When you spend nearly ten years of your life in a foreign country, you can be miserable longing to go home, or you can learn to love the place. It took us about an hour to fall in love with Germany.
It was undoubtedly a big part of our lives. A few months after we got there, the in-laws arrived in country, too: SFC Carl Bannies (US Army) was stationed in Stuttgart, bringing Jo (Cathy's sister) and the kids' two cousins, Susie and Tony. We'd visit them in "the big city", and little Susie would spend time with us "out in the country" during the summer. (I guess the Air Force indoctrination worked, eh Sue ?)
The distant Mosel River valley
By the time we had transferred from Bitburg to Hahn, the Van Hagen sisters' little brother had arrived in Stuttgart, too. When his young wife, Val, followed, we met our brand-new in-law for the first time at the Frankfurt airport. We all had a grand get-together at Hahn when the Bannies clan drove him up from Stuttgart a day later. (Just one of those military things; I was working nights and the only one that could get away that day to pick up the 18-year-old Val, arriving for the first time in a foreign country, 150 miles away from her husband.) Now, all of the "Van Hagen" kids were in Germany.
Among our important papers are two pale blue certificates from the U.S. State Department marked "Report of a US citizen born abroad". Katie's birth occurred in the tiny, single-story Hahn Air Base Hospital, which sits on a 2,100 ft. ridgeline surrounded by countryside like that shown in the large photo at the top of the page. (In fact, the picture was taken just 3-4 miles from the base.) Unlike her younger brother, Katie also has a German birth certificate, duly recorded in the local records office at Simmern.
Paul, who could someday be subject to conscription into the German military, was not registered with local authorities in this way. ( At the time of his birth, the NATO status of forces agreements prohibited this - but laws can change over time. ) He was born in the large Army hospital in Landstuhl, adjacent to Ramstein Air Base, and part of the sprawling Kaiserslautern military community where 50,000 military and dependents make up the single largest American community outside of the US.
Katie doesn't remember much about Hahn - the place that felt most like "home" to the rest of us - not even sitting on Santa's lap the day he arrived in the rear seat of an F-4E. ( There was an Arctic storm over Norway that day, and Rudolph had the flu. Rather than disappoint all the kids who had gathered to greet him in the small hangar used as an aircraft wash rack - we sent an all-weather jet to the North Pole to pick him up...) Many of the poor civilian kids in the US have to settle for using a slow fire engine to cart Santa around, instead. I'm sure we made a great impression on the old gent; he was sure to remember the route to Hahn Air Base when Christmas Eve rolled around.
I did ask her to recount those things she recalled from Ramstein, though:
"I remember the great shopping in Kaiserslautern, and making believe that I was mute, because I didn't know a whole lot of German. They would ask me if I wanted something (in German), then try some English on me when I didn't answer. By then, I was too embarrased to answer. It was neat, riding the [articulated electric] trolley down into K-town. It stopped just a block from our house."
"Now that I think about it, I was scared another time, when we visited the old castle above the village of Frankenstein on Halloween. That actor in the fat, bald troll costume came right up to me, checking the sharpness of his huge executioner's axe with his thumb - right in my face! I knew it was just make-believe, but I also knew that this was the real place that inspired the book - and he was Scary !"
"I loved the carnivals that came and set up all those great rides twice a year, even though I was too small to ride the really good ones. I also remember being at the first International Cabbage Patch Kids' Family reunion in Kaiserslautern, when all of us adoptive "mothers" brought the dolls together for the first time.
Oh, and I remember all the old castles that were absolutely everywhere. You couldn't travel more than a few miles without seeing another castle, or the ruins of one. We even had one up the hill from Vogelweh [military family housing area] that me and John explored a few times. One of the best parts was St. Nicklaus coming on December 5th, followed a few weeks later by Christmas. Who wouldn't want double holidays !?. I liked the place more than New Jersey - and it was so much better than North Carolina."
Your sentiments are my own, Kate. If I would have been able to get a civilian job there, we never would have left.
I asked Paul what he remembers about Germany, and he gave a one-word response: "Nothing". Of course, he was "into the bottle" quite a bit back then, and his lights would blink out, even while sitting up. < G > Fortunately, I remember quite a bit. He was a very cute baby, and approaching the "terrible twos" as we were leaving Ramstein. We had already shipped our household goods home, and were living in temporary quarters when he must have gotten an insect bite on the ear; it swelled up until it was nearly an inch thick, and stuck out from the side of his head like a teacup handle. Waiting in the emergency room of Landstuhl hospital, he was running around and playing with the other "sick" tykes - and I noticed the adults looking at his terribly deformed ear. You could hear them: "Aw, poor kid.." and "Isn't that terrible? Such a cute little boy with such a disfigurement...". About then, he noticed them looking, too - a room full of adults just staring at him... so the little clown stuck his fingers in the corner of his mouth, and pulled it wide, tongue outstretched. The entire room couldn't help it - the laughter was raucous, and followed by applause! (A little Benadryl and the ear was normal size by the next day.)
1978 & 1999 - They spent their childhood in Germany
Photographs and Text © 1998,1999 John P. Tomany