Living on the Economy in Florstadt, Germany, 1973

Finally Dad got home for dinner. We never knew exactly when he would be home. In 1973, Dad was well into his fourth year as a Drill Instructor at Fort Knox.

Each batch of recruits under his care in basic training was different, with each cycle requiring a different amount time and attention—and sometimes things happened at the end of the day and he was late for dinner.

We sat down and began to pass around the serving bowls of food my mom had tried to keep warm and fresh for over an hour.

He cleared his throat and said, "Guess where we're going?" This caught all of us off guard. "We've got orders for Friedburg, Germany."

There was silence for about 10 seconds. Dad looked at me and said, "Don't sit there like a knot on a log, Vann, pass the green beans!"

We knew this day would come—we had been at Fort Knox right at four years . . . an eternity if measured in military time. But we were not prepared to hear the words right at this moment.

I was both disappointed and excited about the change. We had moved to where Uncle Sam wanted us to go as long as I could remember—I was used to the moving, but it was the sudden realization that something new and dreadful and wonderful and scary—all at the same time—that I never got used to.

Conversation at the table shifted from the usual Q and A, with Dad asking the questions, to our quizzing him about the upcoming move.

Could I keep more personal items since my brother had moved on to college the year before? When would the packers be here?  What day would we report at the airport? How long was the list for quarters?

During my Junior year of high school at Fort Knox High School, I had come out of my shell considerably, even going so far as to join a theatre group, mentored by an English teacher, Mrs. Heirs, and I acted in a one-act play.

I didn't have a girlfriend so there was no angst of leaving behind someone I was really close to, but I had made several friends during my three years of high school, and our theatre "troupe" was as close knit as you could get being  Military Brat.  I was looking forward to being a senior, and having some of the status that comes with being a senior, and being the second in my family to graduate from Fort Knox High School. But it was not to be.

Now I was heading to Germany, to a new school, Frankfurt American High School, and would have to start all over with making new friends and finding new points of reference.

Germany Bound
While I had formed some great friendships during my high school years at Fort Knox, it was time for a change. I was glad to be leaving Fort Knox. I felt the school was too strict and there was definitely not enough creative outlets for me. Also, my older brother had been Valedictorian and involved in just about every club and organization during his junior and senior years, and it was difficult living in his shadow and trying to live up to pre-conceived expectations by teachers who had taught him.

We had lived in Mannheim, Germany, just a few years earlier, from 1962 to 1966, also during the Cold War. I had fond and vivid memories of our time in West Germany, and this, combined with the adventure that lay ahead of a new school, and being a senior, made it difficult to think about much else as the days started to drag by.

Dad went on ahead of us, in mid-April. Dad wrote my mother, who then relayed news and information we needed, such as "Stay out of trouble at school—or else you will have to deal with me." Or, "Be sure to help your Mother."—things I did not really need to be reminded of, but my younger sisters did.

We had moved up the list for  post quarters by a few names, but we would have to live on the economy until quarters became available. We might be stuck living in a town near Friedburg for as much as seven or eight months. This news didn't really register with me—I was trying to finish out the last grading period, and was in the middle of helping a friend with an "underground" newspaper—a protest paper—that probably would get both of us into trouble when it came out.

My mother, myself and two younger sisters were left to deal with the movers, cleaning of the quarters, shipping the car, and our final transportation from Fort Knox to McGuire AFB, then on to Germany.

Having been through several moves before, we got through it all and with just a few suitcases between the four of us, we flew to what was then called West Germany, as at this time Germany was still divided into East and West, with the Soviets controlling East Germany, and posing a threat to the rest of Germany and Europe.

After a long, uneventful flight by jet, we finally landed in Frankfurt.

Welcome to Florstadt
Dad met us at the airport and helped us get through customs. His Chrysler Coronet 440 had made the trip over to Germany without a scratch.

It seemed out of place at the airport parking lot, and was almost as wide as the parking space itself. Fortunately, most of the German cars around him were small and we were able to get into the car without scratching the cars on either side of the monster American car.

