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?”
“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.
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.
“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.
I first became aware of the art of Robert Lentz when his small icons began appearing on my wife’s devotional shelf. Lentz, a Franciscan friar in New Mexico, has painted icons of hundreds of bona fide saints. But the Lentz icons that grabbed my attention are of saints the church has yet to recognize: theologians, social revolutionaries, and persons whose lives have changed the world for the better. The icons in this category include Daniel Berrigan, Martin Luther King, Jr., César Chávez, Dorothy Day, and Harvey Milk. Long before Oscar Romero was a candidate for canonization, Lentz designed an icon for him. (See https://www.trinitystores.com/artist/br-robert-lentz-ofm)
I love the point Lentz is making: that in every corner of life, God has set aside special people for special tasks. They existed in our homes, our offices, our churches, and in our neighborhoods. They were the saints we took for granted, whose piety we may not have detected, but whose presence transformed our lives in small and large ways. Often we were unaware of their impact until they were gone.
Lentz’s approach to iconography gives us a way to honor the memory of those people in our lives, to acknowledge their importance to us, and to thank God for the gift of special people. Perhaps few of these good people will be honored in stained glass windows, but within each congregation is the means of honoring them with special icons that will assure their stories will be remembered and told for succeeding generations.
Although I do not have Robert Lentz’s artistic talent, I was inspired by the assignment in my Lutheran Diakonia class to draw an icon of a special person in my household and in my life. San Benigno Cruz Brito, born in Aguada de Pasajeros, Cuba, was my wife’s father. When Martha was a toddler in Havana in the mid 1950s, Benigno, a police officer, took a political stance that offended Cuban President Fulgencio Batista and had to flee the country. Leaving his wife and daughter behind, Benigno landed in New York, got a job as a dish washer at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. When enough money was on hand to bring his wife and daughter to the U.S., he secured a small five-story walk-up apartment at 452 Ninth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen. He worked as an elevator operator in the Hotel Astor while his wife, Julia, secured employment as a seamstress in the Garment District. Beny continued working until 1985, to help care for their first born grandson and, soon-to-follow, two granddaughters. Julia retired in 1991.
When I first met Beny in 1995, he and Julia were in the process of selling their house in Queens and moving in with us in Port Chester. He was a warm, kindly, laughing man who made school lunches for the grandchildren, helped transport them to school, applied his handy work skills to maintaining the house, and (as might be expected of an ex-cop) was vigilant about keeping the house and family safe. Beny was all about family – and that included me, his son-in-law. Beny died eight years ago after a sad descent into Alzheimer’s, but his warm presence and example endures in all who knew him.
Every family and congregation has benefitted from a similar loving and saintly presence worthy of an icon. I hope this icon of San Benigno de Aguada de Pasajeros will inspire many memories and stories about him for generations to come – and will be a reminder to thank God for the gift of his life and for all the other saints who continue to live quietly among us.
Of course there are other members of my family who have earned iconic sainthood, including my mother, Saint Mary of Andes, and Dad, Saint Elmore of Oneonta. Both have been long gone from this earthly sphere of existence, but they endure in the hearts and memories of those who survive.
Beny, Mary, Elmore, and so many other saints who blessed our lives; long may they be remembered, and long may their stories be told.
Port Chester, February 21, 2018 – I never did buy the claim that Billy Graham became famous because William Randolph Hearst wanted to sell papers during his 1949 Los Angeles crusade and wired his editors to “Puff Graham.”
Granted, even Billy thought the inexplicable telegram from the churlish Hearst was significant, but it didn’t account for his international fame or for his staying power. It was Billy’s good looks and charisma that did that.
I first noticed his particular power in 1967 during Graham’s month-long crusade in Earl’s Court, London. The U.S. Air Force chaplains at Bentwaters and Woodbridge air bases in Suffolk sent buses to the crusade so Americans could get a good look at their compatriot. One 15-year-old girl, the daughter of a sergeant, went forward to the podium repeatedly in response to Billy’s nightly invitation. After this had happened several times, I – a callow 21-year-old chaplain’s assistant – asked her if she realized she only had to accept Jesus once. She replied, “I’m going forward to get a closer look at Billy. He’s so cute!”
I’m sure Billy would have been embarrassed by that, but in 1967 he was tall, tanned, and extremely good-looking – all useful tools for effective evangelism.
The next and last time I saw Billy was in 1980 during the gathering of the Baptist World Alliance in Los Angeles. I was there to edit the Alliance’s daily newspaper so I tried to follow the two main celebrity speakers – Billy and former President Jimmy Carter – as closely as I could. Both Graham and Carter submitted graciously to interviews, but my main memory is that they could both walk through the crowded lobby of the host hotel without attracting the slightest attention. Stars do not overly impress sophisticated Angelinos.
Years later, in 2008 when I was a communications officer for the National Council of Churches, I stumbled across a story that reminded me how steadfast was Billy’s faith. I had immersed myself in a project to write a series of blogs on great leaders of the NCC, an organization best known for its commitment to social justice.
