by Robert Pope
When my family moved to Frankfurt, Germany in 1960, Dwight D. Eisenhower was still the president of the United States, and the memory of the war against the German Nazi government lingered in pockets of unrestored destruction scattered throughout the city. We lived in military housing, a duplex on the furthest edge of Gibbs Kaserne, and one such remnant was less than half a mile down the road behind the row of identical dwellings reserved for officers. Dad was a Major at the time, and had worked under General Eisenhower in Paris, at SHAPE, an acronym for Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. As I grew up, the framed photographs of my father and General Eisenhower, in uniform, graced our walls, including one of the pair walking down a hallway at SHAPE with Winston Churchill in classic black overcoat, chewing on a cigar.
I had turned fourteen in March and made friends with the other kids in the duplexes. My special friend, Jeffry, lived in the apartments immediately above our duplex, both of us caught at a maturity level between childhood and the teen years. We still played an occasional game that involved toy guns, shouting “Bombs over Tokyo” or “Geronimo” as we careened down the hill between our residences, holding our chests where imaginary gunshot killed or seriously wounded one of us. Jeff’s special joy, however, was fireworks: M-80s, Cherry Bombs, and ladyfingers.
One M-80 packed a wallop strong enough to blow open our steel garbage cans that locked with a turn of the handle on the lid. The Cherry Bombs had a pretty powerful blast as well, and looked like their name, round with a fuse out the top. The ladyfingers came in a string of at least a dozen tiny red firecrackers with the soft, gray fuses wound together. Jeffry would hold one of these off the string between thumb and forefinger while the fuse burned down and exploded. The blacked tips of his fingers attested to the fact that this was not a painless adventure. We sometimes built forts in a sandbox or molded dirt to man with the small green plastic soldiers popular at the time.
In each package, there was always a sniper lying down, lining up his shot, waiting for the right moment. One guy held up his hand, leading his men forward, a rifle at his side in the other. Kneeling soldiers manned machine guns, and one held out a pistol, presumably because his primary weapon had been lost or he ran out of ammunition. You can imagine the others stationed about our complicated fortress before we packed them with ladyfingers and blew the soldiers out of their positions. I was about to leave this all behind, and maybe Jeff was too, but we still played war or marbles too many hours to account for now.
If we walked down the street behind the duplexes, we were on the German economy, as we referred to it. On our right we passed the orchard, and then a house where soldiers seemed to spend a lot of time, until we moved into the German town, and came to the candy store where we bought what we called teddy bears, long before we ever heard of gummy bears being sold in the United States. A window of the proprietor’s house opened on the street, with various candies and chocolate bars laid out. We always went for the cheaper teddy bears in large glass jars, inevitably threaded by a dozen or so ants.
We gave the German man our American coins or dollar bills and received any change in pfennigs and carried away small waxed paper envelopes of teddy bears from which we picked or blew away an ant or two that fled our fingers. There were other shops ahead, but just before the candy store window, we passed a cluster of bombed-out houses. While the bearded junk man’s place across the street drew much of our attention, we always went back to the ruined houses to chew our candies. On one occasion, Jeff brought along a pocketful of fire crackers and set these off in the walls, an idea I did not favor, as it seemed too obviously symbolic.
I knew not all war wounds had been healed. German men missing a leg or an arm begged around the post exchange. A gnome-like man still haunted our trash cans for edible garbage, and once, when I rode my bicycle through a German filling station, the attendant shouted, “Herraus, Amerikaner!” Jeff and I walked through an alley and stopped to pick apples off a branch leaning beyond the fence, when the owner came out brandishing a shotgun, shouting imprecations before he fired over our heads.
I also had good experiences with German people but these examples show why I became aware I lived in this place because our fathers were a force of occupation. I have good memories of our time there, including an amazing boat trip down the Rhine. It was a true privilege to get to know that beautiful country and come home with my head still brimming with strange wonders I witnessed. In order to tell this one story, I have to avoid the digressions that present themselves.
I did not say to Jeff that he shouldn’t set off his fireworks in these walls because it might be seen as an affront to those who remembered what happened here barely more than a decade before. If he did not think of that himself, I would be surprised. The pang of the Cherry Bombs rang off the walls, sending a spray of mortar into the empty, roofless, door-less interior. I should mention these ruins were clean as a whistle, the way my Dad described it. The stones of the walls had a scrubbed yellow-white cast. No rubble lay about in or outside any buildings yet awaiting destruction and reconstruction.
Jeff lit a string of ladyfingers that rat-a-tat-tat-ed like machine gun fire. He tossed an M-80 over a wall, into another empty room, for an enormous effect that brought two German boys through the open doorway, into the room where I slouched against the wall. I stood up as they entered, one short, the other tall, both dressed in shorts with their dirty, knobby knees exposed. The short one carried a soccer ball casually against his side and watched us with his head cocked. The taller one became belligerent immediately, shouting in German at Jeff, who had another M-80 in his hand.
