“Tense Boundaries” (by Matthew Wilson)

By most definitions Matthew Wilson’s story “Burg’s Hobby Case,” in the Department of First Stories of our current issue, would not quite qualify as historical fiction. Many people consider fifty years in the past the necessary distance to earn the tag “historical,” and the story’s setting is a few years short of that. Moreover, the events belong to a time period within the author’s lifetime, and some determine what belongs to the historical genre according to that measure. Reimagining something so far in one’s past is still a feat, though, and Matthew Wilson does it marvelously well, evoking tensions surrounding the Cold War. We are pleased to welcome this talented new writer to our pages, and think you’ll find interesting this post relating to the genesis of the story.—Janet Hutchings

When people ask someone like me “Where are you from?” it is a hard question to answer. Where I am from, meaning where I was born? That would be California, but there were stops in Kentucky, Kansas, Texas, and Washington. And if you were a kid like me, it seemed as if every town in America began with the word Fort. There was Fort Ord, Fort Hood, Fort Knox, and Fort Lewis. But there were also those six years in Germany. You see, kids like me had fathers (and a few mothers) who were soldiers, so that meant rotations to new duty stations every few years, and as part of the Cold War we accompanied them to all those garrison towns lined up along the fault line that split Europe in two for forty years. I know a few adults now who had this same kind of childhood, and we remember places like Illesheim, Schweinfurt, Bamberg, Augsburg, Kaiserslautern (K-town), Wertheim, Wildflecken (try to say that with a good German accent!), and my favorite, Bad Kissingen, which we often called BK for short. For many of us, these places hold strange and magical memories, and even today we feel ourselves lucky to have lived there. Just do a Facebook search of any of these garrison towns, and you will find groups of nostalgic cyber-friends sharing photos and memories of their Cold War childhoods.

So when I made up my mind to write some stories, I knew that I wanted to set them in this world. Ever since reading Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park I have loved mystery stories in which the place is as essential to the mystery as a murder or other crime. By place I mean both a place in geography and a place in time, so that is why Bad Kissingen intrigues me so much.

I lived there from 1976 to 1979. My father was serving with the 2nd Squadron of the 11th Armored Cavalry, commonly known as Eaglehorse. We lived on the second smallest U.S. instillation in Germany, Daley Barracks. Daley Barracks was like an American small town smack in the heart of central Europe. We ate burgers and BLTs at the AAFES snack bar, played pick-up basketball in the post gym, and lined up around the block for months-old blockbusters like Smokey and the Bandit or Saturday Night Fever at the post theater. There was Wednesday night league play at the six-lane bowling alley and bingo on Sundays at the NCO club. We shopped at the commissary for processed American comfort food like Pop Tarts and Mac & Cheese, and for music we had the Armed Forces Network. Depending on what time of day, AFN would offer country music one hour, maybe top 40 the next, only to switch later on to R&B and soul.

We were often reminded that we were only thirteen kilometers from the East German border. Just on the other side of that border were divisions of Soviet armor ready to roll over us on their way to capture bigger prizes in places like Frankfurt and Stuttgart. If a real war broke out, we were doomed. Of course, this was a kind of war that no one could really win. With tactical nuclear weapons deployed on both sides of the border, no sane person really wanted to see a shooting war. So Eaglehorse had another job, and that was the border mission, a kind of a maintenance of the stalemate that was Europe at the time. Our fathers and the young soldiers under them spent many cold nights in observation posts and on patrols by foot and vehicle along that border. It seemed that what they mostly did was watch their communist counterparts watch them. I remember more than once waking at five in the morning to the rumble of tracked armored vehicles on the way to that border.

Many of our fathers were Vietnam veterans, soldiers of a lost war and now part of a new military, one without the conscription that had once sent men like Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash to Germany. The army in the late seventies was searching for its post-Vietnam identity, and the young men serving under our fathers were the first of a new all-volunteer force. There was trouble. I suppose that’s only natural with something new. If you research that era you might find stories of poor leadership, drug problems, racial tension, and a general malaise. But what I mostly remember were young soldiers not much older than me and my teenage brothers, and how despite their deadly weapons occupation, they were just teenagers too. They wanted to drink beer and flirt with girls and stay out of trouble with their sergeants, who happened to be our fathers.

