[Thank you for returning to ROT for the sixth installment of my “Berlin Memoir,” a chronicle of my adventures on and off duty while I served in West Berlin as a counterintelligence agent in the 1970s. Part 6 covers several of the activities in which I engaged both as part of my MI assignment and in my leisure time; a large section of this segment of “Berlin Memoir” is devoted to my attendance at a German military intelligence school. For readers who haven’t been following the series, I strongly recommend going back and reading Parts 1 through 5 before going on to Part 6 below. I use some jargon and some German expressions which are defined and explained in the earlier sections and some topics mentioned below are more fully described in the first sections. (Parts 1 through 5 were posted on 16 and 31 December 2016, and 20 January, and 9 and 15 February 2017, respectively).]
I had a little taste of the absurd side of MI duty in Berlin on my way to the city. I flew out of McGuire AFB in Bordentown, New Jersey, on a MATS flight. (Not a troop carrier, but a chartered airliner—we had seats and everything.) I had to wear my uni, of course, but that flight only went to Frankfurt where most of the other GI’s, the majority of whom were EM’s, were supposed to assemble for transfer to their units by truck or train. I changed to a Pan Am flight to Berlin, and my sponsor had told me that I was expected to arrive in Berlin in civvies. So I had to duck into a restroom and change from my Class A’s into a suit. I was already doing spook stuff. (I remember the suit I wore—it was one of the Baltimore acquisitions—a light gray, pin-striped double-breasted with stovepipe trouser legs. I believe the shirt I wore with it was a dark blue one with red and yellow stripes and a long collar. My tie was probably wide, and some bright contrasting color. Chuck Lurey was the first to remark on my, ummm . . . sartorial splendor. That was my first hint.)
I said there was occasional actual danger. There was, but it was very occasional. I mentioned that every month or so, there’d be a firing incident at the Wall or Checkpoint Charlie. I was never near any of those, of course, but they were part of our consciousness. Of course, you know about the fear of kidnapping. This was actually going on, though most kidnapping victims were German businessmen grabbed by anarchist cells like the RAF. (As I also reported, they also liked to blow things up. Aside from the Farben building in Frankfurt where the young officer I had met was killed in a blast, on 2 February 1972, the Movement 2 June, affiliated with the RAF, set one off at the British recreation center on the Wannsee in Berlin—and killed Irwin Beelitz, a sweet old man, a German who was caretaker at the facility, had no connection to anything governmental except that he was paid by the Brits, and whom everyone loved.)
The Soviets seldom actually kidnapped anyone, but the fear existed that, if we were caught in the SZOG or East Berlin, we could be arrested on some pretense and carried off to Potsdam or Moscow and interrogated. This, of course, was the rationale for the pledge demanded of civilian airlines that they wouldn’t land in East Germany, the prohibition on travel into East Berlin and the SZOG (and entry into an S-Bahn station), and the later requirement that we get escorts to drive through the SZOG. It was also the backstory of the incident that closed down Berlin because my CID partner reported that I’d been kidnapped. Of course, people were killed while I was in Berlin, but by the RAF and other radical groups, not by the East Germans or the Soviets.
There was, however, also a large population of Turks in Berlin—originally guest-workers who stayed on. They constituted the criminal element in the city the way the Italians did here in the ’30s and the Colombian drug gangs did in the ’80s. They were violent, nasty, and heavily armed, and into most criminal activities that could be imagined, including smuggling, gun-running, dope trafficking, white slavery, pornography, and so on. Just before I arrived in Berlin, there had been a pitched battle downtown between the cops and a Turkish gang armed with machine guns. Nothing like that happened while I was there, but, again, it hung over us when we were out in the field. We weren’t usually armed, so we were vulnerable if anything did happen. I remember doing a surveillance in Kreuzberg, one that ended disastrously (if humorously). Kreuzberg was like the South Bronx of Berlin, and was heavily populated by Turks. We drove German-plated cars to the surveillance apartment, but we parked some blocks away and walked to the apartment. I had the red-eye shift, midnight to 8 a.m., so it was the middle of the night when I arrived. I had my heart in my throat more than once getting to the surveillance, as I did a few other times in districts like Kreuzberg when I was alone. Nothing ever actually happened, but it all didn’t do my heart much good.
