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Frankfurt Experience - Part 3


This is Part III in a series of posts containing my recounting of a few eventful pages from my life. The story is but a snippet of my 78 years' experience, having taken place in a relatively short period of time: December 1954 to January 1955. You may wish to read the previous posts relating to this sojourn, so here is a link to the first one.

It was early evening and dark when the train pulled in to the Frankfurt station on Friday, January 7th, 1955. It was also even colder than it had been in Hannover, and I wasn't really dressed for that.  I had not made any arrangements for a hotel room—a mistake one is less apt to make in the Google Age—and there was no such thing as a tourist counter or office at the bahnhof, so I got into a cab and asked the driver to take me to an inexpensive hotel. That was not as easy as I had imagined it would be, because GIs flocked from all around to spend the weekend in the city and there simply was no room to be had at any inn on a Friday night. At the cab driver's suggestion, we began looking at more expensive hotels, which paid off—as it were. The rate was much more than I was prepared for, but I was cold and tired at this point, and I figured, what the hell, it would only be for the weekend.

The following day being Saturday, the personnel office in the I. G. Farben building was closed, so my job-seeking had to be shelved until Monday. The sun was out and I decided to brave the cold and take my first good look at Frankfurt. I had not walked far when the chill drove me to the nearest warm spot. At Keflavík, we all had government-issued parkas to keep us warm, so my overcoat was a bit of a joke, and I never wore hats. Anyway, I ended up in a somewhat earthy beer joint, where I had barely seated myself at a table when a lady slipped into the chair across from me. She was older than she wanted to be, pudgy and overly decorated with cheap makeup. Her hair was of questionable origin and she appeared to have doused herself in home made perfume that made Woolworth's  Evening in Paris smell like it might actually have come from there. "I am Natasha," she said in English, with a thick, tobacco-coarsened Eastern European accent. "I am from Czechoslovakia—where you come from?"

Before I could answer her, a waiter came over. I ordered a beer, she ordered a "whisky' and a bottle of Coke. "My friend, he pay for it," she told the waiter. Then she began a recitation of her miserable childhood among the Communists, tossing into her mostly incoherent blather a few words like "democracy," "freedom," and "America"—to give me a good feeling, I suppose. When I failed to react, she gestured with her chins towards my wedding band. "Vere she iss, your vife?" I said nothing, so she continued with her story as if reading from a script—I was obviously not the first one to hear it, and I wouldn't be the last. The waiter brought our order, I paid for it, and she hit her pause button. When she noticed that I had tuned her out, she changed her approach to a more visual one. Pointing to the opening of her Coke bottle, she brought her voice down to an intimate level, "Do you vant me to tell you sometink, darlink? Venn I came to Germany, my hole, it vas like this, but now," she tapped on the rim of her glass, "it is like this!"

There and then, my instinct told me to nip this "romance" in the bud, so I got up and left the joint. I spent the rest of the day and Sunday walking around until the cold got to me. The war had been over for ten years, but there were still quite a few people in the streets who looked like refugees. They would ask for a cigarette and take as many as they could grab when you held out an open pack. I soon learned to give them just one or two.

Monday morning finally came and I made my way to the I.G. Farben building, which was almost a city in itself. It looked like a gear fragment where six large building blocks made up the sprockets, and it had somehow survived the bombardments. Some say that it was deliberately spared by General Eisenhower, who had plans for it. He did, in fact make it his headquarters immediately following the war. This was once headquarters for the company that developed the Zyklon B gas used to kill millions of "Enemies of the German State," including Gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah Witnesses and Jews in concentration camps like Auschwitz. It eventually became a university. In 1955, when I stepped into one of its Paternoster elevators, it had become U.S. Northern Area Command, a giant filing cabinet and the place where could be found such things as the civilian personnel office. They used to call it the "Pentagon of Europe, a huge bureaucratic maze that one almost needed a map to negotiate. I took me some time to find the right building unit, let alone the office. Then I spent another hour in a waiting room until a friendly civilian lady beckoned me to follow her to her desk. She was American and she seemed intrigued by the fact that I had come all the way from Iceland in search of a job—would I care for a cup of coffee? 

When I handed her my papers, she took a cursory look at them and asked me for my passport. As soon as I produced my Icelandic passport, I knew something was wrong. She leafed through it, frowned, and told me she would be right back.

