The day I left for West Germany
CONCERT AT NUREMBERG
My family piled into the green ’72 Plymouth station wagon. I was on my way to Detroit Metro Airport for a nine-hour flight to Frankfurt, West Germany. A train would then bring me to my final destination, Field Station Augsburg. As a Russian linguist in the Army’s Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM), our mission was to monitor Soviet troop movements in Eastern Europe.
My father, John, a decorated World War Two hero, turned to me and said, “Let’s go back inside for a second."
While my mother and siblings waited in the car, my father and I returned indoors where dad grabbed a bottle of whiskey. He poured two shots, handed one to me, and simply toasted, “From one soldier to another.”
That was all he said. He was a man of few words. Having grown up fatherless as a Depression-era orphan, he wasn’t much on father-son intimacy. So, there were no hugs. No pats on the back. No outpouring of sentiment. Just those five words.
Three months later, on September 1, 1979, my buddy and I hopped a train for “Open Air ’79” at Zeppelinfeld in Nuremberg. Thousands of American soldiers joined tens of thousands of European civilians for a rock concert that featured, among many others, AC/DC, Cheap Trick, the Scorpions, and the headliner, The Who. Miriam Makeba, a South African singer and social activist, was also in the all-star lineup that day.
In the mid-1930’s, Zeppelinfeld was the scene of massive Nazi Party rallies under the disturbed dominion of Adolph Hitler. 250,000 soldiers filled the stadium grounds designed by Albert Speer, who was later tried and convicted in the nearby Palace of Justice during the Nuremberg Trials. In fact, the Allies’ choice of this city for post-war adjudication of justice was symbolic precisely because of these rallies, an irony not lost on Hitler’s chief architect when sentenced to twenty years behind bars at Spandau Prison.
Zeppelinfeld was a monstrous outdoor arena the size of twelve football fields, surrounded by imposing concrete structures and lengthy grandstands. At night, 152 anti-aircraft searchlights were pointed into the sky to form the "Cathedral of Light." Everything about it was meant to be intimidating. Not only to bolster their citizens' confidence of Deutschland Uber Alles, but to also scare the hell out of anyone who dared stand in their way.
Leni Riefenstahl infamously used footage of the Nuremberg Rallies in her chest-beating, fear-invoking, propaganda film, "Triumph of the Will." As YouTube videos attest, Hitler is perched high atop a white, pillared platform spitting out his malevolence to a vast sea of indoctrinated soldiers.
But rather, on this day, rock’n’roll bands held the dais.
I volunteered for the Army under a cloud of guilt and in the shadow of a great man.
My dad was a foot soldier. I was Military Intelligence. He carried a rifle and shot at enemy forces. I wore headphones and translated Russian. My father marched through bullets and mortar shells and saw his buddies get maimed and killed. I worked in an air-conditioned field station and traveled all over Europe with my Army buddies.
Compared to my father, I felt the lesser man. That toast didn’t resonate. I honestly didn’t feel like a real soldier.
The Who closed out their scheduled set list with the anthemic, “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Pete Townshend penned this cautionary tale, skeptical of what revolution may or may not bring. Pragmatic and/or cynical, he concluded the song with a communal frustration that the more things change, the more they stay the same. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
So, despite this being a musical rumination questioning the merits of revolution, for most of us it moreover became an anthem for change. The opening lyrics, “We’ll be fighting in the streets,” coupled with Roger Daltrey’s primal screams, led many to echo this sense of anger at the status qou. And, perhaps the next time political change was mandated, we mere regular folk wouldn’t get fooled again.
As day became night and white-hot laser lights touched the West German sky, and as Townshend windmilled the iconic closing guitar riffs, Daltrey curiously omitted the last line of the song. My buddy and I were convinced The Who did not sing those words of cynicism, because this time, in this place, the new boss wasn’t the same as the old boss.
The old boss would never allow long-haired hippies thrashing on electric guitars, filling Deutschland with amplified decadence. The old boss would never allow a black woman to sing songs of anti-apartheid protest on his soil. The old boss would never allow multitudes of youth to drink beer, smoke dope, and celebrate the devil’s music. The old boss would never allow soldiers of the United States Army into his house built by the hands of hate.
Exactly forty years to the day of “Open Air ’79,” on September 1, 1939, the old boss ordered his army to invade Poland igniting the Second World War.
The history was everywhere. There was this tremendous feeling coming come up through the ground upon which we were standing.
Where hundreds of thousands of Nazi stormtroopers once goose-stepped to the depraved doctrine of a madman, we were now tens of thousands of free-thinking youth foot-stomping on the exact same plot of Mother Earth. The juxtaposition was off the charts.
My mind drifted a hundred-and-sixty miles to the west and thirty-four years earlier, where my father fought in the battle of Sessenheim, in northern France. He was about my age when he gallantly saved the lives of six men under enemy fire. The legendary General Anthony “Nuts” McAuliffe awarded my father with the Silver Star, the third-highest decoration for valor in combat.
And, that’s when it hit me. During “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” I finally understood what my father truly meant while knocking down that shot of whiskey. It wasn't just a simple goodbye. He was telling me that we are all soldiers. Regardless of the ease or the difficulty of mission, we are a team.
Growing up in the album-driven Seventies, for better or worse, we idolized our bands. So, even at the age of twenty, it meant a great deal to us that our anti-establishment, head-banging rock gods respected the significance of time and place. Their laser light show was a rebuke of the Nazis' "Cathedral of Light." This land land was now our land, this stage was now our stage, and these lights which soared into the heavens were now our lights.
As music often speaks to youth in ways others can’t, it proved appropriate that one of my Mount Rushmore bands would make this connection between father and son. It was a moment of clarity, and I felt the guilt wash away.
Although I will always hold battlefield soldiers in higher regard, standing on the grounds of Zeppelinfeld was the first time I actually felt like a real soldier in the United States Army. I felt our true purpose. I witnessed with my own two feet the practical applications of protecting freedom.
Over the years, I have become a political cynic. Like many Americans, I lean both liberal and conservative, depending on the issue. But to this day, Nuremberg Open Air ‘79 continues to frame my mind on supporting our military forces. We must remain strong. We must remain vigilant. Our team, all of us, must work together and never allow the return of any one of today's many versions of the old boss.
Although my father rarely talked about the ugliness of war, he dictated his Army years to my sister. This is his book, describing what he went through leading up to that heroic day.
This is the account of the Battle at Sessenheim, France. It was written by one of the men my father saved.