Arrival in Germany
All told, I’ve lived abroad – in Germany – for over five years of my life. Even though I haven’t been there since 2012, I can point to Germany as a place with so many highlights in my life. It has a magical draw to me and though I’m sure it is much changed, I can’t wait for my next adventure there!
I was elated when our number came up for assignment in Germany. We were headed from Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, to O’Brien Barracks in Schwabach, West Germany. It was West Germany at the time since this was in March of 1985. Until then, I had never been to Europe. Amy had traveled there on a school trip, but it was all new to me.
We started our trip with a layover in Washington, DC, so we could pay respects to my Uncle E.C. Grayson. At the time he was serving as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy. We spent the night in his beautiful home in Arlington before boarding our flight to Germany. We had a late afternoon flight, as is typical, to allow for a morning arrival in Germany.
We knew had a ride at the Frankfurt airport, but did not have much detail about our pickup. At that time, most correspondence between the US and Europe was by letter. Letters generally took a couple of weeks. My sponsor had written that he would pick us up at the airport. I had no idea how I would find him, but I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to identify a U.S. Soldier in uniform. Little did I know how wrong I was!
Sitting next to me on the flight was a full-bird Colonel. That is one step below General Officer rank, so I was a bit nervous talking to him. He asked about where we were going and whether our unit was picking us up. To the latter, I answered rather tepidly, “Yes, I think so.” He told me not to worry and that he would ensure I had a ride if my unit did not follow through. I did not know at the time that not only was he a Colonel, but he was the Chief of Staff of the First Armored Division (my unit’s higher headquarters).
Upon deplaning and collecting our bags, the Colonel spied us and guided us through customs. Outside of the baggage/customs area was a large throng of people, many of whom were wearing the U.S. camouflage uniform. The Colonel asked if we saw anyone with a sign identifying them as our sponsor. I had not and I must have had a dazed and perplexed look on my face. He quickly stated, “You are coming with me.”
This led to a string of events that were NOT good for me, my sponsor, or my new unit! After a drive and stop for my first German coffee, we arrived at the Division Headquarters in Ansbach, Germany. That was only about a 45 minute drive from Schwabach. The first thing the Chief of Staff did upon our arrival there was to call our new Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Costello, and chew him out for leaving a new Second Lieutenant stranded at the airport. He directed that they send a car for me ASAP.
Before too long, a car did arrive and transported us directly to the unit on O’Brien Barracks to sign in and then directly to our temporary lodging at Porlein’s Hotel in downtown Schwabach. I was told to get some sleep and to report back to the Battalion Headquarters the next morning. Whoever took us to the hotel was kind enough to discuss the arrangements with Herr and Frau Porlein, who spoke VERY little English.
That afternoon, we finally met my sponsor. Fellow Second Lieutenant Ken Busse arrived at the hotel after getting his butt chewed for failing to meet us at the airport. The only problem was that he had been there all along! The Colonel had rushed us through the exit area so quickly that we had missed each other. Ken chastised me (rightly so) for not sticking around since he clearly told me he would meet us at the airport. Fortunately, Ken was quite forgiving and he and his wife Lynn became our best friends during our tour.
Living in Germany
We definitely had culture shock when we arrived in Germany. Not only had I made the ultimate faux pas at our arrival, but I seemed to have a hard time getting in step with the pace and requirements of my job. I was quite happy that my first Battery Commander, Captain John Warnke, was more interested in training subordinates than beating them for their failures. Work was hard, but we also played hard. John and his wife Lynne brought us into their circle, so we quickly became part of the community.
Germany of 1985 was a much different place than it is today. It was at the height of the Cold War. The distance to Europe was also quite different in the age before Internet. One of our first lessons of the learned was how great the distance really was. Shortly after we arrived in Germany, Amy’s grandfather died. We weren’t even aware of it until about six weeks later when she received a letter from her mother. What a shock! At the time, we had been living in Porlein’s hotel. They had tried to call, but could not get past the language barrier. By the time we had a home and sent our new addresses, nearly two months had passed.
As indicated above, this was prior to Internet, so there was no email or social media. Even once we got a home phone, it was extremely expensive. We only called on very special occasions and on those occasions, we really needed to script our calls in order to keep the call short. That led to written letters as the preferred method of communication. As letters generally took a couple of weeks, almost nothing was true recent “news.” I can’t even imagine what life was when the only communication to and from Europe was via ship.
Partly because of the communication issues, we really had to make friends with our colleagues in Germany. There is a unique camaraderie that I’ve experience only as a Soldier living abroad in Germany. Nothing else really compares to the relationships and experiences. Not only were we separated from our families, but most of us did not have more than a very simplistic understanding of the language and culture. We learned to get by, but were always the most comfortable with our American colleagues. We were all in the same boat and we all needed each other.
The Army did a good job fostering the sense of community in Germany. That was a significant part of the mission. At the time we arrived in Germany, the Nuremberg military community exceeded 100,000 American Soldiers and their immediate families. Our “inprocessing” tasks included “Headstart” basic German language classes for Soldiers and their spouses, German driver’s training and testing, and orientation of the military community. The community itself was a self-contained little village. We had our own grocery store (commissary), shopping mall (Post Exchange, or “PX”), churches, Post Office, bank, barber and beauty shops, schools, child care, hospital and clinics, gymnasiums, liquor stores veterinary clinics, and just about every other community service needed for Servicemembers and their families. The Army even provided significant Morale, Welfare, and Recreation for those in Germany. This included recreational facilities and classes, tour and travel opportunities, and counseling services. It even included radio and television (one station each) in English.
