Sunday, January 16, 2005

Some Recollections from my Early Years

(Originally written in Summer of 2004)

One of the remarkable things about getting older is how well we can recall smatterings of things that happened long ago, while what happened yesterday or last week may be totally out of reach. Sitting here as I am, with my swollen leg elevated from a stupid tennis injury, I've been going through some old photos and letting my mind wander aimlessly through my youth. My life's recollections are littered with too many fragments to put together a story that neatly starts at point a, goes to b and finishes at c. But I think I'll try to cobble together a few memories about growing up that might be of interest to my kids and maybe ring a few familiar chords in the memories of some of my contemporaries.
I was born in St. Louis, Mo. in 1933. Raised in Sedalia until 1937 when we moved to Jefferson City, after which my Mother and Father divorced. I can attribute very little of substance in my life to the influence of my father. He and my mother were separated and then divorced from the time of my earliest recollections. He came on rare occasions to visit. He was a traveling salesman, outgoing by training if not by personality, gave a good account of himself in a group, enjoyed a good highball, smoked big cigars and loved to tell jokes. I was the recipient of his occasional pats on the head, and on rare occasion I recall spending a day with him, while he made the rounds of the Missouri lumber yards and hardware dealers. It was the depression (1938-39) period and I was barely five years old. Dad was an iron and steel salesman; it was a tough time to try to sell something to anyone. Many people were out of work and our economy was dead in the water. I remember some of the jokes of the day centered on the government "make work" programs such as the WPA or Works Progress Administration as it was called. Dad loved to drive past a WPA project where invariably a group of men would be leaning on their shovels and say, "See that? Those guys work for the WPA. That stands for We Piddle Around."
Dad had been a Sergeant-Major in the first world war. He was stationed in St Louis at the Recruit Training Depot, drilling and training recruits. He was reportedly a whiz at drill instruction and evidently made himself indispensable around the post. At any rate, he never went overseas and was discharged following the armistice.
He and Mom had three boys. Lucien was 14 years my senior, Harry (Bud) was 11 years older and then I showed up on September 10th 1933. (evidently a little unexpected Christmas gift)
After he divorced my Mother, he married again and lived in a neighboring town about 40 miles distant. From there he would make his infrequent visits to see me, until one day we got word that he had suffered a severe stroke. He was only 44 years old at the time.

