I didn’t know what a frigate was when I was 10, but I was pretty sure the old-timey sailboat atop a bounding wave on the “There is no frigate like a book” poster at the Fountain City library had to be one. I thought about that as I toted home the books that I sat up reading late into the night, long after bedtime. I met Tarzan and Captain Hook. I chased tornadoes. I got to know Nancy Drew and Joan of Arc and Abraham Lincoln and Ebenezer Scrooge and the Rosenbergs. I went to Alaska and Tahiti. And I figured that Emily Dickinson, the poet who wrote those words, was right.
What I didn’t know was that she was a notorious recluse.
I also had an abiding belief that Americans were special. I hadn’t read de Tocqueville, who is credited with being the first to point out about this country’s uniqueness, and the term “exceptionalism” hadn’t been invented yet, but I would have agreed with the concept. We were the good guys.
I wasn’t well traveled. Except for a couple of family trips to my mother’s hometown in Puerto Rico, the farthest I got from Knoxville was a North Georgia bible camp where my grandfather was the music director. It was reading that took me to parts unknown.
I ran off and married a Nashville boy when I was 19. He was 20. Joe had two career choices when he graduated from UT: enlist or get drafted. So, he joined the Army and we moved to New Jersey because Uncle Sam had decided that a guy with a journalism degree ought to go to microwave radio school. We hated the draft and the war it was supporting, but Army life was a melting pot, and we loved seeing new places and making new friends. Weekends in New York City introduced us to a whole new world.
The Army sent Joe to West Germany after he finished radio school and assigned him to a small American unit under the command of the British who were operating a NATO installation complete with a cache of atomic bombs that he sneaked me in to see – another sight I couldn’t have read about in a book.
I’d joined him that summer with our newborn daughter, Rachael. We rented an upstairs apartment in the home of a very kind German couple near the RAF base where we bought our groceries, got our medical care and went to the movies. A visiting pediatric nurse (they called them “sisters”) came to the apartment to look after Rachael. It was such a luxury – another thing we didn’t have in the USA, and which I hadn’t read about in books.
I wasn’t that crazy about some other English stuff, though. Food tended to have the most appallingly unappetizing names. Spotted dick? Bangers? Toad in the hole? A disgusting mix of beer and lemonade called Shandy? I sure as heck had never read about that stuff and probably wouldn’t have believed it if I had.
We knew that Joe would sooner or later be rotated to Vietnam, so we were determined to make the most of our time in Germany. And it was there that I had to admit that Emily Dickinson was wrong. Much as I loved books, there are a million things you can only learn by being there.
Like the fact that Germany was chock-full of walking wounded. I’d never seen so many maimed people – men, mostly – who were missing arms and/or legs or eyeballs. I saw motorized wheelchairs for the first time and came to understand a bit of the bloody hell that had blown the continent apart less than 25 years prior (I was 23 and had not yet processed what a very short time it had been since World War II).
Our landlords, Anni and Bruno, were very kind and accommodating, but Joe and I just couldn’t adjust to some of the inconveniences of living in a tiny rural village, primarily the lack of hot water. Anni had to fire up the boiler when we wanted to take a bath, and although she was willing, she didn’t understand why anybody needed to bathe more than once a week. She and Bruno had been young teenagers at war’s end, and they were mortally afraid of the Russians, who had earned a reputation as brutal occupiers. So Anni was convinced that we had been ordered to move back to the base because the Russians were poised to attack from their stronghold in East Berlin. Nothing we could say convinced her otherwise. I suppose I could have learned about this sentiment by reading a book, but Anni’s terror-stricken face brought home an unforgettable message.
Anni and Bruno loved Americans and we took their good will for granted. Everybody knew we were the good guys.
One of the biggest revelations to me was the fund drive for Bangladesh, which had experienced Noah-level flooding earlier that year. Thousands had been killed. Millions had been displaced. I’d heard about it on the news before I left the USA, but I had no clue that the Germans and the Dutch and the French and the Belgians and I don’t know who else were raising vast sums of money to help the Bangladeshis get back on their feet. The level of support that was being marshaled all across Europe was unlike anything I had ever seen back home, and it profoundly shook my notion that we, the Americans, were uniquely generous.
It’s a big world out there, full of good people like the citizens of the countries that share a border with Ukraine who are showing such incredible generosity to the four million new refugees who have been driven from their homes. With all due respect to Ronald Reagan, there’s more than one shining city on that hill.
And sometimes, you just have to be there.
Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.