My life changed forever on one particular Thursday in January of 1967 — 51 years ago.
In December of 1966 I’d been transferred from a U.S. Army base in Georgia to one in what was then West Germany. I was headed to Heidelberg, a beautiful German city whose castle has an unmistakable and beautiful golden glow when seen at night from a passing train. When I landed in Frankfurt, however, my plans were suddenly changed.
Approached by Army personnel whose duty it was to send new arrivals on their paths to their destination, outlined on personnel papers by each new arrival, I was instead pulled aside. I would not be going to Heidelberg. Instead, I would travel beyond that beautiful city to Goppingen, headquarters of the Fourth Armored Division.
After the customary two weeks of indoctrination, where I was told the “dos and don’ts” of how to behave in the country that would be my home for the next 16 months. After the obligatory life-in-a-new-country lessons, I was placed on a bus and sent off to my permanent duty station, the 4th Armored Division “sub” headquarters in Furth, a suburb of Nuremberg.
I immediately stepped into my new role as sports editor of the “Rolling Review” the semi-weekly newspaper of the division. Immediately, I learned that the paper, published every other week year-around was put together at my home Monteith Barracks. Every other Wednesday, Thursday and Friday — publication week — I’d head, with the editor, to the Nuremberg Abend Zeitung, the evening newspaper. There, we’d work with German employees putting together our Army paper.
Only one worker there spoke any English. His name was Gunter Jaeckel, who’d learned basic English by reading comic books, then perfected his new language when he married a young lady named Rasa, whose home was Australia.
Editor John Moon and I soon became pretty good friends with Gunter and during one of our regular bi-weekly visits to the newspaper, he asked if we’d like to attend his “Stammtisch” that Friday evening. He explained that a Stammtisch was a group of friends with similar likes who met every Friday night. His particular Stammtisch group shared a love of photography.
John and I accepted and it was the beginning of a life-long experience that I still cherish today.
We were immediately accepted into the group (Gunter told us later that he was somewhat reluctant to ask us to attend because he wasn’t sure of the reception we’d receive from other members) and every Friday night for the next 15 months was spent with our own circle of German friends. The total number in the group was about 22, John and I included, and at least 16 attended every week.
The group taught us some basic German. We taught them some basic English. One in the group, Manfred, often brought his guitar and we’d sing such songs as “Old McDonald Had a Farm,” and “She’ll be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain.” In turn, our new friends taught us old German folk songs, some of which I still sing today.
No longer were John and I prisoners of our own Army base. We enjoyed every Friday night with our new friends; we enjoyed weekends with them at professional soccer games, mountain climbing in the Alps, walking through the many city parks, learning of the Nazi influence on Nuremberg, the city from which Adolph Hitler would one day “rule the world.” We saw the massive cement and brick structure known as the “Congress Halle,” in which Hitler planned to have his headquarters, and we walked the steps of the parade grounds from where he viewed his troops — the structure is often shown in old movies and film strips of the era.
In turn, our new German friends visited us on Monteith Barracks and came to watch me pitch a Sunday afternoon game in our German military baseball league.
My last 15 months in Germany went all too quickly and were more than simply bearable thanks to my new-found friends.
We’ve stayed in contact through all these years. In fact, Judy and I fulfilled a 1968 promise I made when we returned to Nuremberg for a big New Year’s Eve party to bring in the new century on Jan. 31, 1999. Even though 32 years had passed since I had left Germany, there were 17 of the original members of the Stammtisch at the party and it was a wonderful reunion of old friends.
One of those became perhaps my best friend. Manfred Lachner and his wife Uschi came to visit us about 25 years ago. We met again as the new century dawned and we continue to contact one another via e-mail.
The group is getting smaller; several in our Stammtisch have passed away. Those of us still living, however, cherish our contacts, even though they are fewer now.
But, this old Army guy won’t ever forget the wonderful times spent with friends who spoke a different language.
Bill Haglund is a retired writer for the Boone News-Republican and Dallas County News and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.