By the way, because of a security concern similar to the kidnapping fear, if an MI agent ever had to go under anesthesia, we had to be monitored in the OR by another agent. (I recall an incident like this in the TV M*A*S*H with that kooky MI officer Colonel Flagg, played by Edward Winter, who made recurring appearances. Parenthetically, that show ran on AFRTS and was quite popular.) This was because the usual anesthetic was sodium pentothal, which is also “truth serum.” The Army was worried that someone might start questioning us about classified stuff while we were under! The agent wouldn’t stop the procedure, but he would prevent any untoward interrogation. (I never actually heard of an instance of this provision having been invoked in Berlin, though I’m sure it was somewhere.)
Life in Berlin, outside of work, was terrific. I said that by this time, city life had redeveloped, and there were lots of restaurants, good shops (the Kurfürstendamm—Ku’damm to GI’s—was a world-famous shopping street, the 5th Avenue of Berlin), many museums (a wonderful one, the Dahlem Museum for both art and ethnology, was right in our neighborhood), and other sites (the Charlottenburg Palace, the Kaiser’s residence in Berlin, was like a Germanic Versailles). Since I was not shy about going out and about, like some GI’s often are, and because I spoke German, I explored all over the city, both with my colleagues and friends and by myself. (I remember wandering around downtown West Berlin looking for a somewhat obscure site that was the preserved warehouse-like room in which the would-be assassins of Hitler had been briefly imprisoned before they were executed. I found it then—I doubt I could ever find it again on my own.)
Our quarters in Berlin, which I said were the best in USAREUR (and, maybe even anywhere, including stateside), were full apartments. BOQ’s were one-bedrooms in a garden-apartment complex about a half mile down the road from the PX and commissary. It was like living in a suburb somewhere in the states. Married officers had larger places nearby, and NCO’s with families had equally nice apartments in high-rises further out. Senior officers with families had houses in a development that looked exactly like a residential community outside an American town somewhere. (Except all the buildings were German—there was a very recognizable architectural style of post-war German construction from the ’50s and ’60s. It was very familiar! Many Amis in Germany used to call the States “the land of the round doorknobs” because all European doors had handles, not knobs. I always thought of the U.S. as the land of the sash windows—as opposed to the casement windoes that swing in from hinges along the sides. It’s impossible to keep anything on a windowsill with those kinds of windows and you can’t keep the curtains closed with the casements open.)
Our EM’s by the way, got a really good set-up. For obvious reasons, they couldn’t be assigned to a barracks with other GI’s so they had to be housed some place else. They could have been set up in some separate apartment, say one of the NCO high-rises, but I suppose that would have drawn too much attention. Putting them up in a civilian house was viable, I suppose, but the expense and the security problem were probably prohibitive. But we had a ready-made situation which would be mutually beneficial. The Station EM’s were housed in the safe houses we had around the city. They got a house to live in, with a kitchen and separate bedrooms, a living room and dining room, even a yard—all the luxuries—and we got someone to keep up the appearance of residents in the house so it wouldn’t attract attention as an empty house into which various Amis occasional snuck. (When an agent needed the house for an interview, the GI’s living there just made themselves scarce in some other part of the house.) Each house had a senior NCO (who was assigned a station car for transportation) and he and the other EM’s would act as security for the property as well. Can’t beat it with a stick! (I can’t say for sure that no other unit in 66th MI had this set up, but I don’t think any did, at least not in Germany. In the Zone, our units were treated much more like the line units—most wore uniforms on duty and weren’t even as low-profile as we were. Stations in Vicenza, Italy, or Rota, Spain, may have had similar arrangements—for the housing, not necessarily for the rest—because they were so much smaller bases of U.S. Forces. I don’t know that that was true, however; Berlin is the only place I know that did this. I said it was the best duty station in Europe.)
