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170515 May 15 2017


Becoming German Texans

Rainer Klauss
LHS '64

    I didn’t meet my father until I was nineteen months old. According to his brief memoir, when he greeted my mother, my older brother, and me on May 27, 1947 for the first time since October 30, 1945, he brought me a teddy bear that was almost matched my size.  Unfortunately, that gift and the strange person embracing us frightened me, and I began bawling and clung more tightly to the only security I knew, my mother. 

    From the day of my birth until we arrived in El Paso, I had been exclusively cared for by women—my mother, my maternal grandmother, and two aunts-- at Camp Overcast in Landshut, Germany, where the U.S. Army provided housing and assistance for us.  My father had hoped to be able to welcome me at my birth, but because he was a member of the first large group of rocket specialists to depart for the States, he had to leave his family the day before I arrived, October 31, 1945.  He did not learn that he had another son until January 1946.

    By March 1946, it had become clear to American military authorities that the rocket specialists were valuable scientific assets that had to be retained.  To send them back to Germany after their provisional one-year contract ended would effectively hand them over to the Russians, who were developing their own ballistic missile program (largely with the forced assistance of several hundred German scientists, engineers, and technicians they kidnapped from the Soviet occupation zone and transported to Russia in the fall of 1946).

    Soon after the decision was reached that the rocket specialists would be invited to stay, complicated discussions and negotiations began between the U.S. War, State, and Justice Departments that focused on the further vetting of the specialists and the establishment of legal foundations for their presence in the country.  The fait accompli of their secret and unusual immigration was made public (in stages), as well as their importance to national security. They were first classified as foreign aliens; then, once visas had been procured for those who were qualified, they would become resident aliens, and that would open the path to naturalized citizenship. 
    While those matters were being addressed, the transport of the dependents entered the planning stage. A lottery determined their sequence of departures for the United States. My father drew a low number, and we were scheduled to embark for America on a troop ship leaving in February 1947. However, I came down with a severe ear infection (the only one I ever had in my life), and it seemed unwise to subject me to a wintertime crossing of the Atlantic. We were bumped back to May.

    Beyond the short account my father gave it, I have often imagined the heartwarming scene at the El Paso Union train station that Tuesday in May: joy reigned and tears flowed freely as the powerful experience of reunion closed the circle of each German family again after a long period of separation and uncertainty. I’ve long been amazed that the Army allowed such a highly emotional reunion of German families to be witnessed by the general public so soon after the end of the war, but measures must have been taken to minimize exposure.  We were probably ushered off the train to a secluded room where the husbands and fathers were waiting.

    After the exuberant welcoming ceremony ended, my father brought us to our temporary quarters (a converted ward of the post hospital, the William Beaumont General Hospital).  My older brother-- eight at the time-- received his “Welcome to Texas” gifts, some toys (six shooters and a cowboy hat?) and a pair of canaries.  Because he had known my father’s love and regard since the beginning of his life, he easily renewed his relationship with him over the next few weeks.  As for little Rainer, care had to be taken. My parents would have doted on me a little more at the beginning because they had lost an earlier infant daughter to heart problems.  I was long overdue for a father, of course, but my initial distrust and resentment of the interloper between my mother and me had to be transformed somehow into acceptance of the new relationships. It was a large change for a little fellow. Things were a bit rocky for the first few weeks, I’m sure.

    How did we find harmony?  In his memoir, my father surmised that we began bonding when he started singing German folks songs to me. Music proved to be the direct way to my heart. We were belatedly learning something important about each other: he was mine as much as I was his. 

    The simple, traditional melodies soothed and enchanted me, and they may even have helped me acquire my mother tongue.  Years later, when I heard it and understood it as an older child, I discovered how one particular song had probably been my favorite. Sung in dialect, “Auf der Schwäbsche Eisenbahne” (“On the Schwabian Train”) recounts a comical train trip through the part of Germany in which I was born.  The song gets sillier with each verse, and with each rollicking chorus (Trulla, trulla, trullala! Trulla, trulla, trullala!), I would have been bounced on my father’s knee, delighted with the musical and physical play. (You probably have to be German to hear the musicality of that chorus, though the lively Stimmung (the feeling, the mood) might come through.

