Twelve years old in the spring of 1974 and I would finish second form at Windsor Boy's School, a British-style boarding school stuck in the middle of the industrial heartland of Germany. People tend to forget that Great Britain "got'' northern Germany--the North Sea ports to the Ruhr Gebiet--after World War II like the U.S. “got” Bavaria, and Russia “got” what became East Germany. Unlike the Americans who tried to create a U.S. high school at every base, the British did not build schools in all the coal-dust laden little villages and half-important industrial towns they protected. The military parents lived in modest on base apartments and sent their children to a centrally located pair of single-sex boarding schools fashioned after those in their homeland, the Windsor schools. The British are keen on sending children away to school: it seems their tradition, one their children rather expected.
I was there in the Ruhr Gebiet and at Windsor because the U.S. multinational company that employed Dad had established a little colony of its own in the area of Hamm, the same half-important industrial town that the British felt was pretty much the geographic center of their sphere of influence in Germany. Windsor collected all the sons and daughters of the Anglo-American ex-pats from Wales and West Virginia, Cornwall and the Carolinas, and sought to instill in them all solid English values of sporting camaraderie and sense of duty. And we were pretty good friends, the Yanks, and the Limeys, and the occasional Canuck. But friendships at Windsor had a ragged quality. No boy ever knew if his father's station would change, and the government, or the corporation, would pull him away without notice.
The previous fall when I had gone into the second form, I met Michael Perkins. In the first form, I had been in all set 1 classes, indicating the most challenging, and therefore full of the brightest kids. But at the beginning of the second form, the math master, Mr. Marsden, indicated his class was too full, and so some of the boys in Maths 1 would need to move to Maths 2. Math was my weak spot and as I sat with my friends gathered in the Maths 1 classroom, amused and smirking at the headmaster and Marsden trying to solve this problem, it occurred to me I could be sent down.
In time, someone pulled a roster of last spring's math grades from the office, and Headmaster and Marsden huddled over it awhile, and then began calling names. The names were of boys who would have to stand up in front of the crowded and quickly overheating classroom and walk its full, painful length to the door, where they would be escorted, with their flaming shame to Maths 2, Mr. Donovan’s class. Mr. Donovan also taught field hockey. Even though I knew it was coming, it still hurt horribly to walk that lonely walk with my "bright" friends watching me through carefully guarded eyes.
Out in the corridor, we less-thans trundled along with our escort to our new math classroom, where some instruction of algebra was already in progress. The escort opened the door, ushered us in with hand waves to our backs, and we collected like schooling baby herring around the door jam. Mr. Donovan, a bigger, heartier British man than I had ever met looked at us and smiled.
"Take a seat, lads. Plenty of them."
We scattered, again like startled fish, for the empty seats. I took one next to a red-faced kid with wiry hair that stood up in the front and a beakish nose. I threw my knapsack on the hard-scrubbed deskette, and threw myself into the attached metal chair, sinking in until my chin hit my chest. I dared not look up or at anyone. Mr. Donovan seemed nice enough, but how did I know he wasn't just planning another exercise in embarrassment for the new lads? A trip to yet another classroom of rejects? But he went on with the lesson. Other boys from Maths 1 got out their notebooks and pencil cases. No one was staring at me. Things began to feel normal. Someone tugged gently on my sweater sleeve. It was the wiry-haired kid next door.
“It'll be OK, laddie,” he whispered. “It's better here.”
Michael and I became friends. He was witty and daring without being too obvious. He could mimic voices and be irreverent and imaginative with behind-the-hand put-downs of braggartly classmates and harried schoolmasters. He had the zaniness of a Monty Python player…and thought I was wildly cool being from America.
As it turned out, we had more than just the less-than math class together. We had religious instruction, woodworking, and natural history together; as well as being members of the heraldry club. We tried to sit together when we could in class. Some of my American friends fell away from me, because not all liked to associate with the military British. British or Canadian kids who were there with other multinationals, this seemed the preferred clique of the Americans, a corporate elite whose fathers made decent salaries in the private sector, not living off government tat for the Queen's sake. That and some of the American boys decided they wanted to date my sister, and things got weird between us. But I didn't care. I’d found a new friend, a best friend, in the also-ran math class.
