In 1972, 12 years after I left PAX service in Europe, I found myself in Puerto Rico with my wife Judy, and three small children, as a trainee for the United State Peace Corps. My reasons for being there were, as usual, mixed. I wanted my wife and children to experience the joy of service, and of living abroad. I had been profoundly influenced by my two years of Pax service in Europe, and President Nixon’s attempt to put his own stamp on the Peace Corps by making it available to families gave me a golden opportunity to do even more service. This time I would not have to get by on $10 a month. Besides, as the program was structured, nothing bad could happen to us, financially. I had been a practicing bridge and structural design Engineer for 7 years, and I needed a break. I had originally wanted to go to Latin America in Pax service, but had gone to Europe instead. We were recruited for service in Ecuador.
It was during service in the Peace Corps that I finally began to understand some of the things that had happened to us in Pax. Many of the basic limitations of Pax and the Peace Corps were the same. Thanks to Pax, it was unnecessary for me to relearn some of the painful lessons about service.
Oddly enough, the training staff in Puerto Rico was struggling with the problem of how to train a group of experienced engineers and their spouses to serve in an often-confusing other-cultural setting. Each volunteer had his or her own motivation for being there. That was a given. Contrary to what you might expect, there was no indoctrination on the goals of the Peace Corps, or the foreign policy of the United States. For a government program, there was a remarkable tolerance for the widest imaginable range of personal motivation, from frank fundamentalist missionary zeal, to open desire to avoid service in Vietnam.
The staff at Pax orientation must have had the same problem. I think they solved it by a simple “sink or swim” approach. The Peace Corps tried very hard, and spent a lot of almost unlimited resources trying to come up with a better way, but in the end, I don’t believe the problem was ever solved. Language was an exception. There was an established body of knowledge regarding teaching of languages. With relatively abundant resources, the Peace Corps did a much better job of teaching language than did Pax. I went to Germany, knowing how to count to ten. I went to Ecuador, able to function as an Engineer in a design office, where no English was spoken.
This treatise is a chronology of my Pax experience. I served for 27 months in 9 assignments in 4 countries. I learned something from every single assignment, even though I sometimes didn’t realize it until years later. I met some giants. I had some rough times. I sometimes performed far beyond my ability, and sometimes wasted my time and opportunities. It changed my life!
Chapter 1 ORIENTATION
I arrived at Akron, Pennsylvania for orientation in March, 1957. I was part of a group consisting of David Burkholder, Dale Eash, Willard VanPelt, and Wilbur Yoder. I was 19 years old, had a year of college, and had spent the previous year as a construction worker on bridge construction crews. I can’t recall much about orientation, except that it must have been longer than a week, as I spent the weekend with my uncle and aunt at Lititz, and I remember going to New York with my family to board the ship, perhaps on Friday.
I can’t remember much of what we were told, but I know we were given copies of the Pax Manual, and somehow gathered that we were expected to stay away from girls, eschew alcohol and tobacco, and avoid some things that, while permitted by our personal ethics, might be a “stumbling block” to our more conservative brethren.
We had an hour a day of German, in which we learned to count, to say “Ich verstehe nicht” and “Bitte langsam sprechen”. Wilbur Yoder was the only one in our group who had grown up speaking Pennsylvania Dutch, although the others had experienced more exposure than I.
Dale Eash and I hadn’t had all our shots, so it was arranged for us to get a final shot at a local doctor’s office. While there, we asked about seasickness, and he told us about a new drug named Dramamine, which was reported to be effective against motion sickness. He even gave us a supply. We decided to keep it to ourselves. If and when the others got seasick, we would tell them it was “all in their heads”. If they didn’t think they would be sick, they wouldn’t.
One of the features of orientation consisted of several trips to the YMCA in Lancaster for swimming instruction—a response to recent drownings of Paxmen in Greece. The focus was on a newly promoted technique called “drown-proofing”, in which we were taught to relax and float, bringing the head up only when we needed air. It worked for me! After many previous instructors had vainly tried to teach me to swim, this one finally equipped me to stay alive in the water, where I could gradually work out the propulsive motions and breathing rhythm at my own pace.
In retrospect, the swimming taught me a valuable lesson about learning. There is a critical level, which one must reach, before permanent learning can take place. I was to experience learning, and failure to learn, many times before I became able to recognize the floundering stage that occurs early in the process.
We must have heard many words of advice about what to expect. I can’t remember a single one that proved helpful. Some things, you just have to learn for yourself.
Chapter 2 THE SHIP
On Friday (I think) my family arrived and took me to the ship in Hoboken, New Jersey. My family was from western Nebraska, and none of us had ever seen a ship. We gawked at New York City for a half-day or so, then went to the ship an hour or two early. My family got to go all over the ship. It was the Zuiderkruiz (sp), a former Liberty ship then being used by the Holland America Line to haul immigrants to the U.S. I had no idea how big a ship was—even a small ship; nor had I any idea how many ships there were in the world. I think, in my mind’s eye, I figured there were maybe a dozen ships—the Queen Mary, the Queen Elizabeth, and a few more. I still don’t know how many there are, but I have stood at the Elbe in Hamburg and watched an endless stream of ships of all sizes, nationalities, and conditions sailing by. That had to be a miniscule sample, so there must be an unimaginable number of ships in the world.
The sailing of the ship represented the first truly new experience for all of us. I remember looking forward to getting out of sight of land, and straining to feel the first sign of the anticipated rolling of the ship. We didn’t have long to wait.
Everything was a new experience. Supper (the evening meal, in those days) was conducted somewhere below, in the bowels of the ship. It was served by small-statured orientals—Indonesians, we learned. Apparently, it was customary, on ships, to use about three times the china and silverware we considered necessary. There was a dish for the soup, for example, and a plate to set the dish in. Both were removed when the soup was finished.
Our cabins were in the front of the ship. I shared mine with David Burkholder and an Egyptian, both of whom got deathly ill and stayed that way. The cabin was so far forward that the walls tapered inward at the bottom, and the forward wall was a trapezoid, narrower than the aft.
When we woke up the next morning, there was enough motion to satisfy anyone. The ship was pitching. Our cabin was like an elevator, shooting upward, then falling. The Dramamine was effective in preventing nausea, but the other symptoms of motion sickness were still there. I soon learned that the ship was rotating about a point on the lower deck, in the middle of its length. That’s where I stationed myself, and only made a mad dash to the cabin after first figuring out exactly what I wanted, and where it was.
The 120-odd people on the ship were mostly Dutch families going home. We soon learned that Dutch people are very friendly, and unreserved. A small social group soon formed with myself, an American student going to Paris to write, a young Dutch Engineer, a fading intellectual American single woman, and a couple of others.
Another new experience for us was having absolutely no duties to perform. For those of us brought up with the idea that hard work was the only excuse for existence, this was a really new sensation: idleness without guilt!
Of course, we had no idea what the ocean is like. Compared to the ocean, the barren plains of Nebraska are full of variety and interest. The sight of a single passing ship was a major sensation. We saw only one or two. There was no visible evidence of any progress—none at all.
The first few days, the ship pitched, as described above. I have vivid memories of shaving at a sink on the front wall of my cabin. As the bow shot upward, I felt as if my weight was doubled; then I was on tiptoes as it plunged downward again. After a couple of days, the pitching stopped, and a roll began. It was modest, most of the time, as if several wave systems of varying periods were affecting the ship. We would roll to the right, hesitate, then roll all the way over the top to about the same angle to the left. About every 20 minutes to half an hour, the various waves that combined to drive the roll would coincide, and we would roll waaaay over, and then roll way back.
The length of mealtime practically guaranteed that the big roll would happen at least once during every meal. When it did, plates would slide off the table. Waiters would fall down, and crashing sounds would be heard from the kitchen. During the whole episode, a uniformed officer would stand, totally undisturbed, in the midst of the chaos, dishes breaking around his feet. Everyone seemed to withstand the phenomenon with good humor.
One day I went up to the lounge, during the rolling period. Several extended families of Dutch people were sitting in the middle of a large, round rug, with the edges pulled up around them, hooting and hollering as they slid from one side of the lounge to the other. We learned not to climb stairs when they were vertical, but to wait a few moments until they assumed a horizontal position.
One night there was a storm, and the crew told us the next day that we had turned and were running downwind to reduce the roll. They told us that, after we arrived in Amsterdam, they were going to return to New York with 1500 immigrants on their next trip, after which they would cross back to Europe empty. With no passengers, they could make much better time, as the ship could go faster, and be allowed to roll up to 30 degrees. This motion would be no problem for the crew, but too much liability if passengers were on board.
I was never more than about half sick, but felt queasy for the first few days. There was a strong disinfectant smell in the hallways, and especially the bathroom, where we could take lukewarm showers. The disinfectant smell was apparently unique to that ship, but over the years I have smelled it occasionally, and the odor invariably makes me seasick. By the end of the voyage, all discomfort from the motion was gone, but I was deathly tired of the incessant motion. At sea, everything is moving. The richest person on earth cannot purchase five minutes of the feeling that solid land gives.
This introduction to the sea was an anachronism, because soon thereafter, transcontinental jets began flying, and changed the travel world forever. The Zuiderkruise traveled about 18 knots, or about 20 miles an hour. It took us eleven days to get from New York City to Amsterdam. In 1993, my wife Judy and I flew to Amsterdam overnight. Flying time was six hours. Even in the late fifties, any form of land transportation that traveled only 20 miles an hour would have been considered hopelessly slow and outmoded. It was, however, a good opportunity—a chance to wind down for a group of 19 and 20 year-olds, who were starting off on an adventure that would change their lives.
Our group was solidly from the Pennsylvania Dutch arm of Mennonitism, and I was the only one not from a multi-level, large Mennonite community. These were communities that offered a “ladder” from the very conservative to the barely-discernable-as-Mennonite branches. Willard VanPelt’ family were “Whisler”, or “Black Bumper” Mennonites. Willard was an experienced mason. Wilbur Yoder’s family was Amish. I don’t remember what Wilbur had worked at before Pax. David Burkholder was from a moderately conservative Old Mennonite family in the Mennonite bastion of Harrisonburg, Virginia. He had been a Ready-mix concrete truck driver, before joining Pax. Dale Eash was from the same Indiana community as Wilbur Yoder, but from a background that embraced education and “progress”. I had grown up in western Nebraska, in a relatively “English” setting.
Time has erased the memory of what we did for 11 days. I know we played a lot of ping-pong, Monopoly, checkers, and probably chess. Will VanPelt turned out to be an unbeatable checkers player. I read Gone with the Wind, and some other marginal works from the ship’s library. We spent a lot of time looking at waves, and spray, and the wake of the propeller. There were no girls.
One very interesting afternoon was spent on a tour of the boiler and engine room. I had always assumed the engine was at the stern of the ship, like an outboard motor. Not so! It was amidships, with a six-foot diameter, long shaft, turning on wooden bearings, running half the length of the ship. The exhaust steam was condensed and reused. The actual engine, a turbine, was relatively small.
The friendly and congenial group that formed must have had a lot of interesting discussions, but I can only remember one. For the first time in my life, I heard an American express the opinion that Adalai Stevenson had been a wonderful person, and would have been an outstanding president. Up to that time, I had always been surrounded by a world that considered all Democrats to be crooks, liars, and thieves. I kept my mouth shut, and listened. It was not to be the last time I encountered perfectly normal people with opinions completely opposite to those I had always heard.
Eventually, of course, we arrived off a coast, which was the first hard evidence that we had, indeed, been moving for the last 10 days. A day later, we sailed up a river, and docked in Amsterdam or Rotterdam. Our adventure was about to begin.
Chapter 3 INTRODUCTION TO EUROPE
Orville Schmidt, from Kaiserslautern headquarters, picked us up in a Taunus Combi, which would be called a Mini-Van nowdays. Before we knew it, we were on some kind of freeway, weaving from lane to lane, surrounded by miniature cars and trucks, all seemingly hell-bent for some very important destination. Every time Orville made a lane change, a little signal arm would jump out of the side of the van. I had assumed Europe was full of American cars, with an occasional Volkswagen here and there, but was totally unprepared for the number and variety of half-size vehicles—all apparently being operated at their absolute performance limits.
Later, as we entered Amsterdam, the maelstrom of pint-size vehicles was augmented by suicidal bicyclists, which filled the interstices between the four-wheelers. It seemed to us like chaos, but of course, it wasn’t. This was our introduction to Europe.
After supper in a hidden restaurant, (half of Amsterdam is hidden) we went to bed in an MCC center, which was the usual villa in an obscure part of town. The evening meal included the first rare meat I had ever eaten, and I was converted on the spot.
Apparently, orders had been given to show us the sights between Amsterdam and Pax headquarters in Kaiserslautern, in Germany. The next day, we went for a very interesting tour of the city on a gleaming canal boat. We visited MCC and Menno Travel facilities in Holland. We saw tulip fields, windmills, dikes, and canals in Holland. We saw thousands of bicyclists, including old ladies and farmers with wooden shoes. We were amazed at the separate bicycle roads, interchanges, and overpasses.
