this is an excerpt of essays I’ve been compiling under the working name, “when you wish upon a star”
In 2009, I thought the fiftieth anniversary of my birth would be a perfect time to return to my German “heimat“, my birthplace. It just seemed right . “Recht” or right has a significant connotation – a moral certitude. It holds importance in the language… or so I’m told. They say you can never go home. Well, I have a distinct character flaw whereby I often do the opposite of what I’m told – quite innocently at times, stubbornly overt at others. The time seemed right now for that transcendental moment in my life.
Since I can remember, it had been a dream, a goal to return on my own volition. Somehow, maybe, vanquish those questions that continuously swirled in my head – questions of legitimacy, loss, meaning to an unwanted life.
I wanted my feet to touch the soil for where I could have belonged. I wanted my hands on the mortar and timber that first held me, even if it was for only 24 hours. I was like a foundling Douglas MacArthur. I promised myself that I would return no matter the circumstances. I’d show them, whoever they might be?
So though it was winter, I asked my wife and children to pursue this selfish dream. To reward them, I planned if you will, a wrap party – a Bavarian Christmas. My wife loves Christmas and Germans invented it. My little girls love Santa and after all Kris Kringel was German. However, my focus would be on my return to my heimstadt, Pirmasens, if only for one day. It’d be sufficient. Center me. Give me more perspective, less wondering. You know, a transcendental experience.
As the sun rose on July 21, 1959 I was born of statutory rape to an unwed teenager in her mother’s three-room house. My immediate future decided by my grandmother, who insisted I summarily be given away. Who could blame her since twenty-eight months earlier my teenage mother had given birth to twin daughters out of another statutory rape. For centuries conqueroring armies have had their way with the youngest, weakest, neediest female survivors of war. (Why do you think we project intercourse in male sexual parlance as “conquests”?)
So the story goes, as the sun rose the next day, I was gone without a trace, given in the night to new parents – an American career G.I and his wife. Within a month, my Father had orders for France. I was never to see my heimat again… until this moment.
To bring two little girls – 8 and 5 years old to Europe for several weeks was daring fate. However, I wanted my children to share this moment. If I was to have children, I wanted – please forgive me – my children, not adopted. (I’ll adopt later.) These girls are a piece of me. This is also where their, no, our journey begins. They are a part of many transcendental moments. They make it a victory lap.
To settle into this return we spent the first week near the Rhine River – Germania’s cradle. Fitting. Poetic. We could ease into this monumental moment (like intimate, lengthy foreplay – probably contrary to my conception). We rented a little villa in the quiet wine country, an hour drive to various cities with their renowned “Christmas Markets”. I could ease them into this trip with the sights, sounds and smells of the season. I was building a fitting crescendo.
Now it was Friday morning but my youngest, Lily, was already worn thin. I couldn’t blame her. She stayed awake during the overnight cross Atlantic flight. Then on the first morning in Cologne as the carton of warm Euro milk touched her lips, she puked all over her mother and the breakfast table. Later, we’d enjoy a Christmas Market or two a day, returning late each freezing night to the villa. But now, on my day, she wouldn’t get dressed.
Pirmasens is in southwest, the furthest drive from our base camp villa. A two hour drive and we were all ready losing time. Finally we just put Lily’s boots, hat, and jacket over her pajamas.
My wife asked if she could try driving the Autobahn. She was giddy, shoulders rising to her head, a shy little smile. She didn’t realize this was quite a relief for me. I could sit; navigate without concentrating on Audis and BMWs doing 200 KMph. I could focus on this moment. Instead I grew anxious by the kilometer. As we neared Pirmasens, I had full blown butterflies circling my stomach.
Why’s this happening? What am I doing here? Was this a good idea? I really didn’t quite know but it was hard to fight back the nerves as we crossed from the west to east over this long span bridge that strung over a deep valley.
It was a bright, cold cloudless day as we pulled onto Zweibrücken Straße. It looked like any Main Street, USA as we entered – two way narrow traffic lanes, crowded on either side by old, often vacant, beat up buildings.
Pirmasens lies on the steep slope of a mountain. Zweibrücken Straße cuts east-west across this steep north-south incline. That Cologne Innkeeper emphasized this steepness as he explained Pirmasens had been his first German home when he migrated from Croatia (for that coincidence all the beers, fries and snacks were free… although Lily gave hers back the very next morning at breakfast).