Dad (Lucien Anthony Agniel) Circa 1924

Within a very short time his new bride became less than enamoured with him. In his deteriorated state she said she could not provide for him. One day Dad wrote to my Mother in a very shaky handwriting saying, "I'm really longing for my own people." Mom, being the kind hearted soul that she was, brought him back to live with us and cared for him as best she could. They actually remarried after he divorced the other woman. As he could not contribute to the family income, he was simply another mouth for my mother to feed. She worked for a pittance as a secretary for the local Presbyterian Church. My Dad, to his credit and out of gratitude, did all that he could to help around the house. He was severely paralyzed but able to hobble about. He managed to prepare meals so my mother was relieved of that burden. I really never thought of our family as being poor at that time, but in retrospect and as I grew older, I knew we were.
Today I am struck by how much we have learned about the origins of stroke, cardio-vascular illnesses and heart attack. Without this knowledge, my Dad's fate was sealed. High fat content in all his recipes, continued smoking and drinking provided the final nails for his coffin; he suffered a second (fatal) stroke at age 47. I came home from school and found him unconscious. I did the 911 thing of that period and ran next door to get help and an ambulance soon arrived. He died later that evening. I was ten years old. I remember standing for a long time at the funeral parlor, looking at him in the coffin and thinking that his eyes would open and he would wink, get up and say, "Big joke." When the lid was closed I knew it was no joke.
My brothers were so much older than I that by the time I was of an age that they could have supplied some fatherly influence, they were off fighting in WW-2. Bud was a medic and served in an army unit across Germany. After the war, he finished college and became an Optometrist. He returned to Jefferson City after the war and married a local girl, Anna Leah Hart. He set up his practice in Jeff and they still live there today, having raised a large family. He became a converted Catholic and Deacon in the church. He has always been deeply involved in working with the prisoners at the State Penitentiary, conducting Positive Mental Attitude (PMA) classes and has sponsored and assisted numerous parolees in getting a start back into society.
Lucien was an infantry platoon leader and was seriously wounded in the battle of the Huertgen Forest in Germany where some 52,000 men (28,000 German and 24,000 Americans) lost their lives in a battle that produced scant victory for either side. He woke up in England, six weeks after being hit by an artillery round. He fully recovered from the concussion and injuries and in time went on to become a newspaper editor, published writer and prominent member of the State Department, serving as Press Attaché at US Embassies in Berlin, Frankfurt, Paris, Vienna, and Taiwan. He passed away in 1989 following the debilitating effects of Parkinson's Disease. He was preceded in death by his wife, Elizabeth, and is survived by four children. Lucien Jr., Leigh Marie, Steffi, and Betsy.
(Strangely, when I was posted to Germany in 1954, I was sent with a detachment of 40 men to the Huertgen Forest to construct and operate a radar site. While there, I accidentally discovered the remains of two American soldiers who had never been accounted for. I notified our Graves Registration Office and they came and recovered the remains including dog tags for positive identification. It was still then a very tricky and cautious operation to excavate anything in the forest because of unexploded ordnance.)
I was blessed in so many ways in having some good caring adult male neighbors. I think they realized I lacked a father figure. About the time of my Father's death, Tom Whelan, a neighbor and local contractor, took me under his wing and asked my Mom if she would allow me to accompany him on some of his jobs and be his helper. With her blessing I started out at the age of eleven helping Tom with some construction and demolition jobs. What fun! My first assignment was helping in the grub work of building a lighted croquet court; others involved demolishing a closet with a sledgehammer; next a whole wall of plaster & lath. Pulling nails, hauling out debris in a wheelbarrow, stacking lumber, tearing off a front porch, cutting brush and limbs with a hand saw, learning to use a scythe. I'd come home blackened as a coal miner but proud as a peacock. It would take three applications of shampoo to get a lather in my hair but, golly, I was getting a quarter an hour. That's 25 whole cents times four hours of after school work. A buck a day seemed at that time quite good as I recall.
It seems like I was always busy. I worked many jobs including a newspaper route which I had for years, setting pins at the church bowling alley, cutting lawns and doing odd jobs for neighbors, and making & packaging cottage cheese for the local Meadow Gold (Beatrice Foods) Company during my last year in high school.
There was always time left over for the Boy Scouts. At age 12, I was a member of Troop 2 at the Presbyterian Church. I have fond memories of the meetings and activities and the fun times shared with our contingent. Those were the days of earning merit badges, 10 mile hikes, camporees, great games of "capture the flag," and all sorts of projects. Bud Keane, Eli Axon and many other generous men from our church gave fully of their time to supervise and lead those scout activities. I will always remember them with fondness and appreciation. What a fine program it was and it's painful to see how it has been maligned in recent years from the various "politically correct" movements. I remember participating in the war scrap collection drives in which the Scouts would go from house to house to collect newspapers, magazines and scrap metal for the war effort. Bud Keane had a big two wheeled trailer and he would pull it around town with us kids perched on top of the collections pile. Obviously this was long before the advent of seat belt laws.

Whatever values I have, and whatever virtues I possess are a direct result of my Mother's influence and that of the other friends, neighbors, teachers and scouting figures in my life. Although Mom worked from the earliest days of my recollection and much of my youth was spent as a "latch key child," we spent together what would today be called quality time. She devoted her life outside her work to communicating to me whatever she thought I should know. Stories and books were a daily ritual. She would read from famous authors or recite poetry or teach me songs, many of which I remember to this day. I learned to tend a garden before I entered kindergarten, planting my own seeds and watching excitedly each day until they would germinate. Seeds?..I could tell a hollyhock from a four o'clock, de-sucker tomato plants, hoe beans and pull weeds. She always made me feel needed and important. I think the result was that I took on responsibilities at an earlier age than most children do today. I helped with all the household chores; dishes, cleaning, yard work and the like. It wasn't done for pay or reward but for the fact it needed to be done and I was needed to do it. There was no time for boredom or very much monkey business. I'd even tackle jobs way beyond my abilities; more than once a plumber had to be called to fix what I had attempted to do and failed. With the benefit of hindsight, I think it would be a wonderful thing if more of today's parents could make their children feel so needed and important and willing to voluntarily take on tasks in the home. I think one of the biggest problems with affluence today is that many children have too much given and too little asked of them. They never experience the joys of work or service to others.
One of the memorable and significant highlights of my formative years happened in the spring of '49 when I was 15 years old. My brother Lucien, by then married and assigned as speech writer to the US High Commissioner for Germany, arranged for my Mom and me to be sent to Frankfurt as his legal dependents. We lived for a few months with his family and eventually Mother took a job as a secretary for a Colonel in the Army Logistics Command. We then moved into our own home in Frankfurt and I attended school there for my junior and about half of my senior year.

