The middle of this story sits right here, in the middle of the town square of Bremen, where the past is very much present.
Bremen also had some wonderful parks - great forests right in the middle of the City - civilized of course with benches and walks. I can recall many lunch time "picnics" when I would pick a nice isolated bench in one of these parks, and end up sharing my dry hunk of bread with the curious squirrels that crowded around me.
One time in a very energetic excursion to the edge of town, I came upon a rural landscape that I will always remember - a vast flatland of rich grasslands, with grazing cows and quaint northern European farmhouses - and laced with little canals. It brought to mind that Dutch painting of children ice-skating on the canals of Holland.
And the idea of ice skating was not so out of the question, for the weather, which stayed fairly dry most of the time, had turned decided cold, and I had still only the corduroy sports jacket I had brought from home, and not an extra Mark to shop for better.
I did not always make the most economic use of my resources however. One day, on a whim, instead of carefully saving my few Marks for food, I bought a tiny wooden chess set - the kind where the pieces have little pegs on the bottom that stick into holes in the squares. Some kind of traveler's set I guess. The box when shut was only about 3 by 6 inches, and it cost me two days food allowance. But it ended up being a good investment. The English engineer had promised to teach me the game - something I had avoided learning to that date - and many an otherwise unendurable evening hour was now spent learning chess and losing happily in my apprenticeship.
But the days wore on. I was tiring of the endless walking, and the sandwiches and stale bread were not as nutritious as they tasted. I began to sit in the window overlooking the street and just watch the workers walking home at the end of the day in the growing gray of the northern winter. It was now the second week of December, and I began to doubt I would ever get home before Christmas.
The American Consulate had already had to re-stamp my revoked passport, extending the one month grace period for travel back to the States from December 13th another month, to January 13th. A lot of 13s and not adding up to much good luck.
I recall sitting in that window one afternoon, and to keep the lacy curtain from hanging in my face, I tied it up in a big knot. This must have been some socially unacceptable symbol for something, for I began to notice passersby looking up at my window and laughing. To this day I do not know why. I am probably better off not knowing.
By now I was beginning to feel sick - in body and spirit. It was a familiar feeling - a sense of disorientation, depression and that combination of nausea and hunger combined. I had endured it for a week on my trip west the year before, holed up in a run-down hotel in Ritzville, Washington. I often fell asleep at night, lying under the table, half under the sink, with wild and bizarre images crashing around in my head. I was losing my grip, and probably slowly starving.
And I was hungry. My share - and we were careful to parcel out our shares equally - of the old bread and... well maybe it was mostly just the old bread by now, as funds were running low. Well my share was not enough to even take the edge off the hunger. I wonder if we were each buying our own food at this point? I can't remember, but I know I had very little I could claim as mine.
One morning, after my roommate had left for work, I noticed that he had discarded the crusts of his breakfast slices into the wastebasket - no doubt too tough and dry. I recall staring at them for long minutes, and even reaching for them, but at the last letting them lie there, as I took my one little hunk for lunch and left the place.
In the end, word came that a ship was scheduled to sail and to get to Bremerhaven immediately. I was to be at the pier at 6:30 AM the next day. I got myself north at once, arriving in the middle of the night again. I had no money for the youth hostel, so I walked the cold, dark streets for six hours until it was time to go to the base.
At the embarkation point I found myself in a sea of GIs being processed through a huge building. Hundreds, perhaps thousand of boys heading home for their final mustering out after a tour of duty in Germany. And in one corner, there we were - no uniforms and no duffel bags - 32 of us, all going home with the same tag - "destitute civilian". It was a motley lot. One guy with a guitar and sack, obviously more accustomed to bumming around Europe than I was, and some adults whose reason for being in this disreputable bunch I could not immediately discern.
And it was on this morning that I learned the meaning of the military phrase "hurry up and wait." We had all assembled at 6:30 AM. We were in processing until late morning, then got some food - the first real meal I had had in over a month - then back to processing, then picking up our things and forming a line for boarding, then endless waiting in line, then finally, slowly, working our way up the gang plank, and then standing on deck, and finally, still on deck, feeling the great gray ship start to ease off from the side of the pier - at 6:30 PM! Twelve hours of rushing to get nowhere!
I saw the dock slip into the darkness and Germany started to become a memory. I had come for ever; had decided to leave after a week, and had ended up staying over a month due to circumstances beyond my control. But now I was finally on my way home.
We bunked with the troops, in those narrow little berths crammed under the decks. And we ate with the troops - huge gloriously supplied meals - eggs, fried chicken, milk, potatoes, anything and everything and all we could eat... all included in our $57 passage. What luxury after nearly starving for weeks in Germany. It was heaven!
There was a routine here as well. Civilians were not allowed to enter any of the lounges or recreation areas open to the troops. We could lie in our bunks or stand on the decks. So most of the time I stood on deck. You stood there at risk, from seasick soldiers on the decks above, but it was often worse to lie below decks. I got sea sick, but I had a routine for that as well. Get up in the morning, go forward to the head, puke, and then start my day.
And the head was a nautical adventure in itself. It was far forward in the bow of the ship. So it rose and fell more than any other space. And all the toilets were mounted in a line on a single open pipe, down each side. When the ships bow rose, all the water rushed back out of the pipe, and when the bow came down, it all rushed forward again, and pity to poor devil who was sitting on the last one on the line, for a geyser invariable shot upward out of the bowl each time, in the rough seas, at least.