Sometime during the day, we crossed into Germany. We spent the night at a Jugendherberg (youth hostel) near Bonn. This was our first introduction to late-50’s German life. The place was cold and damp. The blankets we were issued were too thin and too small. The beds were hard and lumpy. There was, however, an abundance of cold water for washing. Ordinarily, we wouldn’t have been able to stay there at all, as we had arrived in a motorized vehicle, instead of by bicycle or on foot, but it was the off season, and the manager took pity on us. By the end of my term in Europe, I had learned to fold the meagre blanket (making it even narrower), and to sleep under the resulting strip without moving, trading the warmth of the covered top surface for the cold coming in from the open sides.
The next day we made a leisurely trip to Kaiserslautern, stopping to see the magnificent ruined castle at St. Goar, still my favorite, and traveling up the most famous and scenic part of the Rhine. We traveled the narrow back roads, noting the lack of route markers, and observing that, to navigate in Germany, one must know which towns he should pass through.
At length, we arrived in Kaiserslautern at dusk, and were assigned quarters in the attic, with the resident raconteur, Fritz Mischler. Fritz gave us the lowdown on a few things. We had another few days of orientation ahead of us, before we could finally get to the work we had come to do.
Orientation in Germany was more of the same, except that it was more-or-less dominated by director Dwight Wiebe, who was a real character. We were given more detailed cautions about the hazards of getting involved with German girls, and some information on what cultural differences we might expect to encounter.
Dwight Wiebe articulated the spirit of the Pax Europe program, at that point in time. He was never bashful in sharing his opinions and his philosophy. He was not a person who could be ignored. I never saw him get on a train that was not already moving.
Fritz Mischler educated us with regard to cameras. It is my theory that cameras symbolically replaced cars, and to some extent girls, for Paxmen. Almost all of us, even at our age, had already owned cars. A lot of the care and attention lavished on our lost cars was diverted into photography. The Kodak Retina 1b was the Chevrolet of the European Paxman. I bought one in Kaiserslautern, and became a passable photographer, a skill which has contributed greatly to my enjoyment of life ever since.
The “bread and butter” of the Pax program in Europe was the units. These were groups of 10-15 or more men with a Unit Leader, a Project Foreman, and a Matron, who were engaged in the primary mission of Pax—building houses in Siedlungen (settlements) for Mennonite refugees from East Prussia. The work of the men was accepted as down payment for long-term mortgages. There were large units in Enkenbach, Pfalz, near Kaiserslautern, and at Becterdissen, near Bielefeld. There was also a large contingent refurbishing a large protestant school building called Karlsschule, in Vienna, Austria. There were a host of special assignments. There were two units in Greece, engaged in improving local farming and community life.
The usual strategy was to assign newcomers to one of the units for orientation and evaluation. The units had structure, and a clear mission. The units were constantly “raided”, however, for people to assign to the Vienna and Greek units, and for special assignments, including office jobs in headquarters.
Of our travel group, Dale Eash, David Burkholder, and Willard VanPelt were sent to Bechterdissen, and Wilbur Yoder and I went to Enkenbach. We arrived there after supper, in the middle of our first week in Germany.
So—what did I learn at PAX orientation? I am tempted to say “nothing”, but that would be unkind to the people who put a lot of serious effort and planning into it. I can only say that I don’t remember learning very much. Just how do you train people for a cross-cultural experience? I was to observe another group trying to answer the same question a few years later. These people had unlimited financial resources, compared to MCC, and most of them were very bright, highly educated, and extremely motivated. They had no hangups about girls, or alcohol, or violation of the protestant work ethic. Perhaps the problem has been solved, since then; but, comparing the two approaches, I think the PAX policy of minimal orientation, then putting the volunteers into structured units to sink or swim, produced at least as many successes.
Chapter 4 ENKENBACH
Enkenbach was a small German village in the Pfalz, or Palatinate, province of Germany, not far from Kaiserslautern. It was also within sight of an American air base, and there were many American army bases in the area. The military carried on with their lives as though they were in the States, and we had minimal contact with them. Our assignment was the construction of houses in a Siedlung, or settlement for refugees from East Prussia. Most of us had only a vague idea of the negotiations and bureaucracy that must have gone into establishment of the Siedlung and the unit there. We took it for granted, and treated it as a job to be done.
When I arrived, the unit was just starting construction of the Enkenbach Mennonite church building. My first assignment was to run the concrete mixer to mix mortar, which entailed throwing in a given number of shovels full of sand, so many of “kalk”, and so many of cement. I had done similar tasks many times, while growing up. After it was mixed, I had to deliver the mortar to the “Maurer”, and keep them supplied with block. The old “hogs” gave me the distinct impression that I was hopelessly slow. There was apparently a tradition of hazing of newcomers. I later realized I was probably better than most mixer/tender combinations.
I had come from a heavy construction job, and knew my way around building sites, but I had been idle for at least a month. Consequently, on the second day, I was so stiff and sore I could hardly walk to the job. Nevertheless, I drove myself mercilessly, so as not to be labeled as lazy. I succeeded well enough, but as soon as “Feierabend” (quitting time) arrived, it was all I could do to get myself up the stairs in the Pax house on Weichselstrasse, to the bedroom I shared with Project Foreman Albert Keim. The stiffness lasted for a week or more.
I was a veritable sponge, keeping my mouth shut and soaking up impressions and knowledge. I see now, that I was a bit of a snob about work. I considered any work, other than the hard physical work that was our primary mission, to be secondary and superfluous. I refused to recognize that a lot of overhead is necessary to make a program work.
The Enkenbach unit, a typical unit, was structured to provide us with all kinds of necessary services, not the least of which was food and laundry. There were established community programs as well, such as organized visitation of the people in the Siedlung on Tuesday nights. There were traditions, such as a unit member paying for ingredients for ice cream on his birthday. Trips were organized. Quartets and choruses were formed. Later, when we had to generate all these things from scratch, like when a new unit was formed at Krefeld, we realized how easy it was to come along and find everything already set up.
Wilson Myers was the Unit Leader. I remember Elton Pfile, Garth Hershberger, Henry Gehman, Steve Phillips, John DeKamp, Roger Von Gunten, and Ted Bergey. Isabel Gingerich was the matron, and she certainly worked as hard and long as any of us. I’m sure others were there, but I can’t remember.
I worked as hard as I could. I soon learned that Germany had a lot of holidays, and working on a holiday was unheard of. Apparently, it was also traditional for MCC, Pax, or other church-related events to pre-empt work. I noticed, consequently, that it was very rare for us to put in a full week on the job in the first two months at Enkenbach.
I soon became a Maurer (Mason) and learned to lay blocks, under the critical eye of the Meister, Herr Rosenbaum, (who thought my Adam’s Apple was too big). I learned German as fast as I could. I found that two to four words was the maximum I could learn and incorporate into my speech in one day. I struggled to communicate with what I had. I spent a lot of time with kids, who had patience with my lack of German, and would correct me. I bought a used bike, and a 38cc motor that mounted on the back, and propelled me as fast as most of the 50cc mopeds many of the men had. My struggles to keep the jury-rigged installation working forced me to visit the repair shop over and over, and furthered my education in German.
I also sang in an octet, and got to take a few interesting trips, including one to Strasbourge in France. One weekend, I went to Holland for a youth conference, then to Brussels for an evening meeting, then back through Luxemburg to Germany. Arlo Kasper was on that trip.
Soon another group arrived, and we were no longer the new kids on the block. I remember Phil Waltner, Sam Dietzel, and Ben Brubaker joining our group. Henry Gehman got married to a Siedlung girl, which was OK, since he extended his term, and was married just before returning home. Wilson Myers returned home, and Bob Good took over as unit leader. We finished the church, and went back to building houses.
Working conditions in Germany were a shock! I had been conditioned, by European exchange students, mainly, to expect everything to be more sophisticated. I found German tools to be crude. Shovels were a rather inferior grade of sheet metal, with poorly shaped and finished handles that had to be continually reinstalled. They wore out quickly. Hammers were a crude forging, with no specially-made handles. Trowels were of two kinds: a Berliner Kelle which was triangular with an offset handle, and the South German type, which was rather like a rectangular spade. Both were mediocre in finish and material. American tools were prized, and passed down from returning Paxmen to their successors. When we worked alongside Germans, they invariably tried to buy our levels and shovels.
In addition to crude tools, German builders were rigidly divided into dozens of trades, which took two years of apprenticeship to enter, but the skills of which could be learned in a few weeks. The whole work scene was that way. Two year apprenticeships to sell phonograph records! After learning a trade, they couldn’t change jobs without another apprenticeship. It seemed like madness to me, who came from farms and a construction industry where everyone did everything.
The masonry we built was crude. The kind of concrete block work done in the States, with very precise, uniform blocks, and tooled joints, was unknown. Everything was destined to be plastered, inside and out. No holes, or chases, or slots were built for wiring, piping, or ductwork. Everything was chiseled out after the walls and floors were built. We mixed concrete by hand, sometimes right in front of an idle mixer. To this day, I cannot fathom how the Germans got their reputation for craftsmanship.
Many of the methods were interesting, however. Concrete was often mixed almost dry, with only enough water to remain in a ball, if squeezed in the hand. It was then tamped into place. Contrary to expectations, it got hard as a rock.
There were many quaint and exotic customs to become familiar with. There was a town crier, who rode up to the crossroads on a bicycle, rang a hand bell, and read announcements in a loud voice. You could look out over the fields, and see women raking hay with wooden rakes, and loading it onto high-wheeled wagons pulled by milk cows. The sight of people relieving themselves in public was commonplace.
I can’t remember where church services were held, before the church building was finished. It must have been in the Altersheim. German Mennonites did not consider it necessary to go to church every Sunday. In fact, most congregations only had services three Sundays a month. If you went every Sunday, people might suspect you were feeling guilty about something. We were regarded as strange, for being so compulsive about church attendance. It was not difficult to learn to like this relaxed attitude.
I was serious about Christianity, but I was becoming less unquestioning about the theology and ethics I had been taught. I observed a wide range of attitudes, beliefs, and practices, many of which had sustained people through tougher times than I had ever seen.
There were abundant opportunities to interact with Germans, but we were never really immersed in the culture. It was possible to avoid learning any German at all. Some did it. Anyone with any aspirations for “Special Assignments” or leadership, however, needed to learn passable German. It was not easy. The people in the Siedlung spoke standard, textbook German. The natives, however, spoke a dialect called “Pälzisch”, which is an ancestor of Pennsylvania Dutch. For a long time, it was irrelevant, as I didn’t have enough skill to recognize the difference. Eventually, dialects became a bothersome factor, as they added greatly to the difficulty of becoming assimilated at a new location.
Unit life facilitated getting a start in learning a language. Learning language is like learning to swim, mentioned earlier. Units allowed you to survive until you figured out how the system worked, at its most basic level. Most people seem to learn a language in steps. The first hurdle is to get to a rather low, survival level, where you can get your basic needs across. The second is a higher survival level, where you can make yourself understood, but not fluently or correctly. The down side of unit life was that it made it possible for a person to attain a level and stay there. To really learn a language well, one must continually work to improve.
Girls were not a big problem for me. In retrospect, I can see that they were a complicating factor for the administration, like a bomb that could explode at any moment. I had lots of friendly, circumspect relationships with girls in the Siedlung. Dating rules were quite different, and the best policy was not to date, one-on-one, as was customary in the States. You could stand and talk with a girl on the street for an hour, if you felt like it, but you better not take her to a movie or walk her home. Many “boys” had varying degrees of problems with this issue, however. I had another reason for being circumspect, over which I will continue to allow 40 years of grass to grow.
I did not find paxmen to be appreciably different from the guys in the dormitory at Hesston College, or the guys on construction crews I worked with. There were a few who tried very hard to cultivate a “Bad-Ass” image. There were others who were never heard to utter a four-letter word. There were guys who were just plain weird. The vast majority, including myself, were somewhere in between. Pax guys were as likely to threaten violence or use verbal abuse as any other group I had experienced up to that time. Lewd remarks and jokes were common. I was not surprised. Those who had expectations for a more wholesome atmosphere, however, were probably disappointed.
I also suspect that guys for whom athletics was a major pastime, were probably frustrated by the limited participatory sports program, and the non-existent spectator sports. We came from a world studded with freely accessible ball diamonds, basketball and tennis courts.
I think my months in Enkenbach were the most stress-free of all my Pax experience. It was wonderful to work hard on structured work, live in a structured environment, and follow well-worn paths. People told me I would not be there long. I suppose I gave off some kind of waves that marked me as a person willing to try new things. I professed to have no ambitions for special assignments.
One day I was laying bricks on a decorative arch on the front wall of the church building, when Dwight Wiebe paid us a visit. He stopped and talked to me, and mentioned rather casually that the guys in Wien did a lot of that sort of work. An alarm went off in the recesses of my brain. I think he brought it up again later, but when the end actually came, it came suddenly, and it wasn’t Vienna.
It was near the end of July, 1957. I was called off the job in the middle of the afternoon, and given the opportunity to go to a work camp in Spain. I was given almost no time to make up my mind. Impulsively, I grabbed it. I remember only Meister Rosenbaum seeing them coming, and pleading: Nimm nicht den David weg.
By 8:00 P.M. I was on a train, headed for Paris. I would return to Enkenbach, but would never really belong there again.
What did I learn in Enkenbach? I believe I learned the appeal of a mature program, with structure, stability, and traditions. It was common for Germans to ask us if we had Heimweh. (homesickness) I don’t remember being homesick for the U.S. In my next assignment, I learned all about Heimweh, only, it wasn’t the States, or my family, or my girlfriend—it was Enkenbach I longed for.
