It was early spring in New England. The last of the winter snow was melting beneath a crystal clear sky that was quickly darkening in the cold Massachusetts twilight. The sidewalk between the white clapboard military barracks was dry. It had rarely been so since I had arrived at Fort Devens in early January of that year – 1969. For several months snow and ice had been the order of the day. Despite the barren overhanging branches of the trees along the path that as of yet showed no sign of budding, I felt a hope of spring.
When I had first arrived at Ft. Devens from Army basic training in California, I had been depressed and melancholy. The dreary winter days of gray skies and snow-covered earth seemed bleak and hopeless. Today I felt good. I had met several fine friends to be sure, but since most of them lived elsewhere on the post, evenings could be lonely during the week.
The barrack was dark as I approached the door. The porch light had not yet come on. It appeared that I had returned earlier than the rest, who may have already been here and out the door for a typical evening of liquid entertainment at the local EM (enlisted men's) club. But something was clearly different as I stepped into the tiny foyer and carefully shut the door. I heard beautiful guitar music coming from upstairs. Those old World War II barracks had two floors with two rows of bunk beds – six on each side – and an identical floor plan upstairs. Although I knew everybody, I rarely had a reason to go upstairs. The downstairs was more favored, since the toilets, showers, and sinks were there. And who wants to walk down a flight of stairs just to use the bathroom in the middle of the night?
Curious, I climbed up the dark stairs to the equally dark landing. No lights on at all – just the sweet sound of the guitar coming from somewhere in the back. Using what little ambient light remained, I followed the sound. I startled the guitar player, who was obviously a new resident. I complimented his playing and introduced myself. He did likewise (he was Bob Simpson), and he flipped on a light.
“Would you like me to play you something?” he offered.
“How about Hey Jude ?” I suggested, hoping that wouldn't be too hard. It had been very popular for months at the time, and everybody loved it. He played it flawlessly and sang it word-for-word. I was stunned. I came to know in the following months and years just how good he really was. In fact, years later and continents away, I joked that some day he would have to have that guitar case surgically removed from his hand, since, in or out of uniform, I never saw him without it.
He had just transferred in that day and had not yet begun his training course. I was about halfway through mine. He expressed his trepidation, and I did my best to assuage his fears. We didn't take long to discover that we were both born again Christians. I confessed that I was a new convert, and he said that he had grown up in the Baptist church. His parents were missionaries in the Virgin Islands. I was really happy and excited. I had never met a real MK (missionary's kid) before. He confessed that he had been really depressed since arriving at Ft. Devens. I shared my own story. Then I mentioned that I had met an Evangelical Christian group that gathered weekly for Bible study on Thursday nights at an off-post Baptist church where we often went for Sunday services, as the military chapel fare was so blah. That Thursday night I brought Bob (guitar in hand) to the meeting. He knew just what to do. I realized then that those who have been raised in a church knew a lot more than I did at the time. He knew all the words to all the songs, and could play anything by heart. It was a gift. I always regretted that we did not have a chance to get to know each other well, as spring had really sprung and we were involved in our own struggles to get through training courses. I graduated, had immediate orders for Viet Nam, and was gone almost in the twinkle of an eye. I remembered Bob and the sweet guitar music he'd played the night we met. Sometimes when I was out “in the field” in Viet Nam, I would think I could hear him playing At Calvary or Softly and Tenderly somewhere far away.
Having been reassigned to Frankfurt, after leaving Southeast Asia and surviving the war without a scratch, I was so in my element. Compared to the chaos and uncertainty of war, my new assignment was a cakewalk. I loved Frankfurt, and showed up at my drawing table faithfully every day. I even moonlighted as a flunky illustrator at one of the world's largest advertising agencies, Frankfurt branch. Every weekend I would travel – one weekend in Paris – Vienna the next. What a deal! Since this city on the Main River is more or less the geographic hub of Europe, the rail and airline connections are the best on the continent.
Then one day the bad news came down from on high. Our unit was being phased out of Frankfurt and transferred to the huge, new high-tech electronic spy facility down south in Augsburg. Everybody was distressed, as we all loved being in the center of the universe as we knew it. But we laid plans to move as ordered. The plan was simple. The advance party would go immediately and scout out our new facilities. Basically, we measured all the rooms assigned to the graphics department; figured out where all the printing presses, copy machines, desks and file cabinets would go; and then made a paper mockup to be sure that everything would fit. I hated the whole thing from the get-go. Our barracks were old Nazi buildings – as grim, gray, and ponderous as anyone could imagine.
Meanwhile, back in Frankfurt, the move began. I opted to remain to the last day, long after the rest of the guys had left. Although we had all done our fair share of moving stuff, the heavy lifting, packing, and shipping had been contracted to large German companies accustomed to such monumental projects. Of course, German linguists were “a dime a dozen” in the headquarters, but I was the only German-speaker in the Graphic Arts Department. So that was my ticket to stay as long as possible, making sure everything was wrapped up properly as I finally turned out the lights.
Upon arrival in Augsburg on that cool gray day in late April, I was depressed. Everything was so dreary. I checked into the new offices and studios and was at least pleased to see that our prior planning had really been followed to the letter. All the old familiar furniture fit perfectly where we had reassigned it. My drawing table was right next to the window – one of the perks of being in on the advance design committee. I had dibbed the best location first.
