John and John

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I knew I understood Blackie Ryan, a fictional priest who appears in 17 novels by Father Andrew Greeley, because he esteemed three great Johns in his youth: John Unitas, John Kennedy, and John XXIII.

I was never much into Unitas, quarterback for the Baltimore Colts, both because I never followed football and because Syracuse alum Jim Brown was the gridiron hero in my family.

But I revered President Kennedy and Pope John. Blackie Ryan – had he been a real boy – would have been a year older than I, and we both struggled through adolescence at a time of Cold War terrors and church upheavals. These two Johns towered over both events and were heroes to millions of Baby Boomers.

I grew up Protestant in a tiny Central New York community so I had little understanding of the New Frontier oligarchy or the Vatican’s archaic governance. Popes were far removed from my experience until about 1957 when my father and a neighbor took four of us boys from the neighborhood to New York to see a Yankees game. We peeked inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral and saw a life-sized wax figure of Pope Pius XII encased in a glass box. It was a macabre sight. He looked – well, waxen, and cadaverous, like an immobilized vampire. I did not regard his figure as something religious people would venerate. He gave me the creeps.

Pius died in October 1958 when I was 12. His passing stirred little interest within our confederated Protestant church but it launched the first papal transition of the television age. The election of Angelo Roncalli as Pope John XXIII was well covered and to my youthful eyes he looked more far more appealing than his predecessor. In contrast to Pius, who looked like a disapproving embalming teacher, John was a round, smiling grandfather type. At 76 he was not expected to last long and was widely touted as a transitional pope.

Of course John famously overturned that expectation in 1962 by calling the historic Second Vatican Council to reform the church. He also extended the church’s reach to all people when he declared, “We were all made in God’s image, and thus, we are all Godly alike.”

It would be years before I understood what Vatican II was all about but John from the beginning of his reign fascinated me. In art class one year I attempted to draw an India ink portrait of the pope. I used a LIFE magazine photograph as a model and I remember struggling to get his nose right. “Nobody has a nose that big,” I thought. A half century later, when Martha and I took two of our daughters on a Roman holiday, we viewed the perfectly preserved remains of John XXIII in St. Peter’s Basilica. His nose was indeed that big. The India ink drawing is one of the few artifacts of my youth that survives. The look of concentration I drew on his face led some of my high school classmates to wonder if I captured him in his morning ablutions. They immediately dubbed it, “John on the John.”

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President Kennedy, the other John of my youth, never met Pope John. Perhaps their closest connection was during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, eight months before the Pope died. As the world teetered on the edge of nuclear winter, John offered to mediate between Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Both leaders praised the Pope for his commitment to peace, but neither heard his urgent prayer on Vatican radio: “May they hear the anguished cry which rises to heaven from every corner of the earth, from innocent children to old men, from persons and communities: peace, peace!”

The resolution of the missile crisis has been attributed to Kennedy and Khrushchev, who each backed away from hardened positions that could have led to nuclear war. At the time I remember a condescending comment from a journalist who referred to “Pope John, who thought he played a role in making peace.”

Thought he played?

Fifty-six years after the world stepped back from the abyss, it seems clearer to me that it might not have happened without divine intervention. I have no doubt that Pope John XXIII played a pivotal role in making the peace. And he will always remain, for me, one of the two big Johns of my life.

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White Russians and Yeltsin in the Wings

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May 31, 2018 – A year ago this month, the safety of secret Soviet spies Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, posing as middle-class Americans in the U.S., was assured by none other than the World Council of Churches.

Elizabeth and Philip are fictional characters in The Americans, an FX series set in the Cold War 1980s that many critics think is one of the best programs on television. The World Council of Churches is real. Last year when the ersatz WCC intervened to protect the spurious spies from FBI detection, I wondered if series creator Joseph Weisberg knew how close he was getting to the truth.  I spelled it out in my blog, “The Americans and The World Council of Churches.”

Last night the Divine M and I sat with friends to savor Russian zharkoye and sip white Russians to witness the finale of the series. As millions watched, Elizabeth and Philip bluffed their way out of the clueless clutches of Beeman the G-man and returned after decades of bourgeois Americanization to the failing Soviet Union. James Poniewozik of the New York Times has the best summary of the finale.