Chapter 5 MADRID
Until I left Kaiserslautern for Spain, I hadn’t had much experience with trains in Europe. Although I usually have difficulty sleeping on trains, I must have dozed off, although I had no sensation of going to sleep or waking up. When I looked through the curtains, I noticed that we were speeding in the opposite direction from the way we had started. Eventually, I was to learn that European stations are usually terminals, where the trains go in and come out on the same track. The curve that takes them in to the station, and the one that takes them out, are so imperceptible that I always had the sensation of going back in the same direction I came from.
I arrived in Paris in mid-morning, and found that the other victim was Paul Stucky, who had been at Bechterdissen, and whom I had met once before. Our first experience of Paris was a blur. Pax (or maybe MCC) guys met us at the train, and took us in a taxi to another station, where we boarded another train. No time for the sights of Paris! I found that Paul had known about the opportunity for a week, which was a coon’s age, by PAX standards! We were going to an international work camp in a squatters’ settlement outside Madrid. Only sketchy information was available. It was to be an all-male camp.
We boarded the train, and found a compartment with two empty seats. We put our luggage in the racks, and settled in. For five minutes, everybody in the compartment looked one another over, without saying anything. Then someone broke the ice, and a flood of conversation ensued. We turned out to be a very international group. The first thing we did was sort out languages. The girl across from us was Spanish, and knew English, and some German. The lady next to her was German, and also knew French and Portuguese, but her husband, next to her, was Portuguese, and spoke only that. The rest of the compartment was similarly polyglot. In the first five minutes everyone determined who he could speak to directly, and who he could use as a translator for each of the others. It was unforgettable. After the languages were sorted out, people broke out food, pooled it, and we all started eating.
It was a great lesson, and demonstration of how ordinary people can get along. At length the train started moving, and we continued the serious business of getting acquainted. It was a train ride I will never forget. It banished forever any opinion I might have entertained that Europeans were unfriendly and reserved.
We must have gotten to the Spanish border at about seven in the evening. It was necessary to change trains at the border, because Spanish trains ran on a different gauge. The atmosphere became less familiar, and more frightening. We had to stand in line to check our tickets and passports, and were enveloped by strange noise, unfamiliar smells, oppressive heat, and shabby surroundings. When we got to the window, we found our tickets were for second class, but second class was full. We would have to pay extra, and ride first class. Fine, we said, we can ride third class. Well, you have to pay extra for that, too! (We paid our money, and rode first class.)
It was our first introduction to a Third World country, where chaos reigns, and nothing works the way it should. (We were on yesterday’s train!)
First Class had a kind of shabby opulence. It was my second night on a train, so I was able to sleep. In spite of the plush seats, the car seemed to fishtail down the track, as if it were only loosely connected to the wheels. When we awoke, we were in a kind of semi-desert, with low, mud huts under a burning sun, and farmers working parched fields with donkeys as draft animals.
We arrived in Madrid, and were met by Hans DeJonge, the camp director. He got us into a cab, where a running verbal battle ensued before and during the trip. Our destination was a place called El Pozo del Tio Raimundo (Uncle Raymond’s Well). Apparently, the cab driver didn’t want to take us there. Finally, he stopped at a place devoid of vegetation, and teeming with ragged children. Hans told us to sit tight, and since we wouldn’t get out, the driver had no choice but to take us on to our destination. Our destination was not much further, and looked no more promising. It was a one-room school building, in a collection of houses made of every conceivable building material. It was a semi-desert. Nothing grew—not even weeds.
The schoolroom contained sacks of straw on the floor, along one wall, which were to be our beds. A long, rickety table was standing along the opposite wall. Blackboards lined three walls. I don’t recall if other campers were there yet or not, but I believe Phillip Rice, an extremely likeable and gregarious Englishman, was already there. Phillip spoke Spanish, and was an instant hit with all the kids. Hordes of kids followed us to our quarters, and never tired of watching our every move.
In Latin America, El Pozo would have been called a Barrio. A Barrio is a community with a self-identity and a name—a neighborhood. The thing that El Pozo had, that nobody else had, was Padre Llanos. Padre Llanos was the priest who had requested Mennonite Voluntary Service to sponsor an international work camp. The project was to be renovation of a house to serve as headquarters for community development teams, who would teach the squatters various skills. Renovation is a rather deceptive term, as the house consisted of no more than some clay tile walls and a dirt floor.
Almost everything in El Pozo, it seemed, was the result of Padre Llanos’ work. Besides a church, there was the school. There was a public bath facility. There was an outdoor theatre, where old Abbot and Costello movies were shown a couple of times a week. When you met Padre Llanos, you knew you were in the presence of a saint. He exuded concern and love. The population of El Pozo, who came mostly from the south of Spain, worshipped him. Apparently, grim as it was, El Pozo was vastly superior to the south of Spain.
Campers arrived, over the next few days. There was a rather stuffy Englishman, and another, more congenial one. There were several Spanish university students. Only a few of the Spaniards spoke English.
Living arrangements were somewhat primitive. Water for drinking and washing had to be fetched in large unglazed pottery jugs from a domed tank about a block away. The water came from a large tank, covered by a clay tile dome, which was constantly replenished by tanker trucks. We got the water in exchange for tickets. After we got them home, the water seeped through the walls of the jugs and evaporated, keeping the contents cool.
Cooking and laundry were courtesy of Señora Maria, a rather slovenly neighborhood lady, who had been engaged by Padre Llanos. She had some arguments with Hans over pay, and I’m sure, from what I later learned about Latin cultures, that she must have cheated us, in a desultory way. It would have been a matter of self respect, to feed her family well with the food the Gringos paid for.
Food was unfamiliar. All cooking was done with olive oil. The food wasn’t spicy, contrary to what one might expect. (Apparently, Mexico is the only Latin culture with spicy food.) Unfortunately, however, our digestive systems were programmed to reject anything coated with olive oil.
The other end of the digestive process had never consumed much of our attention, up to that point, but it now became a major concern. Toilet facilities could no longer be taken for granted. Arrangements had been made to use the neighbors’ toilet. To use it, you had to knock on the strangers’ door, and use sign language to indicate what you wanted. After you were finished, you had to go to the well, draw water in a leaky bucket, carry it in, and dump it in the stool. Of course, you had to take your own paper.
Everything we did, moreover, was intensely fascinating to the horde of kids that always surrounded us.
We were awakened every morning by donkeys braying. Soon thereafter, the bread peddler went by, yelling “Chureros”. We were constantly within earshot of people yelling back and forth. Nobody ever spoke slowly and softly. There was absolutely no opportunity to interact with girls.
In short, I had gone from a familiar world, in which everything made sense, or could at least be explained by trusted friends, to a bewildering one in which there were no known rules.
My standard method of dealing with bewildering situations was to bury myself in hard work, so I looked forward eagerly to the start of work on the project—our justification for being there. At length, we marched down the street to begin the building, surrounded by the inevitable throng of kids, but another shock awaited me. In order to work, you must have tools, plans, supervision, materials, etc. In actuality, there are dozens of elements, material and organizational, which must mesh. I was to learn that the most common condition in underdeveloped countries, and to some degree, in volunteer-manned aid organizations, is that some key ingredient will always be missing.
A maestro showed up, on foot, with shovels, and a helper—but no handles for the shovels. There were no building materials. Hans, who should have been expected to assure, ahead of time, that all arrangements had been made, apparently had no experience in such matters. His claim to fame was that he spoke all European languages fluently. To expect him to be a competent workcamp leader was like expecting an ordinary stenographer to produce a best-selling novel, just because he/she is an outstanding typist.
Eventually, however, the project did get started. It was chronically short of materials, organization, and never provided enough meaningful work to keep even half the group busy, but we did accomplish some interesting things. We hand dug a well, five meters deep—the only time I have ever done such a thing. We then dug another hole, not far from the well, and built a septic tank. Then the whole project ground to a halt, with some vague lack of material given as the reason for the suspension. We spent the rest of the time leveling the playground at the school, which was difficult, since there was no dirt other than large clods.
This experience illustrated another aspect of volunteer projects. Those who request help often do not realize that most projects require a significant expenditure for materials, which cannot be postponed, and which many recipients are not prepared to pay. They apparently reason that the volunteers probably won’t mind if there is no work. After all, they are donating their labor in exchange for room and board. In poor countries, paid labor will barely cover room and board. And how valuable can the labor be, if they are giving it away? It is, in short, difficult for recipient agencies to deal with the unique aspects of volunteer projects.
Learning the quirks of Englishmen was one of the most positive aspects of this workcamp experience. We learned, among other things, that there are other ways to view the history of WWII, other than the traditional American way. We also heard an entirely different view of the issue of separation of church and state. We learned that going to the lavatory was their equivalent of going to the bathroom. It was amusing how they took great stock in dressing properly to go to town. All regulation clothing items had to be worn—wrinkled, soiled, or frayed though they might be. One of the Englishmen, however, discovered an oasis, on one of these trips to town.
Rickety busses ran from El Pozo to Atocha Railway Station near the center of Madrid. Fare was 2 Pesetas—about 8 cents American. It was a chance to drink a hochata, a refreshing coconut drink sold on the streets, and escape the oppression of El Pozo for a few hours. The Englishman in question discovered the office of Iberian Airways, not far down the street from Atocha. In the basement was a men’s restroom, with gleaming white hexagonal tile on the floors and walls, gleaming white porcelain fixtures, and chrome hardware on the doors. He came back with glowing reports. We tried it, and found it to be a bit of paradise.
Modern toilet facilities had assumed a hallowed significance to us, partly because of another fact of life about underdeveloped countries. Dysentery was a fact of life. Within the first week, most non-Spanish campers, and some of the Spanish had it. Typically, they had to stay in bed, and endure coarse jokes and embarrassing inquiries. For a long time, I was mercifully spared, as I watched one camper after another fall prey to Colitis.
When it finally hit me, it was devastating! I had experienced headaches, nausea, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps at times in my life, but not all at the same time. It was awful! The least exertion seemed to require all the energy I could muster. I no longer cared about the needy people around me. Nothing around me was exotic or interesting. All I cared about was me. I was consumed with self-pity, and homesickness for the familiar, comprehensible life in Germany.
I now recognize this as the first episode of severe depression, which has recurred from time to time throughout my life. It was also a classic case of “culture shock”. All the familiar landmarks and support systems had been stripped away. The dysentery was the last straw. I recovered, to some degree, but the last part of the time in Spain is like the memory of a bad dream.
I did, however, gain a sensitivity toward others in a similar situation. I realized that, whatever it was called, depression was a serious business and should be taken seriously. I hope I translated this sensitivity into action, at some time in the future. Through it all, Paul Stucky was a rock of Gibraltar. I shall be eternally grateful to him.
I am not proud of my performance. For one thing, I utterly failed to learn Spanish. I had no excuse. The stuffy Englishman learned a great deal, and was constantly surrounded by children, eager to help him, and sympathetic to his halting attempts. I could have done the same, but didn’t. Believe it or not, I left Spain without knowing a single Spanish verb—and Spanish is a language of verbs. Moreover, I am convinced that to understand a people, you have to understand their language, at some level.
In spite of the language barrier, we did learn some very interesting and unique things about Spain. At that time, Spain was separated from the rest of Europe by more than just the gauge of the rails. Spain was a Third World country, before the term was invented. It was still reeling from the civil war that had preceded WWII, and had not shared the trauma of that war with the rest of Europe. Blind and limbless people were a common sight in the streets. It was a dictatorship. Anything remotely suspected of being political had to be sponsored by the government, or was outlawed. (One of our campers was a secret Boy Scout.)
The Church was everywhere. The streets were full of monks and priests in the distinct garb of various orders. We went with Phillip Rice to a Plymouth Brethren service, which was unstructured, like Quakers. The congregation was constantly threatened with loss of their meeting place, on some pretext or another. Protestants had no right to marry, as there was no such thing as civil marriage. In the Catholic church, on the other hand, there was a noticeable rivalry among the orders, and an undercurrent of resentment by the common people, who must have recognized that it was they who supported the religious establishment. Señora Maria called the monks burros.
A special police called Guardia Civil patrolled the streets in pairs, with carbines slung on their backs. They wore a funny, patent leather hat with hinges on the rear brim. People went to some lengths to avoid confrontation with them.
I had been led to believe that Southern Europeans, which meant Spaniards, Portuguese, and Italians, are lazy, but most of the adults I observed in Spain were engaged in unrelenting toil. The standard work week was six days, but I saw teams of men building houses out of discarded tile or mud bricks on Sunday, and during the siesta time from 12:00 to 2:00. Of course, the women worked from dawn until dusk washing, cooking, and cleaning.
In summary, it was a hard, interesting, educational experience. When we were summoned back to Germany at the end of August, 1957, I was greatly relieved, but I had learned hard lessons, which I would never forget. I had also learned to know some great guys, and parting was a bittersweet experience.
I had learned that amoebas and depression can cancel out all idealism and Christian love. If you want to serve, and make it possible for others to serve, you must pay attention to your health.
I had learned what it is like to live in an underdeveloped country, where nothing works the way it should. The next time I was called upon to do so, it was relatively easy.
I had also learned that, when doing service in an underdeveloped country, one must not expect success. God calls us to service—not accomplishment.
