Remembering time spent abroad



The days I spent in my first tour of West Germany 1979-1980 were really idyllic, at least 40 years later they seem to be.

Turned 19 in the middle of that posting, and I was probably more blissfully ignorant than most of my peers, having come from a fractured childhood—spent partly in a family of the hippie-minded— and then being thrust into what they now call a blended family—new (to me) dad who I hadn’t seen since I was a toddler, step-mother, stepsiblings, a little brother who I no longer knew, and an older sister who was off on her own young adult adventures in another state far away.

They give you a pretty good basic orientation when you get to Germany, a few words and phrases, introduction to the monetary exchange, list of highlighted resources and a map, as far as I remember.

Unlike my peers, I didn’t drive or have a license at that time— which had to be corrected. I was a combat medic, assigned to a mobile ambulance unit which got dispatched with units all across the country when they conducted field exercises.

Ken Steele was a patient teacher and I eventually got the hang of driving what we called the big ‘cracker-box’ ambulances. Took me a little while to learn directional driving, I once almost ended up in France having confused east and west.

That first tour was really fun. We went out in two-man teams, and when the field camp was set up, we inspected the kitchens, ensured the latrine was downstream from there and checked off the list of all the other sanitary health things that needed to be done.

After that our time was our own. It could be boring—our only other duty was to wait around for someone to be injured, apply first aid and transfer them to the hospital. The worst that ever happened, at least in the field, was a suspected broken ankle.

Splint, wrap, transport, done. Often, we would take orders for the local Post Exchange (PX), which was basically a mini-Walmart. We would go and load up on mostly candy, in my memory, and the basics, pop, beer, chips and other snacks.

It always felt like playing hooky and I guess it was. I also saw the Rolling Stones in concert there—close enough that Mick Jagger flung sweat on me. And I have some very happy memories of a visit to Garmish- Partenkirchen and nearby Munich, as well as that of a love long lost and hanging out with friends.

I went through the Brandenburg Gate to East Germany once—a very surreal experience. People seemed reserved to the point of paranoia, which was probably a normal state, I guess.

Travel is far from my budget these days and West and East Germany are now only memories; hopefully anyway, somedays given the state of our country’s politics it makes me wonder. That will give me something to ponder for the holiday.

Paula Schmidt is a staff writer for the View Newspapers. Contact her at