Now that The Americans is no more, our search for television programming of similar quality begins. But until something else comes along, the show leaves much to ponder – including some obvious social and geopolitical issues of the eighties that the writers ignored.

Unprotected Sex

Both Elizabeth and Philip used sex as a stratagem for obtaining secret information from feckless U.S. bureaucrats. They used it a lot. Philip, posing as a U.S. government agent, actually pretended to marry Martha, the secretary of a high ranking FBI agent, in order to access FBI secrets. This was a cruel deception that left Martha heartbroken and forced to live out her days in bleak Moscow. Elizabeth’s only criteria for jumping into bed with a man was that he would lower his guard of an important secret as fast as he lowered his zipper – a tactic that always seemed to work.

No doubt sex and semi-nudity contributed to the show’s popularity, but it was never handled realistically. The characters never knew they were living at the apex of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the writers may have regarded that reality as an unnecessary impediment to the story line. Even so, as the final season moved toward a conclusion, Elizabeth seemed so exhausted I thought she might have AIDS. That, I thought, might be an appropriate and just conclusion to the show. But when it ended last night, Elizabeth’s maladies were emotional, not physical. Both she and Philip were safe from the consequences of unprotected sex with many anonymous partners, which was a nagging reminder that they were fictional characters and not real people.

Ignoring the Surgeon General

Elizabeth was also a cigarette addict – she “smoked like a chimney” in the words of one character – but this never affected her athletic prowess or her ability to trounce FBI agents or assailants when they threatened her. She never even developed a cough. I did note that Keri Russell, the actor portraying Elizabeth, never inhaled, which suggests at least one person associated with the story understood the dangers of smoking.

The Good Old Soviet Union

One of the great mysteries of the series is that Elizabeth and Philip maintained a stalwart loyalty to the Soviet Union while ignoring its obvious flaws. “The things you read about the Soviet Union (in American propaganda) are not true ” Elizabeth tells Paige, her daughter. But the actual truth is worse than anything the Voice of America could make up. Soviet citizens faced empty shelves in grocery stores because the distribution of produce is obstructed by graft at every level of society. Free speech was stifled and punishable by years in the Gulag. One character in the show, Ninotchka, was caught smuggling a message from a captive Soviet scientist to his child in the U.S. and was summarily executed with a bullet in the back of her head.

As the series neared its climax, Philip was beginning to doubt that the Soviet Union was worth killing for but Elizabeth remained firm in her resolve. It’s hard to see why. As an illegal in the U.S., she accepted a lifestyle she could not have attained in her homeland while complaining about American conspicuous consumption. Her criticism of U.S. culture was fair enough, but her blindness to the Soviet Union’s massive defects beggars belief.

The Dawn of Yeltsin

The most jarring reality ignored by the series was the impending fall of the Soviet Union. The final days of The Americans takes place in 1987, the close of the Reagan era when Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev is introducing reform policies of glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika  (“restructuring”). Just four years later, on Christmas Day 1991, the rising expectations of the Gorbachev years will lead to the utter collapse of the Soviet Union. Boris Yeltsin will become the president of the Russian Federation and the Cold War is over.

Throughout this year, as the Divine M and I reserved our Wednesday nights for watching The Americans, we both enjoyed speculating how the series might conclude. Would Elizabeth and Philip have to shoot Beeman the G-man to escape his clutches? Would Beeman shoot them first? As it turns out, none of these drastic conclusions happened and Elizabeth and Philip escape to the Soviet Union to seek a new life.

My own hoped-for conclusion would have been less dramatic. I wanted to see Elizabeth and Philip stick it out in America for the next four years, undetected by the FBI, until the U.S.S.R. collapsed and the Cold War ended. Thus their lives as counterfeit Americans would continue in a new reality as Elizabeth becomes a sex therapist, Philip becomes an EST instructor, and both spend their leisure time handling out leaflets for the George H.W. Bush re-election campaign.

 

 

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Our God is a God of Peace

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Port Chester, N.Y., May 23, 2018 – Note: I’ve written several times about my ambivalence toward military memorials and celebrations, and I’m reposting this essay, slightly edited,  from last year. As U.S. women and men in uniform serve on many fronts, many of them in harm’s way, praying for peace seems naive if not pointless. But whether or not those old men who make war decisions are attuned to God’s voice, I continue to believe that God never abandons those who served and are serving. May we never lose hope that the day will come when we will lay down the weapons of war and walk together in understanding and peace.

