Friday, December 20, 2013

For a Better World – Lives of the New Left IV

Indiana University (IU) of the 1960s was a typical conservative Midwestern state university with its sprawling campus, many students, and location in a small town, Bloomington. Like the other schools of the Big Ten Football Conference, IU mainly served residents of the state.

The vast majority of students came to Bloomington to get a good, relatively inexpensive higher education. Tuition was only about $200 a semester for Indiana residents. The general ambition was to earn an undergraduate degree in four years, then find a job and take one’s place in society.

However, the ‘60s was no ordinary decade. It was a time of considerable social tumult as a distant war on the other side of the world roiled and divided American society. Students at a great number of colleges and universities started protesting the Vietnam War and demanding radical change of the prevailing ‘system’, as they referred to the existing socio-economic structure.

They called themselves the New Left. While such critically-minded students were by no means numerous on most campuses and though activism at IU was not as extensive as elsewhere, the IU New Left acquitted itself well in the annals of the time.*

Unlike most of their fellow students in Bloomington who were intent on ultimately fitting into the world beyond the campus gates, the IU New Left’s aim was to end the war in Vietnam and, in the process, transform American society rather than join it – and they preferred radical change. My younger brother, Jeff Sharlet, IU ’67, an ex-Vietnam GI who died young, was part of the IU New Left contingent.

Jeff Sharlet leading a protest rally at IU, spring 1967

This past summer over a half century later, quite a number of the IU New Left turned up in Bloomington for a grand reunion. Not a large group to begin with, some 60 or more reassembled at their old stomping grounds, swapping stories of past campaigns, inevitable setbacks, and eventual victories – large and small, personal and public. They kicked off their gathering with what was dubbed a ‘Town Hall’ at which many of the returnees made short presentations about their activism during and beyond their time at Indiana University.

Their diverse interests and various causes, then as students (long gone were the idealistic dreams of ‘revolution’) and since as graduates, made for a rich mosaic of their continuous striving for meaningful, albeit incremental, social change in America.

The profiles in this post cover the gamut of the ‘60s at IU. The first is of Paulann Hosler Sheets, who arrived at the university in ’59 from a city in eastern Indiana near the Ohio border and subsequently played key roles in two major events of the early decade – the pro-Cuba march during the Missile Crisis of ’62 and the related case of the ‘Bloomington Three’ (B-3), students indicted under the Indiana Anti-Communism Act.

The other profile is of Dan Kaplan, a major campus leader, who helped successfully rally thousands of IU students against President Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia in 1970.

Many of the future New Leftists who enrolled at IU came from liberal family backgrounds while some had early exposure to radical political ideas. Most, looking back in time in 2013, called their activist experience at IU seminal. A few students of the left came from conservative Indiana families, and their time of political engagement at the university was both initially transformative as well as ultimately seminal.

Such was the experience of Paulann Sheets, who took  her BA degree at IU and subsequently won a fellowship to the grad school. She came to campus a Goldwater Republican and joined a sorority – in the stratified world of student housing, the upper stratum of the campus social universe. In a very short time, however, Paulann hooked up with the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) and became a Trotskyist as well as a premier campus activist.

Her first major action was the Fair Play for Cuba March of October ’62 – in opposition to President Kennedy’s naval blockade of the island during the tense Missile Crisis.  Paulann was part of a very small band of brothers and two sisters who planned to march across campus displaying their opposition on signs held aloft – so-called ‘speech on a stick’ –  with slogans like ‘Hands Off Cuba’ and ‘Stop the Blockade’. However, when the group assembled, they found themselves confronted by several thousand jeering, jingoistic fellow students.

The protest group, mostly YSA members, had previously agreed that Jim Bingham would make the final decision whether it was a ‘go’ or ‘no go’. Seeing the veritable sea of hostile counter-protestors before them, he called off the action, but Paulann and Polly Smith boldly announced they were going to march, mob or no mob. The guys, certainly more conscious of the potential dangers ahead, joined them.

In the midst of the Cold War with the USSR, the great bugbear, the marchers were predictably mobbed, signs shredded, punches thrown – all while campus security and the city police stood by impassively. Bravely, the tiny group marched on, fortunately essentially unscathed, before wisely abandoning the remainder of the route for safe refuge from the hostiles. Nevertheless, their statement had been made.

During the following spring of ’63, three of the YSA leaders – Jim Bingham, Ralph Levitt, and Tom Morgan – were indicted on trumped-up charges of conspiring to overthrow the government of the state under Indiana’s dubious McCarthy-style statute, so-called after the notorious political witch hunter of the ‘50s, the late Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. Their persecutor was the young, politically ambitious county district attorney, or DA, Thomas Hoadley.

Encouraged by YSA’s parent organization, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), Paulann organized the ‘Committee to Aid the Bloomington Students’, or CABS, serving as its secretary on behalf of her three comrades whose education and lives were disrupted for the next two years by the DA’s willful political crusade.

Valedictorian from a very good high school and a first class student in IU’s Government Department, Paulann interrupted her own education, withdrawing from school for a time to travel the country on behalf of the B-3. The FBI’s Indianapolis Field Office considered her so effective that they recommended Paulann as a candidate for the ‘Index’, the secret list of citizens who, in event of national emergency were to be closely monitored, and in some cases interned.

Paulann Sheets at the IU reunion, August 2013

In her presentation at the reunion Town Hall, Paulann provided the backdrop for her vigorous activism:

I’m from Fort Wayne, Indiana. My name’s Paulann. Well, that’s a story in itself – Paulann Hosler Groninger Caplovitz Sheets. And I think it all goes back to about the 4th grade when I had a teacher, and she taught everything, and her name was Sadie Baker Hatcher Hawkins Simon, and I must have been trying to live up to that.

And something that really stuck was what she said to us probably once a month which is, “History is the struggle of the ‘haves’ against the ‘have-nots.’” And it really stuck with me even though as a member of my family I identified as a Republican – a Goldwater Republican by the time I came here in ‘59. That’s where I was.

But at the heart of Goldwaterism in my parents’ creed was standing up for your principles. ‘Be true to thyself’. Well, I was a top student at Northside High School, but I knew nothing about the world. Nothing. And I didn’t know anything about myself. I didn’t know what was beautiful, what was true. I had just tried to meet all the expectations that were placed upon me, and did so, and then I came to Bloomington.

Well, first semester [of my Sophomore year] as a Government student there was a campaign for president going on, and [the Hollywood actress] Angie Dickinson and others arrived [in town to campaign for the Democratic ticket]. Jack Kennedy was running, and Richard Nixon was running. I was for Nixon. And I remember a sign that we put up that said something like, “If you trick our Dick, we’ll flush your John.”

I thought it was so clever, but I just shocked and shamed my Department of Government. You have to remember back then it was the Department of Government, not Political Science, that was pretentious and foolish.