Due to the grade, streets run off Zweibrücken Straße in peculiar, steep angles. German towns aren’t grids… unless of course Allied bombers obliterated the town; even then many have been meticulously rebuilt precisely as they were. When my hometown was started in the 9th Century, no one had an eye for sensible urban planning. So, against my male instincts, I told my wife to pull into a gas station; I’d buy a city map.
FOUND IT ! There it was in the city’s center of whirling streets – Gärtner Straße. It’s the address on my yellowed adoption papers, which I’ve kept all these years. Gärtner Straße 34 – my birth house. I felt excitement or was it dread? (My blood sister, Jutta recently discovered she had a little brother after all these years. “How could mother not tell me? Anyway) when we met, Jutta referred to our neighborhood as “a slum”. I could not get that out of my head.
Gärtner Straße slid down the hill off Zweibrücken. Wait! Within a city block, it’s become a different street – Bismarck Straße. And there wasn’t a 34, not even close. We circled up and back down, over, down and back up and over Zweibrücken and down Gärtner Straße. No sign of it on my map and no sign of it pass Bismarck (and if you know German history, it’s hard to get pass Bismarck). It was a circular maze of anonymous attached three story brown stones.
I’m dizzy and my wife patiently suggests we stop to look at the map closer. Uh!? A few blocks west, the map also has a Gartner Straße – no umlaut over the “a”. Are you kidding me!? I grabbed my yellowed official papers to reconcile such an oddity. As I flipped the pages… OH my GOD!!! The papers have the street with and without umlauts! You got to be kidding! How unusually careless for notarized government papers, I thought, especially official GERMAN papers! (What would I have told Gestapo back in the day? It’s your fault?)
We’re losing day. Let’s just double back west and try this Gartner Straße. Soon there, we dropped down this steep street. Hey there are numbers in the thirties. This could be it! I quickly spat, “let’s park”.
(Remember my wife, Kim’s driving the rental – an odd compact Opel family wagon as) we stopped on this steep hill. The parking design on our right was peculiar, perpendicular – front bumper to curb at an oblique upward angle – better suited for a car driving up the hill. However this was now a one way street down the hill. (By now my illusion of superior German attention to detail and design had been shot to hell.)
We stopped. Survey the situation. Agree. Kim tries the impossible, quasi-U 270 degree right turn for a park spot. We couldn’t make it. At best, this is going be a “three point” turn and now she has to put the Opel in reverse. It’s a manual stick and since I picked it up at the airport I’ve had trouble even finding reverse… just jamming it into gear if needed.
So, Kim tries jamming it several times unsuccessfully. With each try, we rolled forward closer, closer, and closer to an unoccupied parked car. The front bumper almost presses against that passenger door panel. We’re out of tries. Worse our rear end is also blocking this skinny one-way street.
Exasperation turns instantly into panic as I see the undercarriage of a black BMW appearing at the crest of the hill. It drops down the street slowly. We’re all stuck.
Seconds seemed like minutes then a burly, redheaded German version of Barney Rubble hops out of the passenger side and strode up to Kim’s driver window. Simultaneously waving her out, he asks in German if she needed help?
I lean over from the passenger seat to say in German “please, we’ve had problems with reverse…” and out of the corner of my eye, I catch his tall blonde female companion walking down the street, approaching Kim, speaking English. In mid-phrase I switch to English to ask if… before I can, he impatiently shakes his red head no, as if to answer the question of English. His smile is upside down and I’m on his time. He’s got better things to do with Fraulein Elegance than me.
Without a word, he pantomimes with right hand to the stick shift, pointing under the stick knob. Forking his fore and middle fingers – at first faking the motion – then pulling up on the rubber ring below the stick knob; effortlessly he slides it into reverse.
SCHEISSE! (“Shit”), I barked in my dumb-ass shock. Momentarily stunned, he stopped all these fluid, confident masculine movements and breaks out laughing. I laugh that nervous uncomfortable – “I’m such a pussy” – laugh, repeating it, as if begging to please pity me.
“Scheisse… scheisse”… Defensive, awkward, I try to salvage what manliness I may still possess with the stranger. I poorly repeat this broken, one way dialogue regarding reverse, as he parks the Opel, turns to ask in German, “why are you in Pirmasens? I reply, “I was born here.” His head cocked, face twisted. Pause. Rhetorically he asks, “In Pirmasens”? I say “yeah, perhaps on this street” as I point down.
With a “huh?” shrug, he got out. Meanwhile my mind hits warp speed, I reflect on a lifetime of mechanical ineptitude. Inferiority. My uselessness. A childhood of recoiling at my father’s disappointment at my lack of knowing a monkey from a socket wrench, closed-end, open-end, righty tighty, lefty loosey – “I swipped a tank engine into a ’51 Cadillac”, my G.I. Joe dad would proclaim as he railed about my sad deficiency. All revisited in a blink of an eye.
