Click on photo to enlarge
West Germany Woman at stove 1957 -Rohn Engh
Click on photo to enlarge
MAN ASLEEP - HOFBRAU HOUSE -- Rohn Engh
Click on photo to enlarge
Couple at Gasthaus 1957 --Rohn Engh
Saying Goodbye to Army Life
I was thinking the other day
what a good stage the army-life was for me over there in West Germany.
Yes, a good stage, like in the theater. I mean in the sense of Shakespeare’s
famous theme about the ‘world’s only a stage’, and his
other famous subject, ‘the difference between seeming and being.’
Back in my
high school days, the students came from mostly families that
were chicken farmers there on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. During the
summer vacation time, over at the beach in Ocean City, about five miles
inland where we lived, I spent most of my summer time at the ocean, at
the beach and on the boardwalk with people from big cities like Baltimore
and Washington, and even New York. I worked at summer beach jobs, so I
got a lot of chance to talk with all kinds of people, of all ages, girls,
Sometimes a high school friend
of mine would come walking down the boardwalk and he would wave to me
on the beach and I would pretend not to see him. I would be with one of
those Philadelphia girls from some suburban family and I didn’t
want her to see the kind of friends I had. I know now that was wrong,
making those prejudgments. One of them went on to be a prominent doctor
in a Washington hospital.
And you know
something? I found that Shakespeare was right, at least for me.
There are two levels of seeming and being in people. Whether it was the
big city people I got to know in the summertime or the locals during the
rest of the year. It became clear that if I wanted to get on in life,
wherever I ended up, I’d have to deal with this ‘seeming and
That’s why I welcomed
the idea of joining the Army when I was drafted during the Korean War.
It would give me a different ‘stage’ to learn from. And later
on, when I decided to take my Army discharge over in Europe, I guess it
was one of the prime reasons I wasn’t ready to return home to the
USA. I say “guess” because I didn’t say to myself something
like, “I’m curious, as long as I’m here in Europe, I’m
going to go out and learn about other people.” But that’s
the way it turned out. And by the way, at first, I was only intending
to travel to Europe. Other circumstances that I’ll tell you about
later caused me to go farther into Africa.
But back to my farewell to the U.S. Army.
Whenever I see a recruiting poster for the U.S. Army, I think of the army
as a massive contraption that sucks in young men and spits out two flavors:
robots and mavericks. My impression is probably all wrong because I served
in a peacetime Army in Germany.
You’re probably thinking
“You didn’t serve in the Army you served in a peace-keeping
corporation You didn’t serve in a crackerjack combat unit like the
guys over there in Korea are doing.”
You’d be right. And, worse you could say I let a lot of Nazis into
the USA. And a lot of others things I was doing in my CIC job was listening
in on a lot of German citizen’s phone calls and reading their mail.
We also had these new secret agent gimmicks like pounding a spy nail into
a hotel wall and listening in on the conversation in the next room or
photographing them with a long telephoto camera from across the street.
We had won the war and were occupying West Germany, so we could act like
victors. It’s not like we made them slaves or anything like that.
Like in Roman times.
I was getting
unhappy with the Army. In my army career I was playing their
game and turning into a robot and didn’t like what I was doing.
It was only Rick who encouraged my idea of traveling Europe with my guitar
and singing for my supper. He even entertained the idea of coming along
with me. That idea lasted about two minutes.
But I could understand. And
I could understand my parent’s response when I wrote to them. “Think
of your career. You’ve invested 4 years of art education!”
They also knew that I had a job waiting for me at BBD&O in Baltimore
with a big salary.
No one, at 8212th AAI Unit Wuerzburg except Rick thought it a wise move
“You’re wasting your life,” one advised.
“You’ll be killed
on the highways,” someone said.
A sergeant warned me, “Life on the outside is mean. You’ve
had a free bed and a warm meal whenever you wanted it. You’ll soon
learn what’s best.” The word was getting around.
Colonel Rice, my commanding officer, ordered more to report to his office
on Monday morning. He was a man of middle age and had already seen twenty-some
army years. Gosh, he was loud. There was nothing tender about his cadence-calling
voice that shot in spurts from his wiry frame.
He looked at me with green
piercing eyes from his seated position, as I stood rigid before him in
the center of his carpeted office. “At ease Engh”, he barked,
shuffling through some papers.
“Well, Engh, what’s the meaning of this request I have here?
What’s this, you want an overseas discharge? What do you plan to
do over here, -get a job? he roared. He enjoyed shouting this conversation
so that office people in the adjacent office could hear. . He stared at
me and then sat back in his big ol’ executive chair and folded his
arms to wait for my answer with an expression that said, “You’re
wasting my time. Hurry up.”