Paul and I were to go back to Enkenbach, pick up two other men, and proceed to Krefeld, where we were to work for a German contractor, building a replacement for a church office building that had been destroyed in the war.
My troubles were not over, however. On the way back, as we walked and rode Metros to see and photograph the sights of Paris, I still had dysentery. I know rather more about the public toilets of Paris than the average tourist. Our train from Paris to Germany left at midnight. Just before getting on the train, my vision blurred, and soon after the train started moving, I got violently ill. It was the Asian Flu.
When we got to Enkenbach, I was too weak to climb up the hill, and had to be fetched by the unit vehicle. I weighed 145 pounds.
But I was back. I had received a lesson in survival.
Chapter 6 KREFELD
I expected a quick recovery, once back among friends and familiar surroundings. Optimistically, after a day or two in bed, I got up in the morning, as if fully recovered, but by afternoon I was back in bed. This pattern continued for several days. In the meantime, we made arrangements to transfer to Krefeld. Jesse Mack, from Pennsylvania, and Peter Duerkson, from Canada, were to go with us. Later, the unit was to be fleshed out with new arrivals. Paul Stucky was to be Unit Leader, and I was to be Project Foreman.
We first traveled to Becterdissen for the weekend. I was still very weak, and had trouble keeping food down, and in. I don’t recall seeing a doctor, or taking any sort of medication. Apparently, Pax medicine consisted of letting one recover on his own. I was content to be in Germany again, however, even in my present condition.
Walter “Pancho” Schmucker of Bechterdissen took us to Krefeld, and left us in a boarding house, where we were to stay until an apartment leased by the Mennonite congregation became available. Reluctantly, I had to admit that I was in no shape to work. The Gemeinde had borrowed bicycles from members, for us to ride to work. The other three guys had to pedal off to work without me, for a few days. I spent a few days in bed, gradually getting a bit of strength back, until finally, I felt I was ready.
The city of Krefeld was a bit of a backwater. It was on the edge of the Ruhr industrial area, but was a textile town, instead of heavy industry. In spite of its relative unimportance as an industrial target, it had been heavily bombed, but had not had sufficient priority to be rebuilt as quickly as the surrounding towns. It had been within the British Zone of Occupation, but there was no military presence. Ruins were still a common sight. Barricaded, open basements were everywhere.
Krefeld was a blue-collar town, whose occupants pedaled to work in the rain, in hordes, in the morning and pedaled home in the evening. to wash up in cold water in the hallways of drap apartment buildings. Sometimes, it seemed as if they took perverse delight in maintaining cold, damp, ill-lighted conditions, as if the drabness was a kind of penance.
We joined the pedaling hordes. The couple who owned the boarding house seemed determined to starve us to death. We breakfasted on bread and jam and ersatz coffee. While we ate breakfast, the proprietors packed our lunches—bread with wafer-thin cold cuts and soup from the night before. They watched each other like hawks, lest one of them should mistakenly overlap the meat a millimeter or two. Every day, Paul spent a bit of our budget on a small bottle of milk for each of us, which we nursed through morning break, lunch, and afternoon break. Evening meals started with soup, the only thing plentiful and with some variety. Next came boiled potatoes, or cabbage, or one Wurst, or noodles—one thing only. Sometimes it was a raw, salted herring. Soon we were chronically hungry.
Part of the deal with PAX was that MCC canned beef, chicken, vegetables, and surplus flour was provided to the sponsors, with which to feed the men. The boarding house proprietors didn’t now how to cook with those things, so they didn’t.
At work, we were just common laborers, with Herr Becker, the boss, and Hans, a mason. Gerhard soon came, to run the crane, and others came and went. We were just about the only ones in Krefeld who spoke English, but everybody on the job site was friendly and eager to talk. The twice-daily breaks were typical bull sessions, with lots of sharing of stories and good-natured joshing. I made rapid strides with the language, partly because the Germans got a huge kick out of the mistakes we made, repeating them to each other with glee. I was determined to give them less to joke about.
A high percentage of the people in Krefeld seemed to have come from elsewhere. There was reported to be a local dialect, but I do not remember ever hearing anything but regulation German. It was amazing how I kept noticing words that I had never heard before, but once noticed, found to be in constant use.
The ruined Gemeinde Haus had apparently been standing in the rain since it had been bombed and burned in 1945. Our first task was to knock down the remaining walls, and the vaults over the old basement, then fill it with bricks and rubble. When this was finished, we had a level area on half the property. We then turned our attention to the other half, knocked down the vaults there also, then built foundations and a new building above the old. It was in the middle of downtown, so space was at a premium.
The Krefeld Gemeinde was very different from the refugee churches of Enkenbach and Bechterdissen. Krefeld was very close to Holland, and it was one of the oldest congregations in Germany, standing at the beginning of the long migration from Holland, to North Germany, to Prussia, to Russia, and eventually to Canada and the U.S. The members who befriended us were quite well off, and would have been considered liberal by most American Mennonites. The congregation numbered in the hundreds, if not thousands—many more than could have been seated in the church, which was next door to the building we were working on. The pastor was Dr. Reuter, his wife spoke passable English, and his daughter Ursula had spent a year at Bethel College.
The couple from the church, dearest to our hearts, had a bakery. I can no longer recall the name, but we were invited many times on Sunday afternoon, and were allowed to stuff ourselves on pastries. They just kept bringing more. The man who had been responsible for requesting the unit and bringing us there was Herr Von Backerath, an industrialist, who had a gorgeous daughter, a charming wife, and a villa overlooking the Rhine.
All evidence led to the unavoidable conclusion that Krefeld, as a congregation, was liberal. (whatever that meant)
Liberal or not, we were there with a very clear mission—to build a building. If I have the chronology straight, the first four of us must have arrived around the first of September. After a few weeks, we were joined by new guys, just out of orientation. There was Glen (Moose) Moyer, Leron (Slick) Peters, Rodney Penner, and Paul Wengert. All of the group were energetic and interesting, and most had some building skills. Glen Moyer had been a cabinet maker, Rod Penner a carpenter. Leron Peters and Paul Wengert were typical do-anything farm boys.
Fortunately, the contractor did a very efficient job of administering the project, so that we never ran out of work, or tools, or materials. There was an actual set of plans for the building. On a job like that, if everything is run well, nobody notices it, but if it is not, it becomes painfully obvious.
Many of the Geflogenheiten (quirks) of the Germans and their system were demonstrated daily. In some ways, it was much different from work on a building job in the U.S., but in many ways, it was the same. The same rowdy, frank atmosphere prevailed among the workers, and every day was filled with an endless exchange of stories. We marveled at the way the Germans changed clothes when they arrived, and changed back when they left, as if to give the impression that they were clerical workers. They actually carried their lunches in briefcases, which they carried back home loaded with firewood! They insisted on shaking hands morning and evening.
We were baffled, as I had been at Enkenbach, by the crudity of tools. We had a crane—the first tower crane I had ever seen, but it had only one line, and so could not dig or dump. We mixed concrete by hand, and shoveled it into the crane bucket. There was no dimension lumber or plywood, only rough, unplaned boards in random widths and lengths. Carpenters cut wood with a buck-saw. The building was leveled with a Schlauchwaage—a length of water-filled tubing with clear plastic tubes at the ends. Reinforcing steel consisted of smooth steel rods.
Krefeld is located on the coastal plain that contains the Netherlands, which is probably the reason it rained all the time, for the first few weeks. During the day, it was a drizzle that would not require a raincoat, but by quitting time, it would be raining a little harder. It would rain steadily during the night, then revert to a dreary drizzle at about the time we left for work. On rare occasions, the sun would break out for half an hour, in the afternoon. Everything below the ground surface was soaking wet. The mortar in the ruined walls had leached out into sand.
The exact chronology has escaped me, but Kathy Jantzen from Canada must have arrived sometime in November, and we set up standard Pax housekeeping in the church apartment, a few blocks from work. It was wonderful to have a female presence and familiar food. We had a large room with bunk beds for sleeping quarters, a large kitchen, and a fair-sized dining room. Paul Wengert left for an assignment in Greece, and Howard Snyder replaced him.
We still had to go to the municipal bath-house once a week, as we had been doing when we lived in the boarding house. We always bought tickets for “Schwimmbad”, which allowed us to swim in the pool, and then take showers of unlimited length in a large shower room. It was difficult to go from a week of cold, wet work on the job to an ice-cold swimming pool, but the showers had unlimited hot water. We also marveled at the custom of the Germans, who wore bathing trunks in the showers. These were the same people who unabashedly, publicly changed into bathing suits on the beach in the summer time.
The project continued to go smoothly. As project foreman, I had little to do but write a report each month. The construction was brick, with a pressed brick of standard dimensions. The Germans insisted they be laid in a precise pattern. The pattern was traditional, with läufer (runners) exposed on one layer and kopf (headers) on the next. If one mistakenly placed one läufer directly over the other, instead of staggered, tradition had it that the offender had to marry the Meister’s daughter.
Delivery trucks often gave “Meister” Becker cigarettes or liquor, and pastor Reuter even dropped off a bottle on occasion. The German contingent greatly appreciated the custom, but often became quite tipsy and talkative. This was very alien to us. The German workers thought we were strange too. When liquor loosened their tongues, they would often ask: “What do you do for fun? You don’t smoke, you don’t drink, and you don’t ____.” There was no good answer.
One myth about Germany, which was dispelled by Krefeld, was the notion that Germans are much more sophisticated in their use of alcohol. We had been told that inebriated people are never seen on the streets. In spite of the, almost-universal use of alcohol, Europeans were reported to be much more mature and cultured than the crude Americans. We found that to be untrue in Krefeld. We often saw drunken people on the streets at night, and were occasionally awakened by singing celebrants beneath our windows. While supplementing our diet with daily milk, Paul got in the habit of bringing milk for the German workers too, which underscored an interesting cultural difference. The Germans insisted on warming their milk on the stove in the shack, which was repulsive to us, while we drank ours cold, which was equally repulsive to them. They were astounded that most of us had owned cars, and had lived away from home for years, already. We had a lot of good times, and few unpleasant scenes.
One incident I will always remember happened one day when Peter Duerkson wanted to see the plans, and good-natured Hans made a classic observation: “Wenn Peter auf die Zeichnung kukt, es ist genauso wie wenn der Ochs in die Bibel kukt.” (When Peter looks at the plans, it is like an ox looking at the Bible.) Peter was a little offended, but it was meant in good humor.
One morning, near the beginning of October, Meister Becker brought a newspaper with screaming headlines announcing that the Soviet Union had put Sputnik into orbit. The Germans seemed delighted with the opportunity to rib us about it. They all assumed that it was the Russians’ Germans who had done it, and it would be up to our Germans to catch up, and that turned out to be not far from the truth.
We celebrated Christmas at Krefeld. The church had a huge tree, with real white wax candles on it. An usher stood by at the Christmas Eve service, with a snuffer, to put out candles that burned down to the base. I expected to see the whole thing go up like a torch at any time! I enjoyed my first Christmas in Europe immensely. The carols are still etched in my memory, and still seem to me to be the real ones—the ones with the original words. I spent Christmas day with the Von Wall family, who had an interior decorating business, and lived in the only building on their block to survive the war.
We participated in the life of the church as much as we could, but there was no Sunday school, and church services only three times a month. We eventually met and learned to know some of the youth. Youth gatherings were a new thing in German churches, and someone, I don’t know who, was trying to establish a youth group in Krefeld. The kids had no concept of such groups, however, and meetings tended to be chaotic. We were as supportive as we knew how to be.
The building project was winding down by March, when the Pax Palestine Tour was scheduled to begin. The building was complete. About a week before we were scheduled to leave, I was assigned to assist Orville Schmidt in the Frankfurt office, making final arrangements for the tour. Thus, I missed out on the mechanics of closing the unit, and the dispersion of the inevitable paraphernalia we had accumulated.
Of course, lots of other things happened in Krefeld, which I have forgotten or neglected to report. There was the night the ceiling fell in our bedroom because the roof had been removed the morning before. There was Leron Peters, the only one able to get next to the older, chronically grumpy carpenter, who happened to speak the same Plattdietch that Leron had grown up speaking. There was Dwight Wiebe, blowing through like a white tornado, arriving at 10:30 P.M. and instigating an all-night Rook game.
What did I learn in Krefeld? Krefeld was the most German work setting of any of my assignments, and I learned many lessons. I learned how it felt to be hungry. That was a minor lesson. More important, I began to learn another one of the hard lessons about service—people have a hard time believing it comes from higher motivations.
I remember one of Meister Becker’s comments, after we all knew each other fairly well. It went something like this: “The way I see it, your transportation is paid, and your room and board is free. That’s worth a lot, right there! True, you only get 40 marks a month, but it is all spending money. You get to see the world. You don’t have to serve in the Army, so you have no chance of being killed. I guess, when you add it all up, it is a good deal for you after all.”
It was not the last time I would hear the same ideas expressed, but most people could not afford to be so frank. It’s true. We received much more than we gave.
Chapter 7 PALESTINE
Somehow or another, I managed to scrape together the sum of money needed to participate in the 1958 Pax Palestine Tour. One of the central realities about my Pax experience was the chronic lack of money, as I did not have a nest egg going in, and nobody at home sent me money. Nevertheless, I somehow managed to get the money together, and I went. It was the end of my first year.
