Thursday, February 18, 2016

Americans in West Germany During the Cold War: Don't Piss Off the Polezei!

During the height of the Cold War in the 70s and 80s, West Germany had a higher population of American citizens than ten states.  One million Americans including 250,000 soldiers and airmen and their families, lived in West Germany.  The 1970 census says more Americans were living in West Germany than in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Alaska, Hawaii, both Dakotas, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. 

Most of those Americans lived in “Little America” military communities, shopped on Base/Post and never learned German.  Sometimes, they were rudely introduced to differences in German culture.

In 1977, I drove from Wiesbaden to Frankfurt Airport to pickup the wife and child of one of my soldiers.  The post-draft Army recruited very different soldiers from when I enlisted in 1972.  During the draft, although mostly Southern, I met people from the entire country. By 1977, that was over.  Every new soldier on my tank crew or in my platoon was from the South or the West. 

When I went through basic training in 1972, no one in my platoon was married.  By 1978, when we got a replacement, I would expect he was 19 years old, married, had one child and his 17-year-old wife was pregnant with their second child.  The pregnant wife was the reason he enlisted.  That and the mill or factory or garage or warehouse where he worked closed or laid workers off. 

The woman I met at the airport on that hot July day was older than average, but so was my soldier.  He was 21.  She was 20.  She was pregnant and had a two-year-old son who was quiet like his Dad.  Mom was not happy.  And she was not quiet.  The flight was long.  The day was hot.  I had a 1969 VW Beetle.  It was not air-conditioned.  While we walked through the terminal, I listened to how difficult the trip was for her.  She told me how unfair it was that there was no base housing for her PFC husband.  She asked if I could get them on-base housing. 

I could not help with that problem.

We left the airport on the A3 Autobahn.  While my aging Beetle was moving, the car was not terribly hot.  The breeze from every car on the road passing us at about twice our speed helped with cooling. We turned onto A66 toward Wiesbaden.  Two miles later, everyone stopped.  We had no idea what was going on, but we were in a VW Beetle at Noon in July sitting still on the Autobahn.  I shut the air-cooled engine off until we actually moved. 

An hour later we arrived at a Polezei check point.  The Baader Meinhof gang was active at that time and the German Police were searching cars.  The melting Mom beside me was angry at the US Government, the Army, Germany, NATO and most of the world for her current sweat-soaked state. 

One of the policemen approached my window and asked for identification and about the purpose of our trip.  My passenger said “What the Hell do they need ID for.  We’re Americans. . .”  Then she stopped in mid sentence.  I looked to my right and another Polezei officer had come to her window, leveled his automatic weapon at my passenger, and said, “Identification!”
She complied.  More importantly, she shut up.

After we were out of sight on the roadblock and on our way to Wiesbaden, I reminded my passenger we were in another country and subject to their laws.  And that she should do whatever Polezei said.  She nodded.  We were quiet for the rest of the trip. 

Apparently, looking down the barrel of an MP5K submachine gun that the Polezei officer was carrying can bring a whole bunch of cultural awareness to an American on her first trip overseas. 

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