With the exception of being out of Ohio two or three times, my first taste of travel was in 1955 as a 20 year old after attending two years at Bluffton College. My parents drove me to Akron, PA, to join the PAX program with 26 other conscientious objectors. Our mission was to build housing for homeless WWII refugees: and as General Hershey advised us, “you are representing America abroad.” He came to the orientation and spoke with us for several hours. Many of the experiences during the next three years were ordinary and expected, some were unexpected and challenging, and still others fun and educational.
It didn’t take long to become acquainted with most of the other boys, some of whom I’d live and work with the entire three years.
My encounter with a 16 year old German youth, Fritz Moeller, on the old troop ship ‘Groote Beer” taking us to Europe was fun. We still email and have visited each other several times. Together with two Dutch youth, we tossed a note within a bottle into the Atlantic which we later received in the mail from a French person who found it on a beach in France. (More on Fritz elsewhere.)
Our Pax group viewed a volunteer group working in Holland, stopped at the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) office in Amsterdam, stopped for a two day orientation in the Frankfurt office, and enjoyed the remainder of the journey through the countryside to Backnang in southern Germany on a leased bus with driver. With us was Pastor Duerkson, who had taught music in a Mennonite college, so we had practiced lots of singing on the boat, and sang at the Pax orientation in Backnang as well.
Working in construction with German workers at that site, I quickly developed skills learned in the German course I took in college. The language in southern Germany is a low German, vaguely comparable to the high (correct) German language of the north and taught in textbooks.
Our main staple for meals was the famous MCC canned beef that is donated and canned in rural America, lots of potatoes, vegetables, fresh baked bread and various US dept of Agriculture canned butter, cheese, apple butter, etc. (see chapter on MCC canned meat)
It was determined that I’d begin work in the plastering trade at Backnang. I began to plaster the outside of the block condo type buildings, then continued in the basements and worked upwards into areas requiring more skill.
About 9 AM each working morning one of the cooks would bring freshly baked bread from the local bakery, hot chocolate and generous chunks of surplus U.S. department of agriculture cheese which we called “second breakfast.”
During this 15 minute rest us Pax boys would receive our mail and entertain ourselves by trying to out-do each other in lifting weights. Attention was focused on the hand-made barbell which was a heavy piece of pipe with a bucket sized chunk of concrete attached to each end. I was pretty good at this activity!
The only personal washing facility we had was a washbasin in a 4 x 4 bathroom with 8 guys in an apartment, but there were approximately 20 pax boys living in the entire unit. Friday was “bath night” so after supper, we’d all pile into the 1955 VW bus, or onto our bicycles, drive into town and take our weekly bath at the public bath house. One didn’t want to breathe too deeply on the way into town if riding in the bus! The work week ended ‘Saturday noon so we had that afternoon off plus Sunday.–except for me, when I had to prepare for the German youth-Pax boy choir practice on Sunday evenings. Other activities during the week generally included Bible study on Wednesdays, basketball on Thursdays, and occasionaly a few of us would get invited into homes for a meal.
Recently several people put together a DVD of the MCC Pax program. The program started in 1952 and ended in the mid seventies with over 1,200 young men working in more than a few countries. It was shown on National TV. At the end of the German segment, I was caught going into an outhouse. Acouple Paxers pushed the outhouse over onto the door with me inside. I quickly kicked my way out through the roof to chase the pranksters but didn’t catch them! These DVDs can be ordered at the MCC media center in Akron, PA.
I forgot to mention we worked as much as we could with the youth in the community, some of which we still maintain close connections. I helped to distribute Christmas bundles sent there by our congregations back home.
On our days off we bicycled to notable cities such as Rothenburg, Schwabish Hall, Heidlelberg, and Schorndorf. Once all of us toured Switzerland in two VW buses to visit historical Mennonite landmarks such as the Langnau Mennonite church and Zurich.
Because not much work could be accomplished in freezing weather, our unit joined other Pax workers on a 10 day guided trip to the Holy Land at our own expense. I remember creating some postcard type Christmas greetings to send to my friends back home, which generated some monies to help with my trip,
I remember Christmastime as a youngster feeling jubilation in role playing scenes of wise men who trekked to Bethlehem to celebrate Christ’s birth. Now at age 21, I relived this memory in visiting the Holy Land in person with my European PAX colleagues on a long Christmas break from the workplaces around Europe.
Our taxi cab caravan of 50 MCC workers wound over and around the Jordanian hills the wise men crossed with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. After stooping to enter the low door to the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, we descended twenty or more steep stone steps to view the spot where tradition says Christ was born.
The Mennonite church back in Ohio where I grew up provided me a program of Sunday school education plus I had just finished a Bluffton College course in New Testament history. So I was invigorated and enlightened on this historical Holy Land tour.
One slight disappointment was an unresolved declaration of where the head of John the Baptist’s head lies. One tradition says it is in Damascus, Syria and one says it lies in Jerusalem. Other discrepancies exist concerning historical sites and events in this country.
As we walked where Christ walked, I was humbled to walk in Cana where Christ performed his first miracle, turning water into wine. I was excited to tread ruins of Capernum where Christ first read from the Holy Scriptures. And I enjoyed a meditation our group experienced on the banks of the Sea of Galilee where Christ called his disciples
The narrow cobble stone streets of Nazareth led us to artisan shops where tin smiths, crafts people, and carpenters practiced their trade. At one end of a street was Mary’s well near a large Tabernacle.
One experience that connected earlier studies of mine with the here and now for me was touching the huge living olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane where Christ was betrayed by Judas. Gethsemane is immediately across the valley from the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
The Dome of the Rock built in the 7Th century AD is a Muslim shrine and is the oldest Islamic monument that stands today–and one of the most beautiful. Most Jews believe the rock upon which it stands is the very place where Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac.
The magnificent golden dome that crowns the building was originally made of gold, but was replaced with copper and then aluminum. The aluminum is now covered with gold leaf.
Other memorable experiences for me were:
When I took communion with my tour group in an upper room; when I walked “The Way of the Cross” leading to Golgotha on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and finally when I explored the area where Christ ascended into heaven
Backnang was known as “the city of Gerbers” (my namesake) It was also known as a center for leather working. I have a beautiful wooden plate enhanced with a carving motif done by a gentleman in the city. Living there for 13 months was a rewarding time, but now it was time to move on.
PAX director Wiebe needed someone to organize a Christmas pagent for the youth in Bielefeld, another Pax unit in the north. This I would do in addition to plaster. I took two beautiful Fall days to ride my moped there and slept at a youth hostel in Bohn, the former capital of Germany. It was quite an adventure exploring the back country roads, seeing portions of the bombed out city of Koblenz, eating my lunch on the banks of the Rhine River, etc.
The unit leader in Bielefeld was Walter “Poncho” Schmucker. In November, it was fun helping to plan the presentation of our AmericanThanksgiving history to the German youth. In the Fall I located a cider mill and used a moped to haul a 5 gallon flask of cider to our unit.
In December, on a cold winter night, a number of Paxers visited a refugee shelter, sharing poems, singing, and distributing Christmas gifts. These refugees had lived in camps similar to the one we visited for eleven years since the end of WWII. These refugees lost their homes and all their possessions. People who needed to tell their stories–and we listened. We gave treats to the children, admired and bought some hand crafts from the women, and sang songs. These were heart wrenching times.