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What a Brave GI Taught, and Learned

No one, but no one, wanted to go with me. Swell. It was Sunday, the only day off the Army gave us. OK, so it was Germany, a land I knew nothing of in the mid-1950s, but so what? I was just another uninvited guest, a draftee serving out my two years. What were the Germans going to do to us that made my barracks buddies so afraid? What did they think the populace of a bomb-blasted little town outside of Frankfurt/Main might do to a GI just looking around?

"I've been here five years and I've never once left the depot grounds," a sergeant offered. That did it. I wasn't going back to California in two years and admit I'd never been outside my barracks' front gate. Forget it. I'm going to town.

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"They're the enemy," the sergeant said.

"Ten years after World War II has ended?" I replied. "They're the enemy in your thought, not mine." I was too new, too green, too freshly minted as a reluctant soldier to buy that idea. No one out there was my enemy. "I'm going, even if none of you will go with me. If I don't return, send for the Marines!"

An ancient, weary German bus stopped near our main gate, and I climbed on board. Every set of eyes, all German, fixed on me and my Army uniform. They were not glances of envy, though I'd just made corporal and my new stripes had been sewn on the night before. I'd better write Mom to send me my civvies to wear next time, I thought. I found a seat and began practicing softly what a friend in the depot had taught me: "Statte Mitte, Bitte." I had no idea what it meant, but that's what I was to tell the driver.

When we reached the town center, he stopped and waved at me to get off. So did a dozen passengers. "Danke," I tried. Two dozen smiles broke out.

I WAS near a park. A park is safe on Sunday morning, isn't it? I'll go for a walk. I saw people strolling, arm in arm. Some stopped to read little signs on the trees. The names of the species, were in German and in Latin. Latin? I know Latin. Four years in high school. I read tree signs until I was sure no one was still staring at me. I saw a young couple tuck a blanket around their baby, riding in one of those German baby buggies that look as though Mercedes-Benz made them. I watched them, and in that tiny tableau, I saw the very heart of love itself expressed, a language I understood. That's when I stopped being afraid.

I found myself in front of a pastry shop. Well, hello, there! No German required. I pointed, they wrapped; I handed them an open hand with coins, they took the right amount. The aromas took me to heaven. Now I knew about German pastry and parks. Better and better.

A girl about my age entered and, figuring out what was going on, asked me in English, "Can I help you? I speak a little English." We chatted away, and when we parted, she suddenly said: "Would you possibly be willing to teach English to me and some of my friends? We all want to learn English, please."

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Why not?

So the next weekend we met at the pastry shop, and she drew me down the street to a cafe. Inside sat a dozen of her college friends, guys and girls my own age or a little younger. "We want to learn English," they told me. Well, listen, gang, I'm no teacher. I'm just a corporal in the legal office at the depot. That's what I wanted to say. But I didn't.

I said, "Sure." We immediately held a "conversation class," talking back and forth. I asked questions, they answered. I was really winging it as we went along. They didn't care. They were terrific to me, sharp and eager to learn. We had a great time.

The next weekend, Miss Pastry Shop took me to a big hall, and there sat about 50 kids, waiting for me. Oh, boy. Now, what? But it was no big deal. Each student had a pad of paper, a pen or pencil, and some had brought German-English dictionaries that they shared. It was an English class in Germany, and I was their teacher. Me. I was petrified at first, but I need not have been. Miss Pastry Shop sat next to me and translated when necessary. She was great.

"Where did you learn your good English?" I asked her.

"We speak it at home a little."

"Your folks learned it in school?"

"Not exactly. My father's the mayor here."

"How do you think he got elected mayor?" someone shouted. They all fell down with laughter. Those were the occupation years, when speaking English (and the US Army's blessing) was a political-career booster in Germany.

That's how the classes went ever after. Laughter and instruction. We had a lot of fun, and to my surprise some of them got better in their English, spoken and written. They demanded I give them homework, so I did.

In February, during Fasching, Germany's Shrovetide festival, they took me to parties. They told me to wear my uniform as my costume. People came up to me and said, in German, "How did you get such a great costume? It looks so authentic!" "Oh, it's authentic," I replied when my class told me what they were saying. Soon, some of them were teaching me German.

The final week of classes. I was to leave for America soon. They arrived all dressed up. Flowers, a big cake, and a gift they'd chipped in to buy for me. An ancient print of old Giessen, our town, hundreds of years before bombs. Everyone in the class had signed the back of it.

"I've never had a happier time in my life," I said to them in a little farewell speech. Oh, they loved hearing that. We ate the cake, we hugged each other, and lots of farewell tears appeared. The picture still hangs near my desk at home. I never did learn what "Statte Mitte" meant, exactly, but I saw it everywhere in Germany as I traveled around. To me, it meant "Welcome, friend."

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