Living overseas is an amazing experience for anyone, but particularly for children. And getting to live on an American base offers a “best of both worlds” situation, which was the case for our family during my second half of elementary school.
As civilians, there were actually two cultures to learn: the military one and the German one. For example, each day at 5 o’clock meant stopping in your tracks no matter where you were for the playing of Taps and the flag lowering in the square. I had never seen a gun in real life, yet I was now walking to school alongside soldiers carrying impressively large firearms. Hilariously, the elementary school shared a fence with the firing range. On the one side, the playground equipment, the other side, target practice.
As these were the days before internet, another country was a mysterious thing indeed. There were fashions we’d never seen, like track pants, strange pronunciations of familiar words, like AHDIdas and CAPreeSOHnah. And there were strange foods such as whipped cream without sugar.
My parents were definitely more relaxed than my generation when it came to letting us wander about, and I know a good portion of that was the times in which we were raised. But when I think back to some of these memories at age 10, I can scarcely believe it. Recently, my best friend from sixth grade was in town and we met up for brunch. Her parents were also there, and we all told stories of those years spent on base and the crazy adventures we had.
Lara and I loved riding our bikes around, and since base was only a measly square mile, we’d often ride through the MP-guarded gates and out “on the economy,” as it was called. In the summer months, we’d bike up to the outdoor pool, which would cost about two Deutschemarks entrance and then another mark or so for an ice cream. We wore no helmets, we had no cell phones, no one made sure we applied sunscreen or monitored us from the water’s edge to prevent our drowning, and we possessed only enough language skills to say “Einen Erdbeereis, Bitte,” and of course, “Danke!” when handed a strawberry ice cream cone.
As we rode along the bike path to Vaihingen Freibad, we had to cross through a tunnel. Under the Autobahn. It was a popular place for graffiti, and I learned some fascinating words as well as saw some new symbols. I was wise enough to not ask my parents what they meant.
I know we were safe. I know we were prepared. But I can’t help but be horrified at the thought of sending my own nearly-10 year old off in the same fashion. And I know my mother would be, too! But I guess if you can play on the see saw overlooking the Rod & Gun Club and survive, what’s a little bike ride?