Upon arriving for duty as a USAF Air Traffic Control Radar Tech at Templhoff Central Airport in Berlin, Germany, I noticed a flyer posted on the bulletin board outside the squadron First Sergeant’s office. It announced that there was an Adopt a U.S. Serviceman for Christmas Dinner program available to any interested servicemen. It was already the end of November and the deadline to apply was less than a week away. There was no hesitation in my mind. I wanted to take part in it. How wonderful it would be to share Christmas with a local German family rather than spend it together with a bunch of sad, homesick G.I.’s. I immediately signed up. It seemed innocent enough.
I soon found out that I was the only one from my section who had applied, and began taking harassment from fellow airmen that I had actually volunteered to be the token dinner guest at all places, some Herm’s home. (Herm was a derogatory term for German, back then.) I mean, with a name like Dürrschmidt, give me a break. I came from a family line of Herms. It was my heritage. I desperately wanted to fellowship with Berliners, to acquire their language, to learn their customs and traditions. A common remark made was that I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I refused to let any disparaging comments lessen my high hopes.
As the days counted down, I studied the handout over and over as to what to expect being a guest in a German home. It said that Germans were a formal people, and that care had to be exercised not to unwittingly be offensive. Punctuality was paramount. Using formal words would be expected. Conversational topics were to be kept nonpolitical, or potentially confrontational. And, by all means, guests should be mindful not to over stay their welcome. Gifts were not necessary, nor expected, but were encouraged as an act of good will. Recommended were tobacco products or whiskey for the man, perfume or flowers for the woman, and some appropriate toy for the children. I would be visiting with the Sieber family, Adolf and Ursula had three children: Derk, 9, Cordula, 7, and Ivo, 6. Sight unseen, the Siebers became special people to me, and I wanted the first impression to be a memorable one. I had no idea just how memorable it would soon turn out to be.
It was snowing quite heavily on Christmas Eve, and carrying a substantial armful of wrapped gifts, I opted to take a taxi the entire forty-five minute transit to the Sieber home, located in the French occupied sector of the divided city. In finest 1969 fashion, I was decked out in a blue, double-breasted blazer with tan wool flair-bottom slacks, a beige silk shirt, and sported a color-coordinated paisley ascot. I had gotten Adolf a bottle of Jack Daniel whiskey from the military Class VI store, and from the exchange, a spray of flowers, a small Channel No.5 perfume for Ursula, a little girl bath set and a ring for Cordula, and a U.S. Calvary play set complete with fort, figurines, cannons, and a few Indians, for the two boys. On the ride there, I was bursting with excitement in anticipation of the evening that lay ahead. The taxi ride seemed to take forever.
The taxi finally pulled up at the front steps of 54 Qwellweg, Siemansstadt. The snow was falling gently in huge flakes. I paid the fare, collected up all the gifts in two arms, and pushed the back door of the cab wide open with my foot. Stretching to exit without dropping anything, the unthinkable happened. My rather snug pants loudly ripped apart from belt line all the way to the zipper bottom! A hot flash rushed over me as cold winter air rushed in upon my very unsuspecting ass. Oh no, what do I do? It would be two hours for me to go change and return. The evening would be a total bust. I didn't know what would be more embarrassing: not showing, or just dealing with it. The taxi driver was laughing and I suppose uttering something along the lines of whether I was getting in or out. Oh well…
I rang the door bell and soon heard Adolf’s voice saying he'd be right down. I tried to stand sideways so as not to bare my butt to passerby’s on the street. Adolf was extremely jubilant and personable. He raced ahead up the two flights of stairs with me lagging behind (no pun). We were met at the door by Ursula, wearing a kitchen apron and wiping her hands in preparation of our greeting. Like with Adolf, I put my hand out to shake hers, but instead, she scolded her husband for not unburdening me of the packages, and as he clumsily took them from me, she gave me the nicest hug (this was not according to the handout). As he went to place the gifts on a table, I remained standing at the doorway keeping my back from showing.
Adolf asked why I was still at the door, and insisted I come join him in the living room. I seized the moment to get the embarrassment over with. I announced that I had a problem. They looked puzzled and inquired just what the problem might be. Ursula did most of the speaking as she had lived in England several years and had a greater grasp of the English language. When I shared that my pants had ripped getting out of the taxi, they both looked at each other, gave a quick gasp, and then began to laugh. I didn’t find it quite as humorous then. Without warning, and with the speed of a striking rattle snake, Ursula was down on her knees behind me, her face all up in my business, assessing the damage up vlose and personal. I'd never let my own mother even go there!