But for me it was glorious to be on an ocean cruise, across the North Atlantic for ten days - an unprecedented experience and all for $57. The vast expanses of the sea with no land to break upon the panorama... the sunrises, the sunsets, and all presented in 360 degrees.
I would usually get on deck at the first light. It was not something I had been in the habit of ever doing before, but it seemed pretty natural out here, and fit the military schedule.
And I loved to see the daylight begin to reveal the endless ocean around me. It was as if it reconfirmed that I was really out here, in the middle of the Atlantic in the middle of winter.
Being restricted to either the deck or the crowded quarters below, I often opted to remain at the rail most of the afternoon. And I never regretted the necessity.
The best time of the day to be on deck was right at sunset; the ending of so many near perfect days without precedent. I became aware of the sky in ways that I would not experience again until I lived in the desert.
Many a writer has drawn the comparison between the endless ocean and the endless desert; the one full of water, and the other entirely devoid of it. It is a comparison well deserved.
But it was not all placid and calm. This was the North Atlantic, after all. There was the day that the sea was heaving in great swells that paralleled our course - a situation I did not welcome. When the ship cut straight through the waves, it was pretty steady. But when the waves ran alongside it, the movement of the ship became a pitching roll; first to one side and then the other. But even this had its wonder. As I braced against the rail with each roll, I could look straight out, one minute looking at the sky, and the next right into the side of a huge wave, inside of which I could see porpoises swimming happily alongside at eye level. And then the great ship would roll up again, and the water would be far below me, awaiting my return.
One of my fellow "destitutes" was a guy name Nagy, in his late 20s. He was a Hungarian refugee, and I gathered from his broken English that he had been in some way involved in the political turmoil there recently. He had nothing to his name, except the fact that he had been born in the USA, though his family left soon after, and so could lay claim to citizenship. I think his family in Hungary was dead, and he was making the only pilgrimage left to him to be saved from the same fate. He was amazed at all the food, and in comparison to him, I felt I had been lucky, even though my own experience was more grimly dangerous than I had let myself admit.
As we got closer to port, all the GIs started cutting up their spare uniforms and throwing away everything they didn't absolutely need to be mustered out, often with a real sense of disgust and anger. There were heavy green winter coats, and all manner of gear. Nagy would go around and accept anything they would offer - shoes, shirts, you name it. What a contrast! Here was someone who had seen real depravity and privation in his home land, and he had to witness men who had been given everything they needed all their lives, now destroying and discarding this surplus with so much disdain. I am sure he could not comprehend it.
Well we were soon to be docked in NYC and I was wondering how I would get home, as I literally had not a dollar to my name. I remembered my gold class ring, and somehow found a GI who was willing to buy it from me. He could have no real use for it, but perhaps he could resell the gold, or perhaps he just felt sorry for me. I knew the bus ticket from NYC to Oneonta and home was $7 one way. I had taken it many times when I was a student at Stony Brook Prep School, the school from which I got the ring. And he gave me the $7 for the ring that I needed for the ticket. At the time I was happy for the bargain, though many times since I have regretted the need. But there were no options, for Uncle Sam only promised to get me to New York City, and the rest was up to me.
So we docked at last at Brooklyn Army Terminal. I have looked up the port arrivals for that date, and the only troop ship that day was the General W. H. Gordon, which had left Bremerhaven on the 11th. I guess that was the one. The next day, according to the microfilmed newspaper, the troop ship General Patch arrived, with its originating ports listed as Bremerhaven on the 12th and Portsmouth, England on the 13th (unlucky number). I remember that there were two troop ships standing by in Bremerhaven that evening, and it was pretty much the luck of the draw which you got onto. But as we cleared the English Channel the next day, rumor was that the Patch had broken down and was going into Portsmouth for repairs. I remember thinking I was glad I was not on it.
So I stepped off on dry land again, and getting my land legs beneath me, got to Port Authority Bus Terminal - I think I walked - and in surroundings familiar to me from my student days, got the ticket, rode the bus to Oneonta, and then started hitching the 20 miles left of the journey to bring me back home.
It was the 20th of December - just a few days to Christmas; it was wintery cold, and getting dark as I stood in West Oneonta waiting for the ride that would get me to the end of my adventure. I still had only my corduroy sports jacket against the biting cold, and I remember looking up at the pitch black sky and wondering at the brilliant stars overhead and thinking of where I had been, and was now. And how ironic it would be to freeze to death here, after all, just short of home. The star-lite sky had not one drop of romance in it that night, and nature seemed in every way malevolent.
In due time I got that ride, and a few days later enjoyed a Christmas I had not expected to see again. The carved German candle still gets hauled out every Christmas at my parents' home as a decoration; who knows whatever happened to the little German Army vehicles in the end, and all I kept from all this was my chess set on which I learned the game in that garret in Bremen, pretending I needed diversion more than I needed food.
It was some time later, when living in Albany, that the little chess set disappeared. I couldn't remember when I had seen it last, but it was clearly gone. That hit hard, to lose my only tangible connection with that expedition. But it was gone, and shortly after we moved to Arizona.
It was there that I got word. One of our closest friends back in Albany had been a kleptomaniac, stealing from his friends for months, his house and barn full of the collected loot. I contacted the Albany Police with a list of things that had gone missing from our house when we lived there, including the little German chess set. Few items could be identified, but they did tell me they had found a silver watch.... and my little German chess set.
So now I have that artifact, and all these memories. I keep close watch on both.