I wasn’t excepting all
this. I just thought all I had to do was sign some kind of paper and that
I wished for a slight moment that I had never requested an overseas discharge.
I gathered up some courage and answered, “Sir, I plan to travel
There was a long pause, of course. In the next door office there was silence
over there. I thought I heard some tittering laughter. “Well, Engh,
that’s very nice,” he continued, “I’m sure we’d
all like to travel the world. You must be a very rich person.”
“No, sir. I’m not.
“Well, “ he shot back, “How much money do you have for
this world trip?”
“Sir, I have six hundred and forty eight dollars.” I answered
as officially as I could. Of course I couldn’t tell I sill had to
buy the Vespa, sleeping bag, and pup tent, and $400 of that had to go
to the motor scooter agency.
The sum impressed him and he questioned, “And how long do you think
you could get on with that amount of money?”
“I have no idea, sir.”
I saw by his quick change of expression this wasn’t a very proper
“You realize Engh, that the U.S. Army cannot afford to discharge
people overseas who will become a burden to the government .He was getting
close to the reason for calling me into the office. “Unless I can
be assured that you will be financially responsible in your traveling,
I can see no way that I can sign your release for an overseas discharge,”
He paused for awhile and then asked, “What initial provisions are
you going to need for this trip?”
I had hoped he was not going to ask that question. “I figured I’d
need a sleeping bag, a pup tent, a guitar, a knapsack, and a motor scooter.”
He looked at me, holding back
a smile, or even bellowing laughter. He reached for a notepad and them
slid it away. He rested his chin on his clasped hands with his arms planted
in a solid triangle on his desk this had turned into something humorous
for him. On the other hand he probably entertained the idea that he might
be dealing with a “nut” case.
“You’re not traveling by train and staying in hotels?”
He brought the notepad back over and started making notes.
“No” I said.
“Well then what does a sleeping bag cost,” He began.
“Fifteen dollars, sir.”
“And a guitar?” he questioned without looking up from his
There was silence in the next office.
“And knapsack??” He was taping his pencil against the notepad.
“Five dollars and fifty cents, sir.”
“And a motor scooter?” he said. He was smug now.
“Four hundred dollars, sir,” I said so low I could hear it
in my head but I wasn’t sure he heard it.
“What? He bellowed out, looking up from his scribbling.
I repeated it.
His eyes shot back at me like one of his automatic weapons. Then he returned
to total up the figures I gave him.
“That comes to four hundred
and fifty five dollars and fifty cents, Engh! You mean to tell me you’re
leaving here with, “ and he swiftly subtracted, “one hundred
and ninety-two dollars and fifty cents?”
My throat was dry. I couldn’t answer him.
He sat back in his chair and stared at me. “I think you had better
look at this a little more seriously, Engh. I’ve taken more that
than that on a weekend visit to Italy.”
He shot back again, “You think this trip over from a practical viewpoint.
If you ask me, forget about the whole thing. Let’s consider you
receiving your discharge in Baltimore. Then you can take whatever trip
you want to take.”
I turned to leave his office and he added, “I heard reports that
your friend Tolman might be traveling with you. If this is correct, tell
him he can expect to take his discharge in Philadelphia.”
“He’s decided not to go on the trip, sir.” I said.
Colonel Rice answered only
with an unfriendly grin and I left.
Those were dark days back in February 1957. I had only a month to convince
the colonel that I could support myself. More problems began coming up.
I contacted the British and
French consulate in Frankfort and learned it was impossible to apply for
a visa for the African colonies unless I had a passport. That was a problem.
U.S. Army regulations said military personnel could not be issued a passport
until after their discharge. Since it took three or four months for an
African visa to come through, it meant a long delay in Europe before I
could head off on my trip.
My Army buddies seemed to be
relieved. Not for me but for themselves. They weren’t pleased that
I might actually head out in Europe to see the world while they had to
head back to the USA on a troop ship. Now it appeared that wasn’t
going to happen and I would be joining them on the ride home.
I found myself taking long strolls along the Main River that flowed through
Wuerzburg. Walking has always seemed to be an exercise that shuffled up
things in my head. I was then 25 and could look forward to a sensible
job back in Baltimore with a future and a guarantee of a contented life.
But I wasn’t satisfied with seeing life through the peephole of
routine security. I wanted to see the entirety of things.
Wasn’t that the thing
that was driving me? I wasn’t looking forward to a travelogue. I
guess that’s what others thought. A travelogue. My family back home,
my army buddies, my girl friend, the military officers in my unit. By
dissuading me, they thought no harm done. “He can always go home,
save up his money, and take the trip later in his career.”