War is contrary to the will of God. – World Council of Churches, 1948

When I was a professional ecumenist, I lived in a rarified milieu in which Memorial Day – so beloved on Main Streets all over the USA – was bitterly controversial.

Liberal Protestants and historic peace churches struggle to reconcile the words of Jesus with the reality of war. They resent the fact that Memorial Day honors not only the men and women who gave their lives in battle but also pays homage to the wars that took them from us.

This exaltation of war may work with “good wars” like World War II, but not so much when we honor those nasty wars that are harder to justify: Vietnam, the U.S. invasion of Grenada, the war against Iraq, or America’s longest war in Afghanistan.

My home village of Port Chester, N.Y., offers a heart-pounding Memorial Day celebration. It begins in a small memorial park on Westchester Avenue with the high school band playing patriotic music and the village veterans perspiring at attention in their size-62 blazers and legionnaire caps while politicians thank them for their service. I wear my U.S. Air Force Veteran baseball cap to the ceremonies and return the salutes of other vets as we throw sweaty arms around each other.

I love it. I hate it.

Some of my happiest memories of growing up in Morrisville, N.Y., are of Memorial Day. My heart swelled with pride when Dad dug out his legionnaire’s cap, as did other middle-aged men I knew and loved: Jack Irwin, my smart, gentle and nurturing pastor, or John Gourley, my neighbor and high school history teacher, or Reg Dodge, my junior high history teacher, or DeForest Cramer, my Little League coach, or Del McKee, my scout master, an ex-Marine, or Frank Matthias, our family doctor, a German Jew who emigrated to the U.S. in time to serve as a captain in the U.S. Army. I had little idea what they had done to earn their legion caps but I was sure it was something heroic. And when I watched them marching in rout step in the Memorial Day parade, laughing and joking with each other, I figured whatever they did in war couldn’t have hurt them much.

When I came of age, these good men inspired me to join the Air Force. Many of my contemporaries went to Vietnam that year. I spent three years in the rice paddies of England where the greatest threats to our base were agitated units of the Baader Meinhoff Complex.

Each Memorial Day when I was overseas, Legionnaires from Morrisville, mostly World War I vets, sent me a small U.S. flag and promised to “keep the fires of freedom burning at home while you keep it burning abroad.” Reading their note at my typewriter in the base chapel, it sounded like an invitation to arson. But I loved those guys. They made me feel a part of the Memorial Day tradition going all the way back to Bunker Hill.

I was in the Air Force for four years. I served in the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing under the command of General Robin Olds, who would go on to become the Vietnam War’s first hero “Ace,” shooting down numerous MiG fighter jets over the Delta, and General Daniel N. “Chappy” James, a giant of a man who would become the Air Force’s first African American four-star general. The troops loved the dynamic duo and, immune to ethnic sensitivities, called them “Black Man and Robin” behind their backs. I thought they were the greatest men I would ever know.

I passed many markers on the way to adulthood during those years, including developing chin hair and becoming a born again Christian. I had a pretty good Christian upbringing at home, thanks to my Presbyterian-Methodist parents and American Baptist pastors Jack Irwin and Walt Ketcham. But the Southern Baptists in the Air Force had a way of making you feel damned if you didn’t do it their way and respond to an altar call humming Just As I Am. But becoming more religious did expose me to ideas adolescents tend to overlook, including the dangerously radical rhetoric of the Sermon on the Mount. No sooner did Jesus enter my heart than I realized his Truth could be inconvenient for a member of the Aerospace Team. Jesus may have washed my sins away, but he left a nagging pacifism in their place.

I mustered out of the Air Force with an honorable discharge, an expert marksman’s badge, and a good conduct medal in August 1968. I enrolled at Eastern Baptist College the following month. Within weeks I became an active member of the anti-Vietnam War movement in college, wearing peace badges on my fading military field jacket.

I graduated in 1971 and began work as a writer at the American Baptist national offices across the ridge from Eastern. As an American Baptist journalist I began to discover other heroes who had exhibited as much courage as Olds and James. Foremost among them was Edwin T. Dahlberg, the brilliant pastor who was president of both the American Baptist Churches and the National Council of Churches.