And Bernie Morris – and I bet you remember Bernie [a professor of Government]. When I was still in the throes of my passion for Trotskyism in the sense that this is how I see the world – I can’t call myself a revolutionary socialist because if you’re not making a revolution 24/7, you really don’t deserve to call yourself that. But anyway, Bernie scoffed at this Political Science; he said, “Political Séance.” That says it all.

Anyway, in a nutshell, I began to learn about the world and of course discovered racism, sexism, poverty, all the things everybody else knew about, but I had been protected from. I was deeply shocked. But what’s ironic is that my real activism started with the march against the Cuban blockade in ’62.

That Republican family of mine – my father was quite a salesman for York Air Conditioning equipment. He would win big prizes in his company [including trips]. He went to Cuba in 1958 with my mother. And he was horrified at what he’d seen. This is before Castro came down from the hills [in late ‘58].

My father came back terribly impressed with Castro; it was the greatest thing that could have happened because he had seen child prostitution in the streets of Havana. And so I was predisposed to be a Cuban revolutionary supporter and have stayed one ever since. And unfortunately the struggle has gone on.

[Moderator: Didn’t you work with the Bloomington Three?]

Yes, I was the organizer of the Committee to Aid the Bloomington Students’, thanks to the Socialist Workers Party. It was a great experience. I quit school for a year and a half and gave speeches here and there, trying to provide moral support to our great Ralph [Levitt], Tom [Morgan], and Jim [Bingham] who went through the ordeal imposed on them by DA Hoadley very bravely and with grace under fire.

The ‘Bloomington Three’ at IU – Levitt, Morgan, and Bingham

Floor time at the Town Hall was necessarily limited, and at this point Paulann broke off, unable to elaborate further about the ‘Committee’. Later she told me more of her work on behalf of the B-3, which I’ll summarize.

Ralph Levitt and Jim Bingham, both IU grad students, and Tom Morgan, an undergrad, were officers of the campus YSA as well as the ‘Fair Play for Cuba Committee’. They and others had been instrumental in the march (described above) and during the following spring they had invited a national YSA officer to speak on campus in what Paulann described as “a sedate affair before an academic audience.”

DA Hoadley, claiming that the speaker’s remarks were a call for revolution against the State of Indiana, quickly moved to indict the three YSA leaders. Paulann said they well understood that the grand jury’s decision was “also a reaction to the October ’62 anti-blockade march” – an attempt to intimidate students from speaking out on controversial issues as well as an unprecedented assault on freedom of speech at a university.

Almost simultaneously, YSA called a meeting with Paulann (then Paulann Hosler Groninger) in the chair, posing Lenin’s question ‘What is to be done?’ The national YSA and the SWP in New York recommended the creation of a local defense committee for the B-3. Paulann led the formation of CABS, or the Committee to Aid the Bloomington Students, to serve as a springboard for mobilizing national support for Ralph, Jim, and Tom.

Following the recommended modus operandi, she recruited concerned IU faculty, the better known the better, to lend their names to the committee’s letterhead. She successfully “rounded up about 15-17 worthies,” among whom were some of Indiana’s most prominent professors. The local CABS letterhead in turn provided leverage for acquiring the support of distinguished scholars at nationally-known universities, ensuring high visibility for the beleaguered B-3. Hence, Paulann regarded her recruitment efforts in Bloomington as her most important contribution to the defense of her friends and comrades.

The story of the B-3 continues, but that’s for another time. For now, suffice it to say that after having their lives turned upside down for a couple of years, the case finally ended well for the Bloomington Three.

Paulann later withdrew from the PhD program in Government and went on to Columbia University for a law degree at the urging of David Caplovitz, a sociologist whose work on the voiceless poor, The Poor Pay More, she admired. Eventually appointed an Assistant Attorney General of New York State, she subsequently did a stint as an adjunct law professor and is currently a member of a law firm specializing in assisting homeowners facing foreclosure. 

Paulann later went on to Columbia University for a law degree, was appointed an Assistant Attorney General of New York State, subsequently did a stint as an adjunct law professor, and is currently a member of a law firm specializing in assisting homeowners facing foreclosure.

Unlike Paulann Sheets, Dan Kaplan, IU ’70, appeared in Bloomington politically shaped, if not yet fully formed. He was born and raised in Gary, a steel town in northwestern Indiana. As a youngster there, Dan became acquainted with the Balanoff family.†  

The father of his Balanoff contemporaries was a steelworker’s union leader and a longtime member of the Old Left. Already at a young age, Dan would sit in their living room arguing the relative merits of Trotsky versus Stalin. Balanoff senior got Dan a summer job at a steel plant where he joined the union, the first of several in his long career in labor.

Dan’s activism got underway before his arrival at IU. He had been involved with the ‘Friends of SNCC’ (pronounced ‘snick’, supporters of the Black civil rights group, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) in the Chicago area. Dan had also attended SDS’s June National Council meeting in Ann Arbor MI before entering IU fall term ’66. He was soon drawn to the campus SDS chapter and quickly became a stalwart of the New Left.

Brother Jeff Sharlet was chapter president during Dan’s freshman year, and they became good friends. When Jeff graduated in ’67, Dan was elected SDS president and led the group during the Dow Chemical sit-in, the campus protest against Secretary of State Rusk, and other actions during 1968-69.

Let’s have Dan pick it up from here from his IU Town Hall remarks:

[In high school] I got involved a little bit with SNCC in the Chicago area and somehow ended up going to the SDS National Council meeting in Ann Arbor with someone in this room. Jim Balanoff and I spent a weekend there, so I was very focused on SDS when I came here to IU.

Long story short, or a little shorter, I became president of the SDS chapter here in Bloomington from 1967 into 1969. I later joined the campus YSA just a few weeks before the [national] upsurge against [Nixon’s] invasion of Cambodia [which began April 30, 1970].

Dan Kaplan, 2012

I left Bloomington in ’70; I went to New York for a year where I spent a lot of time at the National Office of the Socialist Workers Party, observing close up the functioning of the party’s central leadership. After a year in New York, I moved to the [San Francisco] Bay Area, where I became a staff member for the Northern California Peace Action Coalition. I organized against the war in Vietnam until the war ended when I lost my job.

I then became a social worker in the Department of Social Services in San Francisco. That gave me an opportunity to join the labor movement. I became a member of the Executive Board of the San Francisco local of the Social Workers Union and was involved in the city’s labor movement for a long time.

Then I went back to school and ended up becoming a community college instructor teaching American politics, international relations, and political philosophy. I always, I must admit – although I wouldn’t have necessarily said this to my students – I always taught from a Marxian perspective. I never had a problem delivering a radical analysis.

Eventually I ended up at the City College of San Francisco, working half-time for the faculty union while teaching Political Science courses half-time at the college. From there, I was hired to be the Executive Secretary of the San Mateo Community College Federation of Teachers, American Federation of Teachers [AFT] Local 1493. And I’m still holding that position today as well as teaching political philosophy classes from time to time.