We were a sociable bunch at Berlin Station—lots of parties. I’m sure this was as much because we were forced to associate mostly with each other as it was because Army families just like to party. As I’ve said, our parties included both the officers and the EM’s, and one of the NCO’s was famous for the way he signaled the end of the party at his BEQ. He just lay down on the floor and went to sleep. Guests could stay on if they wanted, but he was plainly saying he was ready for the party to end. And it did—for him.
Shortly after I got to Berlin, my sponsor, who had gotten married just before I arrived, threw a cocktail party to introduce his new wife to everyone “officially.” Now, both Chuck and Ro Lurey were military brats—his dad was a retired Army colonel (I think that was his rank) and hers was a former Marine major, both of whom had gone into USAID after retirement. Chuck and Ro had met in Laos, where their parents were serving, as teenagers or young college kids. Naturally, they featured some Laotian delicacies among the hors d’oeuvres. So, we’re all smokin’ and jokin’, just standing around cocktail-party style and chatting, and I’m nibbling at finger-food like everyone else. At one point, I’m standing next to a bowl of carrots. They just looked like raw carrots—what we’d now call “crudités.” I’m talking with someone, and I reach over and grab a couple—and I’m surprised to find that they’re soft, but I didn’t think anything more of that and popped one in my mouth. And my mouth caught on fire! I mean, like I downed a lit glass of grain alcohol or something. What I had had no idea of was that these were Laotian pickled carrots, as sharp as the hottest pepper. I remember a Perry Mason episode in which Perry, Della, and Paul go to a Mexican restaurant for dinner after a case, and Paul brags about how he can handle any of the spicy Mexican peppers, and swallows one. There’s a beat. Then he leaps for a pitcher of water and just downs the whole thing. Well, that’s what I felt like. My host said later that he had seen me out of the corner of his eye as I reached for the carrot, but he figured I knew what I was doing so he didn’t say anything. WRONG! Big joke, huh?
We also had the Harnack House, the O-club. As I said, it was one the best in USAREUR, maybe the whole Army. (There were enlisted personnel clubs and NCO clubs, which were also top flight, but I didn’t sample them myself, of course.) We officers all ate at the O-club fairly often, if not for dinner then for lunch—and most of our more formal unit functions were there. But the one really unique thing there was a special meal after a special event. Berlin has a counterpart of Central Park, though it’s much wilder: the Grunewald. The Germans love their outdoors—they’re inveterate hikers and walkers and Germany was one of the few countries in Europe that never deforested its countryside—and the Grunewald was more like woods than a simple park. (The name means “green wood” or “green forest.”) And it had boar, known among the GI’s as “grunie pigs,” living in it. The boar population, however, was uncontrolled and every year it got too large for the park to sustain. So there was an annual boar hunt to which senior Allied officers and diplomats were always invited—from all over Europe, not just Berlin. It was a big deal. At least one boar is given to the Harnack House, and after the hunt, there is a special dinner of roast boar. Now, I was nowhere near high enough on the food chain to get into the hunt—not that I’d want to; I’m not a hunter—but the roster for the dinner is much broader, and I am an eater. So I went. (Tastes like pork, but stronger.)
The O-club also did other special events, of course I remember that it did a Seder at Passover, and because Chuck is Jewish but his wife is Catholic, he wanted to introduce her to some of our practices—but in a protected and comfortable way. So he asked me to go with them to the Harnack House Seder, so there’d be people she knew around her. We also went to a service at a Berlin synagogue—though I don’t remember if it was the same Passover, some other holiday, or just a Friday Sabbath service. It was the same deal—I’d go along so that there’d be at least two of us around whom Ro could feel comfortable. Unfortunately, what Chuck hadn’t realized was that the synagogue he selected was a conservative congregation and Ro had to sit separate from us with the other women. So much for protection in numbers.
