Friday, July 4, 2008

The Only Clue

In order to find the door and the church my dad talks about, I have scoured the internet. I've googled German churches, Andechs, church doors, anything I could think of that might help me solve this mystery. Each time I shared these photos with my dad, he would say that they just didn't look familiar.

In April/May, I took a family medical leave to take care of my dad for a few weeks. At the time, I started scanning old family and military photos which he had. Dad would talk about each picture I found. I lament that I didn't take better notes at the time. I thought I had all summer to write this down...

I came across one small photograph of my father in his fatigues. It is no bigger than 2x3, is in black and white and is tattered a bit. Dad pointed to it and said nonchalantly, "That's in the town we are looking for." I said, "Huh?" as it was not quite sinking in. "That's me in front of the place I lived when I was in that town." WELL, WHY DIDN'T YOU SAY SO!!!!! Finally, a clue. The only clue.

My dad was in this town for only a month in the summer of 1945. WWII had just ended on May 8. Dad and those troops were there to do clean-up and to wait for further orders. My dad stayed in what he called a little hotel with a small restaurant downstairs. He said the rest of the soldiers lived and ate in a building across the street. He described his place as having a small courtyard in the front (which would be to his right in the pic) and a balcony off his room. See right above his head? That's the balcony. The window in the middle is actually a door to/from his room.

The photograph shows partial words on the building behind him. I took the photo to school to show our German teacher. He said the words were probably "Gastëtte Zum Seefeld." "Gastëtte" is a German word which means "restaurant or pub." The teacher said that sometimes these places also have guest rooms available. "Zum Seefeld" would mean something along the lines of "of the Seefelder," meaning that it would be "the pub of the Seefelder," or someone from the town of Seefeld. The teacher also said that he doubted that I'd be able to find this place. After all, it has been sixty years and things have changed.

We will see.


A Mystery

(Part II of my grant proposal. The full title of the grant is "A History, A Mystery").

In the retelling of his military experiences, some of my father’s fondest memories are of the time he spent in Germany during WWII. He spoke often of how beautiful the country was and how kind and generous the townspeople he encountered were to young soldiers of another country, a country at odds with their own. My father especially thinks fondly of one town in particular, but its name is a mystery. For many, many years, my father could not recall the name of this town, he would just tell us, “If I ever see the church again, I’ll know.” In the fall of 1985, my mother and father traveled to Germany to visit my brother—another young soldier in another era on another tour of duty. While visiting, my parents and my brother toured the beautiful countryside of Germany. All the while, my father kept speaking of this unknown town and hoping that they might just stumble across it. After several days of travel, they had to rush back to the military base in Augsburg as my brother had commitments to keep. There was no longer leisure time to spend exploring cities and towns. As they hurried home, my father turned to look back at the town they were leaving. There on a hill stood the church he remembered from so long ago. It was with such regret that he’d missed his opportunity. So many times since that trip, my father has lamented this misfortune. They never had chance to return, but my father now has its name---Andechs. At least, we think he has its name. In recent emails between my dad and my brother, there is some disagreement. The limited photographs found on the internet of Andechs have caused my father to doubt this is the right town.

As a young soldier, his time spent in Germany seems etched more deeply in his heart. Perhaps it was his youth and inexperience with the world that created such great impact or perhaps it was just the kindness of strangers experienced a world away from home. Whatever the reason, this country remains embedded in his memory. In recent months, I’ve prodded his memory for more stories.

“We’d been stationed outside of Munich. A motel with a courtyard had been converted into quarters for the men in my battalion. The Germans couldn’t get coffee at that time, it was a rare commodity. So, each night after mess, I would get the coffee grounds left over from the day’s meals. I’d take the coffee grounds into town a little way to this church that sat on a hill. To one side of the building was a little door. It reminded me of a theater ticket window, where a little door on the top would open. I’d knock on the door and soon after, that little door on top would open. Through the door, I would hand the used coffee grounds to the person inside. In exchange, I would receive a small portion of schnapps which was made right on the premises. It was really good schnapps. Every night until I was shipped out, I would make this trip to the church. Each night, the exchange of coffee-for-schnapps would be made.”

So, therein lays the mystery. I would love to return my father to Germany in an attempt to solve this mystery once and for all. I would love to find that little door.


A History

(Part I of my grant proposal. This is the rationale for writing a history of my father. This is all a personal quest).

News reporter Tom Brokaw wrote a book called “The Greatest Generation,” a tribute to the men and women who lived and served our country in a variety of ways during WWII. When I first heard of his book, I felt an immediate and emotional connection. Yes, I said. They were the greatest generation. I did not feel this way because I knew so many of these individuals. I knew it was true because of just one man, my father.

My father was my greatest hero when I was a child and he continues to be in my adult life. Over the years, my father has recounted bits and pieces of his military history to family members. Some of the stories are filled with humor, some are filled with sadness. He always laughs when he talks about the time my mother traveled a long distance to visit him when he was on temporary duty. Dad ended up being restricted to quarters for some mischievous activity and his buddy had to entertain mom for the weekend. My mother would just roll her eyes when he laughed telling this story. There are other stories he tells with a heavy heart, such as breaking the news of soldiers’ deaths to their families and accompanying their bodies home from war.

I am incredibly proud of my father for the obstacles he has overcome throughout his life, always as a “good soldier.” My father is the 12th of 13 children. He grew up as the son of a butcher in Sanford, Maine; dropped out of school at age sixteen shortly after both parents died and later joined the U.S. Army. He eventually earned a G.E.D. and rose through the ranks to retire as a Lieutenant Colonel (there were a few demotions along the way). Today, an enlisted man without a college education would be hard-pressed to repeat this feat.

My father’s example of commitment, loyalty and duty has spoken loudly to those who know him. The last twenty-two years of retirement, years meant for travel, golf and family, have been spent instead caring for a daughter who tragically sustained a head injury in a car accident and for a wife who suffers from dementia. He has never once wavered in his commitment to their care. When encouraged to take time for himself, his response is always, “You don’t leave a soldier behind.”

I want to write about him. About ten years or so ago, my father received a phone call from a man who had served under my dad’s command. They were reminiscing and catching up about times and people they remembered. The man commented on my father’s rise through the ranks. My father’s humble response was to say he got some lucky breaks. “Lucky, hell!” the man responded, “You were a damn good soldier.” Hence, the title of the short story. (And also the reason for the title of this blog).