What do you see out of your window today?

The Ugly American

A story by Alice Schwartz



June 1962 We left the deep night on the long trip to Paris. Bud had made it home from the base at Rothweston just in the nick of time to catch the train which would take the GI wives to Paris and then south to Orly Airport. Only one day earlier there had been the 2nd worst aviation disaster in history, when a Boeing 707 chartered by the most prestigious members of the Atlanta Arts Community crashed during take-off, killing all but 2 stewardesses on board. All day I kept imagining the newscasters saying, And the same fateful tragedy has repeated. But my irrational fears proved to be groundless, and the following day the Air Force chartered 707 which was overcrowded with young women and crying babies finally arrived about 2 hours late at Idlewild airport, and delivered me to the welcoming arms of the my relieved and grateful parents. The preparations to leave the 3rd floor rented apartment of Frau Mueller’s large stone house had taken the whole evening. The large treasury of spices which Bud had procured at the base needed to be disposed of. It would have been a grateful blessing to have presented them to Frau Mueller as they were hard to come by or prohibitively expensive on the German market. I could have given it to her with thanks, for the use of her old treadle sewing machine all that year, enabling me to make my sister a beautiful maternity wardrobe with the fine silks and cottons I bought at the fabric store in the city of Kassel, a study of pre-war stateliness against post war bomb sites and modern rebuildings; where GI’s were allowed to live with their families on the German economy. However, I did not choose to do this. I was 22 years old, ruled by emotion, and had not learned that our hurtful words and actions cling to us throughout our lives. As I poured the salt and pepper onto the kitchen floor I was concentrating on the fact that my life had been upended two months after my wedding when my husband, an Air National Guardsman had been called up in the Berlin crisis, when the wall dividing East and West Berlin had gone up. As I added the paprika and the cinnamon to the mix, I was thinking about the 2nd grade teaching job I had given up, and the security deposit we had lost on our perfect newlywed apartment and the terror I felt the day the news came over the radio, telling the airman to report to the base in Devon, CT immediately. Hard to believe since the 103rd Aircraft Warning & Control Squadron had never been called up in their entire history. As I added to the growing pile of powders by emptying the cans of oregano and garlic powder, along with 5 lbs. of sugar, I bristled in resentment of the fact that this house and its people had been snug and secure in their fortress while Hitler had sent the remainder of my relatives who were not lucky enough to escape to the United States or Argentina to the gas chambers. The sack of flour came next while I felt the rage of knowing that my Jewish husband had been brought to this country to protect them, had worked nightly at the ovens in one of Hitler’s cadet camps to bake bread and pastries for the GI’s now stationed there, while his bride slept alone in a huge feather bed until 7 AM when his duty was done. And the dearest of all, the loose teas and coffee covered the fragrant mountain as I thought about our visit to Amsterdam and the house where Anne Frank had hidden with her family before they were caught and murdered. I thought that if I had not had the luck to have been born in America, I could have been Anne Frank. And Frau Meuller had maintained that they didn’t know! How could they not know? When all the spices and food from the pantry made multi-colored layers on the floor I bent down and put my hand in the mix and stirred and stirred until I could be sure that not a grain could be salvaged. And I left, feeling that I had handed them a miniscule taste of what they had earned. Forward to Summer 1965 I have just lost my first pregnancy and have found out that I have mononucleosis to boot. The doctor has forbidden another pregnancy for at least a year. I join the book of the month club to help me divert my depression until I am recovered enough to go back to teaching kindergarten in September. The first delivery includes a book called the Ugly American by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick. I read it, giving much thought to each episode in which Americans in their arrogance left shameful and degrading impressions in foreign counties. I think back to Germany. I can picture Frau Mueller in the kitchen in her little 3rd floor flat, her hands on her head, yelling to her daughter and granddaughter below, Ayy, Ayy, mach schnell, Ursula, Ayy! when she discovered the granular mess all over the floor, left as a goodbye from her young American tenants. With each frame of memory comes a rush of shame, a feeling of guilt and discomfort. I realize that I am many things to many people. I am a wife, a daughter and a sister. I am a caring teacher, close friends to several and casual friends to many. And with lasting sorrow I know that in another country, across the Atlantic Ocean a family at 37 Leushner Strasse, Kassel, Germany, remembers me as The Ugly American. This one mistake made by another me; an immature, inexperienced, unworldly me, will remain a regret and influence my behavior toward others for the rest of my life.

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 aviation,disaster,dry goods,Germany,Jews,revenge,shame,spices,World War II
  Paris, France
Jun 01 1962


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