Our “mamad” (see reinforced security room) doubles as a TV room and contains bookshelves and a work niche. On the second shelf above the desk is a small chest reminiscent of a pirate’s treasure chest. It contains most of the coins I had in my pockets while traveling through various countries.
Our grandchildren always ran straight to the mamad, stood beside the desk, pointing up at the chest of coins, begging me to bring it down to the floor so they could look at the coins, which I gladly did for them.
The oldest would open the latch and raise the lid. The youngest and the oldest would pick out coins and ask me, what coin is this, Saba? “Saba” is Hebrew for “Grampa”. I would take the coin from the proffered hand and carefully examine the coin before handing it back.
“This one is a fifty new-pence coin with a profile of Elizabeth II from Britain.” I remembered arriving in Darmstadt, Germany, as a soldier in the US Army back in June 1970. I had just been assigned as a legal clerk for the 10th Artillery Group. My commander sent me to attend a course in Military Law. I had no legal background at all, but I was the first non-com with a college degree to arrive at Headquarters Battery.
The course was held at the base in Oberammergau, near the Austrian border. Oberammergau is famous for enacting a Passion Play about the life of Jesus once every decade. The play was performed during the week I attended the course. One evening I attended a performance. I hardly spoke a word of German at the time. Besides that, I’m Jewish.
While I was watching the drama, I met a young woman named Cathy. She had studied Shakespeare in public school and I had taken a course on the plays of Shakespeare at the university. We hit it off and exchanged addresses. We wrote each other and she invited me to come to visit her in Tottenham. I had a little money saved and had a weekend free. I flew to England. I hopped a bus from Heathrow to London and looked for a train to Tottenham. She lived in a nice brownstone apartment. Her parents let me sleep overnight on the couch. In the morning, they packed us a basket of home-made pear wine and sandwiches, and Cathy and I took a bus to Stonehenge for the day.
I handed the coin back to the waiting hand.
“What is this paper, Saba?” the other one asked. I took the bill and looked closely. “This is a French twenty franc note with a portrait of Claude Debussy, a composer, on it. It’s not worth anything anymore. They use Euros now,” I said. I remember taking a train to Paris one weekend. I found a hotel in an alley off a side-street a few blocks from the Seine river.
It was my first time in France. The only French I knew were the phrases in my small phrasebook. I could ask where the toilet was or do you have a hotel room for me, but I couldn’t understand the answers. I found a nice-looking restaurant. The table had 3 tablecloths on it. I had yet to learn that the more tablecloths on the table the more expensive the tab would be.
The waiter handed me a menu. I pointed at the first item on the menu. It was pâté de cerveau or some such. When it arrived, I found out it was a cooked brain. I didn’t touch it. Fortunately, I had also ordered vin rouge (red wine).
I handed back the coin.
“What is this coin, Saba?” the oldest asked. “This one is a Dutch ten-cent Euro coin,” I answered, handing it back, remembering one weekend I had traveled to Amsterdam by train. When we arrived, I was walking on the platform toward the station exits, when a young guy stopped me and asked whether I needed a place to stay. I hesitated. After a moment, I said yes. He seemed friendly enough. He said his girlfriend ran a hotel in the middle of town and he could take me there. I said ok.
I followed him outside to his Volkswagen. We arrived at a pleasant little hotel. He introduced me to his girlfriend. I checked in and got a key to my room. I had a splitting headache and just wanted to lie down to sleep it off.
Soon there was knocking, laughing, and shouting outside my door. I opened the door. Someone told me we were all going into town together, and I should come along. That’s how friendly the Dutch were. When we arrived in the lobby, the girlfriend who owned the hotel looked at me and asked what’s wrong. I told her about my headache and she told me to sit down. She’d fix it. She put her fingers on my temples and, within moments, my headache dissipated – as though her fingers had sucked up all the pain. I was good to go. I thanked her and we joined the crowd leaving the hotel.
Our crowd merged with other crowds. It seemed as though all Amsterdam was walking up Canal Street, where the prostitutes displayed their wares in garish windows. We made our way somehow to just outside Cosmos, the biggest discotheque in Amsterdam. We couldn’t get in because it was already at full capacity. The front door would open. The heavy bass would blast through the open door. One person would slip out sideways and another person would slip in the same way. The door would close behind him and there was only room on the street for everyone to sway in place to the thum-thum-thum beat of the bass coming through the closed windows.
“What’s this coin, Saba?”
“It’s one Swiss franc,” I answered.
