03 Feb, 2010 | Posted by: photosource
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West Germany Woman at stove 1957 -Rohn Engh
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MAN ASLEEP - HOFBRAU HOUSE -- Rohn Engh
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Couple at Gasthaus 1957 --Rohn Engh
Saying Goodbye to Army Life
I was thinking the other day what a good stage the army-life was for me over there in West Germany.
Yes, a good stage, like in the theater. I mean in the sense of Shakespeare’s famous theme about the ‘world’s only a stage’, and his other famous subject, ‘the difference between seeming and being.’
Back in my high school days
, the students came from mostly families that were chicken farmers there on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. During the summer vacation time, over at the beach in Ocean City, about five miles inland where we lived, I spent most of my summer time at the ocean, at the beach and on the boardwalk with people from big cities like Baltimore and Washington, and even New York. I worked at summer beach jobs, so I got a lot of chance to talk with all kinds of people, of all ages, girls, boys.
Sometimes a high school friend of mine would come walking down the boardwalk and he would wave to me on the beach and I would pretend not to see him. I would be with one of those Philadelphia girls from some suburban family and I didn’t want her to see the kind of friends I had. I know now that was wrong, making those prejudgments. One of them went on to be a prominent doctor in a Washington hospital.
And you know something?
I found that Shakespeare was right, at least for me. There are two levels of seeming and being in people. Whether it was the big city people I got to know in the summertime or the locals during the rest of the year. It became clear that if I wanted to get on in life, wherever I ended up, I’d have to deal with this ‘seeming and being’ thing.
That’s why I welcomed the idea of joining the Army when I was drafted during the Korean War. It would give me a different ‘stage’ to learn from. And later on, when I decided to take my Army discharge over in Europe, I guess it was one of the prime reasons I wasn’t ready to return home to the USA. I say “guess” because I didn’t say to myself something like, “I’m curious, as long as I’m here in Europe, I’m going to go out and learn about other people.” But that’s the way it turned out. And by the way, at first, I was only intending to travel to Europe. Other circumstances that I’ll tell you about later caused me to go farther into Africa.
But back to my farewell to the U.S. Army.
Whenever I see a recruiting poster for the U.S. Army, I think of the army as a massive contraption that sucks in young men and spits out two flavors: robots and mavericks. My impression is probably all wrong because I served in a peacetime Army in Germany.
You’re probably thinking “You didn’t serve in the Army you served in a peace-keeping corporation You didn’t serve in a crackerjack combat unit like the guy
s over there in Korea are doing.”
You’d be right. And, worse you could say I let a lot of Nazis into the USA. And a lot of others things I was doing in my CIC job was listening in on a lot of German citizen’s phone calls and reading their mail.
We also had these new secret agent gimmicks like pounding a spy nail into a hotel wall and listening in on the conversation in the next room or photographing them with a long telephoto camera from across the street. We had won the war and were occupying West Germany, so we could act like victors. It’s not like we made them slaves or anything like that. Like in Roman times.
I was getting unhappy with the Army.
In my army career I was playing their game and turning into a robot and didn’t like what I was doing. It was only Rick who encouraged my idea of traveling Europe with my guitar and singing for my supper. He even entertained the idea of coming along with me. That idea lasted about two minutes.
But I could understand. And I could understand my parent’s response when I wrote to them. “Think of your career. You’ve invested 4 years of art education!” They also knew that I had a job waiting for me at BBD&O in Baltimore with a big salary.
No one, at 8212th AAI Unit Wuerzburg except Rick thought it a wise move for me.
“You’re wasting your life,” one advised.
“You’ll be killed on the highways,” someone said.
A sergeant warned me, “Life on the outside is mean. You’ve had a free bed and a warm meal whenever you wanted it. You’ll soon learn what’s best.” The word was getting around.
Colonel Rice, my commanding officer, ordered more to report to his office on Monday morning. He was a man of middle age and had already seen twenty-some army years. Gosh, he was loud. There was nothing tender about his cadence-calling voice that shot in spurts from his wiry frame.