I won’t attempt to give a chronology of our tour through Greece, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Italy—just a few highlights and impressions.
In Greece, the highlight of the tour was our visit to the Pax units in the vicinity of Edessa. My most lasting impression was the enormous difficulty of making a lasting dent in the situation of the average villager. The guys were tremendously enthusiastic and hard-working, but I had the impression that, were they to go away, they would have returned in a few years to find everything back as it had been. I was later to observe the same phenomenon in the Peace Corps. A second impression was that most of the people who benefited were largely self-starters and budding entrepreneurs to begin with. Again, I can only answer with a cliché: God doesn’t call us to success. He calls us to service.
Of all the sights we saw, the Pyramids of Giza impressed me most. I had heard many descriptions of their size, but it is basically indescribable. They are veritable mountains, but were built by people not much different from us. They are 4,500 years old, yet they have not been carried away bit by bit, in spite of the fact that they were not buried, but were exposed to potential quarrying for all that time. As a construction person, dragging and placing the blocks with a few men looked quite feasible. The outer stonework was actually rather crude, and not particularly astounding, but the sheer scale of the undertaking was awesome, which has apparently discouraged quarrying, over the eons.
We were soon jaded, and it became difficult for a set of ruins to impress us. I was, however, greatly impressed by the ruins of Baalbek in Lebanon. What impressed me was the sheer volume of intricate, repeating motifs on the stonework, which had to have been done with the most primitive of tools. I marveled at the precision and uniformity. The organization, planning, and communication necessary to produce such precision and uniformity are at least as impressive as the skill of the hands that executed the dazzling and enduring work.
The Holy Land itself was a mixed experience, for me. Many have testified that seeing the Holy Land bolstered their faith. It was, indeed, impressive to see where Jesus must have walked, and to drink from the well he drank from. It was also apparent to me that a lot of myth and tradition has been overlaid on whatever original material existed.
Take the walls of Jerico, for example. Almost everybody seemed to think, “Hey, this proves the Bible is true. It talks about Joshua and the walls of Jerico, and here they are.” I was thinking how the Bible says that when Joshua blew the trumpets, “all the walls of Jerico fell down flat.” Here they were, still standing! Am I the only one who notices details like that?
One lasting memory of the Holy Land was that it is, aside from its connection to the events that transpired there, a very ordinary place. The Jordan River, for example, did not seem to me to deserve the appellation “river”. It reminded me of the Old Man’s Creek, which ran through my Grandfather’s farm. One interesting thing about it, though, is that it flows in a valley of its own, substantially below the wider rift valley. Jordan River valley floor is flat, and perhaps 20 miles wide, near Jerico, with the river iself occupying a narrow badlands valley, substantially lower. As a bridge engineer, the Jordan would present no more challenge than an average county road bridge.
In short, the tour was extremely interesting, but did not particularly effective in inspiring a child-like faith in the inerrancy of scripture.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the tour was the chance to meet almost the entire current contingent of Pax volunteers. We spent hours together on busses and trains, and there was ample time to socialize.
It was a mind-expanding experience to see the political situation in the Middle East, and the way lives of ordinary people are affected by the machinations of nations a hemisphere away. It was also interesting to observe, in spite of myself, a feeling of kinship with the people of Israel, after crossing the border following several days in Arab surroundings. The Israelis are European, i.e like us. The Arabs are strange and exotic. In spite of an intellectual bias toward the plight of the Arabs, it was hard for me, as a westerner, to have a sense that I could really empathize, and understand how they felt about things.
Other highlights of the trip: an unscheduled and unauthorized midnight swim in the Mediterranean off Tel Aviv. Seeing Dana Crow galloping across the desert on a camel at the Pyramids, with the camel jockey in hot pursuit. Swimming in the Dead Sea, sticking out of the water from armpits up. Being the first visitors on the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, when the bells were rung.
All these were marvelous experiences, which can’t be repeated or adequately described, and which nobody can take away from us!
Chapter 8 BRUSSELS
At some time after the first of 1958, Ray Kauffman arrived, and replaced Dwight Wiebe as Pax Director. Ray’s style was completely different. Whereas Dwight had been a “character”—one of those unforgettable people that cannot be ignored, Ray was more “laid back”. He also spoke no German. This is not to say that Ray didn’t do a good job; he did. I can’t help but wonder, however, what kind of administration appointed a regional director, with no provision for language training?
It must have been Ray who assigned me to Brussels, and I believe I went on the Palestine Tour with the knowledge that Brussels would be my next assignment.
Paul Stucky, Walter Schmucker, Will VanPelt, and I were to go to Brussels for a month or so, to refurbish a hostel for some Protestant organization. The 1958 World Fair was coming up, and the organization was setting up a hostel where young people could stay, cheap, while they visited the fair. There are hardly any Protestants in Belgium. The country is solidly Catholic, with a rather large percentage of the population professing no religion.
Someone got the job of hauling us to Brussels, along with David Burkholder, who was going to be a permanent maintenance worker at the children’s home at Ohain, just outside Brussels. Driving to Brussels could be an adventure, in those days. Belgium has two ethnic groups, French and Waloon, with two different languages, French and Flemish. Road signs alternated, from one language to the other, but never used both simultaneously. Road signs, as in Germany, merely told you the road to the next town. The trouble was, the names of the towns are different in French and Flemish—sometimes unrecognizable. There was no freeway, or even an easily recognized main road. Consequently, we had to pick our way from town to town at night, with each town having two different names.
We arrived in Brussels after midnight. As soon as it was plain that we were in the city, we stopped at the only place still open—a bar. As designated Unit Leader, I was elected to go in and call David Shenk, who was supposed to be making arrangements for us. Despite the late hour, the bar was “in voller Betrieb” (in high gear), but I found a lady who spoke some English to help me make a call. David Shenk asked me to put her on again, as I had no idea where we were. Learning that we were near the center of the city, David suggested we stay in a hotel, and he would pick us up in the morning. We headed for the hotel he suggested, and pulled up at the curb after 1:00 pm.
The next incident is the stuff of war stories. No sooner were we parked, than a couple of girls, who looked like sweet, innocent teenagers, descended on us, and tried to get us to take them to a bar. Their English was almost accent-free, and they looked like American high-school girls—almost wholesome. One of them bent down and looked into the Mini-bus, and when she realized there were six of us, she whistled at another group further down the street. The second contingent was a little tougher-looking. It was a first for us—being accosted by prostitutes on a public street in a stogy, somewhat conservative European city. If I remember right, it was David Burkholder who finally got nasty and told them to get lost.
The next morning, David Shenk, who was a missionary in charge of a mission church and the home at Ohain, took us to the Foyer des Jeunes, where we were to work. We were left with a young man who was coordinating the refurbishment, and who worked with us for a few weeks. He spoke English, and was quite personable. If I remember rightly, we went straight to work.
The building was similar to those in many European cities. At the street, it was the width of a doorway and one window, but it widened out at the back. A couple lived in an apartment on the second floor, and the wife was to be our cook. They were Evangelicals, as were most of the people we dealt with. (Protestant is too weak a term.) All Evangelicals in Belgium seemed to be bound together with an invisible bond—kind of a beleagered attitude. We found this couple to be very warm and personable, despite a total lack of common language. All of us were accustomed to communicating without common languages by that time.
We slept in bunk beds in a big, common room, which had a library with books in every European language, but not a single one that interested me. This was to be Paul Stucky’s last assignment, and Pancho Schmucker was on an extension of his original term. It was to be a pleasant interlude. The task seemed nicely defined, and we could easily see the end of it. We were all quite compatible, and quickly settled into a comfortable routine.
This project introduced me, and probably Will Vanpelt, to European painting, which involves hours and hours of washing off the old paint, filling holes, and patching plaster. Paint often consisted of little envelopes of powder, like Kool-Aid, that were put in vats of water. When painted on the wall, it looked like the wall had been painted with water. Hours later, you would discover that it had turned white after all! Putting paint on was a pleasure, compared to the hours and hours of preparation.
The building in Brussels was very run-down, as were most of the ones I subsequently worked on. On this type of project, the question constantly arises: How far should we go? How much should you tear out? How much should you leave? How shabby can it be, and still be acceptable? Perfection is out of the question.
The YMCA, with a very nice swimming pool, was right across the street, next to a Velocidrome. We went swimming a lot, but were unable to make any significant social contact with Belgians. I spent evenings reading much of the material I had picked up on the Palestine tour, and this material moved me even further away from the way of thinking I had grown up with.
I have always read a lot. In Spain, lack of English reading material had contributed to a sense of abandonment, which had probably been a factor in the depression that I experienced. The only reading material available to me, in Spain, was Time magazine, and the Bible. Consequently, I had read the Bible—cover to cover, as fast as I could in the free time available. It is an eye-opener, to read the Bible like that! For one thing, it becomes quite clear that it is an edited collection—and not too competently edited, in some cases. Also, it seems to have a lot of what looks suspiciously like filler material. There are also long stretches, particularly in the Minor Prophets, that are incoherent. Stories and themes are started, drone on and on, and are never finished. It is much different from listening to selected passages from pulpits, as most of us grew up doing.
The material I had acquired presented a picture of the Dead Sea Scroll material as fragments of writing, some of which were versions of familiar biblical passages, but with differences, major and minor. I had an above-average Bible education, which had been concerned exclusively with what the Bible said, or, at least, what people said it said. It had never occurred to me to look into the origin of the Bible itself. It was in the top bunk of Foyer des Jeunes in Brussels, Belguim, that I began to realize the nature of the Bible, which has been translated, retranslated, edited, interpreted, and misinterpreted by countless generations. I began to see that a large part of its value and importance derives from its influence on the lives of people, who were inspired by what it said, or what they thought it said. This (perish the thought) is tantamount to admitting that tradition has an important part in shaping our perception of truth.
My impression of Belgium is that it is a country of red bricks and green grass. On the road to Brussels, houses, sidewalks, roofs, barns—all are a uniform red brick. On Saturday afternoon, housewives were on their knees in front of their houses, scrubbing the brick sidewalks with brushes, like the woman on the Dutch Cleanser can. The rest of the country is a uniform green, apparently all the year around.
Brussels had only a few sights, which could be easily seen in an afternoon. Most famous among them is the statue of the Pissing Boy. Then there is the baroque Town Hall, a few blocks away. Window shopping revealed everything to be more expensive than comparable items in Germany. We spent weekends in Ohain, which is only a few kilometers from the site of the Battle of Waterloo, with its monument and visitors center.
Once again, I had a great opportunity to learn a bit of a popular language, and failed to capitalize on it. This time, I had no dysentery or subconscious resentments to blame. I simply didn’t learn how the language is put together, and made no significant attempt. (In 1963, in graduate school, I attended a French class twice a week for 9 weeks, then passed a proficiency exam.) To this day, I wonder why I didn’t learn at least a little French in Brussels.
We essentially finished our assignment in a few weeks, and were summoned back to Germany. We spent a few days at Ohain, doing maintenance projects in the children’s home, and enjoying the company of David Shenk’s children.
I have nothing but pleasant memories of the interlude in Brussels in April, 1958. What did I learn? I learned that there are two jobs that compete for the title: Jobs that make time pass slower than any others in the world. The first is digging anything by hand, particularly buried rubble ( Krefeld). The second is preparing run-down buildings for painting. ( Brussels, Vienna)
With Brussels on our resumes, we returned to Germany, via a weekend youth conference in Düsseldorf, Germany. I returned to Enkenbach, and I believe Will VanPelt went to Vienna.
Chapter 9 HAMBURG/WEDEL
Returning to Enkenbach was like returning to the womb! By now, I was a seasoned Paxer, with a fine repertoire of war stories. I could converse easily and comfortably in German. I understood what was going on around me. I could function quite easily with hardly any money. I had no hesitation in hitchhiking wherever I wished to go, whether I had been there before or not. I rode on streetcars and subways in strange towns with no worry of getting lost. I was constantly scouting for new adventures.
After a few weeks of rolling in lack of responsibility, Ray Kauffman asked me to accompany him to Wedel, which is close to Hamburg, to check out the possibility for doing a short-term special assignment there. Wedel was one of the Pax-built Siedlungen, and had recently built a church, which needed some finishing touches.
It was a nice trip. North Germany had a much different air about it. Hamburg/Altona is one of the oldest congregations in Germany, but the Altona section of Hamburg was one of the worst-hit sections in the fire-bombing of WWII. We stayed overnight with the David Schroeder family, who lived in the church in Hamburg, and went to Wedel the next day. We confirmed that we indeed would: 1) have places to stay. 2) have meals prepared. 3) have meaningful work, with materials and technical supervision provided. After my experiences up to that point, I appreciated the value of such confirmation.
Returning to Enkenbach, I collected two brand new men, and we were transported to Wedel. The new guys were Gordon Eitzen, and Jim Good. We each had a room with a Siedlung family. A widow lady was engaged to cook our meals, in a barrack building, which had once served as unit headquarters. We were often invited for meals with families, which increased our contacts even more. We were even invited to watch television, which was rather new at the time. The Siedlung was full of kids, which was refreshing. It was May or June, and the weather was gorgeous. There were girls, and they were friendly.