I must say, as many people have said here at the Town Hall this morning, Bloomington really had a seminal influence on my mind and I think my values. They were already roughly [shaped] values, but they were solidified by my activism here in Bloomington, which has helped me stay really focused on my ideas of how to create a better world and a fundamentally successful movement for social change.

We haven’t been winning that battle obviously, but I’m still committed to engaging in the struggle.

A lifelong activist, Dan continues to serve as Executive Secretary of AFT 1493, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this fall. In addition, he sits on the editorial board of the local’s newsletter, The Advocate, for which he occasionally writes. Dan was a co-organizer of the IU New Left reunion of 2013.
I don’t think it can be put much better than in Dan’s words – in their activist years at IU and during the decades since, Paulann and Dan, each in their different ways, have steadfastly striven ‘to create a better world’.

*See M A Wynkoop, Dissent in the Heartland: The Sixties at Indiana University (2002).

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Good Life in Cold War Europe

I couldn’t quite believe it – there I was in the military going to work in a uniform, yet having a livelier time than my college days. In letters home from Europe to my kid brother, Jeff Sharlet, it probably didn’t sound like I was leading a soldierly life. No tales of bivouacs, maneuvers, or garrison duties.

In my outfit, the ASA, or Army Security Agency, an intelligence group, we weren’t even issued weapons. Ours was a clandestine war, well hidden within the Cold War writ large between the Soviet and American superpowers, but we couldn’t talk about it.

Strict ASA rules prohibited writing home about the highly classified work we did on a daily basis. There I was in central Germany not far from the frontiers of the Soviet empire, but the only thing left to write about was my social life. My letters no doubt sounded to Jeff like a great way to spend your time in the military as long as one had to be there – back then all able-bodied males were required to serve in the armed forces.

I lucked out in Europe, but mine was hardly the typical life of a GI posted abroad. Not long after arriving at my duty station in Frankfurt am Main, I chanced to meet a fellow New England college guy, Jim, a Dartmouth grad nearing the end of his tour.

Jim had a long time German girlfriend, a good looking girl named Kätchen. She was from a Junker family, the former East Prussian landed nobility dispossessed when their estates were overrun by the Soviet Army in early 1945. After the collapse of the Third Reich later that spring, Germany was divided into four occupation zones. Three of them, the US, British, and French zones, were eventually combined as the Federal Republic of Germany, or BRD, known as West Germany.

The Soviet Union occupied eastern Germany and later transformed it into a communist state called the German Democratic Republic (DDR), or East Germany for short. In effect, it was goodbye East Prussia and with it Kätchen’s family’s holdings. Like so many other Germans from the east, her family had fled westward ahead of the advancing Soviet forces. They ended up in the American Zone.

Jim was about to leave her behind and asked me a favor. After his departure for the States, would I take Kätchen out a few times to ease the transition from the inevitable break-up. In return, Jim offered to introduce me into a rather special young German social group. I said, ‘Sure, why not’. Jim was off to Harvard Business School that fall and looking forward to getting a career going after three years in ASA – he eventually became a stockbroker.

Kätchen and I went out several times – very pleasant duty for me – but she was so broken up over losing Jim that they were tearful evenings. Try my best, I could not console or distract her. I knew there was little chance of the two ever meeting again, so what could I say.

Meanwhile, before shipping out, Jim had taken me to a gathering of a German-American friendship group – formally known as the Steuben-Schurz Society, so named for two distinguished Germans who had made notable contributions to the public realm in America during the 18th and 19th centuries respectively.

Sounds stuffy, but it wasn’t. It was a meeting of a small group of young people, the juniors of an adult organization. They were mostly young women with only one or two German men of the same age. The Americans were nearly all ASA guys like me, mostly from the East Coast.

I was astonished to learn that the girls were aristocrats, a social category I’d never before encountered except in novels and movies. Although aristocratic titles could no longer be used in public life in the new Germany, the nobility was not about to completely give up its birthright. Many of the families went back generations, even centuries, and there were no rules against retaining a title in private life.

However, the younger set wore its legacy lightly. All the young women were countesses. They were a good-looking, well turned out bunch, all soon to be seniors at an elite, private secondary school comparable to a good American prep school.

The countesses, who barely took note of their titles, spoke fluent British English learned at school. They were delighted to be acquainted with reasonably educated Americans with whom they could practice their language skills, among other things. We were certainly happy to oblige.

For us Americans, being in close company with classy, attractive young women with whom we didn’t have to communicate in our bad German was quite a hoot. Germany was still a rather formal society compared to the States, so for the girls, mostly younger than we were, there was also a certain cachet in hanging out with laid-back young Americans. Inevitably of course, when young people get together, it ends up being more than just conversation and language practice.

Sure, we were soldiers, and with few exceptions just solid middle class boys, but in the emerging democratic culture of West Germany that didn’t matter to our German friends. In fact, the two German guys in the club, both counts, one of whom was the nephew of the Foreign Minister, were generally ignored by their female classmates. Some of the girls even made gentle fun of the ‘nephew’ who resembled a guardsman in an old Imperial regiment – somewhat stiff, ramrod straight, with a thin mustache out of place on his young face.

Of the girls I remember, Krista was the liveliest, but her family suffered a tragedy during the time I knew her. Her father committed suicide. Then there was Katrine, whose family owned the thoroughbred racetrack outside Frankfurt and was quite prosperous. She later married one of our group, John from a Mayflower family, and came to live in the States.

I’ve forgotten the first name of another young woman, the most mature one, but I remember hearing about her grandfather, Count J H von Bernstorff, who had been the Kaiser’s ambassador to the United States until we declared war on Germany in 1917. Finally, there was the beautiful blonde Karin, the most rebellious of the group. Her parents were divorced, and, coincidentally, her father and stepfather were business rivals, both senior officers at West Germany’s two leading banks. She and I became an item for nearly a year before it was my time to head home.

The first social event to which I accompanied Karin was an elegant ball at a resort hotel outside Frankfurt. It was the final affair of the season before the heat of summer. In a letter home, I described the occasion:

           The hotel is set in a large park crisscrossed by gardens and
           paths. It sits at the head of a long sweep of lawn filled with
           floodlit fountains and spectacular weeping willows. The
          ballroom was large and lavish and teemed with fashionably
          dressed people.

Four friends enjoying the summer ball, July 1957

          A German orchestra and an American band supplied an end-
          less flow of waltzes, rhumbas, tangos, and even a few
          Charlestons for the younger set.

          The highlight of the evening was the processional walk
          through the gardens with each lady carrying a Japanese
          lantern to light the way, while a German ensemble played
          stirring marches from the terrace.   

Soon after, Karin left to spend her school vacation with her father in Hamburg on the North Sea, so the rest of the summer was quiet socially. However, I had come to Germany with a press pass from a newspaper on California’s Monterey Peninsula where I had spent a year at the Army Language School (ALS) learning Czech. The idea was that I’d send a few stories from Europe since a large part of the paper’s readership was military.