Was the stranger thinking the same of me? What a retard. How could he be from here? Mentally exhausted, I’m confident that I could’ve easily been a moron here too.
As the trauma subsided I walked down the street looking for # 34. There were only odd numbers where we parked. The entire other side – the even side of this Gartner Straße was vacant. It looked bulldozed, wiped from the face of earth.
Lily joins me – 4 blocks down at the bottom of the hill, where I had found even numbered homes but all single digit as it conveniently dead-ends. I’m so disappointed but Lily is actually happy just to be out of the Opel. She says, “I’m hungry”.
I looked up the hill like an eviscerated Sisyphus as I started to climb back up the hill with Lily, who would soon become my latest boulder.
Hell, this life’s been a boulder. Nothing’s been easy. Damnit! I know it was a small house but I should be able to find it.Talking to myself with every step.
My no surrender, stubborn instinct compelled me to drive up the hill over Zweibrücken Straße with the faint hope the numbers might start again on the other side. Immediately it’s no longer Gartner Straße. I stopped the car in the middle of the street and dropped my head. My big fat, hard head like my spirit fell to the car floor board. (No wonder “Sarge”, our family name for my father, always called me a “hard headed kraut”… his G.I German translation for – you dummy.)
It was time for a Hail Mary. A desperate turn left. Maybe Gartner Straße swerved to the west – disjointed from the lower portion of the street but the road ended. It dead-ended in a cracked asphalt parking lot. There stood 4 detached – three-story dilapidated barracks. Abandoned for years, the windows – some boarded, most without glass with long brown weeds swaying in the breeze framing the vacated grounds of… HEY! Barracks? Barracks! These are skeletons of the Occupation.
Suddenly I realize that this fits my mother’s description perfectly. Somewhere in one of those barracks, my parents fixed a bureau drawer for my first “bed”. She said they walked me up the hill to Army Housing from my birth house on that warm July night.
It was so close that for days and weeks she recalled her sympathy to watch my mother walk home, twin toddlers – my sisters in each hand, ducking under my drying diapers, strung across the barracks. My new mother wondered what my teen mother was thinking, was feeling. They shared a mother’s pain. She watched her walk home nightly and till the end, my mother recanted her sadness of silently watching her pass.
As I stared at the barracks, it all started to come together: my devastated hometown, my devastated country, an Occupation. Abandoned. Abandoned women. Abandoned children. Rejected. Loss at so many levels for so many lives. We collectively surrendered to the happenstance of other’s empowerment; other’s history.
As I stared into that dark void of the blighted buildings, I saw ghosts actively going about their business of so so long ago. For a moment my spirit resuscitated, as I saw my new parents, their happiness as they held their new baby. In my left breast jacket pocket – over my heart, I brought a yellowed, black and white photo of them, arm-in-arm prior to their Valentine’s Day 1959 departure for Europe. I wanted to share this with them.
I didn’t get out of the car. There wasn’t really anything to see. I had hoped to place my hand on the house that I was born, give my life some framing device, as cracked as it may be a foundation, a symbolic scintilla of certainty for all the lack of certainty that had followed. Expectation unraveled into a dead standstill of desolation on a windswept parking lot. This was my “home”. This was my “foundation”. My father would’ve laughed. My foundation was his only home – the United States Army. Sonofabitch. The irony; this was his transcendental moment. I smiled broadly.
The day was going nowhere and I had a hungry, tired family. My heart swung like a pendulum back to that sinking feeling. Mein Geburtshaus had most likely disappeared without trace like the forgotten baby boy. No sign we were ever here.
Don Quixote was wise not to bring along a family. It would’ve quickly halted his journey. So, who then is the mad one? I had deceived myself, chased an inanimate object, some ghosts. Then again, maybe I wasn’t so insane when I convinced myself, marriage and a family would add years to my life, even when I mistakenly tempted that fate with the occasional idiotic episode like this journey. Some may think it dangerous to take children on such gallivants. However this moment proved (again) to the contrary as it ended at the behest of their hunger. The journey was now for a late lunch.
Back to the east, this outdoor strip mall in the city center seemed inviting. It was oddly designed. A promenade that ran parallel to the street but sloped deep, deeply, deeper down the hill from Zweibruecken Straße, where I had parked. As we descended along the line of mom and pop shops, we came upon a sad little Christmas Market. An empty stage centered a line of booths on either side under the shadow of the grand New City Hall, which loomed over us several blocks above on the hill.
