One Day After School I Learned About War

This post will be the last post on the topic of my hometown’s traditional German cultural history and roots. To be perfectly honest, I have never really quite known how to feel about this story, and I haven’t told it to very many people. I’ve never really been able to decide if it was, in the end, a good or a bad thing, but I tend to think that it was for the greater good, I think that is fair enough to say.

Spring, 1980. I was finishing up the 5th Grade.

Now, before I get ahead of myself, I need to tell you about Holly. She was in her early fifties, I’d say, and was one of the cafeteria cooks at my elementary school, one of three elementary schools in town (there was only one junior high and one high school).

Holly was a first generation German immigrant. She spoke perfect English but with a very heavy German accent. She adored children. She used to let us in the back door to the school kitchen on the really cold mornings growing up and make us all cinnamon toast and hot chocolate. And I remember how she would open those 64 ounce cans of pears or peaches and pour the “juice” into glasses for us. And sometimes she would tell us stories about when she was our age and how the Rocky Mountains in some ways reminded her of the Bavarian Alps of her youth. Holly was one of the kindest women I have ever known.

So back to that warm spring day in the 5th grade in 1980. I was doing good in school, had a great teacher, loved playing in the elementary school band, and had a childhood crush on Susanna Preston (all names changed to protect the innocent, of course, heh.)

Life was good.

On this particular spring afternoon, I had gotten roped into selling raffle tickets for the band for an end of the year shindig in Sanders Park in town (the school always took us to Sanders Park on the last day of school and gave us sandwiches, chips, popsicles and Pepsis).

Anyway, I’m selling these raffle tickets door to door, yes, by myself. Now I know that seems pretty horrifying to a lot of us – I live in a major city now and can’t imagine a 5th grader going to door to door selling raffle tickets after school by himself – but you have to understand. This was small town Bible Belt America in 1980 – it felt completely safe. People never locked their houses when they left or at night, and never locked their cars when they went into the store. Things change, of course, but to some degree the town is still largely like that. So this really wasn’t a big deal to me, or to any grown up – this was normal, this was how things were supposed to be.

Well, I knock on the door of a neatly maintained bungalow style home, and Holly answers the door. I tell her about the raffle tickets, of course she’ll buy some, come on in. (Again – no need for alarm here – this was okay – really!)  So before you know it, she’s sitting me down in her living room and  bringing me lemonade and chocolate chip cookies (and this lady knew how to make lemonade and chocolate chip cookies, I gotta tell you).

So at this point I’m in an old Twilight Zone episode and I don’t even know it, from my sheltered little life up to that point. Which is actually a pretty apt comparison, considering what happened next.

The mood of the room at that moment, when her husband Henry (about the same age as Holly, maybe a little older) came in from the back room, was one of pleasant simplicity.

Holly had me explain about the raffle tickets, what they were for, yada yada yada. Right there and then, Henry pulled out his wallet, and handed me a 20 dollar bill, which was wayyyyy too much money. In a soft, kind voice, he told me to keep the change.

As he handed me the 20 dollar bill, I noticed a series of small blue numbers tattooed on his forearm.

Naturally, I asked what they were for. As you might imagine, it suddenly got very quiet in that house about then. They looked at each other, and I’m sitting there with this stupid look on my face, knowing that I had obviously said something wrong, but for the life of me not understanding why.

What I didn’t understand at the time was, of course, that I had done nothing wrong; they were simply, and with the silent communication that comes naturally between two people who have grown to be very close together, trying to decide what to tell me.

It was Holly who spoke first.

“You know about za great second world war, ja, you have learned this in school?”

I nodded that we had, but that I didn’t understand all of it.

“Well, I doubt zat zey told you about dis, and maybe zat’s good. If you want to know, ve will tell you.”

I nodded slowly, and Holly’s husband told me. He told me about being in Auschwitz during the war, as a German Jewish citizen. At that time he was around 16 years old, and was kept alive because he was strong and could work. It was his good fortune, in a horrific way, that the American Army pushed down the gates of Auschwitz before the Nazis ran out of work to force upon him. 

Most of you know the gruesome details of Auschwitz and the other Nazi concentration camps in World War II. There’s no real need to go over the horrible details of what he saw, what was done to his loved ones, and the kind of work he was made to do. I think we are all pretty familiar with what he must have experienced.