In short, the Army provided everything that anyone could need to survive in a foreign country. There was very little need to interact in the German community, especially for single soldiers. Unfortunately, there were some who vary rarely stepped foot off of the Army base for their entire tour. We tried the best we could to get them at least some taste of German culture, but outside of the German beer (and women), some soldiers had no desire to explore.
One problem for us was that our Town of Schwabach did not have a large American base. Rather, we were an outpost of the greater Nurnberg community. As a result, family lodging was extremely limited and nothing was available upon our arrival. We stayed at the Porlein Hotel for over a month before we could find housing on the German economy. We quickly realized, though, how lucky we were. We ended up in an apartment on the second floor of a German family’s home. We had a shared entrance, but walked upstairs to our apartment.
Our landlords, Herr and Frau Schuler, were very nice to us. They had a small son, Alexander. Herr Schuler spoke a little English, but Frau Schuler spoke none. This created many interesting interactions since he was often away with work. He did, though, alert us to the various rules of the house. Not only were most stores closed on Sundays, but it was supposed to be a day of rest for everyone. He could not do yard work on Sunday and ensured we were aware that we could not wash our car or hang out our laundry on Sundays. He was a stickler for many other rules, such as where and how we parked, the correct way to open the gate, etc.
The house was on Bad Strasse, not far from downtown Schwabach. It was a wonderful location and had an orchard in the back yard and a small creek running through the front yard. Our apartment had a covered deck across the front of the house. It was quite a peaceful setting. Before long, though, we adopted our puppy, Schatzi, and really wanted our own fenced yard where we didn’t have to take her on a leash down the stairs and across the yard. In addition, it was clear that Frau Schuler did not like the dog, so we found a townhouse that suited us better.
We loved the experience of living among our German hosts. After leaving the Schuler’s apartment, we ended up in small townhouse village in which we were the only Americans. Schatzi loved the yard, but she was also a bit too fond of our wooden floating stairs. She took quite a chunk out of one of the stairs. Living amidst the Germans led to many interesting and awkward experiences. In addition to the stairs, we had an incident where we lost power during a big soccer game. Our home was in the middle of the row, so the community television antenna was on our house. When our power went out (from using too many transformers), the neighbors came banging on our door. The good thing was we got much quicker than usual response from the power company! Other issues included Amy having a slight problem with a garage door that caused a commotion in the neighborhood and Schatzi, though she loved the freedom of her own yard, would not quit barking any time someone walked by. Despite these and various other issues, we felt welcomed and really loved that home.
The group of officers that we associated with frequently planned weekend trips to other cities within Germany. Ken Busse was most often our translator. His wife Lynn and John Warnke’s wife Lynne were the travel planners. Most trips were only a short drive away. We definitely got to see much of the entire state of Bavaria. In addition to our travels, we became “Volksmarch” aficionados. A Volksmarch is generally a 10 or 20 kilometer hike through the German countryside. Each town sponsoring a Volksmarch typically offers some sort of prize for participants, usually a beer mug or medal. That became a regular activity most Saturdays or Sundays in the Summer.
Another frequent activity was eating out and drinking beer. It didn’t take me long to learn to really enjoy the German cuisine. I loved the fact that the Germans had a beer for every season. We bought beer by the rack. Those consisted of twenty half-liter bottles in a plastic rack. We went through racks and racks of beer! Every city had its own brewery. The larger towns had multiple breweries, so we were never at a loss for places to try new beers.
Schwabach was about a 30 minute train ride to the center of Old Nurnberg. We made that trek often, but I particularly loved during Christmas season. Nurnberg is the site of the world famous Christkindlesmarkt (Christmas Market). It was awesome just strolling through the main square of the city. In addition to perusing the wares of peddlers, there were aromas of Gluhwein (spiced hot wine), lebkuchen (gingerbread), and of course, bratwurst. This was not your typical bratwurst like Americans are familiar with, but it was special Nurberger Rostbratwurst. You typically got a small sandwich roll (brotchen), with two or three Nurnberger bratwurst, and wonderful sharp German senf (mustard). They are heavenly and I think that the Christkindlesmarkt visits were the only time I chose wine over beer.
German fests are legendary. Almost everyone is aware of the Munich Oktoberfest. Yes, we got there every year, but nearly every town had its own fest. It wasn’t just the Fall beer fest either. There was a wine fest, a spring fest, and summer fest, a harvest fest, and just about any other reason to celebrate. We hit them all! They all served beer and wine, all had music, all had bratwurst and currywurst and pom frittes (French fries) and pretzels and many other staples. It was good, clean fun! If you didn’t visit the fests in Germany, you were missing an important part of the culture. Still my favorite was the Christkindlesmarkt, not only in Nurnberg, but throughout Germany and Austria. We tried a lot, but still enjoyed our home town version the best.
Not long after my arrival, most of the 2/59 Air Defense Artillery Battalion airlifted to the Crete Missile Base for our annual readiness drill and inspection. There, they chose the best – and worst – missile squads and platoons in Europe. My platoon came in dead last. I had a lot to learn as a leader. Still, I was awed at the opportunity to live in Europe and to visit Crete as a part of my job! In my next blog post I’ll focus more on my job, as well as on some of the interesting situations we found ourselves in.