The German Grand Prix, a major international road race, was scheduled for August ‘57 – so I decided Formula 1 (F1) racing would make a colorful piece. The event was held at the 14-mile course, the North Loop of the Nürburgring, in the Eifel Mountains to the northwest. Not knowing much about the sport, I did a little reading before driving up. My credentials gave me access to the track, which I drove around in my sleek, front-wheel drive French Citroën – a hair-raising experience on the steeply banked turns.

A few hours before race time, I dropped by the private track lounge, a well-appointed space where the drivers sat around relaxing. It was quite a scene, dashing young racing drivers casually dressed, but sporting colorful silk scarves, with stylish young women at every table. Stirling Moss, the famous British driver, was pointed out to me, but by far the most dramatic personality was the American Harry Schell, a renowned playboy who, when not behind the wheel, could be found at a celebrity bar in Paris.

Harry Schell, Grand Prix driver

A respected driver on the Italian Maserati team, he was from a well to do family that had been involved with F1 racing during the interwar period. That day Harry was busy regaling a bevy of lovelies with lively stories.

The one exception to the festive pre-race atmosphere sat in a corner of the lounge – a middle-aged man sitting quietly with a plainly dressed woman. I was told that he was Juan Manuel Fangio, the Argentine leader of Team Maserati and reigning world champion driver. He had been on the Grand Prix circuit for years and was approaching the end of his career.

Juan Manuel Fangio, F1 World Champion driver

The flag dropped, and the brightly colored streamlined cars were off in an incredible roar of motors – a thrilling sight to behold. Fangio seized the lead, but at midpoint in the 300+ mile race there was a screw-up during a pit-stop, and he fell behind a Ferrari. Then, in what became one of the greatest all-time races, Fangio set new course lap records, came from behind in the penultimate lap, and won by a mere 3 seconds. My favorite, Harry Schell, managed a respectable 7th, but well out of the money. A few years later, he would die in an F1 crash in England.
I filed my Grand Prix article on a borrowed typewriter. My own was loaned out to a fellow linguist, a guy who had been abruptly transferred to a front line unit, and unfortunately my typewriter went with him. I drove to his new post to pick it up. He had been assigned to a combat outfit, the 14th Armored Cav, located on a sprawling cantonment in the open countryside 60 miles northwest of Frankfurt.

The unit was poised along the road running from the ‘Fulda Gap’ on the inner German border to Frankfurt in the heart of West Germany. Topographically, the Gap was a lowland and a historic route for armies moving westward.

In the distance I could see the elaborate East German frontier barriers, high razor wire fences, and tall guard towers – physical manifestations of Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ metaphor. US command knew that formidable Soviet forces –  the 8th Guards Army and the 1st Guards Tank Army – stood behind the wire. The 14th ‘s mission in the event of a Soviet invasion was to delay the advance elements just long enough for  heavy reinforcements to move up – in effect, they were the proverbial canary in the coal mine.

For me as a rear area soldier, it was like being in a combat zone – tanks and armored personnel carriers everywhere, troops in field uniforms. Adding to the effect, a German armor unit was visiting the 14th, and they too were in full field dress. According to German military custom, I, a mere sergeant, was saluted by every passing Bundeswehr private and corporal. In their soft visored field caps, one could easily imagine them at the Russian front in ’41. I felt like I had walked onto a WWII movie set.

Early September Karin, back from Hamburg, invited me to another glamorous social affair, this one in the famous spa town of Baden-Baden in southwest Germany’s picturesque Black Forest. It was a gala ball – a dinner dance – in one of the town’s 19th century palaces. She was going with her parents and wanted some company, so a formal invitation in old German script was arranged for me.

I had visited Baden-Baden once before. The former King Edward VIII, now the Duke of Windsor, had just arrived with his wife and their entourage for a stay, so there was much excitement in town. On that occasion, I took in the famous gambling casino one evening – an elegant place of deep carpets and stylishly dressed people where several languages could be heard at the tables. I played a little roulette and lost.

Baden-Baden, West Germany, 1950s

At the appointed hour for the ball, I repaired to the palace and saw before me a grand stairway up to the ballroom, on every other step of which stood a bewigged footman in period costume like so many statues. I presented my invitation. The head footman looked at me rather apologetically and politely asked if we could step aside for a word. It seems I had mistranslated the invitation. Gentlemen were expected to wear tails, and there I stood in my best dark suit.

Realizing my error, I said ‘Ohmigod, I’m expected by Countess von V.’ The kind man had a solution – he sent me to his friend, the wardrobe mistress at the opera house. The best she could do for me was a tux off the costume racks. I reappeared at the palace hopefully – the head footman was immensely pleased to see me, and, as I triumphantly ascended the great staircase, all of his underlings were beaming.

By early fall I had become pretty adept at my work, so duty days passed pleasantly. One balmy autumn weekend I drove down the Mosel River Valley. My companion was Inge, a German stewardess – in contrast to her, Karin was a schoolgirl whose mother only let her go out on Saturday nights. The Mosel was a famous wine valley, and Inge and I stopped at many little riparian villages to sample the local vintage. We went to the very end of the valley, the City of Trier, birthplace of Karl Marx, not far from the French border.

At our ASA office in late ’57, we took little note of the Cold War winds swirling around us. Although we only occasionally glanced at the few English language papers available on the Continent, one could hardly miss the major news. During the summer, Khrushchev had thwarted a coup attempt against him, then in October victoriously announced that ‘Sputnik’, a Soviet satellite, was spinning around the earth.

Looking back, it was a momentous event; the Cold War had escalated into a space race. Official Washington was in shock that the Soviet Union had leaped ahead so dramatically, but still, Sputnik didn’t have even a ripple effect on our ASA mission. Our beat was ordinary people of Communist East Europe, especially in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, or the northern tier, the focus of my section. Leadership changes in Warsaw, the grinding neo-Stalinism of the Czech Communist Party-state, or Budapest’s political trials following the failed ’56 Hungarian uprising – all of it was above our pay grade.

Our task was to monitor the ‘objects’ of the regimes’ policies from above – for instance, how economic legislation impacted daily life of the little man and what, if any, political grumbling could be detected. In a word, we were watching and writing reports on the indicators of political and socio-economic stability far from the East European capitals and power centers.      

As the year drew to a close, my ALS pal Gordon from the Polish desk and I decided to take a road trip to north Germany. We left after work on a Friday and drove into the night. Unexpectedly, we got caught in a blizzard on a deserted road in the mountains.

My black Citroën was a very cool car, but it was also old with high mileage, and it began to act up. Seems the problem had something to do with the gas line feeding the carburetor. Temporary fixes didn’t work, so zany Gordon climbed out on the cat’s paw fender and manually operated the thing as I drove, but after a dozen miles he gave it up – too cold.