I remembered another weekend I had decided to visit Switzerland. I didn’t have a US passport yet. All I had was my US Army green card so I couldn’t cross the border legally. Friday afternoon, after I got off duty, I hitchhiked down past Heidelberg and was let off at a truck stop in the Schwartzwald (Black Forest). My luck turned bad and nobody stopped to pick me up from there. I looked around and found a truck parked next to the diner. Since the road was going south pretty much straight to the Swiss border without any turnoffs, I decided to climb into the back of a truck trailer and pulled some potato sacks over me. By the time the truck started moving, I was already sound asleep.
Sometime early next morning, I woke up. The truck had stopped and was waiting in line, probably to be weighed. I climbed out of the trailer and, under the cover of pre-dawn darkness, crossed the road and walked up a hill. After a few hundred yards, I passed a stone marker indicating that I had just entered Switzerland. I walked down the other side of the hill and into the outskirts of Basil.
I was able to hitch a ride all the way down to the picturesque old city of Bern with its castle walls and moat.
I hitched a ride back to Basil, had dinner and a beer, and slept near a stream in a field under the stars. In the morning, I went back the way I had entered, found the stone marker welcoming me back to Germany, and hitched rides back to my base in Darmstadt.
“Saba, what coin is this one?” the little one asked. It was one Deutsche mark. Memories engulfed me. A few weeks after I arrived in Darmstadt, I decided to teach myself German. I had dated an American girl who taught English in Darmstadt. She also volunteered to lead a discussion group of local Germans and Americans residing in Darmstadt. When she reached the end of her teaching contract and was about to return home, she asked me whether I would be willing to lead the German-American discussion group. Since the group only met one evening a month and my day job as a US Army legal clerk was not likely to interfere, I agreed.
For my first session, I brought a copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in Old English, and read out loud the first line of the poem, “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote”. See Canterbury Tales General Prologue. The Germans understood it, but the Americans did not. We discussed how English had evolved from German. It was a lively discussion. I made many friends in that group, a minister and his wife from Gross Umstadt, and a few young soldiers (my age) in the German army (Bundeswehr). I made no secret of the fact that I am Jewish.
My German army friends took me with them to a popular discotheque (“Keller”) in Darmstadt. American soldiers were not allowed in local discotheques because they had a bad reputation for getting ugly drunk and brawling. They gave me a membership card with my photo on it, so I wouldn’t have any trouble getting in because of my US soldier’s short-cut hair.
One evening I met a local girl at the Keller. Wilma and I danced all night. I offered to give her a ride home on the back of my Moped, a 50-cc motorbike. When we arrived at her apartment, she asked whether I could help her move her things from her old apartment to the one she had recently moved into. It was pretty late at night, but I agreed. By the time we had moved everything and arranged it all to Wilma’s satisfaction, it was close to dawn. She invited me to stay over.
From that night on, I spent most of my free evenings with Wilma. I would ride my Moped back to our base around dawn, change into my fatigues, and stand for reveille each morning.
I wondered what ever happened to Wilma and Cathy.
“What about this coin, Saba?” This brought me out of my reveries. It was an Israeli one lira coin. Those went out of circulation a long time ago. My memories transported me back to 1968 when I was in my third year at Ohio State University.
It was a case of “love at second sight”.
Talma’s father was my stepmother’s brother-in-law’s cousin. My aunt and uncle lived nearby in Columbus. Talma lived in Israel. She was visiting my aunt and uncle. Mom and my aunt arranged a blind date for the two of us. Talma and I were the same age and we both attended university.
My parents invited Talma over to our Friday evening meal. Afterward, I took her to see “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” with Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn, and Katharine Houghton. Our conversations were halting and clumsy, unlike the smooth and easy conversations she had with my parents. As Talma later told me, she liked my parents long before she liked me.
We didn’t see or speak to each other again during her visit. There was no ill-feeling between us. It was just a case in which Mom and my aunt tried to fit a round peg into a square hole.
Fast-forward to September 1971, during my last three months of active duty in Germany. I had two weeks of army furlough accumulated. I had heard that I could fly for free on any military flight as long as there was a seat available and I showed my Army green card.
As a Diaspora Jew, since my bar mitzvah, I had always wanted to visit Israel. Germany was already halfway to Israel and I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to visit the Promised Land. I had never been outside the United States except for a couple one-day excursions just over the border in Tijuana and Juarez. When I mentioned my idea to visit Israel to my parents, Mom said to make sure I look up Talma and gave me her phone number. I said okay.
On my first day of vacation, I hitched a ride to Wiesbaden where there was a US Air Force base and looked for a plane going east. I showed my green card and boarded a plane to Naples, Italy. From there I found boarded a plane to Athens, Greece. From there I boarded a plane to Adana, Turkey. At the flight control desk, I asked whether there was a flight going to Israel. I was told, “Sorry, there was no such flight, but you can fly to Istanbul and buy an El Al ticket to Israel.”
