Monday, March 31, 2008

Brüder

Ed. note: In June 1999, my grandfather Alex M. Brand included a version of the following story in the tribute life-history album we presented to my father on the occasion of his retirement from teaching. The story was later published on April 9, 2000 as a special to the Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Sunday News in the “I Know A Story” column, under the title “In ’50s, young bicyclist had scare in Berlin.”

. . . . .

A Jan. 5 newspaper report stated a Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Policeman handcuffed a 9-year-old boy he had stopped for not wearing a bike helmet.

At age 81, I am reminded of how another policeman handled a graver biking offense (against the German public order) almost 50 years ago in West Berlin, at the time an “island in a Soviet sea.” In this case, my son Teddy, also 9, was the malefactor, and the year was 1953.

I was an undercover U.S. intelligence team leader. Teddy’s mother and I were living among the German populace in Dahlem Dorf, a residential and diplomatic suburb of West Berlin. Teddy joined us there, and soon acquired a very personable German playmate, Erwin (pronounced “Air-veen”), also 9. Erwin was actually a refugee “Volksdeutscher” (German by blood) whose family had fled the then-Yugoslavia with the German defeat in World War II.

At supper one evening, where Erwin was our frequent guest, I inquired as to the events of their day. The story tumbled out, in excited, alternating German and English, that they had been riding their bikes through a nearby park when a very solemn-looking policeman stopped them and informed them that they were breaking the law.

He read from a pocket-statute book he carried: “It is forbidden to ride bicycles in a public park where there is not a Radweg (bike path). Bicyclists must dismount and walk their machines through.”

With great solemnity he informed them that they were under arrest and were to proceed with him to the nearby Revier (precinct) Polizei station. Needless to say, the procession drew much amused attention from the many passersby.

Teddy said that his great concern was how he would explain his predicament to his father. He and Erwin gloomily pushed their bikes up to the long flight of steps leading to a forbidding stone building, looking every bit a dungeon.

As they turned to ask the Polizist what to do about their bikes, he suddenly smiled, and, recognizing Erwin as both villain and interpreter, lectured him and Teddy on bicycle-riding priorities, and the “Public Ordnung.” He ended with: “Und jetzt (and now) you brats, Hau ab! (‘beat it!’), and don’t do it again!” As Teddy exclaimed, “and Pop, we didn’t wait, we ‘Haued ab’ all the way home!”

Another time, about a year later, Teddy was less fortunate. He and Erwin were observed by a park attendant to be riding their bikes somewhat eccentrically on a Radweg. The attendant admonished them as to their “reckless driving.” The matter would have ended there, but for Teddy’s brashness.

Teddy was, by that time, quite fluent in street German. I had drilled him in his conduct when and if approached by strangers.

To Erwin’s dismay, as he related it to us, Teddy asked the civilian official “Hast du ein Ausweis?” (Do you have an ID?), using the familiar “du” (for “you”) instead of the formal “Sie,” which is mandatory address in German by juniors addressing elders. Erwin said he knew all was lost when he heard this gaffe from his pal.

The startled, or perhaps bemused, official produced not one, but two IDs. Teddy commented that he couldn’t read them, but they had his photos and “Stempels” (stamps), so he guessed they were OK.

Perhaps as a result of such disrespect, this august public servant proceeded to give both bikes an inspection complete to the most minute detail — Teddy said it took an hour, but perhaps it only seemed so long to the boys. The official filled out two forms that listed the defects found on their bikes, with the order that certificates would have to be submitted within a week to the local police that the bikes had been brought “up to snuff.” He then lectured the boys, and again, “Hau ab!”

. . . . .

Last week my father and his childhood accomplice, Erwin, met for the first time in over 50 years. They had found each other through the Internet. Erwin, my father learned, had recently retired from a 40-year career as an industrial insurance claims adjuster. A flurry of e-mails ensued and Erwin soon learned that my parents were planning a Scandinavian cruise this spring. They would be stopping briefly along the northern coast of Germany, near Rostock.

This was a fine excuse for Erwin to drive the three hours from Berlin to meet my parents in the Baltic port of Warnemunde, but soon his plans blossomed even further, and within a few short months he was in the States for the first time. For a week my parents and Erwin toured the local sites, including Amish Country and Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

Before moving on to Niagara Falls, New York City, and Washington, D.C., however, Erwin made the trip with my parents to Phoenixville. My mom joined Jenifer and me for a yoga class, leaving the two old friends to hang out at Artisan’s Café, and when we joined them it was clear that they were having no trouble catching up, and that for them time had no meaning. At one point, Erwin turned to me and smiled, explaining, “We are old now, and we may not have liked each other.”

