My mother likes to tell people I was “made” in the Panama Canal Zone in early 1970. I obviously do not remember the PCZ… she returned home to Alabama prior to giving birth to me in October 1970 in Winfield, Alabama. That birth and early times there are totally memory terra incognito. After that we moved to Fort Riley, Kansas… home to the 1st Infantry Division and the unit my dad served with in Vietnam. I have very few memories of Fort Riley… my sister (7 years older) play acting, in a very convincing manner, at “eating” a knife. I can remember sitting on our couch in the living room of our military housing duplex as she pushed the knife down her throat. I was sitting on her left side and was unable to see the knife actually go along her right cheek and not actually going in her mouth. I was 3 or 4 at the time and completely unable to understand that a 7-year-old girl was incapable of eating a knife. I was astonished. The only other memory that I have (that isn’t the result of some family story) is one of me and the family dog being told to get “out of the way” as my dad cut our backyard. Again I was 3 or 4 at the time, and the dog and I were sitting by the power pole that was the farthest boundary of our backyard. It was warm and sunny and I can see that dog (German Shepard) and my dad cutting the grass.
My first real sustained memories came in the next two years when we moved to Baumholder, Germany. Childhood memories are funny things that are a mish mash of retold stories (my family is renowned for recounting humorous tales to the point of overkill) and true memories. Our place in the world has to have a foundation to give us a sense of self and location. We are not creatures that are detached from where we lay our heads to sleep and where we tread in our daily lives. My foundation is the Army base at Baumholder, Germany. Baumholder, after nearly 50 years of US occupation, is slowly being closed down and this makes me sad.
Last month the Pentagon announced further European troop reductions and Baumholder is one of the Army bases in Germany that will be slimmed… and eventually closed. The Washington Post recently described this slimming of US forces and the effects it will specifically have on Baumholder. Baumholder is a German town of approximately 4,500 residents with approximately 13,500 American neighbors on the base. The article describes the daily relationship between the US Army base and German town; American soldier/family member with German resident had become a warm and almost family relationship… as well as the obvious economic one (Americans love to spend money). It also discusses potential uses of the base once it becomes vacant after American withdrawal, and uses the former Army hospital base of Neubruecke1 as an example; the Germans turned it into a college campus. The neighboring Germans are sad to see the Americans go because of the social and economic ramifications of the US military European drawdown. A long-standing family relationship is ending, it feels almost like a death.2
Baumholder is the beginning of my life that is remembered in color. I can picture our military quarters… a 3 bedroom apartment in a 1950 building with a white exterior and drab off-white interior. I remember the view of the patch of woods behind our house and the main base road that ran just beyond the trees. I remember my mother having to do our laundry in the basement. The wooden floors and bench sitting around the kitchen table are also part of my memories. I remember loving the military ration dinners of spaghetti my mom would cook to satisfy my urges of eating like an “Army man.” I remember the German ice cream man who would come through our housing area selling German brand treats during the summer. I saw Star Wars in the Baumholder German theater with German subtitles. I cannot imagine Star Wars NOT having German subtitles. I can remember a childhood that included a dad in uniform and trips to the German wine country. Germany is as “home” to me as any other place I have rested my head.
As an adult, and a US Army officer, I got to return to Germany in the mid-90s. The Germany of my youth had changed. No longer was the American military presence seen and felt everywhere. Germany was no longer separated into two different countries, and now there are vast areas of Germany that did not know what it was like to have Americans as neighbors. This “other” Germany had memories of the Soviets and a wall. No longer did the US Army run rampant across the German countryside practicing for World War III. Now, Germany was nothing more than a forward deployed area for US military forces to stage for missions in the Middle East and the Balkans. The Germany of my youth was still there with common sights and sounds of real Germany, but there was no Germany that smelled and felt American. By the mid-90s, America was disengaging and allowing the Germans to have their country back. I was sad to see the changes, but mature enough to know that America’s role in the daily lives of the majority of Germans was ending… and that is good for Germany. I am surprised that it has taken over decade for this decline of America in Germany to happen.
Germany will eventually be free of American military presence and I am happy for the Germans. I am also saddened because as Germany becomes wholly German, a part of my childhood and a few years of my adult life will be nothing but a memory for me and my fellow soldiers and family members. You can never go home again, because the home in your head is not the home on the ground. Tschüss Baumholder, Tschüss Deutschland. I will always have you in my heart and head.
1. Neubruecke was the site of little league tournament I attended as a player in 1982 and I remember me and my fellow players chanting in typical adolescent goofiness “Nuditybooty, Nuditybooty” instead of Neubruecke (New-brookie).
2. Michael Birnbaum, “German town fears loss of U.S. Army base,” The Washington Post, March 27, 2012.