I never saw my father work. Well, I saw him DO some work, but never at the place called Work. He left the house at 6AM to go to work, and was rarely home before 6PM. He went to Work. What the hell does that mean? Work was a place to me. Until I was 10, I had no idea where it was. He had something to do with making jet engines at General Electric in Cincinnati. It was the 1950’s when I first became aware that you have to go to a place called Work in order to make money to eat. You see, that’s about the time I learned that money doesn’t grow on trees. You have to go to Work to get some.
I grew up with a sense of entitlement, but I don’t like to admit it. I went to school, went out to play, and expected dinner on the table when I showed up. I had no idea where it came from, how much Work had to happen, or how much it cost to support a family. I don’t think I cared. I was entitled. I expected dinner every day, a cake on my birthday and some toys on Christmas, all for taking out the trash when reminded. I started Work at about 16 years old. I needed money to keep my 1959 Plymouth running, a car I was not entitled to.
My father didn’t grow up feeling entitled. He saw his father work on the farm every day, and I doubt his father had much tolerance for play or birthday cakes. My grandfather, Sam, expected his children to work, not for gas money, but to help the family eat. Mollie, my grandmother tended chickens, my grandfather, a pig or two, horses, cows and fields. They were poor. Even the cats and dogs had jobs. Like any young man who has no idea what he was getting himself into, I think Dad thought the war was a good way to leave the dusty high plains of Colorado.
My father knew what work was. So did his grandfather and father before that. These men were tough and quiet. But he didn’t know how to communicate with an entitled son. He knew life was different for my generation, and there were parts of it he didn’t like but had no idea how to talk about it.
When I was 10, we moved to Munich and Dad went to Work at a new place to make jet engines. I got to go to his Work in 1961. Well, sort of. BMW and GE made a deal to build engines in Munich. It was kind of secret, so I couldn’t really see anything, as I might steal a few ideas, I guess, maybe start making my own engines, or sell secrets to the Russians. I didn’t have an iPhone or anything to steal secrets. As it were, I didn’t get to see where Dad went to Work. I did, however, get to go to the other side of the factory where BMW made cars. I can still remember those great big sedans. I liked the idea of making stuff. BMW was the first factory I was in. Since then, I have been in hundreds of factories in every part of the world. I doubt there are many men who have been in more.
Before Dad took his family to Germany, he bought a brand new chalk-white 1960 Plymouth Valiant station wagon with the last row of seats facing backwards. It even had electric windows, a new invention. I remember because we had to take the doors apart all the time to fix the motors and the linkage. He had that car shipped to Germany in 1960, then back to the USA in 1962. I watched as it was cargo-lifted into the hold of a ship in Rotterdam for transport to New York. I wonder what made him think it was a good idea to bring a Plymouth Valiant to Germany instead of buying a BMW. I guess the Germans made inferior cars.
Like I said, 1961 was the first time I got to go to Work. Not to work, of course, but to see the place. That’s about the time Dad boasted, “A man is put on this Earth for one reason and one reason only. That’s to work.” Made sense to me. I lived my life that way for many years but Work became different. It had changed, and it has changed more since I started Work over 45 years ago. I don’t think my father ever uttered the word “career.” Something has changed as today’s men go to Work. Now boys hardly see their fathers at Work.
Dad wanted me to start thinking about what I wanted to do for a Living. “For a Living” meant where you wanted to Work. I had no idea. I hardly knew the place called Work. “For a Living” was even more confusing. It was fearful to think about it. I guess I wanted to be a baseball player. I knew something about that. I liked those guys.
Sometimes I think I was an interesting kid. As I get older, I don’t think so. I was like any reasonably smart kid of that age. They believe practically anything you tell them, but they cannot reason. Lights are coming on in adolescent boys, but they illuminate dark areas in minds with little ability to make comparisons, having no point of reference that can only come from age. I got to see a lot, I guess, but as I think about it now, others see more, but without the constraints of a father whose job is to help a boy reason. Many boys see less, are not curious and have no father to help. There are too many boys like that today.
Boys are easy to influence when young, especially those who are not curious, or without fathers. You can get them to do anything, and prepare them to do horrible things. Doing work and seeing a father work is key to a boy’s ability to constrain his behavior and expand his ability to reason. It is hard to make a boy a good man, but easy to make him a bad one.
Dad would not remember the things he said to me, some rather foolish, that made me who I am. I do. On the other hand, I would not remember the things I said to my son when he was an adolescent. I am sure Sam does, especially some of the things I regret, things which could have said to a man, not to a boy, or said to a boy in a different way.
Work, the place Dad went, was in Dachau, a terrible name. I made my way there on the strassenbahn in 1962. No one knew I went. I just got on the streetcar in Ottobrun and found my way to the other side of Munich.
