Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By Gaither Stewart

Photo by Benjamin Wohlers 

Stars and Stripes Features Editor Darrell Sternwald hopped down from the back steps of the tram and promptly slipped on the wet cobblestones and fell flat on his face. As he peered around him the blurry faces of boarding passengers staring down at him appeared ghostly in the gray mist and falling rain. Climbing to his feet and wiping at his wet clothes, he grinned sheepishly at the people under the tram stop shelter above which was written the name: Hauptwache.

The heavy rain of when he’d boarded the tram was now a drizzle. He buttoned his raincoat and raised the collar and stepped back into the rain that seemed ugly and unkind today … as if harboring something evil and unknown. Warily he crossed the gleaming tram tracks and the hazardous cobblestoned platz, following two nuns dressed in classical black huddled under a black umbrella. Amazing the number of people on the streets. He stood in front of the café. Confused by the rain and the movement and still stunned from his fall. To the right a flower lady sat under two umbrellas behind a display of yellow roses. And organ music sounded from the gutted St. Catherine’s, the city’s biggest baroque church.

The rain-spattered letters of the name CAFE KRANZLER spread above the opulent entrance doors held him for a moment as it did each time he entered: mornings, at eight-thirty for breakfast; afternoons, for meetings with writers; evenings, for the music and drinks with friends and lovers. Café Kranzler. Incredible the significance a café had acquired during his now two years in the city. Café Kranzler marked the rhythm of his day.

Each morning he walked to the Kranzler from his office on the first-floor of the Park Hotel across the wide square from the devastated Main Station. Mornings, only a ten-minute walk … without the presence of the nighttime prostitutes along his Kaiserstrasse route. The main street was lined by shells of former department stores and hotels, restaurants and cafés in whose ruins the girls worked nights. He knew some by name. He had taken a liking for Marianne, young, thin face and sickly looking, whose English vocabulary consisted of her offer of “one blowjob five marks”. Words being spoken on many dark streets to drunken and lonely G.I.s. Darrell always spoke with her briefly, said danke, nein, and gave her five marks anyway. She just muttered “danke” and slinked back into the depths of the ruins of a garden restaurant destroyed like Frankfurt’s whole medieval center. Allied bombings had flattened the best of old Frankfurt. Sometimes Darrell stood there facing the ruins of the city and puzzled over a recurring memory: Marianne reminded him of someone in another life, who also said with other words something recalling ‘one blowjob, five marks.’

Kranzler waiters knew his breakfast order by heart: the same time each day, a Guten Morgen and he was served: grapefruit juice, rye bread, sweet Brötchen, a soft-boiled egg, berries and a small pot of filter coffee. The waiter called into the kitchen window only the words: Frühstück für den Herrn Hauptmann. Breakfast for the Captain. Though the waiters suspected he was a soldier they’d never seen him in uniform. And besides, didn’t he speak a fluent German, despite his peculiar accent? Darrell Sternwald, son of German immigrants to the United States, was raised by his Bavarian, German speaking grandmother in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Until he left for Dusquesne University in Pittsburg, he’d spoken like her, her same language and absorbed also her agnosticism and skepticism about life. Grandma believed in nothing but love. A degree in English and a journalism minor, Darrell was the pride of Allentown.

Korean War. North Koreans and Chinese overrunning the Korean peninsula. Domino effect in Asia, political observers proclaimed. One country after another falling to Communism. Stop them in Korea. Darrell Sternwald was snapped up by the military. Rushed through Officers’ Training School. Six months of intensive Russian in Oberammergau, his grandmother’s native town, then assigned to a propaganda service in Frankfurt, specifically as an editor of the U.S. military’s Stars and Stripes daily newspaper. So that he said in Granny’s ironic manner, he was fighting for the American way of life and the future of our children among the working girls of destroyed Germany and writing travel stories for G.I.s. Yet, Darrell felt cynically, un-militarily at home. Quick promotions to the rank of Captain were meaningless to him. He simply couldn’t take his job seriously. Travel to Italy and France. One of the first tourists to Yugoslavia in 1952 when Tito opened the borders for foreign visitors. He had walked through the ruins of Belgrade destroyed by German bombs and didn’t know what to think about the Nazi carpet bombing there. Still, he thought, not as bad as the incendiary bombing of the art city of Dresden in February, 1945. The war was nearly over: Germans already beaten by Russia’s Red Army ready to enter Germany from the East. But where would the Red Army stop? the Allies wondered. So fire bomb the art city of Dresden as a lesson to the advancing Russians: over 35,000 women, children, old people and refugees fleeing the Red Army westwards burned to death. But Darrell didn’t write such stories for the Stars and Stripes. Little history appeared in his stories. So about Yugoslavia he wrote a story about film-making within the great walls of Dubrovnik, which never saw the light in the S&S. The Editor-In-Chief thought he was kidding and the commanding general rejected it outright. So Darrell sold the story under a pseudonym to a weekly supplement in The Times of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

The Stars and Stripes Editor-In-Chief, also a Captain, called Darrell the newspaper’s rogue Captain. Captains galore! Darrell’s father who’d been wounded in the war always swore at officers and said, “Son, do anything, be anything, a sergeant or a traitor, but just never become an officer in the fucking U.S. military.” In any case Darrell nearly forgot his official status. The only time he’d ever saluted anyone since OTS—or been saluted—was when the General assigned him to the Stars and Stripes newspaper.