And yet we can never really know – none of us can, unless you lived it.

I remember that afternoon like it was yesterday, and I remember everything that was explained to me. Some of it I understood, some of it I couldn’t understand. Mostly, living in that town, I couldn’t understand how things could go so badly wrong that human beings could ever treat each other like that. That was the part I just didn’t get.

I didn’t sell anymore raffle tickets that afternoon. I just went home on my bicycle in silence. I didn’t sleep much that night. That afternoon haunted me for a very long time.

Did Holly do anything wrong? Did her husband? Was the situation handled inappropriately? I have thought often about those questions. If I had been younger, then yes, perhaps. But I was in 5th Grade, 11 years old going on 12. I think it was appropriate, and in the end, I think they did me a great favor.

From that day on, I understood that life is not always lemonade and cookies, an innocent view of the world I had in some ways been allowed to believe up until that day. Though I was never able to find out if Holly experienced the same horrors or was spared them (I never asked), I understood that people can be cruel and filled with hate just because of what church you do or don’t go to or what the color of your skin is. People can really suck, in other words. Life isn’t fair, and very bad things happen to very good people.

But that’s the point, isn’t it?  These were two of the sweetest people I had ever met in my life. And Holly brought joy to children waiting in the cold every winter morning because that was her way of bringing some small amount of happiness into her small corner of the world. I have to admit that it took me a while, but I finally realized that was the real lesson that I was meant to take away from that warm spring afternoon – yes, injustice and evil have always happened, and probably always will – but look at the people who endure it. So many people come out of true horrors with the realization that it is their job for the rest of their lives to spread as much happiness as possible in whatever way possible, not to atone for any sin of their own, but to somehow try to erase the wrongs in the world they were unfortunate enough to experience, wrongs done to them by others. Not everyone reaches that realization, of course. But enough people do, enough rise above evil that in the end, they are probably the reason you and I are living the lives that we are today.  Maybe that’s grace.

All I know for sure is that the Hollys and Henrys of this world are what give all of us our humanity back, and it’s a debt that we can never repay.

 

Postscript:  Sorry for being so depressing today, but this is a story I have always felt I needed to share, and with all that’s going on in the world today, maybe this is as good a time as any. Back to the somewhat amusing anecdotes next time, I promise………

 

The Tyroleans

So, last time I told you about the Oktoberfest in the town I grew up in, and a little bit of the town’s cultural history. That background landed me in the middle of something that I can’t say I ever thought I would become a part of – a German folk dancing youth group called The Tyroleans.

You see, in third grade I took up playing trumpet in band class. And that was something I learned to enjoy a lot as I grew up, really enjoying being in a concert band when I got to  junior high. (I could write a whole post on junior high band – the instructor who really cared about his students and my first serious crush on a girl, but I digress.)

So, by the time I got to high school, I was still playing the trumpet. Loved it. Joined the high school marching band. I missed the elegance and class of being in a concert band, something which I frankly preferred, but sometimes you just gotta go where they tell you to go.

Well, as you know, most of my freshman year was spent in pain and learning to walk again, so when my sophomore year rolled around and I was right as rain again (see the previous post, “What’s In a Nickname?”) I picked up where I left off and rejoined the high school marching band.

Except something was wrong.

The high school band instructor was less than welcoming, shall we say. I didn’t mind being Third Chair Trumpet (you play harmony if you’re lucky) even though I had once been a First Chair Trumpet (you get to do trumpet solos) since I had been gone for a year. But when he started making numerous cracks to the whole band like, “Oh come ON, Ken, (a kid who played the saxophone) even BRENT could play this!”  Well, band started to not be so fun anymore. To this day, I hold that band teacher as one of the worst teachers I ever had in my life. I mean, that was just unprovoked.

So, I had this problem. I wanted to keep playing the trumpet. But the high school band teacher had decided to make my life miserable because I’d had a bum leg for a year – to the point that I decided I didn’t want to be in band anymore. Nice job, teach.

