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Letters from West Berlin, Part 4, by Kitty Kroger. December 1966: Awakening to the Vietnam War

13 Jul

Berlin.Kitty.East.1967In the summer of 1966 upon graduating from Colorado College, a friend had arranged a summer  job for me in a youth hostel on Sylt, a German island  in the North Sea off the coast of Hamburg. After two months, I left by train to see a bit more of Europe before returning to the U.S. My first stop was West Berlin. Maybe I thought the divided city would be especially interesting, or was it just the first place on my route?

Whatever the reason, I ended up living there for four years. Following is the fourth of a series of selections from detailed letters to my parents during that time. As you will see, over time I was altered by my experiences in 1960s West Berlin and ended up a different person from the politically naive girl who first arrived there.

FOURTH IN A SERIES
December 1966

December 10, 1966
Dear Mom and Dad,

Today I took part in a demo against the war in Vietnam. I feel strongly about it although there are still so many gaps in my knowledge. But the more I learn, the stronger I feel.

 

Dec. 10, 1966
Dear Charlie,

Berlin.U.S. Campaign2I’ve recently become part of a study and action group of American students who are against America’s presence in Vietnam. We may start marching in January. Meanwhile we’re learning. We have a lot of literature on Vietnam, and we read all we can. All the kids in the group are clean-cut types, no beats at all, which should impress the conservatives at least. Today I joined a group of Free University students, about two to three hundred, in a short march and protest speech in the heart of Berlin. I was very disappointed that the group got rowdy at the end so that the police had to disperse them from blocking traffic and even had to haul off three or four students bodily. But the interaction of discussions between students and bystanders was very profitable. At the end, however, the students burned a Papier-mâchéhead of Johnson, shouting Johnson Murderer, etc., which probably doesn’t do anything at all to advance anything at all. About ten Americans took part in the march itself, not in the aftermath.

 

Monday, December 12, 1966
Dear Parents,

I’ve been reading a lot about Vietnam and also a novel Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse in German.

I read a good article saying that Vietnam can’t be compared with Hitler’s conquest of Europe because China is not able or willing to move in and overtake another country Blitzkrieg style. [At the time one of the arguments for the Vietnam War was that China wanted to take over the world like Hitler did.] She [China] works through internal subversion and exploits national unrest and revolution, which is occurring in South America, Africa, and Asia. America is outdated, unenlightened, and immoral if she thinks she can prevent Communism by distribution of military support to governments all over the globe “whose main virtue is often their anti-communism” and whose vices are greed and exploitation of its own people’s poverty and an eagerness to take American money into its own pockets.

Here according to my limited knowledge is what I think is happening in Vietnam and elsewhere. America pours money into many foreign countries to support the governments in the status quo. In doing this we disregard the fact that we are making these countries extremely dependent upon us industrially, which the people and leaders of the people resent. America promises support and protection of the ruling regime (like Batista) against communism and revolution in return for the raw materials of these under-industrialized lands. America buys these goods out, cheaply develops them in her own factories and with her highly developed industry, then in return sells them back to the countries at a tremendous profit. The people don’t receive even the initial price for the raw goods. The government in power receives this money, which it uses to build palaces, great monuments to its own glory, to support mistresses, and for an army to defend itself against its own people. Thus the money doesn’t go to build factories, to enable the people to produce their own finished products. The lands remain backward and poor, and the people grow more and more dissatisfied.

So the communists support revolutionaries who overthrow (or try to) the government, and then America is forced to send military supplies—and in Vietnam and elsewhere—men to suppress these uprisings. It’s a fallacy for us to assume that these virgin governments, which are just beginning to attain independence, will simply become puppets of China or Russia. They want to be independent, to be allowed to develop their own industry. Look at Ghana and Indonesia and Cambodia. They are not communist, although they have sharply dealt with America. They have succeeded by themselves in setting back communism and they want to be left alone to develop, to be neutral, to trade with both the east and the west. But first they have to have a period of isolationism, just as we did in the nineteenth century, to build themselves up. If we put pressure on them to accept our way of government, then the communists react with counter-attacks and the country may even become a battlefield.

We shall lose economically when a country “breaks away” from us, but we shall not necessarily lose it ideologically.

Yes, there is no doubt that Vietnam will become communist under Mr. Minh.