She returned with an Army lieutenant. "This is a foreign passport," he said, tapping the palm of his hand with it. There was something about the cadence of his voice that told me this was a problem as I nodded a quiet, "Yes."

Do you have a German work permit?", he asked. I indicated that I didn't so he explained that if they had a job for me, the Icelandic passport would not necessarily pose a problem, but that I absolutely had to have a work permit. I mentioned the letter I had sent from Iceland, and that their encouraging response had not mention that important detail. They had found my letter in their files, but it was written on official AFRS stationery and sent through military post, so they had assumed that I was a U.S. citizen. They had also been mislead by the fact that I was working on the air at AFRS in Iceland—it was highly irregular to hire a civilian as a broadcaster, especially a foreigner. Might I be hired by AFRS Frankfurt in some capacity if I had a German work permit? Yes, although perhaps not on the air, but he suggested that I apply for a permit from the German authorities, and come back to see them. I guess I couldn't hide my disappointment, nor could the nice lady veil her sympathy. She jotted down an address. "It is very near the Bahnhof," she said, handing me the slip of paper. Good, I knew where that was.

It was dark and I was in a gloomy mood when I left the I.G. Farben building and headed for my hotel. I had now stayed there three nights and Monday's check-out time had come and gone, so I had to sit down and take a serious look at my financial situation. It wasn't good. If I paid the hotel bill then and there—which I was still able to do, albeit barely—I would be left with a tram fare and no place to ride to, so I called Hanne in Copenhagen and told her I would need more money. We had some money put away, but in 1955 getting foreign currency was still a problem—the banks gave you just so much and we had already dipped into our quota. Not knowing how much longer I could stay at the hotel without paying my bill, I told Hanne to send the money to me c/o Poste Restante, in French that means "post that remains," and to any post office it means hold this until it is claimed by the addressee. Before American Express became the address away from home, it was Poste Restante.

On Tuesday morning, I went to the address given me by the lady at Civilian Personnel. It was, indeed, only about a block from the railway station and it turned out to be the office of the Fremdenpolizei, the police for foreigners. A surly clerk approached me from behind the counter—at nine o'clock on a cold wintry morning, he would obviously rather have been elsewhere, I shared that feeling. When I told him that I needed a work permit, he asked to see my visa. I put my passport on the counter and, for the second time in two days, the mere sight of it produced a frown. He flipped through it and shook his head. "Visum, visum, visum," he snarled. I said that I didn't have one. He demonstratively dropped the passport in front of me and said "Kein visum keine arbeitserlaubnis." I caught the glee in his voice, this fremdenpolizei bureaucrat seemed not to be too fond of foreigners or, for that matter, his job. I spotted the word "Visum" on a sign at the far end of the counter and asked if he could issue me one. My German was not at all good, so there was that barrier, but the man's hostility was so obvious that a younger clerk approached us. He actually had a friendly smile on his face. He told his grumpy co-worker that he would take over and, speaking excellent English, asked me what he could do to help.

It turned out that to obtain a work permit I had to have proof of employment and a visa that could only be applied for from a foreign country. I had to have entered Germany with a visa in hand. The clerk suggested that I go to nearby France or Belgium, not knowing that I could hardly afford to cross the street!

So, now began my little scoot-past-the-front-desk game as I made daily trips to the main post office in hopes of finding a letter from Hanne. The walk, a fairly long one, took me down Kaiserstrasse. Due to the cold weather and the fact that I was developing frost bites on my toes, I routinely walked through a department store that was almost a block long. This gave me a moment out of the cold and a chance to sit down and rest my feet.

Two or three days went by and there still was nothing for me to pick up at the post office window. However, there was a bill waiting for me at the front desk of the hotel—they were beginning to get a little nervous about me. Had it been a cheaper hotel, I'm sure I would have been put out in the street, but this one seemed remarkably tolerant, so I was able to tenuously hang in there. I was down to a few mark, so I now rationed myself, eating one sausage a day. I tried to pawn my watch, a rather expensive, gold-encased Gruen from the PX in Iceland, but Uncle said he would need proof of purchase for an item that expensive, so that didn't work. When Saturday came and I began my second week in Frankfurt, I made my usual trip down Kaiserstrasse, with a stop at the department store. My feet were really hurting at this point, so I had to walk slowly and rest longer at the store. I was doing just that when I was approached by a couple of GIs. They mistook me for an American and asked me how I was fixed for marks, they needed a couple of dollar's worth.

