Germany and Beyond

On my 23rd birthday, the family threw a party for me. Straddling my hip as they sang, Happy Birthday, Rob chimed in, singing out, “Happy Birth-too.” Repeatedly, we would light the candles on the cake to encourage him to sing and blow out the candles. Tootsie asked if they could keep Robin on a Sunday afternoon, and I dropped him off at their house. When I returned hours later, they had never changed his diaper – neither knew how.

Preparing to go to Germany, I got our passport picture, and I sent it to the Army as requested. The Army insisted that small children be on the mother’s passport, and that they process it. Just before Rob’s second birthday, we left Houston. At the airport, both Mother and Tootsie were distraught over losing the baby. With his grandmothers sobbing, Robin was upset as we walked across the tarmac to the airplane. I carried Robin up the boarding stairs while he waved to his grandmothers. As we reached the top step, the plane’s engines roared to life.

The flight attendant reached out for him, and he started screaming, “I want off!” He cried all the way to Washington, D.C. where we changed planes.

Arriving at McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey, I checked in for our flight to Germany. The terminal was packed. A young airman informed me that my passport wasn’t available, and I would need to wait. After an hour, I went back up to the counter and sat my cranky child on top of it. Asking the status of my passport, I was again blown-off. Telling the airman that I was standing there until my passport was found, I pinched Rob’s chubby leg. Naturally, Robin started crying and screaming. The airman was getting edgy. An Air Force sergeant was walking by and couldn’t ignore a crying toddler. He suddenly remembered seeing Rob on our passport picture. He found our passport on the desk of an airman who was on leave. Finally, we embarked and headed for Frankfurt, Germany. Larry picked us up in his brand-new, two-seater, MG B convertible. Bitten by the racing bug, he had joined an auto racing club on post.

We lived in government housing in Hanau, Germany, and Larry was assigned to the Finance Department at Pioneer Kaserne. Kasernes are small, military posts dating from Hitler’s regime and have been occupied by the American military since 1945. Hanau was the home of the Grimm Brothers, and many, ancient sections still look as if they were part of the original Grimm’s fairy tales. In the early hours of March 19, 1945, Hanau was violently shattered by a massive, allied air strike. Nearly 85 percent of Hanau was destroyed, and it seemed the city had suffered a mortal blow. Brick by brick and with copious help from the US military, Hanau was rebuilt. The street outside Pioneer Kaserne was referred to Hookerstrasse, where some Kraut sisters were selling it on the street.

When I first arrived in Germany, Larry explained the monetary system to me. It seemed simple enough – four Deutsche marks were equal to one American dollar. He drove me to the main department store downtown and dropped me off, telling me he would pick me up in two hours. Busy wandering around the store I didn’t buy much that day, but I learned fast how to navigate the money and language enough to venture out on my own.

The government housing was built by the German Army in the late 1930s. The high buildings had three floors of apartments, full length basements where we washed and dried our laundry, and temporary apartments in the attic. The buildings were separated into three stairwells with six apartments in each section. With eighteen stacked neighbors, it was virtually impossible not to know everyone’s business. Each apartment had a balcony where we sat outside, if it were ever sunny. Sunshine was a precious commodity in Hanau, the eternal, winter-looking skies were overcast 85 percent of the time. Whenever the temperature neared 80 degrees, most of Hanau shut down and went to the outdoor pool. The pool made waves and on sunny days, it was so crowded, one could barely see the waves.

The family housing area was next to the Dunlop Rubber Company which made tires and other rubber products. The wind would deliver a smelly, black haze which hung over the housing and in particular my wash on a daily basis. Next to our living area was a campground, primarily habituated by Gypsy travelers. Another reason to dry my wash in the basement, they stole from us. With very limited Commissary and PX facilities, I purchased fresh vegetables from a vendor who came to the housing facility twice weekly. The vegetable man also sold candy. When he beeped his horn, the children emptied the building in a flash. The German beer company delivered twice a week, picking up empty bottles and replenishing beer and soft drinks by the cases. German beer bottles still had the signature ceramic caps, the original flip-top stoppers. Once a month, I packed up Rob and an ice chest and drove up to a small, mountain village to buy meat. Knowing the butcher shop received fresh meat on Monday, I would show up on Tuesday.

