The view from our "refrigerator" window. The mountains in back are part of the Odenwald where Frankenstein's Castle is located.
Our introductory apartment at 14 Moosbergstrasse in Darmstadt, Germany, would have been described in American terms as a second-floor walkup divided by a common hall that ends in a shared toilet.
The kitchen had no refrigerator. Perishable foodstuffs could be placed outside the living-room window as a cooler for perhaps 10 months of the year. With the advent of spring, birds became a problem. However, in contrast to most apartments in Germany at the time, our kitchen boasted blazing hot water heated by a gas flame that activated when the tap was turned on, plus a gas stove with a large oven.
The living room was limited by a head-bumping attic-roof slant. It also contained a daybed, two chairs, a table with a red-check tablecloth and a pot-bellied stove. For George, the stove was an eternal dilemma. To get the bricks of coal lighted in the morning it was necessary to open the window for fresh air. But failure to ignite on the first try left the room freezing cold. We finally bought an electric heater at the PX and managed to eke out of a tight budget enough to pay the fierce bill.
This also reinforced the Germans’ impression that Americans are all rich if a lowly U.S. private-first-class could afford to heat electrically.
The interior bedroom across the hall next to the kitchen was a joke: little more than a closet with barely enough clearance to straighten the bed covers and certainly not enough space to house the addition to the family due in July. When Debbie arrived on July 15, we moved our bed and her crib into the living room and all but abandoned the “bedroom.”
No bathtub or shower anywhere, which was also common in most German housing at the time. The toilet was utilitarian, but shared with another tenant on our floor, Frau Hitter.
The toilet stall had a skylight that George propped open at night for fresh air.
Curiously, every morning Frau Hitter would knock on our door and ask us in German and sign language to close the skylight at night – a suggestion we pretended not to understand. Alas, on the morning after the first cold snap of November we opened the toilet to find about 3-feet of snow piled on the throne through the open skylight.
Later, Earlene scrounged up a galvanized tub for her Saturday-night baths. George always had the barracks shower at Stars and Stripes. I know. Life isn’t fair.
George arrived in Darmstadt in September 1956 and started searching for housing in a tough, bombed-out market. The military provided no family housing for draftees, and Darmstadt still contained a swath of devastation a half-mile wide from one end of town to the other (missing 14 Moosbergstrasse by about half a block. The end of our hall contained a blanket-draped doorway to nowhere overlooking a bomb crater and desolation.
With all the inconveniences, however, we were housed as well or better than 75 percent of the German urban dwellers of that time.
Warned by the military that no government housing would be provided for draftees, a few of the wives decided to come anyway. Earlene never was one to listen to the military, and booked her passage on the SS Ryndam in a crowded stateroom with three other wives from our Fort MacArthur Nike missile unit almost before George could find his name on the overseas levy.
George reached his assignment at Stars and Stripes in mid-September 1956 with little time to pick up an M-1 rifle in Frankfurt, check in at Stars and Stripes and go to work, sew on the USAREUR patch, find housing and catch a train to Rotterdam to meet the SS Ryndam on Oct. 1. At that, he was so green at European travel that on the train north he was puzzled by the restroom identification. At one end of the train what was obviously a toilet was labeled WC. At the other end the toilet was labeled 00. When he saw a woman come out of WC, he reasoned that 00 must be men’s. Then a woman went into 00. He spent a worrisome few minutes before he realized Germany, and all of Europe, had unisex restrooms.
Stripes was less military that most of the Army units in Germany at the time, and George was given time to catch the train to Rotterdam. Loretta Kennan, the wife of another draftee at Stripes, used her car to drive him around on the dreary search for accommodations. Our Karmann Ghia had been ordered but was a hot item in its second year of production and would not arrive until early November. George’s memory of the housing search was a dreary scene of German families on short rations eating their potato soup while an Ami was looking at a section of the house they probably had to rent to make ends meet.
And yet we left Moosberg Strasse with memories that may look more adventuresome and enchanting in the rear-view mirror, but will stay with us forever.
At that time the Germans had a restrictive meat-and-potatoes appetite range, and even then meats and coffee were scarce and expensive in German markets. Since the advent of postwar prosperity, the Germans have broadened eating habits, but the smells of Earlene cooking delicious (to us) tacos, beans and enchiladas ruined Frau Hitter’s day. She would invade our kitchen, lift up the lid of a pot of chili and turn up her nose. “Riecht nicht gut!” she would exclaim, which means “stinks.”
So Frau Hitter and Earlene worked out an arrangement. Frau Hitter taught Omi how to cook roulladen, kasseler rippespeer, all the forms of schnitzel, spaetzle, German potato salad, red cabbage (rotkraut) – dishes that our family has grown to love. Along the line Earlene learned kitchen Deutsch, which later expanded into shopping German and then moderate fluency. Danke, Frau Hitter.
In September 1957, George was discharged and the next day took a civilian reporting job at Stripes that included housing. So we moved immediately to a larger apartment on the ground floor with all the facilities that were missing on Moosbergstrasse. Within a year we reached the top of the list for a government apartment at Stripes where we lived until our family, then numbering six, departed from Europe in 1963.