Berlin.Ho Chi Minh[Ho Chi Minh led the Việt Minh independence movement from 1941 onward, establishing the communist-ruled Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945 and defeating the French Union in 1954 at the battle of Điện Biên Phủ. He officially stepped down from power in 1965 due to health problems, but remained a highly visible figurehead and inspiration for those Vietnamese fighting for his cause—a united, communist Vietnam—until his death. After the war, Saigon, capital of the Republic of Vietnam, was renamed Hồ Chí Minh City. when (if) we pull out, but Vietnam has had an unhappy history of horrible colonial exploitation by the French, which was finally ended by Ho Chi Minh and the communists. Then the bungling and cruelties of Diem, who was apparently set up by America, caused the National Liberation Front to arise within South Vietnam itself. In other words, Vietnam is not a Nazi situation and is no test case for America and its desire to check the flow of communism. (Source: Wikipedia)]

Please comment if you have time.

Love, Kitty

 

[December 1966]
Dear Family,

Thanks for your letter, Dad. I’ll answer it soon. Hope you had a great Christmas.

People were very nice to me at Christmas. My landlady brought me a huge plate of assorted fresh fruit and chocolate. She still keeps bringing me homemade applesauce with lemon rinds, cranberry sauce, homemade potato soup, and other goodies. For Christmas Eve I went to the home of a German friend Elizabeth. The family stems from Bayern (Bavaria). They speak a strong Bavarian dialect among themselves, and it was wonderful to hear them all talking excitedly among themselves and brutalizing the German language. The mother played “Silent Night” on the piano and we all sang. We had carp—boiled and fried—and a delicious sour cream dessert. They gave me a huge plate of nuts, fruit, and cookies. I gave Elizabeth a bright red and blue plaid tablecloth. We watched part of “A Christmas Carol” auf deutsch on TV and then an exhibition of religious frescoes and oil paintings from the Middle Ages and Renaissance—also on TV—while the father, a psych prof at the Technical University, explained some of their typical characteristics to me. The whole family (three daughters and a son) all walked to Midnight Mass through falling snowflakes. They light the candles on the tree for the first time that year. (All Germans have candles instead of colored lights, which they first light on Christmas Eve.)

On Christmas day I went to Wicclair and Mierendorff’s apartment for supper and wine and bloody Marys. I gave Mr. Wicclair a theatrical calendar which I bought in East Berlin and I gave Mrs. Mierendorff a copy of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast because it deals with his life in Paris during 1920-1924 or so and because Mrs. M. spent time there after the Second World War and fell in love with it just as I did. She gave me a book of German poetry and he gave me a huge box of chocolates.

On the 26th, I went to Frau Kern’s [she had employed me to babysit and houseclean] for a delicious half-chicken lunch and schnaps and wine. I brought the kids a “doctor set” and they gave me a wonderful “Care” package, which consisted of fresh fruit, Wurst, candy, eau de Cologne, tea bags, and canned mandarin oranges. I discussed “life at the University” with Herr Kern, who is an assistant physicist there, working on his doctorate.

Berlin.Wall.www.bbc.co.ukMy friend in East Berlin is an elderly man about 70 years old. He invited me and a friend to hear some Beethoven on his record player, and he treated us to an egg liqueur and he and I played Mozart for four hands on his piano. He was very warm and cultured and dignified and sweet—and somehow so tragic too because of his isolation in only half of what used to be his whole city.

Being here in Europe has made me terribly proud sometimes of America and our schools and art and spirit and friends. After [I was] held by the East Berlin officials [one] day and discussed politics briefly with [an] official, I was especially proud of our freedom of expression and of my liberty to express to that man my own political views without having to worry about whether I was expressing ideas in accordance with the ruling party of my government or not.

The East Berliner expressed only ideas that were in the strictest harmony with the “party line,” but by so doing he didn’t impress me as being either sincere or even rational. The only impression I received was one of stupidity that he could defend his government so blindly with the same responses to whatever I said. Or I felt pity that he was so afraid to discuss openly with me both the mistakes and the progress made by his government. Not that I would expect him in any case to condemn his government, but he couldn’t even admit the possibility that perhaps the mess that Germany is in today is the result of many complex factors involving errors on both sides. And not just on Germany but on every single issue he assumed the same sort of stereotyped attitude of black and white. It was impossible to discuss solutions to problems with him—he was too concerned with making East Germany and the communist-block countries appear golden.