Our initial assignment was to paint the church building. A painting contractor was to provide the materials, tools, and instruction. The paint for the walls was very strange—like toothpaste. It was glommed on with a brush, then rolled out with a roller. (In the fifties, rolling paint had not become standard, as yet.) Jim and Gordon soon got the hang of it. I concentrated on painting the woodwork with enamel, which was also very strange stuff. I could never keep it from sagging, or get rid of the brushmarks. I think it was designed to be put on horizontal surfaces. Nevertheless, we were lavishly complemented on the work we did.
Somehow, the Siedlung houses had gotten built without bathing facilities. Jim and Gordon were very impressed when I took them to Hamburg on the S-Bahn to take a bath. Later, we found a public bath house within walking distance.
On the project, we were always on the verge of running out of paint, or some other vital commodity. Off the job, the arrangements with the cook were a constant source of frustration. She didn’t know how to cook MCC beef, or chicken, or vegetables. The only thing she knew how to do was put it in a pot, and heat it up. From the Krefeld experience, I knew that typical German food was very dull, and nothing we learned in Wedel contradicted that assumption.
Gordon Eitzen knew a fair amount of Low German, which some people in the Siedlung spoke. The German spoken in Hamburg is very clipped, and I often felt like an Okie in New England, with my “Ish weish nisht” from the Pfalz.
Soon after we arrived, the leadership of the community started drumming up support for a weekend road-building project. They spread the word that, on a Saturday morning, everybody was going to come out to the road leading into the settlement, and they were going to turn it into a decent road. It was full of mudholes, and hardly passable. The reaction to the announcement was negative. Some people said they were going to strike. Their general feeling was that the City, or County, or whatever should build the road—it was demeaning for them. Other people were aghast, that there should be such a lack of community spirit. “They dare not strike!” they said.
On the appointed Saturday, trucks from the “Landkreis” dumped several loads of bomb rubble beside the road. An Unimog scraped out a deep cut, about one lane wide. Tentatively, shamefacedly, people started coming, and soon were filling the cut with bricks and rubble, bricks and bigger chunks first, then finer material in between. Soon, virtually the whole Siedlung was there, and it turned into a big party. Amazingly, to them, the road was getting built, with nothing fancier than tin buckets and garden tools. Nobody was complaining or bickering. By mid-afternoon, almost two blocks of street was built, with a good base and a passable surface. People were absolutely astonished at what they had been able to do.
During the next few weeks, we worked on the street, off and on, while waiting for materials and instruction for our painting job. With only the three of us, it was painfully slow and unrewarding. Meanwhile, the people of the Siedlung were scouting for other community projects. They had a new vision of their own strength, and were eager to use it. For us, this awakening was a wonderful thing to see. We had grown up taking it for granted, and it was rewarding to see it take root in a new setting, and to have been a part of the transformation.
We saw many interesting sights in Hamburg. Hamburg is a seaport, with ships sailing up the Elbe river to load and unload at the docks. One could sense the different flavor that a port city has, as contrasted with an agricultural center.
Little by little, however, we were running out of work. One evening, Glenn Good showed up with a Volkswagen bus, with orders to take us back to Frankfurt. The mysterious bureacracy of Pax had decided we were finished. We said farewell to good friends, whom we had known all too briefly. Pax was big on goodbyes!
What did we learn in Wedel? I learned a bit about doing the legwork necessary to keep a crew supplied with the means to keep working. I learned what it feels like to be expected to keep others busy, when there is too little for you, yourself, to do. Best of all, I observed the amazing amount of work that can be accomplished by a crowd of people, when each one does a little bit.
Chapter 10 VIENNA
After Wedel, I returned to Enkenbach to await a new assignment. Enkenbach was under new management. Lowell Goering was the Unit Leader, and Sam Dietzel was Project Foreman. Houses were still being built, and my skills were appreciated. Meister Rosenbaum had retired, for health reasons, and a new Meister was in charge. He and I got along splendidly, and I felt very much at home. It was obvious, however, that I was in a holding pattern, and would soon be off to a new assignment.
My position was not unlike that of an experienced pastor, trying to be a mere member of a church, which has a new minister—one fresh from seminary. At some point, I was asked to go to Vienna, on another special project at the Methodist Church, the Methodistenkirche.
The Methodist Church in Vienna had gotten involved with MCC during the refugee crisis that had swept over Europe after the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. PAX had responded to the crisis by assigning several men to various camps and homes. The Vienna Methodist Church (Second Congregation) had turned its newly constructed sanctuary into a refugee housing facility. Pancho Schmucker and David Hershberger had served there, doing whatever needed to be done, when things were in an absolute turmoil. Later, the church had obtained funding for construction of a three-story building, and the sanctuary was returned to its intended function. Pastor Horst Marquart, a German, had been a key figure in the story, having arrived just before the refugees.
Pastor Marquart was extremely impressed by the ability of the Pax program to get things done, and his mouth watered at the prospect of a unit of his own. He had been permitted to participate in the 1958 Palestine Tour, and I knew him from the tour, as being a hard-driving, rather stereotypical German. A plan was concocted to send Gingerich and some of the new men from a large group scheduled to arrive in July. One of these was to replace David Hershberger, who had stayed after the refugee rush was over.
David Hershberger was from a Conservative Mennonite background, and had done some unique and uncharacteristic things at the Methodistenkirche. Noticing 9 and 10 year-old boys playing on the streets, he found out they had no place to go—their parents wanted them out of the house, and when school was out, there was simply nothing organized for them to do. David had started a sports program and a kind of Boy Scout-like program called the Jungshar, which took immediate root, and which Pastor Marquart was anxious to continue.
I am not sure anyone had a clear idea what we would be doing, when Otis Hostetler, Dan Burt, Marlin Shrag, and I piled into the inevitable VW bus for the trip to Vienna. Otis, Dan, and Marlin were new to Europe. Marlin was to take up the work left by David Hershberger.
We made it to Vienna in one day, and stayed overnight in the Karlsshule. Karlsshule was a joint project by Pax and the Church of the Brethren. It involved the renovation of a Protestant (Lutheran) school in the heart of Vienna. It was a huge building, at least four stories high, and covering a whole block. It had been taken over by the Nazis, and had been burned and damaged by an explosion late in the war. The renovation project had been going on for years, with many succeeding groups spending two years, without seeing very much progress. Living quarters were on the first floor.
The next day we were taken to the Methodistenkirche by Pastor Marquart. The church was on a rather major street, a few blocks from Schönbrunn Palace. It was barely noticeable from the street, with only a small sign above a heavy wooden door, next to a shoe store, in a solid line of building fronts. In Vienna, as in most European cities, most of the activity is behind the facades, out of sight. The door connected to a passageway that ran back to a courtyard. On the right side of the passageway was the entrance to the church sanctuary. On the far side of the courtyard was the new building, at the time used as a boarding house for Hungarian refugees, mostly girls. There were other lean-to type buildings on the right wall of the courtyard, and another on the back wall of the property, on a second courtyard behind the new building.
We were shown sleeping quarters in a room that opened onto a small assembly area for the church. We would be eating with the refugees in the home. Our first job would be to tear down one of the lean-to buildings in the main courtyard, then install an underground oil tank to feed the heating system of the home. Herr Prachner, a member of the building committee, was going to be our supervisor. I believe we started to work immediately.
Language immediately became an issue. Herr Prachner spoke only Viennese dialect, which I could barely decipher. Otis had grown up with Pennsylvania Dutch, but was rather shy. Dan was from a large family of very closed German Baptists, and was very shy. Marlin was a very structured person, who preferred not to speak unless he could do so perfectly.
The directress of the home was Tante Hilda Bargmann, a single lady who spoke very good English, no Hungarian, and untarnished German. Mealtimes became very interesting, with Hungarians on one side of the long table, Americans on the other, and Tante Hilda at the head. For both Hungarians and Americans, any deficiency in German was a distinct handicap, and thus we were all interested in learning that language, to the exclusion of others. Every meal started with one of the Hungarian girls being designated to say grace—either “Kommherrjesuseiunsergast Undsegnewasduunsbersherethast” or “Vatersegnediesespeise Unszurkraftunddirzumpreise”. After the meal, someone else would have to say “Wirdankendirherrdenndubistfreundlich. Unddeinegütewerdetewiglich.”
Plunging into work gave us time to get to know Austria at our leisure. Austria was much different from Germany, with whom it shared a language, and little else. It was so much more relaxed. It was a socialist country, with one mediocre state-sponsored brand of every major item, like cars, trucks, and motorcycles. Most people were hard-pressed to make ends meet. One result of this situation was evolution of institutions that supported a reasonably comfortable lifestyle with little cash outlay. Austria was not a bad place to be, when your allowance was $10 a month.
Austria had lots of other intriguing aspects. One could still sense the spirit of the great composers, and of the noble experiment that had tried to blend Germans, Czechs, Hungarians, and Polish peoples into one grand empire.
Working with Herr Prachner, we began tearing down the building in the courtyard, storing salvaged materials at various places around the complex. I struggled to understand the dialect, and was amused at Mr. Prachner’s approach to work, which seemed to involve maneuvering ourselves into a position where we could do no more work, due to lack of some vital resource. When this happened, he would triumphantly exclaim: “Do kenne ma neex meh machen!” (We can’t do anything more.)
One problem that cropped up immediately was the difficulty of disposing of rubble in a city. The smallest demolition job generates a mountain of rubble, and in a city, this all has to be hauled away. The way it was done on our project was to call Pokorny, who was a giant peasant with an ancient truck. The rubble was hauled out to the curb, in anticipation of the arrival of Pokorny, and loaded, by hand, onto his truck. The trouble was, Pokorny was notoriously unreliable. Sometimes he wouldn’t arrive for days. Meanwhile, we would be drowning in our own rubble. His truck was typical European—big and clumsy, with hardly any power, and he was always worried about overloading it. When he didn’t show up, the shoe store owner and the police would complain to Pastor Marquart, who was as frustrated as we were.
The second week, a group of young men from England helped us—and I had another opportunity to rub shoulders with Englishmen. Sometime in the first month, Jim Juhnke spent a couple of weeks with us. Jim was being groomed for an administrative job at Pax headquarters, and was gaining some perspective by working with various groups.
We plunged headlong into the life of the church, too. Several of the guys at Karlsshule participated in the Methodist church as well. There was a fairly large, active youth group, a choir, and all the activities surrounding the refugee home. Later that summer, a large youth group from a Methodist church in Switzerland spent a week or two. I was exposed to another incomprehensible dialect.
The Swiss group spent most of the time at a vacation home the church owned in Ansbach, a few kilometers outside the city, but we went with them on a trip to the Hungarian border. We took a train back to Vienna, which took us across the corner of Hungary.
Of course, since we ate three meals, and took two formal breaks a day, (Jause in Austria) we had a lot of contact with the girls in the home. Some were a pretty coarse variety, but others were just kids like those we had known at home. Two of them, Bobby and Elizabeth Bajkan, sisters, integrated almost totally with the life and program of the church. With them, and some of the other young people of the church, we soon had an informal gang, that ran around, sang in the choir, and did all kinds of things together. The Bajkans were Baptists, which set them apart from the rest, who were Catholic, like most Hungarians.
Austria was an almost totally Catholic country, with most of the few Protestants being Evangelisch, or Lutheran. The Methodists were a minority of a minority. The Methodist church in Vienna also had very strong Czech roots. The First Congregation had been totally Czech, and had apparently been torn by the same sort of ethnic and language problems that many Mennonite churches once experienced. The older members insisted services should be in Czech, (since God spoke Czech) while the young people didn’t understand it well, and wanted services in German. I don’t know the origin of the Second Congregation, where we were, but it had heavy support from the U.S. church, and the refugee program was largely underwritten by the World Council of Churches.
A personality incompatibility between Pastor Marquart and Marlin Schrag developed almost immediately after we arrived. Marlin was a meticulous, scholarly person, while Pastor Marquart was a person who liked to plunge into things, and ask questions later. Unfortunately, Marlin had an accident with the church VW bus soon after our arrival, which didn’t help endear him to the Pastor. By the time Pastor M. discussed it with me, he had decided that Otis would be Marlin’s successor, which robbed me of a very good project man. Marlin transferred to Basel, and had a distinguished service career as a printer, a job for which he was admirably suited. Otis was a natural for the work with the boys, who were extremely rowdy and hard to control.
Dan and I carried on alone. The job of shoehorning the huge oil tank through the passageway and down into the hole we had dug was formidable. After the tank was in place, we had to finish the cradles, fill the hole, and construct a manhole at the end of the tank. By the time we had finished, it was late fall. There were many other jobs to do. The courtyard had to be cleared of rubble, (which had to be hauled away by Pokorny) so that soil could be brought in, and grass started. It looked impossible. The lean-to in the rear was incredibly run-down. We replaced the tile roof, fixed the plaster and windows, and tried to make it suitable for use as a recreation room.
A young Australian named Bill joined us, lived with us, and added a new dimension to our lives. He was an ordained Methodist minister, and lived on a large sheep station in the outback, where the wild camels broke down the fences they had built to keep out the rabbits. Two successive young ladies from the U.S. came for a while, to help Tante Hilda with the running of the home. After the first month or two, we moved into an apartment owned by the church, which was directly over the shoe store on the street side.
