I was around ten when I began to open my eyes. I know why. My world had changed. For the first ten years, life was small. I played little league baseball for Gene’s Pony Keg. A thrill was being issued uniforms instead of t-shirts. No matter that the heavy, baggy wool pants and shirts were likely left over from the 1940’s. I went to Saint Anne’s Catholic school. Sister Mark paddled me regularly to no avail and with no consequences. My world was limited by the walk to school, which I made every day with the same kids. Fist fights, wrestling matches, rock throwing and smoking cigarettes under a bridge if someone stole one were the extent of my excitement. No one ever looked for me or worried about my safety. A bit of blood or a bruise were no cause for concern. Getting caught stealing from Gene’s Pony Keg was, and none of my excuses influenced the punishment.
I thought of my boyhood yesterday, here at lunch in the Rathaus in Munich where I ate once or twice with my mother and father a long time ago. Almost 60 years later, it is filled with tourists. There were no tourists then. None. People were recovering from the war. Recovery mattered, not whether I wore a uniform instead of a T-shirt. It was startling, just 15 years after the last shot, bomb, and murder. Eichmann had been captured in 1961, and I was captivated. I was introduced to evil, and man’s inhumanity to his fellow man.
Before 1960, what I saw was routine and nothing was shocking. The kids I played with, fought with, were just like me. We lived in dull little production houses on a dead end street, riding bikes 100 miles or more a year on the same 300 yards of street, all in front of 2450 Pin Court, Groesbeck, Ohio. The party line phone number was JAckson 1-3569.
In the summer of 1960, we lived in the Konigs Hotel across from the Munich Hauptbahnhof while waiting to move into a house on Gottfried Kellerstrasse 42, Ottobrun. This morning I walked past that hotel into the train station to board a train for Cologne, where I will be when I finish this story. In 1960, the train station became my playground, no longer Pin Court. I guess this was the beginning of a way of life that I will shortly bring to a close. Wandering the world, although I enjoy what it has made me, no longer has the draw it once did. I might continue, but not at the expense of having a place to call home. I recently found that I no longer just need a place just to live, but a home.
Munich is a special place for me. It was the place a ten year old boy began to look around, to see, culture, death camps, bullet pocked buildings and the work to clean it up, to mask it, to never speak of it again. Asking questions caused trouble.
After high school, I wasn’t ready for college back in the USA. I had a few shortcomings, largely a function of friction and anger between my father and me, but this is not time for that. I will say that he once told me I would never make it as an engineer. Maybe it helped. I have worked on engineering projects around the world, figured them out, some of which you might know about if you read the paper.
I guess I never really had much of a conventional job for long. After a couple, I found I didn’t like them. I was clever enough to make it on my own, contributing to the science of my field like only one other person, my partner David, with whom I have worked for 30 years, and met in Munich with Tobias, my other partner, this week and will again in Cologne on Monday before I get onto the train to Turin to meet with two Italian companies next week.
I have worked in France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Norway, and the Czech Republic, and maybe a few more places; each country with a different company on a different project. That doesn’t include Asia and the Americas, nor the Middle East. On this train ride, I have passed from Munich through Stuttgart, Koblenz, Mannheim and a few other places, where I have worked for companies on projects I can no longer remember. I do recall one project David, Tobias, and I did together. A German company hired us to help figure out why the brakes on a truck were catching fire. Imagine the disdain when an Englishman and an American showed up to help Germans, most of whom had PhD’s, solve an engineering problem. Of course we figured it out; we always do. They paid us, escorted us out, and never called us back. What fun!
Not bad for a kid who didn’t start college until 24 after six years aboard submarines
I love these train rides. I see and hear things which are different while just sitting in a seat looking out a window watching the world go by. Differences are how we learn. There is nothing to see, nothing to learn in sameness, which leads to drudgery and dullness.
In Germany, I see order in villages, cleanliness, no trash. There are gardens in collective areas along the train tracks with sheds to store shared tools, small tables were gardeners meet to compare produce, a table with an extra chairs or two to offer a wine to the fellow in the next garden, perhaps to tell tales of past bountiful harvests, hauled home in the basket of a bicycle or a hand pulled cart on the well-tended path to the village. These folks know home.
Maybe what I learned on this trip is that I no longer have to seek peace over thousands of miles. Maybe I have found it, in the small place I now call home, in Naples, Florida, with a new heart.
Maybe that’s all I need: small.
Once again, maybe I can live up and down the street, like the boy I lost so many years ago. Maybe I just found him in the Hauptbanhof in Munich, where he played a lifetime ago.