Down the Road

Roads and life and how roads are like life

Everyday life, half a world away

8

I’ve written at length this week about the big things that affected me in Germany. I’ve saved the best for last: the everyday family life I enjoyed.

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My home that summer

Ulrich (OOL-rick) and Irene (ee-RAY-nuh) were my host parents, and Peter (PAY-ter) and Ulrike (ool-REE-kuh) my teenaged host brother and sister. They lived what I see now was an upper-middle-class life in Krefeld. Row houses were the rule, and almost everybody shared walls with their neighbors on both sides. It was a sign of status that their house was attached to a neighboring house on only one side, and even then, only via a garage wall.

They were a good family that loved each other. They lived a low-key life centered around each other and their home. The family ate two and sometimes three meals a day together. Freshly baked rolls were delivered every morning for breakfast, and cheeses and hard sausages and Nutella came out every morning to top them. Irene thought for sure that as an American I’d want a bowl of corn flakes for breakfast, and bought box after box for me. I never had the heart to tell her I’d rather have rolls and Nutella! That chocolate-flavored nut spread was such a sugar-laden pleasure! It would be 20 more years before you could buy it in the States.

The main meal of the day was at about 1:30. Ulrich came home from work to eat with his family. Dinners were usually meat, vegetable, and boiled potatoes with a thin brown gravy. I never got tired of those boiled potatoes – they were outstandingly delicious! I don’t know what the Germans do to grow such flavorful potatoes. No American tubers can touch them. Ulrich went back to work after dinner and so missed afternoon coffee and sometimes even the evening meal. There was usually some sort of sweet or pastry at afternoon coffee, and that summer it frequently featured strawberries. Evening meal came at about 7 and usually consisted of an open-faced sandwich of hard sausage. It was nice to have such a light supper; it made it easier to fall asleep at bedtime.

After Ulrich made it home in the evening, it was his habit to offer me a beer. I’d never had beer before, so out of anxiety I declined. Later I did come to enjoy German beer, but by then it had become almost a game between us: he’d offer, I’d decline, and he’d sigh. I hope he knew we were both playing! On my last evening in their home, I did have a beer with Ulrich, and he seemed delighted.

Irene kept a lovely and spotless home. She was home anytime I was, and was always up for a conversation. I think that my German skills improved mostly through conversation with Irene, who wasn’t shy about gently correcting poor pronunciation, untangling my garbled grammar, and feeding me words I didn’t know. I liked to run errands with her around Krefeld in her car, an itty bitty Citroën Visa, easily the smallest car I’ve ever been in.

I spent a fair amount of time with Peter, who was about my age. The family had hosted several other Indiana teenagers in past years, but they all had been girls. That year the family specifically requested a young man and they got me. I think Peter secretly wished I had been more athletic, as he liked to play soccer and I just couldn’t keep up. But I did show him a thing or two on the family’s home computer. His sister Ulrike was kind and friendly, but a couple years older and involved in her own world.

Krefeld streetcar

Krefeld streetcar

The family had few rules for me, the most important of which by far was to enter the house quietly late at night so I wouldn’t wake them up. I was free to run around with my friends in the exchange program. Public transportation was outstanding and I could get anywhere I wanted to go in Krefeld on the streetcar. I rode it to school every weekday and also downtown where I would meet friends. We’d walk through the train station or Horten, a department store. We’d stop at an ice-cream stand, or step into a fast-food joint for pommes (french fries). Once we took part in a tournament for the board game Risk. The Germans who played seemed astonished that not only could these kids from Indiana play the game, but we spoke their language and reasonably well.

A couple times my friends and I met at the Gleumes (GLOY-miss) brewery for beer. Krefeld had two breweries at the time, Gleumes and Rhenania, but I liked Gleumes a little bit better. We all toured the Rhenania brewery, though, and at the end we were invited to sample their brews. That was the first time I drank beer, and because I had no idea what I was doing I got good and bombed. But the streetcar stop was on the corner, so there was no need to drive. The Germans are onto something: you can drink beer in public starting at age 16, but you can’t get your driver’s license until you’re 18. You learn how to handle your beer before you learn to drive! And when you’ve had a little too much, there’s no need to drive, because the extensive public transportation will get you home. Anyway, I was so tipsy after my brewery tour that I missed my stop and got to tour Krefeld by electric rail while I sobered up.

