Last week I told you how I arrived at Wiesbaden Air Base in Germany in June, 1970, and found it to be a drab, empty place. I was there teaching classes, facing nine weeks away from home, and missing my family.
Every day was the same. Walk to the mess hall. Eat breakfast. Walk to my classroom. Teach. Walk to the mess hall for lunch. Teach some more. Eat again. Trudge back to my room. Sleep. Get up. Start it all over again.
One thing helped. I had brought my oils and brushes with me as I always did, so I began a painting of a wonderful old stone bridge in Cropredy, England, where Lolly and I and the kids lived before we moved on base. That helped to fill the empty evenings.
I always left unfinished canvases leaning face in against the wall to protect them from some mishap. One Saturday morning one of the cleaning ladies in the Visiting Officers Quarters where I was staying asked me if I would show her what I was working on. I was happy to do it, and what happened changed everything.
I no sooner had shown the painting to the cleaning lady than she brought in all the other people working in the VOQ to see it. One person she brought in was Freddy Schneider, the manager of the VOQ. Later that day, as I passed through the lobby of the VOQ on my way to the small snack bar next door for another solitary meal, Freddy stopped me. “That is a very nice painting you are doing,” he said. “You paint much, do you?”
“Thanks,” I told him. “I paint as much as I can. I only started a couple of years ago, but I really love it.”
“The bridge. It is in England?”
“Yes, in a small village called Cropredy, about three miles north of Banbury. My wife and I lived there for a year. We loved it. So did the kids.
“It’s a beautiful old village.”
Well, we talked a while and the first thing I knew Freddy invited me to come to his home and have dinner with him and his elderly mother. And from that evening on Wiesbaden was no longer the cold, empty place it had been.
Why? I think you can guess for yourself, so I’ll just go on.
Freddy and I became good friends. And I swear his mother was like a second mother to me. She said I was too thin and started fattening me up from the very first night I ate over at their house. And Freddy’s friends became my friends. Not just his German friends — though there were plenty of them — but people on the base.
Freddy had gotten to know an air policeman named Chuck who was living in the VOQ where I was staying. He was waiting to testify in a court martial — a story I’ll have to get to some day. Chuck and I became good friends too.
Why? We shared an interest in — of all things — table tennis. He was young and fast and I was nearly 40, but sneaky. And so day after day we fought it out over the ping-pong table in the basement of the VOQ.
Freddy knew some people over in headquarters who were interested in painting. He dragged me over there, along with my now finished, but still wet landscape. They took one look at Cropredy Bridge and the first thing I knew I had a commission to do a four-by-eight oil for one of the local service clubs.
I also found myself doing a painting of Washington’s Mount Olympia for one of the people in the headquarters training office. I have no idea how she even found out I painted, but she did, and doing that small but challenging painting was a lot of fun.
Over the remaining eight weeks I was so busy I barely had time to breathe. I taught. I painted. I ate in doggone near every restaurant in the city of Wiesbaden, saw all the sights, including the casino, and traveled all over the local countryside. One sight that impressed me — probably because I’m descended from peasant grape stompers in Baden-Baden, Germany — was the vast stretches of Rhine wine grapes glowing in the sun of a summer that turned out to be one of the best wine years Europe has ever seen.
One place I saw that I will never forget was — as unlikely as it may seem — a frozen food warehouse. That may not sound like the most interesting stop on a tour of the continent, but I’ve got to tell you, Johnny, when those Germans do something, they do it!
Picture a building a city block square and two stories high. Picture yourself donning a heavy, hooded, knee-length parka on a hot July night.
Zipping it up tight. Pulling on heavy gloves. Tying the hood tight around your neck. Sliding a pair of special boots over your shoes. I looked like Nanook of the North.
Imagine someone telling you, “The room you are first going to enter is at 20 degrees below zero. You’ll go through it into the main storage room.
“As you enter the first room it will feel bitterly cold to you, but when you come back out of the main room after a while it will feel warm, even at 20 below zero.”
And it did feel warm on the way out. Why? I’ll tell you what, Johnny, that main room filled with frozen foods was — so they told me — the coldest place on the planet. I think they said it was 100 degrees below zero, but I’m not sure. The minute I stepped into that place it froze my brain. I had never felt cold so intense, and I never want to feel it again. It was unbelievable. The workers in there, who wore the same clothing I had on, were only allowed to work in there for 30 minutes at a time.
And get this: If the power had gone off everything in there would have stayed frozen for more than a month.
Well that warehouse may have been cold, but Wiesbaden wasn’t anymore. So what happened? Why did a place that had seemed so cold and empty suddenly become home-away-from-home? You already know the answer. People. Just plain old people.
It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.
From then on, wherever I went, and whatever I did, I forgot about seeing places and focused instead on meeting people. As a result, although I was no happier about being away from my family, I developed a sort of “great family” in a lot of places. Some of us still write back and forth, even today, decades later.
You might say it’s a beneficial form of global warming.