Dr. Dahlberg was a pacifist in World War I and later a leader of the peace movement in World War II. That took more than a deep commitment to the Sermon on the Mount. It took guts.

Another Baptist hero with guts was L. Stanley Manierre, who was my wife Martha’s Area Minister (auxiliary bishop) when she served as a young pastor in Massachusetts. Stan was a genial man with a quick smile and a kind word for everyone. What many of his friends didn’t know was that he was a radio operator and top turret gunner on a B-24 bomber that was shot down over Saipan on May 29, 1944. He was a prisoner in a Japanese prison camp in Yokohama for the duration of the war. After his release, his resentment toward his cruel Japanese captors endured for years – until he ended up a traveling salesman and a junior high Sunday School teacher in Hartford, Conn.

“I was teaching these young people about the love of God and love for our neighbor and I came to realize I was still harboring hatred for the Japanese two years after returning from the prison camp,” he wrote. “I confessed my sin, and through God’s amazing grace I was forgiven.” Stan Manierre went on to become a missionary to Japan where he was reunited with one of the camp guards who had offered protection to the prisoners.

“Kanoh Yukuta was a Buddhist,” Stan wrote. “He was just another illustration of the truth we already know: God will not leave himself without a witness.”

Stan returned from Japan and remained a great American Baptist leader in Massachusetts – one of the true heroes I will always remember on Memorial Day. But I had known Stan for years before I realized the trauma that haunted his youth. His spontaneous grin made you think he never had a worry in his life.

It was about that time that I started thinking about others who took their broad smiles into Memorial Day parades back in Morrisville. Getting information about that wasn’t easy. The only time Elmore, my Dad, talked about his experience in the South Pacific was when we were watching “The Big Picture” on our black and white Admiral TV. The show offered grainy newsreels of World War II, and occasionally Dad would comment, “I did that,” or, “I was there,” so I knew he had climbed down the netting of a troop carrier or crawled through the jungles of Papua New Guinea. He also had some souvenir Papuan cloth that had been pounded out of the bark of a local tree, and a pair of Japanese Army chopsticks in a narrow wooden case.

Toward the end of his life I discovered Dad’s canvas-covered GI diary. I suspect it was a sanitized record of his life in the South Pacific, especially his version of his R and R in Melbourne, Australia – a GI Bacchanalia portrayed on HBO’s Pacific – because he knew his mother might read it someday. But what he did record was horrifying.

In his familiar handwriting, in blue fountain pen ink, Dad – a second lieutenant – wrote about a night patrol he was leading through the jungle. (I have placed the full text of his journal on line at http://bunadiary.com.)

It was wet and dark and Dad ordered the patrol to dig in for the night. According to the diary, Dad and his Papuan runner had concealed themselves in the roots of a tree when a Japanese patrol crept by. An armed Japanese soldier, naked except for a loin cloth, appeared in front of him. Dad pulled the trigger of his machine gun and the man dropped into the mud. The Papuan runner thought Dad was shooting at him and coiled into a fetal position. Dad lay motionless in the dark, sweat dripping off his chin. The Japanese soldier began to groan.

Dad wrote little about what it felt like to hear the man’s agonized whimpers all night long, not knowing if his enemy was still able to shoot his rifle or if he was losing consciousness.

Would Dad have put him out of his misery if he could see him? Did the thought cross Dad’s mind that this “Jap” was actually another human being like him, perhaps with a wife and loved ones back home? Did Dad – always good with irony – think about how insane it was that this stranger had been trying only moments ago to kill him, and would have if Dad hadn’t shot first? And how badly wounded was the man? And why wouldn’t he just die?

I don’t know how often Dad dreamed about that night over his remaining six decades. And I will never know whether it was the worst of his combat experiences, or just one he thought his mother could tolerate if she happened to find the diary. The few words that are there are enough to answer the riddle why Dad spent the rest of his life battling the bottle. But the few words don’t explain why, each Memorial Day, he laughed and joked breezily with his fellow cap wearers.

When the sun same up on Papua New Guinea that morning, Dad could see that the gut-shot soldier had died in the night. He searched the nearly naked body for grenades and discovered the man’s chopsticks. I’m not sure why he needed them, but a souvenir is a souvenir and Dad kept them for the rest of the war. I still have the chop sticks on my book shelf at home.

