Claudia Myers column: A time warp in 1964 Germany
We started in Minnesota that morning, headed for Wiesbaden, where hopefully my husband, Tom, would come to our rescue and drive us to our new home for the next two years: Bitburg Air Base.
I’d never been on a plane before, nor been out of the U.S., not even to downtown Chicago, where my taxi was headed, on Dec. 31, 1963. It was one of those nerve-wracking times you just grit your teeth and get through, stashing it away in your brain, under “Things I Don’t Remember.” I’d seen glamorous pictures of women who travel on airplanes.
So, here I come — dress, hat, high heels and pantyhose, toting a newborn, a toddler, purse and diaper bag. I was new at this flying stuff.
My traveling companions weren’t any more experienced than I was, since they were 18 months old and 2 and ½ weeks new. We were barreling down the highway trying to get to the courthouse and back to the airport before the plane took off again, on its way to Germany. Our mission was to get the new baby added onto my passport. Not enough time to get him one of his own.
We started in Minnesota that morning, headed for Wiesbaden, where hopefully my husband, Tom, would come to our rescue and drive us to our new home for the next two years: Bitburg Air Base. He’d made it through medical school and internship on the Berry Plan — a deferred military draft agreement that allowed you to finish your education. He had started his residency in Rochester when the government called in its favors and sent him to West Germany. He had the option to be there for only two years, but we’d have to cover traveling and live off-base.
We can do this, we said! This will be fun, we said! Silly us.
I’m sure the Chicago cab driver doesn’t remember me, but I certainly remember him. He parked in the cab stand, carried the baby and the diaper bag and waited with me while we wrangled with the red tape and papers. He must have been a dad himself.
He got us back just as the gates were closing and off we went. The boys were so good during the long plane ride, the newest one sleeping most of the way and the oldest chattering to the flight attendants, who kept him supplied with crackers and soft drinks. When we finally landed, the fellow behind us tried to put his shoes back on, splosh, splosh! My son had stashed his extra ice cubes there. Oops! Sorry.
And there was Tom, a huge smile on his face, looking so distinguished in his uniform. He took charge of our bedraggled selves, piled us into the car and headed down the dark highway, eager to show us the place he had found for us to live. The boys and I heaved big sighs of relief and promptly dozed off. Hearing Tom say, “Here we are!” I opened my eyes and tried to make sense of what I was looking at — a very large dark building with no lights anywhere. Rather foreboding and Adams Family-ish.
As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I could make out that there were tall windows, but they seemed to be all boarded up. Oh, no! Here I was, on the other side of the world, with my little guys to take care of and I’m going to live in a condemned building in a place I never heard of before.
“No, not condemned!” Tom explained. “Just very old, maybe 1820.” The boards were outside rolling shutters that were closed at night. The year 1850 wasn’t old by Bitburg standards, which was celebrating its 1250 Jahrzeit (anniversary as a city) that year. It turned out that our house and the school buildings across the street were some of the few left standing after the Battle of the Bulge in World War II.
Our landlady, Frau Dressler, lived on the second floor, up the majestic cast-iron stairway. The unheated stairway hall was home to the one and only toilet — a high-tank, pull-chain monster, offering an icy-freezing seat — October to March. Not the best incentive for a toddler in potty training.
But, it was a lovely old house — marble floors, leaded windows, carved woodwork, no running hot water, no closets or cupboards, and spiders the size of soup cans.
We, on the first floor, were in charge of heating the building. In the cellar was a behemoth of a coal-burning furnace, bigger than a Volkswagen bus, with octopus arms on four sides. We bought the coal, shoveled the coal, kept the coal burning 24/7, and, when Tom was at work, guess who “we” was! Us guys!
Hot water was through a small electric boiler machine. After the baby and toddler clothes were washed, they got hauled up to the third-floor attic, where the clothes lines were hung and the ragged holes were still visible in the stone walls from the tank shells of World War II.
After getting on that plane in the Midwest of the 1960s, I felt we had entered a time warp and came out, not in the New Year 1964, but in the mid-1800s. Clothing and buildings were different, even the food. I spoke a little college German. I could discuss the weather and say “nicht mit dem wagenführer sprechen.” If I happened to be riding on a bus, I would know I should not speak to this driver.
Next time: Saturday mornings in Germany.
Claudia Myers is a former costume designer for The Baltimore Opera, Minnesota Ballet and has taught design and construction at the College of St. Scholastica. She is a national award-winning quilter, author and a local antique dealer, specializing in Persian rugs.