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An American growing up in Germany
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Photo: John Greenwood
Sarah Hayden holds the naturalization document for her paternal great-grandfather, Bernard Josef Niggemeier, who came to America from Germany by himself at the age of 18. The document is dated 1897, the year he became an American citizen.
Editor's note: Sarah Hayden is a staff writer for The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus who covers education, area boards, and other topics.

I've always had an interest in German culture, even long before I discovered my heritage goes back to Germany on both sides of the family.

When I was a child, I used to check out German language records from the Davenport Public Library. I would sit in front of our 1970s stereo and follow along. My parents probably were amused by this. After all, where would I ever be able to use German?

Well, in Germany, as it turned out.

My mother worked as a purchasing contractor at the Rock Island Arsenal. She often was listed for promotions in other states and Germany. I nagged her about moving every day, asking, "Did you tell them you're taking the job in Germany?"

Things moved quickly when she accepted a job in Frankfurt.

My parents were divorced by then, so my brother, sister and I said goodbye to our father in the summer of 1982 and got on the nine-hour flight bound for Frankfurt with our mother. I had no idea what to expect. At the age of 14, I hadn't even been out of the country.

It was the beginning of a life-changing experience for me.

Since my mother was a civilian and not in the Army, we were not allowed to live in base housing. This turned out to be a blessing. We found a three-bedroom duplex in a picturesque village northwest of Frankfurt called Niederhöchstadt.

In the other half of our duplex lived an elderly couple, Herr and Frau Muller. Frau Muller often appeared on our doorstep to politely let us know how things were done in the neighborhood: We should mow our portion of the lawn up and down, not in a circular pattern. We were responsible for sweeping the street in front of our house on Wednesdays. The garbage men would not pick up our trash if the lid of the garbage can wasn't closed.

The Mullers were quintessential Germans, believing you must follow the rules, and there was an order to how things were done. However, Frau Muller genuinely was concerned about us, and the affection was mutual.

Germany was storybook cute. Half-timbered houses were nestled among traditional wood-frame homes. Flower boxes hung from windows, their flowers often spilling over to the window below. Cobblestone and cement-brick streets were standard. Housewives hung bedding and comforters from open windows each morning to air them out.

There was a small church near our house and another one up the road, both of them with bell towers that rang daily. Around the corner was a small shopping area with a bakery, small grocery store, clothing boutique, and a yarn shop.

Niederhöchstadt was filled with parks, soccer fields, walking paths and a shallow creek that ran through the middle of the village.It had vending machines that sold small bouquets of flowers and eggs.

The country was a lesson in efficiency and order. The streets were clean; trains ran on time; drivers obeyed traffic rules. The sidewalks were divided: red brick for bicyclists and blue brick for pedestrians.

It was perfectly normal for people to bring their dogs into restaurants and grocery stores. If you didn't want to bring your dog into a business, there were hooks outside the door where you could tie the leash.

Germany was a land of castles and ruins. My bedroom window faced the Taunus Mountains and Kronberg Castle. Every night it was illuminated, and I would stare out at the castle, ablaze with light.

Living in Germany brought freedom for me as a teenager I wouldn't have had in America. Mass transit meant I was able to take a subway, train, bus or streetcar anywhere at almost any time of day.

The lack of a drinking age meant I was able to meet my friends every weekend in the bar district of Frankfurt. Called Sachsenhausen, it is located across the Main River (pronounced "Mine") in the old part of the city.

I attended Frankfurt American High School, which was the largest American high school in Europe, with about 600 students. It was a semi-normal high-school experience with some American traditions.

We had football, basketball and soccer teams, just as high schools in the States do. We competed against other American high schools and often traveled hours on buses to games. We were the Frankfurt Eagles, and we wore letter jackets and class rings and attended homecomings and proms.

Many of my classmates were bilingual and had German mothers. It wasn't uncommon to hear German spoken in the halls. We even had football cheers in German. We enjoyed the benefits of living in Europe and all it had to offer.

But it was a different era in Europe in the '80s. There still was a West and East Germany, and America was in a Cold War with Russia.

During the '80s, there was a powerful, anti-American terrorist group called The Red Army Faction. It was responsible for numerous bombings and assassinations at military bases across Germany.