Auf der Schwäbsche Eisenbahne

    Soon after our arrival at Ft. Bliss, the Army finished converting a large section of the many outbuildings of the William Beaumont Hospital into apartments for the German families, and that enclave became known as “Little Germany.” The simple family portrait above, taken in our new dwelling, served as a signal to our relatives that all was well, and that our new lives were underway. From my present perspective, it is an affecting, resonant picture. I know so much now about the turbulent early life and times of my parents—how they got to that moment, gathered with their children on that maroon couch; I know a little about the fresh start in El Paso and much, much more about the lives and times that unfolded in Huntsville; and I am in wonder over the path my own life has taken. 

    I have found that May is rich with significant arrivals and beginnings for our family. Both my parents were born this month, and so was my grandson, Otto. On May 10, 1954, my father and I brought the girl I would marry, Gudrun Wagner, and her mother to Huntsville from New York to reunite them with Mr. Wagner.  Seventy years ago, the Klauss family was reunited in El Paso, Texas on May 27, 1947. And on May 7, 1950, we arrived in Huntsville, Alabama, the circle of our family having grown larger in Ft. Bliss by one soul, my younger brother, Gunter (who inherited the teddy bear-- without trauma). 

    Coda: I became a naturalized citizen on October 12, 1955. The progress toward that status required a lot of paperwork (none of which I had to deal with) and several trips to government offices in Birmingham. Even though I had thousands of miles of travel on sea and land under my belt by then, the trips to Birmingham always seemed like epic journeys: south through the wilds of North Alabama on two-lane roads to Arab, Blountsville, the thrilling descent through the gorge into Oneonta, and then arriving finally at the Magic City and Vulcan.  (The city names along the way produced an exotic air themselves.) We always ate lunch at the cornucopia of Britling’s Cafeteria, and the comfort food of hamburger steak, french fries, and chocolate cake became my ritual meal. If we had time, a ride on the escalators at Loveman’s put the cherry on the top of the whole trip.

    Monique Laney’s book, German Rocketeers in the Heart of Dixie was of assistance to me in her presentation of material about the sequence and difficulty of the negotiations between governmental officials that made our presence lawful. It is interesting and illuminating. Anyone who reads the book might want to talk to me about my perspective on parts of it,though.

    "Thanks to Barbara Seely Cooper, who encouraged me to write this several months ago after a brief e-mail exchange about our fathers and the part music played in their (and our) lives."

        Memphis, TN -  Extra big issue this week. I love it. Thanks for all the contributors. I even had so many stories I have to put off Barbara Wilkerson Donnelley's until next week. But that does not mean I don't need any more stories. Congratulations goes out to Jim McBride for making the cover of Old Huntsville this month. If you are in town buy a copy and read about your old classmate.

The Fireball
Part II

    Last week we ended with "I dropped my head and must have looked like Eeyore as I skated off feeling sorry for myself, as the band played "Should auld acquaintance be forgot ...." as the girl I thought was my girlfriend jumped into the arms of my best friend on New Year's Eve.

    It was not in the cards she would ever be my real girlfriend, but still remains a Facebook friend even today. I did not lose my best friend over that incident either, but later we parted ways over another girl (long story for another time). I am happy to say time heals all wounds and he is back to being a friend today. Later in my future I finally found the girlfriend and skating partner I had looked for in my thousands of revolutions around the wooden skate rink floor. It was more than puppy-love, but too rocky to survive a commitment. Still, we would spend many wonderful hours together on wheels. By my senior year in high school we had gone steady and broken-up at least four times. The last time had been in the beginning of the year.

