As I enjoyed a traditional meal of turkey, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes and gravy, and all the trimmings, I couldn’t help thinking of the many Americans spending Thanksgiving far away from loved ones and remembering that I, too, was once one of them.
I’m sure things haven’t changed much when it comes to Americans abroad, especially those in the military who are forced to “celebrate” holidays without family. I’m also sure that most of them make the best of it when faced with those situations.
In 1966, while stationed at Fort Gordon, Ga., I had a traditional meal offered up in the mess hall. It was a good meal, but not like those served at home. A year later, I found myself stationed at Monteith Barracks in Furth, West Germany, a stone’s throw from the much larger city of Nuremberg.
Many times, I’d walk with friends from my military “home” down an old cobblestone highway to the Furth center of town about a mile away. The town center was a large open space marking the end of the trolley line. In the center of the square was a “turn-around” on which the entire area slowly rotated 180 degrees before the trolley was headed back toward Nuremberg.
The large open area was surrounded by businesses of all types. On the Southeast corner of the square was a “Gasthaus,” one of many local watering holes and a favorite of those of us in the military. That’s because it was one of the few places where English was fully understood. It was run by a stern-looking, stout German woman whom we all called “Ma.” Her husband was Fred, a retired Army soldier from Michigan.
Thanksgiving, of course, is an American holiday, not one celebrated around the world. My Army buddies and I had a few really bad experiences at our mess hall at Monteith Barracks, so we’d all decided never to eat there again. Besides, an American dollar in those days could get you four German marks. Those German marks went a long, long way when spent on the German “economy.”
And so it was that on that Thanksgiving Day of 1967 — a half-century ago — my Army pal John and I walked the mile from our barracks to the Furth city center.
I’ve long ago forgotten the name of Fred and Ma’s “Gasthaus,” but it doesn’t really matter.
We walked in and found our favorite table in the corner, ordered up a couple of good German brews, then ordered our favorite meal. It consisted of a very large portion of Wienerschnitzel and came with a generous portion of warm potato salad (kartoffelsalat), and a red beet salad (Rote Bete Salat. Wash it down with a half-liter of good old German “bier” and the total cost was three marks, 97 pfennigs, about 98 cents.
It was a feast made for kings, not a couple of American servicemen who were longing for one of mom’s home-cooked turkey dinners. John and I savored every bite of Ma’s schnitzel dinner, washed down by a half-liter of Humbser Bier. In fact, we enjoyed it so much that we stayed all afternoon.
After several hours of sipping our after-dinner drinks, it was time for another Schnitzel dinner. Again, it was a meal made for a king, or a couple of lonely U.S. soldiers biding their time before they could once again return home.
In the 17 months I spent in Germany, there were several trips to the Gasthaus in Furth. Each one of them included a great dinner, prepared by Ma, and some great stories told by Fred.
And, of course, there was plenty of that good old German Bier to wash it all down.
I went back 17 years ago and took my wife to see my former “home.”
The trolleys were replaced by subways, the “turn-around” is still a large open area, but the rails are gone. The Gasthaus was still there, but Fred and Ma were gone and a new generation of folks gathered there.
Monteith Barracks is gone, too. Oh, the buildings still stand, but the area has been returned to German control. I stood beside locked buildings at the old Army base — one was my former military newspaper office; one was my former home.
It was easy to close my eyes and remember the good times and the bad and all those times I wished that I was home.
But, it was the sight of that stucco-sided building on the corner of the Furth trolley turn-around that brought back the vivid memories of a Thanksgiving dinner so long ago.
Bill Haglund is a retired writer for the Boone News-Republican and Dallas County News and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.