After Marlin had the accident with the church vehicle, I had been drafted to run errands to various parts of the city. I also used the vehicle to haul building materials, once loading 20 sacks of cement on the floor, and nearly breaking it down. My navigator was a delightful 82 year old spinster named Tante Hedy, who had lived all her life in Vienna, and who helped in the home. We had great times. She navigated by following no-longer-existing streetcar lines. “Do fuhr amoi die Fufzeh. (That’s where line fifteen used to run.) She prided herself on speaking regulation German, but I used to call her on it with regularity, and she would reluctantly admit to using a little bit of vernacular. “Aber Daham ham mer immer rein Schriftdeitch g’sprok.” (At home, we always spoke pure High German.) she always insisted.
We always had a lot of contact with the guys at Karlsshule. We stopped in at least once a week, as it was only about half an hour’s brisk walk away. In addition to the little bit of home afforded by the unit there, it was a place to borrow books, and meet other Americans.
Vienna, or Wien, as it is in German, had wonderful architecture, fantastic music, the world’s best German opera, and all the amenities very large cities can offer. I learned, very quickly, that big city life has an awful lot of advantages, and can be very comfortable. Vienna was particularly good for poor people. Some of the world’s premiere theatres and opera houses were there, and you could get a ticket in “Stehplatz” (standing) for less than a dollar. The view from Stehplatz was as good as any in the house.
For the third time, I was afforded an opportunity to learn a third language, and passed it up. This time, it was a very difficult language, but difficulty is a relative term. Hungarian is unique, in that it is not related to any other European language, except for a remote connection to Finnish. It was claimed, and is probably true, that one should not attempt Magjar unless one knows it well. The reason would have to be the excessive amount of profanity in the language. Slight mispronunciation of common words and phrases converts them to bad words. We had some experiences that tended to confirm this assertion. I find it hard to believe, however, that Hungarians are fundamentally different from other peoples, or that their language is truly more replete with profanity.
Our relations with the girls were friendly, but we studiously avoided anything resembling dating, which would have led to endless trouble. Gossip was one of the main pastimes of the girls, however, and there was endless speculation as to who was in love with whom.
Hungarian, like English, apparently has a word for “like”, which is distinct from the word “love”. German does not. This deficiency, made it difficult for the girls to explain how person X liked person Y, but was not in love. I greatly increased my German vocabulary, learning the terminology for “jealous”, “arrogant”, etc. The topic of most conversations with the girls was people, and speculation about what they thought and felt—not about issues. Casual dating was customary in Austria, in contrast to Germany, where the rules were very different. The Hungarians were also accustomed to casual dating, which did not necessarily imply serious intentions, as it did in Germany.
It was in Vienna that I hacked my way through my first German book, thus opening another window into the world, which has never closed for me.
Another thing I learned in Vienna was a more realistic view of refugees. We had been conditioned to idealize refugees as mythical beings who refused to bow to oppression. They were depicted as noble martyrs, who were willing to risk harrowing dangers to be free. When we rubbed shoulders with them, however, we found them to be about the same as people we had known all our lives.
Winter arrived, and sometime before Christmas, Dan was transferred to Greece. Dan had been a tireless worker, who was only unhappy when he couldn’t have the hardest part of the work. His family was a constant source of wonder for the Hungarians, and Austrians too, as he came from a family of 16 children.
Christmas in Austria was very nice. Soon after Christmas, Bobbi and Elizabeth left for the U.S., further breaking up the old gang, and soon after that, I transferred to Karlsschule, an interim assignment, while arrangements were being made for me to start a new unit in Weierhof, back in the Pfaltz.
Sometime in January, I was asked if I wanted to extend my term for a year, and go to Morocco, with an international Pax-like effort called EIRENE. It was the first time in my Pax experience that I turned anything down. From my experience in Spain, I had a very good idea of what it would be like, and I doubted I would enjoy it. Besides—Hans de Jonge was in charge of the unit. My very good friend, Don Oesch, took the assignment, and it turned out exactly as I had anticipated.
I also got to take a trip with director Ray Kauffman, to scout out a potential site for a Pax Spring Conference at Eisenerz, in the Alps. We also visited the Coulson family at Salzburg, who were dedicated to the task of adopting mixed-race children of American servicemen and Austrian mothers. This visit laid the groundwork for workcamps, and eventually a Pax unit in Salzburg.
Eventually, all good things come to an end. Vienna superceded Enkenbach as the European venue closest to my heart, but there was a new challenge before me in Germany, not far from Enkenbach. Of all the places I worked in Europe, Vienna is the only place I believe I could comfortably live, without feeling like an impostor.
My wife and I traveled to Europe in 1993, rented a car, and visited Krefeld, Weierhof, Enkenbach, and Vienna. Austria has become expensive. The sanctuary of the Methodist church has been remodeled. The refugee home has been converted to apartments. All of the work we did has disappeared, except that the oil tank is still in the ground, unused. The only thing that remains of Pax work is the pastor of the church. I have forgotten his name, but he was one of the Jungshar boys when we were there. What a fitting end to the story!
Chapter 11 REFUGEES
Much of the work of Pax Europe involved work with refugees. So much of what I learned in Europe concerned refugees, that I have decided to devote a special chapter to the subject. In the 40-plus years since, I have had time to consolidate my thoughts and opinions, and this is a summary of my conclusions.
The term refugee is a blanket term, covering many people in many different situations. The word, in English implies “one who seeks refuge”, whereas the common word in German, Flüchtling, implies “one who flees”. The term has been embued with a lot of mythical significance, much of which served the propaganda purposes of the cold war. Refugees have often been pawns in larger games of international politics. Their needs have been real, and their individual motivations have often been obscured by the collective motives of the groups to they belonged, and the motives of those who exploited their situations for one purpose or another.
It is well to remember that they were, and are, people, and thus have characteristics that are very familiar to all of us. They come in all shapes, sizes, and ages. They reacted, and react, in ways that make sense to them, and would make sense to us, were we in their situation. Their behavior, if seemingly irrational, should not be dismissed by the simple assumption that they are crazy.
The refugees we lived and dealt with in Enkenbach, Wedel, and Bechterdissen were former refugees. They were ordinary people, who had been living in areas overrun by the vengeful Russian armies, and had fled, as they thought, for their lives. The areas in which they had lived had been occupied by indigenous Polish populations, who had been treated as sub-humans by the Hitler regime. The Poles probably felt their occupation of property, formerly belonging to others, to be fully justified. On the other hand, the refugees themselves felt that the sufferings they had undergone far exceeded any collective guilt borne for the excesses of their countrymen.
It must also be remembered that we knew only the survivors. Those who perished in the awful events, for which every participating group and nation bears a measure of guilt, have no one to speak for them.
The Hungarians, and the occupants of the various refugee homes in Berlin, served by Pax workers, were in a somewhat different category. Among them were a few who had legitimate political reasons to fear for their lives. The majority, however, were people who had chosen to seize an opportunity to better their lives by making a new start. The cold-war atmosphere of the 50’s created many such opportunities. In a sense, these refugees were similar to the pioneers that settled the American west, setting out into the unknown, with the conviction that the unknown privations were preferable to the known situation in which they found themselves.
The propaganda of the time painted a different picture. The refugees were represented by the Voice of America, and Radio Free Europe as noble, freedom loving people, who were primarily motivated by political longings for unspecified “freedom”. Realistically, however, most real people we knew, both at home and in Europe, were primarily motivated by economics. Most of the citizens of “free” western Europe, with whom we had daily contact, were struggling economically, and living at a significantly lower standard than we had experienced at home. In the so-called “Iron Curtain” countries, life was reportedly much harder still, and people in general were poorer than in, say, Austria, which seemed pretty poor to us.
There is also no question, but that people in the Soviet Bloc countries were subjected to a constant barrage of official political propaganda. Instead of billboards urging them to buy products, there were political slogans in huge block letters, everywhere you looked. The natural skepticism of people, alone, would cast doubt on the veracity of the slogans, and question the motives of those who spent public money posting them.
There are also a certain number of people in every society, who constantly complain about conditions, while contributing very little to improving them. There is always the tendency, in the best of us, to adopt the same strategy from time to time. Most of us put things off, fail to help out when given the chance, and fail to exploit opportunities. In short, real people often make a mess of their lives, some more than others. How surprising is it, that large numbers of somewhat dispossessed people capitalize on a window of opportunity to start a new life?
It is highly unlikely that many of the Hungarians or East Germans made their decision to flee in a vacuum. Human society very quickly institutionalizes everything. Refugees would have had an ample base of rumor to tell them where to start, where to go next, how to get this, and how to get that. There would have been anxious moments, but very few were breaking new ground. Most of them had relatives or friends in western Europe, Canada, or the U.S. who were urging them to come.
In the case of Berlin, there were opportunities afforded by the propaganda war raging during the cold war. Refugees arriving in the West were given initial benefits, as a result of their status as refugees. The more creative of these could enhance the benefits by relating tales of woe. When the welcome wore thin, they could go back, and get similar treatment from the East. Husbands could send their wives and children to the west, then feel free to start a new life on their own. People could skip out on debts, bad marriages, boring jobs, pregnant girlfriends, etc. Such carryings on have never been intimated by the propaganda of either side.
The refugees I got to know best, were the Hungarian girls. They were, undoubtedly, a special case. They were young. I cannot honestly say that any of them ever told me they had participated in actual fighting, although one claimed to have put plates, face down, on the streets, which the Russian tanks took to be mines. For them, I think, leaving for the west was not too different from our own experiences, leaving home for college, except that they could not go back home at semester break.
We were young. We went, with impunity, to places we had never been, with only a vague idea about what we would do when we got there. We had the optimism of youth, and boundless energy.
The common ingredient was need. Regardless of their motives, or their worthiness as individuals, refugees were always in need of help. We were in Pax, and Pax was an agency set up to help people in need, deliberately avoiding tough questions about their worthiness to receive help.
As previously discussed, Europeans were not universally convinced that all Pax service was rendered out of genuine Christian love. Many Paxmen were, similarly, not convinced that all refugees were genuine. In time, however, most refugees proved to be solid and productive citizens of the countries that granted them asylum, just as for most Paxmen, Pax was not the end, but rather the beginning, of a life of service.
Chapter 12 WEIERHOF
Weierhof was, in many ways, a rediscovery of roots. It was the quintessential Palatinate German farm village—a place time had forgotten. Many Mennonite families, including my own, can trace their ancestry to Weierhof. Pennsylvania Dutch, the dialect still spoken by many Amish and conservative Mennonites, as well as a significant number of “English” in Pennsylvania, is descended from the Pfälzer dialect spoken in Weierhof.
The Mennonite Churches in the Pfalz (Palatinate) had contributed very significantly to the resettlement of the Prussian refugees, particularly through the activities of some of its gifted leaders and influential members. These were the people who created the legal and financial basis for the construction of the Siedlungen, which gave Paxmen the opportunity to serve. It is not surprising, then, that the MCC and Pax administration welcomed the chance to do something for the Pfälzer Mennoniten when the opportunity arose.
A school had been founded across the creek from the Weierhof in 1867, and had grown into a campus by 1936, when it was taken over by the Nazi regime as a “National-Socialist Training Center”. Consequently, at the end of WWII in 1945, it was viewed by occupying French and American powers as an ex-Nazi institution, and was used as a minor military installation until the spring of 1959. In late 1958, it was officially turned back to the Mennonites. With the Americans gone, the rush was on to turn the facility back into a school as quickly as possible. The plan was to open as a boarding school in late spring, and gradually renovate it into a full 9 classes. The timeframe and magnitude of the undertaking meant, frankly, that Pax help would be somewhat symbolic and peripheral to the main renovation task.
This was my last Pax assignment. I went to Weierhof in February, 1959, with Calvin Hershberger and Norman Fry, who had been at Enkenbach. More men were promised. We set up a sleeping quarters in one of the comfortable dwelling houses on the campus, above the cinder track, and with a nice view of the Donnersberg out the west window. It had been arranged for us to take all our meals with farm families on the Weierhof, which was across the road and creek from the campus. We each alternated between a pair of families, for a week at a time. This was one of the most fortuitous arrangements in all my Pax experience, as I got to know the Kägy and Galle families very well, men and women, children and old people.
A Hof means both a cluster of farmsteads in a central location, each of which is also called a Hof. Traditional Hofs had the houses and barns under one roof, and were usually laid out to enclose a cobblestone-paved yard (also called a Hof), with a manure pit in the center. The manure pits were still actively used, when we were there. Buildings were Fachwerk .(I think “Half-timbered” is the English term.) Hof is also synonymous with the English “yard”, so each farm family talked about their Hof, as distinguished from their land, which tended to be scattered around the surrounding countryside, as a result of an archaic system of government regulated inheritance.
In the Weierhof itself, the Mennonite Church sat on a hill, overlooking the village (with its individual Hofs) with flights of steps leading up to it. Several neighboring Hofs came to church there too—Bolanderhof and Heyerhof, and others.
The Germans in charge of the project were Richard Herzler, administrator of the school, and Christian Galle, a gentleman farmer from the Weierhof. Both were influential and members of the cadre of most outstanding people with whom I have had the privilege of working. They were especially conscious of the need to supply us with meaningful work, which could be identified in the future as a Pax contribution.