    By my final year of high school roller skating had become less frequent for me though.  The local teen dances at Bradley's Cafeteria and the National Guard Armory had replaced its attraction in my existence.  It was purely physical. You never could get as close to a girl when you were skating as you could in a nice slow dance to a song like "Theme from a Summer Place" or "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."  It wouldn't be fair to say you never got as close on skates because sometimes you did.  Sometimes you got a lot closer, whether you planned to or not.  There were times when you ended up on top of your partner when your wheel ran over a piece of discarded chewing gum on the floor or you tumbled over other skaters who had already fallen in front of you. It took great reaction skills to stop in time. 

    So, that special night in 1964, on one of my final nights before graduation, I felt a compelling draw to a make a final pilgrimage to the skating rink.  None of the males in my current crowd were skaters and knowing my final days in my home town were numbered I wanted no opposite sex commitments to leave me heart broken when it came time to depart.  I was feeling melancholy and the memories of my earlier days were strong and because of them, I found the urge to go back to the skating rink, even if it was a solo trek.  The girls of my past would not be there.  They had all moved on to other boys and other activities. For that reason, I spent the evening rolling around in circles alone and thinking of the past.  I remembered skating with Carol Jean Williams, Sarajane Steigerwald, Barbara Seeley, Sherry Adcock, Pam Grooms, Carolyn McCutcheon, Dianne Hughey, and Ginger Cagle.  I even remembered other nameless girls who wouldn't skate with me when I asked.  I watched the ten and eleven-year-old boys and girls with whom I now skated and wondered if they were aware of what they had ahead of them.  It made me smile.

    Yet, whether it is in search of lost youth, old friends, or who knows what, we seem compelled to return to those places which hold fond memories of our past.  It's like the lost dogs we read about who cross several states to return to their old homes and masters.  Whatever steers them must affect humans in the same way sometimes.  A voice keeps calling us back, but when we arrive, the voice belongs to a stranger.  In reality, the stranger is not the stranger we see, but us instead.  We are strangers in an un-strange land.  The places are the same.  The people were there and they all seem to know each other, but not me.  They were having a good time.  I was the one who no longer seemed to belong.  A strange time-warp seemed to have me trapped, keeping me from returning to the fun I once knew. My skating partners for the night were my memories.

    Yes, a strange force drew me back to the skating rink that night.  That same force is a constant in the changing universe of our lives, and it is strong.  The force seems destine to draw us back to the good times of our lives and compels us to remember when things were not quite as complicated and worries were not as big as today.

    That force is our own memory.

Teachers and Teaching
Linda Kinkle Cianci 
LHS '66

    While I was certainly not a stellar student in high school, I did enjoy "going to" school.   My favorite teacher was Mrs. Waggoner, who I had for 10th grade English. She was pretty, always had a gentle manner while yet having command of the classroom, and was quick to smile.  What sticks most in my memory was the day President Kennedy was assassinated.  Mrs. Waggoner went into the hallway and was gone a long time. We remained very quiet, for a change, trying to hear what they were saying out in that hallway, needing some reassurance. When she returned, it was clear she had been crying.  She was not afraid to show us that she had emotions just like we did.  I think most of my teachers cared a lot more about their students than I thought at the time.

    When young, I never considered that I would/could be a teacher of any kind.  All the tests I took to reveal my strengths showed teaching as my thing.  I always blew that off as a joke and a definite mistake, since I did not have a teaching degree, didn’t want to and was not going to teach anything, especially after teaching Sunday school to fourth graders! That mindset would change over time. 

    My favorite job was one that didn’t pay in currency, one I sort of fell into after retiring and did for five years.  As a volunteer, I taught Conversational English to internationals (with some grammar thrown in). I still laugh when I remember that they never could grasp the fact that I was not a "real" teacher.  My ultimate goal was two-fold - to teach them to survive in our country and to convey to them that I was a volunteer because I love Jesus and loved them as He does.  Ninety-five percent of them were women and were here for only one to two years while their husbands did research or worked on advanced degrees at Vanderbilt.  They were from many different countries, thrown together within our classes.  Few had a fairly good command of the English language, most knew a little English – emphasis on little, and others knew none except their name.   We bonded as they learned to communicate in a common language and we bonded as friends.  We cried together as each one prepared to leave us and return to her home country.  I watched groups of women who could not communicate with each other learn enough of a common language to lose their initial inhibitions, be able to laugh with and at each other (and at me), and care for each other.  Most said they would go home and find opportunities to volunteer.  The Japanese learned to hug, something they don’t do in their country.  