Berlin.Map1Once during the conversation I mentioned that my interest in politics had quickened after I’d been in Europe a few months, and that for the first time I was beginning to actively study the Vietnam War and take issue with some of my government’s policies. The official responded in the most sincere manner, “That’s understandable. Of course you couldn’t criticize the U.S. policy when you were in the states: you’d be put in jail.” I was shocked, but he was very sincere; I think he really did believe that. I said, “Where did you ever hear that? That’s completely false. you couldn’t be more mistaken. I can criticize the government as much as I want to.” He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Oh yes, the American freedom.” Then he changed the subject.

We are losing face all over the world by our stand in Vietnam, because of the way we are handling the war. If I am sincerely against the war for intelligent, well thought out, and largely moral grounds, then I can’t be so hypocritical as to appear otherwise, and I can’t do any service to my country regarding its image in the eyes of the world if I either verbally support or at best refuse to discuss outside of the family the topic. The world has got to know, Johnson has got to know, that a large number of Americans intelligently, not blindly, and strongly follow what they believe to be their moral responsibility in opposing the continuation of the war. Johnson is not the only American. I am an American too. And I think, Dad, that the information is available to the layman, to the non-specialist, to the public.

Kitty

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Letters from West Berlin, Part 3, by Kitty Kroger. October and November 1966: Hitchhiking, Trip to Paris, and Talking with a Student from Hanoi

13 Jul

Berlin.Kitty.East.1967In the summer of 1966 upon graduating from Colorado College, a friend had arranged a summer  job for me in a youth hostel on Sylt, a German island  in the North Sea off the coast of Hamburg. After two months, I left by train to see a bit more of Europe before returning to the U.S. My first stop was West Berlin. Maybe I thought the divided city would be especially interesting, or was it just the first place on my route?

Whatever the reason, I ended up living there for four years. Following is the third of a series of selections from detailed letters to my parents during that time. As you will see, over time I was altered by my experiences in 1960s West Berlin and ended up a different person from the politically naive girl who first arrived there.

THIRD IN A SERIES
October 1966

Berlin 1966 Oktober

Dear Mom and Dad,

I wanted to tell you about my trip through Austria. I hitched about half of the trip alone and never had any problems but I got sort of tired of rejecting invitations to go out dancing with truck drivers, to drive through the Alps with 45-year-old travelling salesmen. But I did get some interesting rides with a foreign correspondent for French newspapers, with one of the inspectors of the German Starfighters, with an ex-SS soldier, and with a Viennese war refugee. When I hitched with other people, the rides were sometimes even better. A Dutch couple bought me and my two hitching mates from English and Australia each $1.25 bus tickets to Hitler’s tea house high in the mountains above Berchtesgaden.

Berlin.BerchtesGaden.commons.wikimedia.orgimages

An Italian businessman picked up Dave and me in S. Austria. We communicated in grunts and gestures the whole way. He had a flat tire. Once Dave and I stopped to buy bread and cheese for lunch, and the grocer insisted on giving us a partial tour of the town and on driving us right to the door of the youth hostel. His son and family lived in America and he was so proud of it.

Another time a Persian guy and I just happened to be hitching on the same stretch when a truck stopped and picked us up. The Persian spoke almost no German and although he spoke English, he understood almost nothing. Besides that the truck made so much noise you couldn’t hear anyway. But our truck driver insisted on speaking to us, which required a tremendous use of gestures because of the noise and all. Several times the truck almost ran off the road, and then from time to time the driver would take a swig of some brown liquid from a brown bottle. He kept calling it Kaffee, but the Persian and I arrived unanimously at the conclusion that the Kaffee smelled strongly of beer. In addition to all that, the man kept saying things like “I’m a Russian really,” and “Goldwater gut, Hitler gut—both strong, not wishy-washy.” In the face of all this, the Persian kept trying to convince me to spend the night with him instead of hitching on to Berlin right away. And I don’t think he got the message that I had no intention of “taking advantage” of his hospitality. At any rate he kept repeating the invitation every five minutes, and by the end of the trip I was a nervous wreck.

