When I was ten years old, a good friend of mine lent me his Army ID for the weekend. His father had gone to Berlin, and had told him it was okay if he used it until he got back. He didn’t count on his son abusing the privilege.
“If my dad finds out about this, I’m dead,” he said as he handed me the pass. I told him he shouldn’t worry, though I myself felt nervous. As far as I was concerned it was the key to El Dorado.
Back then I lived in a duplex house in the southwestern corner of Germany. There I woke up every day at five to bus for an hour to school, the only school in the city for kids who spoke nothing but English. It was an Army school, Department of Defense-sponsored, filled with sons of soldiers and daughters of the dead in Bosnia. I lived in a German village, whereas they lived on a base five miles outside of the city. They bought from an Army grocery store, and ate American food.
That weekend I bought the largest pile of junk food in the history of grade-school binges. Corn dogs, hot dogs, hamburgers, Sweet Tarts, bag upon bag of Fritos barbeque corn chips—I indulged in every pleasure my expatriate status denied me, and spent the next two weeks feeling more than a little sick. My friends on the base, who had learned the art of temperance over years of easy access, had no idea how a pantry of crap could have given me so much pleasure. Today I remember it as a balm for a larger ache.
Three days after my 11th birthday I boarded a plane for Baltimore. Since then I have not been back, though I have spent the past four months wandering back and forth on the continent. By now my friends, my house and my interests have dissolved into piecemeal memories, threadbare remainders of a life I can barely recall. When a friend from Baltimore tells me his fondest memory—Cal Ripken, ’96, setting a world record for most consecutive games played—he always asks if I don’t love Orioles baseball. I always respond that I do, yes, but not in the way that he does. I can’t.
Here’s what I remember. Right on the edge of the valley, two streets down from my house, an aging farm couple opened a bed and breakfast. When my family and I came in, they made me a special dish—ham and two fried eggs, served on a wooden cutting board—and opened the door to the backyard, so my sister could see the horses. They called her, as most Germans we knew did, “Marfa” (Germans have trouble with “th” sounds). They always set the table with three different kinds of seasoning: salt, pepper and pure MSG.
Here’s another. On April 22, 1994, the day Richard Nixon died, all of the Army schools were let out to mourn his passing. My gym teacher told my class: “Well, kids, you don’t know who he is, but once he was president. You all get to go home for the day.” Since this was in first grade, we all started cheering: “Yay, Nixon died! Yay!”
One more. My friend who lent me the ID, Dennis, harbored a very deep love of gunfights. He played “Goldeneye”, and one day—after a particularly fierce two-player match where I handed his ass to him—decided it was a good idea to buy us some genuine cap guns. He shopped online, picked out his models, and two weeks later got a package from the Militia of Montana. We opened it together to find two Uzis wrapped in paper.
“They’re meant to look totally realistic,” he said. We loaded our caps and ran outside to start battling. Ten minutes later I see Dennis running towards me, his gun hid behind his back. I point in his direction and fire, expecting him to fall. Instead he tackles me.
“See him?” He points to the street, where a sullen-looking MP is patrolling back and forth. “He got shot in the leg as a kid for using a real-looking cap gun. Now he freaks out if he sees any.” I look closely and, sure enough, that MP is limping badly.
Next month I plan to go back. It’s been ten years since I last set foot on the base, and I hear they’ve erected a wall to soothe worries post-9/11. I hope I can see my house—that apple tree that I planted must be bearing fruit now. It might also pay to stop by that grocery store, and remember that nowadays I can buy my Fritos at leisure.