When I was a kid, aged eight actually, my family moved to Bad Kreuznach, Germany in 1956. This was during the height of the Cold War and McCarthyism. Nuclear war wasn’t on the threat horizon yet but the phrase “Ugly American” was in play. After World War II, Americans had a sense of belligerent entitlement– because America had saved the world all by itself.
My mother was a terrible mother in many ways with a violent temper and unpredictable mood swings. She was a narcissist, a word I didn’t know then, but I lived in constant fear of her anger and her ability to manipulate us all. One thing she did and did well, was to understand that America was filled with racist, misogynistic bullies, and a lot of them were in the armed services with us. My father was a cryptographer with the Air Force and we were ostensibly attached to an army post, not part of it but for the convenience of the base.
Mother refused to live on post. She wanted as little as possible to do with the Americans represented by the army in 1956. Most of them hated being in Germany and hated the Germans, calling them names like ‘dirty kraut’ and exploiting them at every turn because “they lost the war and they deserved it”.
We lived on the economy, as the saying went, on the first floor of an amazing three story palazzo for lack of a better word. We got the house at Number 3 Prieger Promenade because of the importance of my father’s job. I didn’t know that until years later, I just knew I loved living there. We were across the river from a bird sanctuary, next to the Orion Gardens and in front of us was a 3 kilometer long pedestrian pink cement promenade facing the Nahe River. It was heaven on earth for two little kids.
We had a series of wonderful housekeepers and maids we loved dearly. Ursula, aka Ooshie was my favorite. She was tiny, about 5 feet tall and we all adored her. She gave me a pair of green satin high heels to play dress up in and I clopped everywhere in those things. One night the police came and took Ooshie away. We couldn’t understand it and as 7 and 9 year olds, my brother Sonny and I were terribly confused. I found out much later she was an East German plant placed with us to try to glean information from my father. Her sister was arrested in a different household the same night. These 20 somethings did not want to be spies, they just wanted a life again but their family was in East Germany. This meant they had no choice, spy for the Russians/East Germans or your family members will be punished severely.
These things happened and we accepted them. My culture vulture mother made sure we spoke German, dressed as German kids and had German friends. This meant among other things, that I was toasty warm in reindeer hide boots and long wool stockings while the American kids froze their asses off in anklets and inadequate shoes through the snowy winters. We looked German and we assimilated and we inhaled the culture of Europe like miniature vacuum cleaners sucking up everything in sight and loving it.
It was shocking to go on post to visit other American families that I recall as rude and pretty repulsive for the most part. I remember one kid well, Ronnie Pilcher. His bedroom was piled halfway to the ceiling with comic books. My brother Sonny and I weren’t allowed to have comics so we would go in Ronnie’s room, flop down and devour his comics ignoring him completely.
Once in awhile my parents would go out to dinner with friends and sometimes the Pilchers got included. They appalled me at the tender age of 9. Ronnie would whine about how he hated the food and he wanted a hamburger and French fries. Why this left such a mark on my budding gourmet soul, I don’t know, but I tried to stay as far from him and his embarrassing ugly American behavior as possible. His parents spoke no German so they would speak English really loudly, the classic behavior of the foreign idiot. I could see my mom gritting her teeth and ordering another glass of wine just to get through the evening.
Black Americans were ignored or actively discriminated against by the ignorant white Americans in the army back then. My dad and his buddies were musicians who had jam sessions on a regular basis, usually in our giant house. A lot of the musicians were black and in and out of our house on a regular basis. I noticed immediately the Germans were pretty color blind even in the 1950s, treating the African Americans as equals. One night Bing Crosby’s son came to our house to jam although I had no idea for years who that guy was. It was all pretty wonderful and there were a lot of nights I fell asleep under the piano.
Germany was my first lesson in what not to be. It blew my small farm town California upbringing away and it never came back. When we went home again, I cried on the plane for the entire trip, on some level my heart is still broken. I never fit in to my old hometown quite the same. I had seen too much and knew too much. I spoke a foreign language and had traveled all over Europe. I had sipped beer out of my dad’s stein in Munich and met gypsies in the Black Forest. I saw the Mona Lisa and was unimpressed but I loved the Egyptian wing at the Louvre. I had onion soup at 5 a.m. in Les Halles at a long table with working farmers and camped at the Brussels World’s Fair with people from all over the world.
What those years taught me is that Americans are not as great as they think they are and they never were. We can be appalling bigots in so many ways. I don’t want to see America great again if it’s like those years. Women were held down and back, and they were complicit, which is the worst part. Bigotry and institutionalized racism were the order of the day. Name calling was accepted and intended to insult and hurt , Jews, kikes, wops, krauts, Japs, slant eyes, chinks, spics, beaners, and n_____s; only white males mattered, and sadly the people that were kids then are in power now with their parents tiny values locked in their heads.
I am so grateful to my crazy mother for having a bigger horizon in her head, I hope I have been able to pass on that positive piece of my past to my children. It’s the horizon that’s important not the fence you put around yourself. Greatness may be in our future but its certainly not in our past if you understand the history beneath the shiny feel good imagination of a bunch of old white men.