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I Lived in Germany and Learned This Lesson

Just short of 62 years ago, I was born in the tiny municipal hospital in Alamosa, Colorado. My father was born in the state of Georgia, as had been his father, and his father, back (according to family lore) 18 generations to when my great-great-etc. grandfather was on the beach after he was chased by pirates up the Savannah River. Supposedly, he was waving hello to George Oglethorpe's shipload of debtors. (Personally, I think he was on the boat with Oglethorpe.) My father's mother had come from Hungary about 1900, my mother's father had been born in the Choctaw Nation, her mother in the Cherokee Nation, and I grew up hearing tales of the Trail of Tears, with reminders that my father's family had been in the military since warships had sails, and my mother was a Daughter of the American Revolution.

So there was never any question in my mind that I "was an American." I was in Junior ROTC in high school and cadet commander of my Civil Air Patrol squadron, and probably wore a uniform more days of the week than civilian clothes. But honestly, I'd gone for ROTC because it was that or gym class, and CAP because it meant I could learn to fly at a cut rate. I was patriotic in a desultory way, and by the middle of my junior year, I had become interested enough to learn that the press was, frankly, lying their asses off about many parts of the Vietnam War. I volunteered for the Air Force in 1975, but mainly because I wanted to become a linguist and go to the Defense Language Institute; then I flunked the physical and went back to programming computers and writing incredibly bad fiction.

Not too long after that I got a job programming in Germany. I arrived on Inauguration Day in 1981, watched the Iranian hostages arriving at the very airport at which I'd landed hours before on the TV in my Frankfurt hotel room, and took the train to my new home in southwestern Germany the next day, speaking about 12 words of German.

The geography was very much like home, but towns were just a mile or two apart. They had great chocolate bars. My co-workers were great and I made friends.

Differences struck me, of course. First of all, everyone was speaking German. (When I moved back a couple years later, I was equally surprised that people in the shops all spoke perfect English when I unconsciously started speaking German.) No speed limits on the Autobahn. Not many warning signs -- the Germans appeared to think that you didn't need to be told not to stand too close to a cliff.