He looked at me with green piercing eyes from his seated position, as I stood rigid before him in the center of his carpeted office. “At ease Engh”, he barked, shuffling through some papers.
“Well, Engh, what’s the meaning of this request I have here? What’s this, you want an overseas discharge? What do you plan to do over here, -get a job? he roared. He enjoyed shouting this conversation so that office people in the adjacent office could hear. . He stared at me and then sat back in his big ol’ executive chair and folded his arms to wait for my answer with an expression that said, “You’re wasting my time. Hurry up.”
I wasn’t excepting all this. I just thought all I had to do was sign some kind of paper and that was it.
I wished for a slight moment that I had never requested an overseas discharge.
I gathered up some courage and answered, “Sir, I plan to travel the world.”
There was a long pause, of course. In the next door office there was silence over there. I thought I heard some tittering laughter. “Well, Engh, that’s very nice,” he continued, “I’m sure we’d all like to travel the world. You must be a very rich person.”
“No, sir. I’m not.
“Well, “ he shot back, “How much money do you have for this world trip?”
“Sir, I have six hundred and forty eight dollars.” I answered as officially as I could. Of course I couldn’t tell I sill had to buy the Vespa, sleeping bag, and pup tent, and $400 of that had to go to the motor scooter agency.
The sum impressed him and he questioned, “And how long do you think you could get on with that amount of money?”
“I have no idea, sir.”
I saw by his quick change of expression this wasn’t a very proper answer.
“You realize Engh, that the U.S. Army cannot afford to discharge people overseas who will become a burden to the government .He was getting close to the reason for calling me into the office. “Unless I can be assured that you
will be financially responsible in your traveling, I can see no way that I can sign your release for an overseas discharge,” He paused for awhile and then asked, “What initial provisions are you going to need for this trip?”
I had hoped he was not going to ask that question. “I figured I’d need a sleeping bag, a pup tent, a guitar, a knapsack, and a motor scooter.”
He looked at me, holding back a smile, or even bellowing laughter. He reached for a notepad and them slid it away. He rested his chin on his clasped hands with his arms planted in a solid triangle on his desk this had turned into something humorous for him. On the other hand he probably entertained the idea that he might be dealing with a “nut” case.
“You’re not traveling by train and staying in hotels?” He brought the notepad back over and started making notes.
“No” I said.
“Well then what does a sleeping bag cost,” He began.
“Fifteen dollars, sir.”
“And a guitar?” he questioned without looking up from his desk.
There was silence in the next office.
“And knapsack??” He was taping his pencil against the notepad.
“Five dollars and fifty cents, sir.”
“And a motor scooter?” he said. He was smug now.
“Four hundred dollars, sir,” I said so low I could hear it in my head but I wasn’t sure he heard it.
“What? He bellowed out, looking up from his scribbling.
I repeated it.
His eyes shot back at me like one of his automatic weapons. Then he returned to total up the figures I gave him.
“That comes to four hundred and fifty five dollars and fifty cents, Engh! You mean to tell me you’re leaving here with, “ and he swiftly subtracted, “one hundred and ninety-two dollars and fifty cents?”
My throat was dry. I couldn’t answer him.
He sat back in his chair and stared at me. “I think you had better look at this a little more seriously, Engh. I’ve taken more that than that on a weekend visit to Italy.”
He shot back again, “You think this trip over from a practical viewpoint. If you ask me, forget about the whole thing. Let’s consider you receiving your discharge in Baltimore. Then you can take whatever trip you want to take.”
I turned to leave his office and he added, “I heard reports that your friend Tolman might be traveling with you. If this is correct, tell him he can expect to take his discharge in Philadelphia.”
“He’s decided not to go on the trip, sir.” I said.
Colonel Rice answered only with an unfriendly grin and I left.
Those were dark days back in February 1957. I had only a month to convince the colonel that I could support myself. More problems began coming up.
I contacted the British and French consulate in Frankfort and learned it was impossible to apply for a visa for the African colonies unless I had a passport. That was a problem. U.S. Army regulations said military personnel could not be issued a passport until after their discharge. Since it took three or four months for an African visa to come through, it meant a long delay in Europe before I could head off on my trip.
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