There were also some less orthodox—if you’ll pardon the alternative use of the term here—amusements in which we indulged occasionally. (I did some amateur theater in Berlin, as you’ll see momentarily—but I’m thinking of slightly different diversions here.) I’ve mentioned that living in Berlin got claustrophobic at times, and though the Army and the other occupational forces offered outlets, as did the city itself, we could go stir-crazy sometimes if we hadn’t been out of the city for a while—especially if we’d been working overmuch for a while, like when I was on 24-hour call for an extended time. I was still pretty young then and still prone to adolescent excesses. Physics suggests that if you put too much pressure on one place, something’s likely to pop out somewhere else, and I guess that’s what happened to a bunch of us.
At one time while I was in Berlin we got a visit from the U.S. Army Synchronized Swim Team. That’s what used to be called water ballet—and the team was all WAC’s. I don’t recall if I actually went to the “performance” (I’m not sure what you call it) or not—probably not, since I don’t remember it. But one of my friends, who was especially adept at that kind of thing, had hooked up with the team afterwards. A group of us—mostly junior officers, but a few NCO’s were included—gathered to party. (Yup, we were fraternizing. Just one of the no-no’s on out list by the end of the evening.) Nothing lewd, just a moveable drinking and eating event. Think frat party on wheels. Somewhere along the line—I’m sure we’d consumed a fair amount by that time in the evening—someone from our gang, a Special Services officer who was in charge of Berlin Brigade’s recreation facilities, announced that he still had the keys for the pool. “Whoooaaa! Let’s go swimming with the WAC’s,” we all decided at once. And why not? It’s not like it was against any rules or anything. Not much!
Well, we organized car pools on the spot—I don’t remember where we were at that moment; probably someone’s BOQ—and off we went to the pool on one of the compounds. “Hey! Let’s go skinny-dipping!” someone suggested. So we did. (There were some wives along, too, by the way. But what the hey.) So there we were, maybe a dozen or so junior officers and NCO’s, a couple of wives, and the WAC swim team skinny-dipping and partying at the empty recreation services swimming pool after hours. I don’t recall that anyone brought booze to the pool, but we’d had enough before to last well into the night. I won’t describe what went on, but I’m sure you can give it a good guess. We stayed there until after dawn started to show and the buzz began to wear off. I was one of the first to leave—I’d begun to prune up, not to mention sober up—and I took one or two partiers with me (I was one of the drivers—not to say “designated drivers”); I don’t know how long anyone else stayed at the pool. Astonishingly, as far as I know, no one ever learned of our midnight escapade. Considering how many of us there were and how much we’d all had to drink during the evening, that’s amazing. It’s possible, I suppose, that the word got out but no one decided to do anything about it—but I doubt that would have been the case, considering the number of regs we broke.
In any case, I was in Germany (again), and I was going to partake of German culture. Not just the food, either. I mentioned in passing that I had attended the Bundeswehr intel school. I had been sent as a guest-officer to the MAD-Schule. (MAD was the Militärischer Abschirmdienst, the military counterintelligence service of the Bundeswehr. Unlike MI, which is solely Army intel, MAD was an all-service organization. It is now called the Amt für Sicherheit der Bundeswehr, the Office for the Security of the Bundeswehr.) That was something of a fluke, as it turns out. I don’t know how often the Bundeswehr—the combined military of the FROG—invited foreign officers to any of their schools, especially the MAD-Schule, or if they ever invited any but Americans, but they had invited two to join the class in the summer and fall of ’72.
The requirements for the program were that the guest had to be an officer (there were also NCO classes, but I don’t know if guest NCO’s were ever invited, too), have at least a year left on his tour, and speak German. And, of course, be available during the dates of the two-part course. That apparently narrowed the available pool at 66th MI enough so that Munich reached out to Berlin for one officer. Since the point for us was to get to know some German MI officers and perhaps to establish personal relationships with some who might later be in positions of real authority, it was something of a wasted invitation because there was no Bundeswehr in Berlin—it wasn’t permitted by the Occupation. The point for them was pretty much the same thing, so it wasn’t much use for an officer stationed in Berlin to make the trip and take the slot. But better use it than lose it, so there I was, with a good two years left to go in Germany (or so we all thought at the time) and speaking German well enough to do the course. Off I drove to Bad Ems. (Coincidently, Bad Ems was across the Rhine from Koblenz, the town I had lived in ten years before as a teenager so I got a little nostalgic trip “home” thrown in. I planned my arrival so I could spend the night in Koblenz—at a pension right by the Deutsches Eck, down the Rheinanlagen from where we used to live—and I could check out the town and then report to the MAD-Schule in Bad Ems fresh and in uniform the next morning.)
