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