Laughing uproariously at our absurd fix, we pulled off the road. Fortunately the storm had passed, daylight was breaking, and along came a farmer driving a tractor pulling a hay rack. He took pity, and we rode into the nearby town on the back of the rig, grabbed some food, and caught the morning train back to Frankfurt – adventure aborted.

As far as I was concerned, the Citroën was finished and forgotten, that is, until I was summoned by the German police a few days later. They had found the car abandoned and thought I was missing. Meanwhile, my car had been towed to the town, repaired at a local garage – at substantial cost as it turned out – and I was instructed to go back up there, pay the bill, and reclaim ‘my property’. Back up north I went.

ASA gave us a few days off for Christmas. Before leaving the office I wished one of the Russian linguists a merry one, but found him down in the dumps. Seems he had been inducted into an illegal secret dueling society at the university – dueling was outlawed in postwar Germany – and had high hopes of getting the classic nick on the cheek for a fashionable dueling scar, long the German upper-class macho symbol. However, being a tall guy with long arms, he had out-dueled all his opponents and, unhappily, emerged unscathed.

So ended my first year in Cold War Europe, but looking back I now wonder what impression my adventure-filled letters had on my teenage brother – that military life was a lark? That was certainly not the case when he arrived in Vietnam six years later.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Activist Legacies in Hoosierland – Lives of the New Left III

Hoosierland USA – who would have guessed that placid Indiana University (IU) would become a hothouse in the ‘60s for the politics of the left as well as the right. Not only were dozens of New Left activists nurtured there, but also several nationally known conservative student leaders. Several extremist IU alums even went on to join one of the most violent groups of those times, the notorious Symbionese Liberation Army, or SLA.

On the right – the New Right of conservative politics – three fellow students, who would subsequently assume major leadership roles in the nationwide conservative movement, actively contested the IU New Left on the Vietnam War. One became President of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) and  later served in the Nixon White House, another founded a magazine that became immensely influential in conservative circles in Washington and across the country, while the third alum assumed leadership of the national pro-Vietnam War movement.*

For the New Left activists, most of them anyway, who returned to IU for a gala reunion in August 2013 as well as for two of the campus conservative leaders, family politics had been a significant determinant of their activism as students and beyond. In contrast, the genesis of the IU SLA members’ – William Harris, Emily Harris, and Angela DeAngelis Atwood – subsequent infamous behavior is less well understood.

Perhaps most surprising was the case of Angela DeAngelis, who subsequently took the nom de guerre ‘General Gelina’ in the SLA and helped kidnap Patricia Hearst. Angela had arrived at Indiana University from a New Jersey high school where she’d been a popular young woman, cheerleading captain, and the star of many school musicals. True, at IU she fell under the influence of Gary Atwood, a student left activist whom she later married, but otherwise hers was a fairly typical college experience – joining a sorority, performing in university theater, majoring in education.
Angela DeAngelis, Indiana University ‘70
The New Left returnees included several ‘red diaper babies’** and a number from politically active liberal families; another was the son of British Laborites, members of the Labor Party. One of the conservative leaders came from a Republican activist family, while the other – who had served two tours in Vietnam – was from a family whose members had served in previous wars. The offspring of all these legacies went on to make waves on the placid surface of Indiana University and later in society at large. In contrast, the extremist SLA dramatically crashed and burned, so to speak, during the ‘70s. Only one member remains in prison serving a life sentence, while others who have served time keep a low profile.
The one outlier among the IU New Left was my younger brother Jeff Sharlet (1942-1969), who, during his IU years, became a leading member of SDS, or Students for a Democratic Society. Jeff and I came from an apolitical family. Our parents probably voted Democratic, but they never revealed their preferences to us. I recall only one family ‘political’ outing. In the late ‘40s a few years after Franklin Roosevelt’s death, my mother took me – Jeff was too young – on a kind of pilgrimage from where we lived down along the Hudson River to visit the late president’s grave in the garden of the Roosevelt estate at Hyde Park NY.
The only topics of conversation Jeff and I ever heard at table were about our parents’ business or their busy social life. No politics or political issues were discussed. I later learned why. Their business was in a town marked by partisan politics where power changed hands frequently. The key office was town assessor. The incoming administration would reward its business supporters with lower tax levies, while the assessments for those who opposed them would rise.
So Jeff and I went out into the world as political innocents. To add to our quiescence, we both attended a traditional military prep school where the politics of the day were never mentioned. No doubt it was simply assumed that the mainstream ‘50s consensus of the Eisenhower era prevailed. I left home first, eventually landing in academe where I imbibed the standard liberal politics of the professoriate, while Jeff ended up in Vietnam where disillusionment with the mission politicized him. Later at IU among the New Left, the very group now meeting decades later, he became radicalized.
Jeff Sharlet’s senior yearbook photo, The Albany Academy, 1960
Because Jeff died at an early age, I was invited to the reunion in his stead. Hence, I found myself at the gathering’s ‘Town Hall’ – a general meeting – listening with fascination as Jeff’s old friends and comrades spoke of their lives on the left. In their activism at IU, two of those profiled below clearly reflected their families’ political legacies. The other individual, very much in the spirit of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (1915), read a posthumous statement, literally a voice from the grave.
Tom Balanoff’s (IU ’72) father had been a man of the Old Left, the well-known director of the largest district in the steelworkers’ union during the heyday of American heavy industry. No real surprise then that Tom followed in his footsteps, choosing the Old Left over the New Left at IU, and later pursuing a career in the trade union movement.           
Starting modestly, Tom began at the bottom of the career ladder as a lowly union staffer. However, his talent for organization and leadership was soon recognized, and he moved up the hierarchy, eventually becoming a major national and international union leader. In the post-industrial landscape of past decades, Tom’s organizational base became the ‘Service Employees International Union’ (SEIU), made up mainly of janitors and security guards.

Tom Balanoff, union leader in action
In his remarks at the IU Town Hall, Tom Balanoff filled in the details of his career as a left activist who went on to success in the contemporary labor movement:
I was here in Bloomington from ’68 to ’72, a very exciting time to be here. I’m also a red diaper baby so I came to IU with a very strong sense of politics. My friends, many of whom are here – who were in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) – didn’t  really agree with my politics because we were with Joe [Stalin, an allusion to the American Communist Party] instead of Leon [Trotsky, guiding spirit of the SWP]. Quite frankly it seemed appropriate to me at the time, but it doesn’t seem that appropriate anymore.

After leaving Bloomington, I went into the labor movement – actually I first went to grad school. Initially I tried to get into the labor movement – you know like my father, work my way up in the mill – but looking back no steel mill anywhere in Indiana would hire me because of our family name. So I ended up going to grad school [for an MA in Labor and Industrial Relations], and then I went into the labor movement. I’ve been in the labor movement for the last 40 years.

I work in the Service Employees International Union. I worked for a number of industrial unions, and in ’88 I went to the SEIU as a research director. I will say that it’s the one job – and I’ve had a number of positions – but the one job I really wasn’t qualified for, but that was neither here nor there. They actually recruited me – I became Research Director of the Property Service Division.