I think I had the best experience in Salzburg.

Berlin.Salzberg, Austria

The city is small (100,000 approximately) and reeks with atmosphere. One night my English and Australian friends and I went to a large café for dinner. There was an Austrian six-piece orchestra that played Straus waltzes and Austrian folk music. At our table sat a very distinguished looking elderly Austrian gentleman, with his glass of Schnaps (German for schnapps—hard liquor), and his Wiener Schnitzel. From time to time he would sing to the music in a beautiful baritone. When dinner came the English and Australian guys started to show me how to eat European style, and although the Austrian had been oblivious to us up to then, he couldn’t resist showing me the only really correct way to eat, the Austrian way, which consists of holding the fork in the left hand, stabbing a piece of Wurst (sausage) with it, and shoveling sauerkraut and potatoes onto your fork with your knife, then stuffing the whole mixture into your mouth. Another night in Salzberg, we all went to a pub for dinner—about ten of us from the youth hostel. A group of young Austrian workers were sitting at another table. They started to sing, we started to sing, and we took turns singing English folksongs and Austrian ones. Finally, they all came over and sat with us and someone started playing an accordion, and we danced the polka and kept drinking more beer. Of course we had to all head back to the hostel for 10 pm curfew.

Classes at the Technical University (T.U.) have started. I’ve attended two so far.

Two nights ago I went out dancing with Howard. First we walked about three hours around Kreuzberg looking at the architecture. We wandered down to Stuttgarter Platz, a cheap striptease section of town, with streetwalkers standing in front of every door. Every bar looks the same. The outsides are plastered with pictures of strippers and the façade is always black tile with a thick curtain hanging before the door. You walk in and there’s a jukebox and a screen for the filmstrips (literally film strips). We chose one with good beat music, talked the manager down to half-price for our drinks, and danced and talked for about three hours. It was 6 am when I finally got home. I slept until 3:30 pm the next day. What a depraved life!

My room is cold—perhaps I’m not using enough coal. But I think the coal oven is not very efficient. Anyway, the coal is costing a lot more than the DM 9 a month which my landlady assured me.

 

November 7, 1966

Last night after spending my morning at a lecture on T.S. Eliot and my afternoon in the American-German library reading plays, I went to the jazz concert to get a ticket at the last minute and I met friends there; afterwards we went to an all-night jazz party, where all the entertainers jammed. Dave Brubeck, Astrud Gilberto, bossa nova, the Kuhn brothers quartet. It’s rather ironic coming to Berlin to hear fantastic American jazz. We all bought a hot Wurst (fried hotdog) for breakfast and went to the end of another party, then headed home after driving around Berlin in the dawn to look at architecture again. Got in at about 9 am and slept till 1 pm.

The courses I’m auditing are French, literature, art, German. Last week I saw No Exit by Sartre. I heard a lecture at Amerikahaus in German on “Why Foreign Aid?” I talked about Vietnam with a Persian student. I met an Austrian man whom I had coffee with; we had this wild conversation about beauty and character in people. I didn’t really understand what he was trying to express, but it was interesting anyway.

[The Amerika Haus Berlin is an institution that was developed following the end of the Second World War to provide an opportunity for German citizens to learn more about American culture and politics. (Source: Wikipedia)]

Postcard of Brandenburg Tor, Friday, November 10, 1966

Dear Family,

I’m off to Paris for ten days. Leave at noon on a bus with eight other students from the T.U. Back the 20th. Whole trip including food and room only DM80 ($20). It’s part of an exchange trip with students from Paris. We’ll stay in a dorm at the university of Paris.

Went to East Berlin yesterday to get a visa for the zone transit. Saw a great ancient Near East museum there called the Pergammon. Sculpture, ceramics, sarcophagi from 2000 B.C. Berlin has so much to offer.

 

Berlin, November 20, 1966

Dear Family,

Now to tell you some about my Paris trip. We visited a Renault factory, where two models were completely assembled before our eyes in our two-hour visit there. Much of the work was done by people rather than machines, and I was told that in America machines do much more of the work.