I had already been assigned my room and had moved in. Even though I had gained enough seniority in Frankfurt to be entitled to a single room, it was horrible nevertheless. When the Americans arrived after the World War II, some general had been appalled at the drabness, and had managed to procure enough hospital green paint to redo the entire place. Well, I knew I had to survive it somehow. I got hungry as it began getting dark. I had already been to the mess hall during my first trip, so without having to ask, I just trudged wearily over for chow. The exact same menu that I had known from the first day of basic training. No surprises there.
So I picked up my tray, silverware, and other eating and drinking accouterments, and began the slide down the line of absolutely typical American fare. It had all been familiar to me from day one, except for one thing that I had never seen before, as a naïve kid from the Pacific Northwest. I just figured it was cream of wheat. As I began to pour milk and sugar on it, the guy sitting directly across the table nearly had a coronary. In a heavy southern drawl he explained that you don't put milk and sugar on grits.
The mess hall was nearly empty by then, as most guys liked to get in as early as possible for the best of the fried chicken and chicken fried steak. I didn't care much that day as I sat down by myself. About halfway through my first meal in the wilderness, I began looking around to see if I recognized anybody from Frankfurt that might still be there. Nobody. Then I nearly choked on my garden fresh salad. There, clear across the room, musically entertaining a whole table of guys, was Bob Simpson!
He hadn't seen me, so I sneaked up behind him and covered his eyes. He couldn't guess. When he turned around I said: “Guess you haven't seen me in a while!” Well, Bob went crazy, as he was wont to do. When he realized that I had just moved in that day, he rightly assumed that I was kind of at loose ends, sad and lonely, and that my room was a huge void. So he whisked me away – guitar in hand – and we went to his room, which was in a different building. We hung out, caught up, and made weekend plans. He told me about the various church services and other entertainment venues that he was involved in. But most of all, he spoke about his absolute favorite, the Jugendzentrum. It was a mostly German-speaking youth center run by a Canadian missionary from Saskatchewan. I couldn't wait.
One thing about Bob – he was friendly. Since he had lived in Augsburg for over a year by then, he knew everybody. For the first day or two he dragged me all around and introduced me to everybody there, taking me from the library to the chapel, the motor pool to the hospital where he regularly went to entertain patients with the ubiquitous guitar. He liked them to challenge him with a request that he could not play. They rarely stumped him. I tried it as well, recommending one of my favorites: Bach's Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring. He thought a minute and said “Isn't that this...?” whereupon he played it all the way through flawlessly.
By the weekend I had begun enjoying the rhythms of life in my new environment. Then everything stepped up a click as Bob took me to the Junendzentrum for the first time. As we got off the street car – which is called a Straßenbahn – and walked over the crunching gravel to the front door, there was music and laughter and the sounds of a small café. As we entered someone shouted “Bob ist hier!” and the atmosphere clicked up a few notches. It was as if Jesus himself had arrived. (Well, maybe the Apostle Paul, anyway.) Although he had never learned any German, he had no trouble whatsoever communicating. Most of the young people there could speak some high school English, and Bob always managed to understand. Of course, the Canadian family that ran the place, whose German reflected the fact that they had learned the language at home and not in school, could always help him out. I came to really love these folks.
Then, pushing right up to Bob, appeared what was referred to at the time as a leftover hippy. Bob introduced us, and he immediately began talking to me in German. We spoke briefly and he asked me if I was German. Then he immediately caught his mistake and said, "Ah, of course, you're American," as he put his finger on the bright white tee-shirt showing above my regular shirt and sweater. I was curious and asked why that was a giveaway. He simply remarked that Europeans would not show their underwear like that. I resolved then and there to buy V‑neck tee‑shirts thereafter. His name was Jack – a very un-German name. As he and I got acquainted, Bob began his sing-a-long. Jack was actually Dutch and his namesake grandfather was from Britain. I learned as time went on that Jack really liked being in the spotlight; and by falling in with newcomers – especially foreign ones – he could get more attention around the center. Jack soused me out rather quickly. I could not play the guitar or entertain. He was impressed that I was an army illustrator (something that was definitely not in Bob's category of expertise). We became friends, but he saw that, unlike Bob, I didn't need him. We did, however, pal around Augsburg a lot; and I learned the city well from a local perspective; and for that I was grateful.
That was 1972 – the year of the Olympic games in Munich, half an hour away by train. I found many friends at the youth center, and we spent endless weekends throughout the year taking trips around Bavaria, Switzerland, Austria, and environs together. Bob was always there, guitar in hand. And I still recall the times when Bob and I went together – often to Frankfurt – for some big-production religious crusade to which he had been invited to perform. He loved that. I always thought it cute that as we rode the trains around Europe, Bob always asked me to see if it would be okay with those in our compartment for him to play his guitar. They loved it ... and what a great entrée to meet new people. Whereas I could have sat for hours without saying a word, he simply had to interact – even with perfect strangers.
As the Olympics drew near, all of Southern Germany was aflutter. We spent more and more time in Munich, as it was going to get worldwide attention. I got a kick out of the expression that I learned back then: “The foreigners are coming. We have to make a good impression. Quick, tear up all the streets!” But in the end, they got it together. Later that year it came time to return to the States and leave military life for good. As I boarded the train at the station in Augsburg, en route to Frankfurt and the military airport at Rhein Main, about twenty friends – mostly from the Jugendzentrum – had come to the platform to see me off. As the train left the station, Bob played and they all sang a German version of May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You.
As the train made it's way northward – and then, later, on the flight back to the States – I had a lot of time to reflect on how wonderfully my time in Augsburg had turned out after all ... with guitar accompaniment. (End)
Augsburg, Germany 1972