Dee Sowna Shines by Octo G. Enario
“The Marines, that was the best outfit. Boot camp made a man of you,” commented an exerciser working on the elliptical at impressive speeds. The other gym rats, mostly veterans of other military branches, were not about to argue the point. They knew of the Marines reputation for toughness. My story would have to be told at another time, when the ex-Marine was absent, and the testosterone levels were lower.
I was lost in a deep, deep sleep. In those days, I slept soundly and, if not interrupted, long. I began to hear an annoying voice, almost chanting. Slowly I ascended into consciousness as the demanding chant continued…Dee Sowna Shines, Dee Sowna Shines, Dee Sowna Shines. My eyes beginning to open, I saw the smiling and persistent porter looking down at me in my pull-out bed as he continued with his chant. The train had stopped, and apparently he was rousing us so that we could dress and detrain. It was dark outside. I checked my watch and saw that it was 5:30 a.m. I tried to pull my thoughts together. What was going on here?
Now fully awake, the situation became crystal clear. I was in Germany. After an 11-day sea voyage across the Atlantic on the William S. Rose troopship and then landing at Bremerhaven in the north, we had travelled overnight in sleeper cars to Frankfurt. The porter spoke virtually no English, and so he cobbled together some German with some English to create what he felt was a polite way to wake us up. His version of “the sun shines” was a mixture of idiomatic German and English that he used as his wake-up notice. All my sleep-suppressed apprehension and awe about being on German soil bubbled up again. Is this the country we were taught to hate as a child during World War II? Is this the formidable foe that was reflected in war movie after war movie in the ‘40s and ‘50s? Is this the home of the people who almost took over the world, performing dastardly, unspeakable atrocities while trying to do so? My 19-year-old spirit was overwhelmed with awe and apprehension. This previously theoretical, larger-than-life place actually did exist, and I was here…shudder.
Unlike the American youth of today who bop around Europe on their own, footloose and fancy-free, with little apprehension about experiencing new customs and cultures, I, a naïve, parochial innocent, was comfortably under the protective and watchful eye of the U.S. Army. The Army clothed me, fed me, gave me shelter, and even threw in an allowance every month. Uncle Sam gave me a safe place to stand as I gradually overcame my initial awe of this foreign place.
My perimeter of social operation increased slowly (in the evenings, on weekends, and on leaves). Over time, I grew very comfortable with Germany and its people. For two years, I motored up and down the country, toured other European countries, visited old castles, medieval villages, beer festivals, battle fields, and many other interesting sites. One of my G.I. buddies married a German girl, and we all experienced an authentic German wedding followed by a congenial and very memorable wedding feast. By the time my tour of duty was up, I no longer was in awe of Germany.
Over the next 30 years, I progressed in life. I became a well-educated, well-travelled, successful businessman. No longer was I the shrinking violet that needed Big Brother (the U.S. Army) to help me ease into new, unfamiliar experiences. I felt that the world was my oyster, and I was in charge.
At this time, nostalgia for Germany, and especially for Wurzburg, my home for two years while in the Army, started to creep into my thinking. Why not plan a vacation to the old stomping grounds? So, I did. I would need no Big Brother this time…I was a man now more comfortable with the World.
I was now very familiar with arranging travel. Airline tickets, hotels, rental cars; these had become commonplace for me. Everything was put in place, and off I went, not for two years this time, but for two weeks. After an 11-hour flight (not an 11-day sea voyage) I arrived in Frankfurt, not at the railway station, but this time at the airport. I picked up my rental car and began my second visit to Germany. The highlight of my visit would be my return to Wurzburg, so I saved it for last.
When I arrived in Wurzburg, my first impression was that it was a little smaller than I remembered, not so domineering. It certainly was still beautiful and picturesque. There was a castle on a hill, grapes growing on the slopes, the robust Main River flowing through the city, the old town standing on the other side of the Main, and two ancient bridges crossing the river. All the clay tile roofs gleamed up from the buildings. I checked my pulse. It was not registering awe. It was mere nostalgia.
Die Main Kuh (the Main Cow) was a river barge converted into, of all things, an upscale night club, permanently moored to the riverside. When we soldiers saved up enough money, we used to go there to dance with the local German girls. I was a little intimidated the first time I went in. All the dancers were well dressed, and they were doing a new dance called the twist (they called it the tvist-tvist). I made it through the evening without embarrassing myself and was finally glad when I left.
On my return visit to Wurzburg, I looked for the Main Kuh. I almost missed it, although it remained on the side of the river, exactly where it had been 30 years ago. But it had shrunk. Was this the club that intimidated me when I was a G.I.? This process of revisiting my old haunts continued, and everything seemed smaller.
As a G.I., I paid lip service to visiting all the cultural attractions of the town and its surrounding environs, although I did make some cursory attempts. This time, I spent many hours touring the Bishop’s Residence, the University, the many churches and museums. My tastes had changed over three decades. I realized that I did not even know these cultural attractions existed within the city during my first stay. Ah, perspective.
During both the first and second visits to Wurzburg, I fully appreciated the storybook setting and beauty of the city. It seemed shiny and bright, almost like a Hollywood set or a Disney movie. Both times, I had a nagging thought about how Wurzburg was spared all the bombing devastation in WWII. I assumed it was just lucky.
Another 20 years rolled by, and I was watching a 1946 movie about the American occupation of Germany immediately after WWII. The movie was shot on location in a number of bombed-out German cities. There were flattened buildings everywhere. Berlin was hobbled as were the few other cities shown. In one segment, they drove through Wurzburg, and I was flabbergasted. The city was razed. What devastation! How could this be the same city I lived in for two years only 17 years later? Those Germans are certainly dedicated rebuilders. When I was there the first time, I did see one little corner of one building that was still rubble and had not been cleaned up. I thought it came from one lone stray bomb. Not so.
During my military tour of duty, my pay was modest to say the least. I wrestled with the idea of buying lederhosen (traditional German leather pants). I really wanted them, but the $40 price tag was too high for my G.I. budget. My desire for them never faltered. By the time of my second visit, my income had grown to businessman’s levels, and I bought a pair of the pants for $200. Inflation and the German Mark had caused the price to rise substantially, but my income had kept up.
I went by to visit my old military base, Hindenburg Kaserne (a small compound of barracks), and as I walked near, a U.S. Army captain was walking by, heading to the compound. He greeted me in German as he walked past. I did not know how to reply. Should I reply in German, in English? As a G.I. with American clothing and a buzz cut, I had always been taken for an American when walking around in my civilian clothes (in effect, I could not pass). In this case, he thought I was German. I finally mumbled a return greeting in German.
Years have passed since my second visit, and I am now toying with the idea of another trip to Germany. I am a little afraid of how I will react emotionally to seeing Wurzburg again. Will it be disappointing? Will it have changed a lot due to the influx of many non-German immigrants? Will the nostalgia have worn off? Will I be disappointed? Well, I guess the only way I will find out is to pack my lederhosen and go.