The market was sad in comparison to the large, well funded Christmas Markets that we had visited in prior days. Here, there were few lights, few vendors, and fewer revelers. The centuries old City Hall lay with vacant offices across this plaza, where also stood a statue of the first Palatine King who ordained Pirmasens. His sculpted face now obliterated by centuries of weather and neglect. A few steps further stood the statue of “die Schuhmacher” – the Shoemaker commemorating the industry of my hometown. The factories that provided a living for centuries between war. The place my forsaken grandmother and mother worked double shifts, double jobs to eke out food, clothes and shelter for their babies. Now the factories sustain new workers, immigrants from the Balkans and Russia. All of whom seek a better life.
The plaza design was very art deco. A faded Woolworth anchored it – a telling sign of the victors faded investment. It had been a capital landscape for which time and capital forgot. I found it appropriate that horseshit was scattered along the walk. It was sad, cold, and more importantly without a diner.
The days are short in December. This one was acceleratedas we lost the sun in this concaved, cold caldron of a promenade. Lily found some sad carousel in that sad Christmas Market appealing and though she’d been on every quaint, antique carousel at the many bustling, urban Christmas Markets, she was intent on riding this rust bucket. Now. No, please not now; not here, I pled. “Let’s go eat, Lily.”
But she’d been working up to this tantrum since morning. She shut down, bottom lip dropping like an anchor. We try walking away. She stands sobbing. My wife says, “keep going”. It doesn’t work. She’s had it and at the depths of an emotionally frustrating day, instead of simply giving in to the carousel or losing my composure, I abruptly spun around without a word and in one motion, threw Lily’s fifty plus pounds over my shoulder. Like a good soldier, I did an about face and started marching.
The promenade just kept sinking deeper down the hill with no end or lunch in sight. Kim asks loudly from a distance behind if we “should turn around” but I will not and do not turn around. I march on with Lily. They’ll catch up. I need to push this day up that hill and end this misery.
On my left I suddenly spy a steel girder staircase – 200-300 steps rising up to the street, where we had parked. I start to climb. Mumbling. Audibly bitching. I stop momentarily to rest. But I dare not put Lily down. I held her tightly against me as I continued the psycho-babble about my unmet expectations, how miserable the day had been. An insane man clutching a kindergartener marching in hopes of an end. Any type of end.
At that moment, a young woman hikes up alongside. She’s in her early 30s with light brown hair, glasses, pretty in a studious way. She shows concern. I’m embarrassed. She’s heard my grumbling. Who couldn’t? I was trying to reach the heavens to see if anyone gave a shit about my plight then or now. No one was home. There was no home.
In English and German I share small talk as we climbed. I tell her how impressed I am with Pirmasensiers hiking these hills. “You get used to it”, she says. I ask if she’s from Pirmasens. She bashfully smiles and says she’s not. She’s pleasant (even though she’s staring this happy, knowing smile without enough words to reduce the awkwardness).
As we reach the sidewalk, I put Lily, the boulder down. I turn to see that Kim and Violette panting are half way down the stairs. This young lady stands with me in the sunshine. Silent. Now it’s really awkward. Then, finally, a goodbye.
As Kim and Violette reach the summit, I startle to find the woman has crossed the street back toward us. In English she says, “I’m so rude” and apologized for not asking if we would like to come over to her home for tea, to warm up? Kim doesn’t know what to say.
I really don’t want to. I’m completely caught off guard by this kind gesture. As frustrated as I am, as a father, it’s about my kids, my family. They’re tired, hungry and cold. I need to say yes. (With a tired stare into my wife’s tired eyes telepathically we agree and) we just nod yes.
As we cross the street, Christina introduced herself. Pointing a block ahead of us, she says her husband is the pastor of this church. They live above it. “Uh oh”, I thought. Please. Christ, as miserable as I am, I do not need saved now. My adopted mother spent the last half of her life trying that one. The walk allowed me to fret over the worse possible evangelical, twisted scenarios. As we entered through an upstairs, private east entry, we found a modest, two bedroom flat with the sound of a little boy greeting us. She has a son, Joshua. He’s Lily’s age. No wonder she was sympathetic.
(To Kim’s surprise he was alone but the coincidence wasn’t lost on me. I was raised like that too. I was a latchkey kid.) The small living room had an ironing board piled with laundry with toys and puzzles strewn on the couch and floor. It was warm in many ways.