We watched German television, and I loved the fact they didn’t interrupt shows with advertisements. They air commercials in 15 minutes blocks between shows. To watch television in English, we watched the Armed Forces Network (AFN) which was produced by the military. On June 5, 1968, while feeding Rob breakfast, I was watching the morning news. The show was interrupted by special coverage on the death of Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles. Shortly after midnight, Kennedy was brutally assassinated in a hotel kitchen after giving a speech. It struck me that everyone I knew at home were asleep and wouldn’t be aware of this tragedy for hours. In July, 1969, we anxiously waited for the moon landing, and we watched Neil Armstrong’s first walk on the moon. We watched the moon walk on German television and flipped back to the AFN channel to catch it in English.

Frequently, I loaded up Robin, and we would tour every castle, summer palace, museum and cathedral in a 50 mile radius. He took many an afternoon nap, while I was in route to a castle. The autobahns (highway) don’t have speed limits, and they are built for high-speed. Leaving after lunch, we could tour an ancient castle and be back in time for dinner if we didn’t get slowed down by a honey wagon. On the small farm roads, the farmers drove horse-drawn wagons that were piled with cow manure for the fields. The wagons were covered with a tarp. The offensive odor announced itself, miles before you caught up with it. With its cargo stacked high, the bulky, crawling dray was difficult to pass.

Larry raced the MG in the touring-sedan-class at local, sanctioned events and racing tracks. Needing to have a special deferential installed every time he raced, he found an auto mechanic in a nearby village. A typical, Germanic blond with stern features, the mechanic, Wolfgang was extremely tall, at least 6′ 6”. On the rare occasion, when Wolfgang smiled, he was the sexiest man I had ever seen. Larry had Wolfgang install a safety roll-bar and special seats with double over-both-shoulders harnesses in the car. He was overly concerned about his safety, but never thought twice about Rob sitting on the back ledge. I finally talked him into installing a lap belt in the back.

The racing club members attended road rallies, where I rode with Larry as the navigator. I had to navigate as Larry had zero sense-of-direction. He wouldn’t let me drive the MG until I could go into left-hand curve at 70 miles-per-hour, speed-shift down and once hitting the apex, exit the curve at 70 miles-per-hour. Then, he decided I would have to spin the car, three times, on wet cobblestone at 45 miles-an-hour and finish, facing the right direction. Once I mastered that feat, he didn’t find another excuse to prevent me from driving the car.

We traveled to every possible event on the Grand Prix racing circuit, we could manage. Our racing club would set up a small, tent city on the campgrounds adjacent to the bigger tracks. Circling our tents the like Old West wagon trains, we camped at Nurburgring for the German Grand Prix. Many of the Formula One teams’ pit crews would hang out with us because we had American food, booze and cigarettes. When the Italian team arrived, the party really started. Graham Hill, from England, was a World Champion driver and his team was very accessible and friendly. In the pit, his crew put Rob in the Formula One car. I took pictures of him wearing a hat signed by Graham Hill. Unlike the never-ending, left-turning, NASCAR tracks, Grand Prix tracks vary from six to nine miles, with hair-pin curves and treacherous, high speed cornering. The sport involves more than just speed, it requires skill, agility and nerve.

Formula One racing is an international sport. In circuit racing when a driver goes to the winner’s circle, his country’s national anthem is played during the ceremony. At the race in Belgium, the Mexican racing team won, and the track officials were unable to find the Mexican national anthem recording. In a scramble to provide music, La Cucaracha blared from the speakers. Only the Americans thought it was hilarious.

We went to Spa, Belgium for the Belgian Grand Prix. Near the track, we stayed in a small hotel where the Italian team had already checked-in. Happy to see us again, the Italian team offered to drive me in the pace car around the track that evening. Lapping the track in a Ferrari is almost indescribable – the speed, the noise, the hot smell of Castrol and the phenomenal thrill are still with me. Our treating the Italians to a bottle of whiskey at Nurburgring really paid off. We were sitting in the grandstand, on the day of the race and just as the field of cars roared past me, one racer clipped another car. The second car spun and careened until it slammed into the wall just beyond the grandstand. Unfolding in slow motion, I watched each, individual piece of the wreckage fly from the race car, momentarily suspended in mid-air until it came crashing down to the track. Mesmerized, I realized the whole scene had occurred in under nine or ten seconds.

In route to Belgium, we visited the tiny Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Surrounded by Belgium, Germany and France, landlocked Luxembourg was the most European of all the many countries we visited. In Luxembourg City, street artists would re-create in pastel chalk famous paintings on the city sidewalks. Their realistic renderings were absolutely breathtaking, and I couldn’t believe their wonderful art would be left to the elements.