Fall turned to Christmas season, and Michael went to spend Christmas with his family, in Ireland perhaps, or maybe Potsdam. I never learned what his dad did to bring him to Windsor. When the spring term started up again, we fell back in with each other. We were both still in Maths 2 but had decided Mr. Donovan was pretty cool. Broad-shouldered with thick, dark brows and hair, he grabbed attention with the booming voice of football fan. His big palm would warmly cover the entire top of my head, when he served up one of his encouraging head pats for an assignment completed well. He was much more engaging and entertaining by yards than dry, ginger-haired Mr. Marsden, who would have been our teacher had we been better math geeks. Michael was right. It was better here.
Since the New Year, the talk around our house had been about Dad's five-year assignment coming to any end, and where did we want to go next? He'd been offered a job starting up a plant in Tehran, Iran, but Mom said no, as she wanted Lisa and I to finish high school in the U.S. That and the Baader-Meinhof gang. Ever since the ‘72 Olympics in Munich when the Israeli athletes were murdered, there had been increased sensitivity to organized gang violence in Germany. And rightfully so: there had been a visible increase in gang-organized violent incidents in Germany. According to the German tabloid press, the baddest gang of them all was the Baader-Meinhof gang. They loved the Baader-Meinhof gang: there was a sexy woman in their midst who gave great Spiegel cover photo. A braless, mean-spirited babe with a gun.
The Baader-Meinhof gang aspired to high-mindedness, apparently, as they targeted industrialists of various nationalities throughout Europe as symbols of uncaring capitalism. Somehow killing these gray-haired corporate execs was a positive strike for justice, although that justice seemed a little lacking to the grieving families of these very human men. I really didn’t know what Dad did at his job, or how important he was to the company. But my sisters and I had been told to not talk about any of the plans for moving back to the States with the kids in school. Some innocent words on the schoolyard might be repeated at dinner with the family, and fed into yet another evil ear, and be used to plan an attack on an American industrialist this time. The details of where, when and how we were travelling should not be shared with anyone outside the house. The secrecy of it all elevated Dad's position considerably in my eyes.
The word finally came. Dad came home from work, closed the door behind him and holding his hard-sided Samsonite briefcase by his side, sang out:
In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia-a-a-a-a
By the trail of the Lonesome Pine......
The pace quickened in our house, as we had to go through things, and throw out things, and pack things and figure out how to get a 150-pound dog across the Atlantic. Mom and Dad called the Windsor Schools and told them we would have to leave before the end of the term but asked that our teachers not make it known in the classroom. The van to take us to the airport would come at around 3 AM, and we'd be airborne by 7 AM, so all final grades would have to be sent care of the company. As far as my classmates would ever know, I would simply disappear.
On the last afternoon before the van came, Michael and I walked together from the biology building back to my bus stop. I was a day student and rode a corporate-hired bus from school back to my own bedroom every night. Michael boarded, another reason my American friends did not much care to associate with him. Day students and boarders did not generally chum together.
I'm sure we laughed our butts off that afternoon. I know the sun felt warm on my face, watching the crisp shadow of Michael's book bag as he absently tossed it on the end of his arm, up and down, as he talked to me. I know I saw one wild curl unhook itself from the mesh of his hair, and sproing up to wave in the wind. And then it was time to get on the bus. Before I turned to climb the bus stairs, Michael said,
“Right. See you tomorrow, then?”
I thought about the van coming at 3 A. M. I could tell Michael, surely. He was my best friend. He'd never tell anyone, right? And what would it hurt at this late hour? It was 4 P.M. already. The van was coming in less than twelve hours. And what little I knew, who could build a terrorist plot out of that? Surely, I could tell Michael, just so I could tell him good-bye.
But I couldn't tell him. This was not our country, and he was not my countryman. I knew nothing of his connections, good or bad. And I could not risk being wrong.
“Yeah, that's right,” I replied, then boarded the bus.
I walked down the bus aisle and picked an empty seat next to a window. I could see Michael standing and waving, then turning and walking toward his dorm. The bus began to move, and his image blurred a little with the reflected images of the kids moving around me inside, making it look like he was walking with a ghostly, riotous crowd. Then he slipped from view behind the window bar.
Written by Jay McTyier
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