I’m not sure what the other father figures in my life did during their war years. I know Reg Dodge was a sergeant in the Army Air Force in England, stationed close to the base where I lived for three years. Dee Cramer was a sailor. John Gourley was an Army sergeant. And for years, Jack Irwin said nothing about what he did during the war.

Jack was a great pastor. I remember spending an afternoon with him as he helped me prepare a sermon for youth Sunday. He discussed each point with me, wrote notes in his precise handwriting, and presented me with six green note cards which I held while I delivered my first sermon.

Jack was working on his Ph.D at Syracuse while he was pastor in Morrisville, but he always had time for his parishioners, regardless of age. I was about 9 or 10 when I asked him, “How old is God?” Jack answered, “God always is. There has never been a time when God wasn’t, and there never will be.”

How many can remember where they were and what they were doing when they first considered that? Jack was also willing to offer advice to the teen-aged lovelorn, and at Halloween he was the best teller of ghost stories I had ever heard. I will not forget the All Hallows Eves we spent in the darkened Grange Hall while Jack terrified the Youth Group with stories that made Poe pale by comparison.

Then each Memorial Day Jack would appear with the other vets in his Legionnaire’s cap, smiling and waving and exchanging jokes. What, I would wonder, had he done in the war? Was he even old enough to serve in World War II? Had he been a typist or even a chaplain’s assistant?

No. Years later it was revealed that Jack Irwin had been a teen-age tank gunner in Europe after the Battle of The Bulge. After his retirement as a professor of philosophy at Lock Haven, Pa., University in 1990, he wrote an astonishing memoir, Another River, Another Town, a Teen Age Tank Gunner Comes of Age in Combat – 1945 (Random House). Jack’s 90 mm guns were  responsible for untold numbers of German deaths (he estimates in the hundreds). His outfit was also a liberator of the Nordhausen Concentration camp where he saw human depravity on a scale his parishioners would never imagine.

I wrote to Jack when the book came out, both to admire his writing style and to hint at my amazement of the stories he told. (What shocked me more? That Jack killed hundreds of Germans? Or that when he was among his fellow GI’s, Jack said, “Shit”?)

Jack replied that he had never told anyone those stories, not his wife, not his children. “But I was getting closer to the bone yard and I figured it was time.” It has been a few years since I last heard from Jack and he has not responded to my emails. With more than a thousand World War II vets dying each day, it’s possible has has passed to the other side. But I pray Jack is still around and still writing books.

As another Memorial Day is upon us, I’m remembering many others who served. Dad and all the other father figures I loved are long gone, and so are millions like them. All were caught up in cataclysmic human events that were contrary to the will of God, and all were damaged in ways they could never tell us.

They all had experiences they clearly wanted to forget on Memorial Day. Each year I experience Memorial Day with ambivalence, especially when the speeches and celebrations are used to celebrate the wars that make it necessary. But I’m not ambivalent about the men and women who served. Dad, Jack, John, Reg, Dee, Frank, Stan, so many others.

I wish I had had a chance to tell them: Even if it was so bad you tried to hide it from us, and even if we will never fully understand what you went through, we will never forget you.

And we know that whatever you did in the war, and whether or not you were aware if it when you grew old, Jesus always held you close with loving arms and an understanding heart.

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Saints Who Encouraged and Inspired

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Breaking into Hitler’s House

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Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo. 
Shovel them under and let me work–
 I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and the passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this? 
Where are we now?
I am the grass.
Let me work. 

Carl Sandburg was almost right. But 20 years after the Second World War, the grass had not quite finished with Germany.

In 1966, Berchtesgaden, though a picturesque alpine village in Bavaria, was a classic case of dissociative personality disorder.

Disney studios could have designed the charming chalets with their overhanging eaves, and women wore their blond hair in braids atop their heads. Men wore feathers in their felt hats and dressed in lederhosen with wool knee socks and thick-soled shoes.

Americans invaded Berchtesgaden in 1945 without firing a shot, so two decades later the villagers showed little animosity to uniformed Yanks.

Still, interactions were awkward because of an unavoidable truth: every Berchtesgaden resident over 40 was an ex-Nazi.

“One had to be a National Socialist in order to live and work here,” a round-faced German waiter told me with a shrug. “It didn’t mean anything.”