Another time we walked into a random pub in Düsseldorf where they made their beer on the premises. The brewpub concept is hot in the States now, but the whole idea was a revelation to me in 1984. We sat down and the bartender produced beers for all of us without us asking. They made one kind of beer, so if you were there, that’s what you got! I turned the cardboard beer coaster over just to look at it, and found it covered in penciled tick marks. The bartender quickly chided me (in German): “The last fellow drank that many beers and that’s how I kept track. Unless you want to pay for all that, lay that coaster down with the unmarked side up!” That last fellow could put away an impressive amount of beer!

I wish I had more photographs of simple times with friends and my host family. I didn’t know how to compose a candid shot then and I was simply too anxious to ask people to pose. I have a handful of candid shots but that’s all. I cling to them, especially as during college I lost contact with the other students who made the trip with me, and shortly after college contact with my host family petered out. It’s been 25 years since I last saw or corresponded with any of them.

But my memories remain. Such good memories. Such a remarkable trip that tangibly shaped who I would become.

Re-integrating joy

6

My dad once told me that I was the most joyful little boy he had ever known. During my first few years, he said, I seemed to constantly have a big beaming smile on my face, and everything seemed to make me happy. The few memories I have of my first three years seem to support his perception. Here are all of them:

Dad and son, 1970

First, I watched on TV as Apollo 11 landed on the moon. I don’t remember the landing, but I do remember that it was sponsored by Gulf Oil with its big red-circle logo and its name within. Mom says that at every commercial break, I pointed at the screen and exclaimed, “Gulf!”

Next, I used to get up when Dad’s alarm went off at 5 a.m., go quietly into my parents’ room, and lie still on the corner of their bed in the dark. The radio played softly, always on the Hit Parade station, while Dad dressed for work. I heard Karen Carpenter sing and when I closed my eyes her voice made me see colors that flowed and shifted with her song. I hoped to hear her song every morning.

Finally, I woke up in the hospital after surgery groggy and angry, but very glad when Dad came to take me home. He picked me up and, as I moved through the air on my way to his chest, my anger faded. I felt secure way up there with my head on his shoulder, looking down at the recovery room. He says that I said to him, “They’re not doing that to me again!”

These memories suggest to me that I took life as it was and easily experienced the feelings that went with it. No wonder I found it easy to feel joy. I felt easily.

James Monroe School

Castle school

My next memories, much more vivid and detailed, are of Kindergarten. My school looked like a castle in red brick trimmed in white with a slate roof and copper gutters. Room 001 was just inside the east entrance, and although the room had two entrance doors, you had to go in the far door because the near door was always locked. The room had a dim cloakroom with cubbyholes for coats and rubbers, and I’m pretty sure there was a tiny restroom in there with just a sink and a toilet. There were five or six low rectangular tables that held six children each, and the teacher had placed a big wooden block on each one, each block a different color, to identify the groups. We did most things with our color groups.

At the other end of the room was a wide fireplace, and before it a red circle laid into the tile floor. The whole class sat on the circle when Mrs. Coles read to us or we showed our toys at show and tell. We also laid mats down there when we napped. The teacher’s desk was by the fireplace; behind it was a nook chock full of toys including a child-sized kitchen and a big gray wooden box with an old Ford steering wheel and column sticking out of it. Mrs. Coles was a stout, grandmotherly woman with sliver and white cat’s-eye glasses and white hair. She drove her gray 1968 Chevy Malibu coupe (which had a black vinyl top) one whole block from her home to school every morning, where she parked on the street across from the school’s east entrance. Curiously, she always sat in her car for five minutes fiddling with her purse before coming inside.

Clearly, my memory had switched on.

