The American Field Service, which arranges international student exchanges, was born in war. A group of young Americans living in Paris in 1914 volunteered as ambulance drivers during World War I. Following the Second World War, they organized to send high school students from Europe to America, and vice versa.
I wondered, when I was 17 and applying for the AFS summer abroad program, if my hero Ernest Hemingway had been one of them. He had signed up to be an ambulance driver right out of high school, in 1918. But that was on the Italian Front, with the Red Cross. Mortar shrapnel lacerated both his legs. A Farewell to Arms came out of that experience, but no, he had not been with the American Field Service.
Now, in 1966, in the fog of the Cold War, AFS was doing what it could to foster peace among the combatants in World War II. Vati had fought in that war. He never mentioned it. He didn’t say much at all. Mutti filled me in while we were putting the dinner dishes away. He had been in the Waffen SS, involuntarily, she emphasized. Anyone over six-foot-three, she told me, was automatically drafted into the Schutzstaffel. Vati was six-five. He had spent the last days of the war running for his life through the forests of Czechoslovakia one gasp ahead of a Soviet Red Army bent on revenge. Only later did I learn that the SS prided itself on its racial purity and unconditional loyalty to the Führer. And that it was responsible for many of the Holocaust atrocities.
At home in Heilbronn, Vati showed emotion only when Germany scored a goal in their World Cup matches. “Schön,” he’d say to the television. Nice. Beautiful.
The quadrennial competition was happening just across the North Sea in England. Germany made it to the final before losing 2-1 to the host English. No mention was made (as far as I could tell with my limited German), either at home or in the media, of any extra meaning in that outcome.
My language skills did improve over the course of the summer. I learned to pronounce schön and Kuchen, and I learned that most of the time German verbs come at the ends of sentences. To bake a cake, for example, is: einen Kuchen backen.
I learned that all German nouns are capitalized, which is handy, when reading. All nouns also are assigned a gender: masculine, feminine, or neuter. As Mark Twain pointed out in his essay on the language, “In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has.” (“Where is the turnip?” “She has gone to the kitchen.” “Where is the accomplished and beautiful maiden?” “It has gone to the opera.”)
Near the end of my summer sojourn I surprised myself with the depth of language I had absorbed, more or less subconsciously since Mutti insisted on using her English and Jürgen deigned only to criticize. “Was machst du?” he would scowl, and then, translating himself, “What do you make?” All of the American students in Germany were gathered together in the port city of Bremerhaven before boarding the boat for home. We were given a luncheon at the famously gothic Bremer Rathaus (Town Hall). And for one night I stayed with a family there, a family that reminded me of my own in California. Their apartment was chaos. Happy, chatty chaos reigned, from the parents down to the littlest kids, who warbled away at me unphased by my limited understanding.
The son closest in age to me had just returned from a trip to the Isle of Man. He had not gone on a cultural exchange, or to learn the language. As far as I could tell, he had gone simply to buy booze. In the bathroom that night he poured us shots of whiskey in little paper cups. At first I thought the burning in my chest would make me throw up. But then the hot liquid did, finally, go down. And the two of us talked late into the night. We spoke in simple sentences. One-word sentences. And it was good.
After the eighth or ninth day at sea, the captain let us out on deck again. The SS Seven Seas was still running at half speed, but we’d outflanked the hurricane at last. The remnant swells, an unearthly turquoise color, were huge, and flecked with foam. As the ship’s bow dove into the next trough, her propeller came sloshing part way out of the water. A new friend and I stood on the fantail as far aft as we could get. When the stern reached its apex, we’d jump as high as we could straight up and then waft down, an extra second or two in the air, as the deck dropped away beneath us.
When I returned to school in September Linda Stilgenbauer was nowhere to be seen. And nobody was talking. Eventually, I got one of her girlfriends to tell me the truth: that she’d gotten pregnant over the summer and her parents had shipped her off to a school for unwed mothers up in Northern California somewhere.