While in Luxembourg, the club visited, en masse, the American Military Cemetery and Memorial. Being in the military, the guys wanted to visit the grave site of General George S. Patton. Patton was buried there, after being killed in a wreck when his car’s driver smashed into a 2 ½ ton Army truck in Germany. The chapel and memorial sit in a wooded area with the graves of our military gently, sloping down the hillside. Many of the graves are for soldiers who lost their lives in the “Battle of the Bulge.” The “ Battle of the Bulge” was fought across Belgium and Luxembourg with General Patton’s armies merging victorious against 250,000 German soldiers. Leaving, I couldn’t help noticing the much larger cemetery across from the American cemetery – it was for the German Army.

We spent a day in Amsterdam before going to Zandvoort in northern Holland to attend the Dutch Grand Prix. Zandvoort is a beach town on the North Sea, and the race track is next to the beach. It was June, but the relentless winds made it feel like it was the dead of winter. On the morning of the race, it was windy and raw. I decided to keep my sleeping bag handy. From my perch on the sand dunes at the track, I watched young women in bikinis, sun-bathing on the beach below. The healthy, endowed Dutch girls frolicked on the beach as if it were a 90 degree day. I watched, sitting in a folding, lawn chair, shivering in a sleeping bag with blowing sand stinging my face. When we returned to Germany, we stopped in Rotterdam and the The Hague to visit the NATO headquarters

We drove to Hockenheim to see Jimmy Clark, a Scotsman, who had twice been the Formula One World Champion. The Formula 2 race had a sold-out crowd. Sitting next to me was a very large, German man wearing a cashmere coat who kept creeping into my space. When the track announced there had been a wreck on the back lap of the track, I waited pensively until an ambulance came slowly around the track. With no sirens or urgency on their part, I knew the news would not be good. On a cold, sunny April 7th in 1968, Jim Clark’s life tragically ended in a crash on a secondary track.

The post newsletter ran a request for Girl Scout leaders for several weeks. I decided to respond, and I ended up with a scout troop. We had our meetings at the Teen Center which was in the family housing area. Before long, I had the girls planning a trip to London. We asked two other girl scout troops to join our effort. After months of bake sales, used book sales, babysitting jobs and my begging the Army for help, we left for England. Several of their mothers went with us as chaperons.

Our tour bus boarded an extremely, large ferry in Calais, France. I went aft to watch the crew bring cars and buses onto the ship. When a train was put onboard, the ship actually sunk and settled a foot in the water. I was fine crossing the English Channel, but on our way home I was seasick and desperate to get home.  Arriving in England, we saw the famed, white cliffs of Dover.

In London, we stayed at a small hotel which was the former home of J. M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan. As we were checking-in to the hotel, I mentioned to the desk clerk that I would need a wake-up call for the following morning. Finally everyone’s rooms were assigned, keys issued and instructions on when to meet next were given.

I was gathering my belongings, when the desk clerk asked me, “Madam, at what time would you like to be knocked up?”

“Excuse me?” was all I could stammer. Realizing his slang didn’t register on my American ears, he rephrased, “What time shall we rap on your door to wake you?”

It was April with unusually beautiful weather for London. Twiggy was the latest craze, and Carnaby Street was the in spot for fashion. The Soho area was a mixture of “mod” and “hippie” life styles. The mini skirts were extremely mini, and a bus load of 13-and-14-year-old girls scream at the smallest thing.

We went to Buckingham Palace to see the changing of the guard. The huge crowd made it difficult for the younger girls to take pictures. Someone hoisted me up to the base of a statue, where I would snap photos for one girl and then for the next one.

As I handed down the last camera, a Bobby strolled over to the statue and looking up at me, he said, “It is not permitted to stand on statues.” Looking down, I suddenly realized how high I had climbed.

Seeing the concern on my face, the Bobby said to me, “Jump Luv, I’ll catch you.” I jumped – he caught me, and a bus load of teenage girls fell in love with him.

Back on the bus, I did a second head count as I realized I had two missing girls. Their mothers were on board as chaperons, and they had not noticed their own children were missing. We were on our way to Madame Tussuad’s Wax Museum. Once we unloaded the group, the bus driver and I returned and rounded up our wayward, frightened girls. I realized I would have to chaperon the chaperons.

We went to Hampton Court Palace which is on the River Thames, outside of London. Hampton Court was a primary residence of Henry VIII. He invented or took credit for tennis. He commissioned the Royal Tennis Court in 1528. An avid player, he played often on the indoor court. In 1907, Lord Baden-Powell invented scouting, and his widow was living in a small apartment in the palace. The tour guide stated that it was common practice to allow retired or widowed, civil servants to live on royal property.

