The European Experience

It was well after midnight and as the local church bells rang out the time, huge wet snowflakes—brightly illuminated by the corner street light—were gently falling in a silent and windless night as I stood in the centuries old town of Niederkleen, facing the old German WWII infantry sergeant. He was standing in front of a small stone cottage just across the street from an ancient stone archway with AD 1542 carved in the center of the arch.

I had met the old German soldier in the local pub that night after a long flight from New York. The young army captain who was my Executive Officer had picked me up at the Frankfurt Airport and taken me to his house in the town for a home-cooked meal, followed by a beer at the local pub.  However, he had excused himself several hours earlier from the pub as it appeared I was not going to make my hotel room anytime soon.

The old local Germans—which included several WWII vets—after learning my grandparents were born in Möhringen—a small village outside Stuttgart—coupled with the fact that my father had fought the Germans near Verdun in WWI, kept buying me rounds of beer as they practiced their pidgin English and I my kindergarten German on each other.  They were really interested in the fact that I lived in Oklahoma but was born and raised in Chicago.  They wanted to know all about the Oklahoma cowboys, buffalos and oil wells—and of course they also wanted to know everything about the Chicago gangsters.

One by one the old timers faded and left the local pub for home.  That left me with a lone German veteran, who—all night long—had been crumpling up his German paper Deutsche Marks and leaving them on the table.

Finally—concerned he would lose his money wadding it up that way—I reached into my pocket and took out my silver half-dollar money clip.

Judy had given the money clip with the silver half dollar dated 1936 to me for my birthday a year earlier—the date 1936 being the year of my birth.  As I looked at the money clip one last time, I reached past the old veteran, picked up his crumpled German paper money and smoothing it out, folded it and placed it in the money clip. 

He looked surprised as I handed him the clip and in my best German told him it was a gift from one soldier to another. He broke out in a huge grin as I saw tears forming in his eyes as he looked at the money clip and mumbling something I could not understand, then placed the clip with his neatly folded money in his pocket.

Then as though he had been jolted by an electric shock, he stood up and asked me to come home with him saying his wife would make us something to eat. He grabbed my arm and we walked from the beer hall down the street toward his house as he kept saying how much he appreciated the gift and how his wife would be happy to get out of bed and make us some breakfast.

Here I was, my first day in Germany—well after midnight— wearing the uniform of a U.S. Army Officer and walking down a cobblestone street while huge wet, white snowflakes were silently falling.  Against the corner street lights it seemed like a scene straight out of Norman Rockwell.  Suddenly, the old man stopped in front of a small stone cottage and said this is where he lived.

The house was pitch black—it was evident his wife was asleep. Again, he insisted I come in and have breakfast with him. 

I quickly reminded him that his wife would be madder than hell if we woke her after midnight to make breakfast only to find a stranger—an American officer in her home.  He mumbled something I could not understand and again thanked me again for the gift.  Then—without warning, he snapped his heels together, raised his extended right arm and in the still of that deathly silent night shouted “Sieg Heil.”

The next morning at breakfast at the young Captain’s home several blocks from my hotel room in the town, I related the evening’s events to the Captain and his wife. 

Upon finishing the story, his wife—a British citizen—asked me what my reaction was when the old German saluted me with the outlawed German greeting of “Sieg Heil.”  I looked at her, smiled and said:

“I did what any old soldier would have done for that old veteran; I snapped my heels together raised my right arm and replied, ‘Sieg Heil’.”

“What does ‘Sieg Heil’ mean?” she asked.

“It has several meanings, but it basically means Hail Victory,” I replied.

“What did the old man do or say then?” she asked.

“He came straight towards me, gave me a huge bear hug and then he turned away—before I could see him crying—as he stumbled up the stairs and into his house,” I replied.

I then went on to explain to them what that moment felt like.  To this day you cannot imagine the feelings I had at that moment—feelings I still have today as I write this more than four decades later. 

What a strange feeling I felt standing there in the utter silence of the night—not hearing a living sound.  Not a cricket, not a bird, not the wind.  A silence I had never heard before even in the dark of night in the Ashau Valley of Vietnam.  There I was standing in that unearthly silence—in uniform—with huge snowflakes gently floating down around me framed against the backdrop of the street lights. 

Standing there in front of a stone arch with AD 1542 carved in it.  Several thousand miles from home in a small German town built over four centuries earlier—saluting a fellow combat soldier who harbored no animosity towards his former enemy. As I walked down the cobblestone street towards the hotel, I could not help but wonder what the next few years would bring.

All-in-all the family and I spent five years in Germany and the stories of our experiences are numerous—and hopefully interesting, so I thought I would tell some of them more-or-less in chronological order.