We left Frankfurt, and soon found ourselves out in the country, and we wound through several towns on our way to Florstadt.

Dad's new HQ and office was actually in Friedburg, but there were no quarters available yet for us, but we were on "the list". In the meantime, we were going to be living in a small town called Florstadt. Being jetlaged at the time, I don't remember too much about the car trip.

Living on the economy meant we would live off-post, away from the conveniences of post such as the PX, commissary, hospital, movie theater, barber, library and other amenities we had grown so accustomed to at Fort Knox.

Dad had found a small rental house. It was a one story house, with your typical red tile roof, and our landlord was a friendly German man in his fifties, named Carl. There was virtually no back yard and only a couple of strips of grass in the front yard.

This was a far cry from the huge yard we had in Fort Knox.  Cutting this lawn would take all of of five minutes—I liked it this sort of German efficiency.

Driving through Florstadt, I was remembering the large apartment buildings we had lived in a decade earlier, when we lived in Mannheim. Mannheim had dozens of large apartment buildings for the American families, and no small, single family house that I knew of.

This sleepy little town, nestled between large farms was made up mostly of one and two story houses, with typical small town winding streets—a totally different look from the U.S. housing area in Mannheim, and very different from the sprawling housing areas scattered over Fort Knox.

Settling In
Later on I learned that we were one of about four American families living in Florstadt. During the 6 months we lived in Florstadt, our paths never crossed though I kept an eye out for obvious signs such as large American gas guzzlers, or other cars with the obvious green car tag with black lettering, but never saw anyone.

In Mannheim, all the military families lived on the "post" which contained a small PX, commissary, movie theater, schools and everything we needed for daily life. We only encountered Germans who were let into the post to work in maintaining the apartment and office buildings, and a few vendors, so my exposure to Germans was more like a tourist experience when we would go out on day trips in the early 1960s.

Florstadt was totally different. We lived as the Germans lived, in a sense, so it was a great experience to observe daily life, and the people we were potentially defending if World War III were to break out.

Dad would take the car into work, stranding us, but like most German towns, whatever you needed was within walking distance. We discovered a bakery a couple of streets over and a shop that sold lunch meat. 

There was a nearby church, which we heard—frequently. The church bells rang at all hours of the day, a far cry from the many different bugle calls that were broadcast over Fort Knox throughout the day. The bells clanging seemed so loud at first, but after a few days it was just part of the town's ambiance, and eventually I figured out what time of the day they were marking.

My room, which was at the end of the house, had a roll up metal shutter, which most bedroom windows had throughout Florstadt. The shutter made a metallic scraping noise as it was raised and lowered, but allowed you to block the light and let some air in.

As the town woke up each day, you could hear shutters opening, and along the street we lived on, down-filled comforters were hung out the windows to air out.

Unlike Fort Knox, where we had window air conditioners to help us through the heat of the summer, in Florstadt, the house was cool and there was no air conditioning. As the summer wore on, we opened windows and usually a breeze would blow through the house.

During the first few days in our new home, we adjusted to the time difference, and my sisters and I took walks through the town, and found the local bakery and what we considered a deli, where all sorts of unfamiliar packages and perfectly delightful smells which invited us in to spend what few Deutsche Marks we had.

I bought a large loaf of dark German bread, and treated my sisters to some Gummi Bears, which I had not seen for many years. I looked for the "sour sticks" I enjoyed as a child in Mannheim, but they did not have any, but Tic Tacs were all the rage.

In a few days the jet lag wore off, and while we were glad to finally be in Germany, the culture shock began to set in.

We had lived at Fort Knox for 4 years, with seemingly endless cycles of new recruits coming in, and graduation ceremonies a few weeks later. We had grown used to having access to the PX, Commissary, libraries and other recreation facilities, and with my dad being both Father and Mother to his recruits, we saw little of him during the week and on Saturday. On Sundays he napped and rested. We did not travel off post very often, except for a brief excursion to Elizabethtown, about 20 minutes away.

