn’t be spending my weekends alone in a room in a barracks. On weekends, it was understood that Jack was a guest at the Sauer’s and I slept on their couch. Finally Wolfgang arranged a room for me in the NCO wing of the German Kaserne in Delmenhorst. I became an honorary member of the German NCO Corps.
For the next two years, I spent Monday through Friday working with Americans. Friday night until Monday morning, I lived as a German. I barely spoke a word of English during weekends, usually when a German insisted that I do so in order for him to practice learning English. I also traveled through Germany, usually with one of my German buddies. History, art, even literature; I read German magazines and newspapers.
By the time I returned for my third deployment, I conversed readily about politics and international issues such as the partition between the DDR, East Germany, and the FRG, West Germany. I met Norwegians and Dutch and French and Swedes as my wife and I visited around Europe. English and Scots, too, and Italians and Spaniards and Swiss and Greeks…I have many good memories of Europe.
I had first gone to Europe ignorant and suspicious. I had changed. I was ready to reinvent myself for the third time.
Next: extending my wings.


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