    What did I learn?  I think I learned the most.  I learned compassion for those who are in this “foreign” country with no lifeline, I learned patience, and I learned to drop my prejudice toward foreigners, something I have to work at daily.  And, I learned that I liked teaching!

    Today, I teach our grandchildren life lessons and crafty things.  I help teach sewing and quilting in a small group at our church, and have loved having some foreign women in that group.  By the time they learn to sew, they have also learned how to better communicate.  When asked recently to teach one week in a ladies’ Bible class after suggesting the subject to our regular teacher, my first thought was to decline.  I didn’t, and as always, I learned the most.  Fifty years ago, 40, or even 20 years ago, I would have been petrified to stand before a large group and pretend to “teach” or even speak.  Remember, I’m not a teacher. Today, though always nervous beforehand, it just naturally rolls out .…. well, and occasionally still with red cheeks.  

    Kudos to all of you “real” teachers!


From Our Mailbox 


Subject:    Penny Moore

Rainder Klauss

LHS '64

    I send thanks to Polly Gurley Redd for her short note on Penny Moore. Polly, you brought back good memories, and I thank you for your explanation of what may have affected Miss Moore and taken her from the classroom too soon.


Subject:    Mike Crowl's Question
Barbara Wilkerson Donnelly
LHS '64

    Mike asked about the story behind my calling Ed "Mr. Donnelly." Actually, I only do it when I'm trying to be snarkey, I'd say. Funny, when I started thinking about it, in a way I worked for him, too.

    He was a co-op student at NASA, and I went to work at Brown Engineering. I was secretary to a group of NASA and Brown Engineering engineers. That's where we met on Monday, and he asked me out on Thursday. When we were at Lee, I always thought he was so cute, and even went so far when I graduated as telling my best friend who was in another class, "Whatever you do. don't leave that school without dating that guy." I'm glad she didn't! My first day at NASA, I was going to the break room, and as I got to the hallway door, he passed by. My heart jumped when I turned into the corridor right behind him because I would have recognized that walk anywhere. The rest is history. I never called him Mr. Donnelly. I used to always call him Eddie (or Edweirdo). When he went to work, he was called Ed.

    After we were married, the running joke between Ed and my mother was that he called her Miss Ann and she called him "Durwood." Remember Endora, Samantha the witch's mother on Bewitched? She always called Darren by some other name, but her favorite was Durwood. What's in a name. anyway? Names are strong. They evoke emotions. A few weeks ago, we were keeping our grandson Jack, who was 18 months old. and Jack and I were downstairs. I went over to the gate to the stairs and called up, "Eddie?" All of a sudden, from a couple of feet down, I heard this voice pipe up, "Eddie! Eddie!" Jack was trying to learn "Granddad" (He calls me Baba), but being a smart child, he recognized right away that Eddie was much easier. He stood there pointing to the floor speaking in baby talk which clearly indicated he wanted his Eddie to come downstairs. He has since learned to say Granddad, but every once in awhile, Eddie pops out. Mr. Donnelly always responds, no matter what Jack calls him!

Subject:    Carter's New Year's Eve Event
Skip Cook
LHS '64

    Tommy, I read your story about the New Years event at Carters.  I immediately went to You Tube and listened to Buddy Holley's "Raining in My Heart.We've all been there my brother. If duct tape had been prevalent in the early 60's, I would have wrapped it around my broken heart!  

    I looked for my own Buddy Holly 45 RPM copy of "Raining in My Heart" and couldn't find it.  I bet Niles has it!

Raining in My Heart



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