Dave in Hoechst,1949

What an experience for a 15 year old kid! From the trip across country to New York to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, to the cruise across the Atlantic on the General Rose, the first glimpses of Germany aboard a troop train from Bremerhaven to Frankfurt, the appalling rubble and debris everywhere and the guttural, foreign indecipherable sounds of the German language, it all made a deep and lasting impression. The signs everywhere in German required interpretation in order to understand. We were immediately thrust into a land where we were considered the conquerors and privileged class who enjoyed luxury while all around us the natives (survivors of the greatest war in history) were groveling for survival. Below is a photo I made of Hitler's Headquarters in Berlin as it appeared just before the Soviets decided to completely raze it to keep it from becoming a national landmark.

Hitler's Headquarters Building, Berlin, 1949, by David Agniel

My experiences were numerous and varied. We were able to travel quite a bit around the country and see what was left of a totally ravaged landscape. I only regret that most of my numerous pictures were lost in a flooded basement some years ago.

One of my happiest experiences was in meeting and making friends with a whole new group of students when school began in Frankfurt, my Junior year. These "military brats" as they were referred to by many were from all around the USA. We almost all had to get to school by bus. In my case it was about an hour's ride each way. Some lived so far away that they spent the week in dorms and traveled to their outposts on the weekends. But we were no different than any other group of high school kids. The school was well equipped, the teachers superb, and there were many activities in which to participate. We had a teen-age club that held weekly sock-hops and was open after school for socializing. We had a pretty hot football team, and as I had played on the Cubs team in Jefferson City prior to going over to Germany, I went out for football and made the first string at Right Guard. We won most of our games that year - against Heidelberg, Stuttgart and Munich, as I recall. We got creamed by Nurenberg. That's hard to forget.
I took up bicycling in a big way in Germany. Since activities were so spread out in the large city of Frankfurt, it was necessary to have some sort of means of getting around. We were allowed to ride public transportation for free by showing our ID Cards and the military ran a bus system between many of the bases and military facilities but for practical purposes, the bike became my best friend and transporter. Since we kids had authorization to use any of the many military recreational facilities it was not unusual for a group of us to cycle 15 miles to a military run resort spa in the foothills outside Frankfurt for weekend swims, go ice skating at one of the indoor or outdoor rinks, work out in one of the many gyms or boxing facilities, and enjoy quite a bit of freedom considering our ages. Sometimes we hung out with the GI's in one of their favored haunts where the beer flowed like water and no one bothered with ID's. We looked almost old enough to be young soldiers and the Germans had no legal restrictions on drinking age anyway.
One particular weekend my friend Floyd and I had a bit too much to drink and we didn't want to have to go home and be found out so we concocted a mutual "sleepover story." As it turned out, our two GI buddies offered us unused bunks in their barracks as two of their roommates were on furlough. All went well until morning when an alert siren sounded and the CQ (Charge- of- Quarters) came through and announced a stand-by inspection in thirty minutes. Our hosts were in a first class panic. What to do with us?

There were already Officers standing around outside the barracks so they couldn't very well slip us out. With no place to hide us, they chose a bold plan. Dress us in their buddy's uniforms, put their rifles in our hands, show us how to stand at parade rest and come to attention in less time than they needed to get themselves ready. Well, by hook or crook we made it without incident. The inspecting Officer came through the room going from man to man and we came to attention with caged eyeballs and heels lined up an inch from the foot leg of our bunks. I guess I was holding my breath because when the inspecting party left the room I nearly collapsed. We didn't fool the First Sergeant but the inspecting Officer never knew. The First Sergeant came back and read us all the riot act and our buddies spent the next few weeks confined to quarters. Fortunately we were escorted off the post and no report was ever filed. Maybe my early exposure to military life, such as it was, living in a country ruled by an Army of Occupation, influenced me to join up after High School. At least I felt at that point I was a bit more experienced than the average recruit and familiar with military lingo.

