Winging it: The Sermon on the Steps
In 1949, spurred by Soviet aggression, President Truman took the lead in founding NATO. He even recalled retired General D.D. "Ike" Eisenhower to be Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR). For humanitarian reasons, the build-up of U.S. troops for a long stay in Europe led to the establishment of U.S. military posts to include dependant housing, hospitals, commissaries, post exchanges, and schools.
But none of those American amenities were available outside the American Zone. Lüdenscheid, the headquarters of the 552d Artillery Corps Group, and our little Special Security Team (SST) were smack in the middle of the British Zone. For hundreds of American families, that meant putting their children into the German school system. What could possibly go wrong? Or, home-schooling. Routine medical care required a long drive south to Frankfurt. Urgent medical care meant the local German hospital.
Unfortunately, when measles broke out in the Lüdenscheid public schools, some anti-nuke Germans (Atom Gegner) said the American children were the cause. They called for a mass demonstration on the hospital steps. Consequently, the city authorities demanded that a senior American officer speak to the crowd, in German. Because none of our senior military commanders spoke enough German, the spotlight focused on those dreaded SST agents in the basement of the American headquarters.
Special Agent Strong, who lived with his German in-laws, was totally fluent. But Mr. Strong and his bride were on leave in the USA. Gulp! Number two in fluency was...you-know-who. After spending the afternoon being schooled on measles and other childhood diseases by the German doctors, an old Hollywood movie image of a missionary trying to calm a torch-lit crowd of natives armed with spears came to mind. What if an angry crowd of Atom Gegners charged up the hospital steps? Double gulp!
To make up for my relative lack of seniority, someone suggested that I try on a doctor’s smock. Nah. Too way over the top. Besides, the simple facts about how childhood diseases are spread should suffice. But I did look rather official in that smock.
Imagine, if you will, flood lights illuminating the entrance to the hospital with an angry crowd chanting "Americans go home!" Flanked on each side by white smock-wearing doctors, the Lord Mayor of Lüdenscheid introduced yours truly as a senior American expert on childhood diseases. Triple gulp!
And so began my Sermon on the Steps. Knowing this could be the Army Language School’s finest hour or its worst, the words, slowly at first, began to flow. Mimicking the plain, soft-spoken High German of then Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, I explained the innocent spread of childhood diseases. (The vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella had yet to be developed.)
Do I recall what I said? No. But whatever it was seemed to calm the crowd. In my mind, I could imagine torches being doused and spears laid aside, and the medical missionary going back into his jungle bungalow unharmed.
So, what is the lesson in this strange story? Make sure your children learn a foreign language. But it wouldn’t hurt to keep one of those white smocks in reserve.
Nota bene: These semi-spook stories will continue until morale improves.
©2022. William Hamilton.