The best place for them to drink beer and flirt with girls was in town, in Bad Kissingen. Now here was a place that was nothing like the machines and guns and hard regulation of the garrison, nothing like the cold and tense border. Bad Kissingen was filled with spa tourists and the locals who served them. There were gardens and parks where well-dressed men and women seemed to stroll in perfect step like something out of a Seurat painting, only with fashions updated to the 1970s and with a German orderliness. String quartets played from ornate band shells, fountains flowed with salty and medicinal waters, and arched colonnades ascended over beds of roses. There were gasthäuser where young soldiers could find a meal and a drink, or discotheques where they hoped for a chance with a girl. For kids like me, the shops held the most interest, especially the hobby shop full of scale models of the machines of the war that brought Americans to live in Bad Kissingen in the first place. We loved anything from that era—plastic Tiger Panzers, Messerschmitts, Shermans, P-51 Mustangs.

The older German men we usually encountered from that era were of two kinds. Those who had taken up low wage work on Daley Barracks, and the shopkeepers who watched us warily since we had a reputation for thievery. These men began to intrigue me, and some of them stand out in my memory. There was a one-armed man who ran the register at an Edeka shop, and I wondered at his lost arm—was it a war wound? I worked one summer with an old bald-headed fellow who was like a comic-book strongman. We moved furniture in and out of the American housing area as families came and went, and he could carry an entire chest of drawers on his back up three twisting stairwells. He spoke no English, so from him I learned langsam, vorsicht, and fertig—slow, careful, finished. He was a lifelong worker bee who, when he wasn’t lifting heavy things, seemed to smoke one cigarette after another. There was a drunken barber who cut hair on Daley Barracks. His English was almost as limited, which was a good thing for him, since he had to endure plenty of cursing after yet another botched cut. Best to get your haircut early in the day before the schnapps took full effect. My detective Hans Burg comes from this same generation, men who had to live on after a lost and horrible war, much as our own fathers also seemed to be doing, although our fathers continued to soldier on at the border and in the big training areas like Grafenwöhr and Hohenfels.

Bad Kissingen was also a place where I really grew aware of the two distinct sides of my own origin. My father’s army and the community that existed with it—a place of commissaries, PXs, NCO clubs, Star and Stripes newspapers, cars stopped in traffic at 5 pm for taps—places like Daley Barracks. And my mother’s world too. Like a lot of my friends, I had a German mother who married a GI. Some of my friends had names like Heike and Stefan—I felt lucky to escape that fate. Our mothers might have cooked up schweinebraten one night and southern-style pork chops the next. We were as familiar with leberkäse as we were with a can of Spam. And we had grandparents too, opas and omas, who were delighted when our fathers rotated back to Germany from one of those forts stateside. My own grandfather is the deaf man mentioned on a document Hans Burg encounters in his investigation.

Ultimately, Bad Kissingen in that time was for me a strange contradiction. A pretty village dedicated to curing bodies and spirits, situated on the very edge of a barbed and mined frontier, where mutual destruction was assured. Where other tense boundaries existed: between tanks and gardens, German hosts and American guests, sergeants and privates, blacks and whites, men and women, young and old, realists and idealists. I hope you enjoy Bad Kissingen as a lively backdrop for a mystery story.

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4 Responses to “Tense Boundaries” (by Matthew Wilson)

  1. Cindy Evans says:

    Matthew, such wonderful writing! We were never stationed in Germany, unfortunately (got sent to Hawaii instead — oh darn). But your descriptions are so clear and evocative that I feel I’m right there!

  2. Joseph F. Dessert says:

    Fun to read this backdrop to your story. Interesting.

  3. Charles Huegel says:

    “ it’s 9 o’clock in central Europe this is AFN do you know where your children are “ How many people remember hearing that every night.

  4. Geo says:

    Matt, my wife & I were stationed (2/41 FA) during that time. You captured perfectly what it was like to live there during that period. Young, out of the country GIs living with well to do Germans in Spa town was ripe with opportunities for creative tension. Our experience was a tad different in that we will in town (on the economy) and my wife worked in a local German factory. At night, I recall double checking where the sounds of artillery fire were coming from. If from the North, that was the Military Training Area – Wildflecken. and it was ok. Fortunately, those sounds never came from the East, the border. When I arrived at BK, there were troops who had packed for the border during the Yom Kippur War, not knowing if they were ever coming back or what would happen to their families. As busy, and as hard as that time was, those years in lovely BK forged the foundation that we have built our lives on.

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