Peter Shelton

An American Abroad, Part Zwei

Posted in Personal History, Watch columns by pshelton on June 20, 2013

I hadn’t been in Heilbronn a day when Mutti decided I had a fever and needed to “sweet” it out. “You sweet it out, Petey.”

I was maybe feeling a little under the weather after having traveled for 10 days, from the American west coast by piston-engine DC-7 to New York, and thence by aging passenger liner to Rotterdam, a crossing of eight days. (The American Field Service mothballed the SS Seven Seas, turned it into a floating dormitory, I believe, after my year, which was 1966. On the return trip we were at sea for 13 days, the extra five due to our having to steam north practically to Greenland to skirt a North Atlantic hurricane. The Queen Mary passed us four times – coming and going, and coming and going – by the time we docked in New York.)

Mutti put me in the hottest bath I could stand and fed me a homeopathic spoonful of some liquid I thought she said was diluted rattlesnake venom. Then she put me to bed underneath a foot-thick featherbed, even though it was July, and about 90 percent humidity. I “sweeted” all right. And I vowed never to show weakness in Mutti’s presence again.

I was gaining perspective. Family dynamics could be different. Cultures were different. Landscapes and climate were different. Forests in Germany were dark square patches defined by the perfectly straight lines of their adjacent tilled fields.

I felt far away in the global sense, too. For the first time in my life I pictured the United States from a distance. My mind’s eye levitated to low satellite orbit and looked west across the Atlantic at the American east coast and then, like the famous Saul Steinberg New Yorker cover, at a foreshortened continent with my home so far away the curvature of the earth flattened it to a line of Pacific blue.

I was getting a different political viewpoint, too. A bunch of former AFS exchange students, Germans who had spent time in the U.S., invited me to an evening at someone’s apartment. They were older than I; they smoked cigarettes and drank wine. And to my surprise and discomfort they lambasted the United States’ role in the Vietnam war. I found myself a minority of one. I was too intimidated to try to mount a defense of LBJ’s escalation of the conflict. But, more crucially, I realized how impoverished my history was, how little I knew about Vietnam and why we were there.

Back in the States the winter before during the AFS selection process, a man on the selection committee had grilled me repeatedly about Vietnam, which was just then becoming a nightly feature of body counts and “guerilla” fighters. I couldn’t figure out what this man was driving at, what the correct answer was. I knew about the domino theory. I knew we had to “contain” the Soviet Union. We were the good guys. What else was there?

In that urban German apartment my facile 17-year-old assumptions got kicked around the room. Politely kicked, by Europeans with more war and remnant colonialism in their collective memory than I could even imagine.

Ultimately, I would be grateful for the perspective. Though at the time it only seemed to deepen my isolation. I took solace in Christine’s collection of LPs, which I would play alone in my room – her room in absentia. She had the 1963 release With the Beatles and a couple of Peter, Paul and Mary albums, In the Wind and See What Tomorrow Brings. I was inordinately moved by “Roll Over Beethoven.” And though I didn’t consciously connect my homesickness with the lyrics to “All My Trials, Lord” or “Early Morning Rain,” I did wallow in those plaintive PP&M harmonies and the clear fact that they were singing directly to me. Really. For me.

I would find out on the voyage home that I didn’t have it so bad. I hadn’t had it bad at all.

There were onboard sessions, in little (swaying) conference rooms, in which AFS staff debriefed us after our summer adventures. One girl who had been assigned to Denmark (what could be more civilized than Denmark, right?) told about how her host mother had come after her with kitchen knife, so insanely jealous was she of the American interloper. AFS headquarters had somehow swooped in and rescued her.

Another girl spent whole days staring, squatting with her back up against the walls, obsessively popping her knuckles. I hadn’t remembered her from the trip east, but none of us could take our eyes off her now. It turned out she had been sold into marriage by her Afghan host family. AFS hadn’t been able to come to her aid her for weeks.

To be continued . . .

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