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.

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