I can't tell you how good it felt to talk to someone who wasn't asking me to produce the right papers. I gave them the German money, about nine Deutsche Mark, and they gave me a couple of bucks in military script, which I could not use anywhere—but I didn't tell them that. One of the guys, Gus, asked me if I later on would want to go with them to a place called Mayer Gustle's. s hungry as I was for company, I didn't even have to think about it.

Of course there was nothing for me at the post office, so I whiled away the hours at the department store until it was time to meet my newfound friends. Mayer Gustle's turned out to be a typical German beer hall, complete with a Tyrolean band in lederhosen and forced sing-alongs. If you made a musical request, they dragged you up front and placed a hat on your head and a baton in your hand—that made you look silly and cost you a round of beer for the band. And let me tell you, that band could guzzle down some brew! It was a large room with typical wooden decor and a second tier of tables along the sides and rear, and it was filled with exuberant guests who sang along as they swung their beer steins back and forth, as  if keeping time with the music. Have you ever had the blues in the middle of a happy crowd of people? I had seen that in French movies, but now I was experiencing it and trying my best not to show it. As it turned out, this was but a prelude to a much worse experience, which I will tell you about in the next segment of this recollection. The fact that I had the good company of Gus and Joe made it a lot easier. For a moment, I was even able to forget that this would probably be my last night at the hotel—if they even let me in.

When we left the beer hall, Gus suggested that we grab a pizza at Die Blaue Grotte before they caught the truck back to their post. I had never heard of pizza until they mentioned it, but I became an instant fan and it was a pleasant departure from my sausage diet. That fund, my daily sausage allowance, was all but depleted when I met Gus and Joe, but I was less concerned than I ought to have been, because I had really had a very enjoyable evening. I tried to not think of my precarious situation at the hotel as I walked they guys to the railway station, where they would hop an Army truck that left at ten.

They were stationed northeast of Frankfurt, at Wildflecken, whose barracks had been home to the Waffen-SS, a notorious wing of the Nazi party. Just before he climbed onto the bed of the truck, Gus told me to visit them if I ever found myself in the neighborhood, "just ask for Company K."  Sure, I said to myself as I waved goodbye and stumbled towards the hotel. I thought of checking the post office first, but my feet were really giving me a hard time.

I deliberately waited until after midnight, because I had found it easier to slip past the night clerk. Another bill stared at me from the pillow of my turned up bed, and I knew that I had now stretched this stay to the limit.  I didn't get much sleep, but I came up with a plan. I would tell the hotel that I was going out of town for an overnight business meeting, and ask if I could leave my suitcase in storage. That way, I figured, the meter on my room would be stopped while I figured out how to get some money. My hope was, of course, that an envelope awaited me at the post office. I wanted to call Hanne and ask her what the status was, but my situation at the hotel was so precarious that I didn't want to do anything that might attract attention.

Sometimes, when one is brazen enough, one can get away with amazing things. I had not expected my out-of-town story to work, but it did. They took my suitcase and I left the hotel carrying only a small U.S. Army shaving kit bag that I had bought in the Keflavík PX.

I made it down Kaiserstrasse, pausing at store windows to somehow make my slow pace less conspicuous, and I made my usual stop at the department store. I was down to only five Deutschemark and the useless two dollars in military script. When the postal clerk, who now recognized me, returned to the window shaking his head, I went back to the department store and sat down to contemplate my next move. It was a crazy idea, but desperate times have a way of generating those, so I decided to make my way to the railway station and find out if I had enough money to get to Wildflecken. Of course, Gus never thought I would take him up on his invitation to visit them, but what else could I do? My optimism was bruised but not dead, I felt certain that if I just waited two or three more days, the money would be there and I could go home to Copenhagen.

When I found out that I had just enough money to get a round trip ticket to Wildflecken on the five o'clock rail bus, I bought it. Then I made another attempt to sell my gold watch, but ran into the same problem. I was standing at the entrance to the bahnhof, killing time, when a nearly hysterical American lady ran up to me and asked, "Mister, can you help me? I'm two dollars short and I have to catch a bus for Wiesbaden." I reached in my pocket and handed her my two dollars in script. She thanked me profusely and asked how she could get it back to me. I told her it was alright, I didn't need it back. Little did she know that a homeless man had given her his very last penny. A couple of hours later, I boarded the rail bus with only my ticket and the shaving kit.

