I’ve had lots of time on my hands lately and that’s the reason, I suppose, that the old brain has been working overtime.
For the past few days, I’ve been fixated on a promise made just over 50 years ago, a promise I’ll now admit that I’d forgotten until just recently. It goes all the way back to late August, perhaps early September, when three soldiers in West Germany ended a conversation with the promise to visit each other’s homes once we all returned stateside when our tours of duty ended.
You can probably already guess that promise was never kept. It was probably made without much thought about how it would be possible in the first place. It may have been simply a part of conversation as three of us shared stories while sipping the contents of a German-style fermented “baby” bottle.
The three of us had become friends while playing baseball in West Germany during our tours of duty there. Two of us, an African-American from Alabama and myself, had become quite close as we played on the same team during that summer of 1968. The third was a soldier I’d befriended (or perhaps he’d befriended me) after our teams played a game on his home base of Illesheim, Germany.
My teammate and friend was a guy named Ernie, who’d grown up in a small, all-black part of Alabama. Ernie was the catcher on our team from Monteith Barracks near Nuremberg. I was a pitcher. Ernie and I had become fast friends during that long summer of baseball. Joining our group was Carmen, an Italian third baseman for the Illesheim team, who’d grown up in a rough section of Philadelphia.
So, there we were – a white kid who’d grown up in the largest cornfield in the world (Iowa), a black kid who’d grown up in the slums of rural Alabama, and an Italian kid from the toughest part of Philadelphia. We had nothing in common but the bottles of beer each of us sipped after our game on a hot summer afternoon in Illesheim, West Germany.
It was easy for Ernie and I to stay connected. Although he served in a communications battalion while I served in a public information unit, we were both housed at the same Army base. We played and practiced baseball together and, even though our backgrounds were completely different, we visited each other away from the diamond on occasion, as well. Carmen became a part of our unique group of three because he had taken a liking to Ernie and I that afternoon in Illesheim.
I’d imagine, to the outsider, we looked as much an unlikely trio as we actually were – a dark-haired, dark-skinned Italian with thick, bushy dark hair; a fair-skinned, blue-eyed Scandinavian with light hair; and a black-skinned, muscular, man with close-cropped curly black hair whose family roots ran back to Africa. Despite those disparate backgrounds and obvious physical differences, I think we actually enjoyed each other’s company.
We’d sip on our bottles of brew and reminisce about our lives before we found ourselves together while serving in the U.S. Army. Our military jobs were as different as we were, but we found a bond as we took turns sharing pre-Army stories of our lives. I was fascinated to hear Ernie’s tales of 1950s Alabama, where he was raised a black man with few privileges and whose family had to scrape together whatever they could just to survive in segregated Alabama. I was just as fascinated to hear Carmen’s tales of his rough Italian neighborhood in Philadelphia and the tough kids, tough gangs and tough streets that were part of his everyday life.
Surprisingly, I found both of them listening intently to my naïve tales of growing up in lily-white Iowa, of walking fields of soybeans, of feeding cattle and hogs and cleaning out the most-foul smelling hog lots. They had a hard time believing me when I told of the first time my tiny home town installed lights to illuminate streets and how a friend and I had used the tiny illumination to toss a ball around until our parents called us home.
For a reason I can’t explain, those thoughts came back into my mind this past weekend. Try as I may, they wouldn’t go away.
And, I couldn’t help thinking how sad it was that the three of us never kept those promises made to each other a half century ago. Did Ernie actually leave the Army after his commitment ended, or did he re-enlist and finish a full 20 years? Was he sent to Vietnam, something he dreaded? Did Carmen return to the rugged streets in Philadelphia he’d called home?
I’m not sure I really want to know. I have the memories and they’re with me forever. The memories are wonderful.
The reality might not be so pleasant.