I often felt lonely in that room with 25 kids. I often drove the pretend Ford by myself, in part because I liked cars but also because it was safer not to risk playing with others. The boys pushed and shoved and chased each other and sometimes I got hurt. The girls never caused pain, but I didn’t enjoy always being the husband or the son in their endless games of House. Also, at a time when schools didn’t teach reading until the first grade, I started Kindergarten already able to read. I was proud to be able to read, but Mrs. Coles didn’t believe I could. When I read her a page from a book, she seemed annoyed rather than pleased. I was crushed that she wasn’t as happy with my reading as I was. I also have a couple vague memories of her forcing me to write with my right hand, which confused and upset me because I was just as good with my left hand and liked writing with whichever hand felt good.

I faced school as earnestly as I could, but I was lost. When my first report card came, the teacher had remarked in it, “Jimmy should smile more. He’s so serious.”

I’m not sure what changed in me. Maybe I wasn’t quite emotionally ready for school. Perhaps something about my upbringing squashed my natural joy. Perhaps I was just depressed. Who knows; I can’t reach those memories.

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The Berlin Wall

A clue came when I was 16. I spent a summer in Germany on an Indiana University exchange program where I would deepen my German language skills. Even though my family always lived on a tight budget, my father stunned me by making the funds appear to send me on this trip. It took me a couple weeks to let my hair down and find my groove, but once I did I had the time of my life. I made some friends, lived with a nice family, studied German language and culture intensively, and traveled around Germany. I walked 539 steps to the top of the Cologne Cathedral. I drank beer in a little pub in Düsseldorf with a crusty but amused barkeep who explained the secret of the beer coaster and why you never turn it over. I got lost in West Berlin with a friend and spent an evening wandering streets to find our way back to the hostel. I touched the Wall and heard the stories of many who died trying to cross from east to west. I toured a prison where Nazi political enemies were hanged.

You are now leaving West Berlin

You are now leaving West Berlin

I stood on the ground where Christian writer Thomas a Kempis lived. I took a slow boat down the Rhine River and saw the Lorelei. I swam at a pool where clothing was optional from the waist up for everybody. I drank beer with East German teenagers and found that our differing political ideologies mattered not at all compared to our common desires for girlfriends, cars, and beer. It was heady stuff that produced a natural high, but I also was given the freedom and trust to handle myself over there. It let more of the real me come out — and so joy returned. But when I came home, I experienced more than the natural letdown from such a wonderful trip — I found that the world to which I returned didn’t fit the joyful Jim; instead, it was shaped for the serious Jim. With sadness and resentment, I put joyful Jim away, and then the black curtain fell on my first major depression, which did not lift for months.

20 years or more ago popular psychology started talking about how everybody needs to get in touch with their inner child. Then as now, the idea makes me want to gag. But as I’ve worked over the years to improve myself, joyous Jimmy kept appearing and asking for an audience to air his grievances for being put away for more than a quarter century. As I have listened to him, he has slowly been returning to his place within me. My, um, inner child is back! But I also find that the serious Jim isn’t going anywhere. They are both parts of me. Maybe the inner-child crowd really means to say that without being all of who we are, which means bringing back all the parts of us we put away when we were little, we will always struggle to find wholeness, contentment, and peace.


Originally posted in April, 2007.

Wanted by the FBI

2

On my flight to Germany in the summer of 1984, engine trouble forced us to land in Düsseldorf rather than in Frankfurt as planned. Because Düsseldorf expected no international flights that day, nobody was working in customs. My passport went unstamped, and I waltzed into Germany uncounted. How very un-German.

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Several weeks later, my group visited Berlin. The Wall would not fall for five more years. At Checkpoint Alpha on the East German border, grave, armed border police in fitted olive uniforms boarded our bus and, without looking at or speaking to anyone, collected all of our passports and exited. They made us wait more than an hour, our anxiety growing, before they returned with our passports (all tossed into a box) and waved us through. Each passport had received an East German stamp. The road from there to Berlin was bounded by walls so tall that we couldn’t see over them even from our bus seats way up high. I guess the communists didn’t want you to see the glorious living conditions on the inside, or everybody would want to move there. Several hours later down that road we were easily waved through the checkpoint at the West Berlin border.

