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NEAR KITZINGEN WEST GERMANY - 1957
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ROHNíS SKETCH OF SUMMERHAUSEN
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CEMETRARY IN OBERAMMERGAU
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ROHN AT AGE 26 WUERZBURG
At 5:00 a.m. on the morning of May 20th 1957, the wake
up shrill of a well-scratched reveille record pierced the PA system in
the hallway of our barracks. I lifted the blind, looked out and saw fog
everywhere. “Jeeze”, I said.
I don’t know if I was
saying the “Jeeze” to the fog out there or just that I gotta
do it. I gotta follow through and just get on that motor scooter today
and head west.
But if I didn’t follow
through, what would I tell all the people that tried to convince me not
to go on this trip?
Sleeping wasn’t easy
during last night. Several times my thoughts turned to just forgetting
the whole thing. I could do that. Several times in the last week as my
discharge date came up I thought about just dropping the whole idea.
I could sell my Vespa in downtown
Wuerzburg and buy a plane ticket back to the states. I could spend a few
more days with Maria, or a few more weeks or the whole summer, or a lifetime
with her. She wasn’t there to see me off. I cut things off. I told
her not to be there.
“No, no, don’t do this, forget the trip. Dump it. It’ll
make you feel better” was what I heard in my head. And it wasn’t
the people who surrounded me talking, it was I saying it.
But I looked at all my travel belongings. I had prepared the night before
to strap on to my Vespa. And thought about all the official papers I had
filled out and the goodbyes I had made. It would be easy to appear on
Maria’s doorstep. But the sun was now coming up and by the time
it was setting on May 20th 1957, I had to be somewhere, and it couldn’t
be in the barracks of the ____________.
Rick caught up with me on the
way to the mess hall for breakfast. He grabbed my shoulder and squeezed.
“This is it,” he said. “Freedom!” he shouted.
I tried to muster a
smile. I guess I did for his sake. He was happy for me.
I was scared. What had I done? Why had I chosen to take this trip?
Was Lieutenant Kohler right? Was I running away from something?
I had told him, “No, I’m breaking away. I’m not running
At breakfast, I had no appetite.
Sergeant Adams came by our table in the mess hall, stood over me and tossed
a brown enveloped near my plate. “There it is, Engh, your discharge
papers. Lieutenant Kohler says to shoot a tiger for him in Africa.”
“I mumbled as I looked at the envelope, “ They don’t
have any tigers in Africa.”
“Well, don’t shoot yourself in the foot!” He said, walking
away smiling, something I rarely saw from him.
“He’s just jealous,” Rick said.
Back at the barracks,
Rick helped me pack the motor scooter. I had shipped all of my non-trip
belongings back to Maryland. All that remained were the essentials for
my trip: my guitar, my pup tent, my Rollieflex, a map and the “civvies”
I had chosen to wear on my journey.
What with the fog hanging over
the gray cement-block buildings around the quadrangle and the sun starting
to break through the heavy mist and the silver color of my sparkling new
Vespa, it all gave a silvery tinge to my departure.
Rick grabbed me by the neck,
shook me a little, and didn’t say anything as he shook his head.
I whistled to Rick who was
walking back to the quadrangle where everyone was assembling for roll
call. He turned, gave a “thumbs up” gesture, turned and continued
I was alone. I was on my own.
I started up the Vespa, swallowed,
and headed west.
I left all the doubts about
canceling the trip behind. I was on my way. The horizon awaited me. I
didn’t feel good about all this. “So this was ‘freedom’?”
I said to myself.
My first day on the road was a frightening one. An accident near the end
of the day nearly ended the trip on the first day.
The road out of Wuerzburg winds around the sloping vineyards that border
the city to the west and twists and turns through a series of hills and
valleys toward the nearby river city of Frankfort/Main.
I hadn’t really had much experience driving the Vespa. On highways.
I drove at cautious speeds, much to the irritation of fast moving Germans
cars and Army trucks. It was a cold morning and heavy winds swept across
the countryside. I had attached a windshield to the Vespa. The winds would
sometimes catch me from the back and other times sweep in from the right,
causing me to veer onto the opposite lane (in Germany, people drive in
the right lane like in the USA).
Then suddenly the wind would shift and catch sideways in the windshield.
The wind would treat it like a sail, and would send the scooter sweeping
at sudden angles off the road or into the oncoming lane.
I had to concentrate every moment in preparation for the next gust of
wind. The newness of driving a motor scooter was uncomfortable enough,
but the sudden jolts from the wind made steering not so pleasant.
That first day, I made a distance of only 80 miles. It took me six hours.
Other motorcyclists and motor scooters passed me. Some of them waved to
me and were probably surprised at not seeing a grandmother driving the
Vespa. It wasn’t just a couple of times the thought entered my head
that when I got to Frankfurt, I could drive into the Vespa distributorship,
sell my machine, and buy an airline ticket to Baltimore.