Maybe you’ve heard about the ‘Justice for Janitors Movement’? … I was the national director of it, and then in ’94 I went back to Chicago for SEIU … I made the transition to an elected position, got elected president of that local.

I’m president of Local 1 in Chicago, it’s a Property Service local, we’re a central region local. … I don’t know if any of you have heard about the Houston janitors struggle, but we organized that. I was the president and negotiated all those contracts – won two successful strikes, our first historic one in 2006, and last summer a five-week strike to maintain janitors’ standards in Houston. … I do a lot of stuff for SEIU – I’m on the national board. I actually do a lot of international labor stuff [too]. So that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 40 years.
As a prominent union leader, Tom is active in national politics as well as the local Chicago scene. He spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 2008, and most recently he joined the street protest against closing school closings in Chicago.
Unlike Tom Balanoff – at IU Ellen Ostrofsky made the transition from a family of the Old Left to the campus New Left. Her mother and uncle had been young activists for the Old Left, but Ellen and her future husband became New Left activists at IU. Of course, the New Left was initially an offspring of the Old Left, but soon left behind the doctrinaire, hierarchical, and highly disciplined political style of the American Communist Party (CPUSA) as well as the various non-communist old line socialist alternatives.
At the Town Hall Ellen was on the far side of the large room, so below are excerpts from her remarks which came through clearly on the audio:
I came [to the reunion] with my brother Charlie. … I was in high school in ’67. I wasn’t a red diaper baby, but there were people in my family who were in the progressive movement. My mother told me that as a child she sold the ‘Daily Worker’ in New York.  …
The Daily Worker, official paper of the American Communist Party
I remember when I was in high school, my mother was at the Democratic National Convention [in Chicago ‘68], and I remember her saying, “You should be down there marching!” …. I went down there with my dad and I passed out leaflets, and we talked and talked.
And then Charlie went to IU and of course my dad wanted me to come here too. So I came down in ’69 and I just loved it here … some of the best years of my life. When my husband went [out] with me – he was my boyfriend then – we were active and went to all the demonstrations.
It’s funny, I remember one of the antiwar demonstrations in Washington. We were running down – going down the middle of the street and there was my aunt from New York City. She’s standing in the middle of the street saying, “Well we were here looking for Charlie.” And she found me! Some of the best years and we made some great friends. I remember people here, great friends ….
I have to say, I haven’t really been active though I taught art in school in Chicago for years. Teaching school was a real education, a real education. I think I learned more from my kids. As I said, these are some of the happy memories ….
The last speaker of this profile was quite unusual. Not a person of the left, Anna Wiley, IU ’56, had heard that members of the former IU New Left were coming back to Bloomington, and had come to the Town Hall to greet them on behalf of her late husband, some of whom he had taught at IU.
David Wiley had a long and successful career as a theater professor and director of student productions – from Shakespeare to the modern Theater of the Absurd – at several colleges and universities. He was on the faculty of Indiana University during its most tumultuous period, 1966-73. Throughout his academic career, Professor Wiley also distinguished himself as an activist for liberal causes.
At his first posting, a college in Virginia in the ‘50s, he promoted racial integration. In Bloomington in the ‘60s, he assumed leadership roles in the ACLU, or American Civil Liberties Union, both locally and statewide. At his final teaching position, a southern university in the Bible Belt, Wiley and his wife, Anna, were plantiffs in a lawsuit in federal district court against Bible study in public schools – a courageous stand that cost him his departmental chairmanship in that fundamentalist environment. The chancellor of the university asked him to step down.        
Akin to the inhabitants of fictional Spoon River who declaimed from the town cemetery, David Wiley ‘spoke’ to the New Left that morning in a letter written before his death. Following a speaker who read out a roll call of the IU activists dead and gone, including brother Jeff, Anna Wiley rose from the audience, saying “I’d like to add a few words from the grave”:
My husband, David Wiley, in the years you’re talking about, was a theater professor. He directed Gary Atwood, whom you may remember, and Angela DeAngelis in ‘The Winter’s Tale’. But at the end of his career – he is now gone – he wrote these words about you, and so I thought you might be interested:
          I remember finding before me at Indiana University, 
          women in fighting dress:  jeans bell-bottomed, tie-dyed
          T-shirts, and an embarrassing absence of bras, and the
          men hardly distinguishable from the women.  They were
          students who took no prisoners, who were suspicious of
          the faculty and abhorred the administration, who could
          go on strike and blockade the classroom buildings, who
          made demands, who forced the central administration of
          a great university to set up a secret headquarters in case
          the president's office was occupied.

          Their language was forthright, figurative, and four-
          lettered.  By our latter-day standards, foul-mouthed.
          I had not heard that language since my Army days.  
          Many of them though were intellectually tough and
          relentlessly honest, but some sadly took on a kind of
          inexplicable madness, perhaps under the frustration
          of not being able to change the world in a day or night.
          One of my advisees [Angela DeAngelis Atwood]
          distinguished herself by becoming a member of the
          group [the SLA] that kidnapped Patty Hearst, and
          in a firefight with the police. 
          [Anna: At the time my husband lamented that her
          education had failed her.]
          But these were not just hippie-esque  folk, a passing
          curiosity in American life.  They shocked the old
          traditions of  the academic world and pulled them up
          by the roots.  The present state of relationships between
          students, faculty, and administration my be linked
          directly to the upheavals of their generation.
          They had discovered something that their forebears
          missed:  that students had power.  They demanded and
          got places for students on key administrative committees.
          They made student evaluations of the faculty popular.
         They and their progeny were willing to challenge the
         canons of literature and the arts and the sciences,
         questioning the dominance of Eurocentric studies in 
         colleges and universities in America, demanding new
         courses of study, even new departments.
So we end this segment with David Wiley's eloquent paean to the New Left and its impact on university life and society – echoing themes and counter-themes of the analogue text Spoon River mentioned earlier. Both the poet Masters and the collective voices of the IU Town Hall shared disappointment during their respective eras that America's original democratic ideal had grown tarnished; however, their remedies diverged profoundly.
Masters, fundamentally pessimistic about his America at the turn of the 20th century, looked back wistfully to an Edenic past characterized by a simpler Jeffersonian society, while the gracefully aging IU activists, inspired by Marx, still hopefully aspired to a future marked by the Marxian ideal of a fairer society.

**The phrase 'red diaper baby' usually signifies a child born of at least one parent associated with the American Communist Party, although more loosely as the offspring of radical parents of the Old Left.  It's difficult to know, however, whether such a self-described person means the term narrowly or broadly.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Secret War, Red Alerts – At the Cold War Front

Very early morning, late spring of ’57, I found myself in the back of an Army truck – a so-called 6x6 troop carrier with benches running along the sides and a canvas canopy. Just off a military plane from the States, I and about a dozen fellow GIs were rolling through the streets of Frankfurt am Main at a pretty good clip. Just the day before I had taken leave of the family and my younger brother Jeff for the next couple of years.

