It was terrifying to arrive in Germany, just 19 years of age, days before Christmas. I didn’t know anyone in my new Army unit. Snow was heavy. It snowed every day and there was at least three feet of fluffy powder on all the communications vehicles that were parked in a motor pool, just outside the barracks.
The German town was enchanting; post-card perfect Southern Bavaria, a village identified as Ansbach on old maps reflecting East and West Germanies. I was alone and didn’t know a soul. I wished to be home, under the tree, opening gifts with my siblings: Bill, Barron, Bobby and Bonnie.
Two new roommates sat silently bored on their bunks as I silently stirred on my side of the room, cleaning out my new wall locker, removing trash that a soldier who lived out of the box before I moved in, carelessly left behind.
I placed my Amy Grant and Sandy Patti cassette tapes in a shoe box inside my black foot-locker where Army regulation for rooms and personal items specified.
Specialist Davitch, one of my new roommates with whom I shared a bunk, suggested that I put in some music. He was merely a kid too and from Detroit.
After I perfectly assembled tightly rolled wool socks into rows of twinky-like confections, Davitch invited me to explore the town with him. It was Saturday and there were no formations to make the next day–
“You should get out of this room,” The lazy-ass remarked. “I suppose you need a guide,” Davitch said while smiling mischievously. His face was covered in acne like I had suffered when I was sixteen. He was scrawny and grew his dirty-brown hair longer than what appeared to be Army regulation. Like a nerd stuck in the seventies, it was parted down the middle of his head. My head was still shaven like a q-tip. I missed my hair so much. I felt ugly bald, like Davitch much have with so much acne. I was so lonely and relieved that a stranger took the time to care. I needed company. It was Christmas.
“I’ve already been out exploring,” I said. “I went downtown to the center of town to the Christmas market…”
“You mean Krist Kringle Market,” Davich interrupted.
“Yes. It was amazing. There was a clown with a real bear on a leash. It didn’t make much sense, but it was cool.”
“You could get lost if you go out alone. The cobble stone streets are misleading and in all this snow, it’s hard to find them sometimes. Turn down the wrong corner and you could end up in Czechoslovakia. You should learn to speak German fluently as I have, but most soldiers don’t. That’s because Germans speak rather decent English as a second language. When you go out exploring on the surface as most soldiers do, you can speak English in every bar or place of business and never enjoy the experience of Europe as me. You haven’t gone to a German bar yet, have you? Let me take you out, Private Taylor. What’s your first name?”
“Charlie, or Charles, but I don’t drink.”
“They ever call you Chuck?”
“I have an uncle Chuck. Why not try a German beer? You came all the way to Germany and aren’t going to try their beer. It’s what the Germans are known for.”
“Do we have to wear our uniforms when leaving post?” I asked, innocently. I was fresh out of basic training. I didn’t know that the Army could be so relaxed. There was so much snow. I didn’t have boots with me– just my black Army jump boots– which seemed, while in the Army, so unfashionable to wear with jeans. I had just left Ft. Gordon, Georgia where it was still relatively warm and winter wardrobes were something that one did not want to clutter wall lockers and traveling duffle bags with.
“No. You should never wear your uniform while off-duty. There are Communist spies everywhere in Ansbach. We’re a communications battalion. Remember that. Learn to fit in, Charlie. Get in your civies. I’m going to take a shower first,” Davich advised
“I’m going to shower too, but what will I wear on my feet,” I asked.
We headed to the latrine– a large, cold room filled with at least a dozen stalled toilets and an open shower room. The latrine was located on the right side of the hall, midway down a corridor that served at least fifty rooms. The barracks reminded me of a castle. Ceilings were well over thirty feet high and the walls were cemented. The floors under my flip-flopped feet were of stone. Although it was freezing outside my new home felt warm. The stone castle seemed heated volcanically from beneath. Perhaps the Army was not going to be as terrible as I had imagined. Other soldiers headed to the showers were dressed in fluffy housecoats. I would get a robe, I told myself, holding my black shaving kit over my privates, wrapped in just a brown army issue bath towel.
Unlike American shower heads, in the refurbished World War II Nazi barracks that made up my new home, push-button showers were standard. There was no control of water temperature. I was confused and embarrassed, standing naked and dumb in front of so many strangers who were a part of a platoon that I had yet to know, trying to figure out how to start the water.
Soldiers faced the white tiled walls of the shower room with faces lathered and eyes closed to nakedness around them. I stole glances of them while reaching for shampoo, only to be caught, red-eyed, by Specialist Davitch who just smiled at me devilishly as his pores opened up and the pimples seemed to seep under the extreme pressure of water that in my opinion was a little too hot. My fair white skin was turning red. My ass, upon which the powerful stream of water was aimed was like a target. Davich winked at me.
Gays in the military? I asked myself.
At least I wouldn’t be the only one. My roommate was gay! What more could a soldier ask for in an overseas duty station.
We returned to our room to get dressed and our roommate, Fred Foster remained silent during our commotion as to whether I could squeeze into size nine, civilian boots.
“I see you listen to Amy Grant,” Foster said. They were the first words he had spoken to me after sleeping for three nights in the same room with him.
“Yes. I saw her in concert once.”
“I’m going to Bible study tonight, off-post. I invite you to join me. I know you don’t drink.”
I looked at Davich. He shrugged his shoulders and gave up trying to keep me company over Christmas.
Foster appeared to be in his mid twenties and his rank– E4 and thick five-o’clock shadow confirmed this. He was mysterious to me during the first three nights I slept in the room. He was always careful never to undress in front of me or Davitch and he slept in his uniform which I thought must have been so uncomfortable. He smelled somewhat and had a dirty, Pig Pen flair, but his age and olive skin intrigued me. Foster was reclusive like me, choosing not to hang out with the majority of the platoon in the day room during off hours– drinking beer and acting silly most of the time. He read a bible from time to time but mostly watched re-runs of VHS tapes he had– recordings of shows in America that soldiers in Germany did not have access to.
A photograph of a woman holding a baby boy sat atop Foster’s foot locker. I assumed he was married and his wife had yet to arrive in Germany and he was forced to live alongside lower-ranking soldiers in the barracks during the time of transition.
Davich agreed that there was far too much snow to go drinking in anyway. I went with Foster to Bible study, ashamed that the Army had not truly cured me of my homosexuality. But the invitation by Foster seemed appropriate at the time– it was Christmas and I wanted to be in church. I would have plenty of time to get to know my roommate Davitch as well, but it felt right, following God, being new in Germany at Christmas.
Davitch quickly finished dressing and tossed his dog tags on his bunk– an act of defiance on military standards. Soldiers were never to leave post in civilian clothing without their dog tags…
(To Be Continued…)