The formal palace gardens were delightful, but my main memory is of a field next to the palace. Over the centuries, daffodils growing wild had multiplied until the meadow was peopled with yellow, fluttering, nodding heads as far as I could see. It is a once-a-year event, and I was fortunate to be there at the right time.

When we left Hampton Court, we toured the countryside on the way to the Canterbury Cathedral. The cathedral is the Mother Church of the Church of England and made famous by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It is the story of Archbishop Thomas Becket, who was murdered in the cathedral in 1170. The town of Canterbury surrounds the cathedral, and we allowed everyone to go shopping. In the main chapel, a youth symphony was rehearsing for a concert they were to give that evening. The young musicians played beautifully and the acoustics in the chapel were absolutely phenomenal. I decided to remain. For over an hour, I sat in a 1400-year-old building listening to classical music.

The girl scouts were excited, yet spooked, about touring the Tower of London. The Towers were once a prison and it is where the Royal Crown Jewels are kept under guard. Dressed in their signature, red uniforms which were designed in 1509, the guards are commonly called “Beefeaters.” Over the last 1000 years, the Tower of London has served as a Royal Palace, a fortress, a prison, a place of execution, an arsenal, the Royal Mint and the jewel house for the Queen’s jewels.

Earlier that year, Larry, Rob and I went by train on a tour to Vienna, Austria. We slept on the train on the overnight trip. In Vienna on our afternoon breaks, we went to the coffee shops where I discovered Viennese pastries. The mouth-watering pastries were unbelievable, and éclairs and Napoleons are still my favorites.

We toured most of Vienna, and I found the Schonbrunn Palace’s beauty, staggering. With 1400-plus rooms, the summer home of Empress Maria Theresa has magnificent Rococo decor and lavish formal gardens. In the palace there was an exquisite room with walls made of Dresden china. The history of how it was saved during the WWII fascinated me. We spent a morning in a 1800s white riding hall, the Spanish Riding School, watching the riders and their Lipizzan horses train.

The hotel manager found a babysitter for Rob, and we went out on the town to experience “new wine.” Our Austrian tour guide warned us several times that the light, delicate wine had an extraordinary kick. She recommended everyone have only two glasses at the most. After midnight, our drunken, tour group ended up in a strip club. On the stage sat a bed and a night table with a picture of a soldier on it. The dancer came on stage in a sheer, blue negligee. She held the soldier’s photograph to her bosom. Although I couldn’t understand her Austrian lament to her lost love, I began to get tickled. Very somber music was playing low. As the sound began to crest, I realized she was performing her strip tease to the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Marching around the table, I was saluting when we were thrown out of the club.

On our last morning in Vienna, we went to the bakery and bought pastries to take back to my neighbors. As we got closer to Germany, it began to snow. The snow began to come down hard, and the train began to move at a snail’s pace. The train stopped, and we had to wait for snow plows to clear the track. As we waited, we began to eat the pastries. After an extra ten hours, we got home – sans our neighbors’ pastries.

I got the news that Daddy had colon cancer and needed surgery. Taking Robin with me, we flew out of Frankfort and had a six-hour lay-over in Amsterdam. The airport had moving sidewalks which were the first I had ever seen. Rob and I rode on the sidewalks all afternoon. We caught a direct flight through Montreal and on to Houston.

Since I was accustomed to a different time schedule, it was decided that I would stay in the hospital at night with Dad. Rob would be able to stay at home with Mother at night. On the second night after Daddy’s surgery, Van’s father died. He and Margaret left for Nashville to help his mother.

Dad’s surgeon came into his room and asked when Mother would be there. I informed him that she didn’t handle adversity well. With Margaret in Nashville, I was it. When the doctor left the room, I stepped outside the door and stopped him. I asked if the pathology reports had returned, and he sadly advised me that the cancer was advanced and the prognosis was not good. Knowing I needed to go back in the room with Dad, I made an effort to calm myself. I waited for 30 long minutes, and I made an excuse to Daddy in order to leave the room. I found a pay phone and called Margaret. I don’t know if we ever gave Mother the full details. To help Mother with getting Dad settled and cared for, I stayed in Houston for a month.

Ron was a Marine and stationed in Vietnam. He was granted a hardship discharge and came home to be with Dad. He met Dana, through Mother at the store, and they married as Dad was anxious to see him married with a family before he died. Ron and Dana married after we returned from Germany. At their wedding in St. Marks Episcopal Church, we were waiting for the bride’s entrance. A large, gold cross hanging behind the altar caught Robin’s attention. Popping up, he shouted, “Look Mom at the huge plus sign.”


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