I met Vietnamese students, one from Hanoi, who I talked with a long time. His jacket came directly from Hanoi and had the label in. He said there is no North and South Vietnam, there is only Vietnam. But the Americans are the invaders for economic interests of their own. That the South Vietnam government is only a puppet of America, to whom America can dictate, and that much of the fighting goes on in South Vietnam itself by South Vietnam people against the puppet government and the foreign imperialists, which is, I’m afraid, just exactly what we are. And I’m ashamed. The more I hear about America’s foreign policy, the more depressed I get. But it’s difficult to know, after a while, just what Truth is, Right is. American is protecting her economic interests in Vietnam and elsewhere in this world—is this wrong? And yet can this be right when thousands of innocent people are massacred and when our own soldiers go to Vietnam thinking they are fighting and dying for peace and freedom? this is another of those complex issues which frustrate me so completely.

Kitty

Hippy Soldier, by Jim Diggle

8 Jan

Jim Diggle

Jim Diggle has a carpet and upholstery cleaning business in Los Angeles, which he’s been operating since 1983. Today he’s a Buddhist, “taking refuge in the triple gem Buddha-Dhamma Sangha.” He practices yoga and meditates daily. Jim helped raise the two teenage children of his Peruvian wife.

 

 

 

 

In the early 1960s, I was 13 and lived in Santa Monica. I was from “Leave It to Beaver”—you do as you are expected. My dad was an aircraft mechanic but had trouble keeping a job. My mom was Peruvian and no longer worked after she came to the U.S. I found my parents conservative, uncommunicative, repressed, and cold. My friends, however, were lucky to have hands-on, friendly parents. I’d visit them, and then I’d go home and feel withdrawn. I believe it was this experience that affected my ability to be intimate in relationships. My family was Catholic—I was a “good little boy.” Because of the Church’s influence, I was afraid to act myself. I look back at those years as if I was going through the Inquisition. When I did anything free of restraint, I regretted it. I believed in Mortal Sins—if I was “bad,” I’d go to hell. My peers may have rebelled but I never did.

In 1964 I graduated from high school and attended Santa Monica City College. Through the media’s reporting on critical war news and the counter-culture movement, I became anti-religious, anti-church, anti-establishment, and anti-war. College was not for me; I hated it and did poorly. I had few friends. The only reason I attended college was to get out of my house. I studied subjects like liberal arts, art, history, and geography but avoided science and math, although they were required subjects.

Jim Portrait as Young Man
When I realized I wasn’t going to make it at college, I decided that the only way to get away from my family was to join the army. So I enrolled in only a few units at college, became classified 1A, and got drafted. (That was ironic because I considered myself anti-war.)

In the army most of the other draftees were also against the war. In Basic Training in October of 1966 at Fort Ord in Monterrey, California, everyone was from the L.A. area. There were 17 to 20 of us. I was thrown together with people from various socio-economic levels, a new experience for me. Mainly white, some blacks and Mexicans. Many were hippies, with long hair—street guys, rebellious, with disciplinary problems, gang-like—especially the whites and Mexicans. (The black draftees were calmer and more well-behaved.)

In the army the coolest guy was a super hippy. He was a well-balanced, mild person. He shared his record albums of the Mothers of Invention and Frank Zappa. He adapted to the army and became a battalion leader, but most of the other white guys goofed off. As for me, I was still scared of everything.

During medic training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, I was sure I’d be sent to Vietnam. Instead I was sent to Germany. Other guys had to learn to use M-16s. Wow! I get to go to Europe.

army truck.2          army truck.1

I was 13 months in Germany, stationed in Augsburg. There I was again thrown in with everyone—blacks, hillbillies (the most aggressive). Most sergeants were southerners or blacks. They were lifers—just doing their jobs no matter what. But I met some anti-war guys who turned me on to Bob Dylan, to folk music, to books on the counter culture,  to literature by Samuel Beckett and James Joyce. Drugs were cool. That’s where I became a hippy. Draftees had to stay out of trouble; even though I was anti-war, I had to survive. But at least the army couldn’t tell us how to think.

army locker

The inside of my locker at Augsburg

platoonInAugsburg

My platoon

red cross tank winter Augsburg

I emerged from the army even more anti-everything. I lived for a while with my family in Santa Monica and got a job at St. John’s hospital as an orderly. But I didn’t take the job seriously. After my father died in 1969, Mom sold the house and left for Peru with my 16-year-old sister, who was quite a handful—smoking dope, dropping acid, and running away from time to time with her friends.