My mother was always able to make new friends and looked at the bright side of life, no matter what the circumstances. But living in Florstadt with a language barrier, we felt a bit isolated from the other Americans who were also living in Germany.

Finally Saturday rolled around and Dad took us all to Friedburg, dropping me and my sisters at the library while Mom and dad stocked up on some pantry items at the tiny commissary on post. There was something comforting about the library and the Dewey Decimal System. It was a lot like the Army itself—always the same, no matter where it was assigned.

For the next few days, we enjoyed quiet days, reading books and magazines, waiting on our household goods to arrive.

I did receive a letter from my good friend, Tom. Our underground newspaper was printed and distributed around the school, and copies were confiscated. The principal and vice-principal were upset of course. Much as I wanted to see everyone's reaction to the paper, I was glad to be in Germany, and glad my Dad had a new commanding officer in Friedburg.

I learned recently after re-connecting with Tom that his father, a Chaplain at Fort Knox, did get called in front of his C.O. about the incident. I am sure this went in his military record and looking back, I am not sorry I helped to put out the paper, but I am very sorry that my actions affected someone else who had no knowledge of what we were up to.

Driving in Germany

I had taken Driver's Education during my junior year and I had easily passed my driver's test and had been driving for several months in Kentucky before we came over to Germany. While I was only seventeen, and you could not get a German driving license until you were eighteen, since I had a valid state-side license, I could get a driver's license, provided I passed a written test.

I studied the road sign book and the written rules of the road, remembering how terrible many of the drivers in Germany were during the early 1960s. It was common then for drivers to make obscene gestures at other drivers or to honk their horn and flash their lights if they felt you weren't driving fast enough.

I can remember us traveling on Saturday day trips, and my Dad using his cussing "code" since we kids were in the car, such as, "You dirty so and so."  Once in a while he would let slip some German cuss words, which my brother and myself immediately learned and filed away for future use, when were out of earshot of our parents.

With mandatory driver education courses required to get driving licenses, and a very strict point system for both speeding and driver behavior, most of the drivers were on their best behavior, except for Autobaun, where there was a need for speed.

Though Dad warned me not to expect to pass the test the first time—it was tough and the test failure rate was about 65%, with a few of my Dad's friends taking the test three times to pass, I passed it the first time and got my license.

Of course I had to endure almost weekly mini-lectures from Dad about not exceeding the speed limit with the car, his beloved Plymouth Coronet 440, which was paid for and our only means of transportation.

I would take Dad into work at Friedburg, and then take our laundry to a laundromat, and read some Robert Silverberg or perhaps some of Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, which seemed quite appropriate, and in a few hours I was finished with laundry and on my way back to Florstadt, enjoying the bright sunshine and cautiously passing farmers in tractors hauling manure, which you could smell before you could see them.

Comments (1)

Said this on 11-28-2011 At 03:00 pm

Hello Vann:   Thank you for taking me for a trip back in time.  In 1972, I was a newlywed GI wife living on the economy near Mannheim.   Back then, 3.19 D-Marks equalled a U.S. dollar.  I, too, remember the roll-down metal shutters and airing out the bed linens every morning.  And listening to AFRTS radio, since we had no TV.  We also had no car, but public transportation was close and affordable.  One-way fair costed 50 pfennigs (about 15 cents)  I will admit, however, it was a bit of a hardship toting duffle bags of laundry and hauling groceries on the buses and strassenbahns.  But we managed.  We had no phone either.   So, we wrote tons of letters to our friends and family in the States.

We were lucky enought to have American friends within walking distance, and we would all gather @ our local sports club/watering hole.  The proprietor and his wife, Werner and Suzie, served the best schnitzel.  Being without cars, phones, TV and other conveniences made us resourceful.  We would play cards and board games for hours and drink and laugh and totally enjoy ourselves.  Life was simpler then.  We were young and ready for any adventure.

Thanks again, for sharing your story and taking me back almost 40 years (seems like yesterday).   DANKE!

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