I had barely enough money to fly back to Rome and take a train back to Darmstadt. I resigned myself to the fact that, like Moses, I’d come so close to the Promised Land, but I would not be able to enter it.
I spread my sleeping bag on the floor near the desk and, after a while, fell asleep.
Toward morning, I heard two voices talking. One said he was going to visit his girlfriend in Tel Aviv. I opened my eyes and saw the two officers who were talking near me.
I got up and asked them whether they were flying to Israel and whether there was room for me on the flight. The pilot said, sure. I boarded a C-130 Hercules cargo jet. The seats faced backward. I strapped myself in. The flight was about forty-five minutes. We landed at Lod airport.
An Israeli army jeep took us around to the front of the airport. I found a telephone booth, bought a phone token, and called Talma’s number. Her brother, Yechiel, answered. Talma was not home yet, but he gave me their address and explained to me which buses to take to get there. I did not speak any Hebrew except for a few prayers. Fortunately, Yechiel’s English was good enough.
I boarded buses according to Yechiel’s instructions. When I boarded the last bus and neared the intersection where I was supposed to get off, I stood up and squinted my eyes to see the street signs. A girl soldier asked me whether I needed help. I told her the name of the street where I had to get off. She got off with me and took me to the boulevard where Talma lived. I thanked her and asked her whether I could buy her an ice cream cone. She said no thanks and walked back to the bus stop to wait for the next bus.
There was a flower shop on the boulevard. I bought a bouquet, found Talma’s apartment building, walked up the stairs, and knocked on the door.
When I saw Talma, it was love at second sight.
Toward evening, I asked whether there was a bench I could sleep on in the boulevard. Talma said there was no way I was going to sleep on a bench outside. I would sleep in her bed and she would go to her grandmother’s apartment a couple blocks away to sleep.
We were together every day for almost two weeks until it was time for me to return to Germany. She took me everywhere to see things in Israel that most tourists never see. We talked about everything and anything. Conversations flowed and intimacy grew.
On my last day in Israel, Talma drove me to the airport. She waited to see me off. I went to the information counter as I had been instructed to do by the C-130 pilot. The man at the counter said the flight had been delayed and I should return in two hours.
Talma and I decided to go for a swim and come back in two hours. When I returned to the information counter, the man said the plane had arrived earlier than expected. They had called my name over the loudspeakers. When I didn’t respond, they took off without me. The next flight would be in another two weeks.
I had no choice but to purchase a ticket for a one-way flight on El Al to Rome. That was all I could afford. I boarded the plane.
When we landed in Rome, I purchased a train ticket to Munich. From Munich, I was able to scrabble together enough change to buy a train ticket to Darmstadt. When we got to Darmstadt, it was after 3 a.m.
I had six different currencies in my pocket, all of which added up to less than what I needed to take a cab to our base from the train station.
I walked to our base, changed into my fatigues, and presented myself for reveille just in time. Unfortunately, my hair had grown longer than military requirements allowed during the two weeks and my commander ordered me to write myself an Article Fifteen. I was the one who wrote Articles Fifteen for soldiers who had violated army rules according to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
When I presented the Article on my commander’s desk, he told me to forget it and make sure I got a haircut.
Talma and I wrote each other long letters almost every day. Declarations of love escalated.
In December, I was released from active duty and flown home.
I went back to work for the same company I worked for before I was drafted. Talma and I continued to write each other. In one letter I asked her whether she would be willing to fly to Columbus and we would see how things went from there, no strings attached.
Talma arrived in March. I met her at the airport. She slept over at my aunt’s home near us. We were together constantly. Later she moved to my parents’ apartment where I was living.
One night I took her to my favorite park after hours when it was closed to the public. We walked along the trails to where they kept the raccoons. I was crazy with love for her.
I dropped down on one knee and asked her whether she would marry me. Incredibly, she said yes.
We married on May 14th, 1972. Our oldest son, Assaf, was born on April 13, 1973. Ari was born on February 27th, 1978.
A couple months later, on May 16th, we moved to Israel to a house Talma’s parents had bought for us in Raanana. Ayal, our youngest son was born on September 2nd, 1984.
As of this writing, our sons have blessed us with eight healthy wonderful grandchildren, ranging in age from four months to nineteen years.
Assaf has moved his family back to America.
I handed the coin back. Sometimes, they ask whether they can take a coin home with them. I say yes, of course, since I have the memories, but they always forget the coins when they go on to play with something else more interesting.
After they leave, everything is quiet. I pick up the coins, put them back in the chest, and put the chest back on the shelf for next time.