10 June 2014

A Place In History

I was telling my son a few months back about a story idea that had occurred to me.  It would draw from my days in the army when I was stationed in what was then known as West Germany, or the Federal Republic.  He listened politely, then observed with a snort, that I was writing a "historical."  With that single word I suddenly realized that my earlier life had entered the slipstream of history.  It was a sobering thought that carried with it undertones of pending mortality--my pending mortality.
"Smartass," I replied, my ancient and inflexible brain unable to come up with a pithier rejoinder.  This was the same son who had been born in Germany, though he recalls very little of our time there.  And since this piece concerns itself with history, it is worth noting that Robin gave birth to him at Landstuhl Military Hospital while survivors of the Marine Barracks bombing in Beirut were being cared for there.  Two hundred and forty one marines died in that attack, an incident I would later be moved to write about in a story titled, "Ibrahim's Eyes." 

Later that evening, I unearthed some photographs from that time and place.  They were pre-digital and had acquired a yellowish patina.  The people captured in these snapshots bore a strange resemblance to my own family and myself.  I was relieved to note that other than the deep lines in my face, my hair having gone completely gray, and a sagging neckline, that I had hardly changed since these pictures were taken.  I was about the same age then as my son is now.  The time was the early 1980's. 

In one photo, my family and I stand beneath a sign for the town, or stadt, of St. Julian, holding an infant of the same name, the male heir and aforementioned future smartass.  We look healthy and happy even though we are in a strange land through no desire of our own.  The assignment was for three years--the army would involuntarily extend it by six months (I was that necessary to the effort).  We knew no one and were a very long way from our families.  Letters took a long time to transit the mighty ocean, and phone calls to friends and loved ones were hideously expensive for a G.I. supporting a family of five.  I would spend weeks away on training maneuvers.  Still, we managed to make a great time of it, for which I mostly credit my imaginative and indefatigable wife.

My father had also been to Germany courtesy of the U.S. Army (more history), having arrived on Normandy Beach on D-Day and fighting his way into the Fatherland.  Naturally, he had some assistance in this--I believe a cook accompanied him.  It was funny to think of myself there so many years later.  The barracks my unit was assigned to had been formerly occupied by Nazi troops; our artillery range established by the same.  Even so, there were many, many differences between our visits--the most obvious being that no one was actively shooting at us.  The main threat was now the Soviets and their allies.  Both the East Germans and the Czechoslovakians manned the borders between the American and Soviet spheres, while the West Germans, and us, manned our side.  I'm not sure that the Germans loved us exactly, but they liked us a lot better than the alternative.

That being said, there were radical groups within the Federal Republic that were dedicated to the expansion of communism throughout the west, and by any means possible.  Two of these, the Baader-Meinhof Gang (they called themselves the Red Army Faction), and the RZ, or Revolutionary Cells, could be extremely violent.  Throughout the late sixties, seventies, and eighties, they were responsible for a number of bombings, murders, kidnappings, bank robberies, and airline hijackings.  They trained and networked with several middle-eastern terrorist groups; their ideological brethren in Italy and France, and received money and logistical support from the East German Secret Police, the feared Stasi.  They succeeded on several occasions in bombing American military bases; killing and wounding both soldiers and civilians.  They were no less savage with their fellow Germans.  We were cautioned to examine our cars, if we owned one, before putting a key in the ignition.  That seemed good advice to me.

Meanwhile, I functioned as an intelligence analyst assigned to the 8th Infantry Division Artillery.  Not very glamorous or exciting.  My vast knowledge of Soviet tactics, equipment, weapons, and training, however, were largely responsible for discouraging the Russians from doing anything foolish.  They realized early on that they were simply outclassed.  You may recall that the Iron Curtain would crumble altogether within a few years of my arrival in Europe.
My Soviet Counter-Part

Now, a few decades later, I contemplate fashioning a novel out of that distant time and faraway place.  Even to me, it now seems as if this were another world altogether--quaint, if somewhat dangerous.  The Soviet Union no longer exists, and its demise led to the birth (or rebirth) of dozens of nations.  Germany has been reunited.  Czechoslovakia has been disjointed; the face of Europe made completely foreign to my time there.  Yet, I was there and an actual participant.  And though it did not appear unique to me as I was living it, it became history even so.