But that wasn’t my purpose.
Back then I didn’t know my purpose. But I knew it was something
I had to do. I couldn’t define it. But I had to do it. Or I thought
I had to do it. I just knew that the way I was headed I would be destined
to be just another name in the Baltimore telephone directory, or obituary
nothing would stop me. The problems with my visa, my lack of
money, the lack of Rick’s companionship, my family’s hope
that I would take the job offer, my mission to convince the colonel that
I could be self-sufficient and the warnings from, it seemed, everyone,
was tugging on me everyday.
Of course, I could tell the
colonel I received a vast amount of money from home, or, as he originally
expected, I could tell him I was going to take a job in Germany. I was
desperate, I know. But this kind of pretense, somehow, didn’t seem
to fit into the grand horizon I saw before me.
One day, Rick handed me a magazine and said, “Read this.”
It was a story about the White Hunters in Kenya in East Africa. I was
fascinated about the life of the safari guides.
“Maybe they could give you a job,” Rick said.
I wrote the company in Nairobi, asking if they employed persons with my
qualifications as a cameraman. I thought if I ever did make it to East
Africa, I could earn some extra money to continue my journey.
I guess they got many letters like this or maybe mine was the first, but
anyway they must’ve been impressed with what I described as my qualifications.
Two weeks later, I receive a letter back saying they would be happy for
me to come to Nairobi for a job. They outlined the job where I could fit
in to their organization. They also told me the wage I would receive and
what my duties would be as cameraman for their safari company. They explained
they were looking for new ways to make money for their organization, and
they thought selling pictures to the safari attendees might be an answer.
They also asked me if I knew anything about filming
I had no experience as a “cameraman”
for any company, but I had learned enough during my stay in West Germany
to pretend. And I was learning too after nearly three years in the army,
that pretending was a good asset to develop.
That was the answer! I knew Colonel Rice was an avid outdoorsman and he
would be delighted to know someone who was going to work for a safari
I didn’t have to take the job if I didn’t want to, but at
least the letter would convince the colonel I had a sound reason for going
The next morning I was on the colonel’s carpet again. I laid the
letter on his desk. He read it standing up. And then he read it sitting
He looked up at me. “Engh, I’m going to make this brief.”
I could tell he was pleased. It would mean good conversation at the officer’s
club where the current scuttlebutt was no doubt me and my request to get
discharged in Wurzburg. “I’m proud of you for having the initiative
to go out and find a means to support yourself.”
He picked up the letter and while looking at it said, “I’m
going to write this company a letter of recommendation in praise of the
meritorious photography you’ve done in serving our unit. And I’ll
have the Sergeant Major prepare for your discharge in Wuerzburg on the
20th of May. Are there any questions?“
Any questions? Any questions? No questions and I faintly
remember politely saluting as I left his office as a thousand answers
began swirling in my head.
The great barrier was down. The open road was mine! My remaining army
days passed swiftly as I prepared for Africa.
And then came the doubt. What had I done?
At that time, Europe was recovering from five years of war and devastation.
I awoke from dreams of my journey where thieves had stolen my belongings
or confiscated my motor scooter and thrown me into the river.
My reason for making my trip came into uncertainty. Would I be able to
hold up? Had all this been a dream too? My friends continued to dissuade
me. Maybe that’s what caused me to move forward. I was now proving
to them I had the courage of my convictions. I was experiencing the metamorphose
of transforming an idea into the real world.
Was I really going to follow through and hit the road and cross the bridge
of the River Main, and when it got dark, set up my dinky pup tent and
keep on moving, not knowing where I was going to end up? The whole idea
began to sour.
But then something happened that gave me courage. It was my immediate
commanding officer, Lieutenant Kohler.
I guess he knew all about my trip from the conversation going around at
the officer’s club. He invited me to his apartment at the officers’
complex. “Engh, before you go on your trip, I’d like to buy
you a drink. Can you come up to my place before you take off?” I
took him up on it. I’d never been in an officer’s quarters.
We arranged for the following Tuesday.
I drove to the complex in my MG-TD. I stopped in front of Building105-13.
This was the area in town the Germans called ‘Little America’.
Only a short distance away was a soda fountain, a theater, a library,
a liquor store, a post office, a hospital, and the PX department store
where Americans were allowed to buy everything from Kleenex to Coca Cola.
He greeted me at the door. I guess I had arrived early. I thought the
Lieutenant would be impressed. The German maid was finishing up a few
He was a single guy and the
usual souvenir trinkets on knickknack shelves decorated the place. A German
beer mug collection, framed West Point graduation diploma on the wall,
a half jar of peanut butter on the counter.