I didn’t actually go off to Bad Ems right away. The Bundeswehr isn’t any more efficient sometimes than the U.S. Army—despite Germany’s rep for efficiency. (Germans knew exactly when a piece of mail was supposed to be delivered after it was sent. If it was even one day late, they’d call the post office and complain. Made it hard for us to intercept mail.) I was supposed to go just as rehearsals had gotten underway for the American Community Theater production of Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth. I had been cast in one of the supporting roles—for the life of me, I don’t remember who—and I had to tell the director that I’d been ordered away on TDY and would have to drop out. This being a military base, they were used to that, but no one was thrilled with having to recast the role—and I had wanted to start working with the group and this would have been my first chance. A week or so later, though, word came in that the class had been rescheduled and I wouldn’t be leaving until after the production. I went back to the director and offered her my services as a volunteer, just so I could get into the group. To my surprise, she asked me to resume my role. I don’t remember if they just hadn’t recast it yet or were unhappy with the choice, or what.
It didn’t really matter, because a few days later, the director kept me after a rehearsal and told me that they were very displeased with the actor playing Chance Wayne, the male lead, and would I take over the role. (The only thing I remember specifically about this guy is that in the hash-smoking scene in the beginning—we used chunks of stale brownie—he didn’t have any idea what it was like to smoke hash or get high or anything. The director and the rest of us sort of tried to “teach” him what it was like—great, big pot-head that I was, don’cha know—but he never really got it.) Believe me, I was flattered—besides being a lead, Chance is, as one of my teachers later would describe it, a sex-pot role. (Paul Newman played the part in the Broadway première. That wasn’t my usual casting, even before I got gray, grizzled, and fat.) However, I wasn’t real comfortable about the idea of displacing an actor already in rehearsal, so I said I’d do it on one condition: that I not be around when they told the guy playing the part then. Coward, right? Dot’s I’m! (Turns out he was relieved—he was way over his head and knew it. He was pleased to take a smaller part, probably mine, but I don’t remember that detail.) So, anyway, we went back into rehearsals and got ready to do our show.
There were a few incidents connected to the show that are amusing. (In hindsight!) First and foremost, I had a Princess Kosmonopolis who liked to shorten her lines—more and more each time. It wasn’t that she didn’t remember them—she was fine in rehearsal—she just seemed not to like to say them. Unfortunately, there was a lot of exposition in our scenes in the first act, and she was dropping lots of information about the backstory. So I kept picking up her lines and adding them to mine. Why I never said anything to the director—or why she never noticed it or, if she did, said anything to the actress, I’ll never know. Little by little, then, I was developing a monologue!
Then there was the night that I had heard from backstage scuttlebutt that the assistant director, an Entertainment Specialist in the Special Services office (which ran ACT), had told a few people that he was going to walk on in the bar scene as an unannounced extra. Well, I was furious, and went off looking for him. He got the word that I was, and he actually hid from me. I think he actually thought I might kill him. (He was one of those who was in awe of my MI status—and I never disillusioned him.) I found him hiding upstairs from the auditorium, in the Entertainment Section offices, and I gave him a severe tongue-lashing. I let him think I might kill him if he set foot on the stage. Dat’s right. I’m baad. Uh-huh, uh-huh. (With gratitude and apologies to the late, great Gene Wilder.)
There had been an earlier incident where I wore my MI hat. Well, cloak I guess. Someone in the Special Services office—the Entertainment Director, I think—came to me because that same guy had been telling people he was a spook. He’d even taken to wearsing a fedora! I never made it official, but I gave him one of my “stern talking-to’s”—like those SAEDA briefings I mentioned earlier. I put him on notice—like a traffic cop who says, “I’ll let you go with a warning this time, but don’t let me catch you speeding again!” He being a PFC or whatever, was ummmm . . . shall we say, chastened? He thought I was King Shit after that. I just let him. (Now you also see what I meant when I said I’d been acting a role all the time I was in the Army.)