Bomb threats to the American schools and PX outlets at military bases became routine. Our school would be evacuated, and we'd be led onto the football field or across the parking lot to the base movie theater. We'd wait for hours while military police came in with German shepherds to investigate.

To this day, I associate German shepherds with bomb threats.

Despite everything, I never felt afraid in Germany. Even out of the presence of armed military guards and off the army base, I never felt afraid to ride the trains, walk around downtown Frankfurt late at night, or go anywhere alone. It taught me independence and courage.

One benefit of growing up in Germany was the many opportunities to travel.

School trips took me to Italy, Greece, Spain, London and Bavaria. I learned how to ski in Yugoslavia when it was still a country.

My sister and I climbed the Leaning Tower of Pisa before it was closed to the public. I've skied in Switzerland, gone on Volksmarches in Luxembourg and Lichtenstein, been to the top of the Eiffel Tower, seen the Mona Lisa in Paris and Michelangelo's David in Florence, ridden gondolas in Venice, and visited some of the best museums in the world.

The most fascinating trip I took was to West and East Berlin in the spring of 1985. We rode on the duty train through East Germany, which wasn't allowed to stop until it arrived inside the wall of West Berlin.

In Berlin, we hired a driver, went through Checkpoint Charlie, and crossed into East Berlin. It's nerve-racking to drive through a no-man's land of barbed wire, mines and Russian tanks pointed at your car. It's even scarier to hand your passports over to an East German soldier for review.

East Berlin was the opposite of the west. Buildings were gray and drab; the people seemed depressed; and things moved noticeably slower. It was like stepping into a slow-motion black-and-white film.

That experience made me realize how truly fortunate we are to have the freedoms we do as Americans.

After graduating from Frankfurt American High School, I went to college in Munich for a year at the University of Maryland overseas campus. I loved every minute of the six years I lived in Germany. I moved back to the States in 1988.

Through my time in Germany, I gained friendships that will last the rest of my life. Frankfurt alumni get together several times a year, and we have a big reunion each summer.I can't explain our bond, but we are a close group. We shared the same unique experiences and adventures during a tumultuous time in history.

I speak German with my two children as much as possible and read to them at night, but unless they can have the experience of immersion in the language I had, it will be a daily effort on my part to encourage them to speak it.

Growing up in Germany shaped who I am today and gave me a world-view that reminds me I am more than American. We are all connected, no matter what language we speak. Itgave me an appreciation of other cultures, history and taught me to respect other ways of life.

Above all, it made me realize the important role travel plays in education. You must get out and see the world and experience other places if you are to have an understanding of how the world works.


-- Location: Central Europe, bordering the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, between the Netherlands and Poland, south of Denmark.

-- Population: 81,305,856 (July 2012 estimate). No. 16 in the world.

-- Languages: German.

Source: CIA World Factbook.

Local events heading

  Today is Tuesday, Sept. 16, the 259th day of 2014. There are 106 days left in the year.

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1889 — 125 years ago: J.B. Lidders, past captain of Beardsley Camp, Sons of Veterans, returned from Paterson, N.Y., where he attended the National Sons of Veterans encampments.
1914 — 100 years ago: President Wilson announced that he had received from the imperial chancellor of Germany a noncommittal reply to his inquiry into a report that the emperor was willing to discuss terms of peace.
1939 — 75 years ago: Delegates at the Illinois Conference of the Methodist Church in Springfield voted to raise the minimum pay of ministers so that every pastor would get at least $1,000 annually.
1964 — 50 years ago: An audience of more than 2,600 persons jammed into the Davenport RKO Orpheum theater with a shoe horn feasted on a Miller-Diller evening that was a killer night. Phyllis Diller sent the audience with her offbeat humor. And send them she did! It was Miss Diller's third appearance in the Quad-Cities area.
1989 — 25 years ago: A few years ago, a vacant lot on 7th Avenue and 14th Street in Rock Island was a community nuisance. Weeds grew as high 18 inches. Today, the lot has a new face, thanks to Michael and Sheila Rind and other neighbors who helped them turn it into a park three weeks ago.

(More History)