Down the hall, there were three little giggling heads bobbing in and out from inside a bedroom doorway. I had yet to meet the children, and already I had become a great source of amusement to them. Ursula finally stood up, held out one hand, and asked me to hand over my pants. I said that I couldn’t just take them off and be standing in their home in my underwear. She laughed appreciating the level of my embarrassment, and had Adolf fetch me a pair of shorts. Well, Adolf was a rather rotund gentleman, so I expected his shorts were wide enough to easily fit two of me. At the insistence of a very impatient and demanding Ursula, I slipped out of my slacks. Adolf seemed to be taking much too long with the shorts. The children continued peeking and giggling.
As suspected, they were huge. Pulling them up, I had to roll, and roll, and roll material up on the side and grip it with one hand to keep them up. Ursula went straightway to her sewing machine and began making repairs. Adolf had me come into the living room with him where he continued placing candles on their Christmas tree. From the sewing room, Ursula called to Adolf that Mr. Evans was late. “Mr. Evans?” I asked. They had also invited a young English soldier to dinner, thinking that we both would be more comfortable having one another to share in the experience – how thoughtful. Within minutes, the doorbell rang. Ursula called for Adolf to get it. Adolf was leaning into the tree and asked me to get the door. I did.
There’s no way to accurately describe the look on the Englishman’s face when he first saw me standing there so oddly dressed, holding shorts up with one hand, and in my stocking feet. “Long story,” I said, and invited him in. There was nothing formal about his welcome to a German family’s home. Ursula was the first of the Siebers to greet him while handing me my pants back. Reaching for them, the shorts immediately fell to the floor. I slipped into them right there. Ursula dove down and back to my ass again to check the stitching, and once satisfied with her work, smacked me on one cheek, and said, “Gut.” With that, she returned to the kitchen to pick up on where she had left off with dinner.
In the living room, I caught Evans up on what had happened with the pants, and we three men continued making conventional small talk, as men do when first introduced. Within minutes we were called to the table as Ursula began bringing out the plates of food. Adolf assigned us seating. It was only then that I was first introduced to the children, who were having a difficult time putting an end to their giggling at the table, much to their father’s displeasure.
Dinner consisted of beef brisket with Brussels’ sprouts, and in German tradition – nothing to drink. Conversation was warm and cordial with a heavy helping of laughter. The dinner experience was perfect with one exception: Mr. Evans repeatedly made insulting remarks at America in general, and Americans in specific. In every case, the Siebers tried their best to keep the conversation redirected back to Christmas and good will toward men. Out of respect for my hosts and new found friends, I did not overtly take exception to his rudeness, but chose to take the high road. It was awkwardly clear that Mr. Evan’s presence was an embarrassment to my hosts,
After the desert of canned cherries, Adolf and Mr. Evans retired to the living room. I helped Ursula clear the table, which both he and she insisted that I not do, but I stubbornly disobeyed. Besides, I needed some distance and cooling off time from that pompous English ass. In the kitchen, Ursula apologized for their other guest’s conduct, and thanked me for my tolerance and restraint. Believe me, it wasn’t easy.
The children were told to get ready for bed as the adults continued conversation over an after dinner cocktail. Nothing changed. Mr. Evans continued to take pot shots at “their little colony across the pond.” It was half-passed eight when Ursula asked Mr. Evans if she might call him a taxi. He agreed, as the time “was getting on.” Remembering the importance of not overstaying my welcome, I decided that when the cab arrived, that I would take my leave as well.
When the taxi horn sounded, Ursula surprisingly had Mr. Evan’s coat ready to hand him. As he was putting it on, I stood up from the sofa only to have Adolf push me by my shoulders back down. He leaned over toward me and said, “No, you stay.” After polite goodbyes were exchanged, Mr. Evans was gone, and none too soon, with an audible sigh of relief from my hosts. It was then that the real getting acquainted began. Adolf broke out the good stuff and was intent on introducing me to drinking like a German. Hey, I was all about learning new customs and traditions, right? While Ursula tended to the children, Adolf and I conversed the best we could, but I must admit, we did much better at drinking. Any chance at fluid conversation depended on Ursula’s presence as interpreter.
Waiting on her return, Adolf broke out his collection of cartoons in document protectors that took up an entire three-inch, three-ring binder. It was clear that the man had an enormous sense of humor, and I did my best to humor his collection by searching for something I could find funny. It got easier with beer and as the night progressed. Adolf never let one beer get empty before he was handing me another. I kept reminding myself that these were good people, or so they appeared to be, and that I was a guest semi-officially representing the US military and the entire United States of America. I didn’t want to behave in any manner that might tarnish the image.