It was mid-afternoon. The wind suddenly stopped. And the rain began falling again in torrents. A crazy day! The city in shambles but his train from Munich had arrived precisely on time. German precision! Anyway, he’d finished his work with the Munich distribution staff earlier than planned and was back at home … in the Café Kranzler. He could wash up and scrub his clothes a bit in the luxurious bathroom, pull himself together at his regular table, his Stammtisch, and finish his re-write of his talks in the Bavarian capital.

He pushed the heavy entrance doors he loved and stepped into the vestibule. Then as each time he stopped to try to decipher the mosaic on the floor of the central corridor. Was it a labyrinth like the one on the floor of Chartres Cathedral he and Greta had seen? He didn’t know. Nor did the waiters.

His regular table was toward the rear, under the balcony on which evenings the pianist plays and sings parts of Brecht and Weil’s Dreigroschenoper. Und der Haifisch, der hat Zähne … and Darrell and the Air Force pilot Robert James lean on the piano and hum along with a make-believe Bertold himself. Darrell liked the sense of evil and vice hanging in the evening air at the Kranzler. Ancient emotions long suppressed. Maybe even rebellion and revenge. Evenings, when they sing familiar parts along with Hugo the pianist singing Jenny’s moritat … the Murder Act.

But what’s this? His table was occupied! Hey, that’s Greta back there. Now what’s she doing here? Darrell wondered, stepping out of sight near the checkroom. Through the ferns and the dwarf Japanese trees he could see her: dressed in her best. Beautiful. As if waiting. Waiting for what? And for whom? Lately he had wondered how she bought the things she did. He was always generous with her. And she with him. Still, though they were not exactly in love, he cared for her. He took her to good restaurants. Took her with him around Europe. He drove her to her home in Düsseldorf. Her mother was poor. Lived in one room in the surviving half of the only apartment building still standing after the carpet bombing of the city. So as not to offend her by going to a hotel, once they slept together with Mutti—as Greta had before also with her older brother … who called her the family whore. And Greta made love to him while Mother slept … there in the same bed. Maybe she slept. Darrell had never been so embarrassed.

Still, those things Greta bought remained unexplained. In the city symbol of the ruins of war, Greta was waiting at his table for a client while the many searching faces of his present life passed before him: her mother in Düsseldorf pretending to sleep while we make love in the same bed; the Portier at Hotel Park saving for him the little packs of ten cigarettes which he distributes to friends at the newspaper, Hugo the pianist singing Jenny’s Moritat; Robert James singing und der Haifisch der hat Zähne: Marianne the prostitute; Merker the breakfast waiter who hides for him the one grapefruit left.

When Greta entered his life, he was sharing a big house with two air force pilots in the village of Neu Isenburg, adjacent to the Frankfurt Airport, where the German Lufthansa Airlines co-habited with the U.S. Air Force. The postwar atmosphere was truly strange: Frankfurt suburbia, the city tram arriving right up to the village’s former walls, the stink of jet fuel in the air and chemically poisoned clouds stationary above, yet there were the sports fields for soccer and track, riding stables and dining on stone terraces at lacquered multicolored tables with white linen table cloths. Everybody in the village knew everybody. The pilots had local girlfriends, red-cheeked village maidens, hungry for male company. Few village men had returned from the wars. A village atmosphere with great city overtones. What war? you wondered here. Yet some people still waited for men who had not come back home.

One day Greta appeared at his gate. She didn’t ring the doorbell. Just stopped and looked toward the house. That day a brilliant sky illuminated her Rheinland blond hair and light blue eyes. She was curious about the foreign soldiers.

“I’m a Nanny for an American family around the corner,” she said. “Three children.” She was dressed in white. Sexy without any make-up at all. Rather pale. For a moment he thought of Marianne. Nanny? Servant? Darrell never knew … or cared. Within two hours they were in bed together. And she had never left him since. That’s the way things were in those times. Decisions were made on the spot. Otherwise, occasions passed you by, never to return.

Then there behind the Japanese dwarf trees and the bushy ferns he remembered. Remembered what Marianne’s “one blowjob five marks” reminded him of: He was still in basic training in San Antonio, Texas, marching all day and waiting for the call to Officers Training School—where he was going despite his Dad’s advice—when a tough drill Sergeant asked him to go off base with him that evening for a beer (lonely or gay? Darrell didn’t know). If he accepted the Sergeant could get him sent off to OTS the next day. Darrell reminded the Staff Sergeant that he wasn’t allowed off the base. So, just as he turned down Marianne’s offer but gave her the five marks anyway, the lonely Sergeant proved himself generous and arranged for his transfer the next day. And Darrell Sternwald became a captain in the Korean War, wrote travel stories in Europe, played with Greta and lived at the Café Kranzler in Frankfurt am Main.

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