Jim's mother, sister (R) and friend

My mother and sister (R) and friend

I quit my job and decided to live as a hippy; it was similar to being homeless. With my family, I had only sporadic communication, which was easy because I felt no strong bonds to them.

I met Cecelia Holland, a hippy and successful author of historical fiction in her early 20s, and my friend Jack and I went to live in her house in Pasadena. I paid her $30 a month. I was cashing in my U.S. bonds by then. (The army had taken $18 a month out of our pay.)

I still had a severe fear of intimacy—no girls, no sex. I thought I’d be that way forever. I used drugs and had no thoughts about tomorrow. Finally I hit rock bottom. I had no money left, only $18 checks coming in from my savings bonds. I cashed in the bonds.

My older half-sister and her husband found out about my situation. Although they were conservative, they took pity on me. They would pay my way to Peru, they said. I contacted my mother who said yes, come down. I cut my hair and headed to Peru. That was in 1970.

I wondered what I’d do to get high there. People were copying American culture, the good, bad and ugly. I ran into an old friend, started doing marijuana and cocaine, and fell into the same situation as in the States. After I’d been in Peru ten months,  I told Mom I was going back to the U.S.

But the old crowd in the U.S. had changed. The hippy thing had mainly disappeared. Everything was changing. Kids weren’t living on the streets any more north hitchhiking. They were getting jobs, living in apartments, getting to be more responsible—things cost money. I hooked up with the brother of one of the Peruvian guys who had come to the U.S. We shared an apartment and I got a job right away. I had to. No more free life—nothing is free.

My friend was full of energy and didn’t do many drugs. Then I took up with a Latino crowd. I spoke Spanish. Also, I started relating to girls for the first time. I tried college again but was no more mature than before.

Since I had no ambition, any job was OK. I took on menial jobs at markets and factories. It was easier to survive on very little back then. An older friend of a Peruvian buddy of mine was a carpet and upholstery cleaner, who needed part-time weekend help. I worked a while for him.

By that time I had a regular job in shipping at Telecolor (a company that went house to house taking pictures). I met a Bolivian, Eduardo Villanueva, a geologist who traveled around the world looking for oil on the ocean bottom. So I went to Utah to work with him in the Great Salt Lake. Barges patrolled the lake, exploring the sub-surface. They used air cannons, aimed at the bottom, creating a wave that traveled 10,000 feet below the surface, and then they recorded it on a Richter scale as it created an earthquake under the water. If it was flat, that meant no oil. If there were cracks and fissures, there was oil and a drill would be sunk.

Barge Salt Lake.1           Barge Salt Lake.2           Barge Salt Lake.3

We covered the whole Salt Lake. In 1974 the workers on the barge led a nomadic life, travelling the world. They were alcoholics, southerners; many came from broken families. Digicon, Inc. from Texas was the parent company; we had a joke: “Who didja con to get to work for you?” The working conditions were tough. We spent many hours on and then many hours off. We almost sank but the water was only four feet deep. On the plus side, the job paid well and provided room and board, so you could save money.

After Salt Lake I went up to Alaska with this same job, to Prudhoe Bay on the north slope. This was from 1974 to 1975. A pipeline was being laid from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez on the southern Pacific coast. We were in the Arctic, on the Beaufort Sea. There were three months of total darkness and three of total light. Polar bears, 60 degrees below zero, crazy workers. One Christmas night there was a gun fight between two drunken brothers. (Guns were legal there, for “self-protection.”) In the Arctic, we almost sank, but we were rescued and towed into the port at Prudhoe Bay.

Barge.Alaska.3      Barge.Alaska.1      Barge.Alaska.2

I didn’t like my boss, an alcoholic. He’d fly off the handle when he wasn’t drinking. One day we were in dry-dock and he fired me. I left for Anchorage and then for Los Angeles.

In Los Angeles I hooked up with the same carpet cleaner I’d worked for earlier. He let me work part-time for him again. I also took a second job full-time job as an interior designer’s helper in 1976.

my boss

The interior designer I worked for

(By 1983 I’d formed Diggle Enterprises, a carpet and upholstery cleaning business. When my boss retired in 1992, I took over his carpet cleaning business as well.)