Sometimes I would stop in a
village or alongside the roadway to watch the passing traffic and the
people bustling on their way to work or doing their everyday chores. If
I caught someone’s eye, I would nod my head and say, “Gruess
Gott.’ Which was the normal way of saying hello to a stranger in
this part of West Germany. My brand spanking new Vespa was a clue to them
that I must be just starting out. Some would actually stop and ask where
I was off to and if I was an American and all that. Then they would head
off on their daily routine or whatever they had to do that day.
Well, I didn’t have anything
to do that day except move westward or just stay set or whatever I wanted
to do. It’s then that I think an overwhelming feeling of independence
overcame me. I wasn’t beholden to anybody. Not Colonel Henderson,
not Lieutenant Kohler, not to my parents, not to anybody. I can’t
remember ever feeling this way.
I was to feel that way a lot
on the road ahead. The sun was my clock and the leaves would be my calendar.
But independence has its price I was to learn too.
I had $192.50 in my pocket in USA cash. I didn’t exchange it for
the local currency. The Germans liked U.S. dollars even more than their
own deutschmarks. I suspected everyone in Europe would be glad to accept
Late in the afternoon, I learned my first lesson for the beginner on a
motor scooter. Pay attention to the road. As I was nearing the village
of Dettingen, I came up on a steep grade that ended in a beautiful view,
actually a panoramic view, of a wide valley with little farms and quilted
vegetable patches, I locked into the immensity of the scene and didn’t
notice that the road made a sharp winding curve around the mountain.
I felt the scooter wheels hit the gravel that bordered the road. It was
too late to avoid an accident. I guided the scooter so that it slid sideways
into a guardrail that protected the road from a cliff.
I didn’t have time to think. Only a second later I wouldn’t
have had time to maneuver and guide the scooter. I would have tumbled
a hundred feet to the valley floor. As it happened, the smash of the scooter
when it hit the railing threw me over top of my windshield and I slid
along the railing several feet.
I laid there for a while. “What the hell was that?” I got
up and limped over to the scooter to check the damage. “Ouch!”
There was a tear in my corduroy pants just about the knee level.
And then I thought about my guitar. I had it in a nice soft covered cloth
case strapped on by back and since I slid on my belly, it was not damaged.
The rest of my stuff had come loose and was strewn over the area like
an upturned grocery cart. My right sleeve was torn open and I could see
a bloody bruise on my elbow.
My next reaction was to jump up and for the passing motorists who had
seen the whole thing, act as if nothing had happened. Sorta like the pro
baseball player who gets hit by a wild pitch and tries not to show the
As I was brushing gravel from
my pants, I heard from behind a voice in German, “You better wear
a crash helmet next time, son.”
I turned to see a stout man and his wife walking towards me. They had
seen my accident and had parked their car on the opposite side of the
“Yes, I think you’re right! My name is Rohn Engh, pleased
to me you, sir.” They could tell by my accent I was not a German.
“Hans Werner,” He greeted me and I shook hands with him and
his wife. “Here, we’ll help you gather your belongings.”
It was an odd feeling.
There we were. Two people I had not known a minute before were
handling all my worldly possessions. Everything I owned was spread about
the roadside. I felt naked as Frau Werner handed me my razor and toothpaste.
Herr Werner helped me set the scooter upright. He examined it, gave it
a pat and said, “Sturdy vehicle, that Vespa.”
“Are you on vacation?” Frau Werner asked.
I smiled. “I’m off to see the world.”
We continued searching for
lost items from my spill in the gravel. I saw them whispering. “You’re
off to see the world? How would you like to see a German family’s
home? He said. “We can fix up those bruises for you,” Frau
“Thanks,” I said.
“It’s starting to get dark, do you mind if I set up my pup
tent in your back yard?”
“Won’t hear of it,” He said. “Our son’s
away. He’s attending the university. You can sleep in his room.
Now let’s get that Vespa started and we’ll head home. Just
The handlebars of the Vespa
were twisted out of alignment. Herr Werner held the front wheel while
I twisted the handlebars into position.
“There! That ought to
do it!” He smiled, squatting in front of the scooter, squinting
at the alignment with one eye.
I didn’t tell
them this was my first day of driving the scooter. I got on the
Vespa and followed them. I tried to look confident. But after that accident
I was still nervous.
Dettingen was just a few miles ahead. I had often passed through Dettingen
on my way to Frankfurt. From a distance, the tiny stone houses of the
village were nestled together like a neat little Christmas tree village.
Along the cobble-stoned main street, farmers led their oxen through the
town hauling grain from the fields. Housewives were watering flowers growing
from second floor balconies. It excited me to know I was going to spend
the night in one of those stone houses. He pulled up in front of a prosperous-looking
Herr Werner popped out of his car shouting, “We are here!”
He was the proprietor of this small, thick-walled store in the middle
of town. A couple of customers were inside and they greeted him neighborly
when we entered.
“This is our American
friend, Rohn Engh,” he said, introducing me to his clerk.
It appeared to be a grocery store but also a hardware store. It occupied
the front room of the first floor of the house. I followed the Werners
through a thick curtain separating the store from their living quarters.