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A few days later we crossed into East Berlin to see the sights. At the famous Checkpoint Charlie, stone-faced border police once again boarded our bus, collected our passports, and made us wait for a long time before they returned them all stamped.

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In East Berlin I walked in the Alexanderplatz, stood in line to buy a communist propaganda rag, er, newspaper (the top story that day was essentially how President Reagan was an idiot), drank beer and laughed with teenaged East Berliners, and tried to use a fetid underground open-pit public restroom. Shudder. I held it until we got back to the west.

In West Berlin, I bought a book called Durchschaut die Uniform, or See Through the Uniform, telling stories of border guards — not only about the distasteful jobs they did, but about the people they were. The last page showed two pictures of four border guards, the first with their stony faces and the second with wide smiles. The second photo seemed so strange! But I got the book’s point, which was to have a heart because these guards were real people. So I decided to put on a pleasant face for them on the way home. As we left, we passed back through Checkpoint Alpha. Dour border police boarded our bus and collected passports. When they took mine, I looked them in the eye and smiled. It was met with indifference. They just took our passports and inspected our bus for things we were not allowed to take out. Inspection successful, they left and we were free to pass through. We made our way back across free Germany to Krefeld.

A few years later I renewed my passport when it expired. I wondered if anybody at the passport agency noticed that my old passport contained stamps only from communist East Germany.

Then Iraq invaded Kuwait and the United States rode in on its white horse ostensibly to save the day. It was war, and I was draftable, so I was nervous about what might come.

At work the next day my co-workers were subdued and serious. I worked as best I could while I listened to news reports on the radio. Midafternoon, the receptionist called from the main building. “Uh, Jim?” she said. I could hear concern in her voice. She paused. “Uh… Jim, there’s a man from the FBI here to see you.”

My mind reeled for several seconds. My passport! They must have a file with my name on it! They think I’m red! They’ve come to carry away the commies!

“Jim?”

“Um. Yes. Tell him to drive across the street to this building.”

I stepped outside to await my doom. I paced under the gray sky, wondering what the internment camp would be like. Before long, a gray Chevrolet sedan turned in and parked. Out stepped a doughy man in a gray suit. He approached, showed me his ID, identified himself, and asked, “Are you James Grey?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Is there a place where we can talk privately?”

I thought, “Talk privately? Aren’t you here to purge the land of communists in the name of national security?” I was growing dizzy, but I said, “Sure, come inside.” I led him to an empty room and we sat down.

“Mr. Grey, do you know a man named Robert Woolf?”

I’ve heard stories about what happens to cars that are accidentally shifted into reverse while going 40 miles per hour. Namely, the car’s transmission suddenly disintegrates, distributing its pieces along the road. This is what happened to my brain at that moment.

In shock, I managed to say, “Yes, I know Bobby.” Where the heck was this going?

“I need to ask you some questions about Mr. Woolf.”

Bobby, a college friend and roommate, was a sharp, smart guy who majored in computer science and is now well-respected in his field. His senior year, as he looked for his first job, he applied at the National Security Agency. He was pretty jazzed about the job, but he never heard back from them. He applied for other jobs and eventually accepted one in Silicon Valley. He used to e-mail me complaints about the traffic out there.

“Is this about the NSA job? Don’t you know that Bobby accepted another position?”

The agent paused. He may have swallowed. He said, deliberately, “Yes, every person I talk to tells me that. But I have to do these interviews anyway.”

So for twenty dull minutes he asked me questions about Bobby’s associations and character. I told him what I knew and he went on his way. I felt sorry for the guy having to drive all over the place talking with Bobby’s friends and family, needlessly looking for skeletons since Bobby no longer wanted that job. I tried to empathize with the guy, but he’d have none of it. He stuck to his questions until he had no more to ask, and then he got back into his gray sedan and drove away.

I learned that it’s fruitless to try to connect with a government official doing a distasteful or useless job. They just want to get it over with.

But at least there was no internment camp for me!


Originally posted in May, 2007, and again in January, 2012.

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