It was while these thoughts raced through my dulling, pickled brain that I first noticed it – a small, round, brass object located beneath a shelf on the bookshelf I had been seated near. Adolf placed me there earlier telling me that it was “my spot.” Could it be a microphone? Could this be one of the possibilities I was warned about in the pre Adopt a US Serviceman for Christmas Dinner briefing that I received the week before from counterintelligence agents. They warned that some nationals sign up for the program in order to gain access to military members for the sole purpose of collecting human intelligence information. The nature of the briefing was ridiculous in my mind, and at best preposterous. Now suddenly, I was not so sure what to think.
Divide and conquer: get rid of the Englishman and concentrate on the American. Warm up to him. Get him liquored, loosened up, and ripe for the picking. I tried not to be so obvious looking again and again at the “bug” under the shelf, but decided to remain alert and be on my guard. Ursula returned and the Christmas Eve celebration got into full swing. If spies, they were very good at it. I detected nothing of the sort. As far as pumping me for information, they asked me only one thing: would I consider staying the night and sharing Christmas day with them. In fact, if I had the time off, that I was welcome to stay the whole weekend. In the interest of my personal safety, and amplified by paranoia, I told them that people were expecting me to return by a certain time. And, besides, I didn’t have anything to sleep in, or personal items with me.
Adolf was quick to say that if I went one night without brushing my teeth that the world would not end, and that I was welcome to sleep in a pair of his pajamas. But then laughing, added that wearing his pajamas did not entitle me to sleep with his wife. That said, he roared with laughter, until getting slapped across the head by his wife. I wanted to stay. What harm could possibly come from it. I was betting on them being what they seemed: warm, fun, hospitable, good people. At least tonight they had been. Perhaps tomorrow they will become spies, but not tonight. They were so visibly elated when I accepted the invitation. “We will have a wonderful Christmas,” Adolf struggled to get out, but the sentiment was clear.
Ursula left and returned with pajamas, suggesting we all call it a night. She showed me to the guest room, and then departed. Within minutes the house was dark and silent. I turned down the bedding and undressed, carefully folding and placing my clothes on a nearby chair. Everywhere I stepped, floorboards creaked. I decided to wear only the pajama top. Putting on the bottoms would have been senseless. I would’ve tossed and turned my way out of them in short order anyway.
The bed was so very comfortable. The room was so cold. I quickly fell in love with the thick down comforter that had me feeling warm as toast in no time. Arms behind my head, staring at the ceiling, I could hardly believe the whole evening from taxi to bedtime. I could never have imagined it turning out the way that it did. Only one thing troubled me enough to keep me from going to sleep: the microphone under the bookshelf. I had to know for sure. I lay there debating the merit of investigating while I had a chance. What if I got caught? What then? I decided I would first quietly go to the living room and sit in “my spot” on the sofa. From there I would investigate further. If discovered, I would simply say that I couldn’t sleep and decided to sit up for awhile.
I slipped out of the warm bed with my feet touching the cold floor. At my first step, the floor creaked. I waited. I took two more steps before it creaked again. Trying to walk as softly and quietly as possible, it seemed to take forever to walk the hall to the living room, and then another eternity to reach “my spot.” Once seated, I sat in total silence listening for signs of stirring from the bedroom. There were none. I proceeded with my investigation by slowly feeling for the hidden microphone. Found it. Feeling around further for a wire, I detected nothing of the sort, However, as my fingers felt along under the shelf, to my surprise, I touched what was unmistakably another microphone. Next, discovering two similar microphones under the other side of the same shelf, almost made be burst out loud with laughter. I felt like such a dummy. I had located the four metal mounts for supporting the shelf! Who was being the spy here?
Ghostly light from the streetlamps filtered in through the very ornate, white lace drapery. The room smelled of beer and evergreen. A candle covered Christmas tree peacefully stood in the corner, presents piled beneath it in happy anticipation of morning. Only one creature was stirring. I walked over to the huge window, parted the drapes, and stood for a long, long time, watching as large, fluffy snowflakes fell ever so gently onto the empty street below. There would be no emptiness to my first Christmas in Berlin. I would be spending it with family. I thought about my family back at home on Long Island, specifically about the countless times my mother asked if I had clean underwear on when leaving the house. Some gifts don’t come in packages. Thank you SO much, Mom. Merry Christmas!