Frankfurt on the River Main, West Germany, 1957

I had arrived in West Germany after a long flight. I don’t know about the other guys, but I was excited. I had finally made it to Europe, always just over the horizon beyond my family’s means for a college boy tour on summer break.

We incoming GIs were headed to various units in the Frankfurt area, replacements for men finishing their tours and heading home. My orders were for the ASA’s European HQ.  ASA, or the Army Security Agency, was a worldwide outfit which surreptitiously gathered communication intelligence on US Cold War adversaries, principally the Soviet Bloc and their Communist allies in Asia.

Although we wore US Army uniforms, ASA reported to the National Security Agency (NSA) back in Washington, a behemoth civilian intelligence organization. Within the Cold War writ large, ASA Europe was part of America’s secret war against the ‘enemy’ less than a hundred miles to the east.

Peering out for my first glance of Europe, I saw only a few people stirring in the streets of Frankfurt at that early morning hour. As the vehicle careened around corners sending us sliding into each other on the benches, I spotted a young German man pedaling his bike furiously to our rear.

We all watched him out of curiosity. Closing the distance as the truck slowed, the cyclist came within hailing range, raised a cupped hand to his mouth and shouted in accented English, “Fuck you, Yanks.” Welcome to Europe.

I was billeted in a 19th century Imperial German cavalry garrison near the city center. It was a walled assemblage of brick buildings, mostly three-story barracks, arrayed around an enormous, cobbled parade ground. ASA shared the place with a spit and polish Military Police (MP) battalion tasked with keeping hard-drinking off-duty GIs on the streets of Frankfurt in line.

They assigned me to a big high-ceilinged, six-man room. Two large windows at the back looked out over the stockade, the Army’s prison for wayward soldiers. The other five guys, mainly ASA security guards and truck drivers, had been in Germany for a while.

Good buddies, they’d come off night duty and continued their long-running, high stakes poker game accompanied by Sinatra on the record player.  Lit by a single lamp, they’d softly call their moves – ‘See you’, ‘Raise you’ – cigarette smoke curling upwards in the darkened room.

Since ASA was only nominally part of the Army, military discipline was lax. As a front line unit in the ongoing secret war against the USSR and its East European satellite states, our intelligence mission took precedence over barracks inspections and the like.

I had arrived on a Friday with the weekend free so I began to explore the town on foot. A few blocks away, I discovered the Hauptbahnhof, Frankfurt’s main train station for intercity and transcontinental travel. A mammoth old structure, the station was filled with small shops and stalls, all quite intriguing to a newly arrived foreigner. Off the cavernous waiting area were the vast concave skeletal steel and glass ‘departure halls’ with trains constantly arriving and departing.

                       Main railroad station, Frankfurt am Main, late 1950s

In the square out front of the station ran the Strassenbahn, the public streetcar system with its quaint-looking trolleys going off clanging in all directions. I walked up one of the busy thoroughfares running like spokes off the square and found all manner of eating places from small restaurants to simple joints as well as many sidewalk Wurst counters selling jumbo German sausages and steins of beer.

Dropping into a middling place for dinner, I found my waiter spoke some English, so I asked for typical German cuisine. It turned out to be tasty and inexpensive – a shot of Schnaps, a clear fruit brandy, with a beer chaser; Ochsenschwanzsuppe, or ox-tail soup; and Wiener Schnitzel, a breaded and fried veal cutlet – all capped off with a fruit tart for dessert.

Wandering in the early evening, I chanced into a hole-in-the-wall café for a drink. A small orchestral ensemble was playing, and a middle aged couple was earnestly dancing. He was a short man in a white suit and she a tall woman in mauve. Despite his size, the man led vigorously, albeit with jerky movements, his right elbow sawing the air as they spun around the postage-stamp dance floor. I left and walked back to Gutleut Kaserne – the garrison’s German name – ending day one in Deutschland.

On Monday I reported for work at the I G Farben building, a large multi-winged structure set in a small park in another part of Frankfurt. When built in the ‘30s, it was one of the largest office buildings in the world. Originally the corporate headquarters of a giant German chemical firm infamous for the gas used in the death camps, the building had been nonetheless spared from allied bombing during the war.

Once the Nazis were defeated, General Eisenhower had it in mind as his HQ for US occupation forces. In 1957, I G Farben served as HQ for the Northern Area Command with a few higher floors at one end given over to ASA Europe.  To reach my office on the 7th floor, one took the ‘paternoster’, an unusual two-passenger elevator consisting of open compartments moving slowly in a loop up and down a building.

I G Farben building, Frankfurt am Main

ASA took security very seriously.  As linguists, or lingys for short, our work was classified Top Secret, requiring high security clearances. As soon as one stepped out of the paternoster, a pair of armed ASA security guards barred the way forward. They carefully looked at the ID badge hanging around each of our necks before permitting us to pass into the suite of offices. 

As a Czech lingy, I was assigned to the largest room designated for East European languages. It ran about 100’ along a wall of good-sized windows. A number of library-style tables filled much of the space. I worked at the first one with other Czech lingys.

Gordon, a Polish lingy and a pal of mine from Army Language School (ALS) back in California, was at the next table, but under the Agency’s Need to Know rule we weren’t permitted to discuss our respective tasks. On the opposite wall was a line of heavy filing cabinet safes where at day’s end and over weekends we locked up our work materials.

My first week on the job passed in a blur. I lost track of time and date. Having been on a long leave after ALS, I was hustling to tune up my translation skills.  At the end of the week, I was told to report back to the office the next evening, a Saturday. My name had come up on the duty roster to serve as ‘charge of quarters’, or CQ.

Although our suite was well-guarded 24/7 and all classified material locked up on weekend nights, ASA required an internal guard as well. Security guards couldn’t enter the suite; they didn’t have clearance. It was the lingys’ job and my turn.

I reported Saturday night to the senior security sergeant (sgt). He handed me a shoulder holster with a snub-nosed .38, outlined the night’s routine, and instructed me to call him if I noticed anything awry. I took my assignment seriously, perhaps too seriously.

A menacing Cold War was underway, and I was in divided Germany on a ‘front’ in the secret war. The shoulder holster proved a tangle of straps, and I couldn’t get it on, so I took the .38 out and kept it close at hand.

During early evening I killed time reading a book. What could possibly happen – I was on the 7th floor, I had locked the door, the hallway was heavily guarded, and the building secured. Easy duty.

Sometime between 9 and 10 o’clock, I noticed bright flashes in the distance. Curious, I walked over to the big windows – which faced in the direction of Communist East Germany and Czechoslovakia – to take a better look. During the periodic flashes, I could just make out a low mountain range.

As I stood there wondering, the flashes grew in size and frequency, interspersed with splashes of red bursting in the sky. Very faintly, I could hear booms preceding the sprays of light now highlighting the horizon.

