I am a German man. That is clear. But I am born in the year 1955. Ten years after the war is over and so, I am having nothing to do with that war. I am part of the new people in Germany. The new Germany, so to say. And I am speaking now English. Maybe not good English! My brother, Karl-Heinz, is speaking better as me, but I am speaking better as Father.
He is speaking just a little bit English. Maybe from former times, what he is learning from the war. But no more. He is too old German for that! He sits now in the chair, looking to the window, always to the window, and it is not the best view. But everybody in my country studies now English in the school. The same with Karl-Heinz. But not with me.
I am learning my English from Johnny Cash.
I remember when Johnny is the first time in the Liederhalle, the singing hall, and I become goose bumps. He is wearing the black color, with the guitar over his back, and he says, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” in the real deep tone and then, he started right away to singing, “Well, you wonder why I always dress in black. . . .” It is the number one song from him in Germany today. It is a good song. Got a lot of meaning. Karl-Heinz says not.
But he can kiss my ass.
Karl-Heinz may never like country music, and we are all the time quarreling therefore. He belongs to the university and he is reading always the William Shakespeare books. Now he is lying down on the long chair that used to belong to our mother, and he is complaining for me because I play my twelve-string guitar and it is today, Sunday.
So, I play some more.
Because maybe I am waiting for a quarrel. See, I am still mad at him from before and so I go, “What about you? Talking in the loud voice on the streetcar that you can know the words to Shakespeare.” Karl-Heinz looks up from his book and goes, “I’m sorry, did someone say something?” like real innocent, talking with his English accent because it is better as mine, and then he looks to Father, but Father does not say anything, and I go, “You heard!” and I play some more guitar. It is a quarrel from the previous day when Karl-Heinz and his snob buddies laughed to me on the streetcar that I am wearing the bandana on my forehead. Well, I become red in my face, because the many people are looking to me, and so I holler, “Maybe I start something new in Germany!” and I laughed to him back.
But, like I say, that was yesterday.
Today I got something more to say to him, but he puts his face back in the book and that makes me more mad, and so I yell, “Making a fool of yourself like that on the streetcar!” because that is exactly what he told to me, and Karl-Heinz goes, “Bill Shakespeare — that’s different!” But he does not look to me when he says it, and I go, “Different my ass,” and I strum my guitar more loud and I sing, “I wear the black for the prisoner . . . ,” and Karl-Heinz hollers like a deaf man, “To be or not to be.”
He looks now to us both and he smiles because me and Karl-Heinz we are all the time quarreling, and sometimes we are quarreling the same argument, just our English is getting better with each time.
Father has changed. Changed a whole bunch. Like I say, he is understanding only a little bit English, but he does not say anything in German either. He does not talk. Period! He just sits all the time in the window, and he wears the pajamas. He is a war veteran, but he does not talk about that either, because maybe nobody wants anymore to listen. The past is dead in my country and I am thinking, yes, it should be for there will always be shame. But he does not go anymore to the opera house even, and he always likes the songs from the opera. The last time he is going to see the Richard Wagner concert, young people from across the street are calling to him, Nazi pig. Well, it does not matter that he was not a Nazi. He got his papers. But Father does not like the young people either so it makes it even.
Sunday morning in Nürnberg is real quiet, except for maybe the American G.I.’s. I think Father does not like them, either. Father told to me once, the world was real peaceful before Americans are being born. But like I told to him back, today, it is a whole different ballgame.
The Americans are my friends and they get me into country music down at the NCO club. But I think Father still prefers better Karl-Heinz because I was not so good in the school. I leave early to do construction and I am never in the university, and Father never likes that we fight, either. He always yells to me and my brother about that, he hates the fighting, and I think that is another reason he does not like so much me and my redneck G.I. buddies, because we don’t just talk.
We kick ass!
Last month me and Karl-Heinz went away.
Left Father there alone. I go again to America, and Karl-Heinz goes again to England. Before I leave I give to Father one cassette tape from Johnny Cash, and I buy for him one Walkman headset. And before Karl-Heinz leaves he give to him Hamlet by Shakespeare. That was funny, and we all took a hug of each other and laugh to that.
I make the pilgrimage to Nashville every year now and I go this year for free. That is because I am now president of the Johnny Cash Fan Club. I have been three times already to the Grand Ole Opry and Karl-Heinz is five times already in Stratford-Upon-Avon. This time I even meet with J.C. at the fence of his home. That was the surprise because I never expected it. He is just the same than when he is on stage. Always with the deep voice and wearing the black color, and he asked to me, “How you doing today, sir?” He called to me “sir.” I like that. I like that a lot, and I say, “Fine, Johnny, just fine. How about yourself?” And I get to shake his hand with him. Johnny asked to us where we was all from, and I go, “Germany.” I answered to him first, because I am speaking the best English from the group. Then Johnny asked to us what we all think of American beer, and I know exactly what he means, and I laugh with him to that.
But, get a load of this.
