Original Publication November, 13, 2013
They say writers have to write about the things they have experienced in life. I don’t know who “they” is but the advice is quite sound. Write from personal experience and emotionally you’ll never go wrong.
My life has been a giant hors d’oeuvres tray of countless experiences. I have lived many lives—teacher, speaker of several foreign languages, traveler to every continent on Earth, extended resident in many different countries and cultures, actor, screenwriter, playwright and novelist. I served three years in the military’s intelligence unit The Army Security Agency.
I have first hand witnessed wars, revolutions, natural calamities and practically every type of social interaction for good or bad. I write about what I have lived. My writings are humorous, filled with irony and satirical in tone. Ideally my intent is to bring about social and cultural improvement and understanding.
Starting with this blog, I will begin presenting from time to time bits and pieces of events which have made up my life and which I have used in my writing. We begin with this one:
THE HATTIESBURG HONOR
Hattiesburg is named after a woman named Hattie. This small town is located in the very southern part of the state of Mississippi and was always a topic of conversation when I was growing up. You see, my mother went to college there when the present Mississippi Southern University was called Mississippi Normal College.
Skip forward to the years 1960-61. I had gone to Cuba in 1958 to teach English but a certain revolution quickly took place and before long I was a persona non grata. Fidel Castro’s people kicked me out and I went to Florida for a while. I decided I should work on my Masters Degree in Spanish and possibly line myself up a good paying college job. So in the fall of the aforementioned 1960, I went via Middlebury College in Vermont for a year’s graduate program at the University of Madrid.
The following summer in 1961, after finishing up my academic year in Madrid, I decided instead of returning to the USA right away, I should travel a bit. I had signed a contract to teach that fall at Wake Forest College in Winston-Salem, NC, so I came up with trekking-around money by borrowing against my future paychecks.
I went all over Europe. My second week of August 1961, I ended up in Berlin, the last stop before flying back home from Stockholm. At the time of my arrival, the city was divided into West Berlin and East Berlin but no wall divided them. If you wanted to visit East Berlin, you merely took a taxi and went from a rather recovered West Berlin to a very impoverished East Berlin.
They each had different currency. The West German Mark was solid and the paper notes looked healthy. The East German Mark was anemic and the coins looked as though they had been minted out of beer cans. The paper Marks reminded me of tissue paper. The official exchange rate was the same for both Berlins—4 Marks to the Dollar.
My last day I decided to visit East Berlin. I took a taxi to what was considered the heart of East Berlin—Alexandraplatz. Everything seemed dull and shoddy. Actually this area was the center of the former Nazi capital. Most of the grand old public buildings and churches were still in ruins. I looked around for a place to change some dollars for East German Marks but saw no such place. Presently a man came up to me and asked if I needed to change any currency. He then offered me instead of the official 4 Marks per dollar, 10 Marks. I gave him a ten-dollar bill and he quickly counted out 100 marks in tissue paper and beer can money. He quickly exited the scene and I continued on my walk but saw nothing I could buy with all those East Marks.
Finally I noticed a large restaurant with quite a few people having lunch. It was crowded and pretty well put together for East Berlin. I decided to go in and use up my 100 East Marks. I had to share a table with an old couple because sitting by myself was impossible.
I looked at the menu and found that cabbage soup was half a Mark and other items on the menu were just as inexpensive. I saw that I was going to do well to spend maybe twenty marks in the place. I ordered lavishly and was amazed at the quantity of food that arrived at my table. The old couple looked so thin and eyed my food. They were just having cabbage soup and that was it. I felt sorry for them and, playing big spender, insisted on ordering them all sorts of things. They looked like they had died and gone to heaven.
Even though I didn’t speak German, we did manage to say a few words. All of a sudden, they jumped up from the table and without saying good-bye or taking a final bite, went scurrying from the place. I had no idea if I had insulted them or what.
A moment or two later I looked up and there were four policemen standing at my table. One asked me in heavily accented English, “I want to see currency exchange paper.”
Of course I did not have one as I had procured my Marks on the black market. The same policeman said, “You will come with us.”
I knew I was in some kind of deep trouble and honestly have never been so scared in my life. Not another word was said until we got to the Police Station. They took me to a room where a very unfriendly officer was sitting. One of the policemen who had brought me talked in emotional German with the guy for about five minutes. Then the man behind the desk turned to me and asked for my passport and wallet. He put them in a box that resembled a shoe box along with the rest of the contents from my pockets. He then said something to another policeman. That man took my arm and escorted me to a room. It was completely empty of furniture. He then left me without a word.
Now I became afraid I’d never see my parents in Mississippi again. I stood, then leaned against a wall a bit later because I was getting very tired. A small wooden window opened up and a voice said, “Stand.” I stood again and shifted weight from one leg to another. I have no idea how long I was there. I would say in all actuality, an hour but it felt like three days. Every so often the little wooden window would open and people would talk to one another.
All of a sudden, the door of the room flew open. A man in a nice, tweed sport coat and dark trousers came into the room. He looked at me for a long moment and then he smiled pleasantly at me as he fingered my passport.
“You are from Mississippi in the USA? “
“Yes,” I replied trying to show a little southern friendliness.
“Do you know where Hattiesburg is?”
“Yes,” I replied. “ I’ve heard a lot of talk about the place because my mother went to college there.”
He went to the door and ordered two chairs brought in. He indicated for us to sit. He then looked at me and asked, “Have you ever heard of Rommel’s Afrika Korps battle in North Africa in 1943?”
I told him I had vaguely heard of it but wasn’t too sure about the details. He proudly told me he had been in that campaign. Rommel lost the battle though and also his command. Over 200,000 Germans were taken prisoner. The Allies didn’t know what to do with them. They decided that cargo ships were returning to the USA empty so it would be best to send the prisoners there.
He introduced himself as Werner and said he had been sent to a Prisoner of War Camp in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. He said the people were so nice there at Camp Shelby where he was placed. The prisoners could work in the downtown stores and earn eighty cents a day, which he said they spent on all sorts of things. He said when the war was over and he was repatriated, he realized how nice the people of Hattiesburg had been to him, He decided if in the future he could do somebody from that little town a favor, it would be his honor. He then looked at me squarely and said, “You’re it. You’re the Hattiesburg honor. “
Werner drove me back to West Berlin. He emphasized to me that currency violation was a very sever offense and only because he was a very high official, he could vouch for me and get me off. I could not believe my good fortune. We shook hands and said good-bye. He left to return to East Berlin. I checked out the next morning and headed to Stockholm. It was that exact day, August 13th, that the Russians and East Germans put up the Berlin Wall. I humorously wonder from time to time if I had anything with that wall going up. 🙂
I do know that about a year ago out of the blue I decided to Google Hattiesburg and Prisoner of War. Not only did I get a lot of interesting information but two very good pictures of POWs at Camp Shelby. Could one of the guys in the photos be Werner?
(Featured Photograph: The POW uniform consisted of “wife-beater” undershirts and pants with POW stenciled on them. If they worked in stores in downtown Hattiesburg ,they would wear khaki or black shirts so as to blend in more with the locals.)