an excerpt from an untitled work in progress. I wrote this five years ago upon returning to the hometown I never knew
I thought it the perfect time to return to my German “heimat“, home town. It felt instinctually right or “Recht“, which in German has significant connotations – a moral reasoning, entitlement, as Kant dissected it. Right holds great importance in the language and was my motivation.
It’s said “you can never go home”, which holds no moral weight thankfully because I developed a distinct character flaw whereby I do the opposite of what I’m told – at times quite innocently, while at others stubbornly overt. In my fiftieth year, it seemed the right moment.
It had always been a dream; more, a goal to return to address those questions that continually swirl in my head – legitimacy, loss, a meaning to the unwanted life. A return was improbable once my adopted parents and I left the Continent. When my father retired from the Army in late 1965, financially we could’ve never afforded to return, even if desired. Hell, it was tough for them to get me to Disneyland.
Now, though, I asked my wife and daughters to pursue my selfish dream. As a reward, I planned a Bavarian Christmas. My wife loves Christmas. Germans invented it. My little girls love Santa. Kris Kringel was a German. Yet my focus would be on my return to my heimstadt, Pirmasens, if but for one day. I wanted my feet to touch the soil where I could’ve belonged. I wanted my hands on the mortar and timber that held me and the mother I never knew. This would be sufficient, provide perspective, suppress years of wonder.
So the story goes, before the sun rose on July 21, 1959 I was born of an unwed teenager in her mother’s home. My immediate future decided by my grandmother, who insisted I be summarily given away. Who could blame her since twenty-six months earlier my teenage mother gave birth to twin daughters from another statutory rape by the conquering army. Conquering armies have had their way with the youngest female survivors of wars for centuries. (Why do you think in male parlance we project sexual relationships as “conquests”?)
Before the sun rose the next day, I was gone without a trace, given in the night to a career Army Sargent and his wife. Within a month, my father had orders for France, I would never see my heimat… until now.
To bring two – 8 and 5 year old little girls to Europe for several weeks was daring fate. However, I wanted my children there for this moment. They are a piece of me. This is where our journey begins. In fact, they make this a victory lap.
We spent the first week near the Rhine River – Germania’s cradle. Fitting. Poetic. We could ease into this moment like intimate, lengthy foreplay (unlike my conception). We rented a little villa in the wine country, an hour drive to Mainz, Heidelberg, Mannheim, and their renown “Christmas Markets”. I could ease my family into this trip with the sights, sounds and smells of the season, building to a fitting crescendo.
It was Friday morning. My youngest, Lily, was already worn thin. I understood. She stayed awake overnight crossing the Atlantic and enjoyed a Christmas Market each day, returning late to the villa. Now, on my day, she wouldn’t get dressed. Pirmasens was the furthest drive – two hours. We were losing day. Finally we gave up, putting Lily’s boots on and jacket over her pajamas.
With a shy smile, my wife asked if she could drive. She was giddy to try the Autobahn. She didn’t realize this was 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 and as we reached Pirmasens, my stomach had full blown butterflies. Curious and difficult, I could not fight back my nerves as we crossed the long span bridge strung over a deep valley.
It was a bright, cold cloudless day as the bridge emptied us onto Zweibrücken Straße. It looked like any Main Street, USA – two way narrow traffic lanes, crowded on either side by old, often vacant, beat up buildings. It cut east-west across a steep north-south incline.
Due to the incline, streets run off Zweibrücken Straße in steep trajectories. There was no eye to urban planning. It’s rare to find German towns in a grid, unless of course Allied bombers obliterated them; even then many were meticulously re-engineered to former design. Thus against my male instincts, I told my wife to stop. I’d buy a map.
Gärtner Straße. FOUND IT! There it was in the whirling streets of the city’s center. It’s the address on my yellowed notarized papers, which I’ve kept all these years. Gärtner Straße 34 – my birth house. I felt excitement and dread, since my recently discovered sister, Jutta, referred to our neighborhood as “a slum”, which I could not get out of my head.
Gärtner Straße slid south down the hill. WAIT! Within half a city block, it became Bismarck Straße. We circled up and over Zweibrücken, back down Gärtner Straße again and again. It was a circular, dizzying maze of anonymous attached three story brown stones, none numbered in the thirties.
My wife stopped the car to look at the map closer. Okay. HUH!? A few blocks west, the map also has a Gartner Straße – no umlaut over the “a”. I grabbed my yellowed official papers to reconcile this oddity. As I flipped the pages, OH my GOD! The papers have the street with and without umlauts! You gotta be kidding! Unusually careless, I thought, especially for notarized official GERMAN papers!
We were losing more time, more sunshine. Let’s just double back west and try this Gartner Straße. There, we dropped down this steep street to find numbers in the thirties. “Let’s park”, I barked.
(Remember my wife, Kim’s driving the rental – a boxy Opel family van as) we stopped on this steep hill. The parking design was peculiarly perpendicular – front bumper to curb at an oblique upward angle, more like parking had been suited for a car driving up the hill. But this was now a one way street down the hill. (My illusion of superior German attention to detail and design was shot all to hell.)
Surveying the situation, we agreed to try the impossible – a 135 degree right turn uphill into a parking space. We didn’t make it. It would take a “three point” turn. The Opel had a manual stick and she needs to reverse but since I picked it up at the airport, I couldn’t find reverse, simply jamming it into reverse when needed.
Kim tries jamming it several times and with each unsuccessful try, we roll forward closer and closer to an unoccupied parked car. Our front bumper now almost presses against that passenger door panel. We’re out of tries. Worse we are blocking this skinny one-way street when exasperation turned to panic as we see the undercarriage of a BMW at the crest of the hill. It dropped down the street slowly. We’re all stuck.