Jeff and I mirrored the German boys in stature. Though we were the same age, Jeff stood half a foot shorter. I was shooting upward in height at the time, both of us just as slender as the German boys in our jeans and pullover t-shirts. Jeff’s, I recall, was horizontally striped yellow and red. My own, I do not recall, most likely because I couldn’t see it at the moment. Jeff lit into the tall German with his own insults. Pugnacious is the word that describes him at that moment, and the tall boy and Jeff exchanged angry words I cannot recall in any detail.
Because I intuited the match between the tall boy and Jeff would be uneven if it came to blows, I leaped between them and offered what curses I could muster, the first of which was the ultimate in American cowboy threats, “Put up your dukes.” I put up my own and waited on the tall German who had to have my words translated by the shorter boy, with illustrative gestures, for which he had to set the soccer ball on the ground, under one foot. The tall German looked a bit confused, arguing that he already had his dukes up.
I could see he had no hesitation in the matter as we exchanged more words on the subject, translated carefully by the shorter boy, who probably had all the brains in the room at the time. I resorted to the only German curse words I knew, and one of us suggested the other should have intimate relations with a chicken. I harbor the hope that was his, but I am suspicious of myself, as I still remember how to say that in German. Our mothers entered the discussion, but it all came to a head when I told him I would beat the snot out of him, this from other realms of play, I know, because I had never yet engaged in an actual fight. It seemed pretty banal as curses went, but for his part, the tall German did not understand the word ‘snot’ which the short one did not translate. Upon further questioning, he revealed this as the stuff from “deine Nase,” the final e pronounced as uh. For some reason, this grossed the taller German boy out on the spot. He twisted his face in disgust and said, “Ew.”
I felt some embarrassment at grossing him out, but the phrase was purely standard in the play of young boys imitating boxers or struggling cowboys or gangsters. I also felt some relief. Because this phrase had so disgusted the German boy, he shivered and would have nothing to do with me anymore. The shorter fellow picked up his soccer ball, and they exited through an open doorway. I heard them discussing the argument until they faded out of our sphere of influence.
As a boy, I was an avid swimmer, with the exception of the years my father, an army Major at the time, was stationed in Germany, where we had no pool that I knew about. But once at Fort Meade, Maryland, that changed. During the summer, I rode my bike to the pool so often my hair took on blonde highlights from sun and chlorine. Cycling home one day, I was chased by a small cloud pouring rain within the limits of the narrow, empty road. When it overtook me, drenching me to the skin, I stopped in the roadway and watched it disappear in the distance, wondering if it had been God or Satan who had singled me out in this way.
At the time, I could swim the length of the pool and halfway back underwater, and by the summer’s end, I made three lengths back and forth, kicking off the wall in my turn, holding my breath beyond my previous limit of about two minutes. I practiced the breast stroke and crawl to develop my ability as a swimmer and control my breathing. We horsed around as well, but I had an immediate goal of becoming a life guard the following year. The reason I mention this is that later that summer, my family went to a rugged beach on the lower East Coast.
I kick myself now that I don’t know the name of the beach. None of my siblings remember and my parents died early this century, Dad before the attack on the twin towers. I am guessing the reason we do not remember the name of the beach is that we did not have a good time of it. My father, often irascible and bad tempered, was deeply unhappy at the time. He tried to cover his wild irritation by acting like he was enjoying himself, but he said, at some point, he didn’t think we were having a very good time. With a flicker of anguish, I responded that we could, by which I meant if he weren’t so pissed off all the time. His glare told me he understood my subtext and reminded me what an iffy proposition it could be to point out his failings.
Dad could land the back of his hand to the side of my face so fast and hard it made my head spin. I later gauged the depth of his love by the fact that he had not yet killed me. On the other hand, I recall a day we caught crabs and boiled them in our cabin. It seemed barbaric to boil them alive, but we watched them turning red in the pot. Dad took special pleasure in this, and we had a good night.
I had brought along an inflatable raft, and one overcast day I blew it up and drifted about as if the sea were my swimming pool. On my back, contemplating the shifting gray of the sky, a wave swelled beneath me, lifting me high before dashing me against the hard, sandy floor of the ocean. I became preternaturally alert as the wave peaked, sucking in as much air as lungs could hold, keenly aware in that grotesquely extended moment of my surroundings and situation. When it fell, I spun in its belly until I lost all sense of up and down.
By my calculation, I had three lengths of a swimming pool in which I might survive on stored oxygen. My perspective was threefold. First, from my particular point inside the wave, I viewed myself as a witness to the power of the wave, neither resisting nor objecting. Second, I understood that a boy, some boy, had been caught up in a wave just as any chance object natural to the sea might be swirled in tons of saltwater. Third, I registered the terror of the life-and-death dimensions of my situation.
Yet, at some point, I found myself on hands and knees on the sand as the wave receded, trembling with relief. My bathing suit had been dragged to my knees, and my chest and legs had developed bloody streaks. I crawled from the sea like the first life on earth, pulled my trunks up over my shriveled masculinity, and staggered along the beach to where a stranger stood fishing on cocked legs with some serious equipment, a sturdy rod and tackle with which he pulled an enormous ray from the sea where I had been swimming all morning.