She brought out Lebenkuchen, traditional gingerbread Christmas cookies. She cut the tea with apple juice to make it go further. The girls were hungry and naturally tore through the cookies. She brought out more, though I told her, please, no (fearing these were her holiday stash for “Joshie”.)
As I sat on the couch looking around, my mind wandered. I stood up to gaze out the windows onto the red roofs of my hometown. As I sat back down, I looked at the cramped quarters. It was a stranger’s home but this could’ve been my home, my life in here and out there along the roofs and inclined streets of the village.
Olav, the pastor walked in. He was also 30ish, tall, bespectacled, a handsome guy, who unlike Christina spoke fluent English. I tell him the Cliff Notes to my story. Is he from here? He said no with a quiet laugh. He’s from Berlin. The Church has tasked him to rejuvenate parishes across Germany. Temporarily he’s here now. His mobile phone rang in his hand. Whew! I was wrong (again). He had not uttered a proselytizing word. Thank god, I exhale silently.
Joshie & Lily play on the floor nicely; neither understanding one another except in the universal “language” of kids play. Dusk has started to set. We’ve been here almost two hours. We’re warm again. Blood sugar ready. We need to excuse ourselves before I’m lost to another daydream.
As he hung up his phone, Olav simply said “God bless you” as he shook my hand (what a relief!). We exchange business cards. His card said Pastor Olav Schmidt, Methodistische Church Alleestraße. Alley Street? I hadn’t seen an alley.
To steer us in the direction of our car, Christina showed us out the opposite – Westside – door. It opened into a large vacant lot, where, at the lot’s end, stone stairs led into – OH! An alley. She said to walk out the alley and we’d be on Zweibrücken Straße.
As we descended the steps entering the alley, on the wall to my left, I notice a withering floral wreath. There was a plaque above it. As I read it, I began to seethe. I realize it’s a month old wreath commemorating the 70th anniversary of Kristalnacht. The night Jews were run out of numerous German cities and towns, their synagogues burned.
There had been a Synagogue in that scarred, vacant lot; that is, until November 9, 1939 when it was burned to the ground. Suddenly the warmth that Olav and Christina’s hospitality created was lost in the dimming light and cold of this alley. Before me stood another scarred lot of my scarred hometown, a scarred nation, all my scars returned.
After I translated the plaque for my wife, we walked silently out of the alley. I wondered how many more layers of scars are there in a lifetime. Like me, what had these people done to suffer eviction from the town they called home? Eviction from a belief that gave them comfort? Guilty by an arbitrary nature of birth and the antecedents with which we have no control.
I could be forgotten, but this, this could never be forgotten. Nor can this ever be forgiven and every year the town tries to absolve themselves of those sins of our grandfathers.
But isn’t that what I’m doing here? An attempt to absolve a complex childhood beyond my control: the bastard son shame; which is further compounded by a shame I can’t explain whenever also mentioning being German, from Germany. It’s a German shame. It’s a family shame. It’s a legacy shame. It’s my shame and no sugar coated declaration on my “Papers” of being “legitimately illegitimate” can soothe the reality.
At least I can honestly say that I’m not a German foundling. I might be better off if I was but I can certainly delineate between bastards. Real bastards – Brown Shirts violated all sanctity of civilization. They did it within blocks of where my grandmother lived, where on that very awful night she held my mother, a 4 month old baby girl, in her arms, and where I was later born.
How naive. The entire day had revealed such an embarrassing naiveté. I had hoped the best; that, my birth home would still stand. My town spared the trauma from mad men, spared the destruction they wrought. My life defined by a past that I thought needed exercised of the dishonor. I wondered if we could ever roll this “boulder” to the top of that hill. At least I knew now I wasn’t alone.
As we strolled silently back down Zweibruecken Straße, uncharacteristically my daughters each grabbed a hand. Like never before, I suddenly felt sanctified. I was finally walking in the very footsteps of my ancestors, my mother, my sisters in hand and I held my head high. I had returned. We were stopped by a traffic light. I gazed to the sky. A snow flurry began. I sensed renewal.
We all have our personal boulders to push to the top of some hills. Some hills are steeper than others. Some people make it, others do not. Have I made my hilltop? Certainly not. I just had darkness call the day to an end. But I found comfort to find I have a tremendous amount of company to share in that struggle and even better I have the tenacity to preserver, even if I slip.
I asked my wife if she’d still like to eat somewhere here. She quickly answered, “Let’s put some miles between us and here.” I agreed as I thought “I all ready have. I really have”.