Shortly after I wrote this, the Russian Bear reentered the world stage in the Crimea and is growling at the Ukraine.  Perhaps my experiences are not so remote in time as they seemed.  History keeps happening and I'm expecting a call from Washington any minute now, "Dean...we need you...we need you now!"

Switching focus here: As most of you know, Dale Andrews was injured in the line of duty, so to speak, and is now on hiatus.  We have discovered that to replace him required the talents of not one, but two, able-bodied writers: Stephen Ross and Jim Winter, both of whom have graced us with their talents of late.  They have graciously consented to share the yoke on a semi-permanent basis.

Next Tuesday, June 17th, Stephen, through the miracle of the internet, will appear among us all the way from New Zealand.  Or at least his blog will.  Stephen will probably remain in his native land.  But I don't know, as I have heard that his people have harnessed powers that the rest of us can only dream of.  Jim, who is an Ohioan, and speaks a dialect of our language, will share his thoughts with us on the following Tuesday, June the 24th.  From there on out, Tuesdays will rotate between the three of us.  Please give our new co-conspirators a round of virtual applause, and tune in on Tuesdays for exceptional, and once again international, entertainment!


  1. I look forward to that book! I lived in West Germany for a short spell, and then in Germany for three years right after reunification. I love the place.

    Thanks to the miracle of the Internets, I will indeed be here next week. But, the only powers "my people" have harnessed, that I'm aware of, is to pay good money to watch endless hours of Hobbit movies.

  2. Don't hold your breath on the book, Stephen, I've yet to devise a suitable plot. As for powers, I can attest to your own as far as writing goes, having read several of your stories. I look forward to your offerings.

  3. Sounds as if you have plenty of good material for a book. Get to the computer!

  4. David, very interesting. Thanks for sharing a piece of your past. I have already read David Edgerley Gates' book set in Germany during the Cold War and will look forward to yours.

    After our first grandchild was born in '95, we flew to Frankfurt to visit. Our son-in-law, Army CID at the time, picked us up and drove us down to Schweinfurt where he was stationed. We stayed in old German Officers' barracks and got to see lots of the country. Drank beer with the local Polizei Criminal Inspectors. Loved the food, old castles and friendly people.

    As Janice said, get to writing that book.

  5. Write! Write! Write!
    And welcome to our new authors!

  6. It does seem like another world, back then, although when we reimagine it (or reinhabit it), it all comes back vividly - or it does to me. The lesson I've taken from it (which isn't something I realized at the time) is that the transparency of the intelligence effort on both sides of the Iron Curtain acted as a deterrent. We knew the Soviet and Warsaw Pact order of battle, and they knew ours, and I think that kept the Cold War from getting hot. Not to suggest we were individually responsible, or that important, but that the cumulative effect made a difference. It is like visiting a foreign country, though, both literally and in memory. My own experience is that the stories just flood in, when you take the trip. Good luck with it.

  7. David, I agree with the others that you have the time and the place, now get that plot thought out and write it! I definitely welcome your two new Tuesday partners though I'd be perfectly happy to hear from you weekly.

  8. David, it is disconcerting when you suddenly become a historical character. Many of us were raised with such a sense of history, it seems weird when the callow of today dismiss anything beyond yesterday as 'old'.

    Stephen and Jim, welcome. We're glad to have you with us.

  9. David, an interesting column as usual.

    To Jim and Stephen: welcome aboard!

  10. Thanks for the additional pressure in my life, everyone--just what I needed! Now, I've got to come up with a plot, do a lot of research (can't entirely trust my memory at this point), and then write a darn book. That's just great!!

    Actually, it might be fun. And David, I think you're right on the money about the intelligence angle during the Cold War.

  11. Welcome from the walking wounded!


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>