I became concerned and thought, could these be artillery explosions, incoming illumination rounds to light up a target followed by lethal high explosives. I said to myself, I can’t believe this, I’m here barely a week and that could be the Soviet Army pouring through the Fulda Gap – a cut through the mountains east of Frankfurt on the border of divided Germany, a historic invasion route.

I finally decided to ring up the sgt at his post downstairs. In as calm a voice as I could muster, I reported what I was observing. Sarge didn’t bite – in a weary tone, he said in effect, cool it sonny, it’s the Fourth of July.

Not long after, one of the Czech lingys who had completed his tour and had orders for the States had a car to sell. It was an old French Citroën, and at first glance I was enchanted. Sleek, black, low to the ground, and with front-wheel drive, it cornered like a racing car. I bought it.

        A Citroen like the one I drove in Europe in the 1950s

Mobility made a world of difference. I was really able to get to know Frankfurt a lot better, a large city on the River Main – the banking and financial center of the Federal Republic of Germany, the country’s official name. Driving around randomly at first, I came across reminders of WWII – streets where bomb damage was still visible. And here and there I glimpsed ruins of another era in European history, stunted fragments of once mighty medieval walls dating back over half a millennium.

Back at the garrison, my living arrangements left much to be desired. Chief problem was the stockade out back run by a tough airborne unit. Much too early in the morning for those of us asleep in the barracks, the hard-nosed stockade guards would be shouting commands as they relentlessly marched the prisoners back and forth in the yard.

I said to hell with this and checked out the city’s rental market. Found a comfortable, nicely furnished room in a fine old town house in a leafy neighborhood. An elderly widow, Frau Hildebrand, took me on as a tenant. Off-duty troops could wear civvies, so after work I’d return to my new digs and get out of my uniform as soon as possible.

Weekends were for nights on the town with Gordon and other guys. Our favorite haunts were the crowded, smoky cellar bars with juke boxes pounding out German pop, frequently songs by husky-voiced female vocalists copying the Dietrich sound.

♫ Eine Sage erzählt

wenn die Liebe dir fehlt
und dein Herz wird vor Sehnsucht so schwer
such‘ im Mondlicht am Strand
eine Perle im Sand
wirf sie weit in das nächtliche Meer

(A tale tells
if it’s love you lack
and your heart becomes heavy with yearning
search in the moonlight on the beach
for a pearl in the sand
throw it far into the nighttime sea)*

Occasionally, we’d catch an American movie with German subtitles helpful in learning some of the language to get around. Bridge over the River Kwai (1957) with Alec Guinness comes to mind.         

One summer evening a buddy and I were pub-crawling in the outer suburbs, and I got lucky. It was an upmarket pub, and we were quaffing beers on a low balcony overlooking the dance floor. The band took a break, the floor cleared, and at a table across the room I spotted a striking blonde with her date, obviously a German guy.

She had that Kim Novak look which we all knew well from her sultry performance in the movie Picnic (1955). By that time in the evening I’d had plenty to drink, so when I saw her date get up and head to the men’s room, I sprang to my feet. Crossing the dance floor to the young woman’s table, I boldly asked if she spoke English. Flawlessly she answered, “Yes, I do,” to which I replied, “Could I get your phone number?”

Wordlessly, she quickly took out a pen and wrote it on a cocktail napkin. I scooted away just before her date returned – the entire encounter no more than a few minutes. That’s how I met Inge.

She was a stewardess for TWA, Trans World Airlines, then one of the major American international carriers. Frankfurt was its European hub. Inge was tall, slender, and quite statuesque – so attractive and well versed in languages that TWA had taken her off flight duty and made her a special ground stewardess.

As a representative of the airline, her job was to grace business receptions held for visiting US executives, German officials, and other European notables important to the company. She had a small apartment near the Farben building, very convenient for our rendezvous. From her place, I could see across the well-groomed lawns to the windows of my office.

My Europe, however, was not all fun and games. As I said, there was a war on; granted, a peculiar one since it was called a ‘cold’ war as against a traditional ‘hot’ war with flags flying and cannon roaring. Still, as we were often reminded, there was the ever present danger that the European stand-off between Soviet Bloc forces and the American-led NATO armies (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) might suddenly turn hot. A large Soviet army was garrisoned in nearby East Germany to secure Moscow’s westernmost satellite, but was also considered a potential threat to West Europe.

The US reaction was to train our forces for a possible invasion from the East. We were periodically drilled on the response scenario. US troops, including armor and infantry divisions, were based throughout West Germany, all facing the East. From time to time, the commander of US forces Europe would call an early morning alert to test readiness.

When the figurative ‘balloon’ went up, there was no way for troops to know if it was a ‘red alert’, that is, the real thing, or just another practice exercise. Living off-post illegally, the periodic surprise alerts presented me with a problem. Alerts usually took place around 4 AM, jarring everyone awake with loud alarms. ASA lingys had special assignments in the event of a real or simulated Soviet invasion.

Because we possessed secret information, we were not to fall into enemy hands. Thus, ASA taught us how to drive the Army ‘deuce and a half’, the standard troop truck. When the alert sounded, we were driven to a motor pool, assigned a truck, and given an address to pick up American servicemen’s wives and children. We were then to drive pell mell to a French port where waiting US ships would take us off the Continent and out of harm’s way.

Obviously, I’d have to be in my sack in the barracks to hear the alarm go off. Happily I found a solution to my dilemma – I got acquainted with a GI at ASA HQ who got early warning of alerts and would tip me off. On the designated night, I’d be sure to sleep in the barracks. To save time for what I knew was coming, l’d doze on my bunk in full field gear and combat boots, my helmet within reach.

This worked fine until one morning late summer ’57. Unbeknownst to me, my HQ buddy was on leave. As usual, I slept at my German lodging. Frau Hildebrand’s house had a bathtub, but that morning I wanted a shower, so I got up very early and drove down to the barracks in civvies with a fresh uniform in the back.

To my great surprise and extreme dismay, the streets were thronged with US military vehicles of all descriptions. As I neared the garrison, a command car flying a general’s flag passed in the opposite direction. I could even see the man himself in the backseat, decked out in combat gear with a shoulder holster.

I had never seen a general before, and it suddenly dawned on me that this was the real thing, a red alert – and, heaven help me, I was AWOL (Absent without Leave), and not in uniform in the middle of a war.

Absurd as it was at such a time, the thought running through my head was something my mother had once said to me as a youngster, “Remember, Bob, everything you do reflects on us.” In despair, I turned into the arched entrance to the parade ground at the garrison, slowed down to show the MP my badge, and with deep foreboding asked what was going on.

“Nothing,” he said in a bored voice, “just a yellow alert.” Saved by the bell, another practice alert for the invasion which fortunately never came during the long Cold War. When I next wrote home to regale brother Jeff and the family with my European adventures, I left out the part about nearly missing the war.

*Der weisse Mond von Maratonga, lyrics by Fini Busch; music by Werner Scharfenberger