As I leafed through the pages of Outlook, a magazine published by the Council from 1950 to 1953, I realized I was missing an important ministry not always associated with the National Council of Churches: evangelism.
I was surprised to discover the Council had a director of evangelism in the early fifties. He was a fiery, energetic preacher named Charles Templeton, who happened to be a good friend of Billy Graham. A long article in Outlook described Templeton’s homiletical zeal and remarkable success in winning souls for Jesus.
Yes! I thought. Perfect. Who knew the council had an evangelical side? Was Templeton still alive? Was he still in the evangelism biz? I jumped on my computer and began searching for him.
I didn’t find Charles, but I found his son and gave him a call.
“I was just reading an old article about your dad’s years as evangelist for the National Council of Churches,” I said.
“Oh,” he replied, sounding interested.
“Is your dad still around?”
“He died in 2001.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“You knew, right?”
“You knew he became an atheist and left the Council?”
So much for the NCC evangelism story.
Digging a little further, I discovered Templeton had written a book in 1996, Farewell to God, My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith.
The book includes an account of his encounter with his old pal, Billy Graham.
In the course of our conversation I said, “But, Billy, it’s simply not possible any longer to believe, for instance, the biblical account of creation. The world was not created over a period of days a few thousand years ago; it has evolved over millions of years. It’s not a matter of speculation; it’s a demonstrable fact.”
“I don’t accept that,” Billy replied.
One has to admire Billy’s tenacity in sticking with his faith. Templeton’s account makes one wonder if Billy ever considered that the Bible offers both history and poetic metaphors that could not be literally true but illumine greater spiritual truths. Possibly Billy’s mind and faith became more open over the years because as he aged he stopped preaching that hell was the inevitable fate for all who don’t accept Jesus as a personal savior. But whatever his faith was, no one can doubt that it was deep, honest, and resolute.
(I wrote in greater depth about Templeton and other doubters in a 2014 blog from which some of the above is gleaned: http://thelittlescroll.blogspot.com/2014/04/doubt-on-steroids.html)
Billy Graham, who died Tuesday at 99, was relatively silent over the past several years as he struggled with memory problems (his staff avoid the word dementia). Throughout his long career he remained friends with the National Council of Churches while other evangelicals denounced the organization as leftist. He once visited the NCC offices on 475 Riverside Drive in New York and conferred with General Secretary Joan Brown Campbell. According to staff legend, Joan reminded Billy that he was breaking his rule against meeting alone with a woman behind closed doors (now known as the Pence rule). Billy reportedly laughed out loud and made no move to open the door.
As Billy aged, I wrote an obituary for him so the Council could quickly release its statement in the event of his death. I revised the obituary four times to tailor the quotes for a succession of NCC general secretaries: Bob Edgar, Michael Kinnamon, Peg Birk, and finally for President and General Secretary Jim Winkler.
The draft obit disappeared long before Billy did, but his passing harkens back to a simpler era in U.S. religion, when an evangelical Southern Baptist from North Carolina figured out how to hone his message about God’s love for all people in ways that rarely offended and often brought us closer together.
It was snowing steadily last night and I fell asleep thinking I would have to get up in a few hours to shovel the sidewalk. The meme above must have been the last thing I saw on Facebook before I began to dream.
I dreamed I was in the National Council of Churches offices in New York (as they were in the 1970s, expanding over three floors of The Interchurch Center) and I was preparing two special guests for a videotaped interview: Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. The topic would be a measured discussion of the presence of the filioque in the Nicene Creed.*
The two church leaders frowned tensely as large lavalier mics were draped over their shoulders, clicking against their dangling crosses. I smiled ingratiatingly at them, hoping to get them to relax, but it wasn’t working. Bartholomew slapped at my producer’s hand as he adjusted the cord of the lavalier. Francis’ double chin swelled like a balloon as he lowered his chin and scowled.
“You’re not going to do anything about it anyway,” Bartholomew hissed at Francis before we could get a mic level.
“It’s only semantics for Christ’s sake,” Francis replied, smiling at his pun.
“It’s an umbrage to God the Father,” Bartholomew replied.
“Shut up,” Francis said.
“No, you!” said Bartholomew.
I felt a gnawing in the pit of my stomach as I realized the interview was falling apart.
Then our dogs started barking downstairs because someone was outside shoveling snow and I awoke with a start.
This, I realized, was only a dream. But not only a dream, actually: the sort of dream a retired church communicator has in the dead of winter, when the last press release has been long-since posted and the last VHS tape has disintegrated on the shelf.
When I was young, my dreams consisted of Ann-Margret lifting the hem of her dress half-way up her exquisite thigh as she danced to Bye, Bye, Birdie.
These more edifying dreams are rarer each night.
I would so welcome her back.
* The Creed in A.D. 325 originally stated that the Holy Spirit proceeds from God the Father, which Orthodox churches liked, but in the sixth century the Catholic Church added the words “and son” (filioque) which Orthodox churches disliked because they thought it diminished God the Father. The disagreement led to the schism of 1054.