After lunch we visited the expansive Valley Forge Historical National Park. Erwin and I discussed Napoleon and European battlefield tactics, the history of Prussia, and the use of mercenaries, such as the Hessians employed by General Washington during the Revolutionary War. Erwin’s knowledge of both European and U.S. history was formidable. He even corrected my pronunciation of the name of the Saxon antagonist of my Norse historical epic. I was pleased to be able to share with him one of my favorite local places.

I also shared with him the story of my first visit to Germany. The day after I graduated from high school, my sister and I were on a plane for Hamburg, where we would be part of an exchange program. For part of the trip, however, we traveled to West and East Berlin, going through Checkpoint Charlie during its last days of operation. (We even shook hands with Henry Kissinger in the Pergamon Museum). But the highlight of our Berlin excursion was our discovery of my father’s old house in Dahlem Dorf. Here was the home base of Erwin and my father’s adventures, of which my grandfather had told at many family dinners. There was the porch from which they gazed at their stars through the old telescope. At that moment, the stories gained a place. And now, 18 years later, all the characters were assembled.

. . . . .

One more story. It was winter in Berlin and my father had a special kind of sled. Erwin wanted to try it out, but being shy and not knowing my father asked a girl nearby what the new kid’s name was. “Teddy,” she replied. Erwin was dumbfounded. “Like the bear?” he asked. That couldn’t be right, he insisted, but the girl introduced the two, and the rest is history.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A More Perfect Union

Change will not come at another time, with another people. We are the ones we've been waiting for. — Barack Obama

Read the text of today's speech here.

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

After Completion

You could say I've been busy. For the first time in nearly nine years, I will no longer draw a paycheck as a professional technical writer/editor. Starting tomorrow I'll spend the daylight hours with a new title: Marketing Manager, Special Projects. Or, as I like to call it, marketing special ops.

It’s a strange feeling knowing that I’ll no longer be a software “documentalist,” as we in the department jokingly referred to ourselves. We so crazy! What’s really crazy is that I got this new position through screenwriting.

There was a time when I thought I needed to keep these two sides completely separate, and apart from a few friendly coworkers who knew of my other pursuits, my quest, my Agenda (as Vitaly deemed it), screenwriting was not something I discussed in the office. Certainly not in any official capacity. In fact, silence was my policy, as it had been since my initial interview, when it seemed to me, true or not, that any extracurricular activities would be frowned upon. And if I spent my vacation time on trips to Los Angeles, Austin, Scandinavia, or New Zealand, well, then, that was just because I liked seeing the world.

A writer’s life is often a double life. Remember how in Dungeons & Dragons, non-human characters could have multiple character classes, so you could be a high elven fighter/magic-user or a half-orc cleric/thief? Sure, you get to do more cool stuff, but you end up dividing your experience points across both pursuits. Takes you twice as long to get anywhere. As a writer/whatever, that’s how you end up feeling a lot of the time: non-human.

I began my exploration into other daytime options last fall. I met with several members of upper management, including the COO. He led off with this one: “What do you want to do when you grow up?”

“Screenwriting,” I answered without missing a beat. In that fraction of a second between question and answer I made a decision to be completely honest, whatever the consequences. In that moment I instantly violated my policy, and I suddenly felt exposed at the highest possible level. But the COO laughed and made some joke about not having any openings in that area. And my revelation suddenly cast me as something unusual and valuable: creative.

I found this richly and comically ironic: that the simple act of announcing my intentions would open doors faster than I had thought possible, that my secret labors had prepared and positioned me to fulfill the percolating plans of the new marketing VP.

At times it has been hard not to resent a job that seemed nothing more than an obstacle to surmount before my real life started each day, an unwelcome interruption to the burning fever. It took me a long time to understand that you still have to live while you’re on the way to greater things. A long time to see that even—or especially—at my daily work I could find the integration I’d been seeking everywhere else in my life.

Don’t get me wrong, the Agenda is alive and well. And so am I, maybe even a little more than before.


Painting by David Michael Beck. © 2001 Devil's Due Publishing.

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