Finally, one night—I believe it was the night my parents were visiting and came to the show (my mom wasn’t too thrilled with the castration stuff at the end of the play, I can tell you!)—the crew person who was supposed to close the curtain at the end of the first act didn’t show up and no one noticed. That act ends with Chance and Princess going back to bed, ostensibly to make love—but the curtain’s supposed to close as we’re getting back in the bed. Well, we’re moving toward the bed—no curtain. We’re getting in bed—no curtain. We’re in bed—NO CURTAIN. The lights are off—NO CURTAIN! “What shall we do?” one of us whispers. “I don’t know,” the other replies. No one noticed the curtain was still up—or they didn’t know what to do about it. “Well, should we just get up?” “Yeah, I guess. What else can we do?” So, finally, that’s exactly what we did. In the semi-darkness, we simply climbed back out of bed and tip-toed off the stage. At which point I did my Hulk routine again, and went apoplectic about who let the curtain go unattended, why didn’t anyone remedy the situation when it developed, and I better not find that crew person alive anytime soon. (As I’ve admitted, I was good at bluster.)
Well, that was the start of my theatrical career in Berlin. The ACT, which later became the Berlin Entertainment Center, went on to do John Murray and Allen Boretz’s Room Service and Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Company! and some others I wasn’t in, like The Caine Mutiny Court Martial by Herman Wouk. I remember the guy who played the doctor in Room Service one night when he was supposed to be in the bathroom (off stage) came wandering back on stage because he had gotten a splinter in a finger. Amateurs! (A bunch of us later decided we wanted more continuity than a show-to-show association, so we started an independent theater group and got the NCO club at Tempelhof to sponsor us. That’s how I got to meet Colonel Halvorsen.)
But I did go off to the MAD-Schule eventually.
MAD Spezial Lehrgruppe “Abwehroperation” für Offiziere (MAD Special Class “Counterintelligence Operations” for Officers) was a two-part course over the summer and fall of 1972, and I was one of two U.S. officers in the class—the other being a captain from Munich, Doug Waters. The rest of the class were German army, navy, and Luftwaffe officers, mostly majors and lieutenant colonels and the naval equivalents, and that was an experience. I don’t mean the classes—they were interesting, of course, but purely from a professional perspective, nothing amusing. Going to class in German, especially an esoteric class like intel, was a trip, but it was a terrific exercise for me. The German officers—who were all older than both Captain Waters and me—were rather astonished to find that we could get on so well in German. (When I was a kid in Koblenz a decade before, I learned that Germans love the idea of foreigners learning their language.) And that’s where the revelations started.
I’m assuming that this bunch was pretty much typical—I don’t see why they wouldn’t be. The school was a self-contained facility in the little hot-water spa of Bad Ems on the banks of the Lahn (Bad means ‘bath’ in German; all towns with that in their names are or were thermal spas)—there was no military base to which it was attached like the Armor School at Ft. Knox or the Intel School at either Holabird or Huachuca. (Even the language school in Monterey was at the Presidio, a satellite of the huge Ft. Ord on the other side of town.) So we had a little mess—good food, by the way—and an O-club. Well, a bar. After classes, we’d all gather there for drinks and conversation—everyone was very gemütlich (an untranslatable word which here is best rendered as ‘convivial’)—and then we’d return after dinner. Man, could those German officers drink! My American colleague gave up trying to keep up with them pretty quickly—they kept buying rounds, and you can’t really say no. So I’m drinking mine . . . and his to keep the Germans from feeling slighted. And not only are they buying round after round, but they keep changing liquor. (They even drank some bourbon, in deference to us Americans. I’m surprised they had any in stock.) They also bought a round of Ratzeputz, a German liqueur I had experienced in my earlier days in the country. The name means something like “cleans out your stomach” and it’ll eat the enamel off your teeth. It’s pretty vile.