We entered into a sitting room with a small kitchen off to the side
He had the clerk wheel my Vespa around to the back yard while Frau Werner
showed me the upstairs room where I would sleep.
“Take off you jacket
and wash up,” she said, pointing to a towel beside the sink in the
hallway. “I’ll have Hans bring up the bandages.”
It felt odd having him bring
me bandages that were probably left over from just a decade ago when American
airplanes were bombing nearby Frankfort. It was a big industrial center.
I understand it was the custom if the planes had any bombs left over,
many times they would drop them on nearby villages, especially near the
end of the war when animosity was heating up between the Germans and the
Allied Air Forces.
“That was a nasty spill
you took young man!” Herr Werner grunted as he stretched the bandage
around my arm. .”Now give me those clothes and I’ll get my
wife to mend them up for you.
“I hate to put you to all this trouble,” is all I could come
“No trouble at all,”
he muttered. “I would expect a stranger to do the same for my son.
The welcome aroma of hash browns and onions and bratwurst was making its
way up the stairs. My first day out and luck was on my side. I was enjoying
the hospitality of a German home. I looked into the bathroom mirror and
saw a grubby blonde-haired character I wasn’t familiar with. My
army existence was gone. I was a civilian again. But this time in a foreign
Herr Werner came back with
some of his son’s clothes for me to wear while Frau Werner was mending
“C’mon, let’s go downstairs and get something to eat.”
Frau Werner was still wearing her kitchen apron when she set a steaming
plate of Wiener schnitzel in front of me. I gobbled it up. I could see
it pleased her that I had a good appetite for her meal. Over supper we
talked about their son, Gerhardt’s progress at the university. “He’s
at the University of Freibourg, Frau Werner said. “He’s been
there two years and has three more to go. He’s studying to be an
Why did he decide to
be an engineer?” I asked.
“Gerhardt has always been interested in constructing things,”
“Was Gerhardt in the war, I mean, did he see any fighting?”
I asked. I know it’s not polite to ask such questions but I was
always asking questions like that while I was overseas. Maybe it wasn’t
the right thing to say, I know, but how could I learn if I didn’t
ask? Isn’t that why I was on this trip?
Frau Werner looked at her husband
and muttered, “He was too young. He was in an organization for boys.
He learned to fire a rifle near the end. But he didn’t shoot anyone.”
The organization was probably the “Hitler Jugend ”, but no
one during the time I was in Germany was willing to say the word, ‘Hitler’
or Dachau or Auschwitz or any of those places.
Herr Werner was quick to lead the conversation away from such things.
He broke in “At the University, for Gerhardt, it’s hard for
we Germans to decide anything these days, I’ve gone through two
wars in my lifetime, and now with the Russians and the Communists, it
looks like we might in the middle of another. Gerhardt is studying to
be an engineer, but the bridges he builds might be destroyed before they’re
even used. Our son has talked about emigrating to the United States. Is
there much of a future for a young man over there?
I didn’t discourage him
and Frau Werner, but having done my Army work in the area of immigration,
I knew there was a long waiting period for German civilians except for
those with special talent or special knowledge, like being a former Nazi
in a high position.
I didn’t dare
bring up that subject. Besides the Nazis didn’t exist,
nor concentration camps. I could’ve brought up the subject to get
some real information about life in Dettingen during the war years, but
I felt my repayment for this wonderful hospitality was my gift of not
continuing any conversation about the war. I stopped taking about life
back them and just spoke about the present time, and the future for West
I just sat quiet and nodded
He continued, “ It’s no use for us to save any money these
days. All I had saved in the past was lost in the currency reform of 1948.
All the money I make nowadays is invested in things they can’t take
away from me.”
Frau Werner finished mending my clothes. We sat around and talked about
where I lived in Maryland, near the ocean. I played a few German songs
I had learned in Wuerzburg and they smiled at my funny accent but urged
me on to sing others
Gerhardt’s bed was next
to a small window that looked out on the main street through town. He
had lived in this house since he was 3 years old. From the pictures on
his wall, I figured he was about 23 now. There wasn’t much for him
to do in the war effort when he was 11-years old. But I bet he saw a lot
of things American boys his age never will see. It would’ve been
interesting to have met him and talked to him. But like most of the young
people I met in Wuerzburg who were in their 20’s, there was an unspoken
silence when it came to topics of the war, it’s as though they didn’t
recognize the burned out public buildings and homes that still hadn’t
Yet there was a strange aspect
of German young men during those years in the 50’s. And that’s
this. They sure would let the steam out at bars and events where they
had been drinking a lot. Real brawls, fist fights, tables turned over,
that sort of thing. It’s as they were all holding back a secret.
An unmentionable secret about how they’re government had led them
down an unthinkable path that when they finally learned the truth about
how their leaders had conducted themselves it erupted in great anger.
I was getting closer to a truer picture of how a country could commit
the atrocities they did during the early 1940’s.
I fell asleep with those thoughts.
NEXT: Leaving Germany
and heading west.