In the early 1970s I finally started to overcome some of my intimacy issues and was having relationships but with only superficial commitments.

Girls

I told myself I needed to do something about my life. I wasn’t in a good place; I wanted to settle down, have a family. On a trip to Peru in the 1980s I met my future wife Pilar. After beginning a superficial relationship with her, I gradually began to change because of her intelligence and wisdom. She taught me how to be a genuine human being.

Peru with skull

Me in Peru

Looking back, I have no regrets because if that’s what I had to go through to get where I am right now, then so be it. Now I am a different person, a happy person. My experiences counted for something and I wound up in a much better place.

Letters from West Berlin, Part 1, by Kitty Kroger. 1966: First Impressions of West Berlin

28 Oct

Berlin.Kitty.East.1967
In the summer of 1966 upon graduating from Colorado College, a
friend had arranged a summer  job for me in a youth hostel on Sylt, a German island  in the North Sea off the coast of Hamburg. After two months, I left by train to see a bit more of Europe before returning to the U.S. My first stop was West Berlin. Maybe I thought the divided city would be especially interesting, or was it just the first place on my route?

Whatever the reason, I ended up living there for four years. Following is the first of a series of selections from detailed letters to my parents during that time. As you will see, over time I was altered by my experiences in 1960s West Berlin and ended up a different person from the politically naive girl who first arrived there.

 

FIRST IN A SERIES
August 1966

West Berlin, August 1966
Dear Parents and Charlie [my brother],

Berlin.TrainAtBahnhofZooFor the first time since I got to Germany I am completely on my own. I’ve been in Berlin a week  now, staying in a Studentenheim (student dorm) at the Free University for $1.66 per night (DM 6.50). I’ve met all kinds of people — three Persians, an Egyptian, an Australian, Americans, an Ethiopian, and a German boy 23 years old, who spent three days helping me find a place to stay in this enormous and confusing city.

Meanwhile, I’m looking for work. [My room] costs DM 100 a month, which is $25. It’s very dead here; most students are on vacation. The city is fascinating, especially the political aspects of it. Yesterday Jeanie [a friend] and I went to East Berlin and met an elderly man who showed us all around.

[Note: At this time, as a result of the postwar settlement, Germany was divided between the Soviet Union and the Allies. The former capital of Germany, Berlin, now in the middle of East Germany, was divided between the Soviet Union, France, England, and the U.S. Bonn became the new capital of West Germany, and the Soviet sector of Berlin remained the capital of East Germany. Berliners were not allowed to visit the Soviet sector, called East Berlin. West Germans could visit, with the proper papers. Foreigners like myself could cross the border into the eastern sector for 24 hours, surrendering our passports at the border.]

Berlin.Map.Red and Blue.blog.craniumfitteds.com

 

Berlin, August 19, 1966
Dear Parents and Charlie,

Right now I’m working in the small office of a driving school. Often I sit the whole time alone with no telephone calls and no people coming in. It is good and bad, for I have lots of time to read but I am not improving my German. I earn DM 225 ($50) per month.

Berlin.Kachelfoen
The other day I finally found a room. It costs DM 75 per month [$19] plus DM 10-15 in winter for coal. I have to prepare the coal myself in the tile oven. The room has a small balcony overlooking the courtyard—like in the movie “Rear Window.” Hot water and bathroom, which I share with another [young woman] renter, and a small hotplate and cupboard for dishes and food just outside the room in the hall. It has a [long] hallway to enter by. Apartments in Berlin are expensive, as is everything, in comparison with wages. Apartments are from DM 350 to 400 and up. The landlady seems very sweet. She’s about 60, I think. The room is right in the center of town near the railway station.

I can’t believe that this is really me here, doing what I’m doing (which is I’m not sure what)!

 

Berlin, August 25, 1966

It’ll be nice to be settled in my new address on September 1. It’s right in the center of town. [In Charlottenburg.] And from there I plan to spread out and “uncover” the city. My work situation is pretty good. I make barely enough to exist on but I have in return a variety of jobs. My tutoring job is with a very interesting woman  [Marta Mierendorff]. She has her PhD., is writing a cultural book, and lives with a  playwright actor and citizen from L.A.