At the age of 12, I went to a memorial death camp. I saw ovens and death chambers. I got in by acting as if I were with a large family, and didn’t pay. I never told anyone where I went. It was easy. I used to take the street car to Munich to go to the Museum for a Deutch Mark, about a quarter. Kids were freer. No one worried.
Sometime later, I heard my parents discussing a family outing to Dachau. I said nothing about having been there, but I do recall thinking it wasn’t a good idea. I don’t know how many of my siblings remember but Jane and Jay do. My mother became so overwhelmed my father had to hold her up. This time, I was more interested in watching others see this place of horror. Horror is not a strong enough word. The Devil had been there, and I knew it. It was then that I guess I began to doubt humanity. Later, I distrusted those in government who want to help people. My sister, Jane remembered and saw things differently from me, as she was 15 when I was 12. A 15 year-old girl sees far more than a 12 year-old boy. When reading this for me, Jane said. “It was a bad idea to go there.”
She then asked, “Do you remember the people who were living in Dachau when we visited?”
No, I didn’t. She told me that there were a few refugees still in the camp, mainly people who had escaped ahead of the advancing Red Army.
At 12 I read Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It was in the house, but I think I am the only one who read it. Since then, I have been to death camps in Poland and Cambodia. I have been to Israel, the Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza. I became fearful of man’s cruelty and inhumanity to his fellow man. Today, I stand with Israel.
I went again to the train station at Dachau in 2012, 50 years later. It was still chilling to stop, to see the sign DACHAU as the train pulled into the station, to hear the conductor call that horrible name, and get off the train. I met a friend, a German woman there. She picked me up and we went to her house. We talked about food and the weather. She cooked Schweinhachsen for dinner, one of my favorite German meals
Dad went to Work at BMW so long ago that one of the engines he made is now in the Deutches Museum in Munich. He never talked much about Work or what he did there.
He seemed to have a good time and met lots of interesting people and went to lots of parties. Bavaria was not like Groesbeck, Ohio. One guy Dad worked with had a tattoo on his arm, blue numbers. The Nazis put it there because he was a Jew. I recall when he showed me. He was impressive, some sort of a fighter, and was captured late in the war. This guy was a man’s man. He was quiet, but you knew he was tough. I wanted to ask him questions, like how many Nazis he had killed, but my father would have killed me. “Speak when you are spoken to.”
Another guy smoked cigars. He was single and easy going, always smiling. It was said he was a really good engineer. His name was Hank Fonda, and Henry Fonda was his cousin. There was another man, Herr Butz who also always had a cigar and a drink. He held the cigar so you could see the big ring on his hand. He had been a soldier as well. You could tell he was rich. I thought he was a Nazi. I started to imagine them everywhere. Herr Butz always made my mother laugh, and he always brought flowers for the ladies. He knew how to make all the women smile. Mrs. Bergman, the boss’ wife, would smile, but she was never part of his antics.
People back then seemed to have good parties in Munich. My parents loved it, and loved to dress up for Fasching, the German version of Mardi Gras. I think the early 60’s were the end of good parties. Bavarians just wanted to have fun!
I can’t forget about Tamara Von Neusen, a Russian aristocrat. I wonder how she got to Germany. Jane said she told her stories about being with the Russian royalty. I am sure these are good stories, never to be told again. One night, Tamara told stories to my father in a hushed tone over dinner, but I was too far away to eavesdrop. It was rare for him to ask about things like that. Maybe she told him without him asking. I wonder how she got to Germany. The Germans and Russians hated one another, making the story even better. She certainly was interesting, and always carried herself well and dressed the part. She even looked like royalty. Maybe the Russians wanted to kill her. Yes, that must have been it.
There was also a German bus driver. He was married to our German cleaning lady. I used to ask him about what he did in the war. He told my father, and I found out how important it was to keep your mouth shut and not ask questions.
Jane reminded me how angry Dad was. “I had to stay away from him for two days. Neither you nor Christine ever had the sense to keep your mouths shut.” I still don’t.
“Don’t you remember that Frau Petz and her husband also had Nazi tattoos?”
I hadn’t. “Did you see them?”
“Yes, when it was hot Frau Petz would roll up her sleeves when she was ironing.” Jane, of course, saw but didn’t ask.
“Were they Jews? There were none left then.”
“No, they were Catholics, but they had been in the camps.”
Well, I am glad I asked, Jane.
I got to see all this, but had come from Groesbeck, a small town outside Cincinnati by way of being born in Boston a few years after the war.