But it was a hard to ignore. Adolf Hitler was a virtual resident of the village after he took possession of the Kehlsteinhaus, a mountaintop mansion built for his 50th birthday in 1939 by his aide Martin Borman. The building atop the Obersalzberg was soon dubbed the Eagle’s Nest.

When I visited Berchtesgaden in Spring 1966 for a U.S. armed forces religious retreat, unscathed reminders of the Nazi past dominated the village. Elegant stone barracks for SS Officers were converted to luxurious billets for U.S. military visitors. Each building still bore a bas relief carving of the SS eagle, but where the fierce talons had once grasped a rigid swastika, the Nazi emblem had been chipped away and replaced with the letters, “USA.”

I don’t know who first thought of converting this enclave of Nazism into a religious retreat center for U.S. armed forces families. Whoever it was had a fine sense of irony or perhaps just a great sense of humor, which describes none of the generals I knew.

Each spring and summer, various church denominations held weeklong hymn-sings in buildings that once resounded with the Horst Wessel song. The Baptist retreat (mostly Southern Baptist – the more liberal American Baptists were regarded with paranoid suspicion) was held each April when the snows began to melt and the Berchtesgaden valley turned luscious and green again.

I traveled to Berchtesgaden as the assistant of an Air Force chaplain, who checked into the officers’ side of the General Walker Hotel, a former SS barrack renamed for General Walton Walker who had been killed in Korea. The chaplain’s room was spacious and exquisitely appointed. My room, on the enlisted side of the quad, had six rows of bunk beds and 11 occupants.

My room mates seemed like nice guys, but when they stuffed copies of The Four Spiritual Laws in my pillow and invited me to a workshop on Christian witnessing, I decided I wasn’t going to spend a lot of time in my room – or in religious services, either. I stepped outside and lit a cigarette.

(NOTE: In 1966 we didn’t know smoking was stupid and deadly. 

I took a long drag off my Pall Mall and watched people – Germans and Americans – as they mingled in the courtyard. A young man about my age, dressed in light green jacket and khaki jeans, sidled up.

“Army?” he asked. The branch of service in which one served was much like a nationality, and introduction etiquette required one to declare it before revealing anything else.

“No,” I said. “Air Force.”

“Cigarette?” It was a request. I handed him the crinkly red pack.

“Thanks.” He quickly lit up and loudly inhaled.

“I’m Harry,” he said. “Army. Chaplain’s assistant.”

“Yeah?” I said. “Me, too.”

“Your boss here?”

“Yeah.”

“Mine, too. What a drag.”

Harry had a crew cut and horned rimmed glasses and I remember thinking he was pretty goofy looking. On reflection, most passersby probably thought we were twins.

We smoked in silence for a minute, carefully striking macho poses before we crushed the butts under our shoes.

“Thanks for the fag,” Harry said. In 1966, a fag was a cigarette, at least in sections of Europe influenced by the British culture of the Mersey Beat.“You’re welcome,” I said.

We looked around and casually studied our surroundings while we evaluated whether we could stand to be with each other for any period of time.

“Yeah,” I repeated. “Any time.”

“Know what I want to do?” Harry asked suddenly. “I want to climb up – there – and see what’s what.”

He pointed to the top of Obersalzberg, to an expansive gray house barely visible in the distance.

“That’s the Eagle’s Nest,” Harry said. “Fuckin’ Hitler’s place.”

“Yeah,” I said. Of course I had heard of it. It was the main thing I wanted to see in Berchtesgaden.

“That’s where he declared World War II.”

“Yeah,” I said. I knew that wasn’t exactly true.

“Maybe he’s still there. No one has seen him.”

I felt a surge of excitement. When you’re 20, you tend to believe anything another 20-year-old tells you and this was too good to ignore.

“Want to see?” Harry asked?

“Hell, yeah.” At that point, the spring sun was quickly setting behind the hills so we agreed to meet back at the same place after morning chow.

The next day Harry and I loaded up on an enormous breakfast of hotcakes, eggs, fried potatoes, and sausage, followed by several cups of coffee and a couple cigarettes. It’s frightening what you can do to your body when you’re 20.