This was the period prior to the erection by the Soviets of the Berlin Wall. It was characterized by very strained relations with the Soviet Union resulting in the term" Iron Curtain" which Winston Churchill first coined in a speech given in 1947 at Fulton, Missouri.
The Soviets were trying to force the US, British and French occupation forces to leave Berlin by disallowing us access to the city which lay deep inside their zone of occupation. This was counter to all agreements made for the occupation of Germany by the four victorious powers following the end of the war. It was indeed the beginning of the period of the Cold War. The Russians tried everything to keep the other forces from re-supplying their garrisons in Berlin, and even disallowed land transit from the West by train or truck of coal and foodstuffs to provide the German population with the necessities of heating and life.
Thus the "Airlift" was born and we established an "air bridge" into the beleaguered city of Berlin, flying in everything needed to provide the city with the means of survival. A major portion of this re-supply by air originated at Rhein-Main Air Base located just a few miles out of Frankfurt and we were witness to the around the clock drone of transport aircraft making their way back and forth through the Berlin corridor to Berlin/Tempelhof Airport. In retrospect, with all the years of confrontation with the Communists which has marked the entire period of my adult life until the fall of the Berlin Wall, we would probably have been well advised and better off to have confronted the Soviets militarily at that time and forced a showdown. General Patton said as much shortly after the war but with a half million casualties fresh in our minds our country choose to pursue diplomatic means to end the stalemate. And as the years wore on, the fear of the Soviets having developed nuclear weapons and the virtual certainty of mass mutual destruction made direct military challenge ever less appealing. It took nearly 40 years and untold billions of dollars and several probing wars; Korea in 1951 and Vietnam in 1965-72 in which many additional lives were sacrificed, before the Communist Soviets were defeated….economically by the policies of President Ronald Reagan.
This was also the period in which the Marshall Plan was conceived for the rebuilding of Germany. It was absolutely essential to the economic recovery of Europe that Germany be revitalized. Not to do so would have created problems far greater than the eleven billion dollars we put forth to fund the plan. Not only Germany but the entire continent of Europe was reeling from the damage and destruction resulting from the greatest war in history. It was, to put it bluntly, in the best interests of the United States to see to it that Europe did not become a festering sore. The resulting German recovery was miraculous; not to mention their conversion to democracy and eventual invaluable military assistance to us in countering Soviet threats to ourselves and all of Europe.
The Western sectors of Germany started to grow and blossom while the Soviet (Eastern) sector languished in rot and decay. Such a stark difference between democracy and socialism could be seen in almost every aspect of life. I had several occasions to travel with my Brother through the Russian Zone of Germany during this period and can personally attest to the differences apparent even during those early days of reconstruction. The German money became valuable again almost overnight. Food that had been hoarded in cellars and secret stashes found it's way onto store shelves, people who were out of work found jobs again and we all know the result of the German recovery as well as that of all Western Europe. The Germans called the recovery "Die Wirtschafts Wunder," or Business and Commerce Miracle. The West flourished - the East (Soviet part) decayed.

Germans on a Sunday outing, Rudesheim am/Rhein, 1949 -Photo by David Agniel

In January of 1951 my brother was posted to Paris and Mom decided against staying any longer in Germany. So we moved back to Jefferson City where she took a job with the Missouri Public Service Commission and I returned to my high school class to finish out my senior year. Graduating from high school was an exciting time for all of us and also a time when each grad had to decide their future course; either prepare to enroll in college or enter the work force. I was undecided. I had always maintained fairly decent grades and had received a letter from the Board of Curators at Missouri U. indicating I was eligible for a scholarship . My brother Lucien, still in Paris, offered to send me to Heidelberg University in Germany if I would apply myself and perfect my German language skills. I think in retrospect, I decided I was not ready to apply myself to my studies in a way that would have been essential to being successful in college. This is one of those crossroads we come to in life and have to make a decision on which path to take. Once the choice is made it is oftentimes quite difficult to go back and choose the other path. I've often thought about that time and one of my regrets is that I didn't opt for the education. I learned it is very hard to pick it up along the way when you have progressed down another path.
I was also required to register for the draft (Korean War) and a college deferment would have been available if I had opted for it; instead I chose to join the Air Force. At the time I had no idea it would lead to a career but I never looked back and for the next twenty one years it was my first and only post high school job. I progressed through the enlisted ranks to Tech Sergeant and after satisfactorily passing the college level GED tests, I applied for and completed Officer's Candidate School. I went on to serve as a commissioned officer in the field of logistics, retiring as a Major. During my years of active duty I served at posts in North & South Carolina, Delaware, Massachusetts, Wyoming, Texas, Iceland, Germany and Vietnam. In addition to these permanent duty stations I traveled to many other countries on temporary duties including the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Greenland, Bermuda, Azores, England, France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Pakistan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand and Malaysia.
I can say without reservation that having seen all these countries up close, I would not choose any of them over the USA and more than once have had the urge to get down and kiss the ground upon returning home. To anyone unhappy with conditions in this country, I wholeheartedly recommend an overseas move. Go somewhere and vent your frustrations…you'll come home with new and unimagined appreciation for this great land.
If I still have your ear after all this, I guess I've gone on long enough. It was fun for me to record these thoughts and memories and maybe I'll flesh them out one of these days.
Maybe sooner than later if this leg doesn't start improving.

© 2005 David Agniel


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