Seconds seemed like minutes as a burly, redheaded German version of Barney Rubble hopped out of the BMW’s passenger side. He strode up to Kim’s driver window waving her out, as simultaneously asking in German if she needs help?
I lean over from the passenger seat to say in German “please, we’ve had problems with reverse…” as out of the corner of my eye, I catch his tall blonde, fur coat female companion walking down the street. I hear the ladies speaking English. In mid-phrase I switch to ask in English but before I can, he impatiently shakes his red head no, he doesn’t speak English. I’m in his way and he’s got better things to do with Fraulein Elegance.
Without a word, he pantomimes with right hand to the stick, pointing under the stick shift knob. Forking his fore and middle fingers – initially faking the motion – then pulling up on the stick knob; he slides it into reverse.
In my dumb-ass, embarrassed shock I exclaimed, SCHEISSE!(“Shit”) . Momentarily stunned, he stopped all these fluid, confident masculine movements and broke out laughing. I laughed that nervous uncomfortable – “I’m such a pussy” – laugh, repeating it, as if begging, pity me, have mercy. I’m pathetic.
Awkwardly, I try to salvage what manliness I may still possess with the stranger, repeating – “Scheisse… scheisse”. I continued the one way dialogue, as we parked. Unfazed, he turned and asked in German, “why are you in Pirmasens? I replied, “I was born here.” His face twisted, head cocked. Pausing, rhetorically he says, “In Pirmasens”? “yes. possibly on this street”, as I pointed a finger nowhere.
With an audible shrug, he got out. Momentarily I left my body. In a flash, my mind hit warp speed back to a childhood of mechanical ineptitude and uselessness, as I recalled my inability to identify a monkey from a socket wrench, closed-end from open-end, righty tighty, lefty loosy; that was, my father’s disappointment in me: “Jesus, Mack, I swiped a tank engine and put it in a ’51 Cadillac”, he repeatedly reprimanded my mechanical misanthropy. This stranger thought the same of me, as he pondered how I could be from here. The whole scene assured that I could’ve been a moron here too.
The trauma subsiding, I walked down the street looking for #34. On the side we parked where only odd numbers. The entire other side – the even side of this Gartner Straße was a vacant scar, as if razed by bulldozer.
Lily joined me at the bottom of the hill, where I had found even numbered homes – all single digit as the street conveniently dead-ended. So disappointed, I sense the street had been altered. Lily was happy just to be out of the Opel. She said, “I’m hungry”.
I looked up the hill like an eviscerated Sisyphus and started the climb with Lily, who would soon become my latest boulder in my pathetic passion play where nothing has ever come easy. This life’s been a boulder.
Damnit! I know it was a small house but I should be able to find it, I mumbled with each step. I will not surrender as my stubborn (“hard headed kraut” my father called me) instinct compelled me to drive up the hill over Zweibrücken Straße with the faint hope the numbers might start again on the other side.
But it was no longer Gartner Straße. I stopped the car in the middle of the street and dropped my head. My big fat, hard head, my spirit fell to the floor board. Time for a Hail Mary. A desperate turn left. Maybe Gartner Straße swerved to the west – disjointed from the lower portion of the street.
The road dead-ended into the cracked asphalt of an empty parking lot. There stood 4 detached – three-story dilapidated barracks. Obviously abandoned for years, the windows – some boarded, most without glass, long brown weeds swayed in the cold breeze framing the vacated grounds of… HEY! Barracks? Barracks! The skeletons of the Occupation.
Suddenly I realized it fit my mother’s description. She said that on that warm July night they “carried [me] up the hill to Army Housing” from my birth house. Somewhere in one of those barracks, my parents fixed a bureau drawer for my first “bed”.
It was so close that for days, weeks she recalled watching my teen mother walk home, my sisters in hand, ducking under my drying diapers strung on the clothesline from barracks windows. My new mother wondering what my teen mother felt, as she watched her walk home nightly. Until the end of her life, my mother pondered the sadness she must have felt passing by her forsaken baby. She shared a mother’s pain.
It all came together as I stared at the barracks: my devastated teen mother, my devastated hometown, my devastated country. Occupation. Abandoned women. Abandoned children. Abandoned buildings. Abandonment and rejection at so many levels for so many lives. Loss. We collectively surrender to the happenstance of others’ history, as we subordinate what precious little power we have to those mightier.
As I stared into the dark void of these blighted buildings, I realized I have fought a losing battle to overcome the happenstance of history. I saw ghosts inside going about their business so, so long ago. For a moment my spirit resuscitated as I saw the joy of my new parents laying their new baby in a drawer. They gave me back some power.
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, where they’d happen across a baby. The baby now wanting to share this moment with them.
I didn’t get out of the car. There wasn’t anything to see. I had hoped to place my hand on the house in which I was born, give my life some mortar, as cracked a foundation as it was; a symbolic scintilla of certainty for all the lack of certainty that had followed.
Expectations unraveled into a dead standstill of desolation on a windswept vacant parking lot. This was my first “home”. This was my “foundation”. My father would’ve laughed. My foundation was his Uncle’s home – the United States Army. The irony: this was where his transcendental moment happened.
My heart swung like a pendulum. Mein Geburtshaus had disappeared without a trace like the forgotten baby boy. No sign we were ever here. The day had gone nowhere. I had no time for emotion because I had a hungry, tired family.
Don Quixote was wise not to bring along a family. It would’ve halted his crusade. So, who then is the mad one? I had deceived myself, chased an inanimate object, saw only ghosts. Then again, maybe I wasn’t so insane when I convinced myself marriage and a family would add to my life. This moment proved (again) that they were my transcendental moment. My journey lead to my family. They represented my victory and now they were hungry.