I guess Groesbeck was a boring town. Yep, it was. But it had a root beer stand and Blessings Dairy and Gene’s Pony Keg, where we were sent to get Chesterfield cigarettes for Dad. I played Little League and was a good player. I had all the Red’s baseball cards. The Reds had two black players in the 1950’s George Crow and Frank Robinson. Veda Pinson came later, I think. He was a great player, but more of a hot head than other early Negro players and did not reach his potential. Good for him.
I remember the first time I went to old Crosley Field in Cincinnati in about 1957. My heart beat fast as I saw the lights and the green grass. We were close enough to hear the umpire bark out balls and strikes. I remember that day every time I go to a game. Hank Aaron hit three home runs and the Reds lost 5-3. Yep, I wanted to be a baseball player.
In the fall of 1961, I snuck downstairs while we lived in Germany, tuned in Armed Forces Radio to hear the Reds against the Yankees in the 1961 World Series. The Yankees won and I started a life-long hatred for the Yankees. Later I enjoyed being a Red Sox fan with my son.
It was years later on a plane from Amsterdam to Atlanta that I watched the movie 42 about Jackie Robinson. There was a scene in Crosley Field, a favorite ballpark. Even the signs for Hudepohl Beer were in left field. Robinson was booed and called every name, but Pee Wee Reese stood up for him on that same field. Reality, as it does, tainted my memories, as I wondered who was sitting in the seat where I sat as a boy watching Hank Aaron hit three homers.
I wish I could go back in time to talk to all these folks. It was only fifteen years after the end of the war, and everyone had a story. Munich still had a few bombed out sections and East Berlin was still a shambles. It was surprising that West Germany had been put back together so fast. But no one talked. It was verboten. It must have really been interesting at Work. These guys had tried to kill one another. Now they were making engines together. The wall had gone up in Berlin. Kennedy came and gave a speech. I had to write a paper on what to do about Cuba and proposed making it a state. Why not? We had just created two new ones, Alaska and Hawaii. There were threats of war with Russia. I was hoping for a fight. It seemed like a good idea, and I knew the Russians were no good.
Before the age of 12, I began to know that good people could do horrible things. I liked the Germans. I saw them as people just like me. My mother and father went to parties with people who were just like them. They really were no different.
We went back to the USA, to Topsfield, Massachusetts. I didn’t need to Work until I was 16, and I saw life as simple once again. I was once more, entitled. Even my father, years removed from the farm, his war, and Germany, accepted this new life.
For me, it didn’t last long. A few years later, I started a journey without knowing it was for life. I have worked, traveled in much of the world. I have seen people who are different from me, those who teach me about Work, life and culture. Those in government have nothing to teach me in any country, but to fear them. I want little from them, for they can take people like me, like the Germans I knew as a boy and not build, but destroy.
Footnote: It was difficult to decide what pictures to add. There were some of Dachau but I removed them. They were not mine.
6 thoughts on “Boys, Work and War”
John…loved this post. A couple things:
The Jackie Robinson movie was “42.” Should be required viewing by every American.
I remember the 59 Plymouth. We took it to NYC and had way too much fun.
I got to play varsity baseball for Wally Roberts when I was a Freshman. I have never forgotten it and have always been grateful. I played ball in various formats until I was 54. Wish I could still do it with enough skill to be satisfied. But I can’t. It’s all vicarious now.
I remember why you don’t drink. Cleveland. Airport. 1968. And I remember the job you had at, what was it, the Lakeside? On Hood’s Pond? Good Lawd! I dimly recall an evening with you, me, Mahen, Abalan, and Kentera. Thank goodness we got away with it.
I love this stuff, man. Keep it coming as you can. I’m gonna reblog it. Maybe a couple more folks will find it.
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Jack Hacketts Lakeside on Hoods Pond. Yes, I remember too…thanks for reminding me…sort of. And we were lucky to get away with that and a few other things. Wouldn’t get away with it today. I changed it to 42. Yes, good to require people to read it. I wrote about that part to link baseball, and the fact that we were not so clean ourselves, certainly not clean enough to point fingers at an entire country full of people. Government, no matter whose, is capable of horrible things. I prefer the consequences of minimal government. Leave me alone.
Reblogged this on Narble Furt Lives and commented:
I’ve known this man since I was a kid. It’s a great blog and has some very good things to say. John is a wonderful storyteller.
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Excellent story, i love how you write it … and really enjoy reading all. I can imagine how hard it was to live that time.
“In every case the storyteller is a man who has council for his readers”, says Walter Benjamin. He felt we no longer exchange experience because it has fallen in value, blaming the 1st world war for having made human moral experience meaningless. I miss sharing stories with you, and whole heartedly enjoyed this one. Thanks for sharing it with us.
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