It did look like a long hike. The Eagle’s Nest is 6,017 feet above sea level. You can climb straight up if you’re young and energetic, or you can walk up the 3.9-mile road that was built for Hitler’s staff cars. The road climbs 2,300 feet through five tunnels and one hairpin curve.

Harry and I chose to walk straight up the mountain, at least until we pooped out and had to take the road. We walked through thick forests of evergreen trees that reminded me of the Adirondacks at home.

“Is this the Black Forest?” Harry asked.

“I dunno. Where’s the Black Forest?”

Harry lit a cigarette and thought carefully. “This is the Black Forest,” he announced confidently.

“Yeah,” I said. Actually, the Black Forest is in Southwest Germany, in Baden-Wurttemburg. But I enjoyed thinking I was in the Black Forest, and used to tell people I had been there.

We climbed for about an hour until we came across the rusted hull of an old military tank. I don’t know what kind of tank, or if it was German or American. Sturdy trees that would have limited its maneuverability surrounded it. Perhaps the Germans had placed it there as part of a defensive perimeter around the Eagle’s Nest.

“This is where Patton came,” Harry said authoritatively. “This is one of his tanks.”

“Right,” I said. We examined the tank carefully and climbed on it until our pants were reddened with rust. There was no insignia that we could see, so I decided it was one of Patton’s. Why Patton would have left it here in the woods was a mystery, but not one I worried much about. Every thing generals do is a mystery.

We climbed several more yards until we reached the road that winds to the Eagle’s Nest and decided to follow it to the top. It started snowing heavily and Harry and I wished we had worn heavier jackets. The snow accumulated around our feet, but as we followed the road out of the trees we could see the village of Berchtesgaden below us, bathed in sunlight and greenness and spring flowers.

“Shit,” Harry said, awed.

“Shit,” I said. It was a poetic moment.

It was close to noon by the time we reached the base of the Eagle’s Nest. The house itself was still 406 feet above us, but we found the entrance to a long tunnel that led to the elevator that went up to the house.

The wind blew icy snowflakes against our cheeks as we paused to evaluate our accomplishment. We looked around. The place was deserted.

“I kind of figured there’d be a caretaker or something,” I said. In later years, the Eagle’s Nest would become a popular tourist site. But in the early spring of 1966, it appeared abandoned.

Harry shrugged. “Go in?” he asked, gesturing to the darkness in the tunnel.

“Can’t come this far for nothing,” I said.

We shuffled into the tunnel and waited until our eyes got used to the dark. We walked slowly until we got to an elevator, which was unexpectedly modern with a polished brass door and button.

Harry grinned mischievously and pointed his finger at the button.

“Me or thee?” he asked.

Decisively, I reached out and pushed it.

Nothing happened.

I pushed it again. Then Harry pushed it. We thought we could hear the hum of gears and pulleys, but it might have been the sound of air in the tunnel.

“Hel-looo?” Harry sang. “How do you say that in German?”

Auf wederschoen?” I sang.

I pushed the button again.

“Maybe there’s another …” Harry started to say, but a gigantic figure suddenly appeared in the darkness behind us.

Nicht, nicht, nicht!” the figure growled.

Harry and I jumped, but we did not cry out. The apparition was only a man, but a big man, just under six-feet-tall, and dressed in a green Bavarian hat and leather lederhosen.

Harry and I wheezed in the man’s face and tried to charm him with toothy grins.

Guten tag,” I ventured, but the man’s face was turning red. He put his left hand on the elevator button and repeated his admonition. “Nicht! Nicht! Nicht.” With his right hand he shook his finger in our faces.

I smiled as broadly as I could, remembering how Davy Crockett grinned a b’ar out of a tree. Harry was also smiling stupidly, and nodding his head, mumbling, “ja, ja, ja …” We turned and retreated quickly from the tunnel.

It had stopped snowing when we got outside, and we stopped to listen to the alarming thumping of our hearts. The slush on the ground stuck to our shoes and made it difficult to retain our balance. Harry started to lose his footing and I grabbed his arm. We steadied ourselves against the tunnel entrance. I reached into my jacket pocket for a package of Pall Malls and started to offer one to Harry, but he was staring at something behind me.

It was a little old man, dressed in an old gray military coat. The coat was frayed but the man’s boots were recently polished. He had a scarf wrapped around his face, and his gray eyes were rheumy and showed little interest in the two young Americans in front of him.