Well, one of the seniors in school approached me one cold winter morning as I went into the band room to stow my trumpet for the day. He broke the ice (no pun intended) by sharing a Weird Al song with me on his Sony Walkman. I was pretty sure I was being set up here. (Okay, so by then I was a bit on the defensive!) Anyway, it turned out that this senior kid Matt was totally on the level, he was in this youth group called The Tyroleans, and they were short a trumpet, would I like to come and meet everyone and try out a few tunes?

So I did. It was a German oom-pah band, plain and simple – they played German folk music at the Oktoberfest each year, and got to travel all around the state playing to empty hotel conference rooms and drunken Oktoberfests. All I needed to join was 40 bucks for my Lederhosen (remember what Lederhosen are?), a desire to play the trumpet, and a fondness for travel.

Sign me up.

And so, as my enthusiasm and respect for the marching band dwindled to nothing, I started meeting this German folk dance group on Thursday nights for two hours of German folk music. I was ecstatic when I finally got to go on my first trip – to the Casper Hilton. I went everywhere in the state in The Tyroleans, and had a blast kicking out those traditional German folk dances and and belting out traditional German brass numbers and even a few ballads.  And “Oh, Tannenbaum” at Christmas time, can’t forget that. I mean, it was like being in a road band. Wait. I was in a road band.

There was the time that we went and played at a retirement home’s Christmas party in Thermopolis, coming back in Matt’s Chevy Citation (one of the most poorly conceived automobiles in history – if the car had anything at all to offer its driver it would be a nervous breakdown from the rear wheel drive, no weight on the rear axle, and brakes that lock up when you look at them.) Visibility was maybe 10 feet in what is known as a ground blizzard – snow blows and drifts horizontally across the highway, all but obscuring the pavement. Matt just put in a tape of German music, told us to listen for the harmonies, and drove us back home going 25 mph.

Matt was a pretty great guy.

I was in Tyroleans for a little over year, and it brought my spirits, my trumpet playing, and my faith in basic human kindness back from the brink.

A few days before the end of my sophomore year, I was called in to the principal’s office.

It was about this application that I had submitted on a bit of a whim – an application to learn to drive a school bus, and work for the county as a driver before and after school if it all worked out.

Turned out I had gotten some sterling recommendations, and they wanted to give me a try.

It clashed with band class, so I was going to have to make a choice.

One of my few regrets in life is that I politely explained to the high school band teacher the dilemma, and that I thought I was going to hang up the trumpet for now and take the keys to a bus in its place.  What I really wanted to say is something that I would rather not repeat here, but I was raised to have a bit more class than that, so I bit my tongue.

As it turned out, all of the seniors that made up the bulk of The Tyroleans were moving on – to college, to start their lives. With the guy who ran the Oktoberfest in town being in ill health at the time, there wasn’t much new blood in The Tyroleans, and it became apparent that it was probably time to know when I’d had a good run and go ahead and turn in my Lederhosen.

You pretty much know the rest of the story. I became a school bus driver for 2 1/2 years, during which time I fell in love with Rock and Roll, a cheerleader, cruising Main, and a 1967  3/4 ton pickup, not necessarily in that order.

Believe it or not, I still have my trumpet – the same one for which my folks shelled out money we needed when I was in the third grade, so I could have a decent education and an appreciation of music. The trumpet is busted and dented, and has definitely seen better days. But with a few spot welds and some valve oil, I think it could still play.

Maybe I’ll get it fixed up and see if it does.

Oktoberfest

Well, I’m back. I have not posted on this blog all year, and I don’t know why, really. Busy? Sure, that’s part of it. Working too hard?  If you are one of my bosses, then yes, every day. And I don’t think, as I said in my last post, that it’s that I’m out of good stories, because I’m not. Out of inspiration, that certain writer’s magic that happens when a writer gets “in the zone?”  Well, maybe, but I hope not. So, rather than make excuses, with your permission I’d like to simply pick up where I left off, and we’ll see if we can’t make this a regular thing, again.

Oh, and to those of you who actually requested that I get back on here and pump some life back into this blog – thank you. I like to think of myself as an inspired writer, but you, my readers, are why I do this after all. So let’s go.

