Sprechen Sie Deutsch


I eked by in High School.  My SAT scores were good enough, though, to get me into Queens College.  There, my poor study habits doomed me to failure.

It was 1966, and I was in my second month of college when my German professor, Miss Ives, asked me to her office.  She levelled with me.  “You’ve been in school for two months,” she said, “and you’re two months behind.  Are you sure you want to be here?”  I had to admit that I wasn’t ready for college.  I dropped out and decided to enlist in the service.

The Vietnam War was raging, and I was naive.  I thought that only the Army and the Marines were involved in the fighting, so I joined the Navy.  I soon learned that Vietnam was an equal-opportunity war.  Anybody could wind up there.

After boot camp I went to Communication Technician School in Pensacola, Florida.  I figured this was safe.  Again, I was wrong.  Communication Technicians, it turned out, were spies – Not James Bond type spies, but electronic eavesdroppers.  It was classified at the time, but since the end of the Cold War it’s been declassified, so I can write about it.  The targets of our snooping were usually hostile countries, and this involved getting close to whichever country you were monitoring.  This was not good news.

Then, I learned that the U.S.S. Liberty, which had been attacked by the Israeli Air Force in June of 1967 was a Communications Technician ship.  Next, the U.S.S. Pueblo, another Communications Technician ship was captured by the North Koreans on January 23, 1968.  Communication Technicians were not safe.

Just before I graduated from Communications Technician school, they asked for volunteers to go to Alaska for a one-year tour of duty.  Volunteers would be given their choice of duty station afterwards.  I had three years to go on my enlistment.  Germany was one of the duty stations available for selection, and it was a two-year tour of duty.  By volunteering for Alaska and then going to Germany, I wouldn’t have to worry about going to Vietnam.  So, I volunteered.

The Alaskan duty station wasn’t on the mainland.  It was in Adak, Alaska, way out in the Aleutian Island chain, close to Russia.  (Even closer to Russia than Sarah Palin’s house.)  There was plenty of snooping to do while I was working, but there wasn’t much to do in the off hours.  To make matters worse, the drinking age in Alaska was 21, so I couldn’t even drink.  I started to take studying seriously.  I got a stack of Armed Forces German language records.  I listened and learned passable German.

In Germany, there is no drinking age, and drinking is one of the most popular things to do.  A lot of my fellow servicemen were hesitant to go to town, though, because they didn’t speak the language.  I became the translator for the group, and we always went to town as a group.

One night we were all sitting at a big table in a German discotheque, when one of my buddies fell in instant love with a girl sitting at a table full of German girls.  He asked me how to say, “Would you like to dance?” in German.  I knew it was “Tanzen wir?,” but I was feeling playful.  I taught him to say, “Wilst du mich heiraten?”  He practiced and then went over to the girl.  He got a stunned look from the girl and laughs from our table.  I had told everyone that I had just taught him how to say, “Will you marry me?”

He didn’t know what to do when the girl just sat there, so he pantomimed asking her to dance and she accepted.  They danced all night.

I felt very slighted six months later when I wasn’t one of the guys they invited to their wedding.

Peace & Love, and all of the above,


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