I don't remember how long a trip it was, but the rail bus was obviously going up a mountain of sorts, I could look down through the darkness and see distant lights in what appeared to be a valley. It was also getting colder, so I wrapped my cashmere coat tightly around me. I had no idea what to expect when I reached my destination, but I somehow had an inkling that these tracks did not lead directly to Company K!

The rail bus station at Wildflecken
When we finally stopped and the conductor yelled "Wildflecken," I stepped into the cold darkness, leaving my two fellow passengers in their respective ends of the car. It was a relatively short platform with a station house that seemed abandoned. As the rail bus moved on into the night, I walked to the station house, hoping to find some sign of life. I didn't, but on the far side stood an idling Army bus. As I approached it, the driver opened the door and told me to "hop in." I was his only passenger, so he drove off as soon as I took a seat . "How was the old city?" asked the driver as we tore down a steep hill. He was making idle small talk. the details of which I don't recall. My mind was on my immediate future. Would I find Gus and Joe? Would they hate to see me? The bus was slowing down and I saw a guard house up ahead—it reminded me of Keflavík. An MP came around to the door and stuck his head in for a quick. I was worried at this point, but he just said "Okay, guys," and waved us on. So  much for security, I thought—at Keflavík I would have been required to show an ID, that awful blue button. I asked the driver if he could drop me off at Company K, which he did. I still couldn't believe how smoothly it all had gone, but luck was still with me, for no sooner had I stepped off the bus than I heard my name called. It was Gus! What an incredible coincidence, he had just come back from a movie.

I don't know who was more surprised, he or I, but his first question was "How the hell did you get past the gate?" I told him that I just took the bus. He was dumbfounded, because that was not supposed to be possible, but here I was, so he took me into the barracks and called Joe, who was equally speechless.

I told them that I needed to be back in Frankfurt in a couple of days and that I had come to Wildflecken in desperation. They took it very calmly and decided that the only way I could stay on post was to pose as a GI, so they found a set of fatigues, a cap and a pair of boots for me to stick my bloody feet into! They also came up with a bunk bed and, voila!, I was in the U.S. Army. Well, sorta, kinda...

It didn't cross my mind then, but it later hit me that Gus and Joe took an awful chance when they helped me out. If they are still around, they would be in their seventies and I wonder if they would recall that strange Scandinavian they rescued in the cold winter of 1955. They wouldn't even know that they rescued me, for I never had contact with them again. My time as an impostor was relatively uneventful. I spent my couple of days at Wildflecken in the old SS barracks, sometimes venturing outside for a brief, painful walk, flawlessly saluting my superiors, as I had learned from observation at Keflavík. As more good luck would have it, Joe was a cook in one of the mess halls, so I ate well, courtesy of Uncle Sam, who—of course—was not yet my uncle. I even saw a movie at the post theater, courtesy of Gus and Joe, who knew my situation and never once made me fel like the intruder I was. 

When I told Gus that I had better return to Frankfurt, he was reminded of another problem: how to get me off the post. Joe found the solution, he borrowed a friend's Volkswagen and said he would drive me up to the railway station, but that he would have to leave me there and return immediately. That meant spending a couple of hours in the station's waiting room, but I didn't mind—my nightmare, I thought, would soon be over.

Joe was a resourceful guy. He knew that he could not allow the MPS at the entrance to see me, so, just before we reached the gate house, which was on a fairly steep slope, he told me to duck out of sight, then he stalled the car, so we were actually coasting. As we approached the guard house, he yelled out, "Just trying to start her up, Sarge," and a moment later, we were down in the valley, around the bend, and out of sight in the darkness. Joe revved the old bug to the max as we climbed towards the station. Then I bid a hasty goodbye, thanked him for everything and heard him speed back down the hill as I entered the station's waiting room.

I should have brought something with me to read, there was nothing there but a bunch of schedules, not even fellow waiting passengers. I had been there for about a half hour when I decided, out of sheer boredom, to look at my return ticket. It was nowhere to be found!

So here I was in some small railway station high atop a desolate hill, with not a single penny and no ticket. My toes were still bleeding, the Army boots hadn't helped any, and I knew that if I managed to get back to Frankfurt, I would have no place to go. That money just had to be waiting for me at the post office. My immediate problem, however, was to get a rail ticket.

More to come.