Okay, so we’re all getting pretty plastered—nothing rude, but loose. We’re comparing backgrounds and home lives and so on, and then the Germans start to sing. Now, these guys weren’t all in the same service as I said, or from the same part of the country, but they all knew the same songs. And they knew them all the way through. They asked us to sing some American songs, and do you know that between the two of us, we didn’t know one song together all the way? Germany is a singing society—or it was until that generation, at least. Germans would sing when they got together. (Russians are like that, too.) We just don’t.
There were no classes on weekends and the school pretty much closed down. Everyone went back home then; even Doug Waters went back to Munich. But I couldn’t go back to Berlin. Even if the drive weren’t prohibitively long (370 miles—about six hours without the checkpoints), the paperwork would have been impossible to negotiate. So I stayed in Bad Ems and took trips. Like I said, you can’t do that in Berlin—so I took advantage of the situation, and sightsaw. One weekend, I drove up to Aachen—Charlemagne’s capital (known in French as Aix-la-Chapelle). Another weekend, I did day trips in the area. Remember, I had lived near there 10 years earlier, so there were places I knew about but hadn’t gotten to back in those days. I also poked around Koblenz to see if I could find any of the old places I remembered, but the town had changed so much physically that I wasn’t able to find a lot of them. It was a very strange experience—going back after a decade—especially that decade. From the ’60s to the ’70s, Europe changed a lot, and Koblenz reflected every aspect of that change. I hardly recognized the town—a real city by 1972.
When I first arrived in Koblenz on that June day in 1972 and I was driving around looking for a place to stay, I inadvertently got myself onto an elaborate cloverleaf I never remembered from the 1960s which forced me onto the Pfaffendorf Bridge across the Rhine to Ehrenbreitstein. I looked for the former Amerika Haus on Schlossstrasse, my father’s office back then—but couldn't find it. I located our house because I remembered the address, but the house, which was some kind of office—a lawyer, I think—didn't look the same. The whole experience was disheartening. Over one of the weekends, I ate in two of the old restaurants we used to enjoy. One was the Königsbacher brewery where we used to love to go for basic, plain German food. The restaurant was really the mess hall for the brewery workers, but it was open to the public. We had great meals served at long wooden tables with benches, no adornments, and I was stunned to find that the old dining hall had been replaced by a fancy terrace restaurant overlooking the Mosel where the closest thing to German food on the menu was Wiener Schnitzel, which is Austrian. What a drag. (Thomas Wolfe was right: You can’t go home again.)
The other restaurant, near the railroad station, was Die Ewige Lampe (The Eternal Lamp). It almost looked as if it hadn’t changed. While I was waiting for my meal, the waiter got into a dispute with an American couple nearby. They had asked for water and the waiter had brought them a bottle of mineral water. They demanded tap water and wouldn’t accept the waiter’s explanation that they would be unhappy and that the restaurant wouldn’t serve them tap water. I felt compelled to step in and explained, “I used to live in this town and believe me, you don’t want to drink the tap water here. It’s hard as rock, full of iron, and tastes vile. It’s undrinkable. You can’t even make tea with it.” Whether they believed me or not, they did give up the fight and the waiter brought me a brandy after dinner. (That’s true about the water in Koblenz. It won’t make you sick or anything, but it’s unpalatable—and eventually turns everything, like my mother’s dishes, rust-brown.)
The MAD course was a two-parter, and we went during June and July for the first stage. We were there over 4 July, so Doug Waters and I decided that we had to throw a Fourth of July barbecue for our German classmates. Even by 1972, barbecuing the American way—over a grill outdoors then eating outside pretty much with your hands—was still un-German. (My mom had done a cook-out for some ladies of Koblenz, and they didn’t quite know how to manage it. They ate hamburgers with knives and forks and then wanted to wash the paper plates.) Well, since Doug, who was married after all, went back to Munich for the weekends, I was tasked with doing the shopping. I drove up to the commissaries in Frankfurt and Wiesbaden—where my family used to do their big periodic shopping trips from Koblenz—and stocked up on steaks, hot dogs, and burgers. I got number-10 cans of baked beans and all the fixin’s for a traditional Independence Day barbecue. We had a half day on Tuesday, the Fourth—a coincidence, as far as I know—and the morning was devoted to Sport. We had done this before, and gone to a swimming pool for the day, but this time we were going kegeling—German bowling. Wouldn’t you know it, most Kegelbahns were also bars!
