Rancho Mirage, California

German Linguist

July 1957-June 1959





I served in Berlin before the Wall, 1957-1959.  When we were there we, semi-facetiously, planned how we would escape if ever the Russians decided to move west, a not impossible decision on their part in those days.  Since our German was good, and our time on the economy had improved what we had learned at the Army Language School, we had few worries about passing ourselves off as Germans if we had to boogey on out.  Our preferred method was to pose as street cleaners, red and white stripes on hats and all, and sweep our way to the west.  It seemed fool-proof at the time, aided as I now recall, in no small measure by the amount of beer and schnapps we used to drink.


Most of us in Berlin who worked odd shifts had our own apartments (or rooms) off-post and, since we received food allowance, couldn’t eat on post anyway (not a huge loss).  We were required to appear on base for only one event in the year, the annual Christmas tree trimming evening.  The requirement for entry to the event was to bring a bottle of booze, to be poured into a 40 or 50 gallon Army food pot.  First sergeant Reale (I think his name was) contributed the fruit at the bottom of the pot.  The object of the evening was to trim the 280th’s Christmas tree … and drink the entire pot of booze. The prize (who knows what it was, because it was never claimed) was to remain sober enough to climb up a ladder and place the star at the top of the room-high tree.  In my two Christmases in Berlin, it was never done.  Everyone tried, everyone failed … unsteady footing after drinking the pot’s concoction, and all that.


We weren’t very military, in fact most of us kind of wondered why the Army was paying us to have such a good time.  We weren’t paid much, but we actually did give great value for what we got.  I remember when I mustered out at Ft. Dix in New Jersey, talking to an infantryman who told me they ran through two-three pairs of boots a summer.  I looked at the bottom of my remaining pair of boots … and the tread hadn’t even been scratched, yet.  Maybe gray matter counts for more than shoe leather?   However, looking at the magnificent actions of our current military in Iraq under the most adverse of circumstances, I wonder if we were in the same Army at all.





As for a fair number of guys in the 280th my German did stand me in good stead later.  After exiting the Army (with grace and gallantry, to be sure) and finishing college (B.A. from Southern Cal and MBA from U.C.L.A.), I became a home builder.  After many twists and turns I ended up back in Munich, later Wiesbaden, in the early 1970s as division president for a New York Stock Exchange listed building company.  Without my German the opportunity would never have arisen.  In fact, I spoke only German for 3-1/2 years, except at home with my wife and two (then three) children.  After building two American-style large subdivisions in the BRD and trying to complete the last one during the oil-boycott attending the 1973 October War between the Arabs and Israel (no fuel to dry the houses during construction in the winter that followed, no gas to get trucks around, a recession you could cut with a knife), I decided that as easy as selling Ami-style houses to German families was, life was too short for the aggravation.  Among the “perks” of being the only American building company in Germany, was being visited by the Bundesverfassungsschutz (could that have been the name of the German equivalent of the FBI?  I think maybe so after all these years) and being told that Communist infiltrators had targeted my company and me for their own brand of special attention.  As I recall I had 300 Turks and 50 Yugoslavs on my payroll.  After I had an on-site mosque built for the Turks, they and the Yugoslavs played carve-your-neighbor for a while until I got rid of the Yugoslavs to keep from having a full-blown war.  Fortunately, my general superintendent was a WWII Panzer-major who did a pretty good job of keeping the workers in line.  Some of his charms wore thin, however, when he invited me to an evening with the alte Kameraden who insisted on singing the Horst Wessel Lied without stop.  These were not among the lessons I learned in the 280th.





After the cold and humidity of Germany, my family and I moved to Tucson (1974-1976), where I earned an M.A. in Political Science (not a particularly remunerative degree to have).  So, I went back into building homes, apartments and commercial buildings in Southern California. 


Later still (early 1980s) as more or less of a lark I bought a radio station outside San Francisco.  It took me not overly long to realize that a radio station was not an automatic way to make a mil (or any other number you wish to insert).  But, the problem radio stations had of staying afloat in those days was in collecting the money due them, primarily from their national advertisers; e.g., Coke, Ford, Bud, you name it, none of them paid their bills in less than 3+ months.  Sooooooooo, bye-bye owning a radio station and I started to finance radio stations.  That was a whole lot better than owning them.  And, by extension, that’s what I’ve done ever since in the business world.  I don’t do radio stations any more, but my company has funded transactions in almost 40 countries, part (a teeny part) of Skylab, and any number of manufacturing and high-tech projects in the U.S.  Among the more interesting projects was funding a 9,000 ton wheat shipment from the U.S. to Tajikistan in the old Soviet Union.  In addition to normal costs, we had to put up the money for ex-KGB guards to keep the bandits off the train hauling the wheat across central Asia.  Another time we funded the purchase and shipment of computers for the entire school system of Rwanda.  The hardest part of the deal was getting insurance for the computers from the time the planes touched down in Kigali, the capital, until the computers got to the Education Ministry (those pesky bandits again).  We finally found an insurance company in Paris to provide the coverage (which, after they paid the to-be-expected claim for a bit of local sleight-of-hand, ended up sadder and maybe wiser).  In any event, never a dull moment and lots of fun, and I still enjoy doing deals today.





My wife (43 years together and happily counting) and I live in Rancho Mirage, outside Palm Springs. We have three kids; two are execs in "big-pharma" (major pharmaceutical companies).  The third and his wife do landscape installations for the rich and public agencies in Newport Beach and other expensive places in coastal California.  We’ve also accumulated five great grand children.  I’m working at teaching them to hike, which they sometimes humor me by trudging along, mostly they just shine me off.  Besides travel, hiking is kind of my outdoor thing (since I could never master golf and get that verdammte little white ball to stay in the fairway).  Last year I hiked the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim at night … solo, one of the nine times I've hiked down to or through the bottom of the Canyon (the last two being done this year).  I’ve also managed to drag myself up Mt. Whitney (at 14,500 feet, the highest spot in the “lower 48”), starting at  midnight and hiking with no headlamp for a good part of the way up the mountain. My wife thinks I ought to be committed for such stunts.  I, however, attribute these quality actions to the productive years I spent in Berlin with the old 280th ASA company … anyone want to disagree with that?


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