How about some coming attractions first?  Think of this as my promise to you of future posts that will be worth reading. I went back to my hometown for a few weeks this past summer, I want to tell you all about that. (That will be a pretty long post).  I want to tell you about The Wizard’s Den, about the Toyata and the dining room chair, about Batman and the willow tree, and about the flumes. So those are all wherethebleepiswyoming posts coming your way soon, and I promise not to disappear on you again.

Much.

So here it is – coming up on the end of summer, labor day weekend, and my favorite time of year, fall. And in my town, growing up – this particular point – right at the end of summer with school about to start – meant one thing and one thing only – Oktoberfest.

One of the things I may not have told you about my hometown yet was that it was founded by first-generation German immigrants, around the year 1900. To this day, the town has a healthy population of German descendants. This inherited German culture played itself out in the form of the Oktoberfest during the first week of September nearly every year I lived there, which by the way was from 1972 – 1988.

The first week of every September, the town’s Community Hall, which looked conspicuously like a converted aircraft hangar, was transformed into a crowded hall of beer-swilling townsfolk, German folk dancing, sauerkraut, and cabbage burgers. Now if past experience in relating all of this is any indicator, you just went, “Cabbage what?”

Cabbage burgers. Hollow, baked bread pockets made with slightly sweet dough and filled with spiced beef and boiled cabbage. Often times with some German cheeses thrown in as well. Yum. I could eat these things all day, next to Italian food (my all-time favorite, which is odd since I don’t have any Italian blood in me but I do have quite a bit of German) cabbage burgers are one of my favorite foods.

And there was this little German hut on a trailer that looked like it had somehow been hijacked from Bavaria, where you could buy buttons, mugs, suspenders, lederhosen, and other items of classic German culture. (Lederhosen are very heavy leather shorts that go down to the knees, and have suspenders attached to them to keep them from plopping immediately to your ankles while engaging in German folk dances in these affronts to sensible fashion).

The Oktoberfest was a week-long affair, and the oom-pah music and general buzz of conversation and celebration could usually be heard for blocks. The Oktoberfest was the only time of the year the town ever had any traffic to speak of.

And with good reason. People would come from all around the state to attend our town’s Oktoberfest.

One guy put the whole thing on each year – it was his sole passion. Like a self-made German Beer Garden version of Santa Claus, each year he transformed the town for a week into a German folk festival that brought in tourism dollars from all over the state.

Like I said, this went on every year – the last one I attended was in September 1987, out of high school for four months by then. In the summer of 1988, I moved to California. I heard that the guy who had always put on the Oktoberfest passed away from natural causes that same year, and a decades-old local tradition quietly died with him.

In 2006, a pile of oily rags were left in the kitchen of the Community Hall. They smoldered to combustion, and the dry, old timbers of the Community Hall went up like balsa wood, causing one of the worst fires in the town’s history. The Community Hall was completely destroyed. Luckily, no lives were lost, and the Fire Department saved the surrounding buildings, preventing a much larger blaze.

A friend of mine who still lives there told me that in September of 2011 someone bought that old Bavarian hut on a trailer from the town storage, and took upon the responsibility of resurrecting the town’s annual Oktoberfest. It really did do my heart good to hear that. But then, I was always a sucker for nostalgia. I really hope it works out……

One of the things about the Oktoberfest, like I said, was that for me it really taught me about the town’s roots. At the beginning of the 20th Century, people sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in steam ships and started across the Great Plains any way they could – sort of after the Oregon Trail days and way before the great Westward migration brought on by the Great Depression. Most came by train, with the advent 30 years earlier of the first transcontinental railroad in North America.

And some of them settled in this desert valley between mountain ranges to carve irrigation canals and a new life out of the scorched, barren land.

All I can say about that is that those folks were made of sterner stuff than me.

So that’s how the town got started, mostly by German immigrants like I said. I don’t know exactly when the first town Oktoberfest was, but I know it goes back at least to the late 60s. 

And for one week a year, the town celebrated its roots the only way it knew how – tradition.

And so it goes. I would really like to see the Oktoberfest be resurrected, it’s only right, and the town deserves it.

I have some related posts for you on this subject – next time we will talk about the Tyroleans. Then after that I want to tell you a story  – a story I like to call One Day After School I Learned About War.

If you’re reading this (again) thank you for sticking with me in my absence, and thank you for asking me to write again. We’ll talk again – soon!