Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Foreign Family

After my technical training, the Air Force asked for my three top choices for permanent assignment. I marked Barkesdale, North Little Rock and some base in Mississippi on a pro forma form. But when my orders came out, I was assigned to APO 109. I came to understand that the needs of the Air Force far outweighed personal preference.
Having no idea what APO 109 meant, I asked an airman first class in the office that issued the orders. He said, “Man, you are going to love Hahn Air Base!” He went on to explain that it was in Germany. Growing up, all the kids in my neighborhood played war and Germans were always the enemy. Even though in 1959 we were well beyond occupation, I thought going to Germany was probably a bad thing.
When I told Mother on the phone that I was coming home for 30 days and then shipping out for Germany, she was somewhat alarmed, but ended the conversation by saying, “Well, son, John Henry is over there and he likes it.” He was a master sergeant and my first cousin, an older and wiser member of the family, who was married with two children, living in base housing at Bitburg Air Base, Germany, a compound some 50 miles from my future home at Hahn. I did not know John Henry very well, having only seen him at annual family reunions two or three times when this “career man” was home on leave. But, somehow it gave me comfort to know that someone in my family would be relatively close.
I arrived at the olive drab and quite remote air base in Germany on a dank and foggy autumn evening. Everything about the place was colorless. I felt as if I were in a black-and-white film set in the 30’s. I had been there about a month, learning my job of moving stuff around on paper and on a truck, when someone came into the barracks one Saturday morning looking for Danny Ford. I went by Dan in the service, so I figured it was John Henry and it was. I was glad to see him, a casually rotund smiling man in slacks and a cashmere sweater.
John Henry and his little family were in a 1951 Mercedes. The kids let me in the back door that opened opposite of the way American doors opened, front to back, and we were off to a quaint German restaurant where I experienced my first wiener schnitzel. It was love at first bite, having grown weary of the mess hall fare. I ordered an orange drink to go with my meal. John Henry said, “You can order beer if you want to. I won’t tell Aunt Pearl.” Not having developed a taste for hops, I declined, and that did not bother him.

That family was very good to me for as long as they were stationed there. I visited often, both when they came and got me and when I managed to get a ride to Bitburg. We played Monopoly, Crazy Eight, flew kites and even went camping in the beautiful countryside around the Mosel River. Family is important everywhere, but especially in a foreign land.

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