Aside from painting everything on the campus army green, the U.S. Army had left everything fairly intact. One of the priorities was to get a working kitchen established, and the dining hall renovated. The floor in the dining hall had been changed to a maroon concrete overlay, and the beautiful natural wood wainscot was covered with layers of green paint. Our first job was to take up the parquet floor of a classroom in the science building, and clean the pieces for installation in the dining hall, which was in the administration building down the hill. This was a tolerable winter task. Later on, we started stripping and sanding the wainscot in the dining hall itself, and we also did some demolition jobs for the many contractors that were swarming over the site.
The Weierhofers made us feel very much at home. Weierhof was another of those places where High German is not used in daily life, so it was a bit of a struggle for me at first. Farmers and craftsmen spoke nothing but the dialect, known as Pälsisch. Christian Galle, and his son Klaus, who was taking over the farm, had the ability to speak German like radio announcers, when they felt it was appropriate, as did Helmut Haury, the Pastor. All the rest of the time, however, it was Pälsisch. I soon learned to understand it, and even enjoyed the light-hearted informality of it. Later, when some workmen came from Hannover to install some special equipment, their everyday use of High German sounded like some kind of parody, after hearing only dialect from anyone of less rank than college professor. On the other hand, the men who delivered furniture came from Ulm, which had a completely different dialect, and we had to communicate by sign language!
We picked up a couple of extra men in March or April, who had experienced problems on other assignments. One of these had a condition which caused him to go to sleep anywhere, anytime. I still had an ambitions of making Weierhof a full-fledged unit, with a matron and independent household, and resented it being used as a dumping ground. We were promised men from the next new group that would be arriving. We set the house in order, got furniture from here and there, and were promised Lydia Shenk as a matron. Lydia arrived in March, but was rather frail, and had been ill, so we had to do a lot of cooking and housework for ourselves for a while.
Meanwhile, finding enough work to keep everyone busy became a problem. There was plenty of landscaping work to be done, but we often lacked tools, direction, authorization, or some other vital ingredient. I began to relearn the old lesson about keeping everybody busy, when there wasn’t enough work. As a matter of fact, it was a full time job, keeping everybody busy. It didn’t allow me to escape into drudgery, as I was prone to do. From the first time I saw the school, with its concertina wire atop the perimeter fence, I realized what a powerful symbol it would be, for us to take down the wire, but, for some reason, we couldn’t get this seemingly elementary task started.
My major personal problem, however, was that my big adventure was about to end. I was going to have to go home! Somehow, between Krefeld and Weierhof, I had acquired the unshakable conviction that a degree in Engineering was the key to what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I thought what I wanted was a life of service in exotic places, but realized I could only be of limited service without some real serious education. I recognized that Pax, in a sense, could be a means to avoid coming to grips with the realities of life, and did not wish to add that to my list of deficiencies.
Erwin Goering, from Bethel College, had taken over Mennonite Voluntary Service while I was in Spain. Erwin was another of the extremely personable and charismatic leaders in the MCC family, and became somewhat of a mentor for me. MVS had predated Pax, as a sponsor of international work camps, and had always had a special relationship. MVS workcamps were, apparently, initially not considered suitable for large numbers of young Mennonite men, largely because of the temptation of foreign women, so the Pax program was started instead. Nevertheless, we were encouraged to extend our terms, if necessary, and finish off with a workcamp. Hopefully, there wouldn’t be enough time for us to get too seriously involved with girls, and we would be leaving right afterward, in any case.
Erwin recruited me to lead a workcamp in Treffen, Kärnten (Carinthia), Austria, in late May, for which it was necessary for me to extend my term. I accompanied the Goerings and Annelise Dyck to a weekend training conference in the Netherlands, sometime during my time in Weierhof. I also went to at least one weekend MVS retreat in Kaiserslautern. All these activities led to a better acquaintance with Erwin, and he was able to convince me that a year at Bethel College, followed by Kansas State, would be the ideal way for me to get my education.
In addition to the MVS activities, we traveled to a conference in Eisenerz, in Austria, on another weekend. I also organized a trip to Berlin, on Mayday weekend, with a VW busload of Paxmen, an MVS secretary from Kaiserslautern, and several German young people from Weierhof and Frankfurt. We also sang in the church choir at Weierhof, and participated in the youth group. When I think back to all the things I did in the last months, I am astounded. All of these activities have unique “war stories” connected with them, which I will mercifully omit here.
Finally, as it became clear to me that there was not enough long-term work to keep a full unit going. I think, perhaps, that Christian Galle and Richard Hertzler had overestimated the amount of work suitable for unskilled, albeit willing, labor. I recommended that the unit be closed at the end of June. Wilbur Yoder, who had been in my original group, and had been serving in Jordan, came to Weierhof to finish the work and close down the unit. It was very nice to have Wilbur around, for the few weeks we were together, and he fit in very well with the Weierhof people, as Pennsylvania Dutch was his mother tongue.
In my mind, I know I idealized Weierhof as an island of stability in a changing world. For years afterward, I remembered it as a place to which I could return, with the assurance that it would be as I had left it.
My wife and I visited Weierhof in 1993. The school is thriving. The dining hall looks the same as in 1959, but the Weierhof has changed. Just before we arrived, the cobblestones of the streets and yards had been replaced with interlocking brick pavers. There is water and sewer service. The manure piles are gone, and wheeled plastic trash barrels sit at the curb, ready to be picked up. The general impression is that of an upscale apartment complex. Apparently, nothing lasts forever!
Chapter 13 TREFFEN
By the time my assignment to lead the MVS workcamp in Treffen came along, I was a confirmed adventure junkie! By then, I needed a steady diet of some kind of exotic activity every week or so, just to keep my reputation intact. Accordingly, instead of calmly boarding a train for Treffen, which was in vacation country in the south of Austria, I got permission, from an ex-pax guy, who was a missionary in Luxemburg, to use a motorcycle that had been gathering dust in Enkenbach for years. “Moose” Moyer and I planned to ride it down and back.
The project was to build a school building to be used for schwachbegabte (“weakly gifted”) children, on the grounds of an Evangelishe (Lutheran) home. In addition to Moose and I, Albert Hostetler, a third Paxman, would be there, and the camp would be filled out with young people from Germany, The Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Spain.
I had a blacksmith in Enkenbach fashion a crude luggage rack on the back fender of the motorcycle. On the appointed day, we lashed our suitcases on with rope, and started off. In the weeks before the camp, I had gathered enough riding experience to feel confident, had gotten a license, and had insured the machine. The trip was an odessy, of course, since Treffen was on the other side of the Alps. At any rate, after several suitably exotic adventures, we arrived on a Saturday morning, and our work camp adventure began.
The setting was marvelous. The sponsoring agency was strongly committed to the project, and we had no trouble with the supply of materials. The only problem we had was reluctance of the farm manager to take a break from mowing, and haul our excavated material away. Herr Gienger was our agency contact person, and proved to be another of those unforgettable characters, who seemed to be into anything and everything. A native handyman/builder type was our local man on the job. He was a jack-of-all-trades—a rarity in Europe in the late fifties. He proved, however, to be easygoing and patient, and we got along well.
Of course, it was dialect time again, but this time I was on top of the change. In addition to regional dialects, Austria has a sort of general Austrian dialect, which the regional ones usually resemble quite closely. The group itself had no fully common language, but everyone spoke or understood either German or English. This meant that not everyone could talk directly to everyone, but everyone could find a translator. All announcements, which usually took place at the table, were in both languages. As for the Scandinavians, the Danes spoke Danish to the Swedes, and vice versa.
The sponsoring agency was the Evangelische Stiftung, which roughly means “Lutheran Foundation”, and the installation included a large children’s home, cottages for retarded adults, a farm operation, and other peripheral enterprises. The headquarters was at the edge of a valley, at the foot of mountains. The foundation also owned a tract on a nice lake, about 20 minutes walk down the valley.
It was the first time I had been around retarded adults, and it was a new experience to interact with them. Some of the campers greatly enjoyed work with the few retarded children in the home, while others, like me, preferred the normal, bright, witty ones. The staff seemed to consist of true saints. I even observed Herr Gienger, who was in a perpetual hurry, patiently explain something over and over to one of the retarded inmates, as if he had all day.
The old miracle of the building project occurred again at Treffen. When we got there, there was only a foundation, and when we left, all the masonry was finished, the floor system for the upper story was in place, and the building was ready for the rafters, which unfortunately didn’t arrive in time. Almost everything else was delivered on time—no small organizational feat by Herr Gienger.
We arranged our work schedule to give ourselves generous free time in the afternoon. One of the few complaints we had was about the weather. Every day, the sun shone brilliantly from clear skies until after lunch, then it would typically cloud over, and we would have intermittent showers for the rest of the day. Nevertheless, we did not suffer greatly, as we really had great company.
As for me, I was still trying to come to grips with the fact that my life of adventure was coming to an end. I had a ticket and reservation on the Queen Mary (or was it the Elizabeth?) for late June. I had not really faced up to the fact that others, beside myself, had expectations that demanded decisions. I had a burning ambition to become an Engineer, but this was conveniently vague, since it didn’t require immediate action. More ominously, Europe had given me a taste for independence—I had a phobia about responsibility for anyone other than myself. This made me a potential disaster for anyone with designs toward tying me down.
As I recall, very few campers were there on the first day. We started work with two Swedish girls, Gunilla Engdahl and Monika Windt, a German, Eike Werner, and perhaps the two Danish girls, Ester Neilson and Jane Jensen. After that, people arrived every day or two—Gerda and Gudrun Janzen, from Germany, Jose Landiera from Spain, Sam Dietzel from Enkenbach. The last to arrive was Hans Elverson, a Swede, who had hitchhiked from India, with all his earthly possessions on his back. He hadn’t had a shave or haircut since India, apparently. “He looks like Jesus Christ!” the staff at the children’s home told me, in hushed tones.
The Swedes were the biggest contingent—and the source of the only conflict that emerged. The girls appeared to have no detectible sense of morality or propriety, and seemingly took pride in flaunting the rules of society. The rest of the group tried to appear tolerant, but a few were outspoken enough to indicate that it was not necessary to be an American Mennonite prude to disapprove of their lifestyle. Hans Elverson, a countryman, actually took them to task for joining an organization and project so alien to their values.
There was no requirement that campers espouse Christianity or any other “ism”. Some were even mildly hostile toward religion, yet everyone pitched in on the project with the same fervor as we, the Paxmen, who wore our motto on our white T-shirts.
Opportunities for recreation were boundless. The lake, with a swimming dock and an available boat were within easy walking distance. We were not far from a trail, leading to a ski-lift to the top of the mountain behind us. We also had the motorcycle, for use at whenever we wanted some fresh air and the thrill of speed. One Sunday afternoon, Moose and I took a back road to the Yugoslavian border, but since the border guards required a few dollars to enter, we decided to forego a closer acquaintance with Yugoslavia.
Sometime near the end of our camp, the sponsors surprised us with a free trip to Venice. It was the kind of opportunity to do wild, improbable things, which I had come to expect, by now. We all boarded a train in Villach, and in great spirits, we were off on another adventure. As leader of the camp, I felt responsibility for the welfare of the group, and remember going from one compartment to the other, making sure everyone was l.) there, and 2.) having a good time. After assuring myself that all was well, and failing to join any of the informal groups, I went into an empty compartment, sat down, and faced the future.
The next 30 minutes on an Italian train changed my life! Yogi Berra is quoted as saying: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” A fork in the road was in that compartment, and I took it. As incredible as it may seem, I had never faced the reality of what I had been planning to do, which was to go home and get married. Now, I was facing it, and it was absolutely, crystal clear that I couldn’t do it, and that people were going to get hurt, and that I still couldn’t do it. I was a different person than I had been two years earlier. I had left a fiancée, engaged to the person I had been. It was in that compartment, on an Italian train, that the scales fell from my eyes! I had been drifting along on automatic pilot, assuming the person I had been would re-emerge. He wasn’t coming back! There was no doubt at all in my mind, about what I had to do!
When we returned to Treffen, I wrote a long letter.
Venice was an unforgettable experience! Like the Great Pyramid, it has to be experienced, to be believed. We did all the expected, tourist-type things possible, at least those that could be done without much money. We rode gondolas, fed the pigeons, sat in sidewalk cafés, visited cathedrals, and generally soaked up the atmosphere of a truly unique city. A subtle change took place that weekend, as people started pairing up. Albert and Jane missed the train on Sunday afternoon. A small crisis ensued, as Ester had Jane’s passport, which she would need to get back into Austria. Fortunately, we were on a very slow train, and at some nameless station they came running down the platform, having caught a later train, and managed to catch up with us.
The last weeks of camp passed quickly. A ship was waiting, to take me back to reality, and the rest of my life. The inevitable morning arrived, and we boarded our motorcycle for the trip back. Another wild adventure! 72 hours later, with perhaps 4 hours total sleep, I was boarding a channel steamer, bound for London.
Chapter 14 RETURN AND REORIENTATION
After a more-or-less continuous whirlwind tour through Enkenbach, Weierhof, and Frankfurt, followed by an overnight VW bus journey through Brussels to Ostend, and a ferry trip across the English channel to Southampton, I finally got to sleep in a real bed in London. I enjoyed a day, walking around all the famous spots in the middle of London, and then took the train back to Southampton to embark on one of the Queens.
It was a very much-changed Dave Gingerich, who sat in the upper second class lounge of the Queen Elizabeth that evening. Two years before, I had been a fairly typical product of an Old Mennonite upbringing, and Mennonite schooling, tempered by immersion in post-WWII, English, mid-western culture.