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December 20, 2005

Christmas Snow and Cheer

Roy Meachum

Traveling downtown in Pushkin's company this holiday season is the occasion for endless joy. Children normally excited by the English pointer's appearance frequently turn loose their holiday glee with great force.

With the last week before the season's double highlight upon us, you can imagine the scene. To explain that "double," Hanukkah arrives at sundown Christmas day. Put another way when the trees are dimming the first Festival of Light's candles glow.

None of this matters to my best friend, of course.

One recent afternoon his appearance was greeted by a lady who's English carried a familiar lilt, more familiar than I first suspected. She was from Heidesheim, another small city in the Frankfurt metro sprawl, not far from Hoechst, where I celebrated my first Christmas with snow.

The white stuff was in short supply in my youth. I was in first grade the only time flakes fell on New Orleans, dusting palm trees, overlaying the city's perpetual dust with a light cover on the sidewalks. Any traffic problems must have been caused by curiosity, there was not enough slick to slide around.

It started mid-morning, causing a rush to the classroom windows. I cannot know what was happening with the older McDonough Elementary School 10 students. My teacher gave up trying to keep her charges in their seats, allowing us to flock to the windows.

In the event, wise heads decided everyone should go home early; good thing. By the middle of the afternoon, when bells usually set us free, the only traces could be found in the corners of gardens and maybe where grass was high. We had no grass on Second Street. The backyard was a brick patio.

In the wildest possible contrast, Germany the year after the war suffered under the cruelest winter for years. The ice came in late November and hung around until mid-spring. The castle where I worked looked particularly picturesque, with traces of white on its 10th century tower and the mansard roof on the "new" mansion, which had been built well before the French Revolution.

The entry's cobblestones proved terribly tricky for someone who had never had to navigate on ice before; where elegant carriages once parked while their owners visited with the lord of the castle were virtually impassable in places where ashes were pushed off.

Being part of the United States Army certainly helped, especially at that time. The chore of keeping passageways passable fell to German employees and "displaced persons:" Poles and Ukrainians who wanted nothing to do with the Soviets who controlled their homelands.

Moving about the countryside presented little problem that winter; we had those original model Jeeps, with husky tires and four-wheel drive.

A couple of ambulances diverted to carrying people and equipment were less reliable, especially since passengers sprawled in arm chairs set up in the back, where stretchers once stood. On long trips the accommodations were wonderful for taking a nap. The potential for a bad accident was ignored.

In the event, the only guys we lost that winter crashed out on the Autobahn close to Mannheim, not far from where a similar disaster had taken the life of George S. Patton, World War II's most colorful general; his fancy for gaudy uniforms, pearl handled forty-fives and shiny cavalry boots put peacock Douglas McArthur in the shade.

Even in their dreadful circumstances, Germans managed somehow to have their Christmas, generally relieved to have the fighting stopped, thankful they had survived.

Hoechst and its castle came through the war virtually undamaged: a single bomb made a hole in the train station's roof; I never heard anyone had died.

At the other end of the Mainzerland Strasse streetcar, in the middle of Frankfurt, damage was extensive but spotty. Industrial giant IG Farben's main building stood in the center of an area that remained untouched; but it had been designated to become the headquarters for all U.S. forces in Europe.

By contrast, the Opel factory, which belonged to General Motors before the Nazis, had been pounded; only the outer shell survived on the street side. My first summer riding by was an unpleasant experience; I was told hundreds of bodies lay under the rubble, waiting for excavation.

In the late stage of the war, the line where my first-ever car was manufactured turned out tanks and armored vehicles for Panzer units, which made the factory a legitimate target for Allied bombers and artillery.

Most of the corpses belonged to Poles, Ukrainians and others forced to work for the German war machine; they lay untouched for months because there were few families looking for them, I guess. Over the course of that cold, cold winter they were taken away.

Christmas for the castle's workers was an extraordinary happening. The main item on the menu was Spam; instead of dressing, there were potatoes. The guests were allowed to take home leftovers for families who couldn't eat in the mess hall that day.

Our celebration took place in the adjoining recreation room where 16 mm. cameras showed movies twice a week; most of the time we traipsed through the generally unused space to the bar. A club had been set up in a small-ish room; the castle entry was on the other side of the stone wall.

As I recall, that day drinks were on the house before Americans, their allies and special guests settled down to a traditional meal presided over by Sgt. Ed Scheuring, who eventually went back to Milwaukee to run a saloon.

Since we were in the broadcasting business, providing programs for troops all over Europe, we worked. Shows went on as scheduled. Very few took leave; all our families were obviously too far for a Christmas visit. We had each other for comfort, after all; generally speaking we got along well.

One sportscaster had showed up with his dog, a magnificent Belgian shepherd who loved being asked to stick his front paws up on the bar where he was eyeball-to-eyeball with anyone standing there. I don't remember his name or ever stroking his fur.

Dogs didn't really come into my life until some 20 years back and Frederick readers learned their names. First came Truman, also an English pointer, and little Emily, once described as a cat in a tiny dog's body. Coonhound Sweetwater was followed by Boomer, a rather magnificent Airedale; all acquired from animal shelters.

But none of them was like Pushkin, bought as a present for my birthday from a young couple; they were walking downtown with a fat, 20-pound, 12-week-old puppy who became my very best friend, and the delight of all who meet him.

As the English pointer was called first by someone else, the "other mayor of North Market Street can be identified by his proud strut, tail flying. At this time of year, he wears also Tricia's jaunty collar equipped with ribbons and greens and bells that tinkle wishing everyone the best of cheer.

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