Big as myself, the creature had wide black wings, evil-looking horns, and a whipping tail. I saw or felt the parallels, even then, between the moment the cloud chased me, and I wondered again whether what I saw was of God or Satan. I didn’t ask my siblings or mother, especially not my father, who participated in every war since 1939, as I feared he would try to tell me. This would take years to sort out, and I didn’t want any interference. For the time being, I concluded that it pointed back to the ocean, telling me to stay out, at least until I learned respect.
My girlfriend and I saw Antonioni’s film Blow Up, based on a story by Julio Cortazar, on an extremely pleasant summer evening in Berkeley, California in 1967. It may look a little silly today, but the film appealed to our shifting sense of reality. A fashion photographer, played by David Hemmings, finds what he believes are shocking clues to a murder in the background of the photographs he took at a park and subsequently blew up—to see the supposed clues more clearly. The clues occur in the negative space. The subject in the positive space was a woman played by Vanessa Redgrave, who may or may not have been meeting a lover.
When we came out with our sense of reality altered by the film, we ordered pizza from an adjoining shop and sat at a picnic table in the theater courtyard, surrounded by the bougainvillea growing against the brick walls on a balmy evening. A family of three sat at the other end of the table, a middle-aged couple and a young man, his long black hair tied back in a ponytail. When he turned toward us and smiled, a shock of recognition made me say his name out loud.
His skin color was somewhat dark, his hair black, his eyes almost the same color, and his smile dazzled. He was a singularly handsome young man about my own age, twenty-one. At the moment I said his name aloud, he was as surprised as I was. I met his parents many years before, when we were both in eighth grade, at their house in Frankfurt, Germany. As the son of an army officer, I lived on the base, and he lived perhaps a mile away.
I do not know why they lived there and did not ask. We attended an American school, in the same classes. He was a quiet boy, and I sat across the aisle where I could watch him drawing at his desk. We had these blue, fabric covered, three-ring binders to hold our papers, and I asked if he would draw on the front of my binder. When he asked what I wanted, I suggested an outer space scene. I learned more by watching him than I would have listening to the teacher.
He never seemed to draw any single, specific object. The flying saucer, the rocket ship, satellites, planets, stars, and asteroids appeared in the wake of his moving hand and pencil with no primary focus on any one, as if everything took place in negative space. He closed in on them, passed over them, and they appeared.
We took the bus from school that day. I got off early and walked home with him, which was when I met his parents. The walls of their house were lined with the framed pictures he had painted. Afterward, I went home to the bottom bunk in the bedroom I shared with my brothers; Russell, six years younger, slept on the top bunk, and David, seven years younger, slept in a cot under the window.
My newborn baby brother Steven had a crib in my parents’ room, and Elizabeth had her own room, because she was the only girl and sixteen-years old as well. We lived on the edge of Gibbs military base, in one of some eight brick duplexes with a backyard in common filled with fruit trees—two cherries, a pear, an apple, and a plum. Across a cobbled street stood old orchards from which our trees seemed to have strayed.
Families of Majors and Lieutenant Colonels lived in these homes—a good arrangement for us kids. We played endless games of badminton in that yard, spent hours in the trees, spitting cherry seeds, throwing apple cores. We leaped up shouting at the base movie theater when Elvis drove past our backyard in G.I. Blues, in a familiar olive drab truck filled with soldiers.
Ours was not a large room, but I hung a bedspread around the edges of the upper bunk for privacy and pulled this curtain around my bottom bunk that afternoon to ogle the amazing design on my binder. I had never before considered the notion that someone I knew could be capable of such perfection. My family moved back to the United States later that year, medically evacuated because my youngest brother had been born with a hole in his heart.
Steven is now a minister, the oldest living patient with this problem. Russell died earlier this year from complications of Alzheimer’s; David still suffers the ravages of a Schizophrenia that came on in his twenties, although his quality of life has greatly improved in the recent years, thanks to my sister and her daughter.
In 1959, I could not have known any of this, or that I would run into Roberto eight years later, outside a theater in Berkeley. My girlfriend and I went home with him and his parents after the pizza, to enjoy the best glass of wine either of us had ever known. He was having a showing of his paintings at a gallery in San Francisco; people said his paintings were like music.
My girlfriend and I fell in love with him on that night. I imagine many others had before and did after, but I have not seen him since. When I did contact him years later, he had moved to Spain to become a flamenco dancer. This made me reflect that beauty often demands fluency of motion. Sometimes the only way to see a thing is to look somewhere else.
Robert Pope has published a novel, Jack’s Universe, as well two collections of stories, Private Acts and Killers & Others (2020) and a chapbook of flash fiction, Shutterbug. He has also published stories in journals, including The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Fiction International, and anthologies, including Pushcart Prize and Dark Lane Anthology.