That morning was rainy and gray, and it looked like the barbecue was going to be a wash-out. But we came out of the Kegelbahn and the sun was shining. One of the German officers cracked, “Is it Jesus or the good Lord himself who loves America?” And off we went to our cook-out. The mess hall had come up with a grill, and we set up everything outside—the Germans sprang for the beer—and the cook-out was a blazing success. (All that beer didn’t hurt.) What went over best, I was surprised to find, was the baked beans. Man, those guys just loved that stuff. I had over-bought a little, and they served the rest at mess until it ran out. I think they even prevailed on me to get more from the commissary. I think I created a bunch of addicts! But we paid those guys back for all their jovial kindness and cordiality—even if we never could keep up with their singing—and stood America in good repute with a small group of folks.
They really were a gemütlich bunch, and they had a good deal of fun among themselves, too. We took a field trip one day up to Bonn—back home again (again)!—so the Germans could take advantage of being so near the capital to stop in at the Bundeswehr HQ/Defense Ministry and do a little career schmoozing. As we were driving through the city in the bus, one of the officers shouted out, “There’s the Bavarian Embassy!” and everyone laughed uproariously. One of our number was Bavarian, and they all explained that the office we passed was the Bavarian tourist office—but that Bavaria was so much like a different country, that they teased the guy about needing an embassy in Bonn like a foreign state. (Bavaria’s sort of the Texas of Germany. It’s also Catholic while the rest of the country is Protestant.)
The senior officer of the class, Oberstleutnant (Lieutenant Colonel) Siegfried Rühfel, was from the Allgäu, another region in southern Germany. Allgäuers, like Swabians, speak a dialect of German that is so different from Hoch Deutsch as to be unintelligible. All through the course, the other officers used to tease this guy—who outranked us all, mind you—about needing a translator. The Americans spoke better German than he did, they’d say. (The officer didn’t actually speak his native dialect among us; the worst he had was an accent not much different from, say, a Southern or Southwestern accent in American English) None of this was biting or nasty—it was all good-natured, and returned by the recipients in the same vein. As I look back on this, it’s a little astounding, because it was all in German—not just the classes (my notes were in German, too—it didn’t make sense to try to translate on the spot; it would take to much concentration away from listening), but all this drinking and schmoozing. Some of the Germans must have spoken some English—most Europeans spoke some other language than their own, and many spoke several; English was already the most important international language, so I’m sure there were several who spoke it at least a little. But I don’t recall ever getting into a full conversation in English
When I got back to Berlin, of course, I had to make a written Intelligence Report on everything I picked up. (I’m sure the IR’s lying in some DOD archive, too, along with my exfiltration staff study.) It was mostly about the personalities—the instruction wasn’t news. We had taken snapshots all the time—well, not me, but the German officers—and I turned in a set with ID’s of all the Germans. (I still have a set—taken at the Independence Day party—with the officers’ names all written on the backs.) The funny thing is, in some Bundeswehr archive somewhere, there’s a file on an American junior intel officer with red hair and a mustache who could speak German, but didn’t know all the words to any songs. (And who drove a big, red American car!) A lot o’ good it did ’em. I was gone in two years. (And whose fault was that?)
[I hope ROTters are enjoying this visit to a portion of my past. I guess it’s obvious that my 2½ years in West Berlin—back when there was such a place as West Berlin—was a significant experience for me. Even the most ordinary-seeming events seemed intense to me then, partly, I imagine, because it was Cold War Berlin and partly because I was very young and really being a grown-up for the first time.
[I invite you all to come back for Part 7, to be published in a couple of weeks or so, which will cover a couple of trips I took out of Berlin and some SNAFU’s in which I was involved as a result of my duties back in the divided city.]