When I am returning to Germany, Father ask to me many questions about Johnny Cash. He wanted that I explain what J.C. is meaning when he sings about the prisoners who paid for their crimes. What does it mean, “victim of the times?” So I explain to him all what I know, and then I see there is the cassette from J.C. in the headset that I present to him. I smile to Karl-Heinz, because I think maybe now Father likes J.C. See, J.C. is real popular in Germany, I think maybe it is the deep voice, but also because we understand real good his English (not like Mr. William Shakespeare!) and some people maybe do not like him so much in the beginning, but when he gets real popular, that’s another story. Just like I told to Karl-Heinz about the bandana! So I go, “Maybe if J.C. sings in German?”
But Father never answered to that.
Like I say, Sunday morning coming down in Nürnberg is real quiet, but it is more quiet in the apartment house. I can hear some old people climbing up the wooden staircase, because it is a real old building with real old people. Me and Karl-Heinz was raised here. But I do not live here no more. I just come back for to help take a little bit good care of the old man before he goes someplace else. Tell you the truth, I could never live here again. Too many memories that are not good. It is real depressing.
Check it out!
Outside, it is like the back lot of a movie studio when they are not making a movie. Three blocks down is the military barracks where Father is stationed during the war. The base is occupied now by the American peoples, and that is where the NCO club is that I go to. They know me there. I spend a lot of time there, and I get a special pass to come on whenever I am pleased to. On the opposite side from the installation is the courthouse where Father was cleared from any wrongdoings in the war.
Karl-Heinz is still reading that poetry from Mr. William, and he’s doing it real loud because we know each other like that. But I don’t pay him no more mind about that. I walk around the room, stretch my legs a little bit. It is a big room. I light me another cigarette and look to some old photographs on the wall, and then. . . .
He starts hollering, “Gück mal, gück mal. . . .”
It means, “Hey, you guys, come take a look to the window.”
Outside a man is walking through the neighborhood and he wears black. From the head to the foot, everything black. Just like J.C.
The street is white from the snow and the man carries on his shoulder a big ghetto-blaster. The music box is playing “The Man in Black,” and everybody is looking to him through the windows, and they are laughing for him, too, because I can see the big patch of steam on the glass and the shadows of the faces behind. I make out like I don’t know him and Karl-Heinz goes, “Dumb Americans!”
But he is not American.
He is a German man. I know him, but I don’t say nothing, and Karl-Heinz goes, “Idiot!” It is the same word in German and Father understands, and then he ask to me, “Why do you follow the man like that?” And I go, “Who?” But I know he means J.C., and then he goes, “Following a silly country man like that. Like you worship the very ground he walks on.” I don’t say nothing. I play it cool.
I go, “We identify with his music,” and then I pick up the book from William Shakespeare and I say, “That is more than what you can say for Mr. B.S. He is not even alive no more.” Then Karl-Heinz says, “It wouldn’t matter even if the plays from Shakespeare were written by Mr. Pig. What counts are the universal themes,” and I go, “You’re full of shit,” and I laugh to him just like him and his snob buddies do to me, and he hollers, “Hamlet is king,” and I go, “Coward maybe!” because I remember my former teacher. He always told to us that Hamlet is not a hero, never making the decision to do something. I say that two times to make sure Karl-Heinz gets the picture, and then I throw the book to the floor. Now Karl-Heinz is pissed, and the music outside gets louder, and I sing with it, and Karl-Heinz goes, “You identify with that crap?” But I don’t listen to him no more, but then he accuse my buddy outside of being a lawbreaker. He goes, “Kriminal.” He always knows to find the right words that means the same in German, and he is saying it over and over again, because he knows Father does not like it that anyone breaks the laws, not even when the laws of the government are not so good sometimes. I am pissed, pissed with a capital P, and then Karl-Heinz smiles to me in that way we both know. So I punch him in the gizzard, and he falls ass-backwards. My guitar becomes kaputt, but I don’t care, and Father becomes worried to the furniture. He is moving everything out of the way and complaining for both of us, and he starts to screaming, “DON’T TO FIGHT, DON’T TO FIGHT, NEIN, NEIN, NEIN!”
Then something real strange happens.
He lifts up the window, and he puts his hand in the air like the Nazi men used to do on TV, and he is shouting, “Ja. Victim of the times,” in the direction to where the young people are living, in the real loud voice, in English, over and over again, like the needle on the plate is kaputt.
Me and Karl-Heinz, we don’t know what to think. He never pulled stuff like that before, and we’re like real embarrassed for him, but then it gets quiet again and Father sits back to the chair.
He is shivering real bad, and so I close the window. Karl-Heinz finds to him a blanket, and then I see Father. He is crying. I never see Father like that before. He was always the proud man. Proud and honest and never ashamed about nothing from what people are saying, and I got to tell you, I got all choked up.
Me and Karl-Heinz both.
We put our arms around him and we speak to him in German and we ask him to tell us again the stories from the old Germany.