Walter and Marta, Berlin 1967

Marta Mierendorff and her partner Walter Wicclair. Berlin 1967

Today I “worked” four hours for [a] young “Frau” with three kids. All I did was sit outside and talk to the two older children for an hour, wash a few dishes, and vacuum a rug in the nursery. For that I received DM 15 and a very nice lunch, much conversation with the kids, and some with their mother.

A large flask of wine is only about $1 and beer only 15 – 20 cents.

I enjoy being so entirely independent as I am now until I figure out what I want to be dependent upon. It’s sort of a vacation from life.

I’ve been reading a prodigious amount of German about all sorts of things: Berlin, Deutschland, Vietnam, Draußen vor der Tür [The Man Outside] by Wolfgang Borchert, the relationship between German and American grammar, music, etc. And I’ve talked to some interesting people. A girl on my floor in the Studentendorf, who I’ve cooked dinner with a couple of times—she just finished her exams as a veterinarian, was a high school foreign exchange student to Minnesota, and studied at Munich as well as here in Berlin.

The German worker earns perhaps DM 500 [$125] per month for every $400-$500 that the same worker in America earns. Thus although a furnished apartment may cost only DM 300 –400 [$100] per month, the average worker couldn’t possibly afford it. Thus the Germans live in rooms, not apartments. And it’s customary—not  looked down upon as poverty—as it would be in America.

Coffee is very expensive. 1/10 pound of instant Kaffee cost me 75 cents (DM 3)!!

Telephone calls in public booths cost only 5 cents but to mail a letter within Deutschland, it costs 7 ½ cents, to America 17 cents for 5 grams. Subways are about half-price here in Berlin. Medicine is much cheaper and doesn’t seem to need a prescription.

TV is great! No commercials except for 20 minutes once a day. Many good programs and news analyses.

Billboards consist merely of thick, round poles on street corners, around which many ads are pasted. Whereas our buildings at home are the “tallest” or “biggest,” here the people seem to be proud of having the “oldest” of everything.

Berlin.Montage.OldBuildings

Here everyone calls you “Miss” Kroger, unless they know me very well and are approximately my age. All other people call me Miss all the time—with Miss comes the formal or “Sie” form of “you.” Children call me “Fraulein Kitty.”

Trains seem much nicer. The windows are bigger. The seats on trains face each other.

Berlin.Double-deckerBusThe two-decker city buses are very common—and excellent fun for a good bird’s-eye view of the city. A bus ticket costs simply 12 ½ cents for anywhere on that line. You can go all over Berlin for 17 cents on a two-decker bus

There are flowers all over the city. Every balcony has its window box of carnations. No women are ever to be seen in curlers! Everyone almost speaks some English here. I never leave tips [at restaurants] here. It is added on to the end of the bill as 15% extra.

If you say hello (Guten Tag) to some stranger as you pass him or her on the street, he will assume you know him some way or another. I met one woman cyclists on the sidewalk and blithely said hello, upon which she slammed on her brakes, stopped, and asked, astounded, “Do we know each other?” I muttered apologetically, “Nein,” at which she said “Oh,” and rode on.

There are miles and miles of bike-ways in Berlin on the sidewalk next to where one walks. There are also many parks; “places” in the middle of a street with lawn, flowers, benches, and trees; regular forests and camping spots; lakes; farms. And the streets have many trees and flowers. There seems to be much building of new houses and rebuilding or repairing of old ones. There are many brand new apartment buildings.

Beatle pants (bell bottoms with checks, stripes, patterns—English models, especially on the young working men) are worn all over, as well as long haircuts. But the students generally dress “relatively conservatively.” Sandals and thongs of all kinds for both men and women are popular. None of the girls shave their legs. Contrary to popular belief, tennies, blue jeans, and wheat jeans are worn fairly frequently—and any clothes which were “in” in America are definitely “in” over here except for Bermuda and Jamaica-length shorts.

It’s fairly safe to travel alone late at night on subways, S-Bahns, or buses. This town, however, closes down its transportation at 12:30 am.

[In] the Studentendorf  (student village) boys and girls can visit each other any time anywhere—i.e., open dorms with no restrictions. Drinking is allowed in the dorms and liquor is sold in the cafeteria on campus.

Among the students, professors, and “intellectuals” in general, there is much anti-American feeling, some of the Germans resent us because of our Vietnam policy.

[To be continued.]