A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
Whenever I wander down memory lane, I revisit some of my adventures as a young sailor in Germany’s navy -- less than a dozen years after the country surrendered in World War II.
That experience for me was almost carefree, like a second childhood with no reasons to worry about job security or to fear anything. But I entered the navy with many vivid memories of the global conflict, growing up afraid of air raids and bombs falling.
That mattered a lot to me during the six years that I served in the navy, especially when I went to the United States as well as some other nations in the alliance that fought against Germany.
I was 19 when I became a sailor. That was in 1956, the first year Germany was allowed to have a postwar navy.
Relations with former adversaries weren’t fully normal yet, so there were efforts to avoid situations that might increase tension. For example, sailors were told to wear civilian clothes instead of uniforms when going ashore in a foreign port. I was part of crews doing that in Norway, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands.
But as conditions continued to improve, I got lucky. In 1959, I was sent for training at American facilities and to prepare for duty on a U.S. destroyer which was slated for transfer to Germany's fleet the following year.
That trans-Atlantic trip was quite something. I had to use all of my limited English language skills to get travel directions after I left Hamburg on a Pan American Airlines “super constellation.” It plane stopped in Ireland as well as Newfoundland before landing in New York, where I had to catch another flight to Rhode Island and then take a bus to the naval base in Newport.
I started by joining US seamen in a class for “Torpedo M15 and Fire Control." Then, I had almost a year of classes and fleet training exercises that took me to Virginia, South Carolina, Guantanamo/Cuba and lastly Florida.
While I was at those facilities and surrounding harbors. I never sensed any hostility towards my German uniform, and being in America was eye-opening in various ways.
Most significant, perhaps, was the standard of living. It was much higher than in postwar Germany. It seemed as if every home had a car outside plus phone and tv inside.
I also was struck by all the superlatives in advertising. From beers to beaches, the goods and services were said to be biggest, or most beautiful, or richest, or best. It was, of course, the land of unlimited possibilities, right?
And I found that people were friendly everywhere.. In stores, the workers usually asked “how do you do?” before trying to sell me anything.
But there was a big negative. For the first time, I saw racial segregation. It was in South Carolina, on a bus in Charleston.
When I sat behind some black passengers, the driver did not move on. I thought I might be the problem, that sailors weren’t permitted to ride. Then, one of the black men turned around and asked me if we could change seats, saying the driver would stay in the same place if we didn’t swap. Totally shocked, I moved to a seat up front.
The bus immediately started going. Such a blatant sign of discrimination gave me a very bad memory.
Florida was my favorite place. I spent the entire visit in Key West, with thousands of sailors training or stationed at the Sonar School and Naval Submarine Base. So many
of those Americans made this German man feel welcome to join them at work and, even more important, when on outings ashore. I never forgot that.
All of us were young, a long way from home and loving the life we lived. None of us knew it then, but associating with each other forged us into the men we became. And a lot of the “associating” occurred in local bars, where we shared stories accumulated in our short lives.
I guess we figured we “wuz” sailors and had earned every right to be a little on “the wild side” when we had liberty shore leave -- and it was in that spirit that we did our fair share of patronizing drinking establishments.
A night out in Key West for us usually started on Duval Street, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Caribbean. We had our choice of countless bars such as Sloppy Joe’s, Green Parrot, Whistle Bar, The Bull, Hog’s Breath Salon and Captain Tony’s.
Our goal often was to visit them all by starting on one side of the street and returning on the other -- downing a beer at each place. We never made it all the way. That bar hopping was new for me, but I learned fast.
Most of those places had only inexpensive draft beer and “Hatuey” was the preferred brand for good reasons. Not only was it the only one bottled locally, but it had enough alcohol in it to start a beach-party bonfire. At $4 per case, it was cheaper than Coca Cola.
With so many watering holes, we could afford to be pretty selective and we had some high standards, like other dens of iniquity inhabited by seagoing men.
We wanted “crusty barmaids” -- tough and agile so that they could balance a tray while getting through a room full of drunks telling lies.
We also liked facilities where the barmaids offered companionship. We found some, but came to realize that their willingness to sit with us was equal to how long we'd buy them ice tea, which coat four times as much as beer.
On slow nights, requests varied. A sailor might ask a barmaid to scratch his back, or to put her leg on a table where he could admire her ankle bracelet. Believe it or not, some guys just wanted women to admire their ugly tattoos or photographs of their bucktoothed kids.
Believe it or not, we commonly saw barmaids work past closing time to be nice to tired customers. If a man fell asleep at a table while holding a half-eaten snack or dried sausage, a barmaid might wrap his heavy “pea coat” around him and be ready to hand him a cold draft when he woke up.
The best barmaids were so helpful and kind because they understood what we sailors did. They appreciated us fand showed it. All we had to do in return was treat them decently and not play jukebox songs they hated.
Our favorite joints usually had something else, too –- called an indispensable man. That guy often was a Cuban named Ramon, Juan, Pedro or Tico. As soon as we came in, he headed our way with a grin.
”How are choo navee mans tonight?” he’d ask as he reached into a pocket of his baggy tweed pants for cigarettes that were almost always unfiltered Lucky Strikes, Camels or Raleighs.
The same fellow later would be doing most of the hard work -- wiping down the tables, washing the glasses, dumping trash and replacing paper towels.
And if any problems developed, that guy probably was the one expected to solve them. A shortage of Slim-Jims, Beer Nuts or pickled hard boiled eggs?. Guess who was sent to borrow some at another place? When necessary, he knew where to call for a taxi, the shore patrol, or a flophouse.
Almost all of our favorite bars had a brass foot rail, beer bottle labels plastered on the ceiling and walls decorated with ship and squadron plaques, enlarged unit patches and specific dates of previous naval deployments. Among other common decorations were signs, such as (1) Your mother does not work here, so clean up your trash; (2) Keep your hands off the barmaids. (3) Don’t throw butts in the urinal; (4) Take fights out to the alley.
One night out with my Navy buddies on Duval was particularly memorable. Somebody suggested “leap frogging” over parking meters as we walked past them. I jumped first and was stopped immediately by members of the Navy’s “Shore Patrol.”
As I was taken into custody, my friends left when told they, too, faced possible incarceration. I was put in a local holding area just as some very drunk marines were taking off their shirts, ties, and hats. I thought they were about to fight until they began to fold their uniforms neatly and put them aside. They explained that they didn’t want their clothing to get soiled if anybody got sick.
After all these years, I know I was lucky to have had the “liberty bars” experience. They felt like “home” no matter where you were or came from, and provided opportunities to get an education available nowhere else on earth.
And I found out that when I came ashore on liberty, I was rubbing shoulders with some of the finest men I'd ever know.
Rolf Schneider is a retired engineer living in Florida
Built more than 80 years ago at the southern tip of Florida, the U.S. Naval Air Station at Key West is an island city -- now part of a community of roughly 20,000 people including military personnel and their families.