Guten tag,” I said. I held the cigarette pack out to him, but the old man only looked at me suspiciously. All three of us had been surprised by the encounter so we stared at each other for several seconds before Harry turned away.

We headed down the mountain.

We got as far as the place in the road where we could view the sunlit village below.

“Long way down,” Harry said.

“Yeah.”

“We’re going to miss chow.”

“Damn. Let’s step it up then.”

“Can’t,” Harry said. I sprained my back. I’ll never make it.”

“C’mon,” I said. “When you walk up a mountain, you gotta walk down the same distance so your muscles will readjust.” I have no idea where I heard that.

As we caught our breath we could hear a vehicle on the road above us. Harry smiled.

“If it’s not that big joker (not the word he used) in the short pants, let’s hitch a ride,” he said.

“We don’t know where he’s going.”

“He’s going down hill,” Harry said. “That’s all we need.”

In less than a minute the vehicle appeared above us and Harry and I stuck our thumbs out. It was a red truck, pre-war vintage, with a large red wooden cabin affixed to the chassis. The cabin had elaborate designs and carvings on it and I knew it was a Gypsy wagon. When the driver saw us he slammed on the breaks and the truck fishtailed alarmingly in the slush before it came to a halt.

The driver, a middle-aged man with graying chin stubble and a large black moustache, leaned out.

“Americans?” he said.

“Can you give us a lift?” I asked.

Ja, Ja. General Walker hotel?”

Harry and I smiled. “Yes, Sir.”

“Ten marks,” the driver said.

All I had in my pockets were a few wrinkled British pounds, but Harry had the German currency. He handed a wad of bills to the driver, who pointed to the door on the side of the cabin. We jumped in.

Inside, several people were sitting on wooden benches that had been built into each side of the cabin. Two women, one about 50, the other younger, looked at us without much interest. An old man nodded to us. Under the bench, two small children with huge black eyes stared curiously at us.

“Hi, I …”

I started to introduce us when the truck lurched into gear and we were thrown off balance. Harry and I both went down, but the unfortunate Harry had inadvertently grabbed the breast of the younger woman, who started hitting him with a small cloth bag. The old man started laughing and I seized one of the bench posts to keep from sliding out the truck. We could hear slush slapping the undercarriage as the truck picked up speed. I could feel it sliding from one side of the road to the other. When we got to the hairpin turn, I am sure the truck was riding on two wheels, and when it straightened out again it lurched sickeningly from left to right.

“This is how I die,” I told myself calmly.

I thought of my poor mother. Every other gold star mother in 1965 got a nice letter from President Johnson, “Dear Mrs. Jones, I want you to know your son died a hero in the service of his country and you can be very proud.” I wondered who would write the letter to my mom: “Dear Mrs. Jenks, your son died in a wagon full of gypsies after he tried to break into Hitler’s house.”

But soon the truck stopped, inexplicably but safely, in front of the General Walker hotel. Shaking, Harry and I got out. We started to thank the driver, but he had already skidded away. We watched thoughtfully until the truck disappeared behind some brightly painted chalets.

I offered Harry a cigarette.

“That was interesting,” I said.

“Interesting!” Harry replied. “Are you kidding? That was effing amazing.”

“I know, I thought we were goners.”

“What – the truck? Naw, man. The old guy at the top of the mountain!”

I had assumed he was an old German veteran living out his last days.

“What about him?”

Harry took a drag from his cigarette and looked around to make sure we were alone.

“Didn’t you recognize him?” Harry asked. “That was fucking HITler. No shit. Adolf fucking HITler himself.”

I stared at Harry, who was leaning back and forth in a self-congratulatory dance. I decided it would be pointless to comment.

I didn’t see Harry for the rest of the week. In fact, I never saw him again. I never did know his last name, so it would be impossible to trace him in the Internet. And even if I did find him, I couldn’t be sure he would remember me. And if I do find Harry, who knows? Perhaps he’s now governor of a red state.

Harry, if he managed to avoid Vietnam or other hazards of the intervening decades, probably spent the next fifty years telling people Hitler survived the war.

My own recollections of that day are more modest. I survived an icy roller coaster ride down the Obersalzberg with Gypsies after trying to break into Hitler’s house.

And thank God my mother never knew it.

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A Mystery From the National Archives

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