There was no interior design to the living room where I took a seat in
a stuffed chair. A variety of styles of furniture made it look like the
jumbled floor display of a discount furniture store.
The walls were painted a light
green, and to add to the coolness of the room, only throw rugs covered
the hardwood floor that had been brought to a marble luster by the maid.
I leaned over to examine the shelf of books next to my chair. Most of
them were paper bound Army manuals. But there were hard cover books also.
Modern Military Strategy, The Officer’s Wife, Military Psychology,
Then & Now –West Point. One especially caught my eye, Don Quixote.
I drew it out and as I opened it, the binding cracked.
“What’s with you, Engh?” he said after handing me the
beer. He pulled a chair from the dining room and sat down. He was direct.
“You’ve done a good job here with us at 8212th AAI Unit. How
come you’re not taking that Baltimore ad agency job offer you having
waiting for you back in Maryland?”
“Well, sir,” I said.
“Don’t give me that ‘sir’ stuff he said. It’s
after 5:00 o’clock. “Relax.” he said, handing me a local
beer. “We’re off duty. No need to do the ‘military.”
It took me by surprise, him talking like this. I’d always known
him as spit’n’polish, West Point, stuff and straight, yes
sir, no sir. And no in between.
“Look Engh, I’m curious.” He pulled up a dining room
chair. He was in a flowered shirt and tourist “Bermudas.”
I realized since I was off-duty, as he put it, I could talk to him like
a regular guy.
“I’d like to know something.” He took a quick swig of
his beer bottle. “Are you for real? I mean, are you running away?
What are you running away from?”
I looked at him with what might be called wonderment.
Since I didn’t answer him, he asked again. “What’s the
deal here.? Can’t you face the real world out there? Are you copping
out? Are you chicken?”
“Well…” I started to say.”
“Look Engh,” he blurted out.
Then I said. “Hey, look. If you’re getting personal with me,
why don’t you call me by my first name, - - Rohn.”
He realized he was mixing his military self with his real self. “I’m
sorry. I guess I don’t understand how a normal person like you can
do what you’re doing.” He sat back in his chair and folded
I asked him, “Could you do it? I mean, are you so curious about
what I plan to do, could you do it yourself?”
He pulled on his left ear and thought for a moment. I remember in the
office when he gave me the assignment for the day, he would do that when
he was uncertain. Frequently I would suggest an alternative strategy and
he would often accept it as the right path to take.
Lieutenant Kohler was a West
Point graduate who grew up in West Virginia and won a scholarship to West
Point. He must have been near the top in his class because he fit the
image of what we think of as a West Point graduate, sort of like a detective,
an investigator, those sorts of people. And like most corporate businessmen
he kept an acceptable decorum and demeanor in handling anyone who was
not part of their circle. It was entertaining to see him in his flowered
shirt and beach shorts talking to me like this. I was looking at and talking
to the real John Kohler.
It all reminded me of this.
At the beach in Ocean City, a boy pointed out an elderly man bathing along
the surf. He said, “There’s the Archbishop of Baltimore.”
I stared at the large-bellied old man trying to dodge the waves. For a
moment all the pomp and pageantry that seemed to make an archbishop far
beyond the reach of most people, left him.
I had seen the archbishop him once at the Cathedral of Baltimore, but
without his ornate ritual vestments, he was reduced to looking like every
other man on the beach.
Being a Catholic at the time,
I felt it very undignified on his part that he should allow himself to
be reduced to an ordinary-looking person. At the Cathedral, his composure
and manner of dress caused an air of sacredness that allowed me to invent
attributes for him that no human could possibly possess. Seeing him at
the beach, those attributes all seemed to be shattered. As I grew older,
I began seeing everyone at the beach instead of in the outer garb we all
seem to present to each other.
Our conversation went on and I spilled out my feelings about why I was
taking my trip. He began to loosen up.
I confessed my opinions of being in the military and what it meant to
me and that it was a sort of religion with all its ceremony and set of
rules and required allegiance. I explained that I felt a strong military
was necessary and that wars were never going to end and how archaeologists
have proved that what with all the killing apparatus they’ve discovered.
I let him know that I appreciated him being in the protective career he
has chosen but that I wanted no part of it.
“Aren’t you going to open yourself to some kind of disaster,
even get killed?” he asked. Is your journey worth that much to you.?”
“No more than you,” I said.
I think my comments helped him because he seemed to be having doubts about
what he was doing with his life. My conversation with him also helped
me to solidify my reasons for taking off on my journey.
I helped him clear the tables and counters of the beer bottles and returned
back to my quarters. The next